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Origin and Main features of Ancient Greek Political Thought

Origin and Main features of Ancient Greek Political Thought

Introduction :

"Political thought begins with the Greek. Its origin is connected with the calm and clear rationalism of the Greek mind." - Earnest Barker. 

Greek political thought (500 BC - 500 AD) is considered one of the oldest in the world. It had a profound influence on the political institutions of not only the ancient times but also of modern times. The simple reason for this is the rational mind, secular outlook and efficient management of city-states by the Greeks. 

These city-states, in fact, served as laboratories for experimenting with various institutions. Political Thought is nothing but Political Philosophy. It is the thought or philosophy about various aspects of the State. It is about various concepts like State, Liberty, and Equality etc

Origin Of Political Thought

Greece was the centre of political philosophy in ancient Europe. Greece is situated in the southern tip of Europe. People of Greece lived in City States. A City State was not a city. It was not a state also. It was a community of people living together. The people of Greek based their political concepts around the City States. They believed that a City State should be small so that it can be fully viewed from the roof top of every house. They thought that the population should not be more than 5040. Slavery was a feature of the state. The slaves formed majority of the population. All the problems of the state should be directly decided by the citizens. It is called direct democracy. People directly participated in law making. The government and administration were run directly by the people. They thought that only they are civilized. They considered all others as barbarians. So they did not study about other empires. For them, the State was like a religion. The individual had no private life. There was no place for individualism in Greek city states. At the same time, they respected the individuals and their sentiments.
Every individual should perform each and every function. There was no division of labour. There was no difference between rights of individuals and rights of the state. The people of Greece lived in peace. So, the people of Greece had very calm and clear minds. Therefore, they were able to think about various questions of life. Thus they developed their philosophy. Political thought was part of their philosophy. There were many philosophers in Greece. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were great Greek political thinkers.

Features of Greek Thought :

The Greek Political Thought possessed certain distinct features, which deserve our consideration.

1. Exclusively Political Character of 'treatise.

The ancient Greek Political Thought differs from the political thought of other ancient countries like Egypt, Babylonia, Syria, Persia, India, China etc. in so far as it produced treatise of purely political nature. On the other band in other ancient civilizations, the political ideas were intermixed with mythology. and religious literature. For example, in India, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Manu Smriti, which deal with the political problems were not purely political treatises. They were chiefly religious
works in which the political ideas were intermixed with religion and mythology and one has to make special efforts to discern the political from the religious. On the other hand, the Greek political thought is characterized by the presence of a number of independent treatises which are exclusively devoted to the study of political problems. 

2. Main Concentration on Nature of State.

Another notable feature of the ancient Greek Political Thought is that it concerned itself mainly with the nature of the State and the concept that man is a political animal. The Greek writers did not concern
themselves with the problems relating to the relations between the State and the Church, or State and industry which formed a part of the political thought of the later thinkers. As they conceived man as a social animal they naturally did not conceive him as an isolated and independent unit and tried to understand him in relation to the social whole viz., the state. Naturally the state became the centre of Greek political thinkers. They discussed the origin as well as the end of the state and distinquished between various forms of states such as Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, 'tyranny etc. They also highlighted the point that the forms of government undergo constant charge and tried to determine the order in which the changes take place in the form of the government as well as the laws governing them. The philosophers also stressed on the importance of state because man can't live without state.

3. Social Nature of Man.

The Greek thinkers were the first to lay stress on the social nature of man and emphasize that an individual could not live as an isolated and independent unit. He could attain perfection only in a healthy state. Hence they considered the state necessary both for the sake of life as well as good life.

4. The City State:

Another notable feature of the Greek Political Thought was that it centred around the city states, in which the community of men shared a common life and purpose. A City State was not a city. It was not a state also. City States are small administrative units in which the citizens continuously participated. Greece, Athenes & Sparta are some of the oldest city states. In fact, the Greek political thinkers did not distinguish between the state and the society. As Barker has observed, "The Greeks were never tired of telling themselves that while in their communities each man counted for what he was worth and exercised his share of influence in the common life. It was the place of a common life and the home of a union of classes. Life within common walls drew men natural intimacy. It did not abolish the prestige of wealth and birth and culture, it established a tradition of easy intercourse between all class." Similarly. the city-state was also not different from church. It was the be-all and end-all of the activities of its citizens and included the entire collective activities of the citizens. It was a whole outside which member could not be envisaged.

5. Importance of Education:

Greek thinkers attached great importance to education and emphasised its importance in bringing the people at par with the spirit of the constitution. Plato gave the concept of education in his book The Republic'. Greeks emphasised on practical system of education which could help in promoting modesty, self-control, patriotism, sociability and other similar qualities. The State was responsible for the promotion of education among the citizens and hence considered not only a moral and political institution but also an educational institution. In other words, the Greek thinkers laid emphasis on state controlled system of education.

6. Rationalism:

Greek thinkers assigned a significant position to rationalism in their thought. They believed that reason is the quintessence of the providence and a man was free only as long as he had freedom of reasoning. Reason enabled the man to identify himself with the corporate life, abandon his personal and selfish interests and leap into the realm of wider views and higher purposes. Naturally the Greek thinkers assigned privileged position to persons possessing rational faculty and relegated those persons who
did not possess reason, for much inferior status. In short, we can say that the Greek political thinkers attached great importance to reason and were against acceptance of a thing which was not justified on grounds of reason.

7. Concept of Law:

Greeks were the first to explain law. The Greek concept of law was connected with their belief in reason They considered law as the life breath of the state because it represented the acme of the rational
being. As the law givers were inspired by divine power it was also the manifestation of God. The Greek thinkers considered Law and Justice as two sides of the same coin and asserted that justice is that which is according to law. However, this did not mean that to them all the laws were just and could not be improved upon.

8. Views on Justice.

Justice occupies an important position in the ancient Greek Political Thought. The Greek thinkers considered justice as an important virtue which enabled a citizen to discharge of proper duties and contributed towards the development of human faculties. Justice is the only remedy to save the state and is inseparable. Justice was also implied to mean willing obedience to laws of the state. According to Plato "Justice was the virtue of soul and injustice its vice".

9. Views on Citizenship. 

To the Greek thinkers" citizenship did not merely imply payment of taxes and a vote. It meant direct participation in the management of the state as a soldier, as a judge, as a legislator in person, not through a Deputy. Thus the Greeks clearly ruled out the concept of representative government. Again, the Greeks did not extend citizenship rights to the slaves because they felt that the slaves could not discharge their obligations towards the state. Even the working classes were denied the
right to rule on the ground that they did not possess a speculative mind. As citizenship required active participation in the affairs of the state only the classes which enjoyed leisure and owned lands, and were hence free from economic worries, were given the citizenship rights. According to citizenship theory one should be a property owner. Thus in the Greek Political Thought the concept of citizenship was quite restricted.

10. Belief in Inequality.

The Greeks considered equality as impracticable, unnatural and undesirable and arqued that just as the individual was subordinate to the whole, the majority of the individuals who were intrinsically inferior,
indolent, unfit, for education could be sacrificed at the altar of the minority of the excellent and the wise. They considered inequality natural and permitted the dominance of the Greeks over barbarians; of the freeman over the slave, of the qentleman over the artisans etc. However, the Greeks permitted equality within a class. This equality was also to be proportional rather than arithmetical. The Greek thinkers emphasised that equality as such 5 was not an ideal thing, on the contrary it was something unnatural and hence impracticable and undesirable.

11. Individualistic Element.

The Greek political thinkers assigned a prominent position to the individual in their thought and insisted on the right of the individual to formulate his own thoughts, to express these thoughts publicly and to act in accordance with the dictates of conscience. Plato highlighted individualistic element in his laws and said society is an aggregate of individuals and the individual was a self-determined whole. Similarly,  Thus individualism constituted an important feature of the ancient Greek Political Thought.

12. Primary of Discussions.

Another notable feature of the ancient Greek Political Thought was that it attached great importance to discussion. They adopted the method of discussion for presenting their ideas and philosophy and held that truth could be discovered only if there was proper reasoning and discussion. The normal method adopted by the Greek thinkers was a discourse between two parties one initiating the issue and the other replying to those issues with a view to present the philosophical ideas. The Greeks asserted that Truth goes in hide in the absence of discussion; it comes to light through discussion. They virtually raised discussion to the pinnacle of glory and brought it to the point of perfection.


A brief survey of the above features of the ancient Greek political thought shows that the Greek political philosophers were great realists and tried to analyse the problems present before the city-state with great foresight and penetration. Still more important is that the ideas. and the concepts which they developed formed the basis of most of the development of political thought which took place thereafter According to Mayer (Mayer, Political Thought, The European Tradition, p.7) "The categories of European thought and approach to understanding of life have been permanently moulded by Greeks to the from the very of beginning." In fact some of the ideas and concepts discussed by the ancient Greek Political thinkers form focus point of discussion of political thought even in our times.

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