By Categories: Editorials, Ethics

The State According to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle:-

SOCRATES first asked the important questions involved in the problem. Xenophon, in his Memorabilia, recounts that Socrates never tired of asking of everyone he met, “What is a state? What is a statesman? What is a ruler over men? What is a ruling character?”

Part – I, can be read from here – Click Here

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Although he did not answer these questions, he laid the basis for answering them in his major position that the greatest concern of any citizen should be knowledge. The good citizen was one who constantly searched for true knowledge, who was forever questioning. . When, Socrates argued, a man discovers true knowledge, he will act on it and will conduct himself rightly in all his relations with his fellows

Although Socrates saw defects in the Athenian state and spent a good deal of his time pointing to them and criticizing the rulers for their mistaken ideas about government, he was intensely loyal to Athens. When he had been condemned to death by the Athenian courts, a condemnation which he with many others believed to be wholly unjust, he refused the offer of his friends to bribe the guards and escape.

His argument was that should he do that he would be breaking the laws of the state and thus making it that much weaker. The state, despite its mistakes, was to him a mother who had given him life and had made him what he was. He could no more betray the state than he could betray his mother. His method was not that of rebellion. Nor would he accept exile and turn away from the state. Rather, he counseled his followers to remain loyal to the state, and through this loyalty to help the state correct its faults and mistakes.

The illustrious pupil of Socrates, PLATO, took up the problem where Socrates had left it and endeavored to find a solution. He held that the state was necessary for the highest development of the individual. Goodness, for him, was not goodness in isolation, but was goodness in the group.

The good man was the good citizen. Thus, the state should be so constructed that it would make possible the good life for all He argued that the individual should subordinate himself to the state, but that this was simply a means by which the individual could reach his most perfect development. The good of each man, he believed, was tied up with the good of the group. Laws were necessary only because some people refused to co-operate with the good state. They served to bring these people in line and thus make the whole good.

In the state, he argued, the best minds and the finest souls should rule. They formed a class of philosopher-rulers whose authority should not be questioned by the rest of the group. He believed that since they were philosopher-rulers their rule would be good and just. They could understand the right, and would do it without question. The rest of the members of the state he would place in classes suited to their talents.

Those who had a talent for war should be placed in the warrior class. Those who had a talent for mercantile pursuits would be in the trade and merchant class. The slaves should be placed in the slave class. Plato believed that such an organization would give the best possible state and that in it each individual, doing his assigned Job to the best of his ability, would be happy end would develop to his fullest.

This ideal state is developed in Plato’s famous book, the Republic. In a book written somewhat later, the Laws, he argues that all citizens should have a voice in the government and that all work should be turned over to the slaves. This theory of the state is fundamentally aristocratic.

Plato was wealthy, a son of the most favored class in Athens. Being such, he never was able to be wholly democratic, but aligned himself with the more aristocratic thought of his day. Further, his theory was socialistic in that it provided for complete control by the state of the lives of its members. The wealth of all was to be devoted to the use of all as they needed and deserved it, and the rulers could say in what class each individual should work and live. The state was supreme, but this doctrine was robbed of its sting by his added argument that in such a state each person would be happy and develop to his fullest.

ARISTOTLE, the pupil of Plato, developed a philosophy of the state which resembled that of his teacher very much. He held that man is by nature a social animal and, as such, can realize his truest self only in society and among his kind. Although the earliest forms of social living were the family and later the community, the goal of social evolution was, for Aristotle, the city state such as was known in Greece during his lifetime.

Since Aristotle believed, as we have pointed out before, that the whole is prior to its parts, he held that the state was prior to the individual member of the state. The individual is born into the state which has existed long before he became a member. But, the goal of the state, he maintained, is to produce good citizens.

Therefore, it should be organized and conducted so that it enables each member to become wholly good. To the extent that die state does not enable the individual to live a virtuous and happy life, it is evil. Any constitution, he argued, should be adjusted to the nature and the needs of the members of the particular group. But, in any group there are individuals who are unequal in many ways. Therefore, a good constitution must recognize these natural unequalities and confer rights accordingly.

In so far as all men are equal, the constitution must confer equal rights, but in so far as they are unequal, it must confer unequal rights. Among the unequalities which he would recognize are those of personal abilities, property, birth, and freedom. You treat slaves differently from free men and those born of slaves differently from those born of free men.

Aristotle held that a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a “polity” in which the members are nearly equal, are the best forms of the state. On the other hand he condemned as bad a tyranny, an oligarchy, and a democracy. Aristotle believed that slavery was a just practice in a good state since it was, for him, a natural institution. However, he would admit only foreigners to the slave class. He took this position because he held foreigners of all nations to be inferior to the Greeks and thus not fit to enjoy the same rights as Greeks.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were all unable to solve the problem of the state and the individual. Their theories were interesting on paper, and many thoughtful men of that time studied them and were interested. But the spirit of individualism as championed by the Sophists was sweeping Greece, and each man was concerned primarily with himself and his own success. Slowly but surely the unity of the state was destroyed. Individualism was no pathway to unity against the enemies of Athens and other Greek city states. As a result, these enemies were successful and the Greek city states fell under their yoke one after another. Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, the three great Greek city states, fell, and eventually all Greece came under the domination of Philip of Macedon at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. Individualism had proved an internal poison which eventually so weakened the Greek city states that they could offer no effective resistance to their enemies and their fall was inevitable.

The Positions of the Later Greek Thinkers:-

Amid the gradual crumbling of the city states of Greece the Epicureans sought to develop a theory of the state which would fit the situation. They taught that all social life is based on the self-interest of the individual. We become members of a social group simply because we find that in such a group we can get more for ourselves, because the group will give us better protection from our enemies. Therefore, there can be no absolute justice or natural rights and laws. That is good which men agree to call good. The laws are simply rules which the group accepts and by which the members are willing to live. If the members of the group decide that a certain law is no longer of value in getting what they want, it can be changed or thrown out altogether.

Injustice is not an evil in itself, they held. We are just, only because it helps us to be so. When obedience to laws does not help us longer, we may break the laws, if we can escape punishment.

The Epicureans did not believe that participation in public life would contribute to the happiness of the individual; therefore, they held that the wise man would shun public office and public responsibility as much as possible. This position, as is evident, is one of pure individualism and selfishness.

The individual associates himself with others only because it is to his advantage to do so, and he breaks away from the group and its requirements as soon as it is to his advantage to do so. Further, the individual helps the group and participates in group responsibility only to the degree that it is to his advantage to do so. This point of view certainly does not build strong group loyalty or solidarity.

It is the complete opposite of the earlier Greek position of loyalty to the state. Indeed, it is a clear expression of the doctrine of “enlightened self-interest.” Each person is told that he is to make his own happiness, and that alone, the goal of all that he does.

The Stoics took a position wholly opposite to that of the Epicureans as regards man’s relationship to the group. They held that man is more than merely an individual interested in his own welfare. He is also an individual with an inborn social impulse which makes necessary group life. Indeed, all men are members of a great cosmic society, the universal state. We all have duties and obligations in this state, and its laws are the natural laws which we must all obey whether we like it or not.

The Stoic state is universal and thus dominates every individual completely. Indeed, each member must be willing at all times to sacrifice himself for the good of the state. Individual interests are always subordinate to the interest of the whole, and the state must be preserved at all cost.

Thus, the Stoics taught that everyone should participate in public affairs and contribute as much as possible to the welfare of the group. However, and this is most important, the Stoics never taught a narrow nationalism in which a small state could be superior to the general* welfare of humanity. The good state was, for them, one whose laws and practices were in harmony with the good of all mankind and with the natural laws of the universe.

The Stoic, then, was to be a universal citizen, a member of the Great Society which includes all men and the laws of which are the universal laws of nature itself. Each man must subordinate himself to the universal ideal and live in such a way as to serve the good of all men wherever they might be.

A world society rooted in nature was their ideal. This was, obviously, wholly different from the position of the Epicureans and the other individualists of the day, and was equally opposed to the position of those who would have man subordinated to a particular state or social group, The Stoic ideal of universal brotherhood was the highest point to which the thought of the Greek period arose, and to which other thinkers in days to come were to strive,

Indeed the Stoics taught much which has become central in modern thought. With the loss of Greek independence they began to look at all men as brothers and to teach universal brotherhood and equal rights for all men. They sensed the doctrine of the solidarity of the human race and the dignity of man regardless of his position in society, his wealth, his birth, or his education. Their position may be summed up in the words, “Virtue despises no one, neither Greek nor barbarian, man nor woman, rich nor poor, freeman nor slave, wise nor ignorant, whole nor sick.” This was certainly dose to our modern view.

To be continued…

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