The City as Educator – 5
Ignorance and Formative Justice
in Classical Experience
Table of Contents
Athens as Educator
Reflections on Ignorance and Formative Justice in Classical Experience
5 • Politics of Participation
With the polis we enter the historical space of ancient Greek, especially Athenian, experience. We begin to witness people suffering and reflecting on the events of their lived experience. Athens underwent a prolonged course of development into an imperial sea power and a polis governed through complex procedures of democratic participation. Around 620, Dracon, about whom little documentation survives, established a stringent code of laws, written in public space on tablets, a first step towards democratic citizenship. From 595 or so, Solon, a poet and sage exerted influence, instituted reforms broadening political participation and promoted commerce. He won fame as a moral reformer, a voice of moderation and a critic of aristocratic arrogance. Solon went into voluntary exile, lest he over-reach his influence, and he was followed about 560 by Pisitratus, whom Pierre Lévêque characterized as "the good-humored tyrant," who dominated Athens until his death in 528. His tyranny was a time of prosperity, initiating the foundations of the architectural splendor of Athens. The fifty years of Pisitratid rule ironically strengthened the eventual basis for democracy, for the tyranny cultivated ordinary citizens as a counterweight to its aristocratic opponents. His sons followed, pursuing a similar course with less success, until 510.Cleisthenes then came to the fore instituting during the last years of the sixth century subtle reforms in the governing arrangements of the city, and these, probably by happy accident, strengthened the capacity of Athenian institutions to define and implement common interests in which the whole citizenry shared. These capacities were timely, for the sixth century opened with the looming prospect of conflict with Persian hosts from the east. In the first Persian War, Athens proved its capacity to act decisively and fight well on land with the Battle of Marathon in 490. In the second Persian War, Athenian leadership and courageous acumen, preeminently that of Themistocles, was even more decisive. Challenged in 480 by the overwhelming forces of Xerxes, the Persian King, Athens abandoned its city en masse, marshaled the naval forces of those Greek cities willing to fight. Greatly out-numbered, the Athenians used guile to force a fight, strategy to equalize their forces with those of their opponent, and skill to dominate the narrow waters in which they fought the contest. Salamis broke the will of Xerxes and founded the ensuing greatness of Athens. In 478, to secure against any further Persian challenge, Athens initiated the Delian League as an alliance for joint defense among seafaring, democratically oriented poleis. Through the rest of the fifth century, the Delian League stoked Athenian wealth and power, and sowed its downfall through the Peloponnesian War.