Plato and Aristotle were famously different in their temperaments and political thought. Plato was the radical revolutionary; channeling Socrates, his Republic presented a template of an ideal constitution. That ideal was to be imposed “top-down”, complete with a comprehensive discipline of austerity, common marriage, and common property for its guardian rulers, not to mention an avant garde take on a woman’s place in that ruling class. His later works, the Statesman and the Laws, moderated his stances but retained his distinctive approach. Aristotle was more the social conservative, respectful of consistent virtue and those possessing it who could be counted on as experienced and wise. His political philosophy, like his ethics, looked at polities already in place and drew distinctions among them, pointing out the advantages of mixed government, private property in some measure, and a middle class able to participate in governance.
Plato and Aristotle shared certain central similarities, however. They thought and wrote in a particular time and place, the era of the Greek city as it faced eclipse by larger empires after decades of war and decline. Both emphasized the importance of local circumstances in understanding politics. Both were preoccupied with the question of finding or fashioning a political order that could endure. These ancient Greek ideas are well worth considering outside their own context, even at a time when most of us only encounter philosophy in cocktail party banter about Derrida or Foucault.
Of the agreements between Plato and Aristotle, none is more fundamental than this: There is an inherent order to things that exists beyond our own capacity to create or reorganize, and politics, to be stable and good for citizens, must conform to that order. This order includes an end, or telos, to human life—the fulfillment of which must be the aim of sound politics. In short, we do not simply define, choose or “make up as we go” our own ends and the order of things. We must seek to understand and conform to an order that exists beyond us.
This postulate has other implications, nearly as fundamental, well worth some attention. In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Socrates undertakes to refute certain arguments he hears as to the nature of justice and then to describe justice himself. In doing so, he makes a fundamental point about an existing order to things by asking Thrasymachus “whether anything that has a function performs it well by means of its own peculiar virtue and badly by means of its vice.” Thrasymachus agrees that it does. Socrates thus establishes an ordered correspondence between things, their functions, and their proper virtues and vices that determines how well something serves its purpose. This order is commonly comprehensible to Socrates, to others who hear his argument, and presumably to any reasonable observer. Socrates then moves to the order of the human life:
“Doesn’t it follow, then, that a bad soul rules and takes care of things badly and that a good soul does all these things well?”
“Now, we agreed that justice is a soul’s virtue, and injustice its vice?”
“Then, it follows that a just soul and a just man live well, and an unjust one badly.”
“Apparently so, according to your argument.”
“And surely anyone who lives well is blessed and happy, and anyone who doesn’t is the opposite.”
This fundamental order of function and related virtue clarifies the ends of human life, happiness and blessedness, and the virtue necessary to achieve them: justice. Through reason, we can discern and describe this right order of life.
With the aim of better understanding what justice is, Socrates extends the idea of discernible order to the city as a whole, and thus to politics. He begins by constructing a city where fundamental needs are met, the “city for pigs”; but at the insistence of his companions he moves quickly to a city where greater wants can be accommodated. Despite calling the original city for pigs the “true” city and the “healthy” city, he now develops a political order based on the need to counter the bad tendencies of the luxurious city so as to purify and perfect it.
Such a city would have the virtues of moderation, courage, and wisdom. To these Plato adds justice as the fourth virtue, what is “left over” after the other three virtues and “makes it possible for them to grow in the city and . . . preserves them when they’ve grown for as long as it remains there itself.” This justice lies in the arrangement whereby every person in the city—ruler, guardian, money-maker or craftsman—is “doing his own work”, or in the “having and doing of one’s own” with no “meddling and exchange between the three classes.” In other words, the ideal city assigns functions to each of its main parts or classes, and this ensures the virtue of the city as a whole; justice resides in the condition that each part performs its and only its function. The result is a polis where “with the whole city developing and being governed well, we must leave it to nature to provide each group with its share of happiness.”
The same approach to justice applies to the soul. The good soul, the one who lives well and is thus blessed and happy, Plato takes to be the soul whose three “parts” each do their own proper work: the reason or the rational part, the appetitive subject to reason or the “spirited” part, and the appetitive. The man of justice, he says,
regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself. . . . Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his own body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts—in all of these, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony.
Plato thus gives us an interrelated order of the soul and of the city that we did not develop or impose ourselves. This interrelated order exists independently of whatever we may think about it. Properly understood and lived in the individual and the political life, that order yields happiness, which he insists is our end, or telos.
Put in current vernacular, Plato is essentially telling us to understand the true order of things; if we make our decisions so that we go with the flow of that order, life will be happy and blessed. In a culture known for its appreciation of tragedy and for celebrating the aphorism of Silenus—the “best thing for a man is not to be born, and if already born, to die as soon as possible”—this is at least a step away from comprehensive fatalism and futility, whether or not Plato’s suggestions were followed. It’s not much removed from the passage in Genesis in which God the Creator judges His creation both “good” and “very good.”
Plato’s discussion of the forms explicates his concept of order more fully, and while the result still points toward the potential attainment of truth and happiness, it is achieved only with effort. The importance Plato attaches to the forms for politics is evident through his inclusion of them in his development of an ideal constitution. Plato discusses the form of the good in the famous allegory of the cave:
In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.
Plato sees the form of the good as the cause of order, of all that is “correct and beautiful”, and thus as the central guiding principle of both our private lives and our public actions, including our politics. That form is intelligible; we can discern it as the foundation for action.
While Aristotle rejects some features of Plato’s ideal constitution, he shares the idea that there exists an order beyond ourselves to which politics must conform. In the Politics, he provides his explanation of the city as the natural development of associations beginning with the family and household, to the village, to the city (or, in the modern lingo adopted by some translators, the state):
The final association, formed of several villages, is the state. For all practical purposes the process is now complete: self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life. Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural. . . . It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.
Aristotle sees in nature an order that includes an end, or telos, to which politics is to be bound. His account of forms elsewhere differs from Plato’s, but here nature plays a role similar to that of Plato’s form of the good, at least in terms of ordering things in a way we can discern, including man’s unique end and capacities as the context for politics:
But obviously man is a political animal in a sense in which a bee is not, or any other gregarious animal. Nature . . . does nothing without some purpose; and she has endowed man alone among the animals with the power of speech. . . . For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, just and unjust, etc. It is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household and a state.
Indeed, the man outside the city must be either superhuman or subhuman, and when he is “divorced from law and justice” he is the worst of animals. The good life for man is impossible without the city and politics.
Aristotle makes the relationship between the natural development from family to city and the end of a good life more explicit elsewhere in the Politics, drawing again on man’s nature as a social animal:
All these activities are the product of affection, for it is our affection for others that causes us to choose to live together; thus they all contribute towards that good life which is the purpose of the state; and a state is an association of kinships and villages which aims at a perfect and self-sufficient life—and that, we hold, means living happily and nobly.
These insights advance our understanding of what Aristotle has in mind as the end of the city, but they leave much unanswered about the happiness that politics is to permit and enable. Aristotle concludes the Nicomachean Ethics with a description of that happiness:
If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us. Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural ruler and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness. That this activity is contemplative we have already said.
Contemplation is an end to itself, an activity not meant to achieve other goods. The man who is contemplative, the philosopher, is the most self-sufficient of men. But Aristotle hedges. He allows for a weaker but still good happiness in actions “below” the activity of contemplation. If you can’t be a contemplative philosopher, you can at least be happy as a virtuous statesman or citizen who governs and lives according to order and virtue.
If the end of man and the city are givens in a larger order, and if virtue is instrumental to happiness in knowing and conforming to that order, we should expect that Plato and Aristotle will see politics as being about choosing means to those ends rather than about choosing ends themselves. And so they do. The choice of constitution (itself the fundamental political choice) must seek the right end, and a good constitution then allows for debate about the means that will serve the end, as well as about subordinate purposes that fulfill the end.
Plato’s very project of constructing an ideal constitution suggests implicitly that such a constitution is a means to an end: just and stable governance. He makes this explicit in The Republic when he discusses what he will not attempt to set down in advance:
Then, by the gods, what about market business, such as the private contracts people make with one another in the marketplace, for example, or contracts with manual laborers, cases of insult or injury, the bringing of lawsuits, the establishing of juries, the payment and assessment of whatever dues are necessary in markets and harbors, the regulation of market, city, harbor, and the rest—should we bring ourselves to legislate about any of these?
On these matters, in which the question of justice is directly implicated, Adeimantus responds, “It isn’t appropriate to dictate to men who are fine and good. They’ll easily find out for themselves whatever needs to be legislated about such things.” Socrates agrees: “Yes, provided that a god grants that the laws we have already described are preserved.” Adeimantus concludes, “If not, they’ll spend their lives enacting a lot of other laws and then amending them, believing that in this way they’ll attain the best.” Good politics is thus the choice of means in particular circumstances stemming from a constitution that is oriented toward the right end and carried out by virtuous rulers. Bad politics is arguing about ends that are only the passing beliefs of men as well as about the means to reach those ephemeral ends.
Both Plato and Aristotle establish the common good as the purpose of political action that serves the end of men. What is to be done is the primary subject of proper politics. The question of who is to govern is important, but in a secondary way; the “who” of “who rules” in a good city turns on what that ruler will do, and on whether his or her character suggests that the choice of means will be right. The ruler is not selected based on choices among competing final ends for the city and the person. Socrates tells us that the guardians must be those “who seem most of all to believe throughout their lives that they must eagerly pursue what is advantageous to the city and be wholly unwilling to do the opposite.” Aristotle writes, “Whenever the one, the few, or the many rule with a view to the common good, these constitutions must be correct; but if they look to the private advantage, be it of the one or the few or the mass, they are deviations.”
Clearly, then, the common good represents the practical aim of good governance in accord with the end of man’s happiness. Politics is either the pursuit of that aim—the common good—for that telos, or it is wrong (though real cities, Aristotle knows, will in practice be less than perfect in their politics). Political rule is thus about choosing the means to reach the common good. Of course, this does not exclude the choice of subordinate purposes within politics, but it reasserts the final aim and end that those subordinate purposes, too, must serve.
Aristotle is especially clear about this distinction of means and ends. In the Ethics, he writes:
Now the activity of the practical virtues is exhibited in political or military affairs, but the actions concerned with these seem to be unleisurely. . . . Warlike actions are completely so . . . but the action of the statesman also is unleisurely, and aims—beyond the political action itself—at despotic power and honors, or at all events happiness, for him and his fellow citizens—a happiness different from political action, and evidently sought as being different.
It is contemplation, rather than political activity, that “will be the complete happiness of man” because politics (like warfare) is pursued for the sake of, and as a means to reach, that happiness. And for many, perhaps most of us, politics will be the closest we get to participating in the philosophic life—a notion observers of contemporary politics will be forgiven for seeing only obscurely. But our political participation must rest upon our grasp of the end of man and hence make clear the distinction between means and end.
Plato and Aristotle both saw decay as the normal course for constitutions, with particular emphasis on the decay of democracies. Plato, for example, calls attention to the tendency toward the lapse of aristocracy—a version of which was his own ideal constitution—into deviant democracy. Aristotle provides an historical example of such decay with Sparta, where the power of the Ephors became excessive, causing “further damage to the constitution, for an aristocracy turned into a democracy.” Aristotle sees advantages in mixed government, incorporating some measure of rule of the many into a constitution. He notes that “democracy is the most moderate of the deviations” and distinguishes among different types of democracy. But he implies that the likely end result of democracy is the triumph of tyranny over the rule of law as demagogues come to hold sway. This kind of failed city
is in point of time the last to develop in states. The reason for this lies in their growth. Not only are they much larger than they originally were, but they have much larger revenues. Thus all participate, because the mass of people predominates. . . . Thus in [this] kind of democracy it is not the laws that are sovereign in the constitution, but the mass of the poor.
It is almost as if Aristotle foresaw the end of Weimar Germany.
In discussing rule of the many, Plato initially expresses admiration for cities that organize themselves according to this apparently
finest or most beautiful of constitutions, for, like a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every kind of character type, would seem to be the most beautiful. . . . [This city] contains all kinds of constitutions on account of the license it gives its citizens. . . . [I]t would seem to be a pleasant constitution, which lacks rulers but not variety and which distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.
But his discussion of democratic decay centers on the democratic man who enjoys this equality and variety to excess. Absent the education provided in The Republic, democratic men are prone to “insolence, anarchy, extravagance, and shamelessness.” Tyranny “evolves from democracy”, sometimes in the name of correcting its deviation from the proper end of man and the city, more often by proposing an alternative order or telos that promises greater comfort and ease at no cost.
The thinking of Plato and Aristotle derives from an understanding of human nature that is constant beyond times and borders. Human will cannot supersede this order. This most fundamental idea is often questioned or rejected in the modern and postmodern eras. Theories that adapt evolutionary metaphors have become common, even though there is no reasoned way to apply that biological science to meta-social science. Radical leftism presupposed from the start the almost infinite malleability of human nature. Cybernetics-based speculation about the revolutionary implications of man-machine interfacing has similar protean pretensions. But this is the question that drives all other political questions: If there is a fixed order built into the very nature of things, then any just form of politics must comport with it. If not, we are free to establish whatever ends we might choose, with corresponding political means. It is one thing for tyranny to evolve from a decayed democracy when who gets to decide overrides what is to be decided for the common welfare. It is quite another when the basis of tyranny is an ends-based claim about some new, humanly devised telos in which neither happiness nor virtue matter most but rather some artificial notion of radical equality or limitless material affluence.
The order that Plato and Aristotle describe is minimalist; it does not proffer an extensive set of instructions for politics, because society itself is to a large extent self-regulated. Remember the foregoing conversation: Adeimantus says, “It isn’t appropriate to dictate to men who are fine and good. They’ll easily find out for themselves whatever needs to be legislated about such things.” Socrates agrees: “Yes, provided that a god grants that the laws we have already described are preserved.”
But the key features of the minimalist order that Plato and Aristotle discern are crucial. By nature rather than choice, man has an end, which is a good and happy life. That life consists in virtuous and common activity. Politics involves the pursuit of a common good, with justice as the central virtue both for individual lives and for political life. The common good as an outcome of political friendship requires devotion to interests beyond those of the self and attention to the good of others. Ultimately, for happiness to be possible, political life must enable friendship, the activity of leisure and the contemplation of the highest things (Aristotle), and the philosophical life that leads beyond the cave to a perception of reality (Plato).
These predicates outline what amounts to an early version of natural law. Both Plato and Aristotle refer to divine entities (the former in many ways, the latter especially in his discussion of the “godlike” end of man and city), though with different emphasis on the role of providence in human affairs. For both, the source of the order of things seems to be divine, though the theology is left far less definite in Greek thought than that elaborated in later Christological approaches to natural law. But the effects of ignoring the order, or “violating” this minimalist natural law in establishing governing constitutions, are clear and serious: The failure to achieve the telos of a good life for each person, and the failure of the polis with attendant possibilities for disunity, civil war, and chaos. Politics without conformance to this basic order is no real politics at all, merely various forms of self-interested wills to power or materialist nihilism. If a polis can achieve a good constitution that aims at the final end of happiness for its citizens, the next priority is the preservation of that constitution against the tendency toward political decay. In that light both Plato and Aristotle raise the question of the proper size for a polis.
Both recognize that there is a size beyond which concord on the common good and telos is simply impossible, and political participation is diluted to a point where citizens cannot be truly engaged in a good common or political life. This problem is especially acute in a democracy, in which each citizen is his own constitution (Plato) and is exposed to the temptations of putting personal interests over those of the common good (Aristotle). Thus, democratic man is especially prone to disunity and vulnerable to a fall into tyranny. The American Founders saw all of these dangers as well. Neither they nor Plato nor Aristotle could have anticipated the character of a country in which the ratio of representatives to population started out at about one to 30,000 and is now about one to 670,000. That shift accompanied a complete sea change in how ideas like equality and virtue are interpreted.
In an age when the rule of the many, or at least a mixed constitution that permits near-universal participation and equal status, is taken to be a good end in itself and beyond question the right form of government, vulnerability to tyranny is worth special note. Believing politics to be about deciding ends rather than choosing means introduces a risk of tyranny, and toys dangerously with decay in the form of viewing politics as entirely about the power to impose upon others ends of one’s own choosing—again, who gets to decide as opposed to what is to be decided. The term for the former nowadays is called partisanship.
Likewise, both Plato and Aristotle see the character of citizens as the central condition of a good constitution and its preservation. No set of institutional arrangements can ensure good politics if the character of citizens lapses into corruption. Education must focus on the character and competence of citizens to ensure the choice of good political means with a view toward man’s telos. An education that teaches each citizen to choose his own end and the means to achieve it, and that encourages such public choices, will invoke the consequences that accompany a dangerous and ultimately futile departure from the natural order. Even companies trying to sell cellphone contracts today encourage people to believe there are “no limits”; what’s a typical citizen to think?
Plato rejects much that has gone before him, and so has earned in our imaginations the label idealist, dreamer, or revolutionary. Aristotle relies more on the opinion of the wise, and on tradition, to identify the features of different constitutions that produce success or failure, in varying degrees, in finding stability and permitting happiness. He has earned the label realist, pragmatist, or conservative. But for both, a few key ideas are vital in politics. When we find convergence between two such contending thinkers, we should pause and reflect, and perhaps reconsider our own political experience in the centuries since Machiavelli and Hobbes. The ideas of Plato and Aristotle have outlasted the Greek city and will likely outlast the polities of our day. We would do well to contemplate them.
1The editions used throughout the piece are: Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, David Ross, trans. (Oxford University Press, 2009); Aristotle, Politics, T.A. Sinclair, trans. (Penguin Press, 1981); and Plato, The Republic, G.M.A. Grube, trans. (Hackett, 1992).