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Citizens’ wisdom and (other arguments for) the defence of moderate democracy in Aristotle’s Politics

Georgia Tsouni

Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University

Epistemic concerns are central to ancient philosophical debates about the best constitution. Famously, Plato in his Republic based his defence of philosophical rule on the idea that philosophers are the only ones possessing the kind of expertise necessary for a city to be ruled in the best way; democracy instead, according to Plato, does not train citizens in the kind of expertise necessary to produce the outcomes related to good political ruling. In this paper I wish to discuss, first, how Aristotle argues for the way wisdom relates to the justification of democratic rule. Secondly, I wish to show that the epistemic line forms only part of a cumulative defence of democratic rule. The other two lines of argument that Aristotle sketches work independently of the epistemic considerations about the value of democracy, and are based on the idea that democracy best guarantees the stability of a city and that it best embodies the idea that a political community is constituted by 'free and equal' citizens, respectively.

In the first part of the paper I will attempt to analyse the idea of political wisdom (phronesis), which lies at the center of the relevant discussion, as both an intellectual and an ‘ethical’ (character) disposition. Although this notion plays a central role in the Politics its nature as a cognitive and character disposition is never explicitly addressed. Few studies in modern scholarship have been dedicated to exploring the relationship between Aristotle’s ethical notion of phronēsis and his political thought (e.g. Bodéüs 1982). With regard to the political function of  phronēsis, I will discuss the way political wisdom may be expressed, according to Aristotle, collectively, in a way that a moderate democratic constitution (what Aristotle calls politeia) may prove legitimate, even on epistemic terms. Although the capacity that is ascribed to citizens of a ‘good’ democratic order has been the focus of much scholarly research (see e.g. Schofield 2011, Ober 2013, Lane 2013) some important questions regarding the origin and presuppositions of the citizens’ sound judgment in a politeia remain understudied. Horn’s (2016) recent critique of Waldron’s view (1995) that Aristotle’s defence of the sound judgment of a democratic multitude is based on common deliberation points to the need of a re-examination of Aristotle’s views on the matter. By a renewed examination of the relevant analogies employed at Aristotle's Politics 3.11, I will offer a democratic constitutional model which may account for the Aristotelian idea that citizens may contribute "parts of wisdom" to common deliberation, a combination of which may bring about a decision equal to that of the single sage. Parallel to this, I will discuss Aristotle's reference to a general capacity of judgment grounded in ‘education’ as legitimizing democratic participation in the election of higher officials and in the conduct of trials of accountability after their termination of office. I will suggest that this corresponds to a more limited democratic form, which does not require partial expertise on the part of citizens but only a general capacity of 'good judgement'.

In the second part of the paper I will attempt to show how the defence of democracy in Aristotle is supplemented by other lines of argument, which work independently of the possibility of collective political wisdom. One highlights the merits of the political stability resulting from the broad participation of citizens into ruling, as also the way democratic participation may guard against the possibility of abuse of political power. Yet, another line stresses the equality that characterizes all ‘free’ members of a political association, as opposed to despotic forms of rule, characteristic of the relationship between master and slave. I will thus aim at showing that Aristotle presents a strong case for a democratic type of constitution by showing that a form of democracy best accommodates three different requirements that a 'correct' regime should fulfill.

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Greek Political Thought

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