Friday, August 25, 2006

Plato vs. Aristotle

The First Conservative: Contrasting Plato and Aristotle


Plato and Aristotle are our oldest political thinkers. Surprisingly, the same debates that guided Plato and Aristotle’s work remain with us today. What is the good life? What is justice? What is the best regime? Moreover, the question of who should govern is a longstanding area of dispute among political thinkers, theorists, practitioners, and ordinary citizens. This essay will focus on two issues that Plato and Aristotle raise in their work. First, it will address Plato’s and Aristotle’s different notions of individuals and their role in the city. Second, this essay will address how Plato’s and Aristotle’s understanding of individual citizens influences their political beliefs. In retrospect, Plato’s understanding is much more conservative than Aristotle’s, although in no way could we consider Aristotle a radical egalitarian. While this idea is in no way novel, this essay will try to retrieve conservatism from its ancient roots, in contrast to more modern conceptions that privilege libertarianism or free-markets.

Plato v. Aristotle: What Purpose is the Individual?

Plato’s ideal city is based on the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Wisdom makes the city wise, courage makes it brave, moderation is the understanding that everyone knows his or her role and justice means the “harmony that results when everyone is actively engaged in fulfilling his role and does not meddle with that of others” (Plato 85). The last point is an important one. His understanding of the city is that it evolves because it fulfills certain functional needs (Plato 39). The needs that are most obvious are food, which sustains nourishment, shelter, and lastly clothes. Only the city can provide all of these because each individual that makes up the city has a certain role of which he or she plays. “The association with each other,” offers Plato, “was the very purpose for which we establish the city” (Plato 41). The city would bring together the farmers, the craftsmen, the shepherds, the strong and the weak. Plato’s city functions like an organism, with each carrying out their daily routine to perfection. Drawn to its logical conclusion, this is why Plato believes that a special class of “guardians” is best fit to rule the city.

Plato’s view that every individual has a different, yet pertinent, role in the city influenced his understanding of who ought to rule. The first two books of Plato’s Republic are dedicated to understanding justice and virtue, and how this would relate to who would rule. Because most men are only concerned with ends and consequences and are generally unjust, only a few are virtuous enough to lead the city. But justice and virtue alone are not enough. The guardians – those who rule – must be physically strong, lovers of wisdom and knowledge and impervious to outside experience (Plato 46-51). The guardians also lived by a separate set of rules. They would own no private property, live in a camp to themselves and protect the city from intruders. Plato also extinguishes the divide between the public and the private. Plato argued for common wives and common children for the guardians, so as to build community among the city’s rulers. The women also share in the duties with the male guardians, including hunting food and fighting in war. Despite bringing disparate talents and roles together, the city plays a predominant role in unifying the community and preserving order, a key aspect of Platonic thought.

Aristotle does not disagree that the uniqueness in skill are determinants of a good city. Aristotle notes that “a city is made up not only of many human beings but also of human beings who differ in kind” (Aristotle 36). While Plato believes that by nature some are more fit than others for certain jobs, Aristotle disagrees. For Aristotle, any citizen has the ability to rule, so long as they follow the law and are properly educated. Moreover, though the citizens might be dissimilar from one another, each has a role in helping to define the community (Aristotle 81-83). In particular the purpose of being a citizen in a community is the ability to rule and be ruled. And the best regimes, so says Aristotle, are those where citizens have the ability and desire to make their own choices. This is accomplished by giving the majority the ability to rule.

Aristotle also believes that common wives and children would actually undermine the stability of the city. The notion of common possessions, what Aristotle calls communism, actually fractures the unity of the city. Rather than disintegrating the public and private realms, Aristotle argues that the separation is vital (Aristotle 41). As he asks: “What would happen if one reduced a many-voiced harmony to unison or rhythm to a single beat?” (Aristotle 42).

Plato v. Aristotle: Political Views

Plato and Aristotle’s disagreement over the nature of individuals and the city influences their view of politics and what is the “best” regime. For Plato, the guardians are the only individuals qualified to rule because of the unique skills and knowledge they possess. Only the guardians are capable of ruling because of their wisdom, courage, moderation and attachment to justice. Plato compares guardian to the physician. When one is sick you would knock on the door of the person that could heal you – a doctor. Similarly, when you needed to be governed you would let those that could govern do their job. Plato distinguishes between four forms of government. In timarchy, war and the army dominate and victory is the only thing prized. In oligarchies money and the acquisition of money drives the rulers. Democracy, the third type of regime, has no control at all and all desires are perceived to be equal. Lastly, in dictatorships the ruler acquires all power for himself and convinces the populace it is in their best interest to keep him in (Plato 193-194).

Plato’s disdain for democracy is the most notable conservative aspect of the Republic. G.M.A. Grube suggests that Plato’s discussion of democracy is filled with “broad irony.” Plato jokes that democracy is the result over the poor becoming victorious; “kill some of the other side, expel others, and to the rest they give an equal share of political power and offices” (Plato 206). Plato also describes the democratic regime as one in which people can do “anything they please” (Plato 206). Needless to say, Plato’s view of government is an elitist, conservative one, and only a few are capable of governing. The guardians have the natural aptitude for philosophy and governing that others do not (Plato 134). Plato’s conservatism is also revealed when he discusses his reverence for the Gods and the idea of the noble lie. For Plato, every city is built on some type of myth, and to unravel the myth would lead to chaos and disorder (Plato 62). A final point of conservatism in Plato is his resistance to change. He urges the guardians to resist the temptation to adopt new kinds of poetry and music.[1] It is the job of those that rule to be the “bulwarks” against change (Plato 90).

Aristotle would not be mistaken for a liberal, but he nevertheless questions some of the assumptions inherent in the Republic. Most importantly, Aristotle’s Politics is a more pluralist understanding of government, because Aristotle argues that citizens with proper education and obedience to the law are equipped to rule themselves and others. These citizens also come together to rule in the multitude – or majority – something than scares Plato and epitomizes mob rule. “…[M]any and not one should rule,” suggests Aristotle, “because anyone can rule well when educated by the laws and many ruling together and better than one ruling alone” (Aristotle 110). Aristotle’s opinion of virtue is similar, and stands in opposition to Plato. While Plato believes that the virtuous are small in number and that their virtue is inherent, Aristotle thinks that virtue and justice can be taught to citizens. The Aristotelian city is in some ways more inclusive that Plato’s. Lastly, Aristotle disagrees with Plato with regards to change. In both art and law, Aristotle argues laws sometimes must be changed, and that art is not always perfect to begin with, so why try and preserve it as such. While Aristotle notes that laws must be written in “universal” terms, when writing laws the rulers must also understand the “particulars” of a given situation (Aristotle 58).[2]


Today modern conservatism is noted by calls for limited government, free-markets and dedication to the family. But our first conservative, Plato, challenged those ideas. For Plato, a strong government (or state) was critical to preserve order and protect the city, wealth was frowned upon and the root of much ill, and the family unit – at least for guardians – was extinguished. But Plato ties back into modern conservatism on several points. Plato was worried about mob rule and suspicious of any idea that gave ruling power to common citizens. Plato also resisted change, and charged the guardians with being responsible for seeing that the laws and arts were protected. As well, Plato believed that “national’ myths, noble lies and religion were important, if but for no other reason than to provide order. Aristotle, Plato’s counterpart, disagrees on these issues. Aristotle is more willing to give citizens the ability to rule, is not as resistant to change, and ultimately thinks that with the proper laws and teaching the multitude would have the ability to govern themselves. Though Plato and Aristotle are our “ancient” writers their disputes and disagreements are still apropos in today’s political dialogue. They might be surprised to find, were they living today, that the things they argued about years ago still stir emotions in the present. Given that Plato believed the pursuit of justice and knowledge to be never-ending, he might not have been surprised in the least.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Ed. Peter L. Phillips Simpson. Chapel Hill: UNC Publishing, 1997.

Plato. Republic. Ed. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1974.

[1] Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind argues similarly that Rock n’ Roll music and beat poetry worked to undermine society as a whole in the 1950s and 1960s.

[2] Aristotle’s retort to Plato almost sounds like the exchanges between the “original intent” proponents of the constitution, and those that stress a “living constitution.”