How Plato & Aristotle impacted political analysts

By Sauro Dasgupta

State’ may be defined as a political society comprising groups of people whose lives, activities and programmes are controlled by a single unit, which may be an individual, organisation or administrative body. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘The state is a form of human association distinguished from other social groups by its purpose, the establishment of order and security; its methods, the laws and their enforcement; its territory, the area of jurisdiction or geographic boundaries; and finally by its sovereignty.
The state consists, most broadly, of the agreement of the individuals on the means whereby disputes are settled in the form of laws. In such countries as the US, Australia, Nigeria, Mexico and Brazil, the term state (or a cognate) also refers to political units, not sovereign themselves, but subject to the authority of the larger state, or federal union.’
To trace the origin of a phenomenon of state is a difficult task. Still we have to try to find out the possibilities of the origin of the state. To some, the state came into being by God’s will, to others it is due to social contract. Still others thought that it is due to role of simple force or as a result of the process of evolution. These hypothetical observations have been discredited in the light of modern knowledge.
To discuss the Social Contract Theory, we must understand that it is based on a number of a priori assumptions. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Social Contract Theory was profoundly influenced by the idea of contractualists who explained the nature of relationship between the rulers and the ruled.
The Social Contract Theory assumes the existence of a state of nature as the initial condition of mankind where man was subject to no political control and postulates the emergence of the state through a voluntary agreement or contract by the inhabitants of the state of nature. Some code or regulation determined man’s behaviour which was designated as Natural Law which men were compelled to abandon and establish a civil society through contract. Natural Law was replaced by Human Law formulated by a contract. Man began to enjoy civil and political rights.
Plato, one of the greatest political philosophers ever born in Athens Greece (428-348 BC), thought that society ought to reflect as much as possible on the greatest good man can achieve.
Plato felt that the society did not help to educate its citizens to be the best version of themselves. In fact, Plato was critical of democratic governments because he thought that the opinion of the majority was usually not as good as the reasoned out thinking of the enlightened few in the society.
As far as Aristotle (384-322 BC), a disciple of Plato who was also born in Athens, felt that the Social Contract was not about the association of equals but the coming together of persons with varying strengths, attitudes, manners and temperaments seeking protection from all troubles by living in a common territory under a government that may or may not be acceptable to all.
Aristotle felt that these people lived together for the mere purpose of earning their livelihood and not for leading a good life. Their desires were parochial, hollow and materialistic, with nobody having any desire for the improvement and upliftment of their souls. There was a demarcation between politics and ethics in the State, something which Aristotle did not approve of. It merely acted as an agent of protection, monetary acquisition and fulfilment of the basic necessities of life, something that Aristotle felt, had the capability to undermine man’s potential, humanity and his pursuit of what he is best at and his achievement of a good life.
Plato was one of the foremost political philosophers of all time. His ideas on the state are elucidated in his book ‘The Republic’. At a young age, Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy in Athens, with the latter describing him as ‘the brain of my academy’. Despite being junior to Plato, Aristotle is considered as ‘The Father of Modern Political Science’.
Aristotle introduced empiricism in Political Science. He was the one to classify governments and laws for the first time in the history of political philosophy. He introduced methods like scientific method, reasoning, quantitative analysis.
As a political thinker of the state, Aristotle has earned higher distinction than Plato. His ideas had the presence of a strong common sense that was totally missing in Plato’s lofty idealism. His ideas made him more attractive and down to earth than Plato.
In his book ‘Politics’, Aristotle outlined the model of an ideal political society. His political ideas were permeated with a strong conviction that there is a distinction between the ideal and the possible. We must determine what is best practicable and can be achieved in reality.
Unlike Plato, Aristotle pays much attention to details. He criticised Plato’s theories and ideas. In his book ‘Politics’, Aristotle before depicting his ideal state he estimates the merit of all existing forms of Government. He said before everything there is a telos, meaning the final goal and his goal consists in the fullest development of its inherent potentialities. Like Plato, Aristotle does not disregard the ideal since the telos would work as the ultimate ideal before any course of further movement. Aristotle links politics to ethics. According to Aristotle, the root of the state lies in two basic and natural relation between male and female and between master and slave. It is on the basis on these two necessary relations that the family grows to meet the everyday wants of men. Several families combine to form a village that supplies something more than the daily necessities. Several villages constitute the state which is nearly self sufficient and continues to exist for the sake of good life.
Aristotle opined that the State was a natural institution. It evolved through natural institution like family and village. It represents the fulfillment of our potentialities. Man by nature is a political animal and it is his natural instinct to live in the state, failing which he is either a beast or God. The state represents the whole of which the individual is just a part and the whole is necessarily prior to the part. Aristotle felt that slavery was natural because here he detected a natural law and felt that slaves must obey their masters. Nobody could be a slave unless he was inferior intellectually and morally.
Like Plato, Aristotle justified a divided society and gave citizenship to the privileged classes. He advocated inequality in the society and eulogised that inequality had to be retained in the society to allow intellectually and morally superior people to rule the state which is despicable in the standard of subsequent and modern economic thought.
He emphasised the fact that the State’s authority was unrivalled. The individual according to Aristotle was a pawn of the powerful state. Aristotle was more totalitarian than Plato. Aristotle, like Plato, never over moralised on politics. He said that a person must be healthy and wealthy with lots of slaves and other menials to work for him so that he can concentrate solely on the attainment of good life.
Further, Aristotle assumed that the rulers would be extremely competent and hence like Plato never subjected them to the rule of law. Aristotle stated that an unequal society was just. He believed that slaves, labourers, gardeners, utensil makers etc could never develop morally and intellectually and therefore did not deserve citizenship. He regarded prisoners of war to be failed human beings who must be slaves of the state which defeated them. He advocated strengthening of the middle class who, he felt, would join hands with the state and the wealthy to suppress any revolution by the intellectually, socially and morally bankrupt people. He embarked on the idea, much like Plato, that every state must not forget its goal and progress towards it.
After Plato and Aristotle who rejected the Social Contract Theory, modern thinkers like Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who revolutionised Political Thought, considered Social Contract Theory and Origin of state theories and concluded that state is the creation of the evolution to take its present shape. After them, Social Contract Theory received a severe jolt in the opinion of Sir Henry Maine (1822-1888) who said, “Nothing could be more worthless than this theory.”
Thus, one can imagine the depth and foresight of Plato and Aristotle who were the political thinkers of BC which after so many centuries have received support from another political thinker who dared to call it worthless. So one can hardly avoid admitting that Plato and Aristotle should be adored as the supreme political thinkers of all time.
Therefore, Plato and Aristotle were the undisputedly far superior political philosophers than those who succeeded them till the modern age. Their thought on the state has become a theme for study by the political analysts.

(The author is a student of
International relations at
Jadavpur University, Kolkata)

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