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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

The Athenian Polis

Nearly half of the material we will examine in this course  -- the political thought of the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes – belongs to a period of  Greek history covering roughly only  a century and a half.

This period, from approximately 500 BCE down to about 322 BCE saw the height of the culture of the polis, and especially of Athens. It begins perhaps with the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 BCE (at the famous battles of Thermopylae and Marathon) and again in 480 BCE (at the equally famous battles of Plataea and Salamis) of which you can read some very thrilling accounts in Herodotus’ Histories. It ends with the conquest of Athens in 322 BCE under Alexander the Great of Macedon. 322 was also the year in which Aristotle died. So we are looking at some ideas that were formed over a period of  160 or 170 years, but which set the stage for everything to be thought about politics in the West until the present day. As we will see, modern political thought is something new, but in large part defines itself in its difference from the approaches of Plato and Arisototle.

This is also the period in which Athenian democracy took on its characteristic shape, achieved its glories, struggled to survive and finally withered away. One of its enduring glories, ironically, was to have given birth and a home to the two most influential philosophies of the West through much of its history, both of which were to a significant extent directed against the very ideas of democracy and equality.

The historical context and background of a philosopher’s activity is a part of his/her philosophy. And, if anything, that is especially true for the Greeks, for whom philosophy (literally “the love of wisdom”) was anything but the “academic” activity it has become. Plato, the founder of a school called  the “Academy” was pursuing politics by other means. For all of the classical philosophers, philosophy was felt and understood to be not only about politics, but was also understood to be a political activity, even when it meant keeping aloof from the factional struggles of the moment.

Now, to us this seems somewhat strange. And this strangeness follows from the real difficulty we have as modern individuals who are citizens of large nation-states, of understanding, of getting inside, what “politics” might have meant to a free, adult Greek male of this period. We quite naturally think of politics as a struggle to get control over (or to resist, or even evade) the state, a vast bureaucratic-legal-military apparatus which is a power over us, and to be reckoned with. Or often, we think of politics as something we would like to ignore in order to get on with the business of life – which is supposed to be ours to define in our private economic and social lives. For the Greeks (again, the free adult males, especially well-off  ones. I will from now on simply use the term Greeks to refer to this segment of the population) politics meant something much more intimate and vital.

Part of the difficulty we start from stems from the fact that we have to a large extent taken over the vocabulary and theories of the classical Greeks and we use these terms and theories to describe vastly different entities from what they originally referred to. The simplest definition of “politics”, if we were speaking to someone from those times, would  indicate that it means the affairs of a polis. But this tells us almost nothing, unless we already have some idea of what a polis was. The usual translation of this word is, of course, “city-state”. But that has a number of misleading ideas built into it. To be sure, the Greeks distinguished their own civilization, one based upon the city, from the cultures of much of the surrounding world, cultures which were based upon the tribe (Gk – “ethnos”). To be a member of a polis then meant to be more than a member of a particular tribe. And they did know other urbanized cultures, such as the Phoenician (in what is today Lebanon), but a Phoenician city would never have qualified as a polis, because of the way it was governed.  And actually the urban part of the territory organised into a polis was indicated by a different word altogether (Gk. – “astu”, which, say, could be used about an urban place like Toronto).

So the polis is not the urbanized area it might include. Some poleis (pl. of polis) had nothing in the way of an urban center. Some were all farms and villages. So polis refers to the agricultural area as much as the urban. In fact, to qualify for being a polis one should have a community that is to a large extent self-sufficient economically and militarily, one which will therefore include a variety of trades and occupations. Yet a polis is much more than a merely economic association based upon a division of labour. This community that is largely self-sufficient will also tend to have a number of economic classes within it. Yet in most of the Greek poleis, such classes were not geographically segregated. The nobility (such as it was) did not lock itself up in castles separate from the rest and surround themselves with loyal retainers who owed their allegiance to the nobles and not directly to the community. Those who were citizens were so almost always by virtue of the fact that they could and did bear arms and assert the independence of their polis. Much of the life of the polis went on in the public areas (markets, squares, temples, arenas, theatres. Etc…)  where citizens (Gk. – polites [s]; politai [pl.]) rubbed shoulders and conversed constantly. For these men, the home, domestic, and private life meant something different and probably significantly less than they do to most of us.

The public life of the polis could be of such great interest for two reasons. First, fellow citizens were not strangers, but people with whom one would have all sorts of dealings and relationships that quite naturally spilled over into a life-long running conversation; secondly, this community was completely self-governing, at least in the sense that each community, no matter whether it was as small as 5000 souls or as large  as Athens in its heyday (about 350,000), recognized no higher authority than its own laws and its own gods.

So the polis was a community that lived on (and some would say even for) discussion – almost always face to face discussion. And because of this, it was felt that there was a severe upper limit to its geographical and numerical extent. It had to be possible, at least periodically, to gather all the citizens together to discuss, argue and decide the most pressing matters affecting the community. Nor was there a line drawn around private life, in the sense that we do. The authority of the polis, its customs, laws, decisions, habits, extended everywhere – there was no question of individual private rights against it, against the polis per se.

The main thing to stress at this point – because we’ll get a richer and denser understanding of what the polis meant from the readings up through Aristotle – is that the polis was not a specific type of geographical or economic thing. It did not even indicate one specific type of government – democracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, even tyranny (which meant the temporary rule of an executive power) were all methods of government proper to the polis Even under tyrannies public life and discussion did not cease and no tyrant was ever able to establish anything remotely resembling the type of police state  we have become familiar with, where the threat of torture and imprisonment , combined with networks of informants run by a secret police, stifle political expression, and many other things as well.

So the polis was not simply a place, or a system of government, or an economic organization, or an ethnic or linguistic grouping – although it combined or rested upon all of these. It was felt to be people united by laws, customs and practices acting together. The other factors were judged by whether or not they added to or detracted from the possibilities of carrying on the political life – of acting together as what was called a koinonia (roughly, “community”).

To be a member of this thing called a polis, to be a citizen or polites something more than what it means to us (at least most of the time). It did, of course carry with it certain rights and obligations. But it really meant something more: to be a citizen meant to be an expression of the whole character of the polis, not simply to be the bearer of legal rights and obligations but to be an essential part of a whole outside of which one would be nothing. Many of us feel that changing citizenship is not such a big deal and will often enough seek out a new citizenship for purely private reasons (or because we like the “values” of a different state). We may even follow profit or a career path through different citizenships. And when we are reluctant to leave a country, it is usually more friends, family and home that might hold us back than it is a question of citizenship. But to a member of a polis it would be virtually unthinkable, virtually traitorous, to pursue individual ends by making membership something secondary, merely to be used.

So being a polites was more than a matter of voluntary association . And citizenship was, almost exclusively, something into which you were born and raised. Even in Athens at its most radically democratic period a law was passed (451 BCE) stating that only those individuals whose father and mother were both Athenian citizens, legitimately married, could hold Athenian citizenship. So you could be born in Athens, even fight in her armies, live a law-abiding and productive life, but never hope to be a citizen unless the whole sovereign Assembly enacted a special law making you one. Democracy was not something that individuals as human beings were entitled to. It was the way in which Athenians expressed and realized their idea of the good life. It wasn’t necessarily something good or suitable for everyone; not for all the Greeks and not for the barbarians (non-Greeks), who many Athenians thought of as natural slaves.

The classical polis was a kind of urbane tribalism, based upon an expanded sense of kinship that demanded common action undertaken on the basis of conscious decision. The sense of kinship was very strong and was expressed vivdly in the civic religion. The tribes of Athenians all worshipped the goddess Athena and called itself “her people”, the people of Athena. Try getting something like that into the Canadian constitution. And this strong sense of kinship somehow demanded that the “state” recognize the legal rights of all who were kin. (“State” is actually a misleading and anachronistic term: the Greeks never developed a separate term for the state.)

So much for something about the polis in general. The Athenian polis emerges from the relative obscurity of pre-history at about the beginning of the 6th century BCE with the reforms of one of the seven “wise men” of ancient Greece – Solon. The preceding century had been a period of expansive colonization for many of the Greek poleis. And this process of “hiving off” by which colonists were sent to various parts of the Mediterranean basin to establish new cities, has been explained by historians as, at least in part, a response to the political turmoil that followed population growth, and with it the rise of debt slavery.

At this point, at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, Athens is mostly a polis of small peasant farmers. And, like free peasant farmers everywhere, many, if not most, live a precarious economic existence, depending upon loans to see them through from one year to the next. This is the sort of situation that lends itself nicely to the exploitation of an increasing debt by the few who are better off – by the “nobles” who can use their larger resources to concentrate landed wealth by forcing the unsuccessful into various forms of indentured servitude (you work exclusively for me for a specified period of time after all your property is gone in order to pay off your debt) or outright slavery (not only your labour is mine, but you and your descendants are mine as well). At this point government also is largely in the hands of the very same landed aristocracy – and especially the law courts, the very places where questions about debt and ownership would be dealt with.

Quite as might be expected, the kinds of class tensions that emerge from this situation leads naturally to civil strife or even to civil war (Gk. – “stasis”). And in many cases, out of this endemic civil war, tyranny arose: one person, thought to be above these divisions, was chosen to lead, legislate and judge. In Athens, this same class struggle reached an impasse by the beginning of the 6th century, and in the year 594 Solon was appointed, by an agreement among the various sides, to reform the state.

Solon did not prepare an entirely new constitution. What he did was to establish certain written laws (for the first time) that had the aim of creating a situation in which no single class could seize power, and in which individuals were better protected by the rule of law (in which, i.e. it would be harder to railroad some poor farmer into debt slavery). This kind of arrangement was called “isonomia” , i.e. “the same law” (for everybody). [“isos” = same or equal; nomos = law] What Solon was trying to do, was to give conscious, written shape to an older tradition of the idea of rule of law.

Among his reforms were the following:

  1. He cancelled the debts accumulated by the poor peasantry [try to get that done anywhere in the world today!]
  2. He created “sumptuary laws” – laws designed to limit the ability of the wealthy to flaunt their prosperity and power [ditto]
  3. He fixed an upper limit on landed property [ditto]
  4. He devised various measures (such as allowing foreigners in to reside in Athens) designed to encourage the rise of trade and crafts (in order to find employment for those driven off the land)
  5. He allowed any Athenian to undertake, without risk, criminal prosecution in a court of law on behalf of another. That is, he created the profession of lawyer, which – in theory at least – would give a poor man a better chance in a legal contest with an educated and wealthy landowner.

Perhaps most important were his major political reforms: He created a public court (the “Heliaea”) open to the very poorest citizens and which had the duty of reviewing the conduct of every official at the end of his term of office. He also admitted the poorer classes into the Assembly (which at that point had the function of ratifying the laws). Later on both democrats and more moderate oligarchs would claim Solon as their predecessor for these reforms.

As tradition has it, Solon then departed from Athens for ten years, so that the community should judge the effectiveness of his reforms without being under the shadow of his tremendous prestige.  History, however, judged these reforms to be less than a complete success because a generation later the old civil strife arose again. And for 35 years Athens was governed under the tyranny of the Peisistratid family. Peisistratus, however managed to accomplish what Solon could not by breaking the political power of the landed families – although he was an aristocrat himself – and by establishing the poorer peasantry on the land with a system of state-run financial assistance. It was during this period that the aristocracy more or less finally got into the habit of taking office as servants of the state, as they were to do throughout the next century, rather than thinking of state offices as merely useful tools for their own private advantage. Most of the important offices (both elected and appointed) of the later Athenian democracy were in fact staffed by wealthy men.

Just before the turn of the 5th century, the tyranny was overthrown and there ensued, over the next fifty or sixty years, a series of democratic political reforms that left Athens in the form celebrated by Pericles in the funeral oration reported by the historian Thucydides. It was this form that caused so much anxiety for Plato and Arisototle. These reforms came in stages, under a seties of leaders such as Cleisthenes, Ephialtes and  finally Pericles. About them not a great deal is actually known, because for the most part the written record comes from writers who opposed the democracy. We know very little about the actual ins and out of the struggles and movements that created the democracy. What we can do is take a look at the general shape and composition of the Athenian democracy at the time the Sophists and Socrates were active, that is at the time political philosophy was being born.

Maybe the first thing worth noticing was what a modern political scientist might call the rate of participation. At its height – about 425 BCE – Athens is estimated to have included some 300,000 or more souls. Of these, 40,000 were citizens. Of these 40,000 some 7000 were at any given time engaged in regular, daily civil or military duties, one out of every six citizens – an extremely high degree of citizen participation. This high degree of participation and the extent of self-government that went with it were made possible by a system of payments. Any citizen was paid for attendance at the Council or at the courts of law. Plato and Aristotle would later object to this as an invitation to the mob to stir up trouble.

But this rate of participation is far from giving the whole story. Every citizen of Athens was entitled to attend, speak and vote in the Assembly (Gk. – “ecclesia”), which of all Athens’ institutions came closest to an embodiment of sovereignty. Yet such an assembly was obviously a completely unwieldy body for initiating acts or laws. That function was generally reserved to the Council (Gk. – “boule”) which itself, however, had 500 members. Its power, the power to introduce measures into the assembly, to raise issues and set the agenda was no small thing. But even a body of 500 could have lent itself without too much trouble to control by a relatively few oligarchs.

Where you really begin to see the democratic principle at work in Athens was therefore in the method by which this council was chosen. Athens had been divided (by the democratic leader Cleisthenes) into districts called “deme”s. These geographical districts cross-cut the tribal and clan divisions within the city. These demes were not only administrative divisions (like the old boroughs of Metropolitan Toronto) but (also like the old boroughs, but much smaller) they were active local political arenas that had their own assemblies, with their own elected officials and responsibilities. Each one of these demes elected a list of candidates (a list proportionate to its relative population) and it was from these lists that members were elected to the powerful Council of 500 by lottery. Moreover, no one sitting on the Council was allowed to sit for more than a one year term and no one was allowed to sit for more than two terms during their entire lifetime . The composition of the powerful Council, then, would have been a terrifically difficult thing to rig on the part of any oligarchical party. The combination of appointment by lot, rotation in office and a large number of electoral districts would have made the Council representative in a sense that would put to shame any modern representative democracy. Not until you get to the brief experiment of the Paris Commune of 1870/71 (defeated in a civil war) do you have even an experiment in direct democracy that begins to approach what was achieved in ancient Athens.

The obvious drawback in this system was the lack of any office or position that might give direction or coherence to policy. The Assembly was supreme, not only in domestic matters, but in foreign affairs as well, appointing ambassadors, ratifying treaties, declaring war. The one area from which it became possible to introduce stable leadership was the office of “general” (Gk. – “strategos”). Of these, there were ten, elected directly by the people and who were allowed to continue in office for years at a time. It was through the office of “strategos” that Pericles – who held that office for 15 years – was able to exercise his influence over the assembly, cajoling and persuading it to follow his initiatives. The point is, however, that he had to cajole and persuade at every step. After Pericles, this role was taken over by the orators (Gk. – “demagogue:, lit., he who gathers the people) like Demosthenes and Isocrates. These individuals held no long-term office. They simply ruled by carrying the Assembly along with them through an act of persuasion. In this system, a person could be a leader only so long as the Assembly accepted his program in preference to that of his opponents.

Athenian politcial life was, then, an affair largely of amateurs. The large majority of its citizens were farmers and artisans. Many were day-labourers. And this system could not have worked for the nearly 150 years it did, without their active and constant participation.

There were, of course, other sides to the Athenian democracy that would not have been so palatable to us, although they would have been just as much parts of the political systems of other non-democratic cities. I am referring to the institutions of slavery and to the subjection of women. At this point I will only say something about the first. The second will come up again in our examinations of Plato and Aristotle.

It is important, in order to get a good grasp of the nature of Athenian democracy, to have some understanding of slavery then. Out of a total population of upwards of 300,000 historians estimate that as many as 80,000 were slaves. Slaves therefore outnumbered citizens. This bare statistic might give the impression that the citizens as a whole were a slaveholding class, and that their ability to run their own affairs on a basis of equality could not have existed without slavery. This opinion has been around for a long time. Even Rousseau in the 18th century attributed the ability of the Greeks to sustain such an active public life to the fact that they had slaves. What this idea overlooks entirely, however, was the distribution of slaveholding through the entire population and the different forms it took.

These kinds of questions are difficult to sort out with any accuracy, but the general impression one gets from modern historians is that slaves were anything but evenly distributed among the citizens. Most of the slaves who were not doing unskilled labour in the publicly owned silver mines (about 20,000) were employed in domestic labour and in the skilled trades, and the main thing to realize is that a majority of them were owned by a wealthy few. Plato, for example, who came from a prominent family, left 5 slaves in his will. Aristotle, when he died, was in possession of 14. Some slaveholders owned literally hundreds and rented them out for a profit. It is also important to note that this was not a race-based slavery, and that many were captives of war and finally, again, that the institution was anything but unique to democracy. It was general in all the civilizations of the Mediterranean basin until after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

What this implies is that the existence of slavery did not mean that a large proportion of the free citizens – maybe upwards of two-thirds, but here I’m guessing – owned any slaves. Most citizens owned no slaves at all. So slaveholding was necessary to the attainment of substantial wealth and to social superiority. The aristocracy and the monied classes, those who called themselves “the best”, the kalloi k’agathoi (literally, the beautiful and the good) were slaveholders. It was not necessary for political activity, or for an economic existence that left enough time over for education, enjoyment and public life. 

None of these arguments are meant in the least to condone this institution – merely to head off the argument that anything approaching direct democracy presupposes that someone else is doing all the work. The case of the domestic and reproductive work of women in traditional patriarchal societies is a harder one. But most of the people who attended the Assembly and the courts were living the life of a free artisan or a farmer. These were people who did not have to toil all the time  to support a modest standard of living that left enough time over for all the political, cultural and religious events (often the same thing) that filled the Athenian calendar.

One or two final points should be mentioned before we turn to the Sophists. First, contrary to the impression it’s so easy to pick up from the philosophical reaction to democracy – that this was a highly unstable system quick to degenerate into tyranny or revert to oligarchy – the democracy lasted for nearly two centuries (c510 to 322) and that when it did end, it was as a result of the foreign conquest that engulfed all the cities of Greece, whatever their form of government. The far less democratic form of representative government in the United States, the oldest existing “democracy” on the planet, has lasted about that long now. Only twice and briefly during this long and troubled period – in 411 and in 404 – was there a reversion to oligarchy. Both episodes followed upon major defeats that Athens suffered in the long and punishing course of the Pelopponesian War.

Second -- and this is important to understand everything about the Greek philosophers as well --  for the citizens of the polis, the democratic as well as any other, the state was not understood as something that protected their private rights and interests. Of course it did that. But it was much more. The polis was a complete ethic, something like a lifelong education in and arena for the practice of a fully human existence. Citizens were not even able hypothetically, “theoretically”, to place themselves outside the polis and judge it from the viewpoint of an imaginary, radically separate “individual”. They certainly did not look upon it as means to an end. It was end and means wrapped up together. It was accepted and understood as the only way in which you could become what you ought to be as a human being. Consequently the Greeks came to look down upon the civilized barbarians living in kingdoms and empires as something less than fully human – as fit only for slavery because they did not know how (were perhaps “by nature”) unable to be political.

Suggested Study Questions for Topic I

  1. According to Pericles in the “Funeral Oration”, Athenian democracy has a range of virtues. What are these virtues? What is it according to him that motivates citizens in such a democracy? Are there notable differences between his portrayal of Athens and the way we usually think about contemporary liberal democracies?
  1. Both the Mytilinean Debate and the Melian Dialogue feature speakers who argue the case for different or opposing policies, but everyone seems to rely upon beliefs about human nature held by the Sophists. Can you pick up in these speeches doctrines which, according to the lectures, might come from the Sophists?
  1. What are the speakers’ general picture of human nature? Is there, for any of them, anything better or higher than clear-sighted self-interest?
  1. What do the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue mean by realism? What do they mean by justice?
  1. Aside from his own physical survival, what is it that Socrates is defending in the Apology?
  1. What does Socrates seek that the craftsmen, poets and political leaders don’t have? Why is it important? And to whom?
  1. How might Socrates’ life, as he himself portrays it in the Apology, be a challenge or even a threat to the polis?
  1. In the Crito, what are Socrates’ reasons for submitting to what he considers a faulty application of the laws (condemning him to death)? What is the strict standard of justice that he is upholding?
  1. Does it mean anything (to you and in general) that Socrates would not in the least flout the laws when they were misapplied to him (in the Crito) but he does just that, or at least comes very close, when the laws are misused against someone else (in the Apology – the incident of Leon the democrat’s judicial murder at the hands of the thirty tyrants)?

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