The Original Meaning of 'Democracy'

In his ‘The Original Meaning of “Democracy”: Capacity to Do Things, not Majority Rule’ Josiah Ober explores the philological history of the concept ‘Democracy’, seeking to understand linguistically what such a term would have meant for the ancient Greeks.[1] The key point of address for Ober is to distinguish how the differing suffixes of certain concepts indicate a specific mode of typology in ancient Greek regime type theory.

Ober pins down that -arche indicates not just a ‘rule by’ but that this rule is connected to a limited number of those with a right to hold offices or become offices holders. This explains why oligarchies, oligarchia (ὀλιγαρχία) are always connected to a limited definitive number that hold office [‘rule by the few’], e.g. “The thirty, the four-hundred, the three-thousand, the five-thousand, and so on”.[2] For instance, anarchia (ἀναρχία) is rule where there are no offices of governance or rulership, nor office holders subsequently; or monarchia in which there is but a single individual with the right to hold the office of governance.

In contrast, -kratos is tended to be thought of as indicating ‘power’. As such, ‘demokratia’ (δημοκρατία), being the fusion of demos-, thought usually as ‘people’, and -kratos, would become “the power of the people”. In this manner, democracy has become to be thought of as ‘majority rule’, connected to equal legal, speech and voting rights. Ober takes a few small, yet significant, steps in order to cast a different light on our understanding of the concept.

The first important point is that demos- should not translate as ‘the people’ but rather as exclusive citizens of the municipality that act as a single entity; a plurality that becomes a singularity as a public body. As a point of interest, perhaps our grasp of ‘the people’, whereby certain social distinctions are dissolved but include all those subjects within a bounded territory in such a categorisation would be more fittingly paired with the term lāós (λᾱός), and as such our form of government a laocracy (λαοκρατία).

The second significant point that Ober makes is that democracy would not be distinguished as such by the mechanisms of exercising ‘people power’, such as equal legal, speech or voting rights, as these are already penned in the terms ‘isonomia’ (ἰσονομία), ‘isegoria’ (ἰσηγορία) and ‘isopsephia’ (ἰσοψῆφία). To conceptually equate democracy to these mechanisms would therefore be presumptive in an ignorance to the use of these associated terms. One should be left wondering, as such, ‘Why construct ‘democracy’ as a linguistic term at all?’, begging more questions on potentially incorrect propositions. Consequently, ‘democracy’ must entail something more than the mechanisms we associate with it, but something more intrinsic.

Lastly, Ober addresses precisely this, that -kratos is more than just mechanisms of majority rule, but a capacity for the majority to create. Indeed, Ober isolates that -kratos is intended to indicate an activated political capacity. Therefore, if we plug this grasp into the term ‘democracy’, we can see that the initial meaning of the concept relates to: “the collective capacity of a public to make good things happen in the public realm”.[3] It is the capability to create, to begin, to forge something new that defines the ancient Greek usage of the conceptual term. Ober frees us from a functional, mechanical, institutional or wholly contextual delimiting of the concept that has become the bread and butter of political science and theory alike.[4] Unsurprisingly, this idea was perhaps already planted within the theoretical tradition, lurking quietly.  in the thought of Hannah Arendt, ‘power’ is the capacity to act in-concert in order to create something new, a new beginning; power is always a power potential.[5] This is perhaps the very kind of -kratos Ober seems to have isolated philologically.

Below is the table Ober utilises in order to distinguish the different conceptual terms he discusses throughout his piece:[6]

[1] Josiah Ober (2008) ‘The Original Meaning of “Democracy”: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule’, Constellations, 15(1), pp. 3-9.

[2] Ibid, p.6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A few illustrations of such an approach that Ober’s grasp may undermine, at least to some minimal extent, are: Robert Dahl (1989) Democracy and Its Critics, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Michael Saward (2003) Democracy, Cambridge: Polity; David A. Moss (2017) Democracy: A Case Study, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

[5] Hannah Arendt (1972) Crises of The Republic , New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, p.143; (1998) The Human Condition, Second Edition, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, p. 200.

[6] Josiah Ober (2008) ‘The Original Meaning of “Democracy”: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule’, Constellations, 15(1), pp. 3-9, p. 4.