Essay on the Greek city-state



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These valleys and islands, over the lapse of time, became centres of political life sharply different from the Oriental Empires. From the history of the Greek City-States, and especially from the history of Athens, we can trace how the tribal administration gradually gave place to the local principle in government, and how the local community was developed into the City-a new political type of governance.

The Greek City was a true State in the modem sense of the term in which the political, economic, intellectual, and moral life of the people was focused on the central city.

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With the Greek City-State two ideas were integral. Each City was a politically organised State independent of others and proud of its independence. The Greeks never thought, and perhaps it was foreign to their nature, to merge their identity in any other City and to make a large unit of political administration.

Secondly, the Greek City-State was deliberately limited in size and population. According to Greek political philosophy, the concentration of political, social and intellectual life at one central city was possible only when the State was small.

Aristotle put definite limitations on the population and size of the State. He held that neither ten nor a hundred thousand could make a good State, because both these numbers were extremes. He laid down the general principle that the number should be neither too large nor too small. It should be large enough to be self- sufficing and small enough to be well governed.

The Greek City-State developed to the stage of a conscious effort directed to the realisation of liberty and equal laws. It was a great experiment not only in the art of self- government, but also in quest of virtue. To be a citizen of the State did not merely imply, in the Greek view, the payment of taxes and the casting of a vote. It implied a direct and active cooperation in all the functions of civil and military life.

A citizen was normally a soldier, a judge and a member of the governing assembly; and all his public duties he performed not through a deputy but in person; the gods of the city were his gods, and he must attend festivals.

The State was, thus, identified with society. The Greek City was at once a State, church and school and it embraced the whole life of man. Since the object of the State was to secure a good life for all citizens, all forms of State control calculated to secure that end were considered proper and justified, and no line was drawn between matters political, moral, religious and economic.

Burke’s description of the State as “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection” was the real life of the Greek City-State, and Athens at the height of her fame may be regarded as the embodiment of all that was most advanced in Greek political ideas.

The City-States of Greece were typical examples of direct democracy in the modem sense of the term. All citizens were directly associated with the governance of the State and it really meant the power of the people. But forms of government, according to Greek philosophers, were subject to cyclic changes. Monarchy was the first and in time it gave way to aristocracy. Aristocracy was succeeded by oligrachy.

Then came polity and, finally, democracy. Democracy was held to be rule by the mob, an intolerable confusion which was succeeded, again, by monarchy and, thus, ran the course of cyclical political changes.

The Greek City-States fundamentally differed from the Oriental Empires. But there were snags, too, in the Greek political life. Their love of independence verging on separatism ultimately resulted in their collapse, when a powerful State arose in the north under Philip of Macedon.

They were also wanting in what may be called the submissive virtues—patience, self-denial, and the spirit of compromise and tolerance. Their self-will and lack of disciplined life embittered the faction fight in their Cities between the rich and the poor, nobles and commons, friends of Athens and friends of Sparta. The works of the Greek historians and political thinkers clearly show that the Greek society of their time was not in a sound state.

The philosophers were constantly returning to the question, what was virtue, and how it might be taught. And they looked on this question as one of immediate and even urgent importance to society.

They felt that their countrymen were thinking too much of liberty, and far too little of discipline. And they foresaw that a people in this state of mind must fall before that power whose people were better disciplined than the Greeks. The Macedonians, and after them the Romans, proved the truth of this forecast.

The Greeks were also wanting in humanity. They made liberty the exclusive right of superior people and denied to others what they valued for themselves the most. Even the wisest of the Greeks regarded slavery as a natural institution and they never dreamt that civilised life was possible without slavery.

Athens, for example, had only about 20,000 citizens who obtained leisure for their public duties by turning over all the rough work to a much larger body of slaves. Slavery is incompatible with civilisation and, as such, with democracy.

A democratic society is one in which all enjoy equal rights and privileges without any barriers of class distinction. The brotherhood of man is its basis and all its members stand equal in the common fraternity. This means faith in man as a man and his personality. y

The Greek City-State was an all-inclusive partnership in every aspect of human existence. But this broad inclusiveness made the Greeks neglect one of the most essential of political problems, that of clearly defining the functions of the State and separating it from various other associations which composed, society. “The failure to distinguish the State from the community,” says Maclver, “left Athenian liberty itself a monument broken and defaced.

The all-inclusive State, whether its dimensions are those of the city or nation, cannot draw the line between law and custom, between enforcement and spontaneity, between the conditions of order and those of culture.

So long as the theory is accepted that the State is omnicompetent, there will be confusion and suppression. Under such a theory no form of life is safe, no religion, no opinion, unless its adherents control the government. So the very diversity which enriches a civilisation when recognised as existing of right creates under the principle of the ‘universal partnership’ those violent and factious oppositions which on the contrary destroy it.”

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