Arms and the Greeks

The founders didn't conjure up the right to bear arms out of thin air. They learned its value from the founders of Western civilization.

by David Kopel

Liberty, August 1999. More by Kopel on ancient history.

The creators of America's republican form of government did not make everything up as they went along. American political philosophy -- including the right to keep and bear arms -- was firmly grounded in historical experience and in the great works of philosophy from ancient Greece through 18th-century Britain.

The Declaration of Independence was derived from what Thomas Jefferson called, "the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc." What did Aristotle -- the most influential philosopher of Western civilization -- say about the right to arms? Quite a lot that still rings true today.

Aristotle was a student of Plato, and studied at Plato's Academy outside Athens.

The Founders of the American Republic were intimately familiar with the writings of both Plato and Aristotle. And while Plato and Aristotle disagreed about many things, they agreed on the importance of arms-bearing to a society's political structure: whoever controlled the arms would control the government.

Plato's greatest work of political philosophy is The Republic, written in the first part of the fourth century, BCE. In The Republic, Plato explains his theory for why societies always progress from oligarchy (rule by a small group of elite rich) to democracy (rule by the people) to despotism (rule by a single man). At each step, the control of arms is essential.

In an oligarchy, "They next proceed to make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship; the sum is higher in one place and lower in another, as the oligarchy is more or less exclusive; and they allow no one whose property falls below the amount fixed to have any share in the government. These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work" (The Republic, Book VIII -- "Four Forms of Government," Benjamin Jowett transl.).

Plato points out one of the disadvantages of oligarchy: "Another discreditable feature is, that, for a like reason, they are incapable of carrying on any war. Either they arm the multitude, and then they are more afraid of them than of the enemy; or, if they do not call them out in the hour of battle, they are oligarchs indeed, few to fight as they are few to rule."

Eventually, the oligarchy is supplanted by democracy, "whether the revolution has been effected by arms, or whether fear has caused the opposite party to withdraw." In other words, either armed revolution or the credible threat of armed revolution causes the oligarchy to lose its power. But after a while, the people succumb to demagogy, and a tyrant arises. The tyrant does not begin his worst abuses until after he has disarmed his victims. In The Republic, which is a series of teacher-student dialogues, the teacher explains: "Then the parent (the people) will discover what a monster he has been fostering in his bosom; and, when he wants to drive him out, he will find that he is weak and his son (the tyrant) strong."

Student: "Why, you do not mean to say that the tyrant will use violence? What! Beat his father if he opposes him?" Teacher: "Yes, he will, having first disarmed him."

In Plato's ideal state, the one-man rule of a tyrant is replaced by the one-man rule of a philosopher-king. The king uses a professional military/police class -- the Guardians -- to keep everyone else in line. Like the people of the former Soviet Union, the common people of Plato's ideal state would be trained periodically (once a month) in use of arms, but would have no right to arms, and arms would be centrally stored in state armories (Plato, Laws).

In Plato's utopia, "no one, man or woman, must ever be left without someone in charge of him; nobody must get into the habit of acting independently in either sham fighting or the real thing, and in peace and war alike we must give our constant attention and obedience to our leader. . ." (Laws).

The country most in harmony with Plato's theory of government is modern Singapore: tightly regulated, with a subject's entire life carefully controlled by a "benign" state.

Plato's most important philosophic descendent is the German Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 1831). Hegel provided the intellectual foundation for fascism, seeing the state as sacred, and the individual as absolutely subservient to the state. (Hegel and Plato differed on many other issues, such as the basis of perception, but their politics were essentially similar.)

Like Plato, Aristotle considered arms a fundamental source of political power, but unlike Plato, Aristotle wanted ordinary people to possess this power. In Aristotle's book Politics, he argues that each citizen should work to earn his own living, should participate in political or legislative affairs, and should bear arms.

Aristotle criticized the theory of another philosopher (Hippodamus), who wanted a strict division of roles between skilled labor, agriculture, and defense: "But the husbandmen have no arms, and the artisans neither arms nor land, and therefore they become all but slaves of the warrior class" (Aristotle, Politics, translated by Benjamin Jowett).

Aristotle considered the possession of arms synonymous with possession of political power: "when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest, the government is called by the generic name -- a constitution . . . in a constitutional government the fighting-men have the supreme power, and those who possess arms are the citizens" (Book 3, ch VII).

Aristotle linked the development of democracy (rule by the people) with military innovations making foot soldiers relevant: "But when cities increased and the heavy armed (as opposed to the cavalry) grew in strength, more had a share in the government; and this is the reason why the states which we call constitutional governments have been hitherto called democracies" (all of the above quotations from Book 4, ch. XIII).

It was inevitable that control of arms would lead to control of the state: "since it is an impossible thing that those who are able to use or to resist force should be willing to remain always in subjection . . . those who carry arms can always determine the fate of the constitution" (Book 7, ch. IX).

Arms are essential to any good government: "Let us then enumerate the functions of a state, and we shall easily elicit what we want. . . . thirdly, there must be arms, for the members of a community have need of them, and in their own hands, too, in order to maintain authority both against disobedient subjects and against external assailants" (Book 7, ch. VIII). It was hardly surprising that dictators always disarmed their subjects: "As of oligarchy so of tyranny . . . Both mistrust the people, and therefore deprive them of their arms" (Book 5, ch X).

Sometimes the disarmament was not accomplished directly, but instead by encouraging people to neglect arms training. "The devices by which oligarchies deceive the people . . . relate to . . . (4) the use of arms; (5) gymnastic exercises. . . . Concerning (4) the possession of arms, and (5) gymnastic exercises, they legislate in a similar spirit [trying to keep the poor from participating]. For the poor are not obliged to have arms, but the rich are fined for not having them; and in like manner no penalty is inflicted on the poor for non-attendance at the gymnasium, and consequently, having nothing to fear, they do not attend, whereas the rich are liable to a fine, and therefore they take care to attend."

Theorizing the people who bear the burdens of government should be the ones who run the government, Aristotle wrote that "The government should be confined to those who carry arms." The early American Republic essentially reflected this scheme; the group of people liable for militia duty was roughly the same as the group of people eligible to vote.

In The Athenian Constitution, written about 350 BCE, Aristotle gives a political history of the city-state of Athens. Rediscovered in the late 19th century, The Athenian Constitution provides historical evidence for Aristotle's theory that tyrants aim to disarm the people. Although The Athenian Constitution was not available to the American Founders, many of the political events described in the book were known to the founders through other sources.

In the sixth century BCE, a tyrant named Pisistratus took over Athens. Aristotle explained how the tyrant obtained absolute power by disarming the people of every city he controlled:

After his victory in the battle at Pallene he captured Athens, and when he had disarmed the people he at last had his tyranny securely established, and was able to take Naxos (a Greek island) and set up Lygdamis as ruler there. He effected the disarmament of the people in the following manner. He ordered a parade in full armour in the Theseum (a temple), and began to make a speech to the people. He spoke for a short time, until the people called out that they could not hear him, whereupon he bade them come up to the entrance of the Acropolis, in order that his voice might be better heard. Then, while he continued to speak to them at great length, men whom he had appointed for the purpose collected the arms and locked them up in the chambers of the Theseum hard by, and came and made a signal to him that it was done. Pisistratus accordingly, when he had finished the rest of what he had to say, told the people also what had happened to their arms; adding that they were not to be surprised or alarmed, but go home and attend to their private affairs, while he would himself for the future manage all the business of the state. (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, ch. 15, translated by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon)

Incidentally, Pisistratus maintained a peaceful foreign policy, "probably because he dared not allow the Athenian citizenry to bear arms in a major war," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Pisistratus was succeeded by his son Hippias. Hippias's younger brother Hipparchus was assassinated. "At first the government could find no clue to the conspiracy; for the current story, that Hippias made all who were taking part in the procession leave their arms, and then detected those who were carrying secret daggers, cannot be true, since at that time they did not bear arms in the processions, this being a custom instituted at a later period by the democracy" (The Athenian Constitution, ch. 18). In other words, carrying arms during a parade was an activity of freemen in a democracy, not of the subjects of a tyrant.

After Athens's defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta appointed the Thirty Tyrants to rule Athens in 404 BCE. Among this group of 30 was a long-time Athenian politician Theramenes, who had negotiated the peace with Sparta, but who opposed the more extreme measures of the Thirty. Aristotle explained how the Thirty Tyrants consolidated power, and how disarmament prepared the way for direct military rule:

Thereupon the Thirty decided to disarm the bulk of the population and to get rid of Theramenes; which they did in the following way. They introduced two laws into the Council, which they commanded it to pass; the first of them gave the Thirty absolute power to put to death any citizen who was not included in the list of the Three Thousand, while the second disqualified all persons from participation in the franchise who should have assisted in the demolition of the fort of Eetioneia, or have acted in any way against the Four Hundred who had organized the previous oligarchy (which had ruled in 411 BCE). Theramenes had done both, and accordingly, when these laws were ratified, he became excluded from the franchise and the Thirty had full power to put him to death. Theramenes having been thus removed, they disarmed all the people except the Three Thousand, and in every respect showed a great advance in cruelty and crime. They also sent ambassadors to Lacedaemonian (Sparta) to blacken the character of Theramenes and to ask for help; and the Lacedaemonians, in answer to their appeal, sent Callibius as military governor with about seven hundred troops, who came and occupied the Acropolis. (ch. 37)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Aristotle, more than any other thinker, determined the orientation and the content of Western intellectual history." The discussion of the right to arms in the next 24 centuries has followed the lines laid down by Plato and Aristotle; one side in favor of an unaccountable central government having all the arms and all the power; and the other side favoring rule by citizens who maintain their right to arms. Whatever the issue du jour of the contemporary gun control debate (e.g., gun registration in Canada; gun locks in the United States; handgun confiscation in the United Kingdom), friends of civil liberty should never forget the ultimate issue that drives the gun control movement: the determination to make armed citizens into disarmed subjects of a powerful, sometimes benign, collection of people who call themselves the government.


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