The literal translation of "democracy" explains what the word means. Derived from the ancient Greek "demokratia," democracy literally means that power belongs to the people.


The ancient Greek word for democracy was actually a compound word, a combination of two words into one. The first is "demos," which in ancient Greek means "people." As the "Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece" observes, while the word originally encompassed all of the people in a city or region, it implicitly came to refer primarily to the common people in contrast to the upper class.


The second word in democracy is "kratos," or power. In the ancient city-state of Athens, for instance, giving power to the people meant that Athenian citizens had a direct say in public policy. All male citizens were eligible to participate in the city's governing assembly, and while there was also a 500-member council comprised of representatives chosen annually from each of the city's 10 tribes, the council itself had 10 presidents randomly selected by lot every year in order to avoid the concentration of power.


As Aristotle wrote in his fifth-century B.C. treatise "Politics," a political system in which power is vested in the general population stands in contrast to governments ruled by a smaller group within society. For instance, Aristotle contrasts the people-powered democracy of Athens to an aristocracy, in which political power is concentrated in the "aristoi," the people considered to have the greatest virtue or merit.

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