Aristotle and Plato are often seen as the two most important figures in all of Ancient Greek philosophy and political thought. However, even though they are associated with the same intellectual tradition, and Aristotle was even a student of Plato’s, their views did not always line up as closely as one might expect. Indeed, they each had quite differing conceptions of the state and rulership. For Aristotle, the state in general was a natural association because it was derived from the important human pairings of family and village. By contrast, Plato believed that a just state was the only state that could be natural because his definition of justice revolves around the ordering of the classes through the specialization of labor, which is based upon the abilities that each person is assigned by nature.
In terms of rulership, Aristotle believed that anyone who was a citizen, and thus, had the capacity for rational thought, should be able to rule. For Plato, however, a ruler would ideally be a philosopher king who possesses knowledge of the forms. This latter issue of rulership has particularly maintained relevance throughout history, showing the vast influence of Aristotle and Plato on much of Western thinking. Even in contemporary times, there continues to be debates over whether or not important leaders should come from a specialized political class. There is certainly still a conflict between those who advocate for leaders who are professional politicians, and those who believe our leaders should come from other sectors of society, such as business, or should be ordinary citizens from the working class.
One major difference between Aristotle’s and Plato’s idea of the state is that the former believes that all states are natural, whereas the latter only believes that a state is natural if it is just. In the case of Aristotle, he sees political association as deriving from crucial human relationships, namely the association of the family or household as well as that of the village, and says that political association is what completes the nature of man. These associations are natural because they fulfill the need for self-sufficiency, or as he says in Politics, there must necessarily be a union or pairing of those who cannot exist without one another (8). Two relationships form the household, that between men and women, and that between masters and slaves. Aristotle believes that men and women have a dependency on each other so that they can reproduce the human race, a natural impulse of animals to leave behind them something of the same nature as themselves (8). In the case of masters and slaves, they are thought to preserve each other’s common interest since everything created in nature has a single end and the natural purpose of masters is to rule, while the natural purpose of slaves is to be ruled. Because of this, the master has to be paired with the slave because if they were not paired together, they would end up doing tasks for which they are not suited, and thus would be disobeying the natural order.
As noted, from these two relationships, the family or household is formed. Aristotle sees this association as natural because it is instituted for the satisfaction of daily recurrent needs (9). The village is then established from the family for a degree of self-sufficiency greater than that of daily recurrent needs and beyond the village there is political association, which is created from an amalgamation of villages. Aristotle sees political association as natural because it is the final and most perfect form of human association, reaching the height of full self-sufficiency and allowing humans to achieve the goal of their existence, the good life. Political association is the end toward which all other associations strive and Aristotle notes that the end for which things exist is what constitutes their nature. He states, what each thing is when its growth is completed we call the nature of that thing and then says, From these considerations it is evident that the city belongs to the class of things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal (10). Every state exists by nature because it is the completion of the other associations, family and village, which are essential human groupings.
For Plato, however, his ideal state is the only one that can be natural. This is because Plato’s ideal state involves every person doing the task that they are naturally suited to perform in order to ensure the greatest quality work. As Plato writes in Republic, each thing becomes more plentiful, finer, and easier, when one man, exempt from other tasks, does one thing according to nature (47). The goal of Plato’s ideal state is for the city as a whole to have a share of happiness, which is achieved through specialization of labor. As he says, it’s not the concern of law that any one class in the city fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring this about in the city as a whole, harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one another the benefit that each is able to bring to the commonwealth (198). Plato later concludes that this ideal state, with specialization that is based upon natural ability, is entirely good, saying, I suppose our city”if, that is, it has been correctly founded”is perfectly good (105).
When the city is perfectly good, Plato says that it will necessarily contain the virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. The class of rulers possess a kind of knowledge called wisdom. The guardians have courage, which Plato explains is the preservation of the opinion defined by law and education about what is and what is not to be feared. Moderation is present in every class of the city, and is defined as the consensus between rulers and subjects about who should rule. Justice is the presence and preservation of the other three virtues in the city. Plato says it provided the power by which all these others came into being (111). He explains justice as being each man’s minding his own business in the city (111). In other words, justice is everyone doing the one job that they are naturally suited for and not meddling in the affairs of others. Establishing justice, then, would be to order the different classes of the city in natural relation to one another. If justice meant carrying out the natural order, this suggests that a state could only be natural if it were a just one. However, not every state is perfectly just, meaning that Plato’s ideal state is the only one that could be natural.
Another important difference between Aristotle’s idea of a state and that of Plato is that Aristotle conceives of a state as being ruled by anyone who is a citizen, whereas Plato thinks that only philosopher-kings have the natural ability to rule a state. For Aristotle, man in general is destined for political association because he possesses the capability of language. While the sounds of animals only have the capacity to express pleasure and pain, Aristotle notes that humans have the capability to perceive through language what is good and evil, and what is just and unjust. This grasp of reason and language is what allows man to create households, villages, and finally, states. Since the state came into being because of language and rationality, which is a capability that only humans possess, every citizen, or member of a state, should be able to rule or have a share in the judgement of political affairs, as long as they have a grasp on rational thought. In fact, Aristotle’s very definition of a citizen is one who shares for any period of time in judicial and deliberative office (84). He also says that a good citizen has to possess the knowledge and capacity for ruling in addition to being ruled, stating, the excellence of a citizen may be defined as consisting in ?a knowledge of rule over free men from both points of view’ (94). It seems that as long as one has language and rationality, Aristotle believes that they are capable of participating in politics.
Contrary to the idea that all citizens possess the capacity to rule, Plato’s idea about specialization of labor entails a specific set of requirements for a person who is naturally suited to be a ruler. The only type of person who is fit to rule in Plato’s ideal state is a philosopher king. As he writes, the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide (153).
The philosopher must rule as king because a ruler must know what is best for the people of the ideal state. What is best is the aggregate happiness of the state, and the aggregate happiness of the state can only be attained through justice. Plato believes that the philosopher is the only kind of person who could possess knowledge of justice. This is because, in order to know what justice is, one would have to be someone who loves learning, which is the very essence of the philosopher. As Plato states, the philosopher is a desirer of wisdom and that one who approaches learning with delightwe shall justly assert to be a philosopher (155). Plato’s requirements for a person to be able to rule are certainly more particular than that of Aristotle.
In his view, philosopher kings do not only need to have rational thought, which includes mere opinions, but must specifically have knowledge of the forms as the goal of their inquiry. Forms are the ideal essence of concepts themselves such as beauty or truth, which are eternal and non-material. Plato notes the philosopher’s connection to the forms when he states, Must we, therefore, call philosophers rather than lovers of opinion those who delight in each thing that is itself (161). A philosopher must have knowledge as their goal because it is never mistaken, whereas opinions can often be flawed. Also, the endpoint of knowledge is the forms, which are entirely perfect, while opinion only has the material world, as well as mere images of the material world, as its endpoint. Due to the specialization of labor in Plato’s ideal state, it is clear that only this certain type of person who possesses knowledge of the forms could be a ruler.
Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Ernest Baker, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Plato. Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 2016.
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