Plato and Aristotle on Politics 1 Plato and Aristotle, two philosophers in the 4th century, held polar views on politics and philosophy in general. This fact is very cleverly illustrated by Raphael's "School of Athens" (1510-11; Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican), where Plato is portrayed looking up to the higher forms; and Aristotle is pointing down because he supports the natural sciences (Beck, 1993). In a discussion of politics, the stand point of each philosopher becomes an essential factor. It is not coincidental that Plato states in The Republic (Jowett, trans. 2000) that Philosopher Rulers who possess knowledge of the good should be the governors in a city state. His strong interest in metaphysics is demonstrated various times: for example, the similes of the cave, the sun, and the line, and his theory of the forms. Because he is so involved in metaphysics, his views on politics are more theoretical as opposed to actual. Aristotle, contrarily, held the view that politics is the art of ruling and being ruled in turn. In The Politics (Lord, trans. 1985), he attempts to outline a way of governing that would be ideal for an actual state. Balance is a main word in discussing Aristotle because he believes it is the necessary element to creating a stable government. His less metaphysical approach to politics makes Aristotle more in tune with the modern world, yet he is far from modern.
Plato's concept of what politics and government should be is a direct result of his belief in the theory of forms. The theory of forms basically states that there is a higher "form" for everything that exists in the world. Each material thing is simply a representation of the real thing, which is the form. Moore and Bruder (1999) pointed out that, according to Plato, most people cannot see the forms, they only see their representation or their shadows, as in the simile of the cave. Only those who love knowledge and contemplate on the reality of things will
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achieve understanding of the forms. Philosophers, who by definition are knowledge lovers, are the only beings who can reach true knowledge. This concept has to be taken a step further because in The Republic (Jowett, trans. 2000), Plato states that philosophers should be the rulers since they are the only ones who hold the form of the good. Plato seems to be saying that it is not enough to know the form of tables or trees, one must know the greatest form--form of the good--in order to rule. The reasoning for this is if you know the good, then you will do the good. Therefore, Philosopher Rulers are by far the most apt to rule.
In The Republic (Jowett, trans. 2000), Plato builds around the idea of Philosopher Rulers. Even though it is not his primary point, it certainly is at the core of his discussion of the ideal state. The question that arises is, 'Why do you need ideal states which will have philosophers as rulers?' There are many layers to the answer of this question. The first thing is that a state cannot be ideal without having philosophers as rulers. This answer leads to the question, 'Then why do you need ideal states to begin with?' Plato starts with a discussion of Justice, which leads to the creation of the ideal state. The reason why an ideal state is needed is to guarantee the existence of Justice. This does not mean, though, that there cannot be states without Justice. Actually, Plato provides at least two reasons why the formation of a state cannot be avoided. They are as follows: 1) human beings are not self-sufficient so they need to live in a social environment, and 2) each person has a natural aptitude for a specified task and should concentrate on developing it (Jowett, trans. 2000, pp. 56-62). Although a person is not self-sufficient, a composition of people (a state) satisfies the needs of all its members. Furthermore, members can specialize on their natural fortitudes and become more productive members of society.
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States are going to form, whether purposefully or coincidentally. For this reason, certain rules have to be enacted for the well-being of the state. The main way to institutionalize rules is through government and in the form of laws. Plato's theory is not an explication of laws
of the people. It is a separation of power amongst three classes, the Rulers, Auxiliaries, and Commoners. The point is to create a harmonious unity amongst the three classes, which will lead to the greater good of the community and, consequently, each individual.
The three classes are a product of different aptitude levels for certain tasks amid various individuals. Plato assigns different political roles to different members of each class. It appears that the only classes that are allowed to participate in government are the Auxiliaries and, of course, the Philosopher Rulers. The lower class does not partake in politics because they are not mentally able. In other words, they do not understand the concept of the forms. Thus, it is better to allow the Philosophers, who do have this knowledge, to lead them. Providing food and abode for the Guardians is the only governmental responsibility the lower class has. The Auxiliaries are in charge of the military, police, and executive duties. Ruling and making laws is reserved for the Philosopher Rulers whose actions are all intended for the good of the state. To ensure that public good continues to be foremost on each Ruler's agenda, the Rulers live in community housing, hold wives/children in common, and do not own private property. The separation of classes is understood by everyone which could be a negative factor in the scheme of things, however this is eliminated through a very moral oriented education system. All these provisions are generated to maintain unity of the state. The most extravagant precaution that Plato takes is the Foundation Myth of the metals. By making the people believe, through a myth, that the distinction of each
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class is biological as well as moral, Plato reassures that there won't be any disruption in the harmony of the state.
Whereas Plato's The Republic (Jowett, trans. 2000) is a text whose goal is to define Justice and in doing so uses the polis, Aristotle's The Politics's (Lord, trans. 1985) sole function is to define itself--define politics. Aristotle begins his text by answering the question: "Why does the state exist?" His answer is that the state is the culmination of natural associations that start with the joining of man and woman ("pair") which have a family and form a "household"; households unite and form villages; villages unite and form the state. This natural order of events is what is best because it provides for the needs of all the individuals. Aristotle, like Plato, believes that a person is not self-reliant. This lack of sufficiency is the catalyst in the escalating order of unions among people.
In Lord’s translation (1985) of Aristotle it appears that he is not very set on breaking down society. His argument says that there are different classes in society, but they are naturally defined. For example, he devotes a lot of time to an explanation of the "naturalness" of slaves and their role in society. Aristotle is also very sexist and explicitly states so. His view is that women are inferior to men in all senses. Perhaps the most pertaining to our discussion is the citizen, whose role is purely political. Both Plato and Aristotle seem to agree that some people are not capable of practicing an active role in political life. Plato's reason is that the lower class is not mentally adept for the intricacies of higher knowledge on the good. Aristotle seems to base his opinion on a more political issue. He believes that only those that fully participate in their government should be considered citizens of the state. For this reason, he excludes workers as citizens because they would not have the required time to openly participate in politicking.
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The Aristotelian polis, as opposed to Plato's, is a city with a large middle class which promotes stability and balances the conflicting claims of the poor and the rich. Aristotle combines elements of democracy with elements of aristocracy, again to balance opposing claims.
Because he is aware that human interest is an inextricable entity, the distribution of scarce and valuable goods is in proportion to contribution to the good of the polis. This system provides for the self interested who believe that those who work harder should receive more. Another point is that the citizens rule and are ruled in turn, insofar as the mixed social system allows. This is permissible because of the strong involvement of the citizens in government; it is what one would call a "true democracy." Overall, a spirit of moderation prevails.
Naturally, since Aristotle and Plato have been around for such a long time, our society certainly contains some of their influences in a general sense. For example, today it is believed that certain people are born with certain capacities. Intelligence has been attributed to genetics. Because of the different intelligence levels among people, we have different classes--for example: advanced, intermediate, and beginners. In their appropriate level, each person develops his or her abilities to the highest potential. This concept is sometimes at odds with the ideal of equality, i.e. we are all human beings. Yet, in essence, it does not take away from the ideal because we are all humans, but we differ in certain capacity levels to complete tasks.
Plato's and Aristotle's philosophy have helped shape present thought, though, by no means, mandate our practices. The philosophers are very community oriented while we value the individual. Besides differing with today's standards, each philosopher is in his own way distinct. Plato is very attracted to metaphysical philosophy, while Aristotle is much more methodical. Both perspective views are and will continue to puzzle students for years to come.
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Aristotle (1985). The politics. (C. Lord, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Beck, J. (1993). Raphael: The stanza della segnatura. New York: George Braziller Publishing.
Moore, B., & Bruder, K. (1999). Philosophy: The power of ideas. Mountain View, CA:
Plato (2000). The republic. (B. Jowett, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.