Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – Classical Theory of State

The three key thinkers on the classical theory of the ‘State’ are Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Though most of Socrates’ ideas we only know through Plato, who was his student, as Socrates himself only wrote through dialectics.

Socrates held the view that the State should always be obeyed, even if it made decisions that the individual may disagree with. He argued that while people may not explicitly sign any contract to obey the laws of the State they live in, their consent to follow the law is assumed. Socrates believed that if you   choose to live under a sovereign power, for the benefits that this brings to the individual, then the individual must also completely submit to the law of that State, for the benefit of society.

This view on society and morality is essentially the idea put forward by Kant over a thousand years later. Kantian ethics revolve around the idea of universalised morality, i.e. an act or omission can only be considered moral if it could be universalised without creating a contradiction. When Socrates was imprisoned and sentenced to death he was visited by a friend who told him that he had the means to help him escape. Socrates explained that if he escaped he would be defying the rule of the State, and if he did so, it would be justified for anyone else to disobey the law: and if everyone disobeyed the law the State would be destroyed. Despite disagreeing with the reasons for his imprisonment, Socrates accepted    the punishment and was executed.

Plato also believed that the State should be completely obeyed but differed in his opinion on what constituted legitimate authority. Plato believed that knowledge of ‘the Forms’ constituted legitimacy. Plato explained the idea of the Forms using his allegory, ‘The Cave’. He says that there is a world beyond the world that we see and experience where everything that exists has a perfect ‘form’. The way we see the world, Plato believes, is like we are trapped in a cave staring at the wall and all we see of the ‘real’ world  is shadows on the wall created by the fire. A philosopher is simply a person who has knowledge of the Forms and seeks to escape from the cave, and Plato believed that it was they who should govern society as philosopher kings.

In Plato’s society people would naturally assume their roles based upon what kind of person they are, something decided by which part of their soul is most prominent. He believed in the tri-partite self; that the soul was divided into 3 parts: REASON, SPIRIT, DESIRE.

  • REASON – Knows the Forms and therefore reality (Philosopher Kings)
  • SPIRIT – Courage, ferocity, aggression. Seeks honour but doesn’t know what honour is (Soldiers)
  • DESIRE – Constant craving, moving from one desire to the next (Citizens)

He supported this idea with the ‘Myth of the Metal‘ (foundation myth) – When God created people he placed a small amount of gold, silver, or iron and bronze in their soul. This means some people are naturally better than others and they will have roles in society based on the metal in their soul. A man with gold in his soul is destined to become a philosopher king.

Plato also proposed that all States should utilise a type of eugenics; where the philosopher kings decided who can mate, to produce only the strongest and most intelligent babies, and discard any defective children. In addition he said that children should be taken from their parents almost immediately to remove any loyalty to family, and to ensure loyalty only to the State.

Aristotle rejected Plato’s totalitarian ideas and argued that Plato’s vision of the State removed any sense of individuality, which is ultimately the key to human flourishing. Although Aristotle’s theory did not support liberalism or individualism, he did believe that Plato’s vision of society would produce a race of people who do not think or create for themselves, and this is the key element in furthering human progress. Aristotle explained that humans are a ‘political’ animal and that we need to be surrounded by other humans, with individual thoughts, in order to argue and debate, as this is the doorway to new ideas. He also pointed out that procreation was the most basic reason for humans to gather and interact with each other; another element not present in Plato’s society.

Although he did still believe that there were natural rulers and natural slaves, his idea was more individualistic and based on what people are good at, than the idea of destiny or having precious metals embedded in the soul. It’s certainly a slightly more forward thinking and rational way to decide what role people have in society, however the first ideas of individualism and liberalism still didn’t really emerge until the Renaissance.

So to summarise the Classical Theory of State; the 3 key thinkers all agreed that the State was absolute and should be completely obeyed, but differed on their ideas of what/who the State is.
Till next time!

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi, just wanted to tell you, I loved this article. It was inspiring.
    Keep on posting!

    1. Alex Delaney says:

      Thank you very much!

  2. dhikusoka isima says:

    the post is what i have been looking for thanks

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