Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle: Philosopher King to City State and Modern Constitution

Socrates Plato Aristotle

Can kings philosophize? Or, can philosophers be kings? Plato’s concept of a Philosopher King drew much critical attention over centuries as most kings as well as contemporary heads of states lack nothing but philosophy. A philosopher king is the key to understanding much of the ideas on modern state that Plato tried to define in his Republic. The importance of the Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, in the formation of the modern state is undoubtedly formidable. While discussing about “justice in a city,” Socrates in Book 2 of the Republic speaks of a simple city in which the inhabitants depend on each other because of needs. Instigated by Glaucon, who finds the way of life in this city as too primitive, Socrates sets aside the simple city and instead talks about an ideal city which turns out to be Plato’s ideal state ruled by a philosopher king. For Socrates, the ideal state or city is not only a place where the inhabitants enjoy only basic justice: it is a city that is absolutely just and hence it would be the best state. Realizing the difficulty of establishing such a state, he asks, “Don’t you agree that the things we’ve said about the city and its constitution aren’t wishful thinking, that it is hard for them to come about but not impossible?” For Socrates, such a city is not at all impossible to attain, and to make his audience accept the possibility of it he goes on to explain justice. As he states:

But if we discover what justice is like, will we also maintain that the just man is in no way different from the just itself, so that he is like justice in every respect? Or will we be satisfied if he comes as close to it as possible and participates in it far more than anyone else? . . . Then it was in order to have a model that we were trying to discover what justice itself is like and what the completely just man would be like, if he came into being, and what kind of man he’d be if he did. . . . . So don’t keep trying to compel me to demonstrate that the sort of thing we have described in a theoretical way can also be fully realized in practice. If we turn out to be capable of finding how a city can be run in a way pretty close to the way you have described, then you can say that we have discovered how what you are asking for can be put into practice. (472c–473b)

Philosopher King: Can be a Lover of Wisdom Without Having it

Socrates believes that it is possible and proposes three political strategies in forming an ideal city: he wants to include the women in the guardian class and maintain extreme equality between both the sexes; he wants to put an end to the concept of family for this guardian class; and finally wants to make sure that philosophers rule as kings. However, the primary condition for such a city is expressed by Socrates through the “greatest waves of paradox”: people can establish this city only if philosophers are kings or kings philosophize. It is not clear what Socrates means by philosopher king as he does not explain how to transform kings into philosophers.  Philosopher’s rule, however, becomes the necessary precondition for the ideal city. What Socrates means by philosopher is not clear as a philosopher could be someone who is a lover of wisdom but may not necessarily have it.  Again, it is not also clear whether the guardian king, whose rule is the only way to the ideal state, is not only a lover of wisdom but has it. The problem with the notion of the philosopher king is that Socrates hardly provides any possible ways through which a king could be transformed into a philosopher, and hence it could be argued that finding such a king is exclusively a matter of luck: if there is no wise man capable of philosophizing, Socrates’ ideal city would remain as a theoretical proposition. To understand Socrates’ idea of a philosopher king, the simile of the Ship of State could be explained. Socrates compares the philosopher to an efficient navigator in a ship taken over by the crew: he tries hard to make the crew and the captain understand that sound knowledge of winds and stars is required for accurate navigation. Although regarded by the crew and the captain as a “sky-watcher and chatterbox,” as readers we can very much recognize the navigator in a figure like Socrates and the captain and the crew as the Athenian people. The problem with this image of the navigator is that it presupposes the philosopher’s knowledge of statecraft, and that Socrates did not show his audience any such knowledge. Moreover, the possibility of corrupted philosophers is also digressed by Socrates as he explains how a philosophical education prepares a guardian for political power.

Philosopher King: Can Philosophy Control People?

However, Aristotle is ready to admit that the rule of the philosopher king would be the best for a regime, but he is very critical of Plato as he finds the Republic as a “work filled up with digressions foreign to the main subject.” Aristotle highlights the inconsistencies of Socrates’ ideas on property ownership and inheritance, class division, the guardian class deprived of a family life and happiness. Socrates does not also consider the possibility of chaos or unrest in his ideal community, even though he maintains that the negation of property and family in the guardian class resolves this. He forgets the possibility of disagreements stemming not form greed for property alone: there might be differences among the ruling elites in terms of their intellectual and ideological standpoints.

Philosopher King: Head of the Elite Class?

Plato is right in locating the roots of civil unrest in the family, but his total disregard of a family life for the guardian class puts his notion of total happiness in the ideal city in jeopardy. For Aristotle, a family is the prototype state in the sense that it has its own rule, financial system, and a particular way of conduct. For Aristotle, family functions as an important institution that eventually leads to the polity or state. But, Plato sees the family as a barrier to the accomplishment of his ideal city: family loyalty often motivates family members to be subversive to the state. Plato is interested in replacing intense passion, loyalty, or feeling that family members feel for each other with no feelings at all so that the guardians transcend the limitations of common people. Plato seems to maintain extreme social control through the abolition of the family, selective breeding and abortion, and through the denial of individual rights to the people. In Plato’s ideal city, the power seems to be concentrated in a particular class that in the name of greater unity, a unity that requires sacrifice on the part of the individual, a sacrifice that challenges the idea of total justice and happiness of all that Socrates wants in his ideal city.

Philosopher King: Ruler of the Polis?

Aimed at understanding and forming the best “political community,” Aristotle begins his Politics with what Plato has described  in The Republic: “whether the members of a state must either have (1) all things or (2) nothing in common, or (3) some things in common and some not.” In the Politics, Aristotle examines all the social arrangements he knows and demonstrates that over time these gradually become more effective finally culminating to the polis. Hence, the polis follows quite a historical development, and in the process of this development it suppresses or rather deems the importance of the community, family, or individual citizen that ultimately constructs it. This is why, for Aristotle, the polis is the final stage of the ways humans organized themselves from antiquity.  Lack of self-sufficiency is the principle behind such organizations, and as Aristotle argues, one living outside a polis or state would hardly be able to fulfill even the everyday requirements of life. Aristotle logically prioritizes the polis over everything in the sense that one can hardly experience a better living outside a polis. This very lacking of self-sufficiency on the part of an individual justifies the unparalleled importance of the polis. In prioritizing the state over the individual, Aristotle does not consider someone without a state identity to be a human being at all as he is of the opinion that it is the state that transforms the human animals into proper human beings. As Aristotle states:

The polis is also prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually, since a whole is necessarily prior to its parts. For if the whole body has perished, there will no longer be a foot or a hand, except homonymously, as one might speak of a stone hand, for a dead hand will be like that; but everything is defined by its function and by its capacity; so that in such conditions they should not be said to be the same things, but homonymously so. Hence, that the polis is natural and prior in nature is clear. For if an individual is not self-sufficient, he will be like all other parts in relation to the whole. Anyone who cannot form a community with others, or who does not need to do so because he is self-sufficient, is no part of a polis. He will, accordingly, be either a beast or a god. (Pol. 1253a20–29)

Philosopher King: Guardian of the Constitution?

For Aristotle, the best way to rule such a polity is through a constitution combining kingship and aristocracy with a wise man or group of best men at the center. He considers this form of government as the best because it seems to be serving most of the requirements of the polis including the demands of justice, the true aims of the ruling class in each constitution, and the conceptions of virtue implicit in their approach to governance. “Although everyone will assent to the abstract suggestion that justice requires equality for equals and inequality of unequals,” says Aristotle, “different classes will construe the relevant forms of equality in materially different ways.”  The best constitution as Aristotle asserts would be the one that strives to create a condition for the citizens of the polis to flourish, and this would be aristocracy or the rule by the best.

Despite addressing fundamental issues like justice, property rights and inheritance, wealth distribution, constitution, and the like, Plato’s the Republic suffers from an idiosyncratic bias as Socrates makes the rule by the philosopher king as the precondition for an ideal state without properly defining philosophy or philosopher. Although Socrates asserts initially about the happiness of all in his just city, his subsequent description of the guardian class without a family life, his denial of individual liberty, and his failure to provide ways as to form the city he describes instigates Aristotle to examine all contemporary constitutions and city states. Aristotle’s enlightened borrowings from Socrates help him get rid of the inconsistencies inherent in the utopian thoughts of Socrates and develop a more practical idea of a constitution and a state that would lay the foundation of political science. Unlike Socrates, Aristotle is interested in developing a poils with a constitution that would ensure its citizens the individual liberty and self-development through a government participated by most people.


About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.

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