How Did Greece Influence American Government

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For centuries it has been known that societies thrive with effective political, social, and economic organization and structure. As new patterns of human interaction, environmental factors, and technology emerge, new institutions have to be put in place to accommodate the growing population and ideologies. Throughout human history, the world has seen a variety of governments and leaders as a response to managing developing societies. The most influential political structures of the Western Hemisphere have come from Ancient Greece. They are the Athenian Model of the Polis and Plato’s “Just City.” The elements of these two ideologies can still be seen in several modern governments including the one of the United States.

To understand how the poleis developed, one should have some background knowledge in Early Greek history. After several battles and conflicts such as the Peloponnesian War, there finally came a time of rest in the fifth century. During this period, existential security became prominent. Now, Greek life could move beyond war, famine, and death (for the most part) and people had “free time” to engage in political thought, entertainment, and more. The foundation of western/liberal political theory is believed to have emerged during this time because there were several written records of the discourse about the origins and nature of social orders. Knowing this, one can better understand the organization of the poleis and the intended goals.

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The polis, which roughly translates to a political community, is a city-state that is organized as a small, self-contained institution largely due to geographic barriers (Klosko, p. 10). There were several poleis in Ancient Greece, all with different structures of governance but almost all of them promoted communal life and citizenship was required to actively participate in politics. The ability to gain citizenship was not easy because certain conditions had to be met. Individuals had to be of proper age, male, militarily trained, born into a family of citizens, own property, or be selected through a lottery. Naturally, these requirements reduced the pool of citizenship significantly so only about 10% of the population had citizenship status. The rest of the population was composed of non-citizens such as women, children, foreigners, and slaves. They had little to no rights or any major influence in government.

The biggest and most known polis was the Athenian polis with approximately 300,000 residents. Also known as the birthplace of direct democracy, the Athenian polis consisted of popular assemblies which are law courts with large juries composed of citizens and a written constitution. Athenian citizens would use majoritarian decision-making when creating laws, addressing social issues, mediating economic conflict, etc. The Assembly sought the judgement of professionals for scientific or industrial topics, but the assembly also listened to the “common citizen.” This common citizen, or demagogue, is a leader of the people and typically had no official position in politics (Klosko, p. 23). Therefore, it was practically necessary to be well versed in public speaking to be able to appeal to a large population. Some individuals had this skill naturally, but many needed some training. These trainers were known as the sophists. They served as conduits of scholarship and specialized in the art of rhetoric. Most people saw sophists as respectable people due to their line of work but philosophers like Socrates and Plato found their techniques to be deceitful.

Another large part of education in the Athenian polis centered around traditional values, justice, and morality. This ideology refers to widespread belief that God/Gods established the laws of justice and that one’s fate was determined by following or not following the Gods’ rules (Klosko, p. 15). Following that logic, it would have been beneficial to follow laws not because it was the just thing to do, but to gain favor in the heavens. It is evident that law and religion were closely associated. Of course, no analysis of the traditional values is complete without mentioning Nomoi. The term nomoi is a collective term for laws, beliefs, and customs that are created and enforced by men. The laws of nature (divine forces) and the laws of convention (man-made) hold their importance in different ways. Orator Antiphon once said people should follow nomos when others around and physis when alone (Klosko, p. 28). Naturally, philosophers appeared to challenge the legitimacy of the traditional view. In fact, Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, was executed in Athens because he had different beliefs than those upholding traditional views. To reiterate, early education in the polis consisted of teachings on how to be Greek and what it meant to be Greek. (This would imply that foreigners and slaves were excluded from this.) Instructing all Greek children about the traditional value system in all aspects (social, political, and religious) set them up for success. It was also crucial that these children – now adults – continued to follow these practices for the polis to operate smoothly. The education continued through nomoi.

Briefly mentioned above, the role of the citizen means following nomoi. In the polis, any individual who is a citizen should participate in the democratic process because it is his duty. It was a right to hold Athenian citizenship because only a limited amount of people had the correct familial ties, land ownership, and military training. Therefore, it was not only a privilege but also a responsibility for a citizen to vote. The citizen was also expected to pay taxes and serve in the military during times of war if needed. With that being said, there is a direct relationship between the individual and the state.

In contrast to Athens’ direct democracy polis, was the “Just City.” Growing up in a state of turmoil, political theorist Plato concluded that “all existing political institutions are corrupt so effective reform could only come from the outside (Klosko, p. 59). He advocated for an oligarchic leadership and outlined the “Just City” theory in his book The Republic. However, before beginning, one should acknowledge Plato’s definition of justice as it is central to the foundation of his model. For Plato, justice is fulfilling one’s proper role in every aspect from professional to personal (Klosko, p. 65). With this mind, it is no surprise that the first and probably most important component of the city is the “division of labor” (Klosko, p. 68). A staple for a successful state is completing all necessary tasks adeptly so that means placing people in particular classes based on natural ability. The top-most class consists of the rulers, the “middle” class consists of the auxiliaries, and the bottom class consists of laborers. Plato proposed that philosophers should be the rulers because there is less self-interest and more concern for justice in each class. The auxiliaries were the city’s fighting force. The last class were laborers such as farmers, producers, or craftsmen (Klosko, p. 68). The beauty in this system lied in the efficiency. Each person that has been assigned task/job is expected to perform only that task/job to its fullest extent. Otherwise, there would be disharmony if an individual was to deviate from those responsibilities and it would be a direct violation of justice.

Like the Athenian Polis, education is a crucial element for decision-making in the Just City, however only a certain population was afforded this right. Education was only offered to individuals in the top-most class even though education would be a seemingly fundamental and useful basis for every citizen’s duties in society. This divide in who received education was a distinctive characteristic of the Just City. Plato suggested that only the philosopher kings should be taught the skills needed to serve their society effectively because it is only their responsibility to rule (Klosko, p. 68). These skills were most likely intellectual training in law and physical training in defense/security. This training was probably earned at the Academy, an institution founded by Plato in 387 BC.

Another contrasting feature of The Just City is the intertwinement of the four virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) as a means to enforce laws. Unlike the Athenian polis legal system whose goal was to make everyone understand and respect the laws, the Just City simply wanted citizens to respect the laws enough to follow them. This is why the four virtues are essential – they were intended to bring peace and stability. Wisdom and courage are specifically used in the ruling and guarding classes respectively while temperance is used in all classes. A unique aspect of the Just City model is underlining of the three elements of the soul. They are appetite, rational element, and the spirit. The appetite element is described as a bodily desire which could be hunger, thirst, sexual among many. The rational element is described as the ability to distinguish what is truly good for the soul. The spirit element is described as a tool to ensure the rules of reason are followed (Klosko, p. 77). The general belief was that harmony in the individual would naturally bring upon harmony in the state.

This brings up the topic of the role of the citizen and the relationship between the individual and the state in the Just City model. As mentioned before, the basis of this model is the balance of the different components. Therefore, justice in the Just City means acknowledging that one has only one role, being satisfied with the role, and completing the role well. In the Just City, the state expects the individuals to follow the process described because that is how positive contributions are made to society. The Just City model, with its dictatorship like characteristics, controls the individuals social, economic, and political position so that society as a whole can function appropriately and efficiently.

With that being said, the following are some of the flaws in the Ancient Greek systems. Plato believes that justice will inevitably lead to happiness, but justice is not the only component of happiness. True human happiness also involves passion. For example, perhaps a member of the Guardian class would like to share his passion for the military by teaching combat to children of the Productive class. According to Plato, that would be unjust because he is “wasting” time on teaching rather than doing his job. I think this is where Plato’s system is lacking and thankfully the opposite occurs in our country. People are encouraged to achieve their goals and the guiding force are usually teachers and professors who are eager to share their knowledge with students.

The largest weakness of the Athenian polis are the disadvantaged minority groups; 90% of the population was unable to participate in the democratic systems. For centuries, women have been systematically oppressed in several aspects. The status of women was the same in both the Athenian Polis and Just City because they were both highly patriarchal societies (O’Neal, 2012). Very few women were out in respectable professional fields. Instead, females were typically confined to the household and domestic duties such as raising the children, cooking, cleaning, etc. Though, that in itself is a form of guardianship according to Plato (Taylor, 2013). For unmarried girls, their social role usually included sexual liaisons. Along with women, slaves also a large minority group in Ancient Greece. This was specific to the Athenian polis because slaves would be probably be considered part of the productive class in the Just City model. Slaves were typically captured from war and used in private homes, factories, and mines (Agathe, n.d.). As imagined, they were not treated well. Both groups were excluded from attaining citizenship. It is unfair for majority of the population to have no say in the regulations of their society. Fortunately, we have come a long way since then but of course there are many still many obstacles to overcome.

Naturally, the strengths of each of the system have been replicated worldwide. Ancient Greek bureaucracies have greatly influenced western governments of modern times especially our own. The American government utilizes elements of both Athenian bodies to get the “best of both worlds” so there are some similarities within the institutions. For example, concept that comes from the Athenian polis include the work of sophists. The job description of these professionals has been passed down thousands of years. Today they are known as political consultants and their work is particularly useful during the time leading up to a major election (Klosko, p. 24).

Another example is the use of the assembly which has undoubtedly been modified to accommodate our population, customs, and economic standards. Like Ancient Greek governmental bodies, the American governmental bodies are based on the concepts outlined in the constitution which include the legislative Senate and Congress. Also like the Athenian polis, the United States also experienced large scale immigration. In Ancient Greece, metics, skilled citizens of foreign cities traveled to Athens to profit from various industries. In America, between 1600s to the 1900s, there was widespread emigration from European, African, Asian, and South American nations. Naturally, there were economic benefits to this practice in both Athens and the United States because there was increased innovation and a large labor force.

As for Plato’s Just City model, concepts that are in use today include the conventional belief that leaders should be qualified through education and relevant experiences. This idea gives rise to meritocracy. This ideology states that the ability to rule should be measured independently of wealth, gender or other forms of privilege (Jowett, 2016). However, it is evident with the current administration that not all people value education, experience, and meritocracy to the same extent. Regardless, it is a belief that is usually observed.

Naturally there are some key differences as well. One of them is the role of education in each body. In the U.S., the common core arrangement is practiced. K-12 education is mandatory with some exceptions that vary from state to state. This means that all children (in theory) are receiving some sort of basic education unlike the Just City Model but like the Athenian polis. The biggest difference lies in what values are fostered in each education system and how they are expanded in institutions of higher education. The overarching goal for the most part is to give people the tools to achieve individual ambition. This is in contrast to the polis and Just City because the goals there were more community based. Naturally, our legal system supports this idea of individual ambition and this often translates to capitalism. The relationship between the individual and the state in America can be described as liberal for the most part. As for the role of the citizen, which goes hand in hand with the relationship between the state, like any other governmental body, Americans do have important roles as citizens. Like the polis, citizens are expected to participate in democratic institutions like voting, paying taxes, contributing to society, etc. but there are more liberties. On a freedom scale, we enjoy a much higher level of freedom compared to the polis or the Just City.

Partially described above, here are some things that modern society should adopt from the Ancient Greek systems with some modifications. The assignment of roles in the Just City brought overall balance, peace, and harmony. Similarly, the United States should enact a quota of the jobs that require specific skill set. There are essential jobs in our society that must be fulfilled so that people can live safely and comfortably. For example, this country needs water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators, teachers, tractor-trailer truck drivers, refuse and recyclable material collectors, construction laborers, agricultural managers, and many more professionals (Brooks, 2016). To make this concept more attractive, the government could offer incentives to fill these spots so that people are motivated to get jobs like this. The modification of choice is essential here. Everyone should have the opportunity to make his/her career choice, people should not be forced. The hope would be that individuals pursuing an essential or innovative career are doing it out of happiness and not helplessness.

The Athenian polis thrived in its own way and Plato’s Just City outlined in the Republic certainly had the potential to be enacted. Naturally, as technology improves and human thought patterns develop, social, economic, and political standards need to evolve as well. Eventually, the governing societies of today will become models for future governing societies.

Works Cited

  1. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/9209-essential-us-jobs.html
  2. http://www.agathe.gr/democracy/slaves_and_resident_aliens.html
  3. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm
  4. https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199646043.001.0001/acprof-9780199646043-chapter-5
  5. https://www.ancient.eu/article/447/the-status-of-women-in-ancient-athens/
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