Philo Judaeus advises against sortition

Philo Judaeus was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt, in the first century BC and first century AD. The following passages are taken from Philo’s A Treatise on Those Special Laws Which Are Contained Under and Have Reference to the Eighth and Ninth, and Tenth Commandments.. In them he repeats the competence argument against sortition which Xenophon attributes to Socrates. Philo adds an argument against sortition and in favor of elections from Biblical authority.

XXIX. (151) Some persons have contended that all magistracies ought to have the officers appointed to them by lot; which however is a mode of proceeding not advantageous for the multitude, for the casting of lots shows good fortune, but not virtue; at all events many unworthy persons have often obtained office by such means, men whom, if a good man had the supreme authority, he would not permit to be reckoned even among his subjects: (152) for even those who are called lesser rulers by some persons, those whom men entitled masters, do not admit every one whom they can possibly find to be their servants, whether born in the house or bought with money; but they will only take those who are obedient, and at times they sell all those of incurably bad dispositions in a lot, as not being worthy to be the slaves of good men. (153) Therefore it is not right to make men masters and rulers of entire cities and nations, who obtain those places by lot, which is a sort of blunder on the part of fortune, which is an unstable and fickle thing. Beyond all question, casting of lots can have no connection with ability to attend upon the sick; for physicians do not obtain their employments by lot, but because their experience is approved of; (154) again, with reference to the successful voyage and safety of men at sea, it is not any man who may obtain the office of pilot by lot, who is sent at once to the stern to steer the vessel, and who then by his ignorance may cause a needless wreck in calm and tranquil weather, but that person has that charge given to him who, from his earliest youth, appears to have learnt and carefully studied the business of a pilot; this is a man who has made many voyages, and who has traversed every sea, or at all events most seas, and who has carefully ascertained the character of all the marts, and harbours, and anchorages, and places of refuge in the different islands and continents, and who is still better, or at all events not worse acquainted with the tracks over the sea, than he is with the roads on land, through his accurate observation of the heavenly bodies; (155) for having remarked the various motions of the stars, and having followed and being guided by their regular revolutions, he has learnt to be able to make out for himself an unerring and easy path through the pathless waste of waters, so that (what seems the most incredible of all things), beings whose nature it is to live on the land are able to traverse the sea which can only be crossed by sailing. (156) And if any one should be about to undertake the government or regulation of large and populous cities, full of inhabitants, and should attempt to settle the constitution of such, and should undertake the superintendence of private, and public, and sacred affairs, a task which any one may rightly call the art of arts, and the science of sciences, he would not trust to the uncertain chances of time, passing over the accurate and trustworthy test of truth; and the test of truth is proof combined with reason.

XXX. (157) The all-wise Moses seeing this by the power of his own soul, makes no mention of any authority being assigned by lot, but he has chosen to direct that all offices shall be elected to; therefore he says, “Thou shalt not appoint a stranger to be a ruler over thee, but one of thine own Brethren,” [Deut 17:15] implying that the appointment is to be a voluntary choice, and an irreproachable selection of a ruler, whom the whole multitude with one accord shall choose; and God himself will add his vote on favour of, and set his seal to ratify such an election, that being who is the confirmer of all advantageous things, looking upon the man so chosen as the flower of his race, just as the sight is the best thing in the body.

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20 Responses

  1. Does anyone on this forum take issue with the argument that sortition is a bad way of appointing “magistrates” (government executives)?

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  2. Nice to see a post about a philosopher few people talk about.

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  3. Clearly sortition does not select for competence or virtue (although it’s questionable whether election in large complex polities does much better). The notion that “God himself will add his vote on favour of, and set his seal to ratify such an election” adds credence to the theory that religious considerations may well have contributed to the triumph of election at the time of the reintroduction of representative government. There is an obvious connection between election and the religious notion of “the elect”.

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  4. Philo of Alexandria gives us a strange reasoning. He elaborates on the old « competence » argument taken from the Greek anti-democrat philosophers, and corroborates it by an a Biblical authority, the Deuteronomic Law about kingship (Deuteronomy, 17 :14-20). But this law is explicitly about hereditary monarchy (Deuteronomy, 17 :20 : « then he and his sons will reign along over his kingdom in Israel »). The appointment is only about the charismatic founder of the dynasty – David, which was elected by « the whole multitude with one accord » says Philo (XXX, 157). After the founder, there will be hereditary transmission. Even elective monarchy contains an element of biographical randomness : random events in the individual life of the king may lead to major political consequences. But it is worse with hereditary transmission, wich implies a strong element of genetic lottery. That does not conform well to the competence principle called upon by Philo against sortition.

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  5. Keith Sutherland writes (June 7) « Does anyone on this forum take issue with the argument that sortition is a bad way of appointing “magistrates” (government executives)? ». I do. A big part of the executive network in a modern dêmokratia will be made of professional public servants, but ordinary citizens, through lot, must be put in various points, not only as auditors (a systematic requirement), but likewise as decision-makers in critical points : everywhere the citizens freedoms are at risk, everywhere capital decisions would be irreversible, everywhere there is a risk of oligarchizing drift. Giving to mini-populus only the legislative power would be a sham. A dêmokratia implies that judicial power is in the hands of alloted juries, at least for « last word » decisions, and it implies likewise that there are no « executive services » independent of the dêmos and following actually their own policies, in the name of their competence.

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  6. Andre,

    The issue is whether to select individual government executives (ministers) by lot, not oversight juries. I think we’re all agreed on the need for the latter, although we might well differ as to exactly how they might operate. To my mind they would vote on the censure motion, whereas I imagine you might want them to perform a more active role.

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  7. Ironically, Saul, the first king of Israel, was selected by lot (Joshua 10, 20 – 21).

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  8. There is a legitimate argument for using sortition as a PART of the process for appointing executive magistrates. First I want to distinguish between the Athenian magistrate boards (typically ten magistrates) where a majority were likely competent and could monitor each other, to protect against corruption (on the one hand) and the modern notion of sole executives as heads of departments or ministries (on the other hand). Even in these single position magistrates the model of the Italian city republics may be relevant…either selecting a final applicant randomly from a screened pool, or selecting on merit a final applicant from a random selected pool. The goal in these cases is to protect against oligarchy and corruption, I, as I have stated previously prefer using sortition to create a “hiring committee” or electoral college to hire an executive.

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  9. Yoram,

    I think it’s Samuel 10. Interestingly Saul had already been anointed and the purpose of the lot-drawing was to confirm that he was chosen by God’s word to his prophet, not man. But in the modern protestant world (where representative government originated) we are all prophets, hence the need for an aggregative mechanism (election) to determine who has most accurately divined the word of god. If I remember Conall’s introduction correctly the Puritan divine Thomas Gataker ruled against the lot as a means of divination. According to Patrick Riley, Rousseau’s notion of the general will was a secularised version of god’s plan for the salvation of all, but the protestants separated this into the sheep and the goats. How exactly the (Calvinist) notion of the elect minority morphed into majoritarianism is another story.

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  10. *** Keith Sutherland writes : « There is an obvious connection between election and the religious notion of “the elect”. ». I don’t think that so obvious. God is a superior choosing among the men. The elections were usually a choice among equals or, in subtext, a choice by the lesser among competing members of an higher category. Quite different, indeed.
    *** Right, there is a geo-historical correlation between « representative liberal » political systems, modern capitalism, and theological weight of calvinism. That does not prove a causal link from calvinism neither to capitalism nor to representative-liberalism. There is for instance the possibility of a common causal factor in common-life values, as proposes Emmanuel Todd. He opposes traditional inheritance rules of England and Northern France among peasants (the bulk of the population): here freedom of testify, there mandatory equality of children, which became general French law after the Revolution. You could imagine some link between the implicit values of these customs and metaphysical or political issues.
    *** Likewise we can think that ancient dêmokratia could have risen more easily in Greek countries where there was mandatory inheritance equality between (male) children. Actually the lot was used in inheritance problems, to guarantee equality between heirs, well before its use in political matters (see for instance Odyssey, XIV, 209).
    *** But it is important to acknowledge that whatever the religious or anthropological factors favouring modern capitalism in its infancy, it blossoms now in East Asia – area very different from England, and with no calvinist legacy … Likewise the polyarchic model, heir of a tradition of representative-liberalism, reigns in very different countries. Therefore if modern dêmokratia arises in some country, it will be probably because of local favouring factors ; but we must not think that dêmokratia will be restricted to a specific religious or anthropological area.

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  11. Andre,

    Surely the issue is how to recognise the “elect” (ie those who God has pre-ordained for salvation). The primitive religious perspective (inherited by Catholicism) is that God indicates his choice by either prophetic or direct supernatural intervention; it was widely believed that the casting of lots was one way of enabling the latter (ie a form of divination). The modern (protestant) view, however (prefigured here by Philo’s gloss on Moses) is that everyone is a prophet and that our own faith is sufficient recognition of our status as one of the “elect”. It’s only a small step to move from this to a recognition of the election of others. I’m not seeking to apply the Weberian argument for Calvinism/capitalism to election, just pursuing an alternative to Manin’s argument as to why sortition was not considered as a way of establishing representative government in protestant states (remember that Madison was tutored at Princeton by the Calvinist divine John Witherspoon). Once both polyarchy and capitalism were established then they spread by example to non-protestant cultures.

    Of course other contingencies must have played a causal role, you suggest inheritance laws, Dahl thinks it’s more down to military technology (see chapter 18, “Why polyarchy developed in some countries and not others” in Democracy and Its Critics). But if the causal factor was mandatory equality in inheritance laws then we would expect France to be a demokratia.

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  12. Does anyone here know who Philo Judaeus was arguing against? That is, who in that time and place was advocating sortition?

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  13. Hi David,

    Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a single case of an explicitly made case for sortition that survives from antiquity. In fact, the first text that I am aware of that is clearly a piece of pro-sortition advocacy is C.L.R. James’s “Every cook can govern” – 1956, followed by Sidney J. Harris’s “Pick leaders out of a hat?” – 1960.

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  14. *** Keith Sutherland says « if the causal factor was mandatory equality in inheritance laws then we would expect France to be a demokratia ». I never said : « the » causal factor. Mandatory equality in inheritance customs is a mark (and a carrier) of a specifically strong egalitarianism at a sub-political level. It is clear that such a mental factor may help dêmokratia. Not enough to convert 18th century France into a confederacy of small democracies, right. (A dêmokratia in a big country was anyway impossible in a big society, until contemporary technology). Many factors work. Note that a propension to ideological egalitarianism is always a factor in France, or at least in its bigger part.
    *** The rejection of lot in the Western World at the end of the 18th century was not specific of protestant areas. The French revolutionaries rejected lot as strongly as the American ones. I think the basic explanation is social. The new social elites, in a dynamic world, did not see themselves as patriciates, but as elites made up from the bulk of the people by a kind of continuous « distillation » through superiorities of virtue / entrepreneurial spirit/ culture and intelligence. Election could be seen as a homolog process, distillating a political elite from the social elites. As for the political movements who looked for a second revolution, or a deeper revolution, they could be efficient only in large societies by setting militant networks, and those « acting minorities » were the result of another kind of « distillation ». A nobility or a patriciate may use the lot, as a dêmos (only the reference set is different). But any elite made up by a « distillation » will reject a process which is opposite of its own making process : lottery states an equality inside a given collectivity, whereas « distillation » brings out a subtle superiority through not transparent ways from pre-existent inequalities.

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  15. Andre:> The new social elites, in a dynamic world, did not see themselves as patriciates, but as elites made up from the bulk of the people by a kind of continuous « distillation » through superiorities of virtue / entrepreneurial spirit/ culture and intelligence.

    Yes I think that’s right, very well put and true of any non-feudal society (it was certainly the case for 5th-century Athenian politicians). Calvinism can be seen as a sub-set of this perspective, in that merit was seen as pre-ordained (but not hereditary)** rather than earned, it fits with Harrington’s idea of a natural (non-hereditary) aristocracy, and Madison’s wish to “refine” public opinion via filtering it through a chosen body of citizens. It explains why election will always have a part to play in any demokratia (the imperative here being to find ways to ameliorate pre-existent inequalities) and why the Madisonian version of the consent of the governed has more to do with the American dream (elite membership is open to anyone) than Manin’s argument from (medieval) natural law.

    It also shows why the case for sortition will be difficult to make in “dynamic” (meritocratic) societies. I think we need to concentrate on easily-demonstrable aggregate factors (collective judgement, wisdom of crowds, jury theorem etc) rather than focusing on the intrinsic equality of all persons. The latter perspective will be sympathetically received by normative political theorists and Catholics, but runs against the meritocratic trend that you outline. Your post outlines the need to separate aggregate judgment and policy advocacy — this is how it worked in the fifth century and will always be true for dynamic inegalitarian cultures. Of course you may not approve of such cultures, but all reforms need to start from where we are, rather than utopian visions, whether derived from the Sermon on the Mount, the Garden or Eden (primitive communism), or the Original Position (Rawls’s early Christian-derived work is of relevance here).

    **This is why Calvinism is such a disruptive and revolutionary ideology.

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  16. >sympathetically received by normative political theorists and Catholics

    I should have added Marxists and other advocates of a “deeper revolution” that you referred to.

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  17. Andre,

    Would it be fair to say that religion was one aspect of a general evolution from a collective to an individual perspective? In a feudal society your status was fixed (inherited at birth) whereas in a “dynamic” society you can develop and then demonstrate your virtue / entrepreneurial spirit/ culture and intelligence. Traditional catholicism is collectivist (we are all equally children of god), whereas in Calvinist protestantism we are individuals and all alone. In terms of modern political theory the difference is between communitarianism and liberal individualism — election being correlated to the latter. For sortition to be accepted in a liberal individualist culture we need to appeal to notions like collective wisdom but should not deny the value of election in discovering political leaders (virtue / entrepreneurial spirit/ culture and intelligence being properties of individuals and not evenly distributed). It would also suggest that the focus on equality by lot is misguided, particularly as sortition (from an individual perspective) severely damages the equality of citizens, by creating a radical separation between a tiny kleristocracy and the masses.

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  18. *** Yoram Gat writes (June 13) : « Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a single case of an explicitly made case for sortition that survives from antiquity. » Actually, more generally we do not have any elaborated theory of dêmokratia by a democrat thinker. But we must consider that the bulk of ancient literature is lost, and within it practically all democrat thinkers. As theoretical texts written by ancient democrats we have only fragments in history works, tragedies, speeches. We must look to these short pieces, and, with caution, the 4th century anti-democrat philosophers, who survived the sinking of the ancient litterature.
    *** A first reason of supporting lot can be said « personal ». Lot allows rotation, or at least virtual rotation, and therefore political equality, and liberty because the power the citizen must submit to is not “foreign”, the board of « magistrates » can give me a fine, but I can become one of these magistrates. Thus Aristotle ascribes to the democratic ideology of freedom « the idea not to be governed, preferably not by anybody, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns » (Politics VI, 2 ; 1317b). Democratic freedom is usually deemed excessive by all anti-democrat thinkers. But equality is a value they may appreciate, it is a deep sub-political value in their societies as testifies mandatory inheritance equality between the sons and many mythic uses of lot, including lot among the gods – only, for the elitists, the good equality is restricted to true equals, i-e the members of the rich and educated elite. Hence the rather embarrassed text of Aristotle when he gives his own opinion (Politics, II, 1, 4-7; 1261a,b): if the better must govern, to rule by turns is a necessity “among the free and equal”.
    *** The second reason is more specifically democratic, and it is « collective », not « personal ». For democrats alloted bodies are a necessary mean of power for the dêmos in dêmokratia – therefore sortition is good because dêmokratia is good. This can be found in Herodotus III, 80, and even more explicitly in Euripides “The Suppliant Women (vv 406-407). Theseus, mythical founder of the Athenian dêmokratia, characterizes the alloted jury as an expression of the People’s sovereignty in a remarkable sentence which refers evidently to the allotted bodies of classical Athenian democracy: “dêmos d’anassei diadokhaisin en merei eniausiaisin”, “the people reigns by turns through annual successions”. Note that the verb “anassein”, to rule, to reign, is a very strong word, derivated of the Homeric (and Mycenian) word for “king ” : “anax”.
    *** The ideological theme opposing sortition and competence in Greek intellectual history was clearly directed against dêmokratia. But it was a « secundary » recourse : the elitists who gave up the dream of a pure aristocracy, utopian in the socio-economic context of Cities as Athens, had to restrain their drives for equality (intra-elite equality) and to fall back on a model of « republic acknowledging competence » which, through election, cooptation and complex procedures could attain a high level of oligarchic quality.

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  19. Andre, that’s a very useful, and the personal/collective distinction projects quite well to the blind break / statistical sampling distinction in modern sortition theory.

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  20. *** Keith Sutherland writes (June 14) that « election will always have a part to play in any demokratia ». I agree. Clearly dêmokratia excludes « representative election », but it would be strange that the sovereign dêmos would have no right to choose his ministers – or the heads of independent agencies, or sets of permanent advisers. But election without deep deliberation is the way to phony democracy, as referenda without deep deliberation. That means that elections should usually be carried by alloted bodies (usually, not by absolute principle).
    *** Keith Sutherland writes that « the case for sortition will be difficult to make in “dynamic” (meritocratic) societies (…) we need to concentrate on easily-demonstrable aggregate factors (collective judgement, wisdom of crowds, jury theorem etc) rather than focusing on the intrinsic equality of all persons. ». The situation will be different in one country and another, in one social group and another. In France the reactions of common citizens to the proposal by Segolène Royal of « citizen juries » overseeing the elected was strongly positive, partly at least because a strong equalitarian drive in parts of this country. Others can appreciate more the deliberative superiority of citizen juries.
    Anyway we will have to acknowledge the equalitarian character of sortition, but likewise insist that does not mean levelling. The rise of political lottery in 4th century Athens did not mean levelling of the political life. I believe that speaking in front of General Assembly needed less political genius from « demagogues » than speaking in front of alloted juries with more efficient deliberation rules.
    *** Keith Sutherland writes that we « should not deny the value of election in discovering political leaders (virtue / entrepreneurial spirit/ culture and intelligence being properties of individuals and not evenly distributed). » I agree there is some truth here – but only if the election is enlightened and allows deep checking of the candidates ; and usually, as I said, that would mean election by an alloted body.
    *** Keith Sutherland writes « that the focus on equality by lot is misguided, particularly as sortition (from an individual perspective) severely damages the equality of citizens, by creating a radical separation between a tiny kleristocracy and the masses. » This reasoning would have, maybe, some value if the one use of sortition would be the choice of a « random parliament ». But if sortition is used to create the ruling bodies of independent agencies and of local authorities, of last word judicial authorities, of many auditing bodies etc, hence giving any citizen a good chance of getting personally some significant political power, I doubt that sortition will be seen as « severely damaging the equality of citizens ».

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