Athenian democracy presented by the Old Oligarch

The Old Oligarch wrote his Constitution of the Athenians towards the end of Pericles' career1. Unlike Thucydides, he was not an active politician; and the purpose for which he composed his work is remains obscure2. Nothing is known about the author, but we can infer from his negative, though often admiring, comments on Athenian democracy and from his consistent use of pejorative and laudatory adjectives to describe the lower and upper classes respectively, that he was wealthy and a member of the upper classes3.

In particular, the Old Oligarch is upset that the wretched masses are better off than the decent citizens 4; that they enjoy a privileged position5; he charges them with being more interested in their private profit than in the welfare of the state6; and he objects to their ignorance, disorderliness, immorality and mischievousness7. Their indiscipline has had its effect in the bad manners of slaves and of metics, who can no longer be distinguished from Athenians in appearance or attire and even have the nerve to talk back to free citizens8.

The masses' lack of education makes them reject athletic and cultural pursuits, traditionally hallmarks of aristocratic society9, or to build more facilities for themselves than are available to the upper classes10, and to have more holidays than is good for them11. He presents these arguments as a complaint against the democratic system, and although he finds corroboration from other sources for some points, it appears that much of his argument is based on his personal preferences as a respectable citizen.

The aim, therefore, is to corroborate or dispel the truths in the arguments put forward by this pseudo-Xenophonic figure, by analysing the points he makes in the complaint and seeking corroboration or otherwise from alternative sources. The Old Oligarch's first gripe is where he complains that the current Athenian constitution can only work if the interests of the mob are preferred to those of respectable people12.

He continues by saying that this may not be a bad thing, as it is the poor and lower classes that provide the rowers for the ships and the machinations of the city for the respectable: it is they who do the menial tasks to keep the wealthy in the manner in which they are accustomed, and so to keep them happy is to keep the respectables happy, and if they are involved in the general running of the city, then they will be happier to do what they do13.

But he does say that this should not be taken too far, because even the common people, despite their "extreme ignorance, ill-discipline and immorality"14, can recognise that they would derive much greater benefit by allowing the leading men of the state to fill certain positions, in particular those securing the safety of the state15. The Old Oligarch then talks of the greed of the lower classes by explaining how they would much rather enter into offices where there is scope for personal gain16.

We know that the post of strategos, to which this section undoubtedly refers, was not a paid post, whereas many of the magistracies were, therefore the poor would adopt the magistracies to take the payment17. This is supported by Aristotle when he claims that most men are more interested in profit than prestige18. The Old Oligarch continues by claiming that allowing the mob to speak in the Council ensured that things were done in the interests of the mob.

He says, "the Athenians recognise that for all his ignorance and immorality the good will of this man does more good than the ill-will of the respectable, however skilful and wise"19. The tacit assumption that class interests are fixed and immutable pervades the Old Oligarch's thinking20. These assumptions make tensions between the upper and lower classes inevitable21, except that occasionally a member of the lower classes may be found who is not populist in outlook22, or a member of the upper classes who is "depraved" enough to prefer life in a democratic state to that in an oligarchic state23.

The use of the word "depraved" in this context could be taken to show that the Old Oligarch considered democratic society as a whole to be depraved, which might account for his attitude towards the democratic environment in Athens. This "phenomenon" as the Old Oligarch sees it, is also mentioned in Plato, where he talks of the process by which a democratic man grows into an oligarchic one, and vice versa24. Therefore, we can assume that the Old Oligarch's argument here is a common one amongst the well-to-do of Athenian society, due to the corroboration found in the works of Plato.

The second real complaint from the Old Oligarch is about the undisciplined lives of slaves and metics in Athens. He claims that a slave will not stand out of the way for the respectables, and that their dress and manners are much the same as citizens, in some ways slaves and metics may be considered as important as citizens, especially in matters of free speech25. The Old Oligarch seems especially annoyed by this, but agrees that it is necessary for the same reasons: that these people are the foundation of the state.

Corroboration, again, comes from Plato, who, in personifying democracy, claims that "loyal citizens are insultingly termed by her slaves who hug their chains and men of naught; she would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects"26. Aristotle, in his characteristic terse style tells us that "in such democracies each person lives as he likes"27, or, in the words of Euripides, "according to his fancy"28.

Isocrates in the Areopagiticus declares that in the good old days it was not the case that the citizens "had many supervisors in their education, but as soon as they reached man's estate they were allowed to do what they liked"29. The Old Oligarch also refers directly to education, claiming that the traditional values associated with education have been rejected by the common people, as they cannot cope with it30. Plato further complains that under democracy "the city is full of liberty and free speech and everyone in it is allowed to do what he likes…

each man in it could plan his own life as he pleases"31. Pericles, however, in the Funeral Speech says, "we live as free citizens both in our public life and in our attitude to one another in the affairs of daily life; we are not angry with our neighbour if he behaves as he pleases, we do not cast sour looks at him, which, if they can do no harm, cause pain"32. This was a speech given by a democrat to the masses, and so would have placed democracy in a good light, however this may be the exception to the rule.

Therefore, the Old Oligarch is merely complaining about the state of Athens here, and not being particularly outspoken, as this was clearly the view of many leading notables in Athenian society. The Old Oligarch refers next, continuing the theme, to equality: the equality of metics and slaves with citizens in the administrative arena33. Plato claims that democracy "distributes a kind of equality to the equal and the unequal alike"34. Plato goes on to refer to metics as well by saying that "metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either"35.

The same point is made by Isocrates, who distinguishes "two equalities; one allots the same to every one and the other what is appropriate to each"36, and alleges that in the good old days the Athenians "rejected as unjust the equality which considers the good and the bad worthy of the same rights, and chose that which honours each according to his worth"37. However, democrats did approve of the egalitarian principle. Demosthenes in one passage argues that what makes all citizens public spirited and generous is "that in a democracy each man considers that he himself has a share in equality and justice"38.

Pericles also says "in their private disputes all share equality according to the laws"39. Therefore, the Old Oligarch's argument against egalitarianism is very thin: mainly that the wealthy are more important because they are wealthy. This is supported, to a certain extent by some contemporary writers, also wealthy themselves, but the democratic argument was much more valid and substantial, fundamentally saying that all people are equal in the eyes of the law, and so this should be the same in day-to-day life. Thus, the argument of the Old Oligarch is not particularly valid here.