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A Revolutionary Reading List:
The Intellectual Tradition that Influenced the U.S. Founding Fathers

(Released April 2010)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  

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Greek Politics

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The Greek city state served as the fundamental political unit in ancient Greece. These city states experimented in a multitude of different political regimes. One of the most notable, Athens, served as a model for democracy. In Athens citizenship was almost exclusively reserved to free Athenian born males who met certain property requirements. All citizens were expected to participate both in the defense of the state and in the political life of the city. Athens was a direct democracy, which means the entire citizen class was expected to vote on important issues. As a result, rule of the city was unwieldy for a citizen class of more than a few thousand people. Also Athens was frequently subject to class warfare.

The 6th century BC was a time of economic and political turmoil for Athens. Solon, an Athenian statesman of the time, was elected archon to help the city get through the crisis. He instituted a number of economic and legal reforms and created a new constitution. After instituting his reforms, he surrendered his power and left the city for 10 years. Although social friction reemerged after his departure, Solon is widely credited for the development of Greek democracy (Durant, 1939).

ruins of the Acropolis
The Acropolis, icon of ancient Athens

Pericles, the 5th century statesman, served during the golden age of Athens, between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. In the Persian wars, the city states of Greece were able to stand against the larger forces of the Persians. In the wake of victory, Athens flourished both economically and culturally. Athenian prominence eventually helped lead to its downfall. Over-confidence lead the city to attempt to dominate other Greek city states. This incited the Peloponnesian civil wars that ruined much of the surrounding land and eroded Athens' economic and political dominance. This decline of power left Athens vulnerable to subjugation by Sparta, then by Alexander the Great, and finally the Roman Empire.

Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle, a detail of The School of Athens by Raphael
Plato and Aristotle wrote about politics at a time when Athens' power and prominence were in decline. Plato cherished the notion that philosophers would make the best rulers of the state. In The Republic Plato presents a dialogue that starts as an inquiry into the definition of justice, then digresses into a discussion of the ideal state. As a member of the aristocracy, Plato took a somewhat dim view of democracy, which in his definition amounts to mob rule. Instead, he prefers the idea of a state ruled by an intellectual and military elite, who were not allowed to own property, marry, or raise their own children.

Aristotle, Plato's student, frequently disagrees with his teacher. Politics, Aristotle's response to Plato's Republic, challenges Plato's assumptions in many respects. He argues against the Platonic notion that a state's unity is enhanced by holding property, and most particularly wives and children in common. Aristotle believes that people are much more vested in what they own individually and that common interests are more likely to be neglected. Politics covers a wide variety of topics, from human nature, to currency, to the forms of government, the histories of various governments and the composition of their constitutions, perfect states, and modes of revolution. Politics serves as a model for many political treatises that come after it. Aristotle's range of subject matter is so broad and influential it is hard to write about political subjects without rehashing some aspect of his writing.

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