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Limits of Greek Democracy

Socrates (469-399 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE), two of the most influential of the ancient Greek philosophers, were suspicious of the idea of equality. Socrates did not care for the idea in general, and Aristotle thought it could, within a state, yield new forms of abuse of power. Equality, as they conceived of it, was very different from modern Western conceptions of the principle of the universal, inalienable rights of all individuals. And, although ancient Greece is often regarded as the birthplace of democracy, this form of government was very different from the way the modern industrialized world thinks of it. The concept of equality that was one basis of Greek ideas of democracy assumed that all citizens were equal. But, since foreigners, women, and slaves were not allowed to become citizens, democracy meant equality among those who--usually by birth--were entitled to be citizens of a particular place. And, among this limited number of persons who were considered equal--or whose equality was even the subject of debate, there were also significant differences between the realities of political, social, and economic equality. Even within these limitations, however, neither Socrates (who hated the idea) nor Aristotle (who admitted some of its principles) was committed to the idea of democracy.

Greek democracy was not put into practice anywhere other than Athens and, even there, it was very short-lived. The Athenian democracy flourished between 480 and 431 and it was "one of the few ancient attempts at truly equalising the rich and the poor" (Grant 65). More than half the citizens were literate and the people controlled the law courts, yet although the middle and laboring classes had won only "political, [and] not social, equality with the landowning gentry," there was never any attempt to force any other type of equality on the rich (Stone 119). Even though the citizenry at large "claimed equality [they also] conti...

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Limits of Greek Democracy. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 15:04, February 22, 2017, from