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The Greek Polis

Updated on December 8, 2013
Todays Acropolis at night
Todays Acropolis at night | Source

The Greek state and its citizens

The frame of the everyday life of the Greek was the state in which he was a citizen; in it he should realize his view of life. The circumstances of nature was an influential cause that the state was a “polis”, a word we usually translate to the word “city-state”. Its area of land was usually no bigger than it could be seen from the cliff of the castle, and its number of free men was usually very small – no more than a few thousand people - all knew each other and were often related.

This gained the greatest historical influence for Greek culture in general and especially for the ideas concerned with a state and how a one should be. This is something the Greek determined.

The Nature of the Polis

The foreseeable conditions made the state into something very palpable for the citizen, a living reality which in its purest sense was his – according to his perception. The opposite was true with the great states of the Orient. The State was not some kind of assistance that one occasionally got in touch with; it simply had to do with all of life and existence altogether. The Polis of the Greek was his home which he gained familiarity with trough his upbringing. It was there for him, he felt, his welfare was in the deepest sense connected to its well-being and its independence, order and sanctity – all the matters of the state were his own, he had them close to himself. Aristotle coined the human being as a “polis creature”; “it is the men which constitute Polis” Thucydides said. The interest of the citizen towards the matters of the polis – for politics – was therefore usually very living, a given thing so to speak; if one did not possess it one was useless, even suspicious, because the responsibility of the cosmos of the state had been neglected. In the Greek polis we meet the free citizen who has a totally different attitude towards the term “state” than the one we find for instance at the minions of the Persian great king.

An old map of Athens - however obviously not as old as the Athens this article is concerned with.
An old map of Athens - however obviously not as old as the Athens this article is concerned with. | Source

The Cosmos of Polis

It seems obvious to consider, that when the thought of cosmos – when it is so widely spread – influenced and shaped the Greek view of life. This is true and it has something to do with the life in the city-state; the conception perhaps has its roots here. If it was something which required order and balance between the diverse amount of individual wishes and wills, then it was the community of the small and narrow space of the little city-state. An intense political tension was always to be found, even outwards in the rivalry towards the neighbor state; the feeling of being in a battle was living and stimulating. It was in an atmosphere like that the people of Athens provided their cultural actions, and where the conceptions of political and personal freedom arose, which became the heritage and the content of which we best know from Athens.

Then given ideal in every single polis was naturally autonomy, the rule of the self under own laws. For it was through laws the unwritten as well as the accepted law the cosmos of polis was secured. The law was the apparent expression of the society, the true man of the community. It was the laws which conditioned the whole life of the citizen from cradle to grave, and it was through this he was raised to become a citizen and a human. The law was something living, something creating – it is polis which makes life unfold itself. As the state itself, law was holy - an expression of the wills of the Gods.
Breaking the law was an abuse. The inevitable godly reaction hit the community as a whole. One were responsible towards everyone, and everyone was responsible towards one. Like all states in the ancient times the Greek was in fact also a religious institution, a cultic community which was concerned with the connection between the citizens and the Gods. The most important duty of the government was to secure the autonomy and happiness of the fatherland by maintaining and renewing the union. Acting and sports were matters of the state. All public events were done with a sacrifice and a prayer. In relation to this, abuse of the Gods was to be seen as crimes against the security of the states.


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