Democracy as the Rule of Laws

Aeschines’ Speech on Democracy

Aeschines, an ancient Athenian politician, stated back in the 4th century BC that the defining characteristic of democracy is that it is rule by the Law! Not rule by a person, a group of chosen ones, not even rule by the people. In a democracy it’s a set of principles as expressed by a number of laws that govern a city. In a monarchy, an aristocracy or an oligarchy, in contrast, rule is by individuals and through intimidation.

Aeschines (389-314 BC)
Aeschines (389-314 BC)

“It is acknowledged, namely, that there are in the world three forms of government, autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy: autocracies and oligarchies are administered according to the tempers of their lords, but democratic states according to established laws. And be assured, fellow citizens, that in a democracy it is the laws that guard the person of the citizen and the constitution of the state, whereas the despot and the oligarch find their protection in suspicion and in armed guards. Men, therefore, who administer an oligarchy, or any government based on inequality, must be on their guard against those who attempt revolution by the law of force; but you, who have a government based upon equality and law, must guard against those whose words violate the laws or whose lives have defied them; for then only will you be strong, when you cherish the laws, and when the revolutionary attempts of lawless men shall have ceased.”

-Aeschines Against Timarchus

Or, as a US President repeated centuries later:

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

“Democracy is not so much a form of government as a set of principles.”

-Woodrow Wilson

4 thoughts on “Democracy as the Rule of Laws”

      1. Oh, ok. You’re talking about the early stages of democracy in Athens. I agree. And I know that only a persentage of the population was qualified to be a citizen and that we can’t talk about a ‘perfect form of democracy’ and so on. But what I always stress is that a process had started! From Solon, to Cleisthenes, to Ephialtes and Pericles himself. That’s important to keep in mind… The idea of a new system of government was born.

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