Wise Citizens and Other Arguments for the Defense of Democracy in Aristotle’s Politics

Citation with persistent identifier: Tsouni, Georgia. “Wise Citizens and Other Arguments for the Defense of Democracy in Aristotle’s Politics.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:TsouniG.Wise_Citizens_and_Other_Arguments.2019


The Aristotelian notion of phronesis has received a lot of scholarly attention in recent years. Less studied is the role that phronesis plays in Aristotle’s political philosophy as the central virtue applied primarily to rulers, and in a limited sense, to the multitude of citizens as well. As part of the research that I conducted at CHS, I worked on the way phronesis is used in the Politics to support an epistemic defense of democratic participation alongside other versions of such a defense. I argue that the epistemic approach towards democratic participation is supplemented in Aristotle’s political philosophy by other lines of argument which highlight non-epistemic advantages of democratic participation, such as the view that participation of the demos in ruling increases the stability of the state, as also that it satisfies the claims of equality raised among citizens of a polis. The paragraphs that follow summarize parts of this research project that I drafted during my fellowship at The Center for Hellenic Studies.


In Aristotle’s discussion of the different forms of ‘correct’ constitutions politeia features as the best form of rule by the ‘many’[1]. Aristotle’s ‘aporetic’ discussion at Politics 3.11 reveals that his defence of such a regime rests partly on a line of argument which is based on the epistemic advantages of democracy, i.e. on the idea that a popular assembly can make decisions regarding the common good or legislate more wisely than other bodies.

The epistemic line of defence of politeia in Aristotle rests crucially on the notion of political wisdom (politike phronesis); this is the ‘political’ counterpart to the notion of phronesis which is developed in Nicomachean Ethics 6 as a distinct virtue from theoretical wisdom (sophia). Political phronesis amounts in EN 6.8 to the deliberation which results in the issuing of a decree (psephisma) and is differentiated from a more ‘universal’ species of political wisdom deemed (in a more general sense) a ‘law-giving’ (nomothetike) one; as such, political wisdom (in its special sense) relates to the way the general principles of nomos (related to a good constitution) are adjusted (through correct deliberation) with a view to deciding on the specific needs of the political community under particular circumstances.[2]

Although phronesis is identified in certain passages in the Politics as the virtue peculiar to (individual) rulers,[3] an expert-like capacity which is akin to it is used in the defence of democratic participation in ruling as well. Aristotle’s account in Politics 3.11 seems to contain two variations of an epistemic defense of a democratic arrangement, under the assumption that the multitude of citizens do not individually possess the virtue of phronesis: according to the first (what I call the ‘strong democratic view’), the multitude of citizens, by virtue of its collective wisdom, directly participates in the highest deliberative function, namely that of the issuing of decrees, whereas according to a more moderate proposal (‘moderate democratic view’), the multitude’s political judgment (krisis), which offers the epistemic justification for its participation in ruling, applies to the election of magistrates and to participation in processes of accountability.

The first variation of Aristotle’s epistemic defense of democratic participation suggests that ordinary citizens in a polis may possess cognitive and character traits that enable them to reach collectively decisions which are geared towards the common good.[4] This idea is supported by the use of three analogies, which liken the participation of the demos in ruling to a common banquet, a living being with many bodily parts and senses and to a panel of judges in dramatic contests respectively (Politics 3.11.1281a40-1281b15). I argue that the analogies offer a more nuanced picture than hitherto acknowledged,[5] supporting two different versions of an epistemic defence of democracy, addressing the capacities of political expertise and of political judgment respectively.

The ‘strong view’ sketched above seems to be supported by the first analogy used in Politics 3.11, which likens the participation of the ‘many’ in ruling to a common banquet, whereby the quality of the final outcome rests on the individual expertise of each of the contributors (which, however, falls short of that of a wise ruler). This may be opposed to another reading which values merely the aggregative value of the multiplicity of views represented in the analogies.[6] The ‘strong view’ is based on Aristotle’s claim that the multitude of ordinary citizens in a polis may possess ‘parts of phronesis’ which through their combination build up a whole which amounts to phronesis proper. The use of the peculiar expression of ‘parts of phronesis’ in this case may be justified if one takes into account the complex nature of political decisions. Since political decisions involve expertise in different domains, for example, the financial, social and environmental domains, such different expertises may be represented by different persons in a (qualified) multitude of citizens but their common deliberation in the context of an appropriate institutional design may result in a decision which equals that of the single wise person, or is even superior to it. The model suggested seems to ground, at least in the case of a qualified crowd, [7] strong democratic participation, i.e. to allow citizens to participate in the creation of public policy.

The third analogy used in Politics 3.11 Aristotle seems to refer to a more moderate proposal of democratic participation in ruling, whereby the latter manifests itself merely in the election of officials and in participation in processes of accountability (the so-called euthynai). That this view is again given an epistemic justification is flagged by the use of the word krisis (‘judgement’); for there, using the example of judges in the public dramatic festivals, participation in ruling does not amount to a kind of expertise but to passing judgment with regard to the expertise shown by individual rulers. This epistemic basis for democratic participation alludes to a distinct capacity of sound political judgment (krisis) which leads to good decisions in the political domain, i.e. decisions geared towards the common good, despite the lack of (a measure of) political expertise. The epistemic defense of this distinctive capacity of krisis in the political domain is based on the notion of paideia. Accordingly, in his discussion of an aporia with regard to the participation of the multitude in ruling at Pol. 3.11.1281b39-1282a7 Aristotle refers to a ‘generally educated’ person with regard to an expertise (pepaideumenos peri ten technen) who is able, using the Aristotelian example of the art of medicine, to follow a medical argument without being oneself a doctor.[8]

Despite the importance assigned to epistemic considerations in the Politics, Aristotle also advances in his major work on political philosophy arguments that work independently of the assumption that a democratic multitude has epistemic virtues. Thus, Aristotle goes on to develop what one may deem a defensive argument according to which the participation of the demos in ruling may guard against the possibility of abuse of power on the part of the highest officials. The latter is advocated, for example, as part of the defense of a ‘mixed’ regime at Politics 6.1318b27-1319a4. According to an alternative line of argument, democratic participation in ruling is essential for the preservation of a political arrangement. Again in Politics 3.11, Aristotle, after offering a defense of democratic participation on the basis of the epistemic idea of ‘parts of wisdom’, changes tack and refers also to a crowd which does not satisfy any special epistemic criteria. This is conveyed through another metaphor which compares the participation of the multitude in ruling to ‘impure food’ which, by being mixed with the (smaller) ‘pure’ one, makes the entire mass more wholesame (Pol. 3.11.1281b34-38). It has not been sufficiently appreciated that Aristotle shifts here to a comment on the non-epistemic merits of democratic participation.[9] The idea that seems to lurk behind the metaphor is that large citizen participation in ruling, independently of the ‘many’s’ claims to wisdom, increases the stability of the constitution.

Aristotle’s thoughts about the way citizens’ participation contributes to the preservation of stability in the polis may, finally, reveal another line of argumentation whereby political participation is an expression of the citizens’ equality of judgment and, as such, has an inherent value. Thus, after referring to a demos which shares in ‘parts of phronesis’ and in ‘informed’ judgments based on paideia, Aristotle goes on to refer to a kind of competence which seems to be shared by all citizens alike (Pol. 3.11.1282a17-22). The examples used to illustrate this, as it has already been acknowledged by commentators, make use of a Platonic argument from the Republic (Plato, Republic 10.601-2), whereby it is argued that the flute player possesses superior knowledge to the flute maker. Aristotle adopts the idea that the use of the product of expert knowledge is related to knowledge but in a crucial way also modifies the Platonic antecedent: for the user of the product of expert knowledge, in this case, is not necessarily him-or herself the practitioner of a techne. Although this is true of, at least, one of the examples that Aristotle uses in order to illustrate his point (when referring to the expertise of navigation) it is not true of all of them. Thus, it does not seem to apply to the guest of a restaurant who uses the product of the techne of cooking, which is one of the examples that Aristotle cites in this context. On the basis of the last example, one may argue that what legitimizes democratic participation in this case is the first-person perspective of someone who tastes a certain food and thus has superior epistemic authority about his or her experience of it. If this reading is plausible, then Aristotle seems to append to his epistemic defense of democratic participation in ruling, considerations which point to the legitimization of such participation on the grounds of equal concern for the judgment of all citizens, a judgment grounded in the first-hand experience of practical problems pertaining to the polis.

What transpires is that Aristotle uses a cumulative argument in defense of the participation of the multitude of citizens into ruling; such a participation may not only, in qualified cases, lead to the best legislation or to the best results regarding the election and examination of officials’ performance but it also safeguards the unity and stability of the polis against the possibility of civil strife and of irresponsible leadership. Finally, it does justice to the equal status of all freeborn citizens in the polis and to the claims for equal political participation that such a status is linked with.

Select Bibliography

Bobonich, C. 2015. ‘Aristotle, political decision making, and the many.’ In Aristotle’s Politics. A Critical Guide, ed. T. Lockwood and T. Samaras, 142-162. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bodéüs, R. 1982. Le philosophe et la cite. Recherches sur les rapports entre morale et politique dans la pensée d’Aristote. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Bouchard, E. 2011. ‘Analogies du pouvoir partagé: Remarques sur Aristote, Politique III.11.’ Phronesis 56:162-179.

Cammack, D. 2013. ‘Aristotle on the Virtue of the Multitude.’ Political Theory 41.2:175-202.

Frank, J. 2005. A Democracy of Distinction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Garsten, B. 2013. ‘Deliberating and Acting Together.’ In Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Politics, ed. Marguerite Deslauriers and Pierre Destree, 324-349. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horn, C. 2016. ‘Individual Competence and Collective Deliberation in Aristotle’s Politics.’ In Philosophy and Political Power in Antiquity, ed. C. Arruzza and D. Nikulin, 94-113. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

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Lane, M. 2013. “Claims to rule: the case of the multitude.” In The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Politics, ed. M. Deslauriers and P. Destrée, 247–274. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Ober, J. 2013. “Democracy’s Wisdom: An Aristotelian Middle Way for Collective Judgment.” American Political Science Review 107:104-122.

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Schofield, M. 2011. ‘Aristotle and the democratization of politics.’ In Episteme, etc. Essays in honour of Jonathan Barnes, ed. B. Morison and K. Ierodiakonou, 285-301. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schütrumpf, E. 1991. Politik Buch II und III, übers. und erläutert. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, Bd. 9.

Tsouni, G. 2019. ‘Political wisdom as the virtue of the ruler and the defense of democratic participation in Aristotle’s Politics.’ In Philosophie für die Polis. Akten des 5. internationalen Kongresses der Gesellschaft für Antike Philosophie in Zürich (6.–9. September 2016), 279-299. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

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*My research on this topic has been generously supported by The Center for Hellenic Studies. I am most grateful to everyone involved with the CHS, especially to Gregory Nagy, M. Zoie Lafis, Lanah Koelle and the rest of the library staff.

[1] In his classification of constitutional forms, Aristotle defines a politeia as the ‘correct’ form whereby the ‘many’ administer the polis for the sake of the common interest, see Pol. 3.7.1279a37-39.

[2] For the way a law demands ‘correction’ by a decree, see EN 5.10.1137b27-29. For a further analysis of the ‘universal’ and ‘particular’ aspects of political phronesis, see (Tsouni 2019).

[3] At Pol. 3.4.1277b25-26 we find the strong claim that phronēsis is strictly speaking the virtue exclusively peculiar to the ruler, the archon.

[4] This is known in the literature as the “wisdom of the multitude” thesis, or the “summation argument”, see (Schütrumpf 1991): 496.

[5] For a recent discussion of the analogies contained in Pol. 3.11 see e.g. (Wilson 2011), (Bouchard 2011), (Lane 2013), (Bobonich 2015), (Inamura 2015), (Horn 2016).

[6] For the idea that the expression ‘parts of phronesis’ points to the aggregation of expertise, see (Ober 2013), who suggests a relevant model of how this could be made to work. By contrast, (Lane 2013): 257; 260 reads the analogy as supporting only the value of aggregation. Against this view see (Bobonich 2015):150.

[7] That Aristotle talks here about a qualified crowd becomes clear from Pol. 3.11.1281b15-21, where he also denies from a certain crowd, which he compares to ‘brutes’, the possibility of contributing successfully to collective decision-making.

[8] The capacity of the pepaideumenos seems to be the one presupposed for the learned audience of Aristotle’s philosophical works, see Part. An. 1.1.639a1.

[9] Rightly I think, (Bobonich 2015): 145 suggests that the food analogy ‘is incompatible with the others’.