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Civic Virtue Plays In Democratic Athens Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3309 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The ancient Greeks were the first society in the recorded history of mankind to fully establish to concept of democracy and practically apply the democratic ethos to their political construction (Arblaster, 2002). As such, for a plethora of reasons, Athenian democracy represents a focal starting point for any academic investigation into the wider connotations of the democratic principle. In the modern setting, democracy has been inextricably linked with the liberal democratic variant. In liberal democracies the polity elects its political representatives and thus bestows upon them the sovereign authority to govern (Arblaster, 2002). However, earlier democratic forms such as that in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome were based on a more direct understanding of democracy. Thus, those groups who were viewed as part of the polity played a direct role in the political decision making which took place. Thus, city states such as Athens enshrined the principles of direct democracy, although it is of course important to remember that membership of the polity was often exclusive and many social groups were excluded (women, slaves etc).

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Given that Athenian democracy generally personified the central principles of direct democracy, then the concept of civic virtue was central to the political foundations of the democratic system itself. The very tenets of direct democracy require an active and participatory polity which engages with the political issues which arise (Sinclair, 1993). Thus, a virtuous and active polity was of paramount importance to the Athenians and many philosophers at the time argued that democratic processes could not properly function without it (Sinclair, 1993).

Given the above, the purpose of this work is to assess and examine the role played by civic virtue in Athenian democracy. As suggested above, it will be shown that the concept of civic virtue and an active polity was central to the democratic processes of Athens. Citizenship was thus conceptualised in terms which prescribed for participation in the democratic process, rather than some abstract concept of rights and laws. Following this assessment, detailed investigation will be undertaken as to the relevance of civic virtue in the modern setting. In line with the above suggestion, it will be shown that the onset of mass electorates and complex democracies led to a clear and overt reduction in the relevance of civic virtue. Nonetheless, in recent times it is possible to see the degree to which active participation is increasingly being viewed as important, especially in an era of relative political apathy. Indeed, the outlook adopted by the current British Prime Minister acts as a pertinent case study example of this progression and will thus be utilised later in this work. However, before such examination is undertaken it is first prudent to provide a definitional outline of the concept of civic virtue so that later assertions are based on a firm analytical foundation.

Civic virtue refers to a general set of positive assumptions which pervade society in its entirety (Carter, 1998). A virtuous society is therefore one which is founded on clear opinions which generally denote goodness and a caring attitude for other people in society. Thus, civic virtue is inextricably linked with a general attitude which views the needs of society over that of the individual (Carter, 1998). Habits and social processes which develop as a result of the democratic ethos are thus personally formed. The individual is therefore vital to the propagation of civic virtue, however, only when the polity as a unified entity adopts such a virtuous stance can a society be truly viewed as exhibiting the necessary qualities of civic virtue (Carter, 1998). Given this, the concept of civility itself is central to the requirements of civic virtue. Civility denotes the behavioural patterns of social groups which act in conjunction for a wider common good (Carter, 1998). In the modern setting, this understanding of civility has been applied to the idea of civil society and the behavioural norms which arise from laws.

The above discussion thus highlights the central tenets of civic virtue. As suggested above, the concept of civic virtue was vitally important to many of the key thinkers and philosophers who emanated from Ancient Greece. As such, there was a understanding (at least for a time) that the general polity should be endowed with virtuous understandings of themselves and society in general. Some philosophers such as Plato argued that education was essential in ensuring that virtuous tendencies would prevail (Jones, 1957). However, Jones (1957; p. 34-37) suggests that even Plato himself was unsure about the practicalities of educating the entire population in this way, even before his fellow philosophy Socrates openly voiced such concerns.

It is important to note that Socrates was as supportive of the civic virtue principle as Plato, however, the argument that virtuous outlooks could not be given to all people in Athens was based on practical realities. In addition, Socrates suggested that even if widespread and virtuous education was provided there would still be a gulf in virtue between ordinary people and philosophers (Stockton, 1990). Thus, it is possible to see the degree to which arguments relating to practicalities were present even in Athens.

Nevertheless, the concept of civic virtue was central to Athenian democracy, primarily because of the nature of the democratic system itself. As suggested above, the Athenians established a democratic system based on the principle of direct participation. Therefore, classical Athens was what Arblaster (2002; p. 4) terms a “direct democracy”. Each citizen was viewed as a part of a wider whole and without the active role of the citizenry the democratic system itself could not function. Naturally, this understanding of the active citizen forming assumptions on the basis of a virtuous outlook is contradicted by the practical problems suggested by Socrates. However, the direct democratic principle was central to Athenian democracy and therefore such a system could not effectively avoid tyranny without the active participation of the wider democratic polity. Indeed, Dunn (2002; p. 98) argues that the other main arena of democracy in the Ancient world – Rome – faltered primarily because of a lack of civic virtue and the consequent participation in the democratic process.

As such, the very nature of the democratic process in Athens required as a prerequisite the overt and active inclusion of civic virtue in order to avoid the kind of authoritarianism which developed in Rome. As suggested, both Plato and Socrates viewed a participatory polity as important, however, for Aristotle, the role of the active citizen was pivotal. In his seminal work The Politics, Aristotle outlined in clear and overt terms the requirements of the citizen. This vision of the perfect citizen was based heavily on central participation (Aristotle, 1946). However, Aristotle’s understanding of citizenship differed considerably from both Plato and Socrates. Above all, Aristotle viewed the perfect citizen as someone who contributed to the general polity. As such, citizenship was not about receiving rights in the form of laws, but rather, clear and specific duties (Aristotle, 1946). The active citizen was therefore someone who viewed the needs of society as being greater than their own. The needs and requirements of society would be laid down in laws, thus, it was the duty of the citizen to abide by and enforce the laws passed by the democratic polity.

As such, it is possible to see how Aristotle viewed the law itself as being the guiding force which would direct civic virtue. Moreover, Aristotle was supportive of the laws capacity to act as an educational force of direction over the formation and development of civic virtue (Ober, 1989). Of course, Socrates in particular was very critical of this assumption, however, the fact remains that active citizenry was a key part of the democratic process in Ancient Athens. Moreover, although Socrates’ concerns are evidently justified and supportable, it is difficult to counter the assumption that the law acted as the central guide for how civic virtue should be developed. Therefore, it can be concluded that civic virtue in Athens was central to the formation and propagation of the democratic ethos. Moreover, the democratic variant adopted in Athens with its reliance of the active citizen, clearly indicates the degree to which civic virtue was essential in order for the system itself to function. One may well engage in debates as to how best to develop this civic culture, however, the conclusion that such cultural trends in the general polity were pivotal remains unchanged.

As such, the various discussions and assessments undertaken above have highlighted the extent to which civic virtue assumed a central place in the democratic processes of Ancient Athens. Philosophers may have disagreed with how best to develop such culture, however, all remained convinced that a virtuous citizenry was essential in order to avoid the worst excesses of human nature. Moreover, an active participatory citizenry would bestow legitimacy and accountability on those in positions of political authority and thus to the political system itself (Stockton, 1990).

The concept of civic virtue which was so central to the Athenian model of democracy that did not die with the collapse of Ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, for millennia philosophers have continued to extol the virtues of the active citizen and attempt to proffer arguments in favour of civic virtue and possible methods of achieving it (Arblaster, 2002). Therefore, it is first important to highlight the fact that civic virtue is not an abstract concept with little possibility of practical application in the modern setting. This being said, a number of problems arise when one attempts to suggest methods for the establishment of civic virtue in a complex modern society.

As outlined above, one of the primary reasons why civic virtue was so central to Athenian democracy was because of the actual system adopted in Athens. The direct democratic model acted as the best possible conduit through which civic virtue could be developed. Thus, when assessing the modern relevance of civic culture, the democratic system itself seems a prudent and sensible place to begin.

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The concept of civic virtue reappeared long before the widespread onset of liberal democracy. During the revolutions which took place in France and the American colonies during the latter 18th century the concept of widely used to highlight how the citizenry is vital to ensuring the sanctity of the sovereign power (Dagger, 1997). In particular, the American revolution was founded on the idea that cultivating an active citizenry on the basis of civic virtue was essential. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin was convinced that such cultivation was required in order that the revolution would not falter and reverse back into authoritarian despotism (Dagger, 1997). However, authoritarian rule as personified by the absolute monarch contained a number of positive elements in relation to the formation of civic culture. Foremost among these was the idea that as monarchs were divine in origin, then their superior position would be respected by the wider population. Thus, if the monarch set about establishing a sense of civic virtue, then their subjects would duly follow suit (Dagger, 1997). However, in a republic, the leading political powers would servants to the people and thus the people would feel little need to follow the ideas passed down to them on issues such as civic virtue (Dagger, 1997).

The above discussion highlights one problem with civic virtue in the modern democratic setting. However, the actual nature of modern democracies also often serves to act against the formation of civic culture, and an active citizenry in particular. Above all, liberal democracies such as that developed by the American revolutionary colonists simply cannot function on the direct democratic principles which personified Athenian democracy, due to their complexity and sheer population size. Moreover, in the present setting it is no longer accepted that certain groups can be excluded, either from citizenship or the democratic process, as was the case in Athens and also the early United States. Therefore, the modern relevance of concepts such as civic virtue is undoubtedly brought into question because of the obvious inability to apply direct democratic principles (Dunn, 1992).

However, one must be careful not to disregard the possibility of active civic culture in the modern democratic setting. For example, in Britain during the Second World War a clear civic culture aimed at social unity and the greater good personified the outlook of the citizenry. Moreover, although the practicalities of the war did require the reduction of certain civil liberties, the process of democratic government continued unabated. However, it is nonetheless important to highlight the degree to which processes specific to modern liberal democracies have developed a number of features which can undoubtedly hinder the cultivation of civic virtue.

Firstly, returning to Britain during the Second World War, it is essential to note that prior to the 1960s political culture in Britain was personified by deference to the political elite. As such, the population was disposed to allowing the cultivation of a civic culture based on cooperative virtue and transposed directly from the political elite in London. However, in modern liberal democracies there has been a consistent trend in recent years which has witnessed the gradual erosion of deference and given rise to a widespread feeling of political apathy (Arblaster, 2002). Such progressions do little to bolster the possibilities of civic virtue being formed and directed by the political elite in the way Plato envisaged. Moreover, the forces which serve to impact and direct societal assumptions in modern liberal democracies invariably interact outside of the political arena. Thus, it is difficult to see how societal assumptions enacted by mass media forces could ever develop into a coherent culture based on civic virtue (Arblaster, 2002). Furthermore, if we are to conclude in-line with the leading Greek philosophers that the political process and the laws which result are the primary means through which civic culture is developed, then another problem occurs. The continued development of globalisation and the political responses which have been undertaken now means that social forces are impacted upon at a regional and global level. Thus, if a civic culture was to be developed in a clear geographical territory centred on the political sovereignty of the nation state, it is questionable how this would be feasible given the global forces which now serve to affect the formation of social assumptions and what it is to be virtuous.

In addition, another feature of the liberal democratic process raises concerns for the emergence and effective propagation of civic virtue. As suggested earlier, Aristotle vehemently argued that in order for a society to be based on a sense of civic virtue, it was necessary for individuals to put their needs behind that of the general polity. As such, this understanding of civic virtue is in some measure reliant on a degree of collectivism among the citizenry. However, although the early development of liberalism as a political and social outlook did argue in favour of collective identity within the democratic system, the arguments proffered by leading liberals such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau invariably centred on the sanctity of the individual in society (Arblaster, 2002). As such, from the outset, liberalism was inextricably linked with the preservation of individual liberty against the tyranny of the state. In the modern setting this individualism has been translated from the political and social arenas to include economics, as personified in free market capitalism. Thus, a clear dialectic emerges when one attempts to combine the central tenets of liberalism with the principles of civic virtue. Ultimately, the continued prevalence of individual liberty, along with a distrust of the state and the political elite combine the make the establishment of modern civic virtue an irksome task (Dagger, 1997).

However, it is important to note that some efforts are presently being made to reinvigorate citizen participation and thus bolster the possibilities for the formation of an effective civic virtue. The recent election of Britain’s first coalition government in sixty five years shows clear signs that the concept of civic virtue is still one which is viewed as important in the higher echelons of politics. Indeed, Prime Minister Cameron’s personal policy agenda named ‘The Big Society’ exemplifies the increasing eagerness of political actors to address social concerns which are argued to have arisen as a result of a lack of coherent civic culture. Thus, the suggestion that ordinary citizens should assume a more active role in both local and national political processes bears strong similarities with the civic virtue ethos espoused in Ancient Athens. Moreover, the increasing emphasis on the role of the ordinary citizen as being a vehicle and conduit for effective social development reinforces the degree to which political actors at the head of liberal democracies may be unable to create the kind of civic virtue as suggested by Aristotle (Dagger, 1997). In particular, Aristotle’s assumption that civic virtue was ultimately transposed through the law is problematic for modern democracies and the social processes which have developed over the last half a century. Nonetheless, through reference to ‘The Big Society’ it is possible to see the degree to which concepts such as civic virtue still have relevance in complex modern democracies.

The various discussions undertaken during the course of this work have highlighted the primary reasons why civic virtue was so central to the democratic processes of Ancient Athens. Moreover, detailed assessment has been provided as to the modern applicability of civic virtue in complex liberal democracies. Above all, it is clear that civic virtue was essential in the propagation of Athenian democratic processes because of the nature of the system itself. Direct democracy requires as a prerequisite the active participation of the citizenry in a way which highlights collectivism over individualism. Generally speaking this personified the approach to democracy in the Ancient world. Indeed, the lack of civic virtue is argued to have been one of the primary factors in the collapse of democracy in Ancient Athens, numerous other Greek city state and Rome.

Given this, the modern relevance of concepts such as civic virtue are undoubtedly brought into question. The end of deference to the political establishment, the representative as opposed to participatory nature of liberal democracies, along with the wider impacts of mass media and globalisation all unite to make the modern applicability of civic virtue unlikely. However, recent developments in Britain indicate that in a theoretical sense the idea of civic virtue is strong; however, it is likely that the variant of civic virtue which will result will differ considerably from that which existed in Ancient Athens.


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