The 5th century BC is generally look upon as the heyday of the Athenian polis. The peak is preceded by centuries of strife, rapprochement and fusion among distinct tribes that will eventually make up the polis and remain visible as members of the political order of Athens.
This post is related to Demos and Freedom - Robust and Non-Robust Conditions of Liberty - [Image credit]
Ancient Greece is a melting pot of very different cultural traditions, religious commitments and outlooks of the world. In addition, the seafaring and trading elements are constantly exposed to the challenges and insights of dealing with alien people and their peculiar cultures. Finally, the gods of the Greek are considered more knowledgeable than ordinary mortals, but it is thought within the purview of the assiduous to work out and come close to acquiring the knowledge of the gods. This creates a strong incentive to research and strive in other ways for genuinely new insights.
Thirst for Knowledge and the Impulse for Freedom
Taking all this together, Athens incubates a culture, probably the first culture, in which critical thinking is a prominent feature in the lives of its citizens. To many among the ancient Greek, it is a virtue and a passion to try to discover whether things are actually different from what they hitherto had been held to be. Custom, tradition, cultural and religious dogma are not hermetically shielded from critical examination, and different points of view that seep in thanks to contact with other Greek tribes and strangers contribute to the Greek mission of re-examining the world.
The emerging attitude of critical thought represents a fundamental paradigm shift that will be decisive in the breakthrough of a new concept of the community. When everyone is thought capable of piercing with his mind the world's superficial phenomena to get closer to their essence and real structure, you create a totally new notion of who people really are and what station they deserve within the community. You create a public consisting of human beings equally endowed with powerful capabilities to conquer the world with their brains. This is the birth of the democratic public.
At this point, the inquisitive, ever researching Greek mind, takes a seminal cue from former attainments in the study of the physical world. The Greek natural philosopher is deeply convinced that there is to be found measure, proportion, and harmony in the depth structure of nature. The helter skelter around us may be actually reduced to basic elements (atoms), a substratum from which variety is derived in a way that is orderly and open to explanation. This atomistic theory is carried over to a new realm of intellectual curiosity.
[T]he Greeks of the fifth century had become familiar - through their contacts with foreign peoples and through rapid changes of legislation in their own states - with the variety and the flux of human custom.
What more natural, then, than that they should find in custom and convention the analogue of fleeting appearances and should seek again for a "nature" or a permanent principle by which the appearances could be reduced to regularity? The substance of the physical philosophers reappeared as a "law of nature," eternal amid the endless qualifications and modifications of human circumstance. If only such a permanent law could be found, human life might be brought to a degree of reasonableness.
Thus it happened that Greek political and ethical philosophy continued along the ancient line already struck out by the philosophy of nature-the search for permanence amid change and for unity amid the manifold.
(A History of Political Theory, G.H. Sabine, 1961, p.28)
The Inquisitive Demos
Under the umbrella of this paradigm, a people is gathered to examine their natural and human universe, to come up with hypotheses and challenge one another, and debate as intellectual equals their understanding of matters.
The search for harmony, measure, proportion is not only the guiding presumption of the curious Greek mind, but also the highest value for the member of the polis. As I wrote in Ancient Greece and Freedom:
[T]he participation of the individual [in the public sphere] is paramount, but not for his own sake in the modern sense of personal freedom, rather in order to create a harmonious social whole. Property and family are secondary concerns. Freedom is serving the community, freedom is assuming a role, fitting into the community so as to preserve its capacity for harmony.
Intellectual factions emerge which prefigure in astounding ways contemporary disputes (including those among libertarians), but what matters most for the present purpose is that two indispensable elements to be found in modern liberty are making their appearance:
- the right to question the world before your eyes, and
- the endowment of an entire population with this right.
This is the creation of an egalitarian demos, whose every member is invited to apply his critical faculty to trace the laws
which, if understood, would tell why men behave as they do and why they think some ways of doing are honorable and good, others base and evil."