Elements of Democracy and Constitutionalism: Ancient Practices and Modern Institutions Essay

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All over the written history of human society, democracy has been a very exceptional event, and most preceding commentators have been critical of the theory and practice of democracy. One exception to the general scarcity of democracy in human history is the classical Greek democracy. In the 5th century BC, a great political change occurred in the city-states of Greece. This transformation was a democratic transformation, at that time, Greece was not a single country, but was composed of a number of autonomous city-states, or “polis.” Among them, Athens was described as having the most pioneering and stylish democracy.

Greeks thought of the law in a state only as one part or rather as one aspect of the whole polity itself, never as incredible outside or apart from the state to which that polity must conform, nor even as any special provision within the state to which other laws are lesser. If the Greeks thought of a law of nature as applying to a particular state at all, they meant by this natural law no more than that part of a state’s actual laws which in fact happens to be indistinguishable in all other states what Aristotle in his Rhetoric called “common law”. (Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 13, 2)

What are the political ideals and aims of the classical Athenian democracy? In his famous book The Politics, Aristotle points out that one fundamental principle of the classical democratic constitution is liberty. To Aristotle, liberty means two things: (1) “ruling and being ruled in turn” and (2) “living as one chooses.” As such, liberty and equality are “inextricably linked.” In fact, the first constituent of liberty, “ruling and being ruled in turn,” is based on a fundamental conception of equality, which Aristotle labels as “numerical equality” (as opposed to “equality based on merit”). “Numerical equality” means an equal share of the performs of ruling for all, regardless of individual ability, merit or wealth. (Aristotle Politics)

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