The Great Political Theories, by Curtis, Michael
- ISBN: 9780061351365 | 0061351369
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 11/12/2009
A Comprehensive Selection of the Crucial Ideas in Political Philosophy from the Greeks to the Enlightenment
Political philosophy proper began with the Greeks. It may be true that all succeeding political philosophy is a footnote to and a commentary on Plato. This does not deny the importance of other civilizations: the Egyptian, the Hebrew, the Persian, the Hittite. Historical research has shown that Greek science owes a considerable debt to Babylonia; a much more understanding view has been recently taken on Persian institutions. Yet while in pre-Greek writings there are fragments of a political nature and discussion of some political problems—a written code of law, a tribal God, God as the source of political authority, bureaucracy and, above all, the nature of the absolute ruler or despot—there are no systematic or exhaustive expositions.
In Homer there are four different examples of political organization, but no coherent view of the operation of politics. It is the Greeks of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. who created the terminology of politics, taking the words from everyday usage and applied thought to political action. Politics was inseparable from life in the polis, a city possessing common habits, military strength, a myth of its origin, its own god and religion, and citizens. It is this last characteristic that differentiates the polis and future political organizations from associations based on blood and religious ties.
The city-state of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., with its 1,000 square miles of territory, its 40,000 citizens and 400,000 mixed population, remains one of the pinnacles of human civilization. Its basis was not so much individual material welfare or comfort as communal pride, communal magnificence and dedication. Indeed, material comforts were modest. The Greeks were badly clothed and ill shod; there were no such magnificent road or drainage systems as were notable in Persia or Rome. Public affairs were regarded as more important and significant than private matters—the opposite of polites is idiotes (those who are uninterested in public affairs).
Leisure, "that most exquisite of delights," love of conversation admiration of physical beauty of both men and women, delight in the theater and the great trio of dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, participation in communal affairs—all these are different aspects of a sophisticated culture that has been so prolific in influence in the arts of literature and architecture, philosophy and political behavior. Versatility was the hallmark of the citizen. Education, as Pericles said, should mold a person "capable of the most varied forms of activity and able to adapt himself to different circumstances with versatility and grace." The dangers of such amateurism and dilettantism are obvious, as can be seen in the remark of Aristotle that a gentleman should play the flute, but not too well.
Yet if Athens had great art and literature, had its Academy and Lyceum, put great stress on education and proclaimed the value of government by discussion, its history was marred by examples of military aggression and intolerance, and by its economic base of slavery. Its heyday was short. In 490 and 480, the Athenians had beaten the Persians at Marathon and at Salamis, in 432 they began the disastrous 27-year war with Sparta which ruined their liberal civilization, and in 332 they fell to the Macedonians. Athens' intolerance was shown by the killing of Socrates, the banishing of Themistocles and the imprisonment of Miltiades; Critias, one of the pupils of Socrates, became one of the Thirty Tyrants. The whole economy rested on slavery, since there was no occupation except that of politics which was not performed by slaves. Even those who argued against Aristotle's view of slavery as natural, did not propose its abolition.
If we are more familiar with the rationalism of the Greeks, their pride in human reason and confidence in the cosmos, permeated by reason, we must also note that Greece produced the Orphic-Pythagorean myths with their emphasis on the sinful body, idea of guilt and the world as a place of punishment.
The polis contained a community, the sole source of authority, dedicated to the purpose of achieving the good life. This purpose would be accomplished through individual participation in communal affairs, a duty the individual voluntarily accepted and which was desirable both for the community and for his own development. The general object was the creation of social balance and harmony, which meant not totalitarian control, but a reconciliation of individual differences, based on the premise that the desire for individual fulfillment need not end in anarchy. State, or social, action was needed, but there was no claim that the state bad an existence of its own, apart from the individuals who made up its citizen body. The best kind of self-realization and society was the goal; doing well or living well was the aim of inquiry and action. Politics, therefore, became a proper subject of inquiry, a process concerned with the meaning of nomos—law and custom—and with the wisdom of social organization.
Antigone, written in 441 B.C. by Sophocles, is the immortal drama in which the order of the ruler Creon forbidding the burial of Polyneices is defied by his niece Antigone, the sister of the slain man. The play embodies the conflict between opposing points of view and principles on a number of basic issues confronting all political systems.
At the core of the conflict is the issue of the nature of law and justice. Differences exist between the claims of divine law, the unwritten laws of God, and natural law on the one hand and the laws made by the existing rulers. The expression of individual conscience and will conflicts with the demands of the ruler. The ties of blood relationships are opposed to the impersonal loyalty to the state. The struggle exists between men and women, and between young and older people. Antigone is a timeless drama in its discussion of the problem of disobedience by an individual of the state and its ruler and the effect of that disobedience on the parties involved.Great Political Theories V.1
A Comprehensive Selection of the Crucial Ideas in Political Philosophy from the Greeks to the Enlightenment. Copyright © by M Curtis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Great Political Theories: A Comprehensive Selection of the Crucial Ideas in Political Philosophy from the Greeks to the Enlightenment by M. Curtis, Michael Curtis
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.