Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors

By Ernest Barker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
The Greek State

THE GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GREEK STATE

In Greece, as also in Italy, the unit of political life throughout classical times was the city. Men were 'political animals' in the sense that they were members of a πόλις; and though, in the process of time, under the Macedonian and Roman Empires, the πόλις might be enclosed in a larger unit, it was enclosed without being absorbed, and it still remained a centre of loyalty and a system of government, attracting the devotion and inspiring the munificence of its citizens, and continuing its functions (one may almost venture to say) not so much under, as side by side with the larger schemes of political life into which it had been drawn. There were, it is true, many parts of Greece in which the city was not indigenous: the Aetolians, for instance, were still, in the days of Aristotle, leading a tribal life in unfortified villages. But civic life was none the less the normal life of the Greek; and aware of that fact, he could draw a distinction between his own civilization, which was that of the city, and the civilization of the Celts or the Germans who lived in the countryside, and whose civilization was that of the tribe (ἔθνος).

The distinction between the civic life of Greece and the rural life of northern Europe in classical times finds its parallel, during the Middle Ages, in the distinction between the urban life of Italy, still, as it had been in classical times, a country of cities, and the predominantly rural life of England and France and Germany. It is natural, indeed, to compare the towns of medieval Italy with the cities of classical Greece;1 and the comparison is one that will

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1
Wilamowitz draws attention to the similarity, op. cit., p. 79. 'The tyrants of Italy afford the most striking parallels to those of Greece. Both of these memorable epochs have also their affinities in the fact, that in spite of all feuds, and in spite of the destruction of so many individuals, the general progress, both spiritual and material, is thoroughly vigorous, and all shocks only serve to make life quicker and richer and men of a better courage and greater joyousness. In both epochs the art of building awakes to a glory whose morning freshness must always excite our admiration: in both we can find asceticism and mysticism side by side with a surrender to the lust of the flesh and an egoism pushed to the verge of recklessness.'

-19-

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