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The participative democracy of Greek city states

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Greece is not a particularly large nation, being just a tad larger than the state of New York in the US or the state of Tamil Nadu in India. Even within that land-mass, most of it was unoccupied, what we know as ‘Greece’ was essentially a handful of self-sufficient ‘city-states’. And it was the political life in these little cities that seems to have given birth to democracy in Europe.

Greek City States

Greek city states, around 500 B.C

What, in particular was special about ‘city states’?

What about these small human communities enabled democratic freedoms and ideas? Sri Aurobindo remarked :

“The tendency to a democratic freedom in which every man had a natural part in the civic life as well as in the cultural institutions of the State, an equal voice in the determination of law and policy and as much share in their execution as could be assured to him by his right as a citizen and his capacity as an individual,—this democratic tendency was inborn in the spirit and inherent in the form of the city state.”  1

These freedoms carried over to a free ordering of social life – a participative, living democracy which rested on two primary ideas :

“The Greeks associated democracy with two main ideas, first, an effective and personal share by each citizen in the actual government, legislation, administration of the community, secondly, a great freedom of individual temperament and action…”  2

How life in ancient Athens shaped later Europe

Epidaurus theater

A theater event at the beautiful Epidaurus theater. Maybe one day we’ll see a play there!  (c) Evi Fylaktou

We have below a truly remarkable picture of ancient Greece, one that has stayed with me to this day:

The cultural and civic life of the Greek city, of which Athens was the supreme achievement, a life in which living itself was an education, where the poorest as well as the richest sat together in the theatre to see and judge the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides and the Athenian trader and shopkeeper took part in the subtle philosophical conversations of Socrates, created for Europe not only its fundamental political types and ideals but practically all its basic forms of intellectual, philosophical, literary and artistic culture.

The natural social type of the small community is such as we see in Athens, where not only Cleon, the tanner, exercised as strong a political influence as the highborn and wealthy Nicias and the highest offices and civic functions were open to men of all classes, but in social functions and connections also there was a free association and equality.. ..We see a similar democratic equality, though of a different type, in the earlier records of Indian civilisation.”  3

Phil Paine, who has researched and written extensively on ancient democracies writes :

“Ancient India was home to many hun­dreds of city-states, ter­ri­to­r­ial states, leagues, and con­fed­era­cies, and many of these were demo­c­ra­tic, or proto-democratic, in the same sense as the poli­ties of Greece. They involved far greater pop­u­la­tions, were con­tem­po­rary with the Greeks, out­lasted them, and prob­a­bly pre­ceded them. Greek trav­el­ers had no dif­fi­culty see­ing their close resem­blance to their own.”  4

City-states thus enabled what we now understand as a ‘direct’ democracy, in which people could directly vote on legislation and bills, in contrast to our modern ‘representative’ democracies. To be honest, when I read about the beauty of city-states (above), all I could think was – why can’t we make all our cities into these lovely ‘city-states’?

It turned out that these marvelous compact units created strong individualistic trends, and posed a great challenge to their collective unity, so much so that ancient Greece had trouble just becoming a nation.

Fantastic self-sufficiency, but no country

“Wherever a nation has been formed, in the modern sense, it has been at the expense of smaller units. The whole history of national growth is the record of a long struggle to establish a central unity by subduing the tendency of smaller units to live to themselves. The ancient polity of Greece was the self-realisation of the city as an unit sufficient to itself while the deme or village was obliged to sacrifice its separate existence to the greater unity of the city-state. Because the Greeks could not find it in their hearts to break the beautiful and perfect mould of their self-sufficient city life, they could never weld themselves into a nation.”  5

Greece – a short-lived but impactful existence

What is especially interesting is Greece’s ephemeral existence;  all the great names of poets, philosophers, sculptors of Greece occur in the short span of two centuries. The Roman empire, which took Greece as its ‘mother civilisation’ in comparison survived for so much longer. Why?

In Greece Philip, the first unifier, made a rapid but imperfect sketch of unification, the celerity of which had been made possible by the previous and yet looser Spartan domination; and had he been followed by successors of a patient talent rather than by a man of vast imagination and supreme genius, this first rough practical outline might have been filled in, strengthened and an enduring work achieved. One who first founds on a large scale and rapidly, needs always as his successor a man with the talent or the genius for organisation rather than an impetus for expansion. A Caesar followed by an Augustus meant a work of massive durability; a Philip followed by an Alexander an achievement of great importance to the world by its results, but in itself a mere splendour of short-lived brilliance.

Of interest :

Two important exceptions to participative democracy
In an earlier note, Sri Aurobindo had mentioned ‘two important exceptions’ to this participative tendency :

‘In the case of the Mediterranean nations, two most important exceptions have to be made to the general participation of all individuals in the full civic and cultural life of the community; for that participation was denied to the slave and hardly granted at all in the narrow life conceded to the woman. In India the institution of slavery was practically absent and the woman had at first a freer and more dignified position than in Greece and Rome; but the slave was soon replaced by the proletariate, called in India the Shudra, and the increasing tendency to deny the highest benefits of the common life and culture to the Shudra and the woman brought down Indian society to the level of its Western congeners.’

Greece under Turkish rule

For three whole centuries – the 15th to the 18th, Greece was under the powerful Ottoman empire, a period which the Greeks refer to as ‘turkocracy’. Greek identity survived because the Turks, unlike the Romans, never tried culturally replacing it with Ottoman ideas.

“The Greek Empire has gone the way of all empires, but the Greek nation, after many centuries of political non-existence, again possesses its separate body, because it has preserved its separate ego and therefore really existed under the covering rule of the Turk. So has it been with all the races under the Turkish yoke, because that powerful suzerainty, stern as it was in many respects, never attempted to obliterate their national characteristics or substitute an Ottoman nationality. These nations have revived and have reconstituted or are attempting to reconstitute themselves in the measure in which they have preserved their real national sense…Greece attempted to reconstitute herself in her mainland, islands and Asiatic colonies, but could not reconstitute the old Greece because many parts had become Bulgarian, Albanian and Turk and no longer Hellenic..

This truth of a real unity is so strong that even nations which never in the past realised an outward unification, to which Fate and circumstance and their own selves have been adverse, nations which have been full of centrifugal forces and easily overpowered by foreign intrusions, have yet always developed a centripetal force as well and arrived inevitably at organised oneness. Ancient Greece clung to her separatist tendencies, her self-sufficient city or regional states, her little mutually repellent autonomies; but the centripetal force was always there manifested in leagues, associations of States, suzerainties like the Spartan and Athenian. It realised itself in the end..”   6



Sri Aurobindo and Greece - book by Amal Kiran (K.D. Sethna)

An incredibly rewarding study of Greece in the light of Sri Aurobindo, by Amal Kiran

  1. Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter XI – ‘The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity’. 
  2. Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part II, Chapter 27 – ‘The Peril of the World-State’
  3. ibid
  4. See also Prof. Steve Muhlberger’s essay “Democracy in ancient India“.
  5. Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, ‘The Village and the Nation’, March 7, 1908
  6. Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter XI – ‘The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity’