BMCR 2002.04.17

Polis and City State

Mogens Herman Hansen, Polis and city-state : an ancient concept and its modern equivalent : symposium January 9, 1998. Historisk-filosofiske meddelelser ; 76. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1998. 217 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8773042935

This is the fifth volume of Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre, which has already produced collections of sources for Greek poleis, an introduction to an inventory of poleis, a study of the polis as urban and political community, and several volumes of papers. The aim of this study is to establish how far, if at all, the polis resembles any available modern model of the state, or city-state, using the work of theorists from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It is written by Dr. Hansen, but in the tradition of the Centre, it is to some degree the outcome of collaboration: the subject was discussed at a symposium in Copenhagen in early 1998, in the light of which he revised his manuscript. Since the respondents on that occasion included historians, sociologists, political scientists and lawyers, we should expect the result to be as sophisticated as well-informed.

Hansen begins with chapters on the definition and meaning of the word polis in a wide range of Classical sources. He distinguishes polis from astu, kome, koinonia politike etc., and makes the important point that the polis in Greece was not a single unchanging phenomenon, but varied according to place and time. Moving on to consider the concept of the state in modern theory, he identifies three elements which constitute a state in practice — population, territory and government — and three more which need to be added to the concept — the idea that the state is a continuous public power above ruler and ruled, that it has sovereignty, and that there is a distinction between the state and civil society. He then considers how far the ancient city-state can be regarded as fulfilling each of these criteria, and ends with a two-part systematic comparison of ancient and modern states, interrupted by an excursus on the history of the state in modern Europe.

The strengths of the analysis are those familiar from all Hansen’s work: above all, exhaustive and meticulous attention to the sources. One thought-provoking exegesis of a difficult ancient text follows another, in a tour de force of erudition. There cannot be much, if anything, in the fifth or fourth centuries relevent to the subject which is not dealt with or referred to here, and for that alone, everyone interested in the polis from any perspective will want to to come to grips with the ideas it puts forward. The discussion of the relationship between territory and people as a determinant of a polis picks a delicate and persuasive line between those who have wanted to hold either that the polis need not be territorial at all or that it was territorially as defined as a modern state, showing why both positions are inadequate. Similarly, the discussion of a polis as a politically active community, and the ambiguous place of women and children in it, is carefully nuanced and convincing.

In other places, Hansen confirms conclusions which may not be radically new but which have rarely been so thoroughly or delicately investigated before. On the concept of sovereignty, he shows how the concept of autonomia with regard to other states develops in the course of the Classical period as a determinant of ‘independent’ or sovereign status; at the same time, he argues that internally, being kyrios is the important concept: having power rather than being autonomous. This is perhaps not as unexpected as he claims, but his analysis gives us a much firmer basis for the claim.

At the heart of this project is the use of modern theory and definitions of the state in practice to elucidate the ancient evidence. This is, of course, a common and often valuable method of proceeding, but it also has certain difficulties. Which modern theorists does one use? How far is it desirable to conflate the characteristics of many modern states over several centuries, at the same time as pointing out that we should not do so for ancient Greece? There seems to be some tension between Hansen’s inductive method at the beginning of the work, where he seeks to establish the nature of the polis through the Classical sources, and the deductive method which dominates the other half, as he seeks to see how far his findings can be mapped onto a composite modern theory of the state.

The moderns here principally favoured are Machiavelli, Bodin and Hobbes, with occasional mention of Montesquieu. All are fundamentally important to the history of political thought, but they are strongly grouped at the beginning of the four- or five-hundred period of history and theory on which Hansen claims to be drawing. What of Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Burke, Mill, Hegel, Marx? How would their analyses affect Hansen’s? In the light of the importance Hansen lays on the power of law and the concept of freedom in Classical Athens, to name but two, we should expect at the very least some serious reference to Rousseau, Locke and Mill.

One is also conscious here of the absence of twentieth-century discussions of the state. To take just one example: it is important for Hansen’s analysis that there was such a thing as a ‘private sphere’ in Athens, and that in this Athens was closer to the Greek norm than Sparta, which lacked one. Hansen takes for granted that the modern state has a private sphere (though he also suggests at one point that we are losing it in the late twentieth century), and this similarity is an important plank in his overall argument that the ancient city-state — along with many other aspects of Greek history — was not unrecognizably or unanalysably unlike the state in the modern world. Whatever the merits of this general position, the existance of the private sphere is a difficult example on which to argue it. As Habermas, among others, has convincingly shown, the relation between public and private has been in constant evolution in Europe since the middle ages. There is no simple ‘modern’ relationship between public and private. Nor has a state in practice had to be totalitarian — to control every aspect of its subjects’ lives, like Sparta or Plato’s Republic — to lack a private sphere. So the comparison between Athens and ‘the modern world’ is too insecure to be useful; moreover, we simply lack enough contemporary information to decide how typical Athens was of Greek states in general. It is not clear that comparing Athens with modern political theory helps the debate here: it seems rather to complicate it, and not perhaps in the most helpful direction, ignoring the modern political theorists who would provide the most germane and challenging comparisons.

It would be very interesting to know what Hansen’s correspondants in the Copenhagen seminar thought about all this, and it is regrettable that having mentioned that it took place, Hansen makes no further reference to the debates which the seminar generated, or in what ways they induced him to develop his argument. Being presented with a study which is at least in some respects described as the outcome of discussion, we should like to know what the discussion was and perhaps use it to engage further with the text ourselves.

As it is, the final table of comparison between ancient and modern states yields food for thought in a particularly accessible form. The most plausible conclusion seems to be that Classical Athens had some things in common with some modern theories about the state and possibly the practices of some modern states. If not as strong a conclusion as Hansen wants to make, it will suggest future avenues for research, particularly in difficult areas such as the relationship between state and society, and the relative importance of the sovereignty of individuals, laws and institutions. It is important to have had our attention directed to modern theory as a rich source of comparative material for thinking about the polis. Future studies will find plentiful space to build on the shoulders of this one.

This is not a book directed at the general reader, and even the student of modern political theory might find it difficult, though Greek quotations are translated in the footnotes. For specialists, however, it constitutes an immensely interesting study presented in stimulating and, with regard to the ancient evidence, exhaustively erudite form, and everyone interested in the ancient city state will need to come to grips with it. That it will stimulate as many debates as it answers, makes it all the more valuable.