DOI: 10.3390/philosophies8050081 ISSN:

Pruning of the People: Ostracism and the Transformation of the Political Space in Ancient Athens

Emily Salamanca
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy

Athenian ostracism has long captured democratic imaginations because it seems to present clear evidence of a people (demos) routinely asserting collective power over tyrannical elites. In recent times, ostracism has been particularly alluring to militant democrats, who see the institution as an ancient precursor to modern militant democratic mechanisms such as social media bans, impeachment measures, and lustration procedures, which serve to protect democratic constitutions from anti-democratic threats. Such a way of conceptualizing ostracism ultimately stems from Aristotle’s “rule of proportion,” or the removal of “outstanding” individuals in a polity who threaten to disturb the achievement of communal eudaimonia (Aris. Pol. 1284a). However, this way of interpreting the institution only presents a truncated view, one which is overly centered on the ultimate expulsion of an individual from the polity, rather than on its broader contextual telos—the transformation of the ostracized individual and of the community. To move past this simplified view, this paper considers all elements of ostracism with equal force, and argues that ostracism offered a shared opportunity and shared space for all members of the polis—citizens, non-citizens, and elite members alike—to reform the character of the subject individual and to instill and reaffirm democratic values in the community.

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