Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors

By Ernest Barker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
Political Thought before the Sophists

FROM HOMER TO SOLON

It is a fashion among Greek historians nowadays to draw parallels between the history of ancient Greece and that of the modern world. We read of the Greek 'Middle Ages', the Greek 'Reformation', the Greek 'Renaissance'. Historians differ in the parallels they draw; and while one may compare the whole period of the classical age of Greece, down to the end of the fifth century, with the medieval period of our history, on the ground that both began in migrations of tribes and both ended in 'the discovery of the world and of man', another may compare the early period of Greek history, before the dawn of light in the days of Solon, with the period of our Middle Ages, and place the period of 'Reformation' and 'Renaissance' in the sixth century. If we follow the latter comparison, we may say that the political thought of the Greek Middle Ages is to be found in Homer and Hesiod, who, indeed, are its only writers. Homer is sometimes quoted as a believer in the divine right of monarchy:

U+03BFὐκ ἀγαθν πολυκοιρανíη. ε̇ + ̂ς κοíρανος ἕστω ε̇ + ̂ς ßασιλεύς, ᾡ + ̑ ἔδωκε Kρóνου πάïς ἀγκυλομήτεω σκvπτρóν τי ὴδὲ θέμιστας1

But the lines refer only to command in war, and the words are spoken by Odysseus to a disordered army, which he is seeking to reduce to obedience to its commander-in-chief. The Homeric King has his title as an officer of the community. All the chieftains of a stem bear the name of 'kings', and all claim divine descent: the King can only be, and only is, distinguished from his fellows by the fact that he is the appointed officer of the whole community. Already, in Homeric days, the tribe is thus its own sovereign, and its nominal ruler is accredited to his position as its organ and representative. While Homer, in this sense, recognizes monarchy, Hesiod only knows the chieftaincy of many ßασιλεας. He rebukes in advance the 'sophistic' view held by the 'kings'

____________________
1
Iliad, II. 204-6. I remember hearing the first line quoted in this sense by the German ambassador to England, some ten years ago.

-47-

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