The Hellenic Idea of the State

Chapter III: History of the Development of Idea of
The State.

I. The Ancient World

The Hellenic Idea of the State

Johann Kaspar Bluntschli

Authorised English Translation

from the Sixth German Edition



Political science does not properly begin till we come to the Greeks. As it was in Greece that the self-consciousness of man first unfolded itself in art and philosophy, so it was in politics.

Small as was the territory, and limited as was the power of the Greek State, the principles upon which the Greek political conceptions were based were broad and comprehensive, and the political idea ex-pressed by Greek thinkers is lofty and noble. They base the State upon human nature and hold that only in the State can man attain his perfection and find true satisfaction. The State is for them the moral order of the world in which human nature fulfils its end.

Plato (Rep. v. p. 462) utters the great saying: ‘The best State is that which approaches most nearly to the condition of the individual. If a part of the body suffers, the whole body feels the hurt and sympathises altogether with the part affected.’ In this he has already recognized the organic and even the human-organic nature of the State, although with-out following out in its consequences this pregnant thought.

The State, according to Plato, is the highest revelation of human virtue, the harmonious manifestation of the powers of the human soul, humanity perfected. As the soul of man consists of a rational, a spirited, and a desiring element, and as reason and spirit ought to rule the desires, so in the Platonic ideal, the wise ought to rule, the brave warriors should protect the community, and the classes which are occupied with material acquisition and bodily work should obey the two higher orders. In the body politic justice requires that each part should do its own work.(Rep. iv. pp. 428–33.)

Aristotle, for whose political philosophy our admiration rises, the more we consider the works of his successors, is less guided by imagination than Plato, examines reality more carefully and recognizes acutely the needs of man. Plato cuts off from family life the ruling classes of the philosophers and the guardians in order that they may live completely for the State, and demands for them a community of wives and property. Aristotle, on the contrary, wishes to maintain the great institutions of marriage, the family and private property. He declares the State to be ‘the association of clans and village-communities in a complete and self-sufficing life.’  He says that ‘man is by nature a political animal’ and he considers the State as a product of human nature. ‘The State comes into being for the sake of mere life, but exists (or continues to exist) for the sake of the good life.’

In this idea (or ideal) of the State are combined and mingled all the efforts of the Greeks in religion and in law, in morals and social life, in art and science, in the acquisition and management of wealth, in trade and industry. The individual requires the State to give him a legal existence: apart from the State he has neither safety nor freedom The barbarian is a natural enemy, and conquered enemies become slaves, who are excluded from the political community, and are therefore thrust down into a degraded and ignoble position.

The Hellenic State, like the ancient State in general, because it was considered all-powerful, actually possessed too much power. It was all in all. The citizen was nothing, except as a member of the State. His whole existence depended on and was subject to the State. The Athenians indeed possessed and exercised intellectual freedom, but that was only because the Athenian State valued freedom in general highly, not because it recognised the rights of man. This same freest of states allowed Socrates to be executed, and thought it was justified in doing so. The independence of the family, home-life, education, even conjugal fidelity, were in no way secure from State interference; still less of course the private property of the citizens. The State meddled in everything, and knew neither moral nor legal limits to its power. It disposed of the bodies, and even of the talents of its members. It compelled men to accept office as well as to render military service. The individual must first be dead in the State before he could, by means of the State, be born again to a free and noble life. The absolute power of the State, apart from the influence of ancient customs, had almost no other limits than the following: In the first place, the citizens themselves had a share in the exercise of this power, and lest the despotism of the demos might become injurious to themselves also, they avoided the extreme consequences of political communism. In the second place, insignificant matters only supplied small material for their passions to work upon, and they were compelled to pay regard to their neighbours. The Greek States were moreover only composed of fragments of the Hellenic people and sub-races of them. They did not rise much beyond mere city-communes (Stadtgemeinde). The lofty idea had thus only a humble form; although referring to mankind. it could only obtain a childish expression in the narrow limits of a mountain valley or a tract of sea-shore.

The ideal omnipotence and actual impotence of the State are thus closely connected; they are the two chief defects of the Hellenic conception of the State, which is in other respects most worthy, true to human nature, and fruitful in results.

Chapter XX: Democratic Forms of The State:

Direct Democracy (Ancient)


” The desire of the masses to share in the profits and influence of justice, which Aristophanes scourged…became a chronic disease in Athens and gave rise to the scandalous profession of the sycophants. The popular tribunals regarded themselves as the supporters and promoters of popular rule, busied themselves more with party struggles and interests than with the impartial administration of justice, and became an arena for the strife of private and public passions. The corruption of sycophants and judges rapidly increased, and the forms of justice were abused by the arbitrary despotism of the mob.”

There is a great difference between the ancient idea of democracy (dhmokrat–a, the rule of the demos, of the free and equal citizens) and that of modern times. Among the ancients men started from the State and sought to secure the liberty of all by dividing political rule equally among all. Now they start from individual liberty, and strive to give away as little of it as they can to the State, to obey as little as possible. The old democracy, whether absolute or modified in form, was always direct, modern democracy is as a rule representative. It is obvious that the former can only exist in a small state, while the latter is also applicable to a great nation with extended territories.

The Greeks, split up into a number of little states, sought and found in democracy the satisfaction of their political tastes. It is undeniable that something democratic is to be found even in the old monarchies and so-called aristocracies of Greece, which distinguishes them from modern monarchy or from the Roman aristocracy. It is also notable that the greatest Greek philosophers, while unfavourable in their judgment of the absolute democracy of Athens,407 took a moderate democracy as their ideal, and gave to it the name of polity or constitutional govern-ment (polite–a) in a special sense.

Democracy found its most logical expression in Athens, and its nature can nowhere be better studied than in the Athenian constitution. In no other state was the rule of the people so extensive; almost all important business was brought before the ecclesia, which met so frequently, often once a week, that it would be inconceivable if we did not remember that ordinary and professional labour was carried on not by the free citizens but by the numerous slaves.

The ecclesia was the visible representation of the many-headed demos. It contained all citizens over twenty years of age, unless they had become liable to any loss of civic rights. In it, the Athenians felt themselves to be the lords of the state, each individual to be a part of the sovereign whole. The characteristic mark of democracy is that the majority shall rule and that every citizen shall have a share in the governing power, and this was here fully developed. Every citizen had a free right of speech, and the privileges of age, which existed in the times of Solon, were soon swept away with all other restrictions as burdensome. An orator had free scope for his eloquence, and could often exercise a magical influence over the crowd. It was fortunate when great statesmen, like Pericles, could support their opinions by oratory. More often men’s minds were carried away by adroit and ambitious demagogues, who ruled the mob by exciting its passions. There is nothing in the modern state which at all corresponds to this influence of oratory, which moved its assembled hearers far more strongly than the press can move its scattered readers. The orator’s voice and gestures added meaning and emphasis to his words, and the approval of the crowd as it listened in the consciousness of power gave a mighty impulse to the debate. In our own day parliamentary speeches have much less influence, partly because our assemblies are smaller and more select, and partly because their power is more limited.

The powers of the ecclesia embraced the whole life of the State Solon had limited them to the election of magistrates, the control of the government, and advice about laws, but the demos, led by its orators, soon overstepped these limits. The decisions of the people were as decisive as those of an absolute despot; like him the demos could command what it pleased, even though contrary to the law.409 Legislation properly belonged to the nomothetae, but their decisions were practically determined by the debates and votes of the ecclesia, of which they were only a numerous committee elected in each particular case. The assembly itself decided all the important affairs of government. It appointed ambassadors and determined their instructions; it heard the envoys of foreign states, decided on peace or war, chose the generals, and fixed both the pay of the soldiers and the conduct of military operations. In its hands lay the fate of conquered towns and countries, the acceptance of new gods, the regulation of religious festivals and new priesthoods, the granting of the rights and privileges of citizenship. It received once in each prytany (35 or 36 days) a financial report of the State revenue and expenditure; it levied taxes, fixed the tax paid by aliens (meto–kion), regulated the coinage, and demanded voluntary contributions. Its approval was necessary for the construction of temples, public buildings, roads, walls, and ships. It could employ the public revenues even in favour of private individuals by paying for their admission to the theatre. Its powers did not extend to ordinary jurisdiction, but in exceptional cases, when a crime was not covered by the law, or when aggravating circumstances justified extraordinary measures, it debated criminal charges, fixed the penalty, and often decided on the guilt of the accused. The degeneracy which rapidly followed the flourishing period of the democracy increased the abuses of this popular jurisdiction.

In the assembly the majority of citizens present was is decisive. The intelligence of the people, even of the lower classes, was more developed than in any other state, ancient or modern. They could appreciate the tragedies of Aeschyus and Sophocles, they listened to the speeches of Demosthenes, they were enriched by commerce and empire, and by the ample reward of every kind of labour. Yet even amongst such a people as this the majority was unable to resist the seductive arts of demagogues, and was unwilling to exercise its power with wisdom and justice. The minority of nobler and more wealthy citizens was oppressed and maltreated, and Xenophon, referring to his native city, declared it to be a necessary consequence of democracy ‘that the lot of the wicked should be better than that of the goods.’

The constitution of Solon intended that the power of the ecclesia should be limited and to some extent directed by the boulê senate, which was based by Solon upon the aristocratic organization of the people into the four tribes. The members of the tribes were divided into four classes, of which the upper and richer had greater rights and duties to the State, so as to secure the preponderance in the senate of wealth and education. But from the time of Cleisthenes (B.C 510) the institution fell more and more under the control of the masses. The senate of 500 became a small popular assembly, filled up without any regard to property or education. The members were not even elected, but were chosen by lot. They were divided, again by lot, into ten sections of fifty each (prytanes), which took it in turns to conduct business every thirty-six days. Such a body could not exercise any independent authority over the mass of the people, from which it rose to ephemeral power and then sank back into insignificance. It served merely to facilitate the initiation of business and to help the mob in the task of self-government.

The archons, originally important magistrates and belonging to the eupatrids, were to be chosen, according to Solon’s constitution, from the richest class (the pentakosiomıdimnoi). As the democracy developed, lot supplanted the previous qualifications of birth and wealth, and the archons were henceforth only servants of the demos, and powerless presidents of the numerous courts of justice. The latter also were democratically organised, and became a kind of popular assembly, in which no less than 6000 jurors took part; each case, according to its importance, was decided by a hundred or a thousand jurors. The desire of the masses to share in the profits and influence of justice, which Aristophanes scourged with his satire in the Wasps, became a chronic disease in Athens and gave rise to the scandalous profession of the sycophants. The popular tribunals regarded themselves as the supporters and promoters of popular rule, busied themselves more with party struggles and interests than with the impartial administration of justice, and became an arena for the strife of private and public passions. The corruption of sycophants and judges rapidly increased, and the forms of justice were abused by the arbitrary despotism of the mob.