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Greek View of Politics

In giving birth to philosophy, the polis also gave birth to a tension between what Aristotle would describe as two lives: the life of politics and the life of philosophy. Should philosophers act politically and if so, should they engage in ordinary politics in existing regimes, or work to establish new ones , or should they abstain from politics in order to live a life of pure contemplation? There was likewise a question as to whether philosophers should think politically: were human affairs worth thinking about in the broadest perspective opened by the study of nature and of the gods?

Philosophy might have to address the political but its highest calling soared above it. This distinctive Greek—and particularly Platonic — outlook must condition any historical understanding of the development of ancient political philosophy. While one influential approach to the history of political thought takes its bearings from what a thinker was trying to do in and by what he or she said or wrote, it is important to recognize that the founders of ancient political philosophy were in part trying to define a new space of doing as philosophizing, independent of ordinary political action.

This is not to say that they did not also have ordinary political intentions, but rather to stress that the invention of political philosophy was also intended as a mode of reflection upon the value of ordinary political life. A humbly born man who refused the lucrative mantle of the sophistic professional teacher, yet attracted many of the most ambitious and aristocratic youth of Athens to accompany him in his questioning of them and their elders as to the nature of the virtues they claimed to possess or understand, he left no philosophical writings.

Socrates seems to have been the first philosopher to treat ethics — as opposed to cosmology and physics—as a distinct area of inquiry. As depicted by Plato, the search for such definitions led invariably to a concern with knowledge of how best to live, as not only one of the conventional virtues in the form of wisdom but also as underpinning, even constituting, them all. That elevation of knowledge in turn led Socrates to militate against the practices of rhetoric and judgment which animated the political institutions of Athens—the law-courts, Assembly and Council.

The relation between politics and knowledge, the meaning of justice as a virtue, the value of the military courage which all Greek cities prized in their citizens, all seem to have been central topics of Socratic conversation. That engagement with political philosophy was dramatically intensified when Socrates was, at the age of seventy, arraigned, tried, and sentenced to death by an Athenian popular jury.

Each of these had a political dimension, given the civic control of central religious cults mentioned earlier, and the broad political importance of educating the young to take their place in the civic order. Socrates had played his part as an ordinary citizen, allowing his name to go forward for selection by lot to serve on the Council, and serving in the army when required. He went so far as to claim that as a civic benefactor, he deserved not death but the lifelong publicly provided meals commonly awarded to an Olympic champion 36e—37a.

Socrates here depicts himself as a new kind of citizen, conceptualizing the public good in a new way and so serving it best through unprecedented actions, in contrast to the conventionally defined paths of political contest and success Villa The third is a hypothetical remark. Particularly in twentieth-century Anglophone scholarship, these remarks have engendered a view of Socrates as endorsing civil disobedience in certain circumstances, and so have framed the question of civil disobedience and the grounds for political obligation as arising in Plato.

A significant debate on these matters took shape in the United States in the s and s at the time of widespread civil disobedience relating to civil rights and the Vietnam War: see for example Konvitz , Woozley That debate has had to confront the fact that Socrates did not actually disobey his own death sentence with which his trial concluded: when the time came, he drank the poisonous hemlock as prescribed by the jury.

He begins his examination of them by recalling principles to which he and Crito had in the past agreed, including the principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it Cri. The meaning of this clause and its relevance to civil disobedience is again much debated Kraut remains a landmark.

The Crito depends upon a notion of justice and injustice which it never defines. In the Republic , by contrast, a dialogue in which Socrates is also the main character and first-person narrator but in which the views he advances go beyond the tight-knit pattern of debates in the dialogues discussed in section 3. See the entry on Plato. The Republic is, with the Laws , an order of magnitude longer than any other Platonic dialogue. Readers today are likely to think of the Republic as the home par excellence of political philosophy.

But that view has also been challenged by scholars who see it as primarily an ethical dialogue, driven by the question of why the individual should be just Annas This section argues that the ethical and political concerns, and purposes, of the dialogue are inextricably intertwined. Near the beginning of the dialogue, a challenge is launched by the character Thrasymachus, mentioned above, asserting that all actual cities define justice so as to serve the advantage of the rulers. He takes this to mean that the laws which their subjects are bound to obey and the associated ethical virtue of justice which they are enjoined to cultivate traditionally seen as the necessary bond among citizens and the justification for political rule , in fact amount to a distorted sham.

See the entry on Callicles and Thrasymachus. Socrates then launches a speculation as to the origins of cities: the city is held to have an existence independently of ethical concerns, coming into being for economic reasons and immediately needing to defend itself in war and also to be able to make offensive war for economic gain. However, this origin already gives rise to a proto-ethical dimension, first insofar as the members of the primitive city each do their own work the structure of what will emerge as the virtue of justice , which is fleshed out when political rulers are established who are able to use their wisdom to help their subjects maintain a psychological balance in their souls that approximates, if it does not fully embody, the virtues of moderation and justice and so enables them to enjoy a unified rather than a divided soul.

The question of why the individual should be just, figured at the outset by the contrast with the putatively happy tyrant, is resolved eventually by demonstrating that the tyrant will necessarily, in virtue of the disorder of his soul, be at once maximally unjust and maximally unhappy.

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That resolution rests on the division of the soul into three parts by which the Republic places moral psychology at the heart of political philosophy. In the soul and city respectively, the rational part or class should rule; the spirited part or class should act to support the rule of that rational part; and the appetitive part of the soul and producing class in the city should accept being governed by it.

Both soul and city are therefore in need of, and capable of exhibiting, four virtues e—a. Two of these pertain to individual parts: the rational part being capable of wisdom, the spirited part of courage. A just soul will indeed reliably issue in traditionally just actions, such as refraining from theft, murder, and sacrilege contra Sachs , who argues that Plato has simply abandoned the usual domain of justice.

To be a truly effective, because wholly unified, agent, one must be just, moderate, courageous and wise. The just person enjoys psychic health, which is advantageous no matter how he is treated fairly or unfairly by gods and men; correspondingly, the just society enjoys civic unity, which is advantageous in being the fundamental way to avoid the assumed supreme evil of civil war.

In contrast, all other cities are characterized as riven by civil war between the rich and the poor; none of them counts as a single, unified city at all see Rep. In particular, Book V of the Republic suggests that a sufficiently unified regime can be achieved only by depriving its guardian-rulers of private property and of private families, instead making them live in austere communal conditions in which they are financially supported by their money-making subjects and allowed to procreate only when and with whom will best serve the city. In Book II of his Politics , Aristotle would read this prescription as applying to all the citizens in the city envisaged in the Republic , and both he and, later on, Cicero would deplore what they construed as this abolition of private property.

Even those following and radicalizing Plato precisely by advocating the abolition of property for all the citizens, rather than only deprivation of it for the rulers, as would the sixteenth-century Sir Thomas More, were generally opposed to if not also scandalized by the suggestion of procreative communism. The Republic initiates a further tradition in political philosophy by laying out a template for the integration of ethics and political philosophy into a comprehensive account of epistemology and metaphysics. In the Republic , the knowledge required for rule is not specialized, but comprehensive: the knowledge of the good and the Forms is somehow to translate into an ability to make laws as well as the everyday decisions of rule.

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The rulers are philosophers who take turns over their lifetime in exercising collective political authority. To that extent the Republic presents a paradox: if it is widely considered the first major work of political philosophy, [ 8 ] it is nevertheless a work in which there is no special content to political knowledge nor any special vocation for politics. In the Statesman , Plato turns his attention to precisely the topics identified at the end of the last section above.

The discussion is interrupted but ultimately enriched by a story or myth in which politics is shown to be a matter of humans ruling other humans in place of living under divine guidance. That human expertise of statecraft is ultimately distinguished by its knowledge of the correct timing kairos as to when its closest rivals should be exercised: these are three forms of expertise that in fact corresponded to key political roles, some of them formal offices, in Greek cities at the time, namely, rhetoric, generalship, and judging Lane , Lane c.

The statesman is wholly defined by the possession of that knowledge of when it is best to exercise these and the other subordinate forms of expertise, and by the role of exercising that knowledge in binding or weaving the different groups of citizens together, a knowledge which depends on a broader philosophical grasp but which is peculiarly political El Murr Here, political philosophy operates not just to assimilate politics to a broader metaphysical horizon but also to identify its specificity.

The Statesman also raises an important question about the nature and value of rule by law, as opposed to rule by such expert knowledge as embodied in a rare and likely singular individual. By contrast, the Statesman analyzes law as in principle a stubborn and imperfect substitute for the flexible deployment of expertise e—c. However, the principal interlocutors of the latter dialogue go on to agree that if the choice is between an ignorant imitator of the true political expert who changes the laws on the basis of whim, and a law-bound polity, the latter would be preferable, so bringing law back into the picture as an alternative to the ideal after all.

For an alternative argument, that the second-best city is not meant to be Magnesia, see Bartels In this second-best city, the legislation for which is sketched out in speech by the three interlocutors of the dialogue, politics still aims at virtue, and at the virtue of all the citizens, but those citizens all play a part in holding civic offices; the ordinary activities of politics are shared, in what is described as a mixture of monarchy and democracy.

Another influential aspect of the Laws is its positive evaluation of the nature of law itself as a topic proper to political philosophy. Some scholars have found that to be a distinctively democratic and liberal account of law Bobonich ; see also the entry on Plato on utopia.

That arguably goes too far in a proceduralist direction, given that the value of law remains its embodiment of reason or understanding nous , so that while adding persuasive preludes is a better way to exercise the coercive force of law, no agreement on the basis of persuasion could justify laws which departed from the standard of nous Laks Nevertheless, the emphasis on law as an embodiment of reason, and as articulating the political ideals of the city in a form that its citizens are to study and internalize Nightingale b, , is distinctive to this dialogue.

The Statesman however reserves a special extraordinary role a higher office, or perhaps not a formal office as such for the statesman whenever he is present in the city Lane b. Has Plato in the Laws given up on his earlier idealism which rested on the possibility of the philosopher-king, or on the idea of the perfectly knowledgeable statesman?

If so, should that be interpreted as disillusionment or pessimism on his part, or as a more democratic or liberal turn? Or are there more fundamental continuities that connect and underlie even these seeming shifts? These questions structure the broad debate about the meaning and trajectory of Platonic political philosophy for an overview, compare Klosko to Schofield Living much of his life as a resident alien in Athens, with close familial ties to the extra- polis Macedonian court which would, near the end of his life, bring Athens under its sway, Aristotle at once thematized the fundamental perspective of the Greek citizenship of equals and at the same time acknowledged the claim to rule of anyone of truly superior political knowledge.

Biological creatures work to fulfill the realization of their end or telos , a specific way of living a complete life characteristic of the plants or animals of their own kind, which is the distinctive purpose that defines their fundamental nature—just as human artifacts are designed and used for specific ends. While every human being, in acting, posits a particular telos as the purpose making that action intelligible, this should ideally reflect the overall natural telos of humans as such.

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Here, however, arises a problem unique to humans. Whereas other animals have a single telos defining their nature living the full life of a frog, including reproduction, being the sole telos of each frog, in the example used by Lear , humans both have a distinctive human nature—arising from the unique capacity to use language to deliberate about how to act — and also share in the divine nature in their ability to use reason to understand the eternal and intelligible order of the world. Practical reason is the domain of ethics and politics, the uniquely human domain.

Yet the political life is not necessarily the best life, compared with that devoted to the divinely shared human capacity for theoretical reason and philosophical thinking compare Nicomachean Ethics I with X.

In fact he closes his Nicomachean Ethics by remarking that for most people, the practice of ethics can only be ensured by their being governed by law, which combines necessity compulsion with reason. Because, for most people, the ethical life presupposes government by law, the student of ethics must become a student of political science, studying the science of legislation in light of the collection of constitutions assembled by Aristotle and his school in the Lyceum. At the beginning of Book IV b1—39 , Aristotle offers a fourfold account of what the expertise regarding constitutions must encompass.

The second, the best relative to circumstances, starts with the material cause and organizes political inquiry around the best that can be made out of given material. The third, the best on a hypothesis, starts not from the true end of politics, but any posited end, and so looks for means and devices that will preserve any given constitution. In defective regimes, the good citizen and the good man may come apart. The good citizen of a defective regime is one whose character suits the particular regime in question whether oligarchic, or democratic, say and equips him to support it loyally; hence he may be deformed or stunted by a role of holding or a role of holding accountable offices defined on incorrect terms.

Here the limitations and exclusions among actual humans licensed by the principled formulation of the possibility—requiring actual realization—of human virtue become apparent. Or the wealthy?


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Or the good? Or the one best man? Or a tyrant? He develops in particular detail the arguments that might be made on behalf of the many and the knowledgeable one respectively.

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Aristotle uses the image of a collectively provided feast to illustrate the potential superiority of such collective judgement; how to interpret this image whether as a potluck, Waldron , Wilson , Ober , or in a more aggregative way, Bouchard , Cammack , Lane a and other images that he uses is a matter of some renewed controversy for a recent review, see Bobonich But the lesson Aristotle draws from the various images is clearly limited to vindicating a role of the many in electing and holding accountable incumbents of the highest offices rather than in holding such offices themselves III.

The many can contribute to virtuous decision-making in their collective capacity of judgment—presumably in assemblies and juries—but not as individual high officials Lane a, b, Poddighe In the contrasting case of the one supremely excellent person, Aristotle argues that such a person has, strictly speaking, no equals, and so cannot be made justly to take a turn in rule, holding office for a time, as one citizen among others.

Instead it is right that such a person should rule without the term limits that political office would ordinarily require:. If, however, there be some one person, or more than one, although not enough to make up the full complement of a state, whose excellence is so pre-eminent that the excellence or the political capacity of all the rest admit of no comparison with his or theirs, he or they can be no longer regarded as part of a state; for justice will not be done to the superior, if he is reckoned only as the equal of those who are so far inferior to him in excellence and in political capacity.

Such a man may truly be deemed a god among men …. On one recent reading, this implies that virtuous monarchy does indeed count as a political regime, albeit one in which only one or a few of the citizens are eligible to hold the highest offices Riesbeck Yet this argument is left at the hypothetical level. In the absence of such a superlatively virtuous, even godlike individual, the formulation of political rule as involving some kind of turn-taking by a large body of sufficiently virtuous citizens remains preeminent though even this should not be read to imply that all should in fact alternate in office, or even that all should necessarily be eligible for all offices.

As Aristotle turn to consideration of the best constitutions relative to particular and imperfect circumstances, the major issue is conflict between rival factions over the basis for defining equality and so justice. In the Nicomachean Ethics , Book V, Aristotle had identified two types of equality: geometrical, or proportional to merit; and arithmetical, or proportional to mere numerical counting.