Aristotle and the Decline of Greece. The Greek ancient & philosopher and scientist, one of the greatest intellectual figures of Western history. Aristotle made significant and lasting contributions to nearly every aspect of human knowledge, from logic to biology to ethics and aesthetics. Though overshadowed in classical times by the work of his teacher Plato, from late antiquity through the Enlightenment, Aristotle’s surviving writings were incredibly influential.
Aristotle (384-322 B.c.) holds an enviable place in the annals of political philosophy. During the Middle Ages he was referred to as simply the philosopher. As an authority in argument he ranked with the Bible. The recovery of his manuscripts in the thirteenth century marks a turning point in the history of civilization.
Through St. Thomas Aquinas, who incorporated much of Aristotle into the Summa Theologica, medieval thought was given a new breadth and purpose. Aristotle is also responsible for the basic categories into which modern scholarship is divided, as well as many of the terms and definitions now commonplace.
Aristotle was born in Stagira in Thrace. His father was court physician to Amyntas II, father of Philip of Macedon. As this calling was traditional in his family, it can be supposed that Aristotle was indebted to his early environment for his later interest in biology and the scientific method. Little, however, is actually known of his youth. Not until 367 do his movements become clear. In that year Aristotle, seventeen, journeyed to Athens to study with Plato at the Academy.
In the ensuing twenty years, until Plato’s death in 347, a strong connection developed between master and student. Plato regarded Aristotle as the most gifted of his sons. And in his turn Aristotle wrote of Plato that he was a man whom the bad have not even the right to praise the only man, or the first, to show clearly by his own life, and by the reasoning of his discourses, that to be happy is to be good. During the latter part of this discipleship, Aristotle tried his hand at several dialogues, modeled after those of Plato. But unfortunately, these have all been lost.
Aristotle had expected to succeed Plato as head of the Academy, but in this he was disappointed. On the death of the latter, this honor went to Plato’s nephew Specious, leading to Aristotle’s departure from Athens. During the years that followed, from 347 to 335, Aristotle pursued his varied interests first under the aegis of Hermias, tyrant of Atarneus, whose niece he married, and later at the court of Philip of Macedon, where he was employed as tutor to Alexander.
This relationship between two of history’s most famous figures lasted for six years, but it had no apparent effect on either. Aristotle, for his part, was unable or unwilling to go beyond the city-state in his thinking. Whereas Alexander, in his search for empire, was oblivious to the admonitions of his tutor.
The last period of Aristotle’s life dates from 335. In that year he returned to Athens to found his own school, the Lyceum. Here he lectured and wrote for twelve years. During this period the Lyceum prospered. Aristotle’s lectures met with great success and the investigations of the school were pushed farther than had heretofore been possible. Through scientists and philosophers who accompanied Alexander on his eastern adventures, the Lyceum was supplied with a variety of information previously lacking.
Aristotle’s success, however, was short-lived. The report of Alexander’s death, reaching Athens in 323, caused war to flare again, this time against Macedonian hegemony, And Aristotle, supposed to be a friend of Alexander, was forced to flee. He died a year later in Chalcis, a city on the island of Euboea.
Character and Method of Writings
While our interest in Aristotle rests chiefly in his Politics, this is only one of the many treatises which have secured his reputation. Aristotle had an equal understanding of logic, ethics, metaphysics, and the natural sciences. So vast was this understanding that it is doubtful if the catholicity of his mind has ever been equaled. The method pursued in these studies is inductive, or scientific if you prefer. This method is now commonly said to have five stages.
- First, a hypothesis is advanced concerning probable causes of an existing situation.
- Secondly, this is followed by extensive investigation and collection of information.
- Thirdly, the information collected is classified, which is to say that it is organized according to any cause and effect relationships which appear.
- Fourthly, generalizations or laws are formulated on the basis of these causal relationships.
- And lastly, predictions are attempted concerning the working of these laws.
In following this method Aristotle placed himself in sharp contrast with Plato. Plato held facts up to a preconceived yardstick, his concept of the perfect or absolute, and judged them accordingly. Aristotle on the other hand always tested his premises or preconceived notions by comparing them with existing circumstances or previous experience.
Aristotle thus reasoned inductively from a comparative and scientific study of actual governmental systems. His discussions, based on history and observation, are clear and precise, with relatively little poetic or allegorical embellishment. He separated political and ethical concepts, and thus made possible an independent science of politics. He realized that no one form of government is best under all conditions, but that constitutions must be adapted to the peculiar needs of each people.
Respect for Tradition
This inductive habit of mind, to quote Barker, was naturally accompanied by what may be termed an historic temper, a respect for tradition and a readiness to accept the verdict of general opinion.
Plato had expressed little faith in tradition or general opinion. He had put his faith in invention and all-wise guardians. But Aristotle differs fundamentally in this respect from his master. He criticizes the more novel of Plato’s ideas as wanting in the stored sense of mankind.
Let us remember,he admonishes, that we should not disregard the experience of ages; in the multitude of years these things [Plato’s innovations], if they were good, would certainly not have been unknown. He is also less dependent than Plato on a guardian class or an aristocracy of intelligence, because if intelligence can be stored in the customs, experiences, and laws of mankind then it need not be sought elsewhere.
Aristotle, moreover, holds it clearly impossible that the knowledge of the wisest ruler can be better than [this] customary law. Where Plato would rely on rule of men, Aristotle relied on rule of law or what we would now call constitutional government. He conceded that laws might not be able to provide perfect justice in every case because of their generality. But this very generality resulted in an impartiality of treatment, unaffected by personal ambition or desire, which was the essence of good government.
This belief in the supremacy of law and in the desirability of constitutional government is one of the concepts for which Aristotle is best remembered and for which later generations are most in his debt. For centuries we have taken pride in the fact that ours is a government of laws and not of men. And in our own age we have been made increasingly aware of the value of constitutional government by observing the results of government by edict or decree.
The Nature and Origin of the State
Aristotle believed, in keeping with his predecessors, that the individual could find his fullest expression only is the state. Man, he argued, is destined by his inherent nature to lead a political life. The state in consequence can be described a a natural and necessary institution for the development of the powers and for the satisfaction of the needs and desires with which men are by nature of power, And the best state can be described as that in which citizens are able to lead as complete a political life as possible.
The origin of the state Aristotle fa in the efforts of men to satisfy their individual needs and desires. The association of male and female for the perpetuation of the race, and of master and slave for the production of subsistence, gave rise to the family or household. As long as men were satisfied with a bare existence and the satisfaction of their elementary wants, this sufficed.
When urged by their nature to seek a fuller life, households were combined into a city or state, of such size and nature as to be self-sufficing. This is the perfect form of association; and man, naturally a political animal, can attain the true end for which he is intended only in the life of the state. Without social life man would be a brute.
In this sense the state, as an idea, is prior to man. What made man a rational being, distinguished from the lower forms of animal life, was the power of speech and organized association with his fellows. The state this precedes the individual, for only in the state can the human being rise above the brute and become a man.
The state, therefore, exists to satisfy the higher moral and intellectual needs of man; the household, within the state, to provide for the physical needs of life. The state may thus be justified on utilitarian grounds also, and upon this basis slavery is upheld as right and natural.
Since men differ in intellectual capacity and in physical strength, some are intended by nature for masters, others for slaves. Men who are highly endowed intellectually are intended to command; those-with slight endowment of reason, but with strength of body, are fitted only to carry out orders.
Under such conditions, if the authority of the master is not abused, Slavery is mutually advantageous. The enslavement of prisoners of war is justified only when success in war indicates the superior intelligence of the victors, not when men of ability are subject to the misfortunes of war. Aristotle shared the universal belief of the Greeks in their intellectual superiority over their neighbors. Greeks therefore can never rightfully be made slaves.
Like the other Greeks, Aristotle placed a low estimate on all occupations connected with the production of wealth. It was a necessary function of the household, but the lowest of its functions, suited Only to slaves and aliens. The citizen, who engaged in public affairs, should be free from the care and the debasing influence of economic concerns. Agriculture, cattle raising, hunting and fishing, as natural occupations, were placed higher in the scale than trade and commerce; and the lending of money at interest was considered wholly unjustified.
Aristotle was the first to give attention to the economic basis of political institutions; and, in spite of some confusion of thought, he worked out the fundamental principle that the character and distribution of wealth is a determining factor in fixing the form of government, that the occupations of a people influence their political attitude and ability, and that revolutions are usually contests between those who have much and those who have little property.
Aristotle gave considerable attention to criticizing some of Plato’s ideas, especially his emphasis on unity within the state and his communistic schemes for achieving it. Aristotle believed that desirable unity in the state was to be accomplished, not by crushing out differences among individuals through a strict disciplinary regime, but by a proper organization of individuals of diverse types.
Accordingly, while he favored public and compulsory training and education, he believed that the abolition of family ties and of private property interests, which Plato favored, would narrow men’s lives and prevent the establishment of valuable social bonds.
The limitations upon state action which Aristotle favored were not based on any idea of rights possessed by individuals with which the state should not interfere; Aristotle, however, was more concerned with the welfare of citizens as individuals than with the abstract conception of the good of the social whole.
He viewed the state as a means of securing the highest welfare of the aggregate of its citizens, and believed that to accomplish this a considerable degree of individual liberty should be permitted. Since men differ in abilities and needs, the best development of their powers would result from a system that left them a certain freedom in conducting their lives.
Aristotle defined the state as the collective body of citizens, and defined a citizen as one who has the right to take part in government. Basing his ideas on the facts of Hellenic life, he believed that citizenship implied participation in assemblies and in juries, in the active exercise of political rights, The qualifications for citizenship he considered to be the capacity to rule and to be ruled; and he believed that the working classes, too dependent upon the commands of others to develop ability to rule, should not be admitted to the privilege of citizenship.
A clear distinction between state and government was found in Aristotle’s thought. While the state consists of the whole body of citizens, the government consists of those who order and regulate the state, hold the offices, and possess the supreme power.
Accordingly, in discussing the best form of government, he was concerned with the proper distribution of political power among the administrative organs of the state. In discussing the best form of state, he considered questions of geographic situation, climate, resources, and the number and character of citizens. The principle of separation of powers was also clearly brought out, and the proper organization and duties of executive, legislative, and judicial organs were examined.
Classification of Governments
Numerous attempts to classify the forms of government had already been made. Pindar, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato recognized the differences among government in the hands of one, of the few, and of the many. Aristotle’s classification, based upon the earlier efforts, was more exact and has remained without essential change to the present day. He analyzes governments, first according to the number of persons in whom the sovereign power is vested; second, according to the end to which the government is directed. The latter distinction separates pure from corrupt forms, depending upon whether the governing group sets before itself the perfection of all the citizens, or its own interests alone.
His classification was as follows: A state governed in the interests of all by one person is a monarchy. If the monarch governs arbitrarily for his own benefit, this type degenerates into a tyranny. A state governed for the common good by a few is an aristocracy. If the few use their power selfishly, or place wealth above intelligence and patriotism, the aristocracy becomes an oligarchy. A state governed by the whole people for the general welfare is a polity.
If, however, the majority of the people, realizing their distinctions, govern in the interests of the poor alone, the polity in its corrupt form becomes a democracy. The pure forms are ideals, most desirable if perfect men existed, but in the case of monarchy and aristocracy practically impossible of realization. The corrupt forms fall in the realm of practical politics. Of these forms, tyranny and extreme democracy are the worst. Only in the case of polity is the ideal in close relation with possible government.
In deciding which form of government is best, Aristotle realized that political institutions must correspond to the character and needs of the peoples concerned. An ideal state, therefore, is possible only under ideal conditions. If men of preeminent excellence could be obtained, Aristotle believed that monarchy and aristocracy were the best forms of government. But, taking human nature as it is, he was inclined to favor a moderate democracy or polity.
The Basis of Authority
Controversy had been keen in the Greek world between those who favored placing sovereign power in the hands of the wealthy or intelligent classes and those who upheld the authority of mere numbers. Since the end of the state is to promote a good life, Aristotle held that the greater Share of authority should be exercised by those who contribute most to the state.
The virtue and ability of the whole people is greater than that of any part or faction; hence final authority should lie in the mass of the citizens. Through their assembly they should pass upon fundamental questions, choose the magistrates, and hold them to account for their official actions. But this should not prevent wealth from also being weighed in the balance. The propertied class should play a large role in the government, because virtue and ability tend to become associated with property. Aristotle believed, as did Edmund Burke, that those who were the most able would also become the most wealthy.
Aristotle laid great emphasis upon the value of moderation and stability in the state. He realized the tendency toward extremes in the democracy of his day, and deplored the violent factional contests that were prevalent in the Hellenic cities.
He believed that the best state for the Greek peoples was a city, with comparatively small territory and with a limited population, so that citizens might know one another and take an active part in political affairs. The city should lie sufficiently near the sea to secure necessary goods from abroad, but not so near as to unduly develop commerce and maritime interests, Extremes of wealth and poverty, making one class arrogant and the other slavish, were undesirable.
A strong middle class, making for order and stability, would furnish the best basis for the state. The various occupations, necessary to have the state self-supporting, must be represented, but the citizen class should be limited to the administrators, warriors, and priests.
They should own the land and have leisure for the duties of citizenship. The city must be fully capable of defending itself, although aggressive warfare was undesirable. Detailed provisions were made for public education along physical, intellectual, and moral lines.
The frequent changes in the government of the Greek cities led Aristotle to devote considerable attention to the subject of revolution. The general trend from monarchy through oligarchy and tyranny to democracy he explained as the result of social and economic changes.
He made a masterly analysis of contemporary political evils, and found the main source of factional contests in the discrepancy between the political abilities of the different classes of citizens and the actual authority that they possessed. Since men crave equality, a feeling of injustice arises among those who see others possessing privileges which they do not share.
The proper apportionment of political power is, therefore, fundamental to the security of the state. A mixed form of government combining democratic and oligarchic elements he considered most enduring. A number of practical suggestions were also made as to the methods by which various types of government may be successfully maintained and revolution prevented.
Aristotle’s contribution to political thought is important because of the actual information it gives concerning the conditions of Greek constitutional life. It established a logical method of political inquiry and made possible a distinct science of the state.
While based on conditions in the Greek world, Aristotle’s work contained many profound generalizations applicable to political life in all times and places. He also recognized the importance of economic influences and of geographic conditions on political organization and activity.
Finally, he held the high civic ideal of a state governed by reason and aiming at a good life. He believed that the purpose of the state was not to extend its dominion or enrich its people, but to widen knowledge, promote virtue, and secure justice to all.
Certain limitations of thought caused by Greek conditions are obvious. Aristotle assumed the superiority of the Greeks over other peoples, the necessity of slavery, the city state as the natural type of political organization, and the unsuitability of the laboring classes for the duties of citizenship. Though he wrote at the time when the era of independent city-states was near its end, he apparently did not appreciate this fact, and he could not see in the Macedonian Empire any desirable qualification that a state should possess. His aim was to restore and perpetuate the city as the proper form of political unit.
The Epicureans and Stoics.
Sixteen years before Aristotle died, the free life of the Greek cities was brought to an end. Through the conquests of Alexander, and the later partition of his dominions among his successors, the military empire became the typical form of political organization. For a time, under the weakest of Alexander’s successors, some of the Greek cities, united in the Aetolian and the Achaean Leagues, maintained a considerable degree of autonomy and made a valuable contribution to the principle of federal government. However, these federations also fell before the conquering power of Rome, and Greek political institutions survived merely as phases of local government in the Roman Empire.
Greek political thought was so intimately connected with Greek institutions that the decline of one necessarily meant the decline of the other. Plato and Aristotle represented the highest achievement of Greek political philosophy. With their passing and with the slipping into un-importance of Greece politically, the thinking of the third and second centuries B.C. turned to other things, leaving political philosophy in the back wash of a new tide. The political writings of this period are consequently without much originality or positive influence. What influence they had was of a negative sort.
The two great schools of this period, the Stoic and Epicurean schools of Zeno and Epicurus respectively, taught men to have as little to do with politics as possible. The loss of civic independence and the disappearance of popular participation in government so weakened the patriotism of the Greeks that they found it easy to turn away from the life of the market-place which they had known.
Philosophy now became concerned with the means by which the individual might secure happiness, rather than with the aspects of public welfare. Attention was shifted from the state to the citizen; and it was even held that there is no connection between individual and social welfare, and that the state is not necessary to a good life. The cosmopolitan character of the age was clearly reflected in its speculative thought. Universalism and individualism replaced city patriotism. The distinctions between Greek and barbarian and between city and city were broken down, and men viewed themselves either as citizens of the world or as separate individuals engrossed in their private interests.
This concern of the individual with his private affairs and the growing insistence on universal brotherhood and equality mark a decided change in the development of political philosophy. Professor Carlyle suggests in fact that, There is no change in political theory so startling in its completeness. Public concern and a belief in inequality had been the very touchstones of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Now they were repudiated.
Both the Epicureans and Stoics agreed in making individual happiness the aim of life. They differed, however, in defining happiness and the method by which it might be secured. The Epicureans advocated the temperate satisfaction of every desire, sensual and intellectual; the Stoics taught the suppression of the emotions and the subordination of immoral desires to the demands of reason.
The Epicureans based the state upon individual self-interest. They defined law as an agreement of utility entered into among individuals in order that they might be secured against violence and injustice. The social contract theory of the state was here foreshadowed. They believed political life is burdensome and that the wise man will take no part in it unless his interests absolutely demand it. The Epicureans taught submission to any government that maintained peace and order. Efficient despotism was as good as democracy. The suitability of this doctrine to the situation after the conquest of Greece by Alexander and by Rome is evident.
The Stoics conceived of nature as the embodiment of universal law. Reason, as the creative source of law, was the reveler of nature. The law of nature was therefore fixed and immutable; it was the reflection of the process of nature, in harmony with human reason, the divine element in the universe. In this form the idea of natural law was handed down through Roman law and through medieval political thought.
However, human reason as the source of natural law did not mean the independent judgment of the individual, but the common judgment of mankind. Men, as rational beings, are essentially alike; they are subject to the same natural law and have equal rights. Upon this doctrine, a cosmopolitan political theory was created: All men are naturally brothers, fellow citizens in a world republic. Universal natural law and universal citizenship were Stoic ideals. The importance of these conceptions in a society based apron slavery is at once evident.
While the Stoics developed these ideals from a philosophic and humanitarian point of view, the conditions of the time soon became favorable to their political application. The empire of Alexander broke down the barriers between Greek and barbarian. Petty social and civil distinctions were swept away, and diverse peoples actually became members of one political system. With the establishment of the Roman Empire, universal law and universal citizenship became practical facts. The idea of the law of nature and of principles of justice common to all men were adopted by the Roman jurists. The conception of universal brotherhood, especially when it was taken up and expanded by Christianity, was transmitted, with the profoundest results, to modern times.
Greek Theory of International Relations
Conditions in the Hellenic world were favorable for a considerable growth of inter-municipal customs and principles. The Greeks drew a clearly marked distinction between Hellene and barbarian, and recognized the existence of a law of the Hellenes, not applicable to the world at large, The Greek cities, like the Hebrew tribes, formed an international circle, distinct from the world around them, and were bound together by a close community of interests, and by a common race, religion, and culture. The idea of city autonomy, however, was more powerful than the sense of national unity, and a scientific body of inter-municipal principles was never created.
Relations among the cities were governed, in the main, by considerations of policy and expediency. Religious leagues, such as the Delphic Amphictyony, and political confederations, such as the Delian Confederacy and the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues, were established. The military and political leadership of a single city was sometimes recognized Sparta, Athens, and Thebes occupying such positions before the Greeks were united under Macedon. Attempts were also made to maintain a balance of power among the leading cities.
Warfare was frequent and was characterized by great severity and cruelty. Booty was divided among the victors, and prisoners were usually put to death or sold into slavery, although later Greek customs showed progress toward more humane principles. Few obligations were recognized in dealing with foreigners, and resident aliens usually possessed rights only through some Greek citizen who acted as their patron. Certain rules and customs, such as the inviolability of envoys, the right of asylum, truces for the burial of the dead, and suspension of hostilities during great religious festivals, e.g. the Olympic games, were generally observed. A frequent task of the popular assemblies was to hear and criticize the reports of returning ambassadors, to instruct envoys sent abroad, and to discuss proposals made by foreign ambassadors.
The Greeks made a decided contribution to the idea of settling disputes by arbitration. Questions of religion, commerce, and territory were referred by agreement to individuals, to other cities, or to religious oracles for decision. Agreements beforehand to submit disputes to arbitration were sometimes inserted in treaties. In the field of maritime law considerable progress was made. Piracy, regarded as honorable in the early Greek period, was supplanted by legitimate and peaceful commerce; and a body of maritime law was developed as early as the third century B.c. by the commercial city of Rhodes, which acted as a sort of mandatory of all the Greek states interested in the safety of the seas. This Rhodian Sea Law served as the basis for commercial codes in the Middle Ages.
In relations with peoples outside the Hellenic world, the Greeks of the later period came to recognize the obligation of certain ill-defined rules. References were made to the laws of all mankind in the dealings between Greeks and Persians. Whatever the origin of the idea of a universal law, it was a distinctly progressive step to recognize that the inter diverse races and religions, was not absolutely lawless.
The ancient world tried two methods of regulating international life. The first was to impose peace by force and create a world state. The Oriental empires tried this method and failed. Rome alone succeeded in creating for some centuries a general peace on this basis. The price paid, however, was heavy. It cost the stagnation of creative effort, the decadence of civilized life, and finally a bitter internal struggle. The other method, that tried by the Greeks, established a system of independent states, which aimed to maintain a balance of power. They were bound one to another by treaties and settled some of their disputes by adjudication. This method did not establish peace; on the contrary, wars were frequent. It made possible, however, a period of active political life, in which many modern international ideas had their origin.
Contributions of Greek Political Thought
The Greek civic ideal, especially as it existed in Athens, created a civilization which no city has since been able to attain. It developed an intensity of patriotism and exercised an educational influence which no modern state can equal. The city was the individual on a larger scale, an integral and essential part of his life. Its law was identified with supreme reason and covered the entire field of morality. The city was thus state, church, and school. Religious feelings were associated with civic allegiance. Education was acquired from personal experience in the assembly and in the law courts and from holding administrative office. Individuals existed as persons only as members of the state, in which they took active part, and from which they received that which made life worth living.
The chief contributions of the Greeks to political thought were the ideals of liberty and democracy. The freedom of the Greeks stood in striking contrast to conditions in the Oriental states that preceded or in the Roman Empire that followed. This love of liberty was manifest in many ways. In the first place, the Greeks insisted that each city should be an autonomous unit, independent of external control. Athens took the leading part in resisting the Persian invaders in their efforts to extend Eastern despotism to the Hellenic world. Aeschylus makes his chorus say that the Athenians call no man their master, and the games of liberty were established at Plato to commemorate the freedom of Greece at the suggestion of the Athenian Aristides.
This love of city independence prevented unity in the Hellenic world; but at a time when means of communication and transportation were undeveloped, and when the device of representation had not been thought of democracy and individual freedom were possible only in states small in area and population.
In the second place, Athens encouraged freedom of thought and expression critical attitude in philosophy and in politics was to some extent tolerated. Citizens, freed from trivial cares by the labor of slaves, devoted their attention to non-materialistic interests and considered it proper that the state should foster literature, art, and science. In contrast to the Oriental world, the intellectual life of Greece was comparatively free from dogma, superstition, and external control; and the intellectual achievements of the Hellenes were their permanent contribution to history. What we call today the western spirit, in contrast to that of the Orient, is a direct legacy from the Greeks.
Finally, the Greeks made some progress toward the ideal of individual liberty. Tyranny and oligarchy they considered the worst forms of government, largely because they involved an elaborate system of espionage and of annoying interference with the lives of individuals. Aristotle taught that a considerable amount of individual freedom was necessary for the highest development of human powers, and the Epicureans held the extreme belief that each person should place first the satisfaction of his individual desires. However, the Greeks never quite developed the true conception of the individual as a moral person whose welfare is an end in itself. They recognized the will of the state, but did not clearly separate from it the free will of the individual. The Greek citizen submitted himself to the laws of his city in much the same way that he yielded to the forces of nature around him. Both were equally natural and inevitable. A clear understanding of the nature of authority and of freedom, of the conflict between them, and yet of their essential harmony, was never worked out in the philosophy of the Greeks.
The Greek idea of the state was not, as in later theory, based upon the relationship existing between sovereign and people, but rather between the individual and the community. The notion of an independent sovereign, possessing inherent powers, can scarcely be found in Greek thought. Final authority was vested in the laws rather than in persons. An order based on natural law determined the relations among the members of the community, and types of government were merely the form through-which the self-directing life of the community expressed itself. From the Middle Ages to the present time, political theory has been concerned with the question of sovereignty, justifying it and giving it legal character, and club orating the organization of its powers. These concepts were unimportant in Greek political thought.
The conception of liberty among the Greeks did not always work successfully in practice. The right of all to mind the public business was made an excuse for each to interfere with his neighbor. Sycophants and public informers were numerous, and the independence of individuals was made an excuse for excessive egoism and jealousy. Besides, the ideas of liberty and equality led to incompetence and mediocrity. Where all had an equal voice in the state, no one would admit the superior value of any opinions, and the way was made easy for the demagogue. The Athenian democracy was suspicious of its leaders. Socrates was put to death by a public opinion hostile to any who differed from the mass, and ostracism always threatened the man who possessed conspicuous ability.
Moreover, Athens, the leading exponent of liberty, refused to extend it to large classes of her own population and to the cities she brought under her sway. In her efforts to build up an empire, she was accused by her allies and by her enemies of being a tyrant city; and her fall in 404 B.c. is explained mainly by her attempts to restrict freedom to herself. Greek liberty came down to the modern world rather as an ideal than as a practical system. Worked out by later peoples in the form of democracy and of individualism, the Greek conception of freedom was a valuable political contribution. The modern world agrees with the Greek that each citizen should have free development and should share in the business of the state.