Sample Paper on Modern Understandings of Political Community

Political Community

Difference between the Classical Greek and Modern Understandings of Political Community


The evolution of man allowed the building of close kinship ties, the amalgamation of families, and eventually the formation of communities. Communities have complex relationships that require a framework within which to operate for peace and order to abide. Communities also need to have some structure of governance that moderates the power relationships within the community, ensuring that individual interests within the community are protected. The issue of governance of a community in essence involves politics, which determines the kind of governance and power relationships that exist in a community. The Greek were among the very first communities to develop an elaborate governance system, recording their political philosophy for posterity. This paper shall examine the Greek concept of a political community and explore what the term meant in a Greek context. The modern understanding of the term shall also be examined and the nuances of political community explored, and compared to the Greek understanding of the term to deduce the differences between the two views. The essay shall also examine whether it is possible to bridge the gap between the Greek and modern views of political community.

Greek Understanding of Political Community

Greek civilization has had a significant impact on modern political thought and contributed a lot to the modern understanding of governance and individual liberties, due to the advances that the civilization had made socially and politically compared to other old civilizations. The great impact of the Greek civilization on modern thinking is mainly due to its location in the heartland of Europe in addition to the records that were left by the greatest scholars of that era. The art of writing, which had already been invented by the time Greece was reaching its zenith, enabled the preservation of the way of life of the Greeks, making it possible to have a glimpse of the way their life was organized. The Greeks were among the very first civilizations to define the term ‘political community’, and to base their governance and relationships within the term.

The etymology of the term ‘political community’ can be traced to the Greek word, polis, which is considered directly untranslatable into modern languages. The word has been variously translated as state, nation, society or city-state into our modern languages. However, the problem of translation may be mainly due to the fact that the word designated a reality that was peculiar to stage in Greek civilization that has no equivalent in our modern civilization. Greek civilization begun to take shape around 1200 BC, when the Mycenaean civilization perished, paving the way for the rise of the Greek civilization. There had been varied governance structures in antiquity Greece, which evolved as the Greek civilization advanced and became more sophisticated. By the eighth century BC, the polis began to emerge as a new form in which communities were organized socially and politically.

The polis soon became the dominant organizational structure through which the governance of ancient Greek was based, defining and regulating the power relationships that existed within the community. The polis remained the dominant form of organization and governance up to around 323 BC when Alexander the great died, leading to a change in the governance structures in Greece, because the monarchies that Alexander’s successors founded overshadowed the polis, especially in international affairs. The fifth century BC marked the golden age of the Greek civilization, especially of Athens, the largest and best documented of the many Greek city states, when the polis, as a form of social and political organization structure was at its zenith. To have a clear idea about the Greek understanding of the term ‘political community’, it is necessary to investigate the term polis, and what it meant to the ancient Greeks.

The polis as a political entity is peculiar to classical Greece and predominated between the eighth and fourth centuries as the preferred form of organization and governance, connecting a human community (Greek community) to a determinate territory. The polis could, first, be considered as a community that had trans-generational permanence, surviving the death of its members, even those considered as its founders. It had a transfamilial identity, implying that the polis was greater than the family units, which formed it, and had an identity that was outside and greater than the familial identities. Members of a polis had a solidarity that transcended all ties of blood, making the polis greater in significance and more deserving of loyalty than the family. The polis as a political entity was unique and peculiar because during this time, other peoples lived in empires that had an ‘ethnic’ identity. The polis consisted of a small free community consisting of a number of households, ranging from a few hundreds to thousands, whose unity was political.

The polis afforded every single member the right to contribute in all public debates, to participate in the decision-making process, had territorial sovereignty, had its own protective god(s) and made its own laws through the participation of the members of the polis (Aristotle). All polis had three distinctive governmental institutions that were common, which determined the power relationships in the polis and, consequently, the type of polis. The first common institution was called the Assembly, bringing together the members of the polis, the polites, or citizens. The Greek definition of a citizen was very narrow, and contained many exclusions. The Greek defines citizen as a mature man, meaning that foreigners, minors, women and slaves were never considered as citizens, who had an equal right to be heard in the assembly and directly participated in the decision-making process. The second institution was the smaller council or councils, depending on the size of the polis, mandated to execute the decisions of the assembly as a means of increasing the efficiency of the polis.

Finally, each polis had the archai, which were public offices or magistracies that had administrative duties in the polis. All citizens could serve in the council or magistracies, and serving was in alternation through the drawing of lots. The only exceptions were the financial and military magistracies or councils, which were not open to all members of the polis. Decision making, especially in the polis of Athens, was democratic, where decisions will be adopted after debate and a vote by the assembly, and the course of action the majority supported was adopted as the decision of the assembly and implemented by the council and archai. Greeks were strongly attached to their polis, often sacrificing their time for its administration and were willing to sacrifice their lives for the defense of the polis. The polis was the foundation upon which the life of a Greek citizen was built on, and hence, the punishment feared most by all Greeks was banishment from the polis.

The polis was not a neutral avenue through which the Greek could exchange or circulate goods, this is because the Greek considered social and economic c exchanges as belonging to the oikos (private) realm and not a matter of polis (public) concern. The polis therefore was not a byproduct of the human interactions and interdependency between citizens. Rather the unity of the polis rose out of deliberate actions that were taken by citizens to administer and defend it. Therefore,  a polis was a political unity of citizens, who banded together to form a community that was governed by a common law and where each of the citizens had an equal right to participate in the administration of the polis as well as in the formulation of its laws and decisions. The Greek political community consisted of a union of citizens, who were all free, where each citizen was entitled to take part in the decision making process of the community and had an equal chance of being the ruler of the community. The political community was independent of economic and social interactions, which the Greeks considered as private matters, and existed purely as a political union.

Modern understanding of political community

The concept of ‘political community’ has evolved from the ancient Greek understanding to something that is substantially different in the post-modern era. Before the European reformation, Catholicism was the biggest influence on political thought and Christianity was the central tenet around which life revolved. The political community in the dark ages was a Christendom community that was defined and bound by shared basic moral and philosophical commitments, and leaders acknowledged the presence of an authority beyond their own power and will (Augustine the City of God). However, the reformation that was precipitated by Martin Luther’s challenge on papal authority also brought changes on the conception of the political community. The modern concept of the term ‘political community’ is partly influenced by the ancient Greek concept of the term (Nichols, 1987). In addition, the modern concept of political community has also been influenced by the writings of Kant, Marx and Locke who advanced the concept of political community in different ways.

In the modern conception of a political community, the individual is considered to have an ontological primacy over the political community, because it is assumed that individuals are free and equal from the very beginning, that is, it is the natural state of man to be free. Equality of people is considered as innate and not something that can be given or earned, implying that a person is first an individual, and then a member of a community. The theories of Locke and Kant are based on the on the principle of the individualism of man that posits that a person is individualistic in nature, has self-determination and is autonomous, able to do whatever is necessary to advance his self-interest. However, a society consists of many innately free individuals, each with the capacity to act individually in the pursuit of her self-interest. This means that if the community remains unregulated, individuals will eventually be in conflict with no restraining or regulating authority. It is in the need to avoid anarchy and continual strive that individuals form a political community.

The political community is the only means that individuals can use to secure the individual rights to pursue their interests (Linklater 1998). Locke hypothesizes that before a political community is born, individuals must first agree to form the political community. The agreement is not superficial but involves the commitment of individuals to place their property under public regulation. The forming of the political community in essence is a part revocation of the individualism that is innate to the nature of people since it entails the acceptance of an individual to be under an authority, greater than their individual will. Locke states that commitment to form a political community is irrevocable, once a person is part of the community, she cannot opt out. The political community formed has a territorial claim, which can be assumed to be an aggregation of the properties of the individuals forming the community. The second stage in the formation of a political community involves the agreement by individuals to subjugate private judgment about the law of nature to public judgment. The public judgment need not be unanimous but at least a majority decision is needed for the public judgment to prevail.

The view that the political community is a consequence of individuals coming together through rational consent with a view of securing their peace, life liberty and property has implications for the conception of the political community. The political community or state in this case, is secondary to the individual’s perception of good and his efforts to achieve the perceived good (Bielskis, 2005). This understanding has a minimalist approach to the political community, which is considered neutral and merely facilitates an individual’s pursuit of good, solving, and being an arbiter of those conflicts that an individual cannot solve, which inevitably arise from the individual’s pursuit of happiness. The minimalist approach to the conception of the political community is also a consequence of the decline of teleological philosophy in Europe during the great reformation coupled with the concept of an individual’s self-sufficiency (Mill 2001).

The political community has traditionally been considered as limited by boundaries that define the extent to which the community’s influence reaches. However, the post-modernist view considers the concept of a post-territorial political community not only likely but also presently possible (Chandler, 2009). Chandler argues that there has been a ‘hollowing out’ or gradual death of territorial politics making the territorial framework that defines the modern view of political community untenable going forward (2009). Post-structuralist theorists argue that defining political community in exclusive territorial terms is divisive because it involves the separation of people and pigeon-holing them into static boundaries in an era of increasing interconnectedness due to globalization. In addition, the traditional political community was exclusivist in nature because only a limited number of persons can possibly occupy a territory at any given time. The political community will, therefore, no longer defined by boundaries, which confine an individual and prevent him from pursuing happiness, whenever that journey leads her.

Difference between Greek and modern understanding of political community

The main difference between the Greek and modern understanding of political community lies in how the political community is formed. This is what brings the differences in conception of the importance of the political community vis-à-vis the individual. In Greece, the political community arose, independent of individual interaction, and individuals were duty bound to help in the administration of the political community and if need be, die for its protection. The political community was superior to the individual, and an individual could not possibly survive outside of the political community. An individual was merely a part of something greater, the political community, and no happiness could be possibly found outside of the community. The modern political community on the other hand arose out of individual interaction, where individuals in a bid to advance and protect their happiness formed the political community, out of selfish interests. In the modern view, a political community is subordinate to the individual because an individual is already self-reliant and does not need the political community for survival. The political community merely serves as an arbiter of the disputes arising between individuals in their pursuit of happiness as well as protecting the individual’s property.

The Greek and modern views of political community are similar in some respects, considering that the modern conception of the political community was influenced by the Greeks. However, there is a dichotomy between the two views, centered on the place of the individual within the political community because the Greeks considered an individual to be subordinate to the political community while the modern view is that the political community is subordinate to the individual. The preeminence of the individual within the political system makes it difficult to reconcile the Greek and modern views of political community, considering that for the Greeks, the political community were the basis of communal and individual existence. The modern concept of the political community is also evolving rapidly and moving further and further away from the Greek concept. For example, for the Greek, territorial sovereignty for the polis was non-negotiable and citizens were willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the territorial integrity of the polis. Currently, the discourse on political community is moving away from territorial to post-territorial phase. This means that it is not possible to reconcile the two views, which are gradually becoming polar opposites, with few similarities.




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