Plato and Aristotle, two philosophers in the 4th century, hold 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. 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 that Philosopher Rulers
who possess knowledge of the good should be the governors in a city state. His
strong interest in metaphysics is demonstrated in The Republic 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, holds the view
that politics is the art of ruling and being ruled in turn. In The Politics,
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. 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 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, 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 forms of tables or
trees, one must know the greatest form–form of the good–in order to rule. The
reasoning 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, 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?’ The Republic 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. These are: 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 (The Republic, 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
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 The Republic is not an explication of laws of the people. It is a
separation of power amongst three classes–Rulers, Auxiliaries, Commoners–that
makes the most of each person’s natural abilities and strives for the good of
the community. The point is to create a harmonious unity amongst the three
classes which will lead to the greater good of the community and, consequently,
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 everybody Self-interest, which could be a negative factor in the
scheme of things, 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 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 is a text whose goal is to define Justice
and in doing so uses the polis, Aristotle’s The Politics’s 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 The Politics, it appears that Aristotle 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.
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.
The philosophies of Aristotle and Plato have been around for over
sixteen centuries, yet today it is difficult to find specific instances where
either philosophy is applied. This may be a result of the fact that today’s
political philosophy differs from both philosopher’s. While Aristotle and Plato
uphold the good of the community or state above individual good, today’s
constitution includes a bill of rights that guarantees the rights of each
individual in the nation. Having these individual rights is a necessity for
today’s citizens. Going back in history to 1787 will show that one of the
reasons there was controversy in the ratification of the constitution was that
it did not include a Bill of Rights. When the drafters promised that as soon as
the constitution was ratified, a Bill of Rights would be added, the doubting
states proceeded to ratify it. According to Plato and Aristotle, a Bill of
Rights is not necessary because it does not improve the good of the community.
Another point of discrepancy between the philosophers and today’s
society involves the topic of slavery. Aristotle argues for the naturalness of
slavery in The Politics, yet slavery has been considered grotesque for quite
some time. In correlation to slavery, there is the undermining of the female
population by Aristotle. Although Plato is a lot less discriminatory, he also
believes women are the sub-species. While women have had to fight endless
battles to achieve the recognition they deserve, today it is a well accepted
fact (generally) that women are as capable as men in performing tasks.
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, ie. 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.