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Ancient Philosophy on Coercion - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 303
Coercion/Ancient philosophy/Keyt/Miller: the prime relation in the Greek world based on
force was that of master to slave (Aristotle, Pol. 1.3.1253b20-3). The dread of slavery, which sprang
from a very real fear, was a prominent feature of Greek life and thought. Greek cities were frequently at war, and it was a common practice to kill the soldiers and enslave the wives and children of a captured city (Thucydides III.62.2, V .32. l, V.116.3, and elsewhere).
Governance: The Greeks regarded any relation of ruler to ruled based on force as akin to that of master to slave. Their word for such a relation was 'despotic' (despotiké, literally, 'of a master'). To be forcibly subjected to another was in their eyes to be no better than a slave. This idea seems to be the driving force behind the evolution of Greek democracy, the most important political innovation ofthe Greeks.
Gaus I 304
Freedom: Freedom and equality were (as they still are) the defining marks of democracy (Plato, Rep. VIII.557a2-b6; Aristotle, Pol. V.9.1310a25-34, VI.1318a3-10). Freedom was popularly defined as living as one wishes (Herodotus III.83.3; Thucydides II.37.2; Plato, Rep. VII.557b4-6; Isocrates, Areop. 20; Aristotle, Pol. V.9.1310a31-2, VI.2.1317blO-12).
Force: By this popular definition, to be forced to do something against one's will is to lose
one's freedom, and to lose one's freedom is to be enslaved. Thus, to be forced by a ruler to do something one does not want to do is to be treated as a slave.
Democracy/community: The Greek democrat, in consequence, was loath to be ruled at all. Wishing, however, to live in a political community, he sought to avoid the despotism inherent in the unequal power of ruler and ruled.
Equality: Without equality there is, in his view, no freedom (Plato, Menex. 238el—239a4). So he invented a number of clever devices for eliminating or minimizing inequalities of political power: self-rule (every free man is a member of the assembly), rotation of office, short tenure of office, and the use of the lot. Ironically, Athenian democracy under Pericles was denounced by its enemies for trying to enslave all the other Greeks by establishing a universal empire (Thucydides I.124.3).


Keyt, David and Miller, Fred D. jr. 2004. „Ancient Greek Political Thought“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Concept/Author], [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] resp. "problem:"/"solution:", "old:"/"new:" and "thesis:" is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Ancient Philosophy
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2022-01-18
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