The Hellenes could not establish a polis without providing a forum for deliberation, and at once there came into being an agora with its inevitable consequences: debates dealing with every single political question of the day and with the affairs of the state as a whole. The earliest poets, Hesiod with his admonitions and Tyrtaeus with his challenging appeals, range from the hortatory to the prophetic; Solon already voices detached reflection. After mind and tongue had been fully set free, not only the poets apostrophized, glorified, and scoffed at the polis in every manner, but statesmen spoke on the situation of the polis in broad and illuminating discourses, historians steeped themselves thoroughly in political views, and philosophers favored the state not only with their reflections but elevated it to an object of poetic meditation while tending actually to withdraw from the polis themselves.
These Hellenes examined not only their own poleis, and it was from them that we learned all that we knew about the constitutions of other ancient nations, from Egypt to Persia and Carthage, until as late as the nineteenth century, when archeological discoveries made additional contributions to our knowledge. Polybius gave us the most valuable and concise account ever made of the Roman state in the days of its greatness. Only the Greeks clearly visualized and compared everything.
The same year that Aristophanes staged his Clouds, there appeared the earliest political memoir surviving anywhere on earth, On the Athenian State, falsely attributed to Xenophon. An Attic oligarch-Critias or whoever it was-presented in icy detachment the working details of Athenian democracy, showing that, evil though the conduct of this government might have been, it was thoroughly appropriate to the ends in view.
In describing political situations and in establishing proposals, Thucyd ides achieved a sure and perfect mastery in his debates and speeches, and it is irrelevant whether they came from him or from those to whom they are ascribed. In his Hellenica, Xenophon gave us an account of the incom parable life-and-death contest in oratory [logomachy] between Critias and Theramenes. Soon the known orations on the Attic state and tribunal were to begin.
In his Cyropaedia, Xenophon limned an ideal king educated in Socratic ethics and thereby indirectly criticized Greek democracy in its decline. Even though it was not altogether to his liking, Xenophon admired Sparta and thought that it exemplified the best attainable state for Greece. Although Plato had early been repelled by the actual conduct of Attic state affairs and consequently had refused to take any part in them, he was for a long time nevertheless unable to shake off an urge for political activity.
He had the notion that only true philosophy could serve as a standard of right and wrong in private and public life and that misery would burden mankind until the philosophers became kings and filled the chief offices, or until the kings and top officials in the poleis became philosophers. It was obviously futile to try to get the Athenians then in power to become philosophers, but to try to persuade a single mighty ruler to turn to philosophy seemed to Plato to be worth the attempt. And so the man who had to stay aloof from Athenian politics went three times to advise the tyrants of Sicily, and each time had to flee for his life.
Plato even believed that his own utopias could be realized. In addition to the idealized image, given in Timaeus and Critias, of a primeval Athens nine thousand years ago and modeled substantially on Egypt, Plato developed two comprehensive polities, one absolute, the other moderate, as it might be realized on earth.
The first book, The Republic (Politeia), besides its formal literary excellence has enduring historical value owing to the vast amount of information it gives about contemporary conditions in Greece. This work is unique in disclosing the most profound motives and true intentions of the polis. The Republic demanded that the men of the two upper classes-the rulers and guardians-completely abdicate their individuality and submerge themselves in the communal life, giving up their private property, as well as eating and living with their wives. The children would not know their parents and would be reared as public wards from infancy. This showed most plainly how the ideal of the polis could harden the heart of even a choice spirit.
The Republic excluded the productive classes-farmers and industrial workers-that is, the masses, from participating in the affairs of the state, relegating them to the role of servants. At that time, however, the masses in Greece had the hilt in their hands, and it was unrealistic to believe that they would let go of it.
Nearly every utopia advocates the common possession of property. Two reasons made it impossible to introduce this innovation. To acquire private property, so as to indulge in personal enjoyment, was one of the chief ambitions of the Greeks at that time, corroding even a good many Spartans whose city the Republic resembles more closely and draws on more fully than it does any other Greek state. Moreover, people had learned somewhat to counteract the unequal distribution of wealth by periodically plundering the rich. Furthermore, the local guards stationed in barracks and naturally possessed of a high sense of duty, cut a sorry figure when pitted against the powerful mercenaries that pillaged the poleis at that time. Finally, the whole Republic, with its system of built-in safeguards against all innovations and with its caste divisions, each having its prescribed duties, contrasted most strikingly with the free and rich development individualism found among the Greeks contemporary with Plato.
But the most dubious element was the government of the whole scheme. According to Plato, early selection and careful nurture were to produce a superior class of rulers, all of which is hard enough to conceive of as happening smoothly because, after all, they were Greeks, but when they were supposed to be philosophers to boot, the reader may well begin to smile.
In his last years Plato contrived a limited utopia in his Laws, a work traceable in its main outlines to no other thinker and recognized already by Aristotle as written by him. This moderate ideal, devised with a view to easier practical application, was fundamentally as impossible as the Republic, precisely because it likewise flies in the face of the Greeks’ nature, indeed of human nature itself. The Laws did not require having women and property in common; it stipulated an agricultural community with 5,400 parcels of land distributed by lot and removed as far as possible from the sea, for which all Greeks languished.
Plato presented the details of this state so minutely that he betrayed his desire to make the inward and outward life of the individual absolutely subservient to the polis. Man was not only to be barred from the sea, which brought so many vile and variegated customs, but also from his own imagination so that the whole community would have to say and sing the same thing for a whole lifetime.
Although poesy had commonly played a great role in Greek education, it was to be strictly confined to very narrow limits, and art and religion were to be hieratically kept in their niches. Significantly, the government was not to be in the hands of a committee of philosopher-rulers but was to be under a single lawgiver, permanently installed, a universal protector, rewarder, reprimander, a moralist and a controller of all property, expenditures, and business of the people. This lawgiver was naturally in need of a host of officials to help him discharge his duties. Still, Plato justifiably suspected that disaffection would rear its head; to forestall this, he allowed no one to travel, and those who might have been abroad were to say that everything was better at home.
The keystone of the Laws is an optimism imposed by force. We hardly need the criticism of Aristotle to realize how utterly impossible the fantasies of these two books really are and how directly they cut athwart the actual conditions obtaining among the Greeks. Plato had a coercive streak in him and imparted it also to some of his students, for wherever they attained influence in a state they tended to be despotic and denunciatory.
The chief grievance posterity can lodge against his two books is their program to freeze Greek culture. To be sure, the development of Greek culture was implicitly connected with the decline of the polis, and that development has greatly concerned mankind ever since and has played a most important role in world history. In neither of his utopias did Plato evince any grasp of the future or influence it in the slightest. He voiced the ancient original intention of the polis, and his proposals, insofar as they touched on reality at all, were essentially attempts to revive forms that had become outmoded for good reasons.
Plato’s contemporaries and later philosophers, following his lead, elaborated a number of utopias, some of which Aristotle enumerated. Subsequently the Stoics Zeno and Chrysippus wrote theirs. But in the meantime it had become fashionable to put these utopian accounts into the mouth of some mythical character in a never-never land, as Theopompus did in the discussions of Seilenus with Midas.
Fanciful travel tales became popular, describing some marvelous region far away and interweaving desirable political and social features. The work of Hecataeus of Abdera, a contemporary of Alexander the Great, on the Hyperboreans might have been an ideal polity consistently developed. Euhemerus’ account of the blessed island of Panchaea is hardly more than a pompous Cockaigne. The island off Ethiopia to which Jambulus paid an imaginary visit is not much more interesting than that of Euhemerus, though it does come to grips with some political concepts.
Even though Plato may have stood alone in expecting to see his utopias realized, nevertheless all creators of utopias must be presumed to have some desire to influence practically the political and social views of their contemporaries. Aristotle stands in lone splendor over against them all. He knew more about the real state than all the rest did; his great work treating the constitutions of 158 different states is extant only in fragments. But his Politics (teaching about the state is preserved. Its value lies not only in its general definitions, in its prevailing Greek view of the nature and purpose of the state, or in its wealth of information about current Greek practices, but also in the recognition that various root forms are all justified and in the parallel study of the various modifications these root forms had undergone. In consequence the world views politics to this day in part through the eyes of Aristotle and uses some of his expressions in discussing it. It may hence be assumed that his school and later philosophers, whose numerous works on the state we know only by their titles, contributed significantly to propagating his views and others similar to them.
But since the days of Antisthenes already, the Cynics had set themselves apart from the polis by using the privilege of poverty and sneered at it with all their cunning. They were at home everywhere, and everywhere they were strangers, a living indictment of a free state now prey to despotism as were the Sufis of the ruined sultanates in the medieval Orient. Finally Epicurus appeared, resolving the dilemma at least in theory, by conceiving the polis as a mutual compact for safety’s sake, man no longer existing for the sake of laws but laws for the sake of man. But of course no insight of individuals, however penetrating, could prevent the gradual dissolution of the Greek state ostensibly enjoying freedom but actually rocked by persecution and internal crises.
It is a law of nature that all forces reach their full and conscious development in opposition to and in contest with each other. Hence, a fully developed political power is a paramount condition for all outward and inner growth and the indispensable stay for the climbing vines of culture. For a relatively long time, the Greek poleis accomplished great things in culture. And finally Greece in her glory hurled back the Persians in their thrust to the west and thereby probably helped to shape the outward destiny of mankind.
It was not the poleis though, but Alexander, who conquered Persia, and he did it while they were conspiring against him. There remains only to judge the other fortunes and misfortunes the poleis brought upon themselves, and we might well say that in the long run the polis in its internal and external development tended predominantly to make the citizens unhappy.
The polls not only developed individuals into personalities, but it also spurred them violently onward, at the same time demanding complete self renunciation. In the end it was not the polis that determined policy but the masses that happened to gather at the assembly, not with a view to higher principles but to satisfy their greed, which unfortunately was insatiable. One may well get the notion that in the whole history of the world hardly any power anywhere had ever paid so dearly for its life and strife as the Greek polis did. These unhappy events certainly caused posterity to suffer incalculable loss, however abundant the contributions of later Greeks may have been, particularly in the visual arts.
We should deeply lament if we could envisage in its entirety all that the Greeks destroyed by slaying outstanding men, by intimidating others and driving them into mute private life, by disrupting the continuity of noble families, by suppressing refined conviviality and by abetting self-seeking domination through the misuse of public oratory.
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