When man turns the use of his reason from the inanimate world to man himself and to social organization, it becomes difficult for pure reason to avoid giving way to the biases and prejudices of the political framework of the age. This was all too true of the Greeks, including the Socratics, Plato and Aristotle. Greek life was organized in small city-states (the polis) some of which were able to carve out overseas empires. The largest city-state, Athens, covered an area of only about one thousand square miles, or half the size of modern Delaware. The key facet of Greek political life was that the city-state was run by a tight oligarchy of privileged citizens, most of whom were large landowners. Most of the population of the city-state were slaves or resident foreigners, who generally performed the manual labour and commercial enterprise respectively. The privilege of citizenship was reserved to descendants of citizens. While Greek city-states fluctuated between outright tyrannies and democracies, at its most ‘democratic’ Athens, for example, reserved the privileges of democratic rule to 7 per cent of the population, the rest of whom were either slaves or resident aliens. (Thus, in Athens of the fifth century BC, there were approximately 30 000 citizens out of a total population of 400 000.)
As privileged landowners living off taxes and the product of slaves, Athenian citizens had the leisure for voting, discussion, the arts and – in the case of the particularly intelligent – philosophizing. Although the philosopher Socrates was himself the son of a stonemason, his political views were ultra-elitist. In the year 404 BC, the despotic state of Sparta conquered Athens and established a reign of terror known as the Rule of the Thirty Tyrants. When the Athenians overthrew this short-lived rule a year later, the restored democracy executed the aged Socrates, largely on suspicion of sympathy with the Spartan cause. This experience confirmed Socrates's brilliant young disciple, Plato, the scion of a noble Athenian family, in what would now be called an ‘ultra-right’ devotion to aristocratic and despotic rule.
A decade later, Plato set up his Academy on the outskirts of Athens as a think-tank not only of abstract philosophic teaching and research, but also as a fountainhead of policy programmes for social despotism. He himself tried three times unsuccessfully to set up despotic regimes in the city state of Syracuse, while no less than nine of Plato's students succeeded in establishing themselves as tyrants over Greek city-states.
While Aristotle was politically more moderate than Plato, his aristocratic devotion to the polis was fully as evident. Aristotle was born of an aristocratic family in the Macedonian coastal town of Stagira, and entered Plato's Academy as a student at the age of 17, in 367 BC. There he remained until Plato's death 20 years later, after which he left Athens and eventually returned to Macedonia, where he joined the court of King Philip and tutored the young future world conqueror, Alexander the Great. After Alexander ascended the throne, Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 BC and established his own school of philosophy at the Lyceum, from which his great works have come down to us as lecture notes written by himself or transcribed by his students. When Alexander died in 323 BC, the Athenians felt free to vent their anger at Macedonians and their sympathizers, and Aristotle was ousted from the city, dying shortly thereafter.
Their aristocratic bent and their lives within the matrix of an oligarchic polis had a greater impact on the thought of the Socratics than Plato's various excursions into theoretical right-wing collectivist Utopias or in his students’ practical attempts at establishing tyranny. For the social status and political bent of the Socratics coloured their ethical and political philosophies and their economic views. Thus, for both Plato and Aristotle, ‘the good’ for man was not something to be pursued by the individual, and neither was the individual a person with rights that were not to be abridged or invaded by his fellows. For Plato and Aristotle, ‘the good’ was naturally not to be pursued by the individual but by the polis. Virtue and the good life were polis- rather than individual-oriented. All this means that Plato's and Aristotle's thought was statist and elitist to the core, a statism which unfortunately permeated ‘classical’ (Greek and Roman) philosophy as well as heavily influencing Christian and medieval thought. Classical ‘natural law’ philosophy therefore never arrived at the later elaboration, first in the Middle Ages and then in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of the ‘natural rights’ of the individual which may not be invaded by man or by government.
In the more strictly economic realm, the statism of the Greeks means the usual aristocratic exaltation of the alleged virtues of the military arts and of agriculture, as well as a pervasive contempt for labour and for trade, and consequently of money-making and the seeking and earning of profit. Thus Socrates, openly despising labour as unhealthy and vulgar, quotes the king of Persia to the effect that by far the noblest arts are agriculture and war. And Aristotle wrote that no good citizens ‘should be permitted to exercise any low mechanical employment or traffic, as being ignoble and destructive to virtue.’
Furthermore, the Greek elevation of the polis over the individual led to their taking a dim view of economic innovation and entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur, the dynamic innovator, is after all the locus of individual ego and creativity, and is therefore the harbinger of often disturbing social change, as well as economic growth. But the Greek and Socratic ethical ideal for the individual was not an unfolding and flowering of inner possibilities, but rather a public/political creature moulded to conform to the demands of the polis. That kind of social ideal was designed to promote a frozen society of politically determined status, and certainly not a society of creative and dynamic individuals and innovators.