The Function of the Greek family, form Ideal to Real


History Essay


Seminar 1


The Ancient Greeks had varying degrees of opinions about the function of the family in the Greek polis. Aristotle believed that families played an essential role in the polis and its development. On the other hand, Plato believed that the only family people should call their own should be a community family, the polis. The two contrasting opinions are projections of these philosophers’ ideal utopias, and neither existed to the fullest in any Greek society. The role of the family will always be to remain faithful to a symbiotic relationship with the polis.


The family played a vital role in early Greek societies, however there was much scrutiny as to what the definition of the ‘family’ actually was. Definitions were differed in the minds of Plato, Aristotle, Athens, Sparta and early Mesopotamia. Each had a different view of how the family should function, what the general purpose of it was, and even what defined ‘family.’ Aristotle believed that the family was the smallest unit of individuality in a state, and has significance. Without the family, the polis wouldn’t be able to function. This view may be understood in the context of the Greek polis or city-state, which functioned somewhat like an extended family. According to Aristotle, a polis should be large enough to be self sufficient and small enough so that everyone could recognize all the other citizens by sight. Aristotle mentions in ‘politics’, that the family is composed of men and woman who can’t survive without each other, proving the family to be the smallest unit of life in the polis. The family is important because they are the makeup of villages, which form states, which are self sufficient, and help people lead good and just lives.” To further prove his points, Aristotle asserted the given: Man is a political animal,” by which he meant, "Man is a creature who lives in a polis." For him and most other Greeks, the polis was the only framework within which man can fully realize his spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacities. Without it, he is a beast or a god. Aristotle’s Utopia would have a symbiotic relationship between the family and the state. The family wouldn’t be able to survive and lead virtuous, just lives without the state, and without the family, the state could not provide justice and virtue or even exist.


Plato asserted that the inherent nature of the family is to take loyalty away from the polis, and thus, families should not exist on a biological level. To prevent any form of natural or precocious love toward a biological family member, the polis would separate children at birth from their parents and would be breed to be good citizens through polis institutions. Plato thought it would be best to tell a ‘Royal Lie’ to the people, and convince them that the have no human parents, but rather the state fathered them. Everyone believes they are brother and sister in this society because they were apparently conceived from the same divine source. This creates a special bond between the people and runs throughout the entire community. Everyone in this family has a purpose, to lead a virtuous life. If a child is born, and appears weak or ugly, than he is discarded because there is no possibility of an ugly child being strong or virtuous according to Socrates. (Socratic paradox) In fact, the function of the entire ‘family’ was to lead a virtuous and just life. This is another situation were there is a symbiotic relationship with the family and state. The Philosopher king (Plato), who is assumed to know all virtue and justice, teaches his fellow philosophers the meaning of virtue and justice. The Philosophers are in control of society, they have the power in the government, which makes them the apex of the state. If the people in power have virtue, then so does the state, and because everybody in the state is related, then everyone in the state is virtuous. Everything depends on each other in Plato’s utopian republic.


Hammurabi’s code presented the family in a different context. The early Mesopotamian Greeks believed the families’ purpose was to stay loyal to societies expectation of the family. The society functioned as a