The Polis vs Modern American Democracy

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PS 201 – 03

The Polis and the “Just City” vs. Modern American Democracy

It is common to refer to the Greek city-state as the Greek polis and in order to understand ancient Greece one must have an understanding of what the polis was to the Greeks. First, let’s consider the physical characteristics and dimensions of the Greek polis. The single most striking feature of a Greek polis is its small size. It can be easy to overlook this fact because the classical sense of the word polis is dominated by the thought of Athens, which was very atypical in its population size, over 300,000 people. It was thought that the ideal polis should only be about 5,000 households, and that each citizen should know each other by sight. Politics, a word that is derived from the Greek word polis, was of a face-to-face variety in these small communities. Although there was variation in details from polis to polis, there were some standard physical features of the polis which one could expect to find. The polis had a place of citizen assembly. These public places were most often located on a defendable high ground of the community, which served as a place of refuge in time of attack. The polis would typically have a marketplace, which was the center of communal life. Here, the adult male citizen lived most of his life, engaging in informal public conversations, informing himself on matters of the state. The polis also had a religious center for public worship; most every polis had its temple to the protecting god of the political community. And all poleis shared the same political characteristics of citizen participation in public life. There was no desire to retreat from the world of public affairs; in men’s minds, the private life did not yet exist. In the polis, the individual was interested in not only his affairs, but also the affairs of the state. Even those who were mostly occupied by their businesses were well informed on general politics. The communal alignment of the ancient Greeks may be the most difficult feature of the Greek mind to grasp. Especially for a citizen of a large modern nation in which few people actually participate in the political process. It was this distinctive way of life, the active participation on the part of the individual citizen in all aspects of these small Greek communities that is most striking. Only adult male citizens participated in open public debate in the polis; here the individual could have had a real impact on state policy. The polis demanded a great deal from its citizens: service in public office, attendance at political gatherings, appearances at religious events and military service. To be a democratic citizen was priceless for the adult Greek male Greek, and the polis was the path through which it was realized. In distinct opposition of theories, Plato, in his “Just City,” searches for justice within the individual and what makes a person “just.” By comparing his sense of what is just at a political level and what is just at a psychological level, Plato suggests four virtues that will make an individual person just. The virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice are common to both a just person and the fictional Just City. This theoretical city has the pre-determined virtue of being just. Plato does this in order to understand what justice is for the individual because Plato thinks that a just man will be like a just city and vice versa. In the Just City, Plato creates three classes: the producers, the auxiliaries and the rulers. Each class has a certain virtue it has to display to fulfill the Just City pre-requisites. The rulers are required to exhibit wisdom so that “a whole city established according to nature would be wise because of the smallest class and part in it, namely the governing or ruling one. And, to this class, belongs a share of the knowledge that alone among all the other kinds of knowledge is to be called wisdom” (122)....
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