Section 1

The Athenian Constitution

by Xenophon Icon

I do not praise the Athenian constitution as they chose the welfare of the baser folk, as opposed to that of the better class.

  • But they have preserved it in the right way.

It is fair that the poorer classes and the Athenians should be better off than the men of birth and wealth.

  • This is because it is the poor who man the fleet and bring Athens to power.

Her heavy infantry is made up of men of birth of quality.

Her navy is made up of the poorer classes:

  • the steersman
  • the boatswain
  • the lieutenant
  • the look-out-man at the prow
  • the shipright—these

These engird the city with power.

It seems only fair that:

  • offices of state should be open to everyone both in the ballot (8) and the show of hands
  • the right of speech should belong to any one who likes, without restriction.

Many of these offices which, according as they are in good or in bad hands, are a source of safety or of danger to the People.

In these, the People prudently abstains from sharing.

  • The People do not think that it should share in the functions of the general or of the cavalry commander.

The sovereign People recognises the fact that in forgoing the personal exercise of these offices.

  • It secures the balance of advantage to itself by leaving them to the control of the more powerful (11) citizens.

The People only care to keep in its own hands those departments of government which:

  • bring emolument (12) and
  • assist the private estate.

In Athens, the poor and common folk are better regarded than persons of good quality.

  • Many foreigners are puzzled at this.

But this is the keystone of the preservation of the democracy.

  • This is because the wealth of these poor people in great numbers enhances the democracy.

Whereas, a shifting of fortune to the advantage of the wealthy and the better classes implies the establishment on the part of the commonalty of a strong power in opposition to itself.

In fact, all the world over, the cream of society is in opposition to the democracy.

  • This is natural.

The better class has the smallest amount of intemperance and injustice, together with the highest scrupulousness in the pursuit of excellence.

The poorer class has the greatest amount of lack of education, ignorance, disorderliness, rascality—poverty acting as a stronger incentive to base conduct.

  • This is traceable to the lack of means which afflicts the average of mankind. (14)

The objection may be raised that it was a mistake to allow the universal right of speech (15) and a seat in council.

  • These should have been reserved for the cleverest, the flower of the community.

But it is wise to grant the right of speech to (16) the baser sort.

If only the better people spoke or sit in council, then the blessings would fall only on the better class.

  • The commonalty would get the reverse of blessings.

Democracy Versus Non-democracy

With democracy, any base fellow may get up and discover something to the advantage of himself and his equals.

But what sort of advantage can such a fellow expect?

In their judgment, the ignorance and baseness of this fellow, together with his goodwill, are worth much more to them than your superior person’s virtue and wisdom, coupled with animosity.

A state founded on such institutions will not be the best state (17).

  • But these will help its preservation.

The People are themselves slaves.

  • They do not demand that the city should be well-governed.
  • They desire to be free and to be master. (18)

The People do not care about bad legislation.

  • In fact, bad legislation is the very source of the People’s strength and freedom.

But if you seek for good legislation, the cleverest members of the community would lay down the laws for the rest [in a non-democratic state].

  • The better class will:
    • curb and chastise the lower orders.
    • deliberate in behalf of the state, and not suffer crack-brained fellows to sit in council, or to speak or vote in Parliament.

Under the weight of such blessings, the People will be reduced to slavery in a very short time.

In democratic Athens, extraordinary amount of license (21) is granted to slaves and resident aliens.

  • A blow there [against slaves] is illegal
  • A slave will not step aside to let you pass him in the street.

Slaves in Athens are allowed to indulge in luxury.

  • This is astonishing to other Greeks.

This is because the Athenian People are no better clothed than the slave or alien.

  • They have no superiority in personal appearance.

If a free citizen were allowed to beat a slave or a resident alien or freedman, an Athenian might often be mistaken for a slave or an alien and receive a beating.

Where you have a naval power (22) dependent on wealth (23) we must perforce be slaves to our slaves, in order that we may get in our slave-rents, (24) and let the real slave go free.

Where you have wealthy slaves it ceases to be advantageous that my slave should stand in awe of you.

In Sparta, my slave stands in awe of you. (25)

But if your slave is in awe of me, there will be a risk of his giving away his own moneys to avoid running a risk in his own person.

This is why we have established an equality between our slaves and free men and between our resident aliens and full citizens. (26)

This is because the city stands in need of her resident aliens to meet the requirements of such a multiplicity of arts and for the purposes of her navy.

That is, I repeat, the justification for the equality conferred upon our resident aliens.

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