The Pathos of Politics – The Greek Platform

The Greek Platform

From the ancient Greeks – 2,500 years ago – we inherited the concepts they used to talk about politics. The terms politics, republic, democracy, aristocracy, and tyranny all descend from ancient Greek political theorists. Moderns share many ancient Greek ideals, including freedom, independence, and self-government, and have the same attachment to democracy that they did.

There were, of course, other political structures contemporaneous to the ancient Greeks. To the immediate east lay the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, with which the Greeks warred. There was no politics in Persia; only an empire of slaves ruled by a king.

Ensconced in the far east was the dynasty of ancient China, isolated and as bereft of contention in political beliefs as the Persians. Confucian codification of despotic tradition is exemplary.


The administration of government lies in getting proper men. Such men are to be gotten by means of the ruler’s own character. That character is to be cultivated by his treading in the ways of duty. And the treading of those ways of duty is to be cultivated by the cherishing of benevolence. ~ Confucius

Kong Qui (551–479 BCE) earned the honorific title Kong Fuzi after his passing, which was Latinized to Confucius. Like most educated middle-class men, Confucius pursued a career as a government bureaucrat, rising to the post of minister of justice in the northeast state of Lu.

Confucius was a consummate conservative: his moral perspective firmly rooted in Chinese convention. Combining concepts about the innate goodness and sociability of humans with the rigid structure of Chinese society, Confucian philosophy had at heart the traditional virtues of loyalty, duty, and respect. Yet Confucian ideas were met with suspicion during his lifetime. Members of nobility and the ruling families were unhappy with his implied dismissal of their divine right to rule (their “mandate from heaven”) and felt threatened by the power Confucius proposed for government ministers.

This trampling was temporary. Confucianism became the official state philosophy under the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BCE, establishing itself as the philosophic lifeblood of Chinese culture. Brief expulsion under Maoist communism in the 1950s did not rip out its roots. In the early 21st century, Confucianism was once again ascendant in China, as the turbulence of adopting capitalism left the Chinese clinging to the anchors of their traditions.

In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of. ~ Confucius


Equally irrelevant to the history of political thought were the grand cities of the Maya civilization. Like the Chinese, the Mayans practiced the divine right of kings long before the notion embedded itself into the European theater as a backhanded justification for monarchial tyranny. From these distant corners of the far East and far West came nothing of import to world political discourse.

It is fair to say that the platform upon which political thought arose was built by ancient Athenians, a trading people with scholars who mused about how differently other city-states had organized themselves. If they had not lived where they did and arranged their societies and economic activities as they had, there would have been no contrast to reflect upon.

The Israelites of Old Testament times were also quite conscious of their neighbors, not least because the Egyptians and Babylonians often enslaved them. But this is the history of a people who did their level best to have no politics.

The Jews saw themselves as ruled by God. For them, politics was a fall from grace.

Contrastingly, for the Greeks, politics was an achievement. It was when argumentative Athenians started articulating the flaws of polities that the history of political thought began.

Ancient Greek polies were much different from the European empires that emerged afterwards, and the states that evolved worldwide in the modern era. Nonetheless, the way in which justice, governance, and sovereignty are conceived echo down the corridors of time from ancient Greece.

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Accounts of the history of political thought typically begin with Plato. This is a paradox, as Plato’s political thought was anti-political.

Plato’s political analysis amounts to an exercise in fantasy. Instead of considering the conflicts and possible paths of resolution inherent in politics, Plato posited a utopia.

Plato was not the only political philosopher with his head in the clouds. More than 2 millennia later, Karl Marx had nothing to say about the politics of a communist society. Marx sophistically thought that the abolition of capitalism would dissolve economic conflict, and thereby the need for politics.

There were of course politics prior to Plato. But, aside from the Histories (450s BCE) by Greek historian Herodotus, little was written about the varying political dynamics in Greek city-states and beyond.

Virtue is harmony. ~ ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras

The bedrock thought behind the Greek idea of the state was harmony in the lives its citizens. This was merely an extension of Greek aesthetics relating to both beauty and morals, in which harmony and proportion were the protagonists: ideals which appeared at the onset of Greek philosophy.

Justice was another notion well-considered in 5th century BCE Greece. This came from contrasting Nature against convention.

One view conceived Nature as a law of justice inherent in human beings and the world. This precursor to natural law saw the order in the world as intelligent and largely beneficent.

The other view apprehended Nature non-morally. Justice manifested in humans as an assertion stemming from the desire for pleasure or power. This perspective evolved variously: its moderate form into utilitarianism and social contract theory; more provocatively into Machiavellian and Nietzschean expressions of will to power; and, in extreme forms, theories with an antisocial complexion, whether fascist or anarchist.

Not necessity, not desire – no, the love of power is the demon of men. ~ German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

The seeds from which all modern political philosophies sprouted were sown in ancient Greek thought, from men who knew little or nothing of antecedents.

Herodotus’ Histories has a passage in which 7 Persians are discussing the relative merits of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Most of the stock arguments appear: monarchy tends to degenerate into tyranny; democracy becomes mob rule; government by the best men is preferable, and nothing is better than rule by 1 best man.

Governments had been classified, and their tendencies known, well before Plato and Aristotle took aim. Nonetheless, it was only after the downfall of Athens to Sparta that the great age of Greek political philosophy dawned. Failure has its way of focusing minds.


All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue. ~ Plato

Plato (427–347 BCE) perceived political philosophy as an architectonic science of society. In the Republic (~380 BCE), Plato sketched a utopian society, with an oligarchical government comprising those of superior reasoning, ruled under a philosopher-king.

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands. ~ Plato

One of the main assumptions behind the Republic is that the right kind of government is constructed through rationality, rather than the common product of muddling through with faith and fear, improvisation and indolence, which is how most governments came to be.

Democracy assumes some kernel of rationality in individuals. Utterly absent is the hope that government can be rationally ordered. Democracy proposes the precise opposite: a proclivity to corruption, and hence the need for checks and balances, beginning with public consent.

Plato wrote the Republic when his home city, Athens, was at a crossroads after defeat to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE).

Athens was the strongest city-state in Greece before the war: a selectively limited democracy that debarred women, aliens, and slaves from political participation. After the war, Athens was reduced to poverty and near subjugation, while Sparta was the leading Greek power.

Athens defeated itself; its debacle caused by internal dissension, personal rivalries, and military strategic error, beginning with overestimating its capabilities.

Lacking expertise in foreign affairs, victorious Sparta fared no better as an imperial power, which led to the rise of Persia in short order.

Plato concluded that Sparta’s military victory owed to its polity and communitarian social system.

States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters. ~ Plato

Plato castigated Athenian democracy for its demise. The Republic was an indictment of Athens’ way of life, particularly the incompetence and ignorance of politicians, which gave rise to partisan factionalism. (The parallels to modern democracy are obvious.)

With his writing, Plato tried to infuse Sparta’s political spirit into individualistic Athenian society and temper its lurid aristocratic democracy with his moral values. The model described in the Republic was of an elitist, regimented, and authoritarian regime that was also non-political. Plato’s ideal polis was one that had transcended politics by virtue of enlightened despotism.

The Republic emphasized that the well-being of a state and its peoples are wholly dependent upon the quality of political leadership. How such excellence is achieved is secondary to the concern that government serve society’s best interests.

Plato’s vision may be contrasted with the heyday of laissez-faire over 2 millennia later, when the ideal of a highly trained political class, dedicated to public service without personal gain, had little appeal. Government, like the capitalist economy and society in general, was naïvely assumed to be largely self-regulating machinery. The less government the better. Thomas Paine’s opinion of government remains a popular sentiment.

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. ~ American revolutionary Thomas Paine

Democracy relies upon the analogy of government as machinery to a great extent: that anyone who talks a good game may be considered a competent administrator who has the public interest at heart, and that people may be replaced in critical governmental roles as if interchangeable parts. History has shown those to be faulty assumptions more often than not; a conclusion reflected in low public opinion of governmental institutions, most notably the legislature, which is usually the most direct representation of democracy.

The thrust of Plato’s political thought resonates with relevance for rheumatic modern democracies.


For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice. ~ Aristotle

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was one of history’s most influential men, including his political thought. Aristotle’s master work on the subject was a set of theses collectively called Politics.

Although Aristotle was a disciple of Plato, Politics differed both in tone and substance from that of his mentor. Unlike Plato, Aristotle had been embroiled in the politics of his day. Whereas Plato envisioned a wise leader as one with clear conceptual vision, Aristotle thought a good ruler worldly wise.

While Plato appeared a radical idealist, Aristotle posed as a conservative realist. Yet both came to same conclusion: that the ideal government was by an aristocratic few for the benefit of all.

Aristotle perhaps more keenly appreciated how difficult achieving that ideal would be, so he advocated a mixed form of government of rotating rulers, ensuring that none had a monopoly over political power. Ironically, history has shown such a notion to be as far-fetched as anything Plato envisioned for creating quality governance.

Both Plato and Aristotle shared a distaste of democracy. Unlike Plato, Aristotle was resigned to democracy as inevitable; a sentiment later shared by Alexis de Tocqueville.

Whereas Plato was strongly oriented toward community, Aristotle opted for individual freedom and property rights – the stance that the Romans took in their governing philosophy.

It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it. ~ Aristotle

Aristotle did not think through the implications of his position on political individualism in light of his acknowledgment of human materialist inclinations left unbridled: that unchecked greed would invariably drive economic inequalities that generate political instability.

Inequality is everywhere at the bottom of faction. Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. ~ Aristotle

Aristotle’s thought that the state, through education, would inspire moral virtue: “to produce cultured gentlemen – men who combine the aristocratic mentality with the love of learning and the arts.” Aristotle suffered the hypocrisy common to intellectuals: his erudition failed to eradicate unjustified prejudices and moral vacuity.

Aristotle would have felt quite at home in the Old South. Aristotle defended slavery and found martial and paternal rule palatable, as women were weak-minded.

The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete. ~ Aristotle


Do not be very upright in your dealings, for you would see by going to the forest that straight trees are cut down while crooked ones are left standing. ~ Chanakya

Aristotle’s erstwhile pupil, Alexander the Great, conquered his way from Greece to northwest India, where he encountered the Mauryan Empire (322–185 BCE) and went no further east.

Chandragupta Maurya (340–298 BCE) founded the empire: the first to unify most of India into a single state. His chief advisor, the mastermind behind the throne, was Chanakya.

Governance is possible only with assistance. A single wheel does not move. ~ Chanakya

Indian political scientist, economist, jurist, and royal advisor Chanakya (350–275 BCE) wrote Arthashastra, a meticulous treatise on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy. Its focus was how to effectively manage an autocracy. In tone like Machiavelli a millennium later, Arthashastra was a practical and amoral analysis of the business of politics.

The wise man should restrain his senses like the crane and accomplish his purpose with due knowledge of his place, time, and ability. ~ Chanakya


Neither Plato nor Aristotle looked at polity beyond sovereign city-states. Both philosophers took the poleis of their age for granted, much as 20th century political philosophers contemplate the tribal-based state as the integral political unit.

The overtone of political thought in ancient Greece was of communal relations. This became inadequate in the new age of empire, as the social distance between a man and the governance he was subject to scaled into abstraction.

Loss of community spirit meant men were on their own. Sense of communalism dissolved, replaced by a bifurcated focus on the meaning of individuality and universality in light of what constituted good governance. This ambiguous conceptual framework led to the notion of natural law.