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«The original meaning of “democracy”: Capacity to do things, not majority rule.. Version 1.0 September 2007 Josiah Ober Stanford University Abstract: ...»

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Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics

The original meaning of “democracy”:

Capacity to do things, not majority rule.


Version 1.0

September 2007

Josiah Ober

Stanford University

Abstract: That the original meaning of democracy is “capacity to do things” not “majority rule”

emerges from a study of the fifth and fourth century B.C. Greek vocabulary for regime-types.

Special attention is given to –kratos root and –arche root terms. Paper delivered at the American Political Science Association meetings, Philadelphia, 2006.

© Josiah Ober. jober@stanford.edu Democracy is a word that has come to mean very different things to different people. In origin it is, of course, Greek, a composite of demos and kratos. Since demos can be translated as “the people” (qua “native adult male residents of a polis”) and kratos as “power,” democracy has a root meaning of “the power of the people.” But power in what sense? In modernity, democracy is often construed as being concerned, in the first instance, with a voting rule for determining the will of the majority. The power of the people is thus the authority to decide matters by majority rule. This reductive definition leaves democracy vulnerable to well-known social choice dilemmas, including Downs’ rational ignorance and Arrow’s impossibility theorem.

What I propose to do this morning is to look more closely at the original Greek meaning of “democracy” in the context of the classical (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) terminology for regime-types. The conclusion is that democracy originally referred to “power” in the sense of “capacity to do things.” “Majority rule” was an intentionally pejorative diminution, urged by democracy’s Greek critics. Of course, we are not bound by any past convention, much less by the inventors’ original definition: if we can devise a better meaning for a political term, it should be preferred. But if common modern usages are not particularly good, in the sense of being “descriptively accurate” or “normatively choiceworthy,” then there may be some value in returning to the source. Reducing democracy to a voting rule arguably elides much of the value and potential of democracy.

The original Greek meaning, while having no inherent authority for us, suggests ways to expand our modern conception of democracy and thereby (incidentally) to render it less vulnerable to the problems associated with aggregating diverse preferences by voting.

The Greek vocabulary for political regimes tended to focus in the first instance on the empowered or ruling body, which might be an a single person (one), or a limited number of persons (the few), or a large and inclusive body (the many). While the Greek vocabulary for regime-types is extensive, the three key terms for the rule of the one, few, and many are monarchia, oligarchia, and demokratia. Even in this small sample, two

things immediately stand out: First, unlike monarchia (from the adjective monos:

solitary) and oligarchia (from hoi oligoi: the few), demokratia is not in the first instance concerned with “number.” The term demos refers to a collective body. Unlike monarchia and oligarchia, demokratia does not, therefore, answer the question: “how many are empowered?” The standard Greek term for “the many” is hoi polloi, yet there is no Greek regime name pollokratia or pollarchia. Second, Greek names of regimes divide into terms with an –arche suffix, and terms with a –kratos suffix. Aristokratia (from hoi aristoi: the excellent), isokratia (from isos: equal) and anarchia are classical regimenames that stand outside the one/few/many scheme yet fall into the -arche/-kratos grouping. Not all regime names use the arche or kratos roots; see Table: column 4. Yet (with the exception of tyrannia – which in the classical period had consistently negative connotations) the –arche and –kratos families tended to dominate the terminological landscape. By the time of Plato and Aristotle, a number of new regime-terms had been coined by comic poets, philosophers, and political partisans engaged in intellectual debates. Timokratia (from time: honor) and gynkaikokratia (from gynaikos: woman) were made up by classical philosophers and comic poets to describe imaginary regimes.

Ochlokratia (from to ochlos: the mob) was a post-classical (first appearing in Polybius:

2nd c. B.C.) and strongly pejorative variant of demokratia.

–  –  –

The Table on your handout offers a rough map of the terminological terrain. I propose to focus in the first instance on the six bold-face terms in columns two and three of the table: demokratia, isokratia and aristokratia among the –kratos roots and monarchia, oligarchia, and anarchia among the –arche roots. Each of these is attested in the fifth century, although, oligarchia and aristokratia are probably somewhat later than demokratia, isokratia and monarchia. Given the Greek penchant for creative neologism, not least in the realm of politics, it is notable that some terms are “missing” – we have already noted the absence of polloi- derivatives. Nor is monokratia, oligokratia, or anakratia ever attested. Demarchia refers not to a regime type, but to a relatively minor local office (ho demarchos = something like “the mayor”).

Since so much of the Greek regime-type vocabulary falls into two suffix-groups, and since there are notable “gaps” in each group, it is reasonable to suppose that kratos meant something rather different from arche and pointed to a different conception of power. We might seek to explain the -arche and -kratos groups by reference to political legitimacy -- that is, along the familiar Weberian dichotomy of Herrschaft and Macht.

Greek philosophical thought (Aristotle’s Politics is the locus classicus) was indeed concerned to distinguish between “correct” and “incorrect/corrupted” regimes – and this might be seen as approximating Weber’s legitimacy-based categorization. But the terms with which we are primarily concerned do not fall neatly into “legitimate” or “illegitimate” groups on the basis of their suffix-roots. One might therefore conclude that there is no rhyme or reason to the Greek vocabulary of regimes, that kratos and arche were catchall terms for “power” in some ill-defined sense. Christian Meier (1972), a leading practitioner of the terminology-centered German approach to intellectual history known as Begriffsgeschichte, despaired of bringing the general Greek vocabulary of power into any systematic order and therefore concluded that the Greeks never had a very specific idea of power. Yet this seems to me to be too pessimistic.

Some of the “other” terms for regime (column IV) do fit the Weberian conception of Macht, as “power without legitimacy”: By the time of Aristotle, tyrannia and dunasteia were used of severely corrupt, badly “incorrect” forms of the rule of the one and the few, respectively. By the same token, Aristotle’s confusing decision to use the term politeia – usually “constitution” or “political culture” -- for a particular regime type (variously defined in Aristotle, but basically a “good” mixing of oligarchia and demokratia) places “the regime called politeia” quite solidly within the Weberian category of Herrschaft.

Perhaps, therefore, a modified Weberian categorization would help explain the arche and -kratos root terms. Each of the three –arche root terms (III) seems to be concerned with “monopoly of office.” The word arche, in Greek, has several related meanings: beginning (or origin), empire (or hegemonic control of one state by another), and office or magistracy. A Greek magistracy was an arche, the public offices as a constitutional body were (plural) archai. An archon was a senior magistrate: the holder of a particular office with specified duties (in classical Athens, for example there were nine archons chosen annually – along with several hundred other magistrates).

Each of the three –arche-root regime-names answers the question: “how many rulers?” The earliest of of these seems to be monarchia, which appears in archaic poetry, and is strongly associated with eastern, non-Greek rulers. I would suggest that the primary meaning of monarchia was “domination of the official apparatus of government by one man.” Likewise, classical Greek descriptions of oligarchia concern a form of government defined in the first instance by access to participation rights in general, and magisterial office in particular. An oligarchia was a regime in office was strictly limited to “a few” on the basis of a property qualification and often, additionally, on the basis of occupation or ancestry. Likewise, anarchia describes a condition in which the magisterial offices of the government are vacant, generally due to civil strife over who is to occupy them. While lacking the specifically Weberian force of “legitimacy,” the –arche root terms are concerned with how many people may occupy official positions of authority within a constitutional order of some kind. It is therefore unsurprising that oligarchic regimes were often named for a fixed number of potential office-holders: The Thirty, The Four Hundred, The Three Thousand, The Five Thousand, and so on.

By contrast, the –kratos terminology seems not to be about offices as such. Unlike arche, the word kratos is never used of “office.” Kratos has a root meaning of “power” – but Greek linguistic usage of the noun kratos and its verbal forms ranges widely across the power spectrum, from “domination” to “rule” to “capacity.” We can, however, narrow the range for -kratos as a suffix. Unlike the –arche-root group, which, as we have seen, is entirely composed of “number terms,” none of the terms in the -kratos group is a number term. The first of our three primary –kratos-root terms (II), aristokratia, does not get us very far. It remains possible, on the analogy of oligarchia in which the hoi oligoi monopolize offices, to imagine that aristokratia pertains just in case hoi aristoi (the excellent) hold a similar monopoly. But among the other prefix-roots in the –kratos group, only gynaikokratia can be a plural, and thereby refer to potential officeholders.

Isokratia does not refer to a group of persons but rather to an abstraction, “equality.” Isokratia shares its prefix-root with two other terms used by Herodotus as periphrasis for democracy: isonomia and isegoria. On the analogy of isonomia (equallaw), isegoria (equal-public address), and the evidently early regime-term isomoiria (equal-shares: attributed to the predemocratic Athenian lawgiver, Solon) it seems likely that iso- prefix-roots refer to distributive fairness in respect to access in a sense of “right to make use of.” Equal access in each case is to a public good (law, speech, “shares”) that, when it is equitably distributed, conduces to the common good. Thus, isonomia is fair distribution of legal immunities across the relevant population and equal access to legal processes. Isegoria means equal access to deliberative fora: equal right to speak out on public matters and to attend to the speech of others. By analogy, isokratia is equal access to the public good of kratos – to public power that conduces to the common good through enabling good things to happen in the public realm.

So kratos, when it is used as a regime-type suffix, becomes power in the sense of strength, enablement, or “capacity to do things.” This is well within the range of how the word kratos and its verb forms were used in archaic and classical Greek. Under this interpretation for isokratia, each person who stands within the ambit of “those who were equal” (say, the citizens) would, enjoy access to public power in this “capacity” sense.

This might include, but need not be limited to, access to public offices. In sum, rather than imagining the –kratos group as sharing the –arche group’s primary concern for the control of a (pre-existing) constitutional apparatus, I would suggest that the –kratos-root terms originally referred to a (newly) activated political capacity. This would explain why there is no monokratia or oligokratia: “the one” and “the few” were regarded as inherently strong and capable, through control of wealth, special education, and high birth. So it was not in question whether the one or the few possessed a capacity to do things – the question was whether or not they controlled the apparatus of government.

Which brings us, finally, to demokratia. Demokratia cannot mean the “demos monopolizes the offices” in that the demos (unlike the implied plurals hoi oligoi, hoi aristoi) must refer to a corporate body – to a “public” – and that public cannot collectively be an “office-holder” in the ordinary sense. But if we extrapolate from the definition I have proposed for isokratia, the term makes both philological and historical sense: Demokratia, which emerged as a regime-type with the historical self-assertion of a demos in a moment of revolution, refers to a demos’ collective capacity to do things in the public realm, to make things happen. If this is right, demokratia does not refer in the first instance to the demos’ monopolistic control of pre-existing constitutional authority.

Demokratia is not just “the power of the demos” in the sense “the superior or monopolistic power of the demos relative to other potential power-holders in the state.” Rather it means, more capaciously, “the empowered demos” – it is the regime in which the demos gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm. And so it is not just a matter of control of a public realm but the collective strength and ability to act within that realm and, indeed, to reconstitute the public realm through action.

The demos’ capacity was first manifested during a popular uprising that sparked the democratic revolution of 508/7 B.C. But revolutionary moments are fleeting. If the demos were to sustain a collective capacity to do things over time – to form plans and carry them to completion in ordinary circumstances -- then demokratia, as a form of popular self-government, required institutional forms (pace Sheldon Wolin). Notably, the institutions of Athenian demokratia were never centered on elections. Voting on policy was certainly important -- the individual Athenian citizen could be described not only as isonomos and isegoros, but also isopsephos: an equal in respect to his vote. But in contrast to isonomia and isegoria, isopsephia is another “missing” classical Greek regime name: It is unattested until the 1st century B.C. and was never periphrasis for demokratia.

The demos was composed of a socially diverse body of individuals, each capable of choosing freely in his own interests. Its members were not unified in their desires by an “all the way down” ideology. Many of them required some sort of subsidy if they were to participate on an equal basis. All of this meant that in order for the demos to be politically enabled, in a regular and sustainable way, some difficult collective action and coordination problems must be addressed. The Athenian regime did not try to address those problems by voting rules alone. Lotteries for offices and agenda-setting deliberative bodies were primary Athenian democratic institutional forms. But even these institutional forms do not fully capture the meaning of demokratia as capacity to do things. A fuller sense of demokratia is offered in Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides (2.37), and in preserved speeches delivered to the Athenian assembly and lawcourts. Given that the funeral oration passage is so well known, I skip over it in favor of a passage from a court case of the mid-fourth century B.C. (Demosthenes 21: Against Meidias) Here, Demosthenes employs a rich vocabulary of strength, control, ability, and protection in

summing up the democratic relationship between law, action, and public goods:

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