The Language of Politics

If we turn to the language of politics as a reason for beginning the history of political thought with the ancient Greeks, we see that it is not only that certain contemporary words for specific types of constitution like democracy and monarchy derive from the Greek; indeed, our current political vocabulary (even the word politics itself) derives from the Greek. It is also that the Greeks came to speak about 'the political' in a systematic way within a detailed and unified world view and this is what makes them the beginning of a tradition of political discourse where 'the political' is somehow privileged and in which we share. By believing it possible to give a human account of the social world and then asking what role, if any, the gods, or good and bad luck might play in this account, the ancient Greeks fashioned a range of explanations which are still recognizable ways of speaking, for instance, about the motivation behind men's actions within social structures, and whether or not these structures should be viewed as having developed naturally or by convention. By enquiring into the nature of social reality they discussed the roles played in that reality by human consciousness and agency. Through observation, description and commentary on their own activities of reaching decisions in public and then obeying collective judgement, they came to formulate political theories that argued for the principles on which well-run societies must be based. In this way, they defined reasonable principles to guide human behaviour, on the one hand, and to justify a variety of social and political structures according to which they operated, on the other. Today, when we speak about a systematic and rational understanding of nature, of human psychology, of principles of human conduct and the relation, for example, between self-interest and morality, that is, one's own good and its relation to the good of others with whom one lives in community, we may not all come to the same conclusions on these matters any more than did the Greeks, but we are giving an account of 'the political' in a language that was developed to a high degree in ancient Greece.

In privileging 'the political' as an exclusive realm in which certain values such as freedom, equality and justice can be realized through rational debate followed by consistent behaviour (even if what we mean by these values in liberal democratic societies is not quite what the Greeks meant when they spoke of freedom, equality and justice), Greek discourse ensured that later generations would associate notions of participation, rights and freedoms with a distinct sphere of'civilized' human living, the political realm that was, in the Greek world, confined to male soldier-citizens of the polis. Rationalizing activity carried on within a distinct and exclusive sphere of collective life has thereafter been taken, for good or ill, to be characteristic of a peculiarly Western understanding of the purpose of social institutions and their relation to free individuals who make choices about the ways they live their lives.10

The privileging of 'the political' was related to and perhaps dependent on another characteristic of Greek thought. It has often been noted, not least by the Greeks themselves, that there emerged a tendency in the Greek world to develop different methods for investigating distinct but interconnected subjects of study. The natural world, morality and ethics, logic and language, human psychology and theories of knowledge, human history and explanations of why things had happened in the ways they had, although related to one another, were also distinguished as discrete areas in which expertise and understanding could be acquired. In this way, those Greeks who specialized in one or more of these varied subjects of enquiry with distinct methods of proceeding, helped to set the agenda for what would become the education curriculum in the West, most notably the liberal arts as they were taught in medieval European universities and which survived well into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in some cases beyond. The specification of what subjects constituted the arts and sciences in the early-modern period and debates concerning what methods of investigation were appropriate to each go back to the Greek division, and especially to Aristotle's systematic version of the division of subjects, each with its own methodology and vocabulary.

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