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Greek Origins

In the history of Western political thought the Greeks were the first to think and reflect about their political and social organization. The polis, with its multiple forms and varied institutions, was the center of Greek life and culture. This plurality of political associations engendered intense philosophical speculation and lively intellectual debate regarding the relative merits of different types of government. In the process the Greeks elaborated a language and a vocabulary adequate to the analysis of the political world they had constructed.

Herodotus (484–420 B.C.E.), in his constitutional debate, weighed the value of the three governmental forms of a polis: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Democracy promotes equality before the law, yet it brings to power the many who are ignorant, incompetent, unstable, and violent. Oligarchy is equally unstable and violent, and both forms eventually lead to tyranny. Only a law-abiding monarchy can inhibit the few and the many from succumbing to tyranny.

The "Old Oligarch," a short pamphlet from the fifth century B.C.E., presents a similar picture of the many and their democracy: feckless, unreliable, and irrational. Only the best and cleverest, that is, the few, are capable of rule. At the same time the argument adds a novel element to the analysis of democracy: class conflict and factional strife. The problem is whether the demos is capable of understanding and recognizing their own particular good, a question that permeates classical political thought.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (d. c. 401 B.C.E.) describes the moderate democracy under Pericles (c. 495–429 B.C.E.), and praises his prudence and wisdom in leading the people. The distinction he makes between Pericles and Cleon (d. 422 B.C.E.) underlines his dislike of the many and his preference for a democracy guided by the wise and the best. He attributes the fall of Athens to the rise of demagogic leaders who flattered the masses and catered to their appetites and desires. Athens was defeated by Sparta because the war generated among Athenians factionalism, greed, violence, and lust for power and for acquisition. He introduces a theme later amplified by Plato and Aristotle: external expansion and imperialism are directly related to the rise of democracy in Athens. Democracy whets the many's appetite for power, which only expansion can satisfy and secure. For Thucydides the desire for power and the appetite for expansion are inherent to the nature of the people such that their rule is always accompanied by violent disturbances, expropriation, and instability. The rise of the many to power liberates the passions and the appetites to such an extent that the democracy is inexorably led to imperial conquest, overextension, and finally violent collapse.

Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.), in such works as Gorgias, The Statesman, and The Republic, translated Thucydides' historical narrative of the Athenian decline and fall into a thoroughgoing critique of contemporary practices and institutions within the polis. He found all politics wanting, because those who possess knowledge are powerless, and those who have power are ignorant and thus do not know how to rule. The problem was to discover ways in which power and knowledge, politics and philosophy may be so wedded as to ensure a just and stable sociopolitical order. Statesmanship requires within the individual the rule of reason over appetite, and within the polis the rule of those who know over those who do not know. As such, it means the exercise of self-discipline and self-restraint by both the rulers and the ruled.

To Plato, all states are divided into the few who are rich and the many who are poor, and therefore class struggle and class strife are endemic to all states. Both democrats and oligarchs pursue their particular self-interest, and thus both are motivated not by rational thought but by appetite, desire, and lust for power. Each faction when in power pursues its interest to the exclusion of the other's, such that the polis is subjected to unstable and violent cycles of revolution and counterrevolution. The conflict between the two factions leads to the destruction of both and to the rise of tyranny. Thus no just society is possible unless the passions and appetites are subordinated to rational control, and unless the conflicts they engender are resolved and harmonized by wise and just leadership.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), following Plato, presents in his Politics a six-fold classification of constitutions or governments: the rule of one is monarchy or tyranny, the rule of the few is oligarchy or aristocracy, and the rule of many is either law-abiding or lawless democracy. Three are just and legitimate, three are unjust and illegitimate. The first of each set is lawful and rule is for the good of all, the second is lawless and rule is in the rulers' particular interest. Each in its pure form is inherently unstable because its foundation is narrow and exclusive. Democracy rests on mere number and thus excludes ability and property. Similarly, because oligarchy is based on property and birth, it excludes the propertyless many. Thus each type tends toward faction, strife, and instability. The problem is to construct a type that would combine stability, legitimacy, and competent rule. This type is the polity, a constitutional government that includes the best elements of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. It combines number, ability, and property, and so guarantees that the class base of polity avoids the opposing poles of overly rich and overly poor. The welding of the best elements of democracy and oligarchy enables the polity to escape the cycle of violence and instability endemic to many Greek cities.

The polis, whether oligarchic or democratic, was class based, and most writers, especially Aristotle, recognized the close relationship between property, power, and stability. They also recognized, and never questioned, the centrality of slavery to the polis. Even in democratic Athens the slavery and subjection that prevailed within the private sphere of the household made possible the liberty and equality of the male citizens as they came together in public to deliberate in the assembly.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Democracy - Greek Origins, After The Polis, Age Of Enlightenment And Revolution, Threat And Promise Of Mass Democracy