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Elitism in Ancient Greece

The “big name” philosophers of Ancient Greece could be blamed for the social hierarchies that influenced the construction of our contemporary society. The non-citizens, the schleppers, the slaves, and in fact the women, were of a significantly lower class than the educated male citizens of Athens. As a reader analysing the writers Aristotle and Plato from a modern view, it is interesting to ask the question of whether these writers were conveying elitist opinions of their society.

The first hint of elitism is exhibited when Aristotle states that those who are denied citizenship are denied because their own natural potentials are not as great as those of the citizen. To Aristotle, citizens of Athens automatically had a higher natural potential than someone who was foreign, creating a sort of exclusivity around citizenship. Along with women, children and slaves, certain freedmen were also denied citizenship. These are artisans, farmers and mechanical labourers, whose work, Aristotle says, “dulls the mind” and makes them incapable of higher deliberations. It is clear that only knowledgeable men would have value to the state, and any man who was not up to their standard wouldn't be able to become a citizen.

He further states those who are ‘destitute of their own reason’ but are ‘capable of apprehending it in someone else’ (in this case slaves) are ‘naturally capable of becoming a property of another’. They have a natural ability for ‘physical work’. It is beneficial for such individuals to be enslaved, since their master can supply the rationality that they lack. They may, however, be ‘trained’ to acquire knowledge that their masters do not have. It is a similar case with women. Women in ancient Athens were secluded to their homes, they didn't really attend public events and their duties around the house were equivalent to that of a slave’s. They certainly were not powerful enough to be completely independent, almost always having a kyrios dominating their life. Hence when Aristotle states that the slave should be a part of the whole – a part of the master, a ‘living but separate part of his body’, it can be concluded that the same idea is applied to women. The women and slaves were outcasts of society; the male citizens that dominate form elite groups, claiming people who they see as of a lower status to their advantage as their personal property.

Raphael’s 1511 School of Athens fresco at the Stanze di Raffaello in the Vatican. At the centre of the work, Plato and Aristotle are discussing their theories of philosophy, which are closely tied to verticality. Plato gestures toward the sky, while Aristotle gestures forward to the world of the surface.

Plato’s ‘Myth of the Metals’ was a sort of metaphorical proof of Aristotle's statement that those who are denied citizenship are denied because of their own lesser potential. Plato used the analogy of the metals gold, silver, bronze and iron using the value of their properties to label man’s status.

This myth has been interpreted as a justification for a kind of meritocracy. For the citizens are divided into classes not according to birth, but according to the particular type of ‘metal’ within their souls. Thus, children of lowly bronze or iron parents may be raised to the ranks of the Guardians or auxiliaries, if they happen to be born with gold or silver in their souls. One could interpret this as a theory of meritocracy; a way of explaining how a particularly gifted child could be born to parents of lesser qualities. However, it could also be seen as a type of propaganda used to justify the inherent dominance of the Guardian class over their fellow citizens and naturalise the social order of Plato’s Republic ideal city. We might call the belief in a ‘natural’ hierarchy among the citizens an ideology of essentialism, the belief in the ‘natural’ superiority of some people over others.

In modern day we have similar ideas. People who are well educated are thought to be superior to those who are not, and the idea of the hoi polloi, derived from ancient Greece, constructs the social pyramid of our society today.

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