Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part I

The Polis was one of the two great outcomes of the Greek Archaic Age, along with colonization. While the former was an expression of the Greek desire to expand trade and reach the outside world, building of the city-state was far more important to the Greeks and western man as a whole because:

The Polis was the first governmental structure that supported the free expression of the human mind to pursue an intellectual foundation for his existence.

We will take the next couple of posts to describe how this happened.

We start in the Archaic Period – the Revolutionary Portion where the Greek people were in a struggle to create a cultural model which would remove the individual from the tribe and overcome the clan-based existence which had constrained man’s ability to reason since he came into being.

An aristocratic class came to power in about 750 B.C, as the most powerful and aggressive segment of Greek society. As they acquired wealth, the aristocrats were able to assert their independence as individuals. They began to create social distinctions to separate themselves from the rest of the people, and adopt a more refined and cultured way of life. This, in turn, fostered a more conscious analysis of man’s nature and place. Oriental influence was pervasive and the aristocrats did not limit themselves in any way, demanding new models for artistic expression.

Early on the upper class realized the value of passing on their cultural model, so fathers began to set standards for their children’s education by engaging tutors and philosophers to teach them. As the children grew, they were subject to peer pressure to conform to the model of their class, which resulted in a tightening of the model.

So the aristocracy grew – but not unchecked – because it had two significant constraints: its character and pressure from the outside. The aristocratic class had not existed long enough to forget its roots and it continued to retain a kinship to the rest of the society. Pressure from the outside was exerted by the masses, who, lacked power, but had unity and the capability to meet the needs of the aristocracy in the economic and military spheres.

The word aristocratic is often used in a negative connotation; implying arrogance, abuse of wealth, etc., but I use the word in a more fundamental sense here. I believe an aristocratic class develops as a logical step in the process of building human society. You always here me talking about people and their segmentation in society – a natural process we cannot alter. In the same way, the aristocratic class is the first to develop out of tribal society because it is made up of individuals who are able to use intelligence and guile to accumulate wealth and power – both used to exert control over the lower classes.

In Greece, that control was tempered by the small farmers who were able to act as a counterweight to aristocratic power through numbers. They experienced significant growth to the point of a surplus of people, and those numbers drove migration and mobility of the class and a freedom to choose how they wanted to live.

In the end, the delicate balance between the classes was protected by geographical isolation. Greece was free to incubate its city-state in a pure form without interference from forces on the outside that would upset that balance.

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