Matt Kosko invokes Aristotle

Matt Kosko, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, writes a letter to the students’ newspaper, The Pitt News:

To the Editor,

Election season is upon us, and the gatekeepers of respectable opinion at The Pitt News are once again insisting on the “crucial” importance of the SGB election (of course, every election is claimed to be “crucial” by those who fetishize representative government). But if I may, I’d like to dispute the idea that elections have anything to do with students “exercis[ing] their democratic power,” as the editors insist.

All the way back to Aristotle, it used to be understood that elections are a mark of aristocracy, where a few of the “best” people are selected to rule over the undifferentiated masses; free elections in representative systems produce governments that are in fact highly unrepresentative of the population at large in terms of race or class. In contrast, selection by lot is a principle of democracy as in the ancient Greek democracies, where officials were chosen randomly from the population. If we want to make our student government democratic, we would do well to abolish the elected SGB and replace it with a body chosen by lot among the student population.

This body would have no legislative power, just the power to enforce decisions ratified by a majority of students.

4 Responses

  1. “This body would have no legislative power, just the power to enforce decisions ratified by a majority of students.”

    Presumably an oblique reference to the Athenian nomothetai, who deliberated before confirming (or revoking) earlier decisions in the ecclesia, assuming he means that the allotted body would have no power to introduce legislative proposals.

    Either that or else a proposal to elect the campus police!


  2. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the details of the ancient Greek democracies is severely limited. As I understood it, the Assembly enacted the policies that had already been decided upon by a majority vote. Perhaps enforced was a poor word choice?


  3. The governance of ancient Athens combined direct democracy with random selection by lot (sortition). The assembly (ecclesia) was the primary decision-making body where every (male) citizen could attend, speak and vote. But Assembly decrees were capricious, inconsistent and under the sway of demagogues.

    Nomothesia (legislation) was a 4th-century innovation to subject the decrees of the ecclesia to proper scrutiny. The members of the nomothetai were drawn by lot from older citizens who had volunteered. The process of legislation was like a trial, with advocates speaking in defense of the existing laws, and others speaking against the existing laws. The Nomothetai would vote on changes, and any changes that passed were published on inscriptions near the statues of the Eponymous Heroes and read aloud at the next meeting of the Assembly.

    As for the magistracy, who would have been responsible for the enaction of legislation, these were also subject to rotation (annual selection by lot).

    This forum is dedicated to taking principles of Athenian democracy and applying them to large-scale modern democracies, hence the interest in your post.


  4. Matt,

    If you are interested to go beyond the usual online sources, the standard reference on the structure of the Athenian democracy is The Athenian democracy in the age of Demosthenes by Mogens Herman Hansen. The best primary source is The Athenian Constitution by Aristotle (or one of his students).


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