Plato and Aristotle Views of Politics – Comparison of Plato and Aristotle
Plato is Aristotle’s teacher, but they have lots of difference in politics. Plato advocated that the rule under a philosopher king is the best while Aristotle argues that the rule of law should be better than the rule of one person, but their views both have their limitations. A rule which combines their views together should be the best rule.
In order to claim their view points, I’ll list the differences between their views in two parts: different states of a country and their ideal governance of a country.
1. Different states of a country
Plato believes that individuals are different, and their lives should be also different, so people should be divided according to their talent. From the human nature, three social classifications will be generated. The men who focused on pursing truth and nuture rationality is a kind of performance of wisdom, thus it’s their duty to take response of govern and manage; the men who seek for honor and achievements is the embodiment of spiritedness and courage, so it’s better for them to be guardians and responsible for warding; and the men who prefer the satisfaction of enjoyment should be the working class of a city. In Plato’s theory, the three class of the society is made by gold, silver and bronze and they are immutable. This has led to inequality and insurmountability of human nature. If a worker wants to get to the guardian status or the auxiliary, or an auxiliary wants to get to the guardian status, then the city will be in a mess. If the three classes change their status with each other, in Plato’s words, “The city will be ruined if it ever has an iron or a bronze guardian.” (Republics, III, 415c)
Aristotle resolutely criticized Plato’s idea of classifying human nature to form three classes. In Politics, he says: “A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors.” (Politics, 1253a19-125a39) His definition of a state is: “Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for everyone always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.” (Politics, 1252a1-1252a8). At the same time, the state is the ultimate realization of good and the greatest happiness of mankind. Therefore, the establishment of a state must be aimed at achieving the happiness and harmony of the people of the state. Aristotle divides people into rich, poor, and middle classes based on their citizenship, saying that “In the first place we see that all states are made up of families, and in the multitude of citizens there must be some rich and some poor, and some in a middle condition; the rich possess heavy armour, and the poor not.” (Politics, 1289b28-1290a12)
2. Ideal governance of a country
Plato analyzed and criticized the Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny in Greek society at the time. (Republics, 8, D) He pointed out that the ideal government model should be Aristocracy, which is the under the rule of philosophy king. In Plato’s view, human beings are born unequal, and are destined to be ruled by the fewest people. The fewest people are the philosophers. Plato affirmed, “Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities, will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race.” (Republics, 437 D) Plato thinks that the philosophical king has the highest knowledge, the ability to understand the origin of things, and the ability to understand the virtues. He placed great emphasis on the rule of individuals. Plato believes that once a competent ruler appears, humans no longer need to be ruled by law.
Aristotle argues that the best regime should be the republic regime ruled by middle class. In his word, “There only can the government ever be stable where the middle class exceeds one or both of the others, and in that case there will be no fear that the rich will unite with the poor against the rulers.” (Politics, 1296b35-1297a14) Aristotle advocated to form a republican system, and the rule of law becomes a logically necessity of this ideal government. Aristotle pointed out that the rule of law should be better than the rule of one person. To implement the rule of law, there must be a good and sound complete system, and universal obedience is the key to implementing the rule of law. He also pointed out that the law is effective because of the obedience of the people, and the custom of obeying the law must be cultivated for a long time. At the same time, the law must be consistent.
According the comparison above, in short, we find that Plato admire the politics of the wisdom men and Aristotle recommends the republican government ruled by law. From the present point of view, we know that the development of history and the reality of society made it impossible for Plato’s sage politics with philosophy as the main to be achieved or Aristotle’s rule of the middle class, so Plato had to reaffirm the importance of law in Laws, and Aristotle’s idea didn’t solve the problem in Greece at all. The problem is that Aristotle and Plato both construct an “ideal” state, which is not practical at all.
The first limitation is that they didn’t treat the citizens equally. Plato’s view of the governing advocates that the philosophical king is the supreme ruler. The abolition of the law means that one person is above the others, so it’s hard to have individual freedom of will, nor can there be mutual communication among various classes. In Plato’s opinion, he equates the fate of the entire state with the fate of the ruling class. Aristotle’s advocacy of the authority of the law means the unity of democracy and the rule of law, every class in society is treated fair and justice, but he still treats people unequally. In Politics (1254a20-1254a23) he points out, “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”
It can be seen that Plato divides the class based on human nature as the basis of social division of labor, and then divides social division of labor as the basis for distinguishing social classes. Finally, the mysterious “oracle” will define the classes of the individuals. The hierarchy is so strict and unchangeable that once the three classes change their status, it might be a disaster. The purpose of Plato’s class division is to demonstrate a “justice” state, which guarantees that each class perform their own duty and the city will reach in harmony. As he says, “doing what is one’ own and not interfering or meddling in many things”. Obviously, Aristotle classifies society based on practicality and wealth. In practice, he acknowledges the variability of status between classes. Unlike Plato, Aristotle’s purpose of classifying is the proof towards his definition of state that “every state is a community of some kind”, and people always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.
Plato and Aristotle think that the fate is destined from the birth, which is obviously wrong. Plato uses wisdom to measure the ability of a person, while Aristotle uses wealth to class the citizens. A baby knows nothing when he comes to the world, and his wisdom depends on his postnatally education. Knowledge can be accumulated, so there doesn’t exist a person who knows everything. The ruler should keep learning to avoid make mistakes. As for classing citizens according to their wealth, it’s ridiculous to tell a person that he should be the ruler because he is in the middle class. Treating their citizens unequally according to the absurd classing methods is their limitation. Everyone should be treated the same in the country.
The second limitation is that both Plato and Aristotle only consider one mode of the governing. There is neither perfect “philosophical king” in the reality, nor perfect law. Therefore, the ruler should be talented enough and bound hand and foot by the law. Nobody can make sure that they won’t make any mistake in their whole life, and the restriction of the law will ensure that once the ruler did something wrong, he will be punished. As Aristotle suggested, the ruler should be elected in turn. Once the law comes into force, it must not be easily abolished. As everyone obeys the rule of law, the ruler should not be a tenure, but should be campaignable by everyone, says, people serve as rulers and ruled in turn, as he says, “Thus the one party rules and the others are ruled in turn, as if they were no longer the same persons.” (Politics, 1261a10-1261b16)
Plato thinks that the wise man governs the country by relying on philosophical insights, that is, individual wisdom, and not law. He is partially right. Exactly, there is no perfect law, and sometimes the law is actually so bad that it will hinder the rule of the wise man. Law is made by human beings, if this happens, the law should be modified, not abolished directly. It’s a good idea because the ruler cannot accumulate strong power during the short period, the lure of power will be reduced. Of course, although the country is ruled relying on the law, the ruler should be wise so that his decision won’t ruin a country.
Aristotle thinks that the middle class is the democratic force and the best governor, and the country will be pluralistic. However, Plato thinks nothing will be worse than splitting up and turning one into more, and nothing be better than unity. Exactly, there will be no confliction when all people listen to one person’s opinion, but if the ruler makes mistakes, nobody will correct him. A country has lots of social division, military, factory, schools and so on. If we narrow the concepts of “ruler” into the leader of a department, we will find that things are easier. In some departments, ruler can make things into unity, for example, soldiers have to obey their superiors. However, in some areas, plurality is important. People have to use the wisdom of the community. Thus, a country needs both unity and plurality, in another word, the combination of the views of Aristotle and Plato.
Plato and Aristotle both purposed different views about Greek politics. Their views are like the two sides of a coin, although their opinions seem like opposite and different, if we combine them together, we will get the complete idea towards an ideal politics, which is practical and perfect.
Cooper, John M. (ed.), 1997, Plato: Complete Works, Indianapolis: Hackett. Barnes, J., ed. The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volumes I and II, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.