Type: Definition Essays
Sample donated: Malcolm Chandler
Last updated: June 20, 2019
Democracy has been a vital system of government since its invention, yet it has not always held the same definition. In antiquity, the great political philosopher Aristotle first defined a democracy through the ideal of liberty and mob-rule. This was seen in the early direct democracies in Athens, yet as time progressed, a new modern form of the word democracy evolved through the Western Enlightenment. Philosophers such as Tocqueville and Montesquieu provided their own definitions to democracy, such as a government of virtue, or one of social institutions, respectfully. This change has been perpetuated through the change in mores for the people in civilizations, past and present. As society changes, so does democracy, specifically in the American regime, for our democracy is a culmination of all of these authors into one nation that was the first to start the growing trend of democratic government in the western world.
I strongly believe that the American regime reflects the coming together of the ancient and modern definitions of democracy, this being shown in voluntary associations, government divisions, and the desire for equality among citizens. Democracy has progressed from the direct form in Aristotle’s day, to a system that holds some undemocratic institutions, yet helps progress the inherent mores of a democratic system. In the last century, many ideologies have professed faithfulness to the values that inhibit the regime, yet in my judgment, it is the conservatives stance that holds true to them.
It is the adherence to the original structure of the constitution through its direct interpretation and perseverance that leads me to believe this.Roadmap to the ThesisIn the first portion of this essay, I examine how democracy has changed throughout history, starting in antiquity with Aristotle and his examples, through the more modern definitions of Montesquieu and Tocqueville. In the second section, I will show how these changes to the definition of democracy shaped the American regime through its founding documents such as the Constitution and responded to the failures of democracy with the implementation of some undemocratic institutions that we rely on to actually act as a safeguard to democracy.
Building on that, I shall examine how the United States is the climax of the many definitions of democracy that history presents to us through these institutions. Finally, in the third section, I will round off the arguments with an emphasis on stating that the 20th century conservatives embody American values best and bear true allegiance to the regime through their adherence to founding ideologies, documents and mores. In this section I will also explore how 20th century progressives fail to adhere to American principles. Changes of DemocracyIn Aristotle’s Politics, he describes the many forms of government that mankind has, from the kind that he determines as good, to those he deems as perverse. Though he deems democracy as a perverse form of rule and frequently disapproves of the masses having the power, Aristotle shares a sentiment that these people could possibly form a more pure government out of virtue than what the few in power could accomplish. By a collection of people using all their individual knowledge and specialties, a smooth running government may be formed “For each individual among the many has a share of excellence and practical wisdom, and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man who has many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought” (Aristotle, The Politics, 1281b). For Aristotle, the governments of those ruled by an individual, the few, and the many all have a perverse form that seeks to demolish what he would have be the enlightening factor of any form of government; a common good for the people.
Many would be perplexed to find that democracy is among the perverse ways, but it does happen to share much with it’s despotic and oligarchical siblings. To compare as brothers would be accurate, for they are different forms by the way that they rule, but they all practice exclusion of a certain class. For the despot or tyrant, Aristotle states “…but they are tyrannical in so far as he is despotic and rules according to his own fancy… This tyrant is just that arbitrary power of an individual which is responsible to no one, and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage; not that of its subjects and therefore against their will” (1295a). By ruling to his fancy and sees nothing of his subjects more as mere slaves, the common good of the government is abolished and only one seeks to gain from the profit of their suffering.
As Aristotle would have it be, oligarchies do much of the same as despotism. The difference being that instead of the individual living to his fancy, only a few have the goal of their government in mind. By ostracizing the classes of those who have no substantial wealth, the power shifts to where the government is only supporting the individuals who participate in it “When this power is intensified by a further diminution of their numbers and increase their property, there arises a third and final stage of oligarchy, in which the governing class keep the offices in their own hands, and the law ordains that the son shall succeed the father.
When again, the rulers have great wealth and numerous friends, this sort of family despotism approaches a monarchy; individuals rule and not the law” (Aristotle, The Politics,1293a). In regards to democracy, the perversions are less than the other forms of government, but none the less carry a weight of a contemptuous state. So why would one say that a government of the people is perverse? Well, of a democracy there are many kinds. When the many rule, the law is dispelled as the mob decides what is best and to Aristotle, the polarization of one social (and the ruling) class to others is what binds together these three perverse governments “And for this reason democratic states have instituted ostracism; equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracized and banished from the city for a time those who seemed to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence” (1284a). Aristotle includes democracy of the deviant constitutions, but he does make a case that rule by the populus does have some legitimacy. He takes a swing at saying that masses of people could possibly form a purer government out of virtue than what the few in power could accomplish.
By a collective of people using all their individual knowledge and specialties, a smooth running government may be formed “For each individual among the many has a share of excellence and practical wisdom, and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man who has many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought” (1281b). Aristotle does acknowledge that having a democracy is not detrimental and there are practices that can be put in place to return it from a path of deviance. To do this, one must reform how the government rules entirely. This is not a nature that is to be taken lightly and one way for reforms to be made is an institution of a mean class, or what we call a middle class must be implemented. This can be implemented more oft when the government fixes some of its principles and fuses oligarchy with democracy.
How does this cure democracy? Whereas the impoverished shrink from rule and grow into violence due to their socio-economic situation and the rich are great criminals who claw ambitiously for power, the mean class forms a state of no envy and lust for another man’s goods or power. The good fortune of a state lies in the hands of these people “Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of the extremes – either out of the most rampant democracy or out of an oligarchy, but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions or those akin to them” (Aristotle, The Politics, 1295b-96a). This mean class can rise through practices Aristotle refers to as “the fusion of democracy and oligarchy”. With a system in place that takes some methods of rule from each different government, a balance can be achieved that allows for a middle class to prosper, and therefore the democracy too as well. To be specific, one suggestion Aristotle makes is a democracy where the citizens form only a single assembly to meet only with the deliberate tasks of elections of magistrates, the passing of laws, to make scrutinies, and to advise about war and peace. These main events are for the general assembly, whereas the more menial and simple minded tasks can be handed to elected magistrates who carry out these duties (Aristotle, The Politics, 1298a). A common good can not be met when man feels the need to meet over everything, for it becomes slow to take effect and arguments are made over the simple delegations of menial tasks.
Aristotle’s example of a prosperous “fusion” uses the Spartan regime to prove this, as for them there was a very democratic way of educating the youth among citizens where the rich and poor alike would study side by side. Now, combine this with the oligarchical method of election into public office, as opposed to the drawing of lots. The people among them walked as equals, ate the same food, and wore the clothes (Aristotle, The Politics, 1294b). The definition of democracy in ancient times was one where the mob of land owning, male citizens were all granted equal rights for representation, but with the exclusion of women and non citizen residents, there was not much room for equality and openness.