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« Tuna 4 / 2016

The Anatomy of the “State Animal“, or why Greek Democracy was Born

This article considers the social, political and ideological premises for the emergence of democracy in Ancient Greece. Therewith, it discusses the socio-political realities which led Aristotle to his famous definition of man as a political animal (politikon zōon), articulating the attitudes of the Greeks. In the end, it addresses the question of when did the type of society emerge which eventually produced democracy and the understanding of the political nature of human beings.

When viewing the Greek city-states — the poleis — on the background of the early state societies of the world, including the city-states, the Greek polities appear exceptionally democratic. Although full democracies in Greece developed at a relatively late period — in the Classical era (5th–4th centuries BC) — and even then only a part of the poleis were governed democratically, it must still be accepted, first, that in a democratic polis exemplified by Classical Athens the degree of the involvement of citizens in the affairs of government exceeds everything we know about whichever states until the 20th century; and second, that even the aristocratically governed Greek city-states allowed more rights to the common people than did most of the other state societies in the world.

Democratic tendencies can scarcely be seen during the Bronze Age (second millennium BC), when the Aegean civilization resembled more the Near Eastern states than the polis world of the following periods. Development towards democracy became possible after the 12th century BC collapse of the Mycenaean statehood, allowing the proliferation of small and relatively egalitarian communities which evolved into poleis from the 8th century BC onwards. The very small size of most of the poleis favoured the direct participation of the polity members in the arrangement of common affairs, while on the other hand the confined territory set limits for the accumulation of property, at least as long as the majority of the community members succeeded in maintaining their lands and personal rights. This was secured by the military tactics adopted in the Greek world during the 7th century BC, relying on the heavily armed infantry men recruited from both the aristocratic elite and the smallholders wealthy enough to supply the necessary armour and the weapons. This made smallholders crucially important for the communities’ defence, and thus granted their social and political position. It precluded massive economic exploitation of the smallholders by the aristocracy. The dependant labour force — the slaves — was acquired from outside the community and was accessible for both the elite and non-elite citizens.

As a result, the aristocratic elite was unable to make its leading position incontestable. The leaders emerged from among the aristocracy, but had to publicly demonstrate and prove their qualities, while the commoners gathering in the assemblies secured the right to make the ultimate decisions in community affairs. As the elite men were constantly compelled to assert their position, a highly competitive mentality emerged, which essentially shaped the nature of Greek civilisation. On the political level, the competition was manifest in the feuds between aristocratic factions fighting for primacy in their poleis. This tended to produce monarchies — called tyrannies (tyrannides) by the Greeks — when some of the noble leaders succeeded in monopolising power. However, the relatively even distribution of property did not allow tyrants to accumulate sufficient means for entrenching their power without violating the accepted rights of the others. This provoked strong opposition, which caused the usually short duration of rule by a single individual. Monarchy thus failed in Greece, and the originally neutral term tyranny (tyrannis) designating the concentration of power in the hands of a single ruler came to signify an odious rule. Internal stability had to be achieved through a compromise involving all men of military importance, thus both the aristocratic elite and the smallholders. This was attained through communal legislation, while on the level of mentality it produced an ideology of moderation — restraining personal ambition for the benefits of communal welfare.

It seems quite understandable that these social and political conditions, and the ideology valuing compromise on a broad social basis, did eventually produce democratic statehood where full political power was in the hands of the citizens’ assembly. On the other hand, it seems equally natural that such political practice and ideology produced the understanding of the fundamentally political nature of human beings as formulated by Aristotle. Democracy and the Aristotelian definition of humanity appear as alternative products of the long established socio-political realities and attitudes of the Greeks.

The period of time when this type of society emerged in Greece is disputable. However, although different opinions are expressed on this point, it seems incontestable that both the clearly articulated communal attitude and the wide use of slave labour, thus the political ideology and a crucial element of the economic basis of Greek civilisation, are documented in our earliest literary sources dating from the 7th century BC at the latest. The social and ideological framework which later produced democracy was probably well established in the Archaic period (8th–6th centuries BC), which favours the suggestion that it already began to take shape in the small egalitarian communities evolving in Greece after the 12th century collapse destroying the hierarchical monarchies of the previous Bronze Age.