Today we examine the contributions of classical, ancient Greece to government, both in the championing of democracy and in the development of philosophy to address questions of ethics and justice. Plato, the Greek philosopher who studied under Socrates and who himself taught Aristotle, was one of the first ancient thinkers to ask: what is justice? What is a just society? What is the proper function of government and which form of government is the best?

During the mid sixth century BCE, the Persian Empire expanded into Asia Minor, eventually conquering Ionia itself and installing tyrants to rule the Ionian city-states on their behalf. One of these tyrants attempted to conquer the island of Naxos in the Aegean and various Greek city-states, including Athens, helped repulse this invasion. This coalition of city-states soon began to aid and encourage the Ionians to revolt against their Persian rulers. The revolt was defeated but the Persian ruler decided that Athens and the other Greek city-states must be punished for their role in supporting the revolt. This first Persian invasion was defeated and turned back at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). Ten years later, the Persian king Xerxes returned with one of the largest armies ever assembled to complete the subjugation of the Greeks. Despite early successes and despite vastly outnumbering the Greeks, the Persians under Xerxes were defeated at Salamis and Plataea and control of the Aegean Sea, the Greek Islands and parts of Asia Minor passed to this coalition of Greek city-states led by Athens and Sparta. The Persian Wars gave Athens control of trade in the region and helped enrich many of her citizens. More money means more leisure and more time for scholarly pursuits amongst those so inclined. The Persian Wars, the Greek victory and the expansion of wealth allowed for the development of philosophy.

The two great states of ancient Greece were Athens and Sparta. The two cultures could not have been more different. Sparta was land-locked, in the middle of the Peloponnesus, a region of Greece. Sparta was ruled by an aristocratic elite who kept their power through the subjugation of slaves, known as helots. Military excellence was the primary goal of Spartan education. Young boys were taken away from their mothers and sent to train and learn. They literally were kept naked until they had passed their first tests and earned the right to wear a cloak. Weakness, empathy and emotion were discouraged. Young men were expected to find a mentor, an older man who would teach them how to be a productive member of Spartan society. By age 30, if they survived, they became a full citizen and were expected to marry and have children.

Athens was a great port city and the commerce of all of Southwest Asia passed through her harbor. Sailors and merchants from all over the Mediterranean came here, bringing their customs, religion and knowledge with them. This cosmopolitan background made Athens the perfect place for philosophers to study and to teach. Commerce was the lifeblood of the Athenian economy and commercial disputes were settled in court, where an Athenian citizen was expected to represent himself. A group of philosophers, known as Sophists, taught Athenians how to argue logically and how to speak eloquently. Their teaching services were in great demand and this demand for philosophers made Athens the center of knowledge in the Mediterranean world.

Athens was small enough that all the citizens (Greek men of property) could meet two or three times a year to settle various issues through a simple majority vote. This is a form of democracy known as direct democracy. Rather than have many elections for every government position, Athenians filled most official positions through a lottery system (rather like our jury selection). Only the very top government offices were settled through voting. Athenians also had an interesting system called “ostracism”. If at least 6,000 Athenian citizens wrote your name on a potsherd (an “ostraka” in Greek), you had to leave Athens for ten years and could not come back upon pain of death.

Athens and Sparta fought each other for control of Greece and the Greek islands in the Mediterranean. These wars lasted thirty years and ended with a total victory by Sparta. Thirty pro-Spartan Athenians were given control of Athens – these men were called “The Thirty Tyrants” by the Athenians. The 30 Tyrants were opposed to democracy. One of the tyrants, Critias, was a student of the famous philosopher Socrates. When the 30 Tyrants are expelled and a pro-democracy government put in its place by the victorious Athenians, Socrates is considered to be an enemy of the state. He is put on trial for atheism and is condemned to death. He is allowed to drink hemock and commit suicide rather than be executed. This he does in 399 BCE.

Socrates was a philosopher who emphasized inner reflection and self-knowledge (“know thyself”). He felt true knowledge was difficult to come by (“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing”). He came from humble stock and lived a simple life but his pupils were primarily from the party of aristocrats and oligarchs. The “Socratic Method” he is associated with - of drawing out answers with a series of connected questions - comes from his habit of getting his pupils to precisely define their terms. Many of the Dialogues revolve around trying to figure out exactly what is meant by beauty, by justice, etc. The Socratic method is concerned with precise definitions and in trying to find contradictions or inconsistencies. When Socrates reaches a point at which there are no more inconsistencies, he is close to the Truth. His main areas of focus: what is virtue and what is the best type of government?

The conflict between Plato and Aristotle evolves into a conflict between realists like Aristotle who think that universals are convenient categorical descriptors but have no independent existence versus nominalists like Plato who believe the universals are eternal and do indeed exist. Men come and go, but the idea of man is eternal, say the nominalist. The realist replies that only by examining many individual men can we hope to understand what is meant by “man”. Plato is working deductively, from the top down, while Aristotle is proceeding inductively, from the bottom up.

“Science tells us how to heal and how to kill..but only wisdom - desire coordinated in the light of all experience - can tell us when to heal and when to kill” (Will Durant). Philosophy is the frontier between what we know (science) and what we do not or cannot know. Philosophy is the “No Man’s Land” between science and religion. If ordinal knowledge involves sorting things from better to worse then philosophy provides the criteria we use in the sorting.

In all of these questions, we first must define our terms. What do we mean by “good”? What do we mean by “free will”? Only through precise definitions can we hope to find effective answers.

For this class, we will obviously spend most of our time in the area of ethics and politics, using logic as our guide and guarantee of sound conclusions. It’s important to remember that ethics and politics are indeed branches of philosophy. Most people tend to associate “philosophy” with metaphysics (what is real?) and epistemology (what do we know?).

This is the great debate that we will have over the entirety of the course – are people basically good or basically evil? Of course, defining “good” and “evil” should be our first step! Plato substituted “equal” for “good” and “unequal” for “evil”. You might also substitute “caring” for “good” and “selfish” for “evil”. Depending on your conclusion, you’ll want your government to match up. In a world of equal people who are caring and empathetic, government should be small and democratic. You can count on people to do the right thing. In a world of unequal, selfish men – government should be run by the strongest and most capable. Aristocracy or oligarchy or monarchy would be your best choices.

The great question of the Dialogs – whose voice are we hearing? Recall, the Dialogs were written in the years after the death of Socrates. So is Plato faithfully recreating the words of Socrates? Or is he inserting his own thoughts and words into the mouth of a character he calls Socrates? One of the core beliefs of Plato was the belief in the Universal or Ideal. Plato looked at, say, a chair and thought that we identified this object as a “chair” because it had some quality of “chairness”. He further thought that there must be some unseen Perfect Chair that represented everything we meant when we said “chair” and that all the imperfect chairs we saw around us were just poor reflections of that unseen, perfect chair.

Starting with justice at the state level and then working our way down to the individual level is a top-down, deductive approach. This is typical of Plato.

A great mystery that is still with us today. Running a state is very complex and requires much skill – yet we assume (especially in a democracy) that anyone can do it. Our modern idea of term limits contradicts what Plato was trying to say regarding the need to have government run by experts. Strangely, we would never let an inexperienced newcomer repair our car or fix a leak in our sink – but to run a state, long-term experience (at least in the modern age) is seen as some sort of liability.

There is much of Sparta in Plato’s Republic – especially in the communal child-rearing. Ultimately, the Republic is the rarest of things – a true meritocracy. Only those deserving are allowed to rule, only those who have proven their abilities are allowed to govern.

Here is Gladwell's video on Human Capitalization.


blog comments powered by Disqus

Early Government: Resources Day 2

MediaGladwell on Human Capitalization

Read MoreDescription  Watch the video 

Related Lesson Plans