‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.
— Borges, On Henley’s translattion of Beckford’s Vathek, 1943
The fourth Century Hellenic philosopher and pedagogue Aristotle wrote extensively on forms of Government, notably in The Politics, and in The Athenian Constitution (the second is a discussion of different Hellenic constitutions, though it is only partially extant). Aristotle’s systems of thought proscribe an entire cosmos – containing metaphysics, physics, episteme, linguistics, and logical, rhetorical, political, and poetic method. Because some of his works tend to a practical function – the rhetoric is a manual for orators, the Athenian Constitution and the Politics concern political policy and strategy – while others are of the utmost abstraction – the Analytics, the body of work concerning logic, or the Categories, and his other metaphysical writing – provides a piecemeal perspective – and vision – of an architecture of knowledge, philosophy, and state by virtue of being comprehensive across overlapping disciplines.
Aristotle’s writings on democracy provides the most substantial surviving accounts of Athenian and Attic government, together with those of Heretodus. But for Aristotle, the ideal form of Government is ‘polity’, not democracy. Democracy is a degraded form of polity – Aristotle’s use of the word ‘demokratia’ is sometimes translated as ‘mob rule’. Aristotle’s conception is aligned to an extent with the classical circular political worldview, that saw one form of Government naturally giving way to another in turn (from aristocracy to monarchy, monarchy to polity, polity to aristocracy). Democracy, for Aristotle, is a degraded form of government – tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy are the three ‘diverging’ systems of Government (parekbasis), all three flawed, inferior to the ‘orthaipoliteiai’. (Aristotle, The Politics)
‘Polity’ for politeia when Aristotle uses the word in its particular sense to indicate rule by the many in what he defines as the straight or correct system of government of this type. (By contrast, he refers to rule by the many in a diverging and thus ‘erroneous’ system as ‘democracy.’) (Martin, Smith, and Stuart, )
Aristotle’s conception of an ideal Government is not as rigid – or fascist – as that presented in Plato’s Republic: apotheosis of intellect endengering willing submission to philosopher-kings. Nor is it democratic, even in the limited sense that Athenian democracy existed and/or is popularly understood. Aristotle is at ease with the perpetuation of superior castes, recording good blood and wealth as among a number of practical virtues in the Rhetoric. In the Politics he writes:
‘The citizens must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be farmers, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties.’ (Aristotle, The Politics)
Aristotle’s consideration of forms of Government and constitutions is broader than this brief passage conveys, and to conclude he wholly endorses an unrestrained aristocracy would be a mistake. Other writers, such as pseudo-Xenophon, are more explicitly and completely critical of democracy. Aristotle’s work, together with his extensive – almost comprehensive – exposition on related themes, offers great insight into the ancient democratic state, and the modern. But its consideration is also exemplary of inherent difficulties in dealing with ancient sources, and in particular with ancient sources that have had such a significant impact on our own era.
In their essay Democracy in the Politics of Aristotle ,’ Thomas R. Martin, with Neel Smith & Jennifer F.Stuart, warn of difficulties in studying ancient sources on Athenian democracy:
The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians(Aristot. Ath. Pol.) and many of our other sources are not particularly favorable toward democracy, and this raises other problems. Critics of democracy (ancient and modern) tend to emphasize negative reports and to highlight problems. …. We must, therefore, read these sources carefully and critically, to try to see through their bias.’
(Martin, Smith, and Stuart )
This advice appears almost tailored to the student determined to see the virtue in democracy, despite all the criticisms of the ancients. But it does serve to explicate the difficulty of reinterpreting a long distant time through the texts that remain extant two-and-a-half thousand years later.
In one context the task is rendered meaningless by problems of interpretation and distortion: the necessary translation of texts into modern language (even if it is only for comprehension in the case of scholars familiar with the ancient tongues) involves a translation of meaning into a different paradigm. After such a contextual shift, it can be argued, there is no possibility of reconstructing the original meaning of concepts, and no prospect of verifying any conclusion drawn from this spurious venture.
This perspective is a negation of all historical or epistemological inquiry, taking meaninglessness as the end point of investigation. But it need be neither entirely prohibitive or ignored. The complex interplay of distortional effects between us and our ancestors’ time may prevent certain or complete knowledge of other historical periods. But they do not remove the possibility of identifying contingent or possible similarities, conceptual commonalities, or causal relationships between a distant era and our own.
This less dogmatic approach demarcates these various kinds of historical distortion as complicating factors in the consideration of events of the distant past, without undermining the prospect of any comprehension of the past. And where the effects of time and axiological distance are implicit in the subject of inquiry, cognisance of limitations in the attempt to perceive the effects that cloud our picture of the ancient world, however limited, actually informs understanding of these processes modern people where self-perception is included in the site of inquiry.
The survival of particular texts, and the loss of others, is one distorting factor: the desire to build as complete a picture as possible with the available material engenders the accentuation of the importance of extant texts. Gaps in knowledge are filled in through possibly false assumptions, and with possible false expectations of consistency across the original corpus of texts concerning discourse of the time.
Sometimes the reasons for one document’s survival over another are arbitrary, in many cases they are not. Orthodox texts with the supported approval of existing political structures fare far better than heterodox texts: where a revolution is successful protections are extended to a new list of approved works, and older tomes lose their favoured status. Ruling classes are far better represented for their descendents than the lower social castes, particularly where literacy has been the province of the privileged.
The ideological and rhetorical inclinations of authors are another source of distortion of representations of other times: a tension between the description and the invention the world through representation appears to exist in all literature – even in the oldest extant written records, 5000-year-old receipts and inventories from the Euphrates-Tigris delta. The ideological and rhetorical inclinations of those who come after the authors of important texts, and either employ or conceal them for their own purposes, have a greater effect on the texts’ survival, and on the form in which they reach us . To a lesser extent, a scholar who interprets a text to the best of their ability nonetheless inadvertently brings their own world-view to bear, and have created sometimes irredeemable and unidentifiable distortions of meaning in fundamental Western texts through translation, selective copying, or casual error (demonstrated in the survival of widely disparate versions of the same texts).
It must be considered that Aristotle’s condemnation of democratic government as a deviant form is informed by his own interests and bias, and by the selective experience attendant on his own privileged position in Athenian society. Aristotle was born into a comfortable social position in northern Attica. His father, Nicodemus, was physician to the Macedonian King Amyntas II, the grandfather of Alexander the Great. Although Nicodemus is thought to have died when his son was still a child, Aristotle enjoyed sufficient education to prepare him for a career in philosophy and pedagogy. He travelled to Athens and became a member of the Platonic Academy in 367 at age 17, and is believed to have written most of his extant works during his two decades with the Academy.
On the death of Plato in 342 Aristotle left Athens, finding the new politics of the city-state adverse. But he retained prestigious positions with the leaders of other States, established his own philosophical school, the Lyceum, and famously, in his later years, tutored the young Mycenaean prince Alexander. If Aristotle’s sympathies and preoccupations appear to be those of the ruling class – if he is concerned with pragmatic rule and accepting of the concentration of power in very few men, the scant biographical detail that survives on Aristotle stands as a partial explanation.
In the Hellenic society of Aristotle’s own time, philosophy was far less depoliticised than it is today. Whether metaphysical questions were the concern of the general public is probably disputable, but the philosophy schools were less distant from the loci of power than equivalent university departments, for example, in the modern era. A discourse surrounding competing cosmologies was one characteristic of the classical episteme. Other philosophical questions were equally politically potent, particularly on themes in which a dearth of established wisdom left fundamental tenets of law, policy, or government unresolved. The overall significance of this broad focus is manifest in all of Aristotle’s work, and probably one reason for the Attic philosopher’s impact on Western thought and civilisation: metaphysical contemplations on the most abstract planes of existence are carried through to practical application.
Another important consequence of the politicisation of the topics which preoccupied academians such as Aristotle was that the assertion of one or another philosophical method or truth was a public position that required promotion, justification, and defence. In Aristotle’s time the consolidation and institutionalisation of philosophical schools meant the projection of his own ideas was until Plato’s death secondary to the perpetuation of those of his mentor. Even after Plato died, Aristotle’s work was a perpetuation of the worldview of an already influential Socratic-Platonic philosophical movement. One possible political motive for the direction Aristotle’s inquiry took in the already established art of rhetoric was the reconciliation of an argument concerning the relationship between rhetoric and truth. Plato’s total condemnation of rhetoric as abusive rather than respectful of the truth was a powerfully felt reaction against the ‘sophistry’ of the Athenian political and legal processes – a philosophical question, but with entirely practical ramifications for the State.
Kleisthenes’ reforms of the polis predated Aristotle’s birth by just over a century. While Aristotle is arguably the world’s most influential writer on ancient democracy ( even if the volume of extant material is the sole indicator) his works were produced a century and a half after the inception of Athens’ democratic government. This carries with it advantage and disadvantage: on the one hand, Aristotle’s account of the birth of the modern state is itself distorted by historicity. Conversely, writing 150 years after the pivotal events of the turn of the sixth century, Aristotle has at his disposal for consideration a century and a half of the practice of democracy. For citizens living at a time when the Kleisthenic reforms had been undermined, and Athens’ autonomy seriously reduced by defeat at the hands of Sparta, a cynical view of the promise of DHMOKRATIA should perhaps be anticipated.
An important disparity between the philosophical background of Aristotle’s own time and our own is that if Aristotlean principles have become axiomatic for modern Western civilisation, they were not so fundamentally accepted in his own era. If we are the occupants of an Aristotlean universe, he himself was not. Aristotle’s Weltanschauung, comprehensive enough to be described as a ‘cosmology’ was a competing worldview in his own time, however ubiquitous its tenets millennia after his death. (Whether Aristotle would appreciate the kind of implementation of his policies that Western civilisation might be facetiously considered is another impossible but interesting question .
The extent to which the corpus of works attributed to Aristotle was actually penned by one man is a matter of considerable dispute, and probably impossible to resolve. Aristotle’s texts were first published in about 60BC by Andronicus, the last head of the Lyceum, certainly not in any form that he had himself collated them. The works are thought to be lecture notes from presentations Aristotle gave at the Academy in Athens, but some modern Academians identify concepts that they suggest are representative of a later iteration of Aristotle’s conceptual platform, developed, devised , and added by one or more intellectual – and ideological – descendants.
Aristotle’s works were fundamental texts in the ancient world, but were lost to the West at the time of the collapse of the old Roman empire in the fifth century of the Common Era. They were preserved by Arabic scholars, and re-entered Western consciousness as The Organon between 1000CE and 1100CE.
Some of the effects time has pressed on the texts Andronicus published two thousand years ago are observable where different interpretations have been drawn from the corpus.
Dispute over the original structure of the Aristotlean corpus (specifically the inclusion of the Rhetoric at a specific point in The Organon) is one example of the influence of time and even chance on the impact of a text, the significance of which is enormous. Evidence for this is in the disparities in interpretations of fundamental Aristotlean concepts by Eastern and Western metaphysicians, and in the further implications for Eastern and Western philosophical inquiry.
The most obvious effect of time on the works of Aristotle is the loss of parts of the ‘original’ writings. The second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, for example, dealing with comedy, is lost, and only known of because other ancient writers fortunate enough to read the text referred to it in extant works.
Regardless of the accuracy with which this seminal thinker’s works have been preserved across two and a half millennia, the corpus now described as the writings of Aristotle can be described as crystallising a particular episteme from two directions, with broad implications for Western civilisation and for the modern Western democratic state.
Firstly, much of his subject matter concerns the organisation of human societies, and the laws and systems that can be applied for their perpetuation and greater strength. Further, he addresses these themes with examples and propositions drawn from the era in which the Western State was formalised. His writing is not merely abstract and theoretical, but practical and political, providing a platform from which ideology can be supported, methodologies employed The invention of this world view was not a passive inquiry but an political assertion of a particular episteme, in an era of active metaphysical contestation, so his work – his lectures, if this was his original forum, were an act of persuasion, not pure, detached contemplation. And Aristotle’s social position and affinity with power in the Hellenic world affords his writings currency with those in positions of power in later times, ensuring their survival and perpetuation by virtue of merit and orthodox inclination combined, by those most capable of perpetuating them.
As a result of the confluence of these factors, the Aristotlean paradigm takes the form of a conceptual lens, or a prism, through which western civilisation passed a century after the inception of the ‘original model’ for the democratic state. Although implicitly involved with the narrative skeleton and the symbols of State that are the social heritage of that distant era, the influence of Aristotle’s works is not, like them, overt. The symbols and rituals of State are superficial manifestations of that heritage, reinforcing an orthodox paradigm. But these mythic elements are underpinned and partially defined by the theoretical and conceptual foundations of the State described and conceived by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE.