Citizenship and the Average Man

Mon Mar 30 21:51:55 2009
I don’t think the Athenians thought that the average working man should even be a citizen. I know many of these terms like “citizen” and “democracy” look familiar to us, but the closer I look at their use in context the more alien they appear to our modern sensibilities. We tend to think very highly of democracy but I don’t get that same reverential feeling in Greek, even Athenian writing. The word demos can mean a place, or the people (who live in a place) but also tends to have the connotation of “rabble.” The word democracy can mean rule of the people although they tend to use the word politea (polity) instead. More often democracy seems to be used in the sense of “mob rule.” We don’t run across democracy used as people working together for the common good, but rather people being manipulated for political gain, as in demagogia (demagogy).

On the other hand, words with strong positive connotations are often used in opposition to democracy. Arete (virtue) and aristoi (the best) come from the same root and describe not only wealth and status but also moral, civic and social qualities as well. One almost gets the sense from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics that one would have to own at least a moderate estate to support the kinds of activities required to live a virtuous life. This is applied in practice in Politics where he directly says that artisans or hired laborers could not be citizens in “any constitution that is of the form entitled aristocratic (aristokratikos—“of the best” or “meritocracy“) in which the honors are bestowed according to goodness and to merit, since a person living a life of manual toil or as a hired laborer cannot practice the pursuits in which goodness is exercised.” (Politics 3.1278a) It is certainly a different way of thinking about things than what we are accustomed to today, but from my reading I don’t see anything to suggest that Athenian democracy had much, if anything, to do with the average working man.

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~ by severalfourmany on March 30, 2009.

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