In ancient Greek, the term politikos referred to the affairs of the city-state of Athens which was run by the body of citizens who were called the polis. To the ancient Greeks, politics was ‘owned’ by the people; and a government run by a despot or tyrant ran contrary to this notion and was instead viewed as a form of ‘rule’.

With time, the term ‘politics’ has come to refer to the art and science of government and the relationships that involve authority and power. In modern times, most people think of politics as the conflict between parties on a national stage as well as international relations that are forged in the global arena.

All of us live in a political community regardless of the structure of our own government. If we leave our community and find ourselves in a different region, we will have to follow the laws of that locality. To Aristotle, the state was ‘a creation of nature’ that came before the individual. People who are isolated have no chance at attaining self-sufficiency and will eventually seek to become part of a greater whole.

Illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.

While the ideas of the philosophers and lawmakers of yesteryear differed greatly on the details of how they believed a society should be run; they still believed in justice and the rule of law. Nevertheless, a perennial divide ensued among those who believed that the role of the government is to improve people’s lives and those who believed that its main purpose was to ensure liberty for its citizens.

From a particular perspective, history can be viewed as one long struggle for recognition and rights. The motivation behind political action usually has three underlying causes: to increase power, to demonstrate power or to keep power. Historian Paul Kennedy observed that all great powers, nations and empires are faced with significant costs for protecting their boundaries and interests. These costs are often at their highest after economic growth has peaked.

We simply cannot diminish or downplay the significant contribution that the moral leadership of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mandela made in shaping society for millions of people around the world. Those who run governments and hold top positions in office, however, are required to make decisions that will affect millions. A leader will invariably need the full support and dedication of his or her people to create momentum behind a cause or strategy.

To Aristotle, the purpose of politics was not to arrive at or even create the perfect system, but to construct an advantageous system that limited the number of disadvantages. It was this that notion that underpinned the Aristotelian belief that democracy was far more stable than monarchy, oligarchy or tyranny. To him, a successful society is built on a large property-owning class of citizens who have a voice in the administration of the state. This in turn provides the stability and structure that rulers tend to lack. Like Aristotle, statesman Edmund Burke argued that the state was not simply an administrative body to regulate the economy and keep law and order, but was instead a partnership between those who are living, those who have passed on and those who are not yet born.

No one can successfully predict the future all the time, but we can reasonably conclude that policies that can deliver prosperity, peace and a measure of freedom for the individual are considerably more likely to endure the tests of time. An individual will undoubtedly be grateful to a state that provides financial and physical security, but somewhere along the line that same individual will also seek recognition for their dignity as a free human being. Plato and Aristotle both believed that a city and a state had a higher purpose beyond being an excellent municipal manager.

The challenge for our current era is to achieve this while not destroying personal liberties. Perhaps elevating people–and at the same time recognising that they are free–is set to be the greatest political challenge of our age.

3 thoughts on “The Purpose of Politics | From Ancient Greece to Modern Democracy

  1. “An individual will undoubtedly be grateful to a state that provides financial and physical security, but somewhere along the line that same individual will also seek recognition for their dignity as a free human being.” As you noted in your wonderful article, this is one of the biggest challenges facing developed economies. I think it is time for a new type of leader than what we’ve seen in the past. A new vision, perhaps? 🙂

    1. Visionaries take time to create. It is one thing to have a vision, another thing for a leader to apply it in a concrete way that benefits society. I am curious to the leaders that are emerging in this Covid era.

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