Peter Jones

Aristotle on Brexit voters

The philosopher believed that only ‘the best’ should rule. But he could see cases where collective decisions were better

It comes as no surprise to find that there has recently been much talk among Brexit supporters about ‘the wisdom of crowds’. The question fascinated Aristotle, who discussed it at some length in his Politics.

Aristotle (4th century BC) firmly believed that only the ‘best’ should rule. Nevertheless, he had lived in a direct people’s democracy in Athens, and agreed that ‘perhaps, for all its difficulties, it has something to be said for it’. He proceeded to make the case by a series of analogies. The many, he suggested, might be collectively better than the few ‘in the same way that a feast to which all contribute is better than one supplied at one man’s expense’. Collective judgment on music and poetry was clearly better than one man’s, too, because ‘some judge some parts, some others, but their collective judgment is a verdict on all the parts’. The people, being a mix of good and bad, could also be trusted to elect officials collectively because ‘refined foods are more nutritious for the body when mixed with coarse foods’.

Then take the example of house-building, he went on. The builder would obviously have an expert view of the matter, ‘but the user will be an even better judge. So too the helmsman, who actually uses the rudder, will be a better judge of it than the carpenters who made it; and the judge of the merits of a dinner is the diner, not the cook.’ So experts were not necessarily the answer.

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