Aristotle on Democracy

Nov 9, 2004

The following is an abridged and edited excerpt from Political Theory and International Affairs: Hans J. Morgenthau on Aristotle's "The Politics," (Greenwood Praeger, 2004). Edited by former Carnegie Council program officer Anthony Lang, the book contains transcripts from a seminar series Morgenthau gave in the early 1970s. This excerpt is published with Greenwood Praeger's permission.

In his opening remarks to a series of graduate-level seminars on Aristotle's The Politics, Morgenthau said, "What has an old guy who lived almost 2,500 years ago have to tell us about contemporary political problems?" In this passage, he explores the ancient philosopher's thoughts on democracy.

HANS J. MORGENTHAU: Aristotle argues that of all the types of rule, perhaps the rule of the many, democracy, is the best. He argues that the many, when they meet together collectively, can surpass in quality the few.

What is the saving grace of a democracy? Obviously, and history is full of examples, a democratic rule can be outrageously deficient. Of course, so can the rule of a king or a tyrant. What is the difference between a bad totalitarian rule and a bad democratic rule? The difference is that there exists a possibility within the mechanics of democracy itself of a self-corrective. You can throw the scoundrels out! You can replace a deficient incompetent government with a decent one without interrupting the constitutional continuity within the dynamics and mechanics of the democratic process itself.

A question that Aristotle raises is the relationship between a particular form of government and a social class. He says you may have a democratic constitution and an entirely non-democratic regime. Or you may have an aristocratic constitution and a democratic regime. And where social reality and political form do not correspond, the social structure and the actual moral values will prevail over the democratic forms. You can see this now in the failure of the democratic constitutions superimposed upon anti-democratic social conditions in the Middle East or in Asia.

STUDENT: Would it be meaningful to argue that in Cuba you have a regime that is tyrannical or aristocratic, but that in content is democratic insofar as Castro is actually sensitive to the carrying out the wishes of the majority of the Cuban population?

HJM: This is no criterion of democratic government. But you raise another important point, and that is, if you define democracy as government with the consent of the people, then certain totalitarianisms have indeed been democracies. Take Nazism. If you define democracy in terms of government by the consent of the people, Hitler governed with the passionate and enthusiastic consent of the overwhelming majority of the people.

STUDENT: Hitler was well aware of that, and repeatedly claimed the popular support he had was far ahead of that of any other democratic government. I think it was quite true.

HJM: Sure it was true, even though it missed a very important point. It missed the ability of a genuine democratic regime to change rulers through constitutional processes. The Germans were stuck with Hitler for better or for worse. In a sense, that was true of Castro, too. The fundamental mistake of the Bay of Pigs was exactly not to understand this. The CIA thought that Castro was another Latin American dictator, superimposed upon an unwilling people. In reality he was and is a plebiscitarian dictator who has the overwhelming support of his people. So the consent of the people cannot be the decisive measure of democracy. And here again, the wisdom of Aristotle reveals itself. He makes exactly this point. He says, "Mere majority rule is tyranny because it doesn't allow for any change in the ruler"-for any organic process of change, as we would say. You don't have the competition of different groups all having an equal chance for becoming the majority and being the rulers tomorrow. The ruler of today has a monopoly of political power, and he perpetuates the consent of the governed with totalitarian means-of terror, of propaganda, of the monopoly of the mass media, and of education.

So you see in Aristotle the organic relationship in modern terms between democracy and liberalism. Liberalism, as the guarantee of certain essential freedoms for the individual, can exist without a democracy. But you cannot have democracy without liberalism. You cannot have democracy without minority rights. For democracy without minority rights is exactly a totalitarian democracy. Or as Aristotle puts it, "an autocracy."

Of course there are intermediate stages where you can't tell exactly what kind of democracy is present. During the McCarthy period, for instance, you could say that democracy had in good measure ceased to operate, along with the liberal guarantees of individual freedoms. But at that time American democracy showed enough vitality to overcome this disease.

STUDENT: But the point about democracy that the people should be able to change a bad ruler: that seems impossible in the United States today. In other words, the people can change the ruler only superficially, but in substance they will continue to be ruled by the same power.

HJM: What you are saying is the central distribution of power in the United States has not been affected by the succession of reform movements from Populism to the New Deal, to the New Frontier, to the Great Society. I happen to agree with you. These movements have smoothed the edges of the issues, they have taken a little piece out here and there, but in essence the powers that be in this country have remained in a state of surprising and impressive stability.

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