Ancient Political Philosophy: Plato And Aristotle

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Ancient political philosophy was mainly based on the premise that human potential is fulfilled in the Polis and on the citizen life itself. It encompassed ethics, justice, and politeia, (constitutions) thus implying how society is or how it should be organized (M. Lane, 2018). From that period many of the most relevant concepts and works came from the all-time most important philosophers, that set the foundations of Western Philosophy and the Political discourse of more than two millennia – Plato and Aristotle.

Although being master and apprentice, since Plato was the founder of the Athenian Academy where Aristotle was one of his pupils for several years, even though they were contemporaries and shared many concepts, their views were quite divergent, especially on what is defined as “politics” nowadays. Taking into account their respective works: “The Republic” and “Politics”, several of those divergences can be pointed out. The essence of the aforementioned masterpieces reveals the characteristics of Platonian and Aristotelian thought. With the first being idealistic and rationalist, proposing a utopia: The Kallipolis (noble, beautiful city) which in the dialogue is presented by Socrates (some argue that Socrates in the dialogue represents Plato’s point of view) while in the second we have a more practical, critical, empirical and analytical approach to the existing order and what models of rule work the best.

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The proposal of a utopia in Plato’s Republic can be correlated with the Platonic theory of “Forms” which according to it, everything present in the world has an ideal form in the “realm of the ideas”, along these lines, nothing can be understood by the senses, only by the mind. Thus it implies that the best socio-political model must come from the “ideas”, moreover, this can be reinforced by the core foundation of the Kallipolis, which was based on the essences of the human soul: Reason, Spirit, Appetite, and should be originally ruled by Philosopher Kings.

Going further deep into the utopian vision present in the Republic, it could be said that the dialogue is constructed around the question: “what is justice?”, which gives birth to the already introduced fictional city of Kallipolis, which Socrates presents as an ideal and moral society. The foundation of this fictional society lies in the constitution of three classes: the Guardians (Rulers), the Warriors, and the Producers based on aforementioned parts of the human soul sustained by a “Noble Lie”, which is a set of beliefs that would serve to maintain the societal order. This so-called “Noble Lie” can be seen as one of the first proposals of social engineering, since its premises were based on: “the fabrication of a religious tale about people being born with a certain sort of “soul” (gold, silver, or iron/bronze) that determines their social standing and occupation. It also involves revising existing religion, literature, and music to remove inconsistencies or bad behavior by gods/heroes” (Brendan Shea definition). According to that vision, the result of this measure would create synergy and organic harmony among the citizens, making them strive for the good, just, and virtuous.

The Guardians, the possessors of the golden soul, would be selectively bred from the best citizens of the caste. They would be trained rigorously and intensely since early ages to become apt rulers, thus dedicating themselves to philosophy, the sciences, living virtuously, and pursuing knowledge. This would make them know the nature of Good and embody Justice itself.

Even though Plato was an idealist, he was also a rationalist, thus critic of the ideas exposed in his own dialogues, and the Republic was no exception. To explain how the Guardians wouldn’t fall for the temptation of corruption, “Socrates as a character, proposed a system of common, public property and the dissolution of the nuclear family. In this model, the state would arrange partners and children would be raised communally, and parenthood would be hidden from society” (According to this source, Plato didn’t saw the nuclear family as intrinsically natural to human nature), later the youth would be divided to initiate their functions based on their abilities and capabilities, to best fulfill their role in society. This model would cut corruption and the ambitions that lead to tyranny by its roots.

Thus concluding this model – “the city would be ruled by the incorruptible, most apt, wise and educated philosopher-kings, which instead of being power-seeking, would strive for accumulating wisdom and make possible for the citizens to lead the best lives they can”. Although Plato, later on, wrote about law and its importance, in the Republic, he described Kallipolis as not needing laws, due to its organic nature. Even though the idealized city and society are deemed unachievable in the dialogue itself, it exposes the political Platonic thought that the masses are unfitted to rule, due to its ignorance, lack of justice and piety as well as even though they claim to know and act good, they don’t understand the notion of true Good.

Many scholars argue that maybe Plato changed idea in relation to his political ideas, based on his later work “Laws”, others argue that it provides a more pragmatic and realist alternative, while he still held the utopian vision of the Republic, however, it's hard to exactly know it, since Plato’s writing and style are indirect and feature dialogues, with many different points of views and argument, a typical characteristic of Ancient Greek philosophic texts.

Aristotle on the other hand, as already mentioned, was an empiricist, together with philosophy and politics, he also dedicated much of his life to other sciences, such as math. The base of his philosophy was the concept of essences and functions, according to him every living being is bound to those – following this logic, human is naturally rational and social creatures which have imprinted a natural function of reaching Eudaimonia (a state similar to “happiness”) which according to him is Good itself. For humans to achieve that state, they should cultivate virtues and engage in public life, “thus it leads the role of the State as being part of the human development by providing citizens responsibility and duties, as well as culture, education, property, leisure, etc…”.

This lead us to the Aristotelian notion of man as a Zoon politikon (literally meaning: political animal), which he attributed to humans due to our natural inclination to form communities and engage in politics. According to him, only in communities and cities mankind thrives and realize its full potential, whilst in seclusion individuals are only crippled shadows of what they could have become.

In contraposition to Plato, Aristotle claims that the rule of laws and the impartial pursuit of the whole society well-being legitimize governments, not the wisdom and nature of the ruling class, moreover, he argued that humans develop better when they have different interests and pursue their own paths instead of the collectivist vision of common interest pursuit found in Plato’s work (J. Waldron, 2016). He also defends the institution of the nuclear family, slavery, and many features of his contemporary social order as natural – as well as the existence of private property. He argued that private property and ownership not only develop individuals but are also a prerequisite in making them eligible citizens.

Retaking the role of laws, Aristotle proposed many types of fair and good governments, which would be successful based on the commitment of the rulers to the established laws. Together with Plato, he saw democracy as a corrupt political system, which he referred to as a mob rule, where the uneducated masses (though also part of the select standards of Athenian democracy) had in his opinion too much power over public matters. Based on his vision of justice, different individuals have different values and that should be taken into account in politics.

Thus Aristotle proposed three forms of good and fair governments – Monarchy, Aristocracy, “Polity” and its corrupted counterparts: Tyranny; Oligarchy, and Democracy. According to him, Monarchy would be the best form of government, if the Ruler was fair, but as aristocracy, those forms of government are susceptible to become tyrannies, thus the best or at least the most practical option, would be the institution of the so-called Polity, which would be based on aristocratic and democratic elements, where all have rights to engage politically but the medium class, of educated and property owner citizens, have a bigger weight in public decision making.

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