A Comparison of Plato's and Aristotle's Conceptions of State

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In Politics by Aristotle and Republic by Plato, two different conceptions of the state, justice, and political participation present themselves. The two philosophers living in Greece disagreed on many things and approached the same ideas in very different ways. In this paper, I will prove that Plato cannot accept Aristotle’s claims that all states are natural and all citizens are capable of participating in politics if he is to preserve his own philosophy on state and politics as defined in Republic.

In Book I of Politics, Aristotle describes how the state came into being and makes the claim that all states are natural. He reaches this conclusion by examining essential human relationships in their simplest form. In the human world, there is a natural pairing of those dependent on one another for survival, two such relationships are the master-slave and male-female pairings. The female is paired with the male for the sake of reproduction, the survival of the human race (Politics, pg. 3), and because she is incapable of fully rational thought and thus must be ruled by man for her own good (Politics, pg. 35). The master-slave relationship is one of preservation because they complete one another. Nature creates for each separate thing a separate end, because an object is most effective at its task when it serves a single purpose. The natural end for a master is to rule, and the natural end for the slave is to be ruled, therefore, unless the two are paired together they will individually be forced to perform tasks that they are not created for and thus will not be acting in accordance with nature (Politics, pg. 3).

A household is the first association that arises from the combination of the male-female and master-slave pairing. The household, or family, comes into being for the sake of satisfying daily recurrent needs. The next stage of human association is the village, which in its most natural form arises when the relatives of the original household form their own households in the same geographical region and thus a natural combination of households, or a village arises. The village comes into being in order to move towards a greater degree of self-sufficiency and the satisfaction of more than daily recurrent needs. The final association is the polis or state, which is entirely self-sufficient, and is created from a combination of villages. The state is the final and perfect form of association because it accomplishes complete self-sufficiency, which is the object of all human associations, and helps human beings reach the object of their existence, which is happiness. Every state exists by nature because they are the completion of associations arising from essential human pairings (Politics pg. 5).

In Plato’s Republic, Plato describes the ideal state at length and concludes that his ideal state is the only truly natural form of polis. Plato reaches his conclusion by first explaining what characteristics an ideal city would have. Plato states first that the polis comes into being because no person is completely self-sufficient (Republic, 369b). An ideal state, he reasons will exist when each person does only what he is naturally suited for in order to guarantee the best quality work (Republic, 370c). The object of the ideal state is for the city as a whole to be as happy as nature allows, which is accomplished through specialization (Republic, 421c). After explaining the various specifics of the different specialized levels of labor needed for the ideal city, including the producing class and a class of guardians, he concludes that this ideal city centered on strict specialization based on natural talent is completely good (Republic, 427e).

Once the city is completely good, he reasons it must contain the four virtues of wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice (Republic, 427e). Wisdom in the ideal city is located in the ruling class, which are true guardians who possess a form of knowledge called wisdom (Republic, 428e). Courage is located in the guardian class, and is defined as the preservation of the belief of what things are to be feared as defined by law and education (Republic, 429d). Moderation is found in all of the residents of the ideal state and is defined as the agreement between the classes that the ruling class will rule. Justice is the virtue that holds the city together, makes possible the existence of the other previously defined virtues, and is defined as everyone in the city doing what they are naturally suited for, and not meddling in the work of others (Republic, 433). Producing justice he then reasons is to establish the classes in a natural relation of control to one another (Republic, 445D). Therefore, we can define justice as facilitating nature and obviously existing in conjunction with nature. This means that a state can only be natural if it is just, as defined by Plato, a condition not present in any existing state. Hence, we reach the conclusion that no state is natural except Plato’s ideal state.

Plato and Aristotle have opposing and different perspectives on nature and its relation to the state. Plato’s entire justification for calling his state ideal and explaining the details of its organization to such an extent is that it reflects the definition of justice, which shows that his state is the only state that is natural. Plato has to reject Aristotle’s viewpoint on the state because if he did not then his ideal state would cease to be any more natural than the rest, his definition of justice would crumble, and the later topics of the Republic would fail to be of any importance. If Plato accepts that all states are natural as stated by Aristotle, then he must accept that all states are also just according to his definition of justice. Then even though all states are just because they are natural, they still are unnatural and unjust because they do not follow the rules of specialized labor, that would make all states just and unjust and natural and unnatural at the same time. In addition, if all states are just then there is no reason why Plato’s state is ideal, or any better than any other form of state. If his state is no better than the rest, the specific, detailed, qualifications he later brings up in relation to the ruler of his ideal state seem ridiculous and his entire book the Republic in general seems ridiculous. Plato has obviously no choice but to reject Aristotle’s claims that all states are natural in order to preserve the validity of his definition of justice, nature, and the ideal state.

In Politics, Aristotle states that man is meant for political association because he has the faculty of language. Unlike the sounds that are made by animals, which only express pleasure and pain, the language used by humans is used to declare not only pleasure and pain but also what is just and unjust. Humans alone possess the capability to judge good and evil and things of that nature. This capability of thought and language is responsible for the creation of a family and a polis because man naturally groups together based on these common perceptions of just and unjust, good and evil (Politics, pg 6). Therefore, since the polis owes its existence to the faculty of language, every member of a polis has the capability of ruling and passing judgment on political affairs. Aristotle now offers a definition of who is a member of a polis, also known as a citizen. The definition of a citizen is someone who holds a judicial or deliberative office in his state for any fixed or unfixed amount of time, a state being any group of people large enough to be self-sufficient (Politics, pg 95). This implies that a citizen is only a man, not a woman or a slave, who is capable of rational thought and judgment. Aristotle’s argument results in the notion that every man who may later become a citizen is born with the capability to participate in politics.

Plato on the other hand because of the fundamental principal of specialization responsible for the creation of his ideal state, which is the notion that everyone does what they are naturally suited to do, has to produce a specific criterion for someone who is naturally suited to rule. He first states that the ruler of the ideal state must be a philosopher king (Republic, 473d). The philosopher must be king because the ruler of an ideal state must know what is best for the people, what is best is overall happiness of the city which is achieved through justice, therefore, he must know justice and if one is to know justice he must obviously be a lover of learning. This statement leads to a definition of a philosopher as someone who loves knowledge and wisdom, and philosophy as something whose object is knowledge (Republic, 475d). This definition however includes both the lovers of sights and the lovers of essences or forms (Republic, 475e). For that reason, a comprehensive specific definition of knowledge, its different levels, and its relationship to different kinds of people needed to be established.

First, it was decided that true knowledge has as its object that what is, and the two other levels of thought, opinion, and ignorance have as their objects respectively that what is and what is not, and that what purely is not. (Republic, 479-480). The object of ignorance is easily explained as that which does not exist, like unicorns and such. It is important to distinguish between the levels of opining and knowledge because the philosopher king must have true knowledge as his object because it is infallible versus opinion, which is fallible. Then, the objects of opining and knowing were better explained by being broken up into two parts. Opining has as its object the physical world and the shadows of the physical world, which means conclusions are reached through belief and imaging. Knowing has as its object forms and math, which means conclusions are reached through thought and understanding. Forms are defined as things such as the essence of beauty and the essence of justice, which is everlasting, immaterial and can only be known through education (Republic, 509-511e). The philosopher kings must have as their object true knowledge and must know math, essences, and ultimately the most important essence, the form of the good, in order to know whether justice is truly good and truly rule for the benefit of the polis. (Republic, 505b).

Once the philosophers know all of the forms and everything that exists eternally, they actually have to be forced to be kings and rule because after they discover the eternal forms they naturally become uninterested in the material world and petty worldly things. Knowledge drives the philosopher away from ruling because it involves seemingly petty issues and unenlightened people; however, education from the state, virtue, and fear of being ruled by someone worse pulls forces the philosopher into ruling. (Republic, 520-521). These are just the personal qualifications of the philosopher king, who is only person capable to dictate politics in Plato’s ideal state.

It is evident from the lengthy description of the qualities necessary for political participation in Plato’s ideal state, and the rather short list of requirements for political participation in Aristotle’s state that these two philosophers have very different perceptions on the topic of politics. Plato cannot accept Aristotle’s view on politics and claim that all citizens are capable of operating in the political realm of the state, because if he did then the concept of specialization on which the ideal state is founded, and the complicated education system would both collapse and fail to be justified. The concept of specialization dictates political involvement because it forces politics to become a skill that must be mastered, like house building, a skill that requires a specific type of person naturally suited for that task. If Plato accepted the notion that every citizen has the capability to participate in politics then the entire system of specialization would crumble. If every person can be a politician, why would not every person be capable of becoming a guardian of a farmer? Once the line is crossed, a precedent is established that allows all other lines to be crossed. The notion that every citizen can participate in judging laws also assumes that every citizen knows the essence of justice, because every law in the ideal state is a reflection of that essence. If every citizen knows the essence of justice then they all must have spent their time being educated, time that as dictated by the rule that each does only what he is best suited for and doesn’t meddle in the work of others should have been spent working on their own specialization. Plato cannot accept Aristotle’s claims in order to preserve his definition of justice, which is the doing of one’s own work that you are naturally suited for and not meddling in the work of others, and the concept of education in the ideal state, which is closely tied to the idea of specialization.

In conclusion, Plato's ideal state is constructed from the deeper non-realistic perspective while Aristotle comes to his conclusions regarding politics and states through observation of existing states and forms of government. Plato is forced to reject claims made by Aristotle stating that all states are natural and all citizens are capable of participating in politics. Plato rejects these claims in order to preserve the fundamental basis on which his ideal state is constructed such as the concept of specialization and the closely connected definitions of justice and nature.

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A Comparison of Plato's and Aristotle's Conceptions of State
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Aristotle, Plato, History, Philosophy
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Zach von Naumann (Author), 2009, A Comparison of Plato's and Aristotle's Conceptions of State, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/298377


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