Monday, October 26, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part III

We now turn out attention to describing the city-state physically.

The polis was a defined geographical unit, the boundaries of which were known to its citizens, located in an Asty or concentration of urban dwellings. Prior to the Polis, tribes defined separate rallying points for military, religious, or political purposes. With the emergence of the city-state, however, these functions became concentrated in one place. Courts became centrally located and geographically separated religious functions were brought together in the temple of the state gods.

The most important Poleis became economic centers when they attracted potters and other artisans to re-locate there, but it’s important to point out that the initial growth was not a result of commercial activity, but rather, was the complex organization of an agrarian society. Athens, in the beginning, was a group of villages located around the fortress acropolis -- the connection between government and people being a loose one. There were no walls until hundreds of years later when the people had money to build them. Anyway, its was the people and not the structures that mattered as Alcaeus said – “neither houses finely roofed or canals and dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity.”

The aristocrats gained the most from the emerging political system by consolidating their power. They became the officers of the state and imposed their moral and artistic preferences on the people. But that is not to say class power was out of balance, because the Polis was fundamentally a reaction of its citizenry as a whole to the problems of the age. All classes were convinced they must work together to make sure the changing world did not produce chaos.

One can see, in the restriction of individual freedom, a brake applied to the aristocratic class, and whether or not they agreed to it easily, the result was a balance between the classes that would last for hundreds of years. The people of the Polis became patriotic, not by class, but as a people sharing a newly forged independence.

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