Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part II

In the last post we established background for the growth of the Polis. The key ingredients for this included the establishment of an aristocratic class that was wealthy and powerful, the strengthening of a lower class of small farmers through numbers, and a setting of isolation which allowed the Polis to incubate undisturbed. With the foundation laid, we now move on to the process.

We start with the most fundamental element – the decline of personal leadership. In many evolving societies, the same situation would have seen the central leader become dominant, the early Roman Republic and its Etruscan kings serving as a good example. In other sitiations, personal leadership succeeded because it was supported from the outside and gained power artificially.

But personal leadership did not survive in Archaic Greece.

The authoritarian model left after the Dorian invasion was the Basileus, a tribal chieftain who served as a military leader and not a king. The Basileis (plural) ultimately disappeared because they could not accumulate enough power to become kings. The factors blocking the accumulation of power follow:

• Their only wealth was derived from personal holdings and they never were able to control the wealth of others (taxation).

• They were never able to establish an inherited position.

• The aristocracy viewed itself as equal to the Basileus and would not cede power to a single individual.

• The masses derived power from numbers and their participation in the military (phalanx). Greater and lesser land owners stood together in battle and against personal leadership.

• Kingship was not needed when foreign threats were minor.

When did the Polis come into being? No one knows exactly, but the following diagram is an approximation.

We know that the words of Hesiod are pre-Polis because they describe an age of kings. We also know that there was an increase in the tempo of artistic activity around 700 B.C, which may have been linked to the new freedoms of the Polis. Lastly, we know that the creation of the Phalanx (circa 700 B.C.) roughly coincided with the beginning of the Polis. Perhaps the Phalanx was the final key to creating balance between the classes -- a balance which faciliated the building of a cooperative political system.


John Cawley said...

What you're saying is the unique achievements of Greek intellect were driven by the advent of the city state.

You view historical development with a modern eye: by economic class and political structure (I almost said polities) . Not that there's anything wrong with this--my own lens is a bit different, perhaps more superficial, as i tend to mark that period more by the progression of idea and achievement. So the Greek discovery of a rational interpretation of the world helped midwife quantitative science. How does one gauge the impact of Archimedes' math and Euclid's Elements on society? (very carefully). I think it's obvious to say that some things, like the invention of geometry, are so dramatic and pervasive in effect as to be invisible..

Perhaps you're right. I can't help but think of another seminal period, the Renaissance, also based on the city state.

John C.

Mike Anderson said...


I don't know if I'm willing to say the achievements of the Greek intellect were all driven by the Polis. I think the Polis was a vehicle for free expression and balance between the classes, so it validated people's intent to create a new kind of society.

John Cawley said...

then I would change the title to "The Polis as an Engine.." as opposed to "the" engine...