The Greek polis was a community centered in a city that brought together religion, politics, family, and more to become the basic building block of Greek society. The Greek polis provided examples to the west of how to organize government and of what the role of the citizen should be in relation to this government. To understand the roots of modern constitutional republics and democracies it is helpful to have a grasp of what the polis was and how it functioned.
In determining what a polis was and what its’ goals were it is most helpful to turn to Aristotle. He writes:
It is clear, therefore, that a polis is not an association for residence on a common site, or for the sake of preventing mutual injustice and easing exchange. These are indeed conditions which must be present before a polis can exist; but the presence of all these conditions is not enough, in itself, to constitute a polis. What constitutes a polis is an association of households and clans in a good life, for the sake of attaining a perfect and self-sufficing existence. (Barker 119-120)
Earlier in Politics Aristotle says that the polis exists “for the sake of a good life” (Barker 5). Self-government then to Aristotle and early Greeks was not an end in and of itself. The polis did not exist just because people lived in the same physical vicinity and had to have some sort of government. No, the polis was dedicated to the good life. This good life was conceived of in terms of the administration of justice and the ability of people to have a say in forming the laws that governed them. But more than that the good life of the polis was a spiritual pursuit; it meant the ordering of life according to the will of the gods, the divine law.
In contrast to other civilizations the Greeks had no Scripture by which they ordered their lives (though Homer fulfilled something of this role). Thus the exact contours of what constituted the good life in terms of ethics and duties were in flux. The schools of philosophy argued amongst themselves as to just what the end of life should be. And in the political structure of the polis the ordering of life was worked out in law. Aristotle writes “Justice [which is his salvation] belongs to the polis; for justice, which is the determination of what is just, is an ordering of the political association” (Barker 7).
It should be noted that the polis was considered to be the primary focus of the life of a man. His individual self and his family were to be subservient to the polis. The modern notion of the autonomous and sovereign self which consents to meet in a group only occasionally was not known to the Greek. I doubt very much whether the founders of the United States could have foreseen the plague of individualism which now infects the west. The ability of the institutions of government to function over the long haul in a society where self-interest is the highest good is doubtful. Such a society would have been unthinkable not only to the Greeks, but also to our own founders. Aristotle said:
The man who is isolated—who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient—is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god. (Barker 6)
It is easy to imagine how the polis could be a source of strength to a people. A place to air concerns, a place where the rituals of the religion were enacted on a regular basis, a concept that could inspire dedication in war and peace, this was what the polis was to them. People are not made to live alone, in isolation from each other. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our modern existence is that with all of our affluence and knowledge we tend to live in complete ignorance of those around us. There is no loyalty to city and little to country. And why should there be when these entities provide no vision of the good life but are merely utilitarian geopolitical realties?
I would argue that the greatest inheritor and competitor to the concept of polis was the Christian church. It was established as an alternative polis, the true polis if you will. Its members share the same table fellowship and are united by the same story. They enact the ritual of their God on a weekly basis in the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine. The church offers a vision of the good life that is accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world. I believe this connection was intentionally made by the Apostle Paul and became foundational to all of later western history. Saint Augustine ran with this vision of the polis of God, which will find its final realization after the eschatological judgment day. The concept of polis is with us still, though we may not realize it.