The essential characteristic of any city, of any polis, is the founding act. This act, played once and for all, embodies a higher, invisible reality, that which allowed the Polis to exist. As such, the laws which the Polis gives herself reflect this reality, and are thus immutable. Thus Solon becomes the lawgiver of Athens, and his laws embody the essence of Athen’s exsitence; likewise of Lacedaemon and Rome; and so too Moses becomes the lawgiver of the people of God: the Ten Commandements are immutable, because they embody the eternal, pre-existing law of God.
Here lies the major difference between the ancient Polis and the modern state. It would be unthinkable today to draw up a constitution not only meant to be eternal, but also inscribing itself in the higher orders of the cosmos. Revolutions as the modern Western world has known them, in France, America, Russia, are not conceivable in such a frame. Quite the opposite: one of the goals of Cleomenes III’s revolution in the 3rd century BC was precisely to go back to a fuller committement to Lycurgan laws, as was done in earlier eras. These are two quite incompatible, even polar opposite, frameworks of understanding: while the ancient Polis exists from a foundational event and remains what it is (its point of reference is in the past), the modern state has no such grounding, it exists in the present, can transform itself; its point of reference is in the future, and revolutions, as opposed to ancient revolutions, are made to change things, to “improve” over against our predecessors.
It is therefore in this light that we must consider Athenian democracy. The Polis, the Civitas, exists both in human terms and outside of time. It is therefore the Polis itself, not society as in modern times, which constitutes the basis of the community of citizens. The Polis exists before any society. It is true of Athens as of any other ancient city. The Panathenea, the meeting of the Assembly, exist to draw those defined as citizens together in the collective act embodying the laws. In this sense also, the meeting of the Church, the ekklesia (the choice of word here is not a simple take-over, but rather implies a ) is the collective embodiement by the faithful of eternal and just Laws. In the modern understanding of society, however, the group of citizens exists before the state. The state builds itself up from this group. We can see how the modern understanding can easily lead to dictatorship and fascism; there is nothing to hold them back. Hence we can invent nationalism, use marxism or fascism, as we can democracy, to give a form to our society. Modern democracy and its ennemy, totalitarianism, are two sides of the same coin. It is, however, a world away from Athens.