Nature of Greek Political Thought

Nature of Greek Political Thought. Perhaps the chief characteristic of Greek thought was its concern for first principles or the central rules controlling the universe. One early Greek philosopher, as evidence of this spirit, declared that he would rather discover one causal law than be king of Persia. The Greeks conceived the universe as the product of creative reason.

Consequently, it only remained for them to search out the controlling principles if they were to understand them. In seeking these principles, the Greeks first turned to the external world. But by the fifth century B.C., man’s intellectual curiosity had turned toward man himself. The Greeks were struck by differences between their culture and that of the barbarians, as they loved to call all non-Hellenic peoples.

This led to speculation over the causes of this difference. Later, as Athens disintegrated before Sparta and then before the armies of Philip of Macedon, further impetus was given to this search for cause and effect relationships this search after rules governing men’s lives.

Added to this inquiring mind and faith in reason, was a strong conviction that few things were fatalistically determined and so out of men’s control. Because of their religious background, the Greeks feared little. Instead, they were impressed with man’s ability to shape his society despite those unseen powers which in other ages have ruled man’s mind.

Freed by his society to think and to inquire, the Greek’s intellectual frontiers were almost limitless. Catlin catalogs only a few of the more discussed subjects. Here is his list Democracy, the freedom of writing and thought, censorship, the relation of democracy and the expert, feminism, eugenics, abortion, the problem of leisure, whether the prolongation of life by medicine cannot be carried to excess, nudism, psychoanalysis, revolution, the proletariat, the class war, what comes after popular dictatorship. In the field of politics alone, the subjects discussed were innumerable. But for this discussion, attention can be confined to a few of the more important questions.

According to the ideas of the Greeks, men’s lives should be lived by nature and with the right reason. It was the duty of men to use the powers that nature had given them and to develop their potentialities. Since men were gifted with reason, they should not only live but live well. Their lives should correspond to the highest ideals that their reason could conceive. To accomplish this end, social and political life was essential. The man was, by nature, a political animal. Only a god or a beast could do without society.

Hence the state, being necessary for man’s highest development, was as much a product of nature as man himself, and it needed no further justification, Man and the state were thus bound together in a living social whole; neither could have interests contrary to the other. The state was conceived to be a living personality, absorbing in its life all individual personalities; and political existence was considered to be the highest form of life.

While the Oriental, in his subjection to the law and to the state, viewed his subordination as an obedience rendered to an alien and external power, the Greek saw in it the yielding to a higher self, a giving up of his will to a will in the formation of which he participated.

The Greek conception of the state as an entity of which every individual was an integral part demanded active political participation by each citizen. This was possible in the small city-states of the Hellenic world, Hence, the Greek theory of the nature of the state led logically to democracy, since all men must exercise political authority to realize their best life; and to the city-state ideal, since under the conditions of transportation and communication in the ancient world, democracy could exist only in a state small in territory and population. Their ideal state was a small, compact community in which the citizens were personally known one to another and in which all could assemble in one place.

Furthermore, since only through the state could man achieve his highest ends, no logical limit could be set to the activities undertaken by the state. Whatever was in the best interests of man was a legitimate public function, and the state might find it desirable to regulate even the smallest details of life.

The idea that the state existed to safeguard the rent of its citizens, as worked out in the Roman theory of private law, or that the citizen had rights that the state was bound to respect, as developed in the eighteenth-century theory of natural rights, was alien to Greek thought.

Since the individual and the state were one, no distinction between public and private affairs could be made. The conception of public law, which defines the relation between the state and the individual, had no place in Greek political theory. Greek democracy contributed to the idea of political rights, but not that of civil rights.

The Greek idea of law went through several stages. The writings of Homer and Hesiod portrayed a theocratic organization of the state, in which custom and tradition governed, law and religion were not distinguished, and the will of the gods, spoken through the king, was the source of authority. Commands were issued as distinct inspirations, unconnected by general principles. The customs of the ancestors were held in great reverence, though a crude idea of abstract justice and reason occasionally appeared.

When the monarchy was replaced by the aristocracy, the theocratic idea was weakened. The nobles could not claim the divine inspiration that the kings had asserted, and when they abused their custody of the unwritten customs, a demand for written rules arose.

Hence appeared the codes. In Sparta, the fundamental laws of Lycurgus came into being. In Athens, the criminal code of Draco was developed, later being supplemented by the civil and political code of Solon. The law was thus secularized, the theocratic idea was excluded, and the human element was made more important.

However, the Greeks never attained the idea of law as the deliberate creation of a legislative organ in the state. The enactment of a new law was made difficult even at the height of democracy in Athens. The later Greeks believed that law was to be found, in the form of a complete system, in reason itself, It grew out of the very nature of the state, spontaneously voicing its needs.

The general principles of law were believed to be perfect and permanent, not subject to change at the will of the people. Nature was the source of law, and human reason was the means through which nature’s wishes could be discovered.

Accordingly, changes were needed only when the general nature of the political system was modified, and the duty of the state was ordinarily considered to be the application rather than the creation of the law. The highest function of the state, according to the Greek conception, was the judicial; it was the popularization of the law courts that marked the final step in Athenian democracy.