Most modern political ideals such, for example, as justice, liberty, constitutional government, and respect for the law-or at least the definitions of them, began with the reflection of Greek thinkers upon the institutions of the city-state. But in the long history of political thought, the meaning of such terms has been variously modified, and always that meaning has to be understood in the light of the institutions by which the ideals were to be realized and of the society in which these institutions did their work. The Greek city-state was so different from the political communities in which modern men live. It requires no small effort of the imagination to picture its social and political life.
The Greek philosophers were thinking of political practices far different from any that have prevailed commonly in the modern world. The whole climate of opinion in which their work was done was different. Though not without analogies in the present, their problems were never identical to modern problems. The ethical apparatus by which political life was evaluated and criticized varied widely from any that now prevails.
To accurately understand what their theories meant, it is necessary first to realize at least roughly what kind of institutions they had in view and what citizenship connoted, as a fact and ideal, to the public for whom they wrote. For this purpose, the Athens government is critical, partly because it is the best known but chiefly because it was an object of special concern to the Greek philosophers greatest.
Social Classes in the ancient Greek city-state:-
As compared with modern states, the ancient city-state was exceedingly small both in the area and in population. Thus the whole territory of Attica was only a little more than two-thirds the area of Rhode Island, and in population, Athens was comparable with such a city as Denver or Rochester. The numbers are exceedingly uncertain, but a figure somewhat over three hundred thousand would be approximately correct. Such an arrangement of a small territory dominated by a single city was typical of the city-state.
This population was divided into three main classes that were Politically and legally distinct. At the bottom of the social scale were the slaves, for slavery was a universal institution in the ancient world. Of all the inhabitants of Athens, perhaps a third were slaves.
Consequently, as institution slavery was as characteristic of the city-state economy as wage-earning is of the modern. It is true, of course, that the slave did not count politically in the city-state. In Greek political theory, his existence was taken for granted, just as the feudal ranks were taken for granted in the Middle Ages or as employer and employee relation is now granted. Sometimes his lot was deplored, and sometimes the institution (though not its abuses) was defended,
But the comparatively large number of slaves–and still more the exaggeration of their numbers-has given rise to a seriously misleading myth. This is the idea that the citizens of the city-state formed-a leisure class and that its political philosophy was, therefore, the philosophy of a class exempt from gainful labor.
This is an almost complete illusion. The leisure class in Athens could hardly have been larger than it is in an American city of equal size, for the Greeks were not opulent and lived upon a very narrow economic margin. If they had more leisure than the moderns, it was because they took it. The economic machine was not so tightly geared. They paid for it with a lower standard of consumption. The simplicity and plainness of Greek living would be a heavy burden to the modern American.
Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Athenian citizens must have been tradesmen or artisans or farmers who lived by working at their trades. There was no other way for them to live. Consequently, as with most men in modern communities, their political activities had to take place in such time as they could spare from their private occupations.
It is true that Aristotle deplored this fact and thought it would be desirable to have all manual work done by slaves so that citizens might have the leisure to devote themselves to politics. Whatever may be thought of this ideal wisdom, it is certain that Aristotle was not describing what existed but was proposing a change to improve politics.
Greek political theory sometimes idealized a leisure class. In aristocratic states, the governing class might be the landed gentry. Still, it is quite false to imagine that in a city like Athens, the citizens were typically men whose hands were unsoiled by labor.
The slaves being put aside, the second main group in a Greek city was composed of the resident foreigners or metrics. In a commercial city like Athens, the number of such persons might be large, and many of them would not be transients. But there was no form of legal naturalization, and residence extending over several generations would still leave a metric outside the citizen-body unless indeed he was taken in by inadvertence or connivance.
It was as if the original Anglo Saxon American colonists had admitted immigrants from various lands but not extended them citizenship. Like the slave, the metric had no part in the city’s political life, though he was a freeman and his exclusion implied no social discrimination against him.
Finally, there was the body of citizens or those who were members of the city and entitled to participate in its political life. This was a privilege attained by birth, for a Greek remained a citizen of the city to which his parents belonged. Moreover, what citizenship entitled a man to was membership; that is, some minimum share of political activity or public business participation.
This minimum might be no more than the privilege of attending town-meeting, which itself might be of greater or less importance according to the degree of democracy that prevailed, or it might include eligibility to a narrower or a wider range of offices.
Thus Aristotle, obviously thinking of Athenian practice, considered that jury-duty eligibility is the best citizenship criterion. Whether a man was eligible for many offices or only a few would again depend upon the degree of democracy that prevailed in his city.
But the point to be noted is that, for a Greek, citizenship always meant some such participation, much or little. Therefore, the idea was much more intimate and much less legal than the modern idea of citizenship. The Roman would have better understood the modern notion as a man to whom certain rights are legally guaranteed than by the Greeks. The Latin term ius dces partly imply this possession of private right.
The Greek, however, thought of his citizenship not as a possession but as something shared, much like membership in a family. This fact had a profound influence on Greek political philosophy. It meant that the problem as they conceived it was not to gain a man his rights but to ensure him the place to which he was entitled.
Somewhat differently stated, it meant that, in Greek thinker’s eyes, the political problem was to discover what place each kind or class of men merited in a wholesome society so constituted that all the significant sorts of social work could go on.
The institutions by which this body of citizen-members undertook to transact its political business can be illustrated by taking Athens as the best-known type of the democratic constitution. The whole body of male citizens formed the Assembly or Ecclesia, a town-meeting that every Athenian was entitled to attend after he reached twenty years.
The Assembly met regularly ten times in the year and extraordinary sessions at the Council’s call. The acts of this town-meeting corresponded, as nearly as anything in the system did, to modern enactments in which the whole public authority of the body-politic is embodied.
However, this is not to say that the formation of policies and the effective discussion of measures took place, or was intended to take place, in this body. Direct democracy conducted by the whole people assembled is rather a political myth than a form of government. Moreover, all forms of Greek government (except extralegal dictatorship), whether aristocratic or democratic, included some sort of assembly of the people, even though its share in government might actually be small.
Therefore, the interesting thing about the Athenian government is not the Assembly of the whole people but the political means designed to make the magistrates and officials responsible to the citizen-body and answerable to its control.
The device by which this was effected was a representation species, though it differed in important ways from modern representation ideas. What was aimed at was selecting a body sufficiently large to form a sort of cross section or sample of the whole body of citizens, which was permitted in a given case or for a short term to act in the name of the people? The terms were short; there was usually a provision against re-election, and thus the way was open for other citizens to have a tum in the management of public affairs.
In line with this policy, the magistracies were held as a rule not by individuals but by boards often, one chosen from each of the tribes into which the citizens were divided. The magistrates, however, had, for the most part, little power. The two bodies which formed the keys to popular control of the government in Athens were the Council of Five Hundred and the courts with their large popular juries.
How the members of these governing bodies were chosen explains the sense in which they could be said to represent the whole people. For local government purposes, the Athenians were divided into about a hundred demes, or, as they might be called, wards or parishes or townships. These demes were the units of local government.
However, there was one respect in which they were not comparable strictly to local units; membership in them was hereditary. Even though an Athenian moved from one locality to another, he remained a member of the same deme. Accordingly, though the deme was a Jocality, the system was not purely one of local representation. The dames had, however, some measure of local autonomy and certain local police-duties of trifling importance.
Moreover, they were the door by which the Athenians entered into citizenship, for they kept the register of their members, and every Athenian boy was enrolled at the age of eighteen. But their essential function was the presentation of candidates to fill the various bodies by which the central government was carried on.
The system was a combination of election and a lot. The demes elected candidates, roughly in proportion to their size, and the office’s actual holders were chosen by lot from the panel thus formed by-election. To the Greek understanding, this mode of filling offices by lot was the distinctively democratic form of rule since it equalized everyone’s chances to hold office.
However, there was one important body of Athenian officials that remained outside this scheme of choice by lot and retained a much larger independence measure than the others. Moreover, these were the ten generals chosen by direct election and were eligible for repeated re-elections.
The generals were, of course, in theory, purely military officers. Still, especially in imperial days, they actually exercised important powers in foreign parts of the Athenian Empire and greatly influenced the Council’s decisions and the Assembly at home. Therefore, the office was not really a military post but, in certain cases, a political office of the highest importance.
It was as general that Pericles acted year after year as the leader of Athenian policy. His position concerning the Council and Assembly was much more like that of prime minister in a modern government than that of a mere commander of troops. But his power lay in the fact that he could carry the Assembly with him; a failure to do so would have disposed of him as effectively as an adverse vote disposes of a responsible minister.
As was said above, Athens’s really essential governing bodies were the Council of Five Hundred and the courts with their large popularly chosen juries. Some sort of council was a characteristic part of all forms of the Greek city-state. Still, in the aristocratic states, as at Sparta, the council was a senate composed of elders chosen for life and without responsibility to the assembly.
Membership in such a council would normally be the prerogative of a well-born governing class and hence quite different from the popularly chosen Council at Athens. The Council of the Asparagus was the remnant of an aristocratic senate horns of its powers by the rising democracy. In substance, the Council of Five Hundred was an executive and steering Committee for the Assembly.
The actual work of government was really centered on this committee. But five hundred was still far too large for a business transaction, and it was reduced to a working size by the favorite device of rotation in the office. Each of the ten tribes into which the Athenians were divided furnished fifty of the members, and the fifty members from the angle tribe were active for one-tenth of the yearly term of office.
This committee of fifty, augmented by one councilman from each of the nine tribes not In the office, was In actual control and transacted business in the entire Council’s name. A president was chosen by lot from the fifty for a single day, and no Athenian could hold this honor for more than one day in his entire life.
The Council was charged with the essential duty of proposing measures to consider the citizens General Assembly, which only acted upon matters coming to it through the Council. When the Athenian constitution was at its best, it would appear that the Council rather than the Assembly was the body that effectively formulated measures; later, it seems to have confined itself rather to the duty of drafting measures to be debated in the Assembly.
In addition to these legislative duties, the Council was also the central executive body in the government. Foreign embassies had access to the people only through the Council. The magistrates were largely subject to its control. It could imprison citizens and even condemn them to death, acting as a court, or committing offenders to one of the ordinary courts. It had entire control of finances, the management of public property, and taxation. The fleet and its arsenals were directly controlled by it, and a multitude of commissions and administrative bodies or servants were attached more or less closely to it.
The great powers of the Council, however, were always dependent upon the goodwill of the Assembly. It passed upon matters which the Council presented to it, enacting, amending, or rejecting them as it saw fit. A proposal originating in the Assembly might be referred to the Council, or the latter might present a proposal to the Assembly without recommendation.
All major matters, such as declarations of war, the concluding of peace, forming alliances, the voting of direct taxes, or general legislative enactments, are expected to go before the Assembly for popular approval. Still, it was apparently not expected that the Council should be a mere drafting body, at least in the best days of Athenian politics. At all events, decrees were passed in the name of the Council and the people.
However, through the courts, popular control, both magistrates and the law itself, was consummated. The Athenian courts were undoubtedly the keystone of the whole democratic system. They occupied a position not comparable to that held by the courts in any modern government. Their duty, like that of any other court, was, of course, to render judicial decisions in particular cases, either civil or criminal. Still, they also had powers vastly beyond this, which to modern ideas were clearly of an executive or legislative rather than judicial nature.
The members of these courts, or jurymen, were nominated by the deems, a panel of six thousand being elected each year, and were then told off by lot to sit in particular courts and upon particular cases. Any Athenian citizen thirty years old might be chosen for this duty. The court was a huge body, scarcely ever less than 201, commonly as many as 501, and sometimes much larger.
These citizens were indifferently judge and jury, for the Athenian court had none of the machinery that goes with a technically developed form of law. Parties in litigation were obliged to present their cases in person. The court simply voted, first upon the question of guilt, and then, if the verdict had been guilty, upon the penalty to be assessed, after each party had proposed a punishment which he deemed just. A decision by a court was final, for there was no system of appeals.
This was indeed perfectly logical, for it was the Athenian court’s theory that the court acted and decided in the name of the whole people. The court was not merely a judicial organ; it was conceived to be literally the Athenian people for the purpose in hand. A decision in one court was, therefore, in no way binding upon any other court. In fact, a court was in some respects coordinate with the Assembly itself. Both the Assembly and the court were the people. Hence the courts were utilized to secure popular control both over officials and over the law itself.
The control of the courts over magistrates was secured in three main ways. In the first place, there was a power of examination before a candidate could take office. An action might be brought on the ground that a given candidate was not a fit person to hold office, and the court could disqualify him.
This process chose magistrates by a lot less a matter of chance than it might at first appear to be. in the second place, an official could be made subject after his term of office to a review of all the acts performed by him, and this review also took place before a court.
Finally, there was special auditing of accounts and a review of the handling of public money for every magistrate at the end of his term. Ineligible as he was to reelection and subject to examination before and after his term by a court composed of five hundred or more of his fellow citizens chosen by lot, the Athenian magistrate had little independence of action. In the general’s case, the fact that their re-election enabled them to escape the review undoubtedly explains why they were the most independent Athenian officials.
By no means, the courts’ control stopped with magistrates new had control over the law itself, which might give them real legislative power and raise them to a position in particular cases coordinate with the Assembly itself. For the courts could try not only a man but a law. Thus a decision of the Council or the Assembly might be tacked by a peculiar form of writ alleging that it was contrary to the constitution.
Any citizen could bring such a complaint, and the operation of the act in question was then suspended until it was acted upon by a court. The offending law was tried exactly as if it were a person and an adverse decision by the court quashed it. In practice, there was apparently no limit to the ground of such an action; it might merely be alleged that the law in question was inexpedient. Again it is obvious that the Athenians thought of the jury as identical, for the purposes in hand, with the whole people.
The popularly chosen Council and its responsibility to the Assembly, and the independent and popularly chosen juries, were the characteristic institutions of Athenian democracy. As in any government system, however, behind the institutions, certain conceptions of what the institutions ought to embody, ideals of a valuable political life to which the institutions sought to be instrumental. Such ideals are less easy to discover and less tangible to describe, but they are no less important than the institutions themselves to understand political philosophy.
Fortunately, the historian Thucydides has stated, in a passage of incomparable brilliance, this meaning which democracy had for thoughtful Athenians. This is the famous Funeral Oration, appropriately attributed to Pericles, who was the leader of the democracy and represented as having been delivered in honor of the soldiers who had fallen in the first year of the great war with Sparta? Probably never in historical literature has there been a statement equally fine of a political ideal. The pride with which the Athenian contemplated his city, the love he cherished his share in her civic life, and Athenian democracy’s moral significance of Athenian democracy are written in every line.
Pericles’s speech’s main purpose was evidently to awaken in his hearer’s minds the consciousness of the city itself as their precious possession and as the highest interest to which they could devote themselves. The purpose of the address is a patriot’s appeal, and the occasion is a funeral so that the speaker might be expected to dwell upon traditional pieties and ancestral greatness.
In fact, Pericles has little to say about tradition or the past. It is the present glory of a united and harmonious Athens upon which he dwells. He asks of his hearers to see Athens as she really is, to realize what! she means in her citizens’ lives as if she were a gorgeous and worthy mistress.
I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had a fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast.
Their citizenship is, then, the Athenian’s highest glory. “In magnifying the city have magnified them.” For what treasure can the thoughtful man prefer to that? What possession has he which he can hold in higher esteem or for which he will risk and sacrifice more? Shall he prefer his property or his family?
What use is property except to enable a man to enjoy that higher good from having an active share in the city’s life? What value is family, even though it be of ancient and honorable lineage, except as it gives one an entrance into that higher form of social relationship represented by civil life?
Above all faction, above all lesser groups of any sort, stands the city, giving all their meaning and value. Family and friends and property are to be enjoyed at their best only if they form elements in that supreme good, which consists of having a place in the city’s life and activities.
When all due allowance is made for the rhetorical exaggeration natural to the occasion, the fact remains that the Funeral Oration was expressing a perfectly genuine ideal of Greek political life. This life had a quality of intimacy, which is very difficult for modern men to associate with politics. Modern states are relatively so large, so remote, so impersonal, that they cannot fill the place in modern life that the city filled in Greek life.
The Athenian’s interests were less divided, fell less sharply into compartments unconnected with one another, and they were all centered in. the city. His art was civic. In so far as it was not a family matter, his religion was the city’s religion, and his religious festivals were civic celebrations. Even his means of livelihood depended upon the state far more frequently than is the case in modern life.
For the Greek, therefore, the city was living in common; its constitution, as Aristotle said, was a “mode of life rather than a legal structure; and consequently, the fundamental thought in all Greek political theory was the harmony of this common life, Little distinction was made between its various aspects. For the Greeks, the city’s theory was at once ethics, sociology, economics, and politics in the nano wire modern Sense.
The pervasiveness of this common life and the value which the Athenians set upon it is apparent upon the face of their institutions; Rotation In the office, the filling of offices by lot, and the enlargement of governing bodies even to unwieldiness were all designed to give more citizens a share in the government.
The Athenian knew the arguments against all these devices as well as anyone, but he was prepared to accept the drawbacks for the sake of the advantages as he conceived them. His government was a democracy, “for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.”
In modern politics, such an expression is likely to be taken not quite literally unless it is understood of the rather colorless right to cast a ballot. Certainly, the holding of office counts for little in the calculations of modern democrats, other than those few for whom politics is a career.
For the Athenians, it might be a normal incident in the life of almost any citizen. On the strength of Aristotle’s figures in his Constitution of Athens, it has been estimated that in any year, as many as one citizens in six might have some share in the civil government, even though it might amount to no more than jury-service. And if he held no office, he might still take part, regularly ten times each year, in the discussion of political questions at the citizen’s general assembly. The discussion, formal or informal, of public matters was one of his life’s main delights and interests.
Accordingly, Pericles’s proudest boast is that Athens, betta: than any other state, has found the secret of enabling her citizens to combine the care of their private affairs with a share of public life.
An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household, and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character, and if tew of us are originators, we are all sound judges of policy.
To have absorbed his entire time with his private business would have seemed to the Athenian of Pericles’s time a monstrous perversion of values; Athenian manufacture, especially of pottery and arms, was indeed in its time the best in the Greek world, but even the artisan would have been revolted by a life which left no leisure for an interest in the common business, the affairs of the city.
With this desire that all should participate went necessarily the ideal that none should be excluded because of extraneous differences of rank or wealth.
When a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country, whatever the obscurity of his condition.
In other words, no man is born to the office, and no man buys an office, but by an equal opportunity, he is sifted down to the position to which his natural gifts entitle him.
Finally, this idea of a common life in which all might actively share presupposed an optimistic estimate of the average man’s natural political capacity. On the negative side, it assumed that severe training and intense specialization were not required to form an intelligent judgment of political and social questions. There is no clearer note in Pericles’s speech than the pride which the democratic Athenian takes in his happy versatility.
We rely not upon. Management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. And in the matter of education, whereas they [the Spartans] from early youth are always undergoing laborious exercises that are to make them brave, we live at ease, and yet are equally ready to face the perils they face.
Of course, this is a fling at Sparta with its rigid military discipline, but it is more than that. The amateur’s spirit, both for good and ill, is written large upon Athenian political practice. Athenian wits were sharp, and the Athenian was prepared to believe-to his cost-that sharpness of wit might be a substitute for expertness of knowledge and the skill of specialization. Nevertheless, there was truth in the Athenian’s boast that he could surpass all other nations-in art by the sheer intellectual ability in craftsmanship, naval warfare, and statesmanship.
In the Athenian conception, then, the city was a community in which its members were to live a harmonious common life, in which as many citizens as possible were to be permitted to take an active part, with no discrimination because of rank or wealth, and in which the capacities of its individual members found a natural and spontaneous and happy outlet, And in some considerable measure-probably more than in any other human community-the Athens of Pericles succeeded in realizing this ideal.
Nevertheless, it was an ideal and nota fact. Even at its best, the democracy had its seamy side, which had as much to do with the beginnings of political theory as its successes. The Republic of Plato might almost be described as a commentary upon the democratic notion of “happy versatility,” a notion which seemed to Plato nothing less than the ineradicable defect of any democratic constitution.
And indeed, with the disastrous outcome of the Peloponnese War before his eyes, the values might well appear more questionable to him than they had to Pericles. In Thucydides’s History, too, there is a dreadful irony about the Funeral Oration, when it is placed against the story of Athenian defeat that followed.
On the wider issue of achieving a harmonious common life, also, it must be admitted that the city-state was only a qualified success. The very intimacy and pervasiveness of its life, which was responsible for much of the ideal’s moral greatness, Jed to defects which were the reverse of its virtues. In general, the city-states were likely to be prey to factional quarrels. And party rivalries whose bitterness was as intense as only a rivalry between intimates can be. Thucydides draws a terrible picture of the march of revolution and faction through the cities of Greece as the war progressed.
Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. … The lover of violence was always trusted. … The tie of the party was stronger than the tie of blood, . . . The seal of good faith was not divine Jaw, but fellowship in crime.
At a later date, after the war was over, Plato sadly said that “Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich.”
It is precise because the ideal of harmony was only partly or precariously realized that it forms so persistently a part of Greek political thought. Loyalty constantly tended to be paid to a particular government or party rather than to the city. This, too easily, opened the way to sheer political egoism, which was not even loyal to a party. In this respect, Athens was certainly better than the average. Yet, Alcibiades’ career illustrates both the dangers of faction and the unscrupulous selfishness, which were possible in Athenian politics.
Though but precariously realized, this ideal of a harmonious common life should be the chief joy of every citizen to have & part remains the guiding thought in Greek political theory. This, more than anything else, explains the unfamiliarity that a modern reader immediately feels when he first takes up the political writings of Plato and Aristotle.
Our commonest political concepts are not there; in particular, the conception of individual citizens endowed with private rights and a state which, using the law, protects citizens in their rights and exacts from them the obligations required for this purpose.
Our most familiar political thought contemplates some balance of these two opposed tendencies, enough power to make the state effective but enough liberty to leave the city a free agent. The philosopher of the city-state envisaged no such opposition and no such balance.
Right or justice means for him the constitution or the organization of life common to citizens, and the purpose of law Is to find for every man his place, his station, his function in the city’s total life. The citizen has rights, but they are not attributes of a private personality; they belong to his station.
He has obligations, too, but they are not forced on him by the state; they flow from the need to realize his own potentialities. The Greek was happily free both from the illusion that he had an inherent right to do as he pleased and from the pretension that his duty was the “stern daughter of the voice of God.”
Within the circle thus set by the conception of civic harmony and a life in common, the Athenian ideal found a place for two fundamental political values, always closely connected in the Greek mind, which formed as it were the system’s pillars. These were freedom and respect for the law. It is important to notice how Pericles unites the two almost in the same sentence.
There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private intercourse, we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private intercourse, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and the laws, having especial regard to those who are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as to those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of then the re-probation of the general sentiment.
The city’s activities are carried on with the citizens’ voluntary cooperation, and the main instrumentality of this cooperation lies in the free and full discussion of policy in all its aspects.
The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion, but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. for-we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act and of acting too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection
It was Just this belief In the discussion as the best means to frame public measures and to carry them Into effect this faith that a wise measure or a good Institution could bear the examination of many minds-that made the Athenian the creator of political philosophy. It was not that he despised custom, but he never believed that a customary code was binding merely because It was ancient.
He preferred to see in custom the presumption of underlying principle that would bear rational criticism and be the clearer and more intelligible. This problem of the Interrelation of custom and reason ran through all the theory of the city-state; thus, the skepticism which sees in right nothing but bling custom and which therefore sees in political institutions only a way of gaining advantages for the beneficiaries of the system seemed to Plato the deadliest of all social poisons.
But in this respect, Plato stood for the native Greek faith that government rests in the last resort upon conviction and not on force and that its institutions exist to convince and not coerce. Government is no mystery reserved for the Zeusborn noble. The citizen’s freedom depends on the fact that he has a rational capacity to convince and be convinced in free and untrammeled intercourse with his fellows.
The Greek had, indeed, a somewhat naive belief that he alone of all men was gifted with such a rational faculty, and that the city-state alone of all governments gave free play to it. This was the ground for his somewhat supercilious attitude toward “barbarians,” who, as Aristotle said, were slaves by nature.
Freedom thus conceived implies respect for the law. The Athenian did not imagine himself to be wholly unrestrained, but he drew the sharpest distinction between the restraint which is merely subjection to another man’s arbitrary will and that which recognizes in the law a rule which has a right to be respected and hence is in this sense self-imposed. There is one point upon which every Greek political thinker is agreed, namely, that tyranny is the worst of all governments. For tyranny means just the application of unlawful force: even though it be beneficent in its aims and results, it is still bad because it destroys self-government.
No worse foe than the despot hath a state, Under whom, first, can be no common laws, But one rules, keeping in his private hands The law.
In the free state, the law and not the ruler is sovereign, and the law deserves the citizen’s respect, even though it injures him in this particular case. Freedom and the rule of law are two supplementing aspects of good government, the secret, as the Greek believed, of the city-state and the prerogative of the Greek alone of all the world’s peoples.
This is the meaning of Pericles’s proud boast that.
“Athens is the school of Hellas.”
The Athenian ideal might be summed up in a single phrase as the conception of free citizenship in a free state. The processes of government are the processes of impartial law, which are binding because it is right. The citizen’s freedom is his freedom to understand, to discuss, and to contribute, not according to his rank or his wealth, but according to his innate capacity and his merit.
The end of the whole is to bring into being life in common, for the individual the finest training-school of his natural powers, for the community the amenities of civilized life with its treasures of material comfort, art, religion, and free intellectual development. In such a common life, the supreme value for the individual lies just in his ability and freedom to contribute significantly, to fill a place, however humble in the common enterprise of civic life.
It was the measure of the Athenian’s pride in his city that he believed that here, for the first time in human history, the means for realizing this ideal had been approximately realized. It is the measure of his success that no later people has set before itself the ideal of civic freedom uninfluenced by his institutions and his philosophy.