Political Philosophy in Classic Greece: Plato and Aristotle
Political philosophy is a broad notion, although several scholars throughout different ages have tried to delineate it. Political scientist David Miller defines it as a “philosophical reflection on how best to arrange our collective life - our political institutions and our social practices” (Miller, 1998). Even if people are known to live collectively since the first stages of their evolution, the seeds of Western political systems and institutions appeared in ancient Greece. Back then, Greece was not considered to be a united country as it is today: numerous smaller city-states (pòleis) would cover the geographic area of the Western Mediterranean and Asia Minor, and they would have different rulers, political assets, and societal structures.
In the late 6th century BC Thales, a young man from Miletus, tried to understand the world through the eyes of science, rejecting the dominant myths of his time around the creation of the world and of natural phenomena. His teachings became famous all over Greece and evoked the first-ever movement of philosophical thought, which included numerous great thinkers such as Anaximander and Heraclitus. They were concerned about issues of natural philosophy, and therefore are known as "natural philosophers" or "Presocratics"(Arnold, 2018).
In the 5th century BC, one Greek city was thriving more than the others: Athens, during that period, was considered the spiritual centre of the world. People were constantly discussing and interchanging ideas about a variety of matters, on every occasion: in public baths, feasts, religious celebrations, and public institutions. These public spaces played a fundamental role in the development of democracy and are the birthplaces of sciences like philosophy and law. In that frame, a penniless and bad-looking man, Socrates, would set the ground rules of Western philosophy (Lake, 2021).
Roaming around the Athenian crowd and asking questions to the people who were thought to be the wisest in the city, Socrates tried to reach definite conclusions and solid definitions on every notion he examined. His method of questioning and his firm ideas inspired a consistent crowd of young people, who tried to follow and apply his teachings. Unlike the “Presocratics” who would primarily be concerned with natural phenomena, Socrates’ philosophy was more anthropocentric as he vigorously tried to define virtue and ethics. In that sense, it has been written that Socrates “brought philosophy down from the stars to earth” (Chrysopoulos, 2022).
Socrates did not engage extensively in political philosophy. However, Plato, his brightest student and founder of the famous Academy, did. Plato was born in 428 BC to a noble family. Although many thinkers before him were concerned with politics and governance, Plato is considered to be the first political philosopher because of his clear opinions and his extensive work on the matter (Saharian & Saharian, 1966). His theories about the system of governance are omnipresent throughout all of his dialogues, but his most iconic and influential work is “The Republic”, in which he described his ideal political system. Thus, “The Republic” will be the main source for this analysis.
Justice was one of the central notions in Plato’s political philosophy. In “The Republic”, the philosopher defined it as the ability “to do one’s own business and not to be a busybody” (Wright, 2012). This definition applied both to the city and the individuals. Plato defined three different social classes, in accordance with the three components of the soul. Each class should receive different education and its members would be occupied with specific tasks suited for them. The higher class was that of the “guardians”, who were philosophers and must rule the city. The second class comprised the “auxiliaries”, who were the soldiers who defended it. The lowest class consisted of the “producers”, people working on manual labour. As the different parts of human souls, the social classes had predetermined roles in the organization of public life. The philosophers were meant to govern, the soldiers had to protect the city from its enemies, and the producers provided food and shelter. In Plato’s ideal society, then, there was no social mobility between different classes: this was eventuality, in fact, considered unjust.
Plato was deeply disappointed with the democracy in Athens. He never overcame the city’s decision to condemn his beloved teacher to death; Socrates. He was persuaded that public opinion was being manipulated by a few powerful and influential men, who would think they were wise, while they were not. The expanded demagogy (demagogía) in the Athenian democracy led Plato to the theory that only a few should have the right to govern the city. These few people would be selected based on their merits and their brightness. As described above, the bright elite destined to rule consisted of philosophers. But in the ideal Republic, philosophers did not enjoy the privilege of ruling without a price. In his famous cave allegory, in fact, Plato stated that philosophers were morally obliged to govern, even if they did not want to, because they were meant to enlighten and guide the other members of society who were still in the bonds of ignorance. Philosophers were also not allowed to have personal property, nor to create a family, as such actions would affect their judgment and would prevent them from being impartial (Maraggianou-Dermousi, 2016).
In the platonic ideal State, women were considered to be equal to men. Plato expressed the opinion that women could be part of the class of guardians, provided they had the necessary qualities. In a dialogue taking place in “The Republic”, it is stated that “men and women also have the same nature concerning guarding a city, except insofar as the one is weaker and the other stronger” (The Republic, 456). Plato tried to concretize his theories. For this purpose, in fact, he travelled to Sicily three times and attempted to establish a philosopher-king. All of his three attempts, however, failed. For that reason, Plato emphasized the importance of the laws as a means of restriction of the ruling class (Maraggianou-Dermousi, 2016). In his dialogue “Laws”, Plato concluded that the laws of the ideal State must not allow the rulers to have excessive power that nobody could infringe, without them being severely punished. Furthermore, he believed that the laws must be designed in a way that would let them guide the citizens towards virtue, and must not be changed unless it is for the common good.
Plato introduced certain controversial ideas for his time and his audience, which was proud of its democratic tradition and traumatized by the atrocities of the oligarchic ruling in the city (Maraggianou-Dermousi, 2016). Hence, advocating for women's equality and for an oligarchic political system inevitably provoked strong opposition. Among those who criticized him was his disciple Aristotle.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Northern Greece. As a young man, he studied at Plato’s Academy, but after the death of his teacher, he left Athens to conduct research in other Greek cities. Although some basic ideas about his political theories appear in almost every one of his books, the main source of information about his thought can be found in “Politics”, which summarized his whole political theory within its eight different volumes.
A central pillar in Aristotle’s philosophy was that everything in nature served a specific purpose (télos). Moreover, he believed that human beings were naturally set to live in groups, as nobody could survive while being completely autonomous. The most primitive group form was the family, and society was its evolution. Therefore, living in societies was deemed necessary, as it served certain specific goals: the “living” (zín), and the “well-living” (éu zín). The condition of well-living in society could only be granted through justice. The laws, in fact, must oblige citizens to act properly and make them accustomed to the right way of behaving until they became virtuous. In contrast with Plato, Aristotle believed that there was no single ideal political system, and that different systems could be desirable or not according to their purpose. If a system’s goal was to serve the people, then it was a proper one. On the other hand, if the system’s goal was to serve the ruling class, then it was a deviant one. According to this theory, the following separation of political systems occurred:
Number of people ruling
Correct political systems
Deviant political systems
Aristotle seemed to prefer the Aristocracy and the Politeia, or a combination of the two. He believed that virtuous people should retain the power, while public offices that did not request any specific knowledge should be distributed by lottery among the citizens for short periods of time. Although Aristotle classified democracy as a deviant political system, he did not reject the idea that the collective mind of the many could be wiser and more efficient than the few virtuous, just like a man “who has many feet, and hands, and senses” (Politics, Book III, part XI). Thus, even if each individual could be a worse judge than one single expert, “the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part and some another, and among them, they understand the whole” (Ibid.). Additionally, he believed that a numerous middle class could play a crucial role in society, as it could relieve the tensions between the other two classes and guarantee the rulers' impartiality.
The philosopher considered a citizen one “who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state” (Politics, Book III, part I). He also stated that a virtuous citizen is not necessarily a virtuous man, because political virtues may differ according to the political system. Every free citizen could assume a public office and elect the city’s authorities, provided he is fair. For Aristotle, fairness was a virtue acquired by habit (èxis). That means that people should be accustomed to acting fairly until they reach a point when they choose to act fairly voluntarily, and not by fear of punishment (Maraggianou-Dermousi, 2016). Many analysts consider Aristotle, and not Plato, the father of political philosophy. Unlike Plato, who described an imaginary ideal State, Aristotle introduced empirical observation into the study of politics (Roskin, accessed 18/3/2022). For that reason, Aristotle’s work remains more relevant today.
Numerous thinkers in classic Athens, and Greece in general, had been exploring the various aspects of the different political systems and their functions. However, Plato and Aristotle were the first ones to treat the subject with consistency and scientific efficiency. Although analysts’ opinions differ when it comes to deciding who the founder of political philosophy is, both of their respective works have been ground-breaking. Plato described his ideal State as an oligarchic political system, where a few enlightened philosophers are destined to govern. Aristotle preferred a mixture of aristocratic and democratic governance. He believed that only a few virtuous citizens must be able to assume certain political offices, but at the same time, he acknowledged the ability of the masses to make the right decisions collectively. In any case, both philosophers are extremely influential, as their teachings inspired several posterior thinkers and remain relevant even in modern societies, as they set the ground rules of political science as a complete and structured academic field.
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Translated from ancient Greek:
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