Plato, the Ancient Greeks and the idea of Sovereignty

We could fairly say that political life started the day two people had an opinion with regards kind of issue; therefore, almost at mankind’s inset. However, we agree with Barker that the “[p]olitical thought begins with the Greeks”. [1]Indeed, it is with them when the notions and institutions are analysed, simple and more complex concepts exposed and reviewed.

Specifically, they did not have a dedicated theory about the idea of sovereignty but they developed the conceptualisation of State and its implications so we in fact are able to at least have hints about their thoughts in regards also to sovereignty.
Plato sets up the basis from where the Greek philosophers and thinkers (even the modern ones) depart. Firstly, we will mention his definition of one of the key concepts here. Plato understands that we are in presence of a State “when we have got hold of enough people to satisfy our many varied needs, we have assembled quite a large number of partners and helpers together to live in one place […]”.[2]

He summarised with his conceptualisation all the elements we consider nowadays essential for the existence of a State: population, territory, government. Note that law is not mentioned but will be present throughout his work.
From here on we will focus our attention on three of his dialogues since they are the one related to the State, the law and sovereignty: The Republic, Politicusor Statesman and the Laws.

We agree with Baker again when he says: “[…] starting from an ethical point of view, and from the conception of the State as a moral association, Greek thought always postulated a solidarity which is foreign to most modern thinking. […] To modern thinker the mission of the State is negative: its function is the removal of hindrances (rather than the application of a stimulus) to the moral life”.[3]It is a fact, in Ancient Greece the origin of the State is explained as a necessity: “Men were ‘political animals’[…]”.[4]They are still part of a species that need the others to fulfil their needs.

Plato starts from the idea of individuals living alone and then congregated together in very small groups of three or four people. As it could be easily foreseen, people have various necessities (food, shelter, etc.). He observes here “[…] the origin of the state. It originates, as we have seen, from our needs”. [5]He goes even further with his theory proposing the idea of labour division: “[…] no two of us are born exactly alike. We have different natural aptitudes, which fit us for different jobs”. [6]

If we are still unsure whether he is using the concept as we use it nowadays, he highlights it again: “So do we do better to exercise one skill or to try to practise several? To stick to one, he said”. [7]
The next predictable consequences of these small groups of people living together will be the procreation and the formation of families. And having several families within a certain territory, they will start having relationships of different nature with each other in order to cover mutual needs, that is to say “[t]he next stage is when several families amalgamate and form larger communities”. [8]
Larger communities will have to satisfy larger needs. It would be inefficient for all people to perform the same tasks. The Ancient Greeks had already found a solution: “[…] every man should fulfil a single specific function already appears, in the shape of division of labour, in the first rudiments of the State. […] The desires for food and warmth and shelter cannot be properly satisfied, except by means of common action. The State first find its binding force in human need […] until it reaches the measure of an adult State”. [9]They go even further and consider of absolute necessity for the foundation of the new state the selection of the citizens and distributing the land. [10]
It results interesting indeed that they are developing, even at theoretical level, what modern thinkers consider two of the basic elements of any give State: population and territory. They are even realistic and leaving behind an only theoretical approach think about second class of needs any population may normally have: “Give them the ordinary comforts, he replied. Let them recline in comfort on couches and eat off tables, and have the sort of food we have today.  That is when a simple group of families or small and rudimentary society becomes a civilization. And that is the main objective in Plato’s work: “[…] We are to study not only the origins of society, but also society when it enjoys the luxuries of civilization”. [11]
More families, a larger community imply a larger variety of needs to be covered. The Greek response is once again both, practical and realistic: “We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries”. [12]

The notion of sovereignty is shaping. People have dominium over a certain territory but “the territory which was formerly enough to support [them] will now be too small”. [13]Additionaly, “[m]en are not content with the supply of the merest “necessaries”: they need satisfaction of their desires for refinement. […] a larger territory is necessary to support the larger population”. [14]
Before reviewing the consequences of the necessity with regards a larger territory, we will focus our attention next time on another element that is part of a sovereign State and the Ancient Greeks considered too: the government.


[1] Barker, Ernest, Greek political theory: Plato and his predecessors, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1951, p. 1.
[2] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 58.
[3] Barker, Ernest, Greek political theory: Plato and his predecessors, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1951, p. 7.
[4] Barker, Ernest, Greek political theory: Plato and his predecessors, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1951, p. 17.
[5] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 59.
[6] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 59.
[7] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 60.
[8] Plato, The Laws, translated by T. J. Saunders, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 124.
[9] Barker, Ernest, Greek political theory: Plato and his predecessors, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1951, p. 165.
[10] Plato, The Laws, translated by T. J. Saunders, Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 201/219.
[11] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 63.
[12] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 64.
[13] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 64.
[14] Barker, Ernest, Greek political theory: Plato and his predecessors, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1951, p. 167.

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