Démos, The People

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
~ Declaration of Independence

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
~ Constitution of the United States

Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
Edmund S. Morgan
Kindle Locations 62-82

Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.

The political world of make-believe mingles with the real world in strange ways, for the make-believe world may often mold the real one. In order to be viable, in order to serve its purpose, whatever that purpose may be, a fiction must bear some resemblance to fact. If it strays too far from fact, the willing suspension of disbelief collapses. And conversely it may collapse if facts stray too far from the fiction that we want them to resemble. Because fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them, we often take pains to prevent their collapse by moving the facts to fit the fiction, by making our world conform more closely to what we want it to be. We sometimes call it, quite appropriately, reform or reformation , when the fiction takes command and reshapes reality.

Although fictions enable the few to govern the many, it is not only the many who are constrained by them. In the strange commingling of political make-believe and reality the governing few no less than the governed many may find themselves limited— we may even say reformed— by the fictions on which their authority depends. Not only authority but liberty too may depend on fictions. Indeed liberty may depend, however deviously, on the very fictions that support authority. That, at least, has been the case in the Anglo-American world; and modern liberty, for better or for worse, was born, or perhaps we should say invented, in that world and continues to be nourished there.

Because it is a little uncomfortable to acknowledge that we rely so heavily on fictions, we generally call them by some more exalted name. We may proclaim them as self-evident truths, and that designation is not inappropriate, for it implies our commitment to them and at the same time protects them from challenge. Among the fictions we accept today as self-evident are those that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and that they owe obedience to government only if it is their own agent, deriving its authority from their consent. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate these propositions by factual evidence. It might be somewhat easier, by the kind of evidence we usually require for the proof of any debatable proposition, to demonstrate that men are not created equal and that they have not delegated authority to any government. But self-evident propositions are not debatable, and to challenge these would rend the fabric of our society.

Civil Rights and the Paradox of Liberal Democracy
Bradley C. S. Watson
pp. 1-3

Any discussion of liberal democracy requires some definition of terms. Defining democracy is a notoriously complex enterprise, made the more so by adding the qualifier liberal. Yet most would agree that we in the Western world live in regimes that share one overriding and defining feature: they are all “liberal democracies.”

The ancient understanding and practice of democracy, to the extent that it implied rule of all free persons in a regime, clearly would not qualify as such. No distinction can of course be drawn, in terms that are acceptable to modernity, between free and unfree persons. Modernity in fact marked a fundamental departure from all views that claimed relevant political distinctions could be drawn between individuals. This is one way of understanding the meaning of liberal in the phrase “liberal democracy.” For Locke, the state of nature is notoriously a state of freedom, but also a state of equality

wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that the Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all, should by any manifest Declaration of his Will set one above another, and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment an undoubted Right to Dominion and Sovereignty.

Thus, for Locke, is consent a function of the nature of things. And freedom, in civil society, cannot be understood apart from consent.

The full meaning of the combination of demos and kratein in the modern age was captured by no less an authority than Abraham Lincoln: government of the people, by the people, for the people. For my purposes, this definition will suffice. Implied in it are, to use the terminology of social science, several “tests” of whether the democratic, or republican, threshold is being met. First, inclusiveness–the people as a whole in principle constitute the demos; second, an entitlement–the entitlement of the people to rule; third, an empirical claim–that the people actually exercise their entitlement to rule; and, finally, an end to which rule is directed–the true interests of the people. It is a definition that does not imply a simple majoritarianism. It must be the case, in Lincoln’s words, following Locke, that no man is good enough to govern another, without that other’s consent.

Harry V. Jaffa has long argued that the conception of equality expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence is the political expression of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” It is these natural laws, he argues, that the U.S. Constitution–and the regime of which the Constitution is the organizing document–were designed to implement. [ . . . . ]

But the very phrase “liberal democracy” points to the paradox that is the subject of this book. Democracy implies the consent of the governed, which consent rests, explicitly or implicitly, on the recognition of the effective political equality of the individuals who constitute the demos. Liberalism implies a respect for, nay, an exaltation of, the individual qua individual, which respect or exaltation is in tension with the idea of consent of the whole. This brings to light the inadequacy of a relatively common definition of liberal democracy; it is inadequate because it fails to take into account the true meaning of liberalism: “‘Democracy’ . . . refers to the location of a state’s power, that is, in the hands of the people, whereas ‘liberal’ refers to the limitation of a state’s power. From this viewpoint, a liberal democracy is a political system in which the people make the basic political decisions, but in which there are limitations on what decisions they can make.” But liberalism in its contemporary incarnation frequently results in the individual using the state’s power, whatever the wishes of the majority. Liberalism thus appears to be linked with those passions in the human soul that tend toward the tyrannical, where tyranny is understood as the rule of the one in his or her own interest. Liberalism so viewed threatens to make the first “test” in Lincoln’s definition difficult to meet, and, by extension, all the other tests. But this tension is a commonplace, and it merely adumbrates the paradox of liberal democracy.

Strong’s Concordance

démos: a district or country, the common people, esp. the people assembled

1218 dḗmos (from 1210 /déō, “to bind, tie”) – people bound (tied) together by similar laws or customs (like citizens in an ancient Greek city forming an assembly, cf. 1577 /ekklēsía).

In the NT, 1218 (dḗmos) refers to people unified in conviction and showing it in public opinion, i.e. their “collective persuasion.”

[1218 (dḗmos) is the root of the English word, “democracy.” Ancient Greek used 1218 (dḗmos) for “the body politic” (J. Thayer).]

Political organization
Foundation of the Hellenic world 

The Mycenaean texts frequently include the word damo, the demos or village defining both the geographic position and the population of the communities. The context reveals that the word did not have an administrative meaning but it signified the collective body of the people of each administrative unit. The words demos and telestai are also used as synonyms which indicates that the major landholders sometimes represented the people. One of the offices which refer to Pylos was the damokoro, a complex adjective deriving from demos and the korete. The damakoro were employees appointed by the wanax.

Athenian Political Art from the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE: Images of Political Personifications
Amy C. Smith, edition of January 18 2003
page 8 of 26
The Stoa Consortium

Demos (ὁ δῆμος) was used through the middle of the fifth century to refer to commoners. But in fifth century Athens demos also meant the sovereign body of free citizens. As commoners comprised a good part of the citizenry in the democracy, the two definitions—commoners and citizens—coexisted through the Classical period. It is the sovereign Demos that would have been revered in the cult with the Nymphs, on the Acropolis at Athens: an inscription dating to 462 attests a joint sanctuary of Demos and the Nymphs, who may have been the Horai (Seasons) and/or Charites (Graces) (IG I2, 854). Certainly in the second half of the fifth century, demos sometimes took on negative connotations, and the demos is increasingly represented as gullible and fickle, capable of being deceived by politicians, as exclaimed by the chorus of aristocratic cavalrymen in Aristophanes’ Knights (in 424), for example (Aristoph. Kn. 1111-18). (Aristophanes was probably the first to personify Demos, but similar characters may have been portrayed in the lost comedies of Eupolis and Cratinus.) Tension between the two views of demos—the commoners who are ridiculed, on the one hand, and the sovereign people, who warrant respect—seems to have been reflected in the personification of Demos on stage and in visual arts. In Knights Aristophanes is also sympathetic, and clearly sees the demos as capable of reform, for the crux of the play is Demos’ rejuvenation. The youthful Demos at the end of the play vows to restore old-fashioned ways in the government, a solution for which the democrats frequently yearned.

The Development of Athenian Democracy
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
(Section 1 of 7)
The Stoa Consortium

Greek word Demos (δῆμος, pronounced “day-moss”) has several meanings, all of them important for Athenian democracy. Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district. Young men, who were 18 years old presented themselves to officials of their deme and, having proven that they were not slaves, that their parents were Athenian, and that they were 18 years old, were enrolled in the “Assembly List” (the πίναξ ἐκκλησιαστικός) (see Dem. 44.35; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1).

Another meaning of Demos, to the Athenians, was “People,” as in the People of Athens, the body of citizens collectively. So a young man was enrolled in his “demos” (deme), and thus became a member of the “Demos” (the People). As a member of the Demos, this young man could participate in the Assembly of Citizens that was the central institution of the democracy. The Greek word for “Assembly” is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), but the Athenians generally referred to it as the “Demos.” Decrees of the Assembly began with the phrase “It seemed best to the Demos,…”, very much like the phrase “We the People…” that introduces the Constitution of the United States. In this context, “Demos” was used to make a distinction between the Assembly of all citizens and the Council of 500 citizens, another institution of the democracy (see below). So some decrees might begin “It seemed best to the Demos…”, others might begin “It seemed best to the Council…”, and still others might begin, “It seemed best to the Demos and the Council….”

So the Athenian Demos was the local village, the population generally, and the assembly of citizens that governed the state. The idea of the Demos was a potent one in Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

It had not always been the case. The Iliad—the work of literature that was the shared text for all Greeks—describes a world whose values pre-date those of the Athenian democracy. One passage from it, especially, suggests that the idea of the “demos” changed dramatically in the years leading up to the 5th century. [ . . . . ]

The Homeric hero Odysseus did not favor putting rule into the hands of the Demos. What happened, then, to change the status of the Demos from that of a lowly mob, to be beaten down with a stick, to that of the ruling People of classical Athens?

Democracy : the Rule of Nobody?
John Keane


Any contemporary effort to rethink the meaning of democracy must start by tracing the word democracy back to the Greeks, who are customarily thought to have invented the word and given it meaning. The platitude that democracy means the rule of the sovereign people usually points to its ultimate origin in or around classical Athens during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Most contemporary textbooks read by students andteachers concerned with the history of democratic theory and institutions repeat the point that this is where the history of democracy began. Thereis indeed an old and venerable tradition of doing so, yet new researchcalls this Myth of the Greek Origins of Democracy into question. It turns out not only that the arts of self-government sprang up much earlier, for instance in ancient Mesopotamia, where popular assemblies (pu-uh-ru)wielded power, including the election of kings.1 Even the root of the word democracy pre-dated the ancient Greek city states. References (in the Linear B script) to the dāmos are evident during the Mycenean period (c. 1500-1200 BCE), when it is used as a noun to refer to a group of former landowners who lose everything and are dispossessed of political power2. The nuances need not detain us here, except to note a key point : that the dāmos is a sectional or self-interested group that has its eyes on power, but is for the time being shut out from power.

That particular connotation of exclusion is carried over into the word demokratia (δηµοκρατία) that was spoken in the various classical Greek dialects. That the past was to echo into the present should not be surprising when it is considered that those who principally referred to the demos were its fearful opponents. The term became common currency in a phase of transition when (most famously in Athens) politics was dominated by aristocrats locked in competition with themselves and with their opponents. What this self-styled class of aristoi had in common was their mostly hostile regard for a sectional group that was seen to be dangerous because it was property-less and hungry for political power. Such references help to explain why democracy (demokratia : from demos and kratos, rule) had so few intellectual defenders, and why its critics pointed to the demos as a potentially destructive force within the life of the political community.

Few observers have spotted that the negative connotations of the word demokratia – a form of polity defined by the exercise by some of self-interested or sectional power over others – are buried within the very word democracy itself. The verb kratein (κρατείν) is usually translated as‘to rule’ or ‘to govern’, but in fact its original connotations are harsher, tougher, more brutal. To use the verb kratein is to speak the language of military manoeuvring and military conquest : kratein means to be masterof, to conquer, to lord over, to possess (in modern Greek the same verb means to keep, or to hold), to be the stronger, to prevail or get the upper hand over somebody or something. Homer’s Odyssey and Sappho’sSupplements both use kratein in this way. The noun kratos (κράτος), from which the compound demokratia was formed, similarly refers to might, strength, imperial majesty, toughness, triumphant power, and victory over others, especially through the application of force. The now obsolete verb demokrateo (δηµοκρατέω) brims with all of these connotations : it means to grasp power, or to exercise control over others.1

From the standpoint of today, these are indeed strange and unfortunate connotations. They bring us to a first major difficulty in simple-minded uses of the word democracy : that it is the carrier of exactly the opposite meaning of what most democrats today mean when they speak of democracy, in much more complex ways, as non-violent inclusiveness, power-sharing based on compromise and fairness, as equality based upon the legally guaranteed respect for others’ dignity. Interpreted simultaneously with ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ eyes, the word democracy is untrue both to itself and to its users. It is a double-standard word. Like adouble-agent that charms those around it into thinking that it is something that it is not, talk of ‘democracy’ invokes an original meaning that betrays what the word today conveys. For Greek commentators and critics alike, demokratia was a unique form of rule – note the accurate Latin translation of kratein with regulare : to control, to exercise sway over – in which the demos acts as a selfish body in pursuit of its own particular interests. Here the word demokratia has one thing in common with other contemporary words used to describe the rule of sectional interests – words like aristokratia (αριστοκρατία : aristocracy), ploutokratia (πλουτοκρατία: the rule of the rich) and monokratoria (µονοκρατορία monocracy, or the rule of a single person). To speak of demokratia is to point to a particular group whose particular interests are not identical with everyone’s interests. In a demokratia the demos holds kratos,1 which is another way of saying that it is prone to act forcefully, to get its own particular way by using violence, either against itself but especially against others. This is exactly what Plato meant by his remark that democracy is a two-faced form of government, ‘according to whether the masses rule over the owners of property by force or by consent’2. The unknown Old Oligarch had much the same thing in mind when dressing down demokratia as the rule of the lowest and most misguided section of the population, the demos, who sometimes strive to exercise power by making common cause with sections of the aristoi.3 When this happens, the people are ruled in their own name. Demokratia still refers to a form of sectional rule based on force but its emphasis undergoes a subtle shift, towards something like empowerment through the people. Demokratia is a form of polity in which the people are ruled while seeming to rule.

Strategic Abuses of Democracy

It may be objected that a genealogy of the word democracy is an exercise in antiquarianism or, worse, intellectual pedantry. The charge might be persuasive if indeed democracy as a form of government had been confined to the ancients. That was of course not to be, for the revival of the discourse of democracy in the late sixteenth-century Low Countries prepared the way for the emergence of democratic institutions as a modern form of life – as a sui generis mode of organizing power. What is of interest here is that the divisive, exclusionary connotations of the word democracy did not disappear with its ‘modernization’. They were if anything resuscitated and strengthened by a political tendency that has in the meantime become something of a well-established pattern : the tendency of actors to invoke the word democracy, understood as popular sovereignty, as a handy weapon in the struggle for power over others.