, Research Paper
Political philosophy, that is, the philosophy of the polis, started with the placement of man at the center of philosophical inquiry Know Thyself (gn thi seauton), as was written on the frontispiece of the Delphic Oracle. For the Greek philosophers, the study of man could not be separated from the study of the community, outside of which man cannot fulfill his nature, which is intrinsically social.
Politics is the science of the city, that is, the science of living in a community and of serving the public good, besides pursuing one s private interests. Public good is higher than individual good, not only because it permits leading a safe economic and religious life, but also because being part of a community and having one s own special role in it makes for individual happiness rather than isolation.
These are the basis on which ancient political philosophers established their constitutions for the City.
According to Cicero, Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from heaven, to establish it in the cities, to introduce it also into the households, and to compel it to inquire about men s life and manners as well as about the good and bad things.
Plato, his most famous disciple, published his teachings about morality and ethics, but went even further in the search of the absolute principle that underlies the ancient Greek political value of the good life, or the just life. He did so starting from an analysis of what he considered to be an inadequate political system in Athens, namely democracy. In his Republic , Socrates calls democracy the second-worst form of government, situated just before absolute tyranny, because she fosters division and instability among her citizens. The lack of unity is owed to envy, or the wish to possess another man s property, whereas instability results from the general effort to change the situation, in order to succeed in taking over the other man s goods.
This is the Athens criticized by Plato. At the same time, though, he offers an alternative by attempting to build up an ideal state, which opposes the lack of moderation with the creation of fixed groups, wherein each individual finds his place according to his special abilities. Within the groups, all members are equal, and no one desires the other s property, also because private property is abolished entirely in this ideal state.
The reason why the construction of the ideal state departs from a discussion of the nature of justice lies in the necessary just nature of this state. Socrates considers justice to be the highest of virtues; citizenship also is a social virtue. The entire system of his political philosophy is built around the existence of virtues, that is, the manifestations of a set of abstract principles that reside in the realm of Ideas. The highest authority in this realm is the Idea of absolute Good, which transcends and gives life to all other eternal Ideas, just as the sun does in the visible world. Therefore, the ultimate end of all political activity is the good as known by the philosopher, the enlightened figure promoted by Socrates to be the perfect ruler of the ideal state.
The true philosopher-ruler is more than just an educated man. He is of noble stock, noble as in the understanding of the noble lie , and has received the best education of all other members of the state. Platonic education of the ruling class encompasses rigorous training of body and mind, accompanied by a continuous selection of the worthy on the basis of their loyalty to a set of moral principles. This insofar, as the study of dialectic (the final and most important part of their education, which allows them access to the realm of reason and abstract principles) fills the students with lawlessness , that is, it provides them with the means to analyze the moral precepts they were given, and if their devotion to these is not true and complete, they may become the enemies of justice instead of its servants and upholders. They must be just according to Socrate s definition of justice as an interior principle, which is valid irrespective of reward.
Plato draws the portrait of the perfect public servant, who is wise, educated, selfless and dedicated, but he places him in a totalitarian state (because this is what Socrate s ideal state ultimately represents the totalitarian sophocracy). There is no freedom of speech, as poets and musicians are banished from the city because they undermine tradition and the established order. There is no private property, which makes this state a communist totalitarian sophocracy, and still, Socrates proves that it is the only form of government under which the people will really know happiness and fulfillment, because it is a united society, in which each individual is trained for a specific task, having his own special and necessary role in the general picture.
Plato s organicist view of state and society has found many adherents over the centuries. Proposing a new method of analyzing justice, Socrates introduces the parallel between the state and the human soul, as it is easier to find justice at a larger scale and then to apply its principles to the individuals.
This is how the ideal state comes into being, as part of the quest for justice. There is no justice outside the boundaries of this state, and even within them it is a fragile construction, because mere negligence of the principles laid down during the conversation, negligence eventually owed to human imperfection, will lead to the decay of the perfect society, through the necessary stages of timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and finally to tyranny.
This is why the moral principles outlined in the Republic are so important: moderation, courage and wisdom can overcome the flaws of human nature and create a state in which individuals thrive due to the benefices of justice, which encompasses all the other virtues.
Aristotle s criticism of Plato touches both his metaphysical teaching, where he tries to deconstruct the Platonic ontology of Ideas, and his political teachings, in which he tries to point out the dangers of a city relying entirely on Unity.
Aristotle s view of justice differs slightly from Plato s. Justice is not in so much an art, as it is inherent to certain forms of relationships between humans. In his Politics, Aristotle upholds a close connection between justice and friendship, because any form of human association presupposes cooperation, and depending on the limits of this cooperation, friendship can be inferred. According to Leo Strauss s interpretation of the Republic, this kind of relationship makes justice a lot like the art of war, wherein one s duty is to help one s friends and harm one s enemies.
Although the difference between Plato and Aristotle may not be theoretized as one between metaphysical idealism as opposed to empirical realism, it is true that Aristotle s view of the city and of justice is closer to real-life conditions than Plato s. Aristotle does not make justice contingent upon the just character of all members of a society, but maintains that it is sufficient for a small elite to practice the principles of justice in order for the city to be well organized. Also, Aristotle does not believe that the principle of unity should go as far as to annihilate all diversity between the city s walls. Rather, he sees the city as a unitary system of diversities.
The tension between the reality and the ideal is less strong in Aristotle than in Plato. One might infer that the former has a more practical approach to morality in politics. Since the ideal is impossible to attain, the legislator, the philosopher and the educator must work together in order to establish a viable and just constitution, and after that they must each intervene in his own way whenever necessary in order for it to remain viable and just. Given the fact that Aristotle believes that the goal of government is to make its subjects virtuous, one might believe that he subordinates politics to morals. On the contrary, politics, which is the art of collective conduct, includes morals insofar as they are the art of individual conduct.
1. Plato, The Republic, Benjamin Jowett and Ray Woodcock Online Edition, 1998-1999;
2. Aristotle, Politics, Benjamin Jowett (transl.), Online Edition in the Internet Classics Archive at http://classics.mit.edu;
3. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, W.D. Ross (transl.), Online Edition in the Internet Classics Archive at http://classics.mit.edu;
4. Leo Strauss, The City and Man, The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London 1978;
5. F. Braunstein, J.F. Pepin, Marile doctrine, Antet 1997;
6. Dominique Colas, La Pensee Politique, Larousse 1992.