Mogens Herman Hansen: Political Obligation in Ancient Greece and in the Modern World

. Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab. Scientia Danica. Series H. Humanistica. 8 vol. 10. 76 s. 80 DKK. ISSN 1904-5492 · ISBN 978-87-7304-391-2.

This essay is a comparative study of the problem of political obligation in ancient Greek city-states (poleis) and in modern democratic states.

The citizens of a country have a duty to obey the laws, but do they also have an obligation, i.e. a moral requirement to support and comply with the laws and political institutions of the state? Modern political philosophers agree that citizens have a political obligation if they have given their consent personally and voluntarily, as, e.g., naturalised citizens in USA who swear an oath of loyalty. But an oath of loyalty sworn by all citizens and residents of a state is not practised anywhere in the modern world and is not even discussed by political philosophers as a possible foundation of political obligation. Instead the focus is on various forms of implied consent such as gratitude for what the state provides for its citizens, or membership obligations, or the principle of fairness, or other forms of tacit or implied consent. Some philosophers – called philosophical anarchists - argue that there is no reason why citizens should feel obliged to obey the laws.

In ancient Greece the problem of political obligation was treated differently. In many or even most of the city-states all citizens had to take an oath of loyalty when they came of age and often later in life as well. Therefore the problem of political obligation did not exist and is not discussed in Greek political philosophy except in one passage of Plato’s Kriton where Sokrates in a fictitious dialogue with the laws of Athens argues that he has an obligation to accept his verdict and stay in prison. Since he probably had not sworn a civic oath when he came of age his arguments are the same as in the modern world: gratitude, membership, fairness, and tacit consent, with voluntary exile as the alternative to living under laws and a constitution one did not approve of.