PLATO: 428 – 348 BC (pp2)


                                                                                                                                                                   Revised: Jan. 2011


                                                                                                                                      Links:           Imagining Other Index Page


                                                                                                                                                          Political Philosophy Contents Page


                                                                                                                                                          Aristotle (pp3)


                                                                                                                                                          Plato and Aristotle Summary




1. Background: Politics in Ancient Greece.

2. The Beginnings of Political Philosophy in Ancient Greece.

The Sophists.

3. A digression: the relevance of these debates for ourselves.

4. Socrates.

5. Plato.

6. The Republic:

6.1 Plato’s theory of knowledge.

6.2 The good state and the good citizen.

6.3 The origins of the state.

6.4 Justice.

6.5 Functions in the state – “virtues”.  Philosopher-rulers.

7. Conclusion and appraisal of The Republic.


Additional Sources (additional to those given on the Course Outline Booklist):


Irwin, T – A History of Western Philosophy: 1 Classical Thought – OUP (Opus) 1989 – 0-19-2891774-4



1. Background: Politics in Ancient Greece.


Greece was not a unified nation-state as it is today, but a collection of city-states, each with their own constitution (Aristotle was to make a ‘collection’ of these).


They not only differed from each other, but occasionally went to war against each other. Thus, one of the critical events in ancient Greek history was the series of wars between Athens and Sparta – known collectively as the Peloponnesian War, which went on between 431 and 404 BC. After the war Athens was weakened, and since the conflict was between two city-states with two different political systems (Athens was a democracy – though see below as to how we need to qualify the term - and Sparta was an oligarchy) the conflict heightened arguments about the relative merits of democracy and oligarchy. Moreover, as both sides supported factions on the other side, this contributed to the internal conflict that pre-occupied ancient Greek political thinkers (see below on stasis).


Athens was the most cultured of the city-states, and we know more about Athens’ political system and society than about many other city-states. As in any political system, the potential for conflict was a constant concern. In Athens there were some who supported the democrats (from the Greek words: demos = people, and kratos = rule, thus rule by the people), and others who supported the oligarchs (rule by a few – the suffix arch also means ruling – olig, as in oligopoly also, means “a few”).


It is often said, therefore, that the Greeks “invented” democracy. However, it must be stressed that “the people” was a limited category in ancient Greece: a closer term in current usage might be “citizens”, since not every “person” was a “citizen” – women, slaves, and anyone not born in Athens, were excluded from participating in public affairs. One estimate (see the web reference below) gives the total inhabitants of Athens as 250,000 – 300,000, of which 100,000 would be families of citizens, and the rest slaves or resident foreigners (metics). Since of the citizens, only native-born men who had completed military service were eligible to vote, this meant that the total body of participating (or “full” as I shall call them) citizens was between 60,000 (before the Peloponnesian war) and 30,000.

Citizens could take part in the assembly (all “full” citizens), the council of 400 (or 500 – it varied), and the courts (law-courts).


There is a paradox here, in that “Athenian democracy” was in many ways more participatory, more “direct”, than modern democracies – even though so many were excluded from participating. See: Thus, each citizen was entitled to become a member of the governing bodies, and they were appointed by election, and regularly replaced, using a sophisticated voting process with numbered balls.


The number of citizens in the city-state was small enough for them all to be gathered together in a public meeting place (sometimes it was the agora – which was also the market-place, and therefore the centre of economic life), and decisions could therefore be made by the whole population!


Incidentally, I believe that to ensure that all the citizens, and presumably only citizens, were involved, a rope was tied round the outside of the meeting-place – hence to be “roped in” to doing something. (I can’t verify this, as I forget the source!)


[Do we have a modern-day equivalent of the agora? If not, why not – and would such an institution be useful in strengthening democracy?


As Aristotle was to put it: every citizen needed to know “how to rule and how to be ruled” – and this was in fact his definition of what a citizen is.


[Nowadays we define citizens by nationality/birthplace, and rights – is this a better or worse definition?

2. The Beginnings of Political Philosophy in Ancient Greece. The Sophists.


It is probably correct to say that the ancient Greeks invented political philosophy, (though this is controversial, since it suggests that the (white?) “western” democratic tradition was the earliest truly thought-through approach to politics. Regrettably, other ancient civilisations – no matter how great their achievements in architecture, art, and so on – such as the Egyptians – were almost certainly autocracies or theocracies: people were ruled by one person, or by a god – or both at the same time!). In ancient Greece, for the first time, people were able to escape from the assumption that the gods were directing their affairs, or that any individual had a “divine right” to rule them, and they began to acknowledge their own responsibility for what occurred in society. This required, also, a certain self-awareness – as Socrates was to say, the key to wisdom is to “know thyself”.


Still, this development of democratic self-rule was a gradual process, and genuine participatory democracy didn’t spring up overnight. The practice of public debate in the agora (see below) was a two-edged sword: on the one hand people got to argue and discuss policies and ideas; on the other hand, since very often the speakers were vying for votes the art of rhetoric became crucial. Success in politics came from the ability to persuade others, rather than from the intrinsic merits of your case.


[How different is this from our own times?!!)


In time, would-be leaders recognised that they needed training in the arts of persuasion, and a class of what we might call professional advisors grew up, who trained young men in the art of rhetoric and argument. These were known as the Sophists. And after a while, again, as you might expect, their reputation declined: they were seen as cynical, willing to help the highest bidder to make a case, regardless of their own views or (again) of the merits of the case. In their own defence, the Sophists might have claimed that they taught a kind of “practical wisdom” (Colin Brown: Christianity and Western Thought – Apollos (Inter-Varsity Press) 1990) – something the ancient Greeks called areté (“virtue” or “skill” – especially in the sense of “something that someone is good at”) and which was a central concept in Plato’s discussions (see later).


[Were the Sophists “spin-doctors”? Which question leads to:


3. A digression: the relevance of these debates for ourselves:


There is, actually, a difficult philosophical question behind all this: is there such a thing as knowledge with regard to politics and human affairs generally, or is it all a matter of belief, or opinion? The argument today is conducted around the term “relativism” – since there are those who profess to believe that every idea is “relative” and there is no fixed or absolute truth, especially about politics. What is known as “post-modernism” has been described as relativist… The argument runs (roughly!) that ideas about politics are formed in society (they do not “drop from the sky” nor can they be proved scientifically); but power and the ability to influence people are not evenly distributed in society. We are all open to persuasion by others more powerful, influential, or apparently knowledgeable than ourselves. So, is it not likely that the most widely-held ideas are simply those that whoever has most power wants us to believe?  This belief, it seems to me, is derived from Marx’s famous statement that “the ruling ideas of any time are the ideas of the ruling class” – though both relativism and post-modernism are non-Marxist…


4. Socrates  (470 -399 BC) was perhaps the first political philosopher: he firmly believed that we can distinguish truth or knowledge from opinion – and he practiced a method for arriving at the truth. This method is known as the “dialectic” – and, yes, Marx derived much of his method from this idea… Socrates would discuss ideas with others by a process of questions, which elicited answers, which in turn would raise more questions. He always adopted a position of (professed) ignorance, so as not to appear to be “lecturing” or “preaching”, rather he wanted everyone to approach knowledge in the same way: by presuming that I know nothing I will be made to ask the most basic, simple, perhaps even obvious questions, which a more sophisticated approach would miss. As the questioner and the person being questioned proceeded, between them they would arrive at something they could both agree was “the truth”.


[How interesting that we now use the word “sophisticated” in this way!?


As you may imagine, Socrates was a controversial figure – his ceaseless questioning and searching for the truth was seen by many (especially the more powerful!) as a threat – he was accused of “corrupting the youth of Athens”, put on trial, and sentenced to death.

Of course, anyone who examines critically some “knowledge” to make sure that it is not simply an “opinion” is bound to appear a threat – especially but not only in an authoritarian or totalitarian state!


[Don’t the media constantly present “information” which is really only opinion? Are there not countless “myths” that have passed into popular acceptance? (There’s more crime about than there used to be… The NHS is in a worse state than it was… Women are bad drivers… Women have equality now… !!! (See further below…)


However, the fact that although he argued in his defence, when convicted he accepted the judgment and drank the hemlock that killed him, has been seen as proof that he was taking a principled stand, and not simply out to cause subversion. Socrates was dedicated – and this is something that perhaps puts the ancient Greeks apart from ourselves, to the polis or city-state: even though Plato (who was a young man of around 28 when Socrates was put on trial – Socrates was 70) offered to help him escape, Socrates refused as this would be to act against the interest of the city-state which he had been trying to promote.


5. Plato.


Socrates, however, left nothing in writing – all we have about him comes from contemporaries, especially Plato. Much of Plato’s writing is in the form of “dialogues”, in which Socrates plays a central role. Thus The Phaedo, The Gorgias, The Symposium, The Meno, are dialogues dealing with a variety of philosophical questions (in the Symposium the issue is the nature of love) – since Plato examined a range of issues, and not just those connected with politics.


Plato’s main works of relevance to political philosophy are: The Republic – a description of the workings of what Plato saw as an ideal state; and The Laws – which is less often read, but which is mainly an examination of how a state could realistically be organised (in the Republic, if everything is set up as Plato suggests, there would be no need for any law; in The Laws, in contrast, law is seen as essential and central).


6. The Republic.


As a work of political philosophy, The Republic contains more than just an account of a possible ideal state – this account is argued for on the basis of philosophical claims about what knowledge is, what reality is, and how the two are connected.  However, the book is not put together in as logical a sequence as we might like, so what follows is based on material found in various sections.


6.1 In Book (vi) Plato spells out his theory of knowledge (what nowadays we call epistemology): it is not uncommon for philosophers (and others!) to feel that reality needs “explaining.” Somehow it seems strange or surprising that there are so many different objects and living things…


[I last felt this on a visit to the gardens at Hyde Hall: the sheer variety of different types of plants, and the subtle differences between roses for example, or clematis… and how one kind of flower seems to be ‘made for’ one kind of insect) – and most strange: that there are conscious beings looking at and trying to understand these things (why are flowers beautiful to us?).


Plato was also very aware that we can make evaluations as well as comparisons: some things are bigger than, more beautiful than, ‘better’ than others. I think this must be behind his fundamental idea: that the most perfect things are not objects in this world, but an idea, or representation, of the perfect form of each object.


There is another way of looking at this: we all know what a table is – and we recognise different tables even though they may have quite different sizes and shapes (though of course they must all stand up and have a top surface!), they be made of different materials etc, etc. So how do we recognise a new example of a table when we have never seen it, or perhaps never seen one quite like it, before? We must (paraphrasing Plato) ‘know’ what ‘table’ is. But this knowledge clearly cannot exist in the observable world – it is a perfect thing, existing perhaps in another dimension.


[You may feel that there are overtones of the (later) Christian idea of Heaven here?


The word ‘form’ is also used for this idea: there must be a ‘form’ of ‘table’ (and every other object!) and real tables are instances or examples that share the basic characteristic, but differ as individual objects. Just as a shadow is an image of the original object, so our opinions or beliefs are images of what is real. (This idea is demonstrated in a more complex analogy, of ‘the line’, which draws parallels between ‘light’ and ‘seeing’, and ‘intelligence’ and ‘knowing’…) 


Whatever exactly Plato meant by all this, what is important is what the argument implies, and where it took him. 


First, the ‘real’ world is only a shadow or image of the world of ‘ideas’ or ‘forms’. He uses an analogy here: imagine a group of people inside a cave, facing the back wall of the cave, and unable to see behind them. On the cave wall appear shadows, cast by objects in the cave, but brought about by a fire behind them. For these people, the shadows would be reality, since they have no knowledge of how a shadow is cast, and no awareness of the existence of a fire.


What is more, if these people were to be taken out of the cave and shown real objects and not just shadows, they would not believe that these objects were real…


The second implication, as I understand it (though this is a little more difficult to take from the analogy of the cave) is that it is possible to know the real nature of the world around us, once we realize that there is a difference between shadow and actual object. And the crucial point is that reality is somehow better (it has dimensions, colour, texture etc?) than the world of shadows. We must all, surely, want to pursue knowledge of this better real world?


Finally, note that the better world is one made up of ‘ideas’ (or ‘forms’)! Surely what Plato has done is (simply?) to make out a case for studying philosophy?  And philosophers, who can help us to understand the true nature of reality, are surely very valuable (and powerful) people.


So, in terms of politics: we can understand and have knowledge about politics – it is not just a matter of opinion, as the Sophists were saying. Most important: we can identify – or at least try to get a grasp on – the best, the ‘ideal’ political system.

But how do we do this? Plato says: by reasoning, thinking, delving into the realm of ‘ideas’… Plato’s pupil Aristotle was to agree that we can and should pursue perfection – but for Aristotle this meant by studying examples in the real world and observing which examples worked best.


It is often argued that here we have a fundamental division between two ways of doing philosophy, two ways of looking at the world: the philosophical ‘idealist’ who believes that ideas are somehow more real than mere objects, and the philosophical ‘materialist’ who believes that the world of real objects is more real than mere ideas! We might even go further and see the beginnings of the difference between the philosopher (or the religious thinker who also believes that this world is a mere shadow of a better one), and the scientist…


6.2 The good state and the good citizen.


It is very important to stress that the ancient Greeks had a view of the relationship between the individual and the state that is probably different to the dominant view today, since they believed that a good ‘man’ (I use the term ‘man’ since the Greeks would have done so – and it would distort their view to say man/woman, or person: remember, politics involved men only) is also a good citizen.


Nowadays we would mostly draw a distinction, saying that being moral or good had little or nothing to do with being involved in affairs of state – morality, in the liberal view at least, is a personal matter, whereas the ancient Greeks saw ethics and politics as closely linked: the state helps to shape and to fulfill the individual. Politics is, in a sense, “natural” to human beings – we are communal, social beings… this is a view shared by socialists in later times, but again not common in liberalism (although it is also the view of some conservatives).  The Sophists’ view also differed, since they believed that this ‘shaping’ of the individual by the political community was a form of repression (to use modern terminology!).


[These differences are probably familiar to us today… Hopefully a study of political philosophy will help us to find reasoned “grounds” for our (probably different) viewpoints.


Another way of expressing this idea is to say that the ancient Greeks had an “organic” view or model of the state: the state is like an organism, in which all the parts are inter-dependent, and each part needs the others to perform its function and to develop in its role (see also below, on “virtue”).


Finally (a point of great importance also to Aristotle), the aim of the state is self-fulfillment, both for itself and for its citizens. A good state aims to produce good citizens.


6.3 The origins of the state.


Once we accept (if we do!) that politics is natural, and the political community helps the individual to find self-fulfillment, we are then able to explain how people come to be organised into political communities: the individual alone is not self-sufficient; none of us is capable of doing all the things that we need for our survival (let alone for our flourishing). We are not individually capable of producing food, clothing, shelter, security – we need the help of others in this. (Rousseau and other ‘collectivists’ use a similar argument.)  See book (ii) 


Interestingly, Plato touches on a very modern idea here: so long as states feel self-sufficient and satisfied with what they have, there will be stability between them; but a people may become desirous of “luxury” and this will lead to war with other states. Since there is always this danger of conflict, it will be necessary to have a class of people who will protect the state (see 6.5 below). See book (ii)


6.4 Justice.


However, again, Plato builds onto this account (of the origins of the state) what I would call a value-judgment: since none of us is capable of doing everything, we shouldn’t try to do so. Rather, each of us should practice what we are good at, and not interfere with others doing what they are good at. In fact, this is Plato’s definition of “justice” – an argument he spells out in a striking discussion between Socrates and the others.


Plato (through Socrates) makes short shrift of Thrasymachus’s cynical (or realist?) view that justice is the interest of the strongest. Plato rejects what we could call the relativism of this view: as I think most of us would feel, there seems to be a “higher standard” by which we would judge the deeds of the powerful. Justice is not to be defined in any of the ways we might expect: giving others their due, being fair to others, treating everyone equally… Rather, for Plato, it is sticking to what we are good at, and not interfering with others – in Plato’s words: “one man should always practice one thing only, the thing to which his nature is best adapted”  - see book (iv)  The point about each of us having a “nature” is spelled out in the next section…


6.5 Functions in the state – “virtues”. Philosopher-rulers.


We have now (at last?!) arrived at the basic argument in The Republic, and this is where the controversial nature of Plato’s thinking becomes most clear. He argues that (i) there are several key functions that the community needs to be fulfilled – guidance/leadership, security/protection (as seen above), and the production of material goods (Book (iii) (iv)), and that (ii) there are groups (we might say “classes”) of people who “naturally” fit these functions.


Plato spins an elaborate tale to illustrate this – and it is not clear that he actually believes this story: what matters is that the people in the state should believe it – otherwise there will be “injustice” and conflict (See below on stasis). The story – or analogy - is even referred to as a “noble lie”… since the purpose of the lie is to ensure the good of the state and its citizens.


[Roger Scruton makes some interesting points here: is such a lie (or “myth”) justifiable if it produces social and political stability? And can we detect the deliberate promotion of myths for political ends today? (What Scruton calls ‘mythopoeia.’) Scruton suggests such a practice was common with totalitarian thinkers – I would argue that modern capitalist society is deeply permeated by such myths as ‘you are what you consume’, ‘it is natural to pursue material growth’, ‘it is wrong to be lazy, and the unemployed are a threat to society’, ‘crime is on the rise’ – and many others, designed to get us to act as the system requires us, i.e. as obedient consumers and producers… 


Be that as it may, (!) Plato says that people are all born with a dominant characteristic or “virtue”. We need to note that the sense of this word (areté in Greek) is different to our modern usage: in ancient Greece it meant “what something is good for” i.e. a knife has a virtue of sharpness if it does what it should, that is, it cuts…So when Plato (or Aristotle) talks of someone’s “virtue” they mean “what they are good at doing”.


Plato divides people into broad categories with different ‘virtues’, and he uses as an analogy the different characteristics of different metals – some are rational, thoughtful, seeking knowledge and understanding – when this characteristic is under control, or in harmony, we say that someone has wisdom (by analogy their dominant element is gold); some are bold, spirited types, prepared to defend others against danger – and when their drive to action is controlled we say they are courageous (they are silver); others are ‘appetitive’ – they want things and are content to work to produce things, and when their appetite is in harmony they demonstrate the virtue of “temperance”, (they are bronze). Book (iv).


[One of the most interesting features of this discussion, to me, is the “psychology” involved – that is, the attempt to classify people’s behaviour in terms of inner drives (to use a Freudian term), and, as well, to spell out how we describe the extremes and the more moderate forms of these drives… Don’t (some) psychologists to this day do the same thing: e.g. Eysenck’s ‘introverted’ and ‘extraverted’ types; or the theory of ‘somatotypes’ or ‘constitutional psychology, originating from William Sheldon in the 1940s: people are ‘endomorphs’ ‘mesomorphs’ or ‘exomorphs.’ This theory goes so far as to link physical type with psychological type. Apparently the psychologist Jung also divided people into ‘thinking, feeling and sensing’.



Note also the concern with ‘harmony’ – this was a common aim among the ancient Greeks, who sought it in architecture and the arts (sculpture) as well as in society. It has been suggested that since one of the features of the old city-state was in fact conflict between different groups of armed men (a state of affairs the ancient Greeks called stasis) then it was natural that against the background of fear of disorder and conflict, a lot of thinking about politics was concerned with how to promote order.


Plato groups the wise and the courageous (the rulers and soldiers) together as “guardians” – but since there is a distinction between simply protecting the state, and doing what is in the “best interest” of the state, and if we remember the points above about the nature of knowledge, it will come as no surprise that alongside the soldiers in the guardian class will be the philosophers. They will “show the greatest eagerness to do what is for the good of their country” – books (iii), (vi), (vii).


Now in one sense, this is surely a con-controversial argument: the best people to rule the state will be those who are most informed - the “experts” or “technocrats” to use modern terminology. No one wants the army to run their country, since soldiers are trained to fight and have no knowledge of the law, or economics, or diplomacy. Clearly also, if there is a class of people who don’t care about any “big” issues of politics and the like, then we wouldn’t want them to rule either!


[There are many contemporary issues wrapped up here. To take just two: (a) in our ”democratic” system it is not the “experts” – the civil servants, lawyers etc – who rule (allegedly!) but the “ people.” MPs are not elected on the basis of their being experts, but as “representatives” of their constituents. Of course, the MPs nevertheless need the expertise of the civil servants to guide them in making decisions, and long-serving MPs become regarded, I suppose, as some kind of expert. Plato, however, would not have believed that this could produce a sensible arrangement: it would be “government by the ignorant”. This is important, because it is often claimed that the ancient Greeks “invented” democracy.  (b) note that Marx advocated rule by the working class – but he also believed that the workers would have to undergo a change of consciousness, becoming a class “for itself” and not just a class “in itself”, which I believe must involve an understanding of  the working of capitalism before they could overthrow it and take over…


7. Conclusion and appraisal of The Republic.


In The Republic, then, Plato rejected what we would call democracy – and he also rejected oligarchy in the sense of rule by a few: the basis of deciding who should rule is not to do with numbers (one, a few, or many) but to do with wisdom and having the interests of the state at heart. For Plato there was no “rule” which said that “the majority is always right” – and we might want to think about this view…

I also think that, probably, we would all want to accept that whoever holds political office should have the best interests of the state at heart. We might well go further with Plato, and agree that at least somewhere in, or attached to, government we need people with appropriate expertise. And we might agree that, as a statement of fact, most societies do tend to divide themselves up into classes or groups with different functions and interests. Though we might well think that this is a bad thing…


On the other hand, most commentaries on Plato stress the negative aspects of his thinking:


For example – and this is where I believe Plato reveals the self-interest of his argument as well as a kind of circularity (though you might say this is its strength!): the philosopher-rulers will be the ones who make sure that the rest of the population are “educated” to understand why they are filling the functions they have been allocated (the “noble lie”: ‘you weren’t given this role by us, the rulers, you are the best to do it, because it’s in your nature…’).


[Does this have contemporary overtones?


To illustrate the totalitarian aspects of the theory: literature for even the guardians is to be censored (book iii) and there is an extraordinary passage where Plato acknowledges that members of each class must be prevented from breeding with anyone other than from their own class! Book (v) 


The weakness of Plato’s position (as distinct from aspects of it that we might not like or agree with) lies in what seems to be his own lack of conviction, or at least of consistency: after all, if people are really born with different characteristics, then why is there such an emphasis on education and persuasion, and manipulation even, to keep them in their “classes”? Why do people have to be told a “story” to convince them of this view of human nature, if this view is actually the truth?


However, in making these comparisons with how we think today, we must bear in mind the crucial differences between Plato’s ideas (and his times) and our own. We would probably not agree, for instance, that the way to produce the best citizens was through loyalty to a controlling state (though we are bound to have differing views on how much loyalty to the state we need to show).


The practice of “democracy” as in classical Greece will have made more sense in small city-states (a few tens of thousands of inhabitants only) that were prone to internal conflict.


Similarly, whilst such controls might have been necessary in Plato’s time, many modern (‘liberal’) thinkers strongly reject for today what they see as Plato’s totalitarianism (e.g. Sir Karl Popper). A fundamental right for such thinkers is the right to make one’s own mind up, and to have and express one’s own opinions. Plato’s rulers are surely “absolutist”: how would any opposition emerge in such a state?


Finally, and before we dismiss Plato as advocating (as Popper put it) a “closed society”, there is one thought-provoking and very “different” idea that Plato has, concerning the ruling group: philosopher-rulers (as they have come to be known – this was not Plato’s terminology) in the ideal state should own no property (*), they should not even have their own wives and children – since these would distract them from always thinking about the best for the state! If this were how our rulers acted today, would we be more prepared to accept their position and their decisions?!


(*) Note: it is important to stress, however, that (contrary to Scruton) not everyone in the state was to be without property (only the philosopher-rulers), and so it is quite wrong to link Plato with communism.