Plato and Aristotle Between Autonomy and Oppression

The most celebrated passage in Plato’s dialogues is his allegory of the cave. Prisoners trapped underground are forced by their fetters to view nothing but the shadows of puppets cast by an unseen fire onto the cave wall before them. Plato vividly depicts the prisoners’ liberation, their bewildered encounter with the source of their counterfeit experiences, the outward path upon which a select few embark, and the sun-lit world that greets those brave enough to seek it. The stages of the prisoner’s journey mirror the effects of a philosophical education. Our ordinary perceptual experiences reveal particular instances of courage or justice or beauty. But the philosopher aims to know what each of these images exemplifies only imperfectly—the intelligible Form of courage or justice or beauty itself. The philosopher’s ascent reaches its apex when they turn their gaze upward to the heavens, to the sun (the Form of the Good), and to the light it radiates upon the world’s true denizens (the other Forms).

Though the typical recounting ends here, it is not the allegory’s conclusion. The philosopher’s journey continues; they return to the cave. Why would someone who has broken free from a lifetime of bondage, someone who has spent decades pursuing the rigorous educational regimen required to achieve a successful contemplative life, give it up to descend once more into darkness?[1]

In short, the philosopher returns because he, more than anyone, knows what justice is. Justice, Plato argues, consists in everyone doing their own appropriate work and refraining from meddling in the proper work of others. And the job to which the philosopher is best suited is that of ruler. For, “the city will never find happiness until its outline is sketched by painters who use the divine model” and only someone who knows what justice is can establish laws that aspire to its pure and perfect manifestation (Republic 500e). More importantly, the philosopher knows the Form of the Good. They know not only what justice is, but why it is intrinsically valuable. So the philosopher will judge that submission to the law’s just demands is good, abandon their contemplative life, and return to the cave to govern a citizenry from whom they will always be alienated.

It is hard not to view the philosopher’s fate as somehow tragic. Though they choose to rule, they do so only because they are compelled. It is not what they want, but they view it as necessary and lawful. As Plato says, “they will spend most of their time doing philosophy, but, when his turn comes, each must labor in politics and rule for the city’s sake, not as something fine, but rather as something that must be done.”[2] In this one choice we see a tension that any political philosophy must address. It is a tension between two goods: the collective civic good of the state and the individual good of the citizen. Ideally, these ends are consonant. But if they are not, we must navigate the fragile balance between autonomy and oppression.

This opposition came to the fore in a recent and widely read commentary by Bishop Robert Barron. In it, Bishop Barron endorses Karl Popper’s influential but often maligned interpretation of Plato’s political philosophy as thoroughly totalitarian in nature. He finds traces of this authoritarian orientation in any view that “subordinates the individual to a grandly abstract construal of justice.” Aristotle, the argument continues, adopts an antipodal orientation that privileges “the aspiration and freedom of the individual.” The piece ends by imploring us to pursue the Aristotelian approach over the Platonic and warns us that “any political program that subordinates the individual to collective categories and ideals is dangerous and will conduce, in short order, to oppression and profound injustice.”

We see this interplay between “the aspiration and freedom of the individual” and the demands of “an abstract construal of justice” in the philosopher’s decision to rule. But I would like to offer an alternative interpretation. In part, I aim to correct the historical record about what these philosophers believe. But I also wish to draw a different lesson. We are not “all becoming Platonists now.” We have, rather, largely abandoned a single conception of the law that Plato and Aristotle share. This abandonment is not without its costs. The recognition of these costs, I contend, may render Platonism more attractive than its critics suggest.

Plato appeals to both individual and collective ends. On the one hand, he argues that the aim or purpose of a city’s laws is the happiness of its citizens. For, “it is to his subject and what is advantageous and proper for it that he [sc., the ruler] looks, and everything he says and does, he says and does for it” (342e). A successful life, a life that is blessed and happy, is a life of good activity, and one cannot act well if they are not equipped with the proper virtues. For Plato, human happiness just is a life of virtuous activity. So the law will benefit its citizens if it facilitates the development of these virtues—wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice—and encourages people to act in accordance with them.

On the other hand, Plato argues that the aim or purpose of a city’s laws is the well-being of the city itself. He says,

The law is not concerned with making any one class in the city do outstandingly well, but is contriving to produce this condition in the city as a whole . . . It produces such men in the city, not in order to allow them to turn in whatever direction each one wants, but to make use of them to bind the city together” (519d-e).

So a wise ruler will enact laws that compel the ruled to act for the sake the city. The ruler seeks the city’s unity, and this civic good is prior to citizens’ personal ends.

But must Plato treat the law’s dual aims oppositionally? Can he avoid the framework of conflict and subordination between citizen and state? Plato can, I believe, because he views a particular individual’s success as something that is largely indifferent to their idiosyncratic desires, pursuits, perspectives, and standpoints. What matters is the kind of being the individual is; they are human. The philosopher’s soul is in the ideal condition required to perform the kind of reason-directed deliberative and contemplative activity that is the proper function of human beings. Any choice that would move their soul away from that harmonious condition is a choice for the worse. And the choice to resist the law and its demand to rule would be such a choice.

It is the city’s laws that engender, develop, and sustain the philosopher’s excellences. Without the city, the philosopher could not exist. Consequently, the philosopher “owes a debt for their upbringing” (520b). They are being asked to forego contemplative activity to preserve the civic goods that made them capable of contemplative action in the first place. So, their choice is not between two lives: submission and a political life versus resistance and a contemplative life. It is a choice between doing what they know to be good and a vicious act of defiant ingratitude. To resist the external impositions of a just law is not a sign of autonomy, it is a manifestation of vice that runs counter to living well. Once the philosopher recognizes that ruling would be just and good, this communal end becomes their individual good. To defy the demand to rule, the philosopher would have to reject their own rational judgment; doing so would bring disorder upon their soul and undermine the excellences through which humans live well. To defy the demand to rule is to seek a sort of happiness that would make one something other than what one is.[3]

I think this is the correct way to interpret the philosopher’s choice to rule. Unfortunately, this response cannot fully ward off the specter of authoritarianism. This becomes clear once we move past the one lawful demand we have been considering to survey the remainder of the laws Plato thinks would be present in an ideally just city:

I’d like to be a teacher.

Too bad! The law regulates all occupations, and given your physique, you will contribute more to the city if you are a bricklayer.

I’ve fallen in love and I’d like to get married.

Too bad! The law regulates all relationships, and you will contribute more to the city if your children inherit features of a different partner.

I’d like to raise my child and impart to them the values that I consider paramount.

Too bad! The law eliminates the family altogether since it is better for children to be raised uniformly by the city.

I’d like to check out a copy of the Iliad from the library.

Too bad! The law censors all works of art since it is best to eliminate anything that would lead to the moral corruption of impressionable youth.

There is an immense gulf between laws that allow its citizens “to turn in whatever direction each one wants” and laws that dictate a single direction irrespective of what anyone wants. It is a hallmark of Platonic ethics that we should follow the wisest guides available. If the laws are wise, following them will lead us to act well regardless of our vices. But it is difficult to see the wisdom of these laws. It is hard for contemporary readers to view this systematic discounting of individual liberty in domains that are central to how we view ourselves as anything but oppressive.[4]

It is reasonable to respond to this imbalance by seeking a way to elevate the importance of the individual. But the suggestion that Aristotle is the champion of this reorientation is peculiar. Though Aristotle levies numerous criticisms against his teacher’s account, he largely agrees with its fundamental tenets. Both Plato and Aristotle agree that the law’s aim is the simultaneous success of the city and its citizens.[5] They both agree that in order to achieve this, the laws must cultivate virtue in its citizens. For, “it is through laws that we can become good” and political science “spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character, viz., good and capable of noble acts.”[6] And most important, they both agree that a wise and just law does not stand in opposition to the happiness of those it compels. For Aristotle, an individual’s good is posterior to and partly constituted by the common good. As Alasdair MacIntyre aptly notes, “the individual in order not just to pursue, but even to define her or his good in concrete terms has first to recognize the goods of the community as goods that she or he must make her own.”[7]

It should not be surprising that several of the laws Aristotle endorses are, like Plato’s, susceptible to negative assessments. For example, Aristotle believes that the deliberative part of a woman’s capacity for practical reasoning is “unauthoritative” making them naturally servile (Pol. I.13, 1260a7-24). A city’s just laws will exclude women from full political participation and will prevent them from having the education and leisure time required for philosophical activity which, together, place a fully happy human life beyond their reach. Moreover, Aristotle infamously argues that some people are born with deliberative deficits far more severe than those he attributes to women and subsequently classifies them natural slaves. Aristotle’s political system is tailored to the success and flourishing of free men; the law will place women and slaves in subsidiary roles whose function is to aid and help these men who alone have the potential to realize the highest form of human happiness.

The problem with the cities that Plato and Aristotle envision is not that their citizens lack autonomy—that they cannot lead their lives according to reasons, motives, and ends that are in some sense authentic or their own. The problem is that most of us think that Plato and Aristotle are simply wrong about what the wise and just laws are. Rather than fix or amend their proposals, these deficits have led us to abandon the core idea that Plato and Aristotle hold in common: that the purpose of the law is to bring about virtue, and therefore happiness, in its citizens. This rejection is the foundation of contemporary forms of political liberalism.

Liberals are reasonably wary of laws that codify a single objective conception of the human good and compel all citizens to pursue it. So liberal analyses of justice, both of what justice is and of what makes it good, are advanced in a way that prescinds from determinate conceptions of human nature, of what constitutes a successful human life, and of what we should value and pursue. Our laws, to the extent that it is possible, aspire to neutrality between controversial comprehensive doctrines of value and safeguard a pluralism about what we are to aim at as good. Just laws will establish minimal limits within which citizens are free to develop their own conception of a successful life and these laws will guarantee each citizen the opportunity to pursue their own vision of the good.

So, if the pendulum is to swing away from privileging the collective good, it will not land at Aristotle’s feet. It is a movement away from both Athenians that terminates in the liberal framework we presently occupy. But this rejection does not result in a balance of individual and collective goods. It is a commitment to the contrary priority of the individual.

This new orientation is not free. By abandoning the view that the law aims to bring about the best human life for its citizens, we preclude the state from playing a central role in bringing about the virtues that would be required to achieve it. The liberal state can cultivate weaker, political virtues that do not violate neutrality, say, tolerance, or cooperativeness, or civility. And the state can allow or even promote other institutions, say, the family or any number of voluntary associations, to foster the respective virtues for the plurality of competing conceptions of the good life it permits. But by rejecting the pretense that there is a definite conception of the best human life, no matter how broadly construed, the liberal state cedes its role in promoting any of the virtues that would be required for its attainment.

In this way, liberalism denies that “a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only.” Aristotle claims that “he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.”[8] The extent to which we leave the ancient view of the law behind is the extent to which we make citizens beasts or gods while still within the city’s confines.

Where does this leave us? Bishop Baron warns that any subordination of the individual to a determinate conception of collective justice is “perilous.” The variety of liberalism he ultimately endorses certainly attenuates this peril. But it also sidelines the traditional virtues and their inculcation. We should be wary of false claims about the good life and about what justice demands. But we should be wary as well of rejecting Platonism, and the possibility of such a life, altogether.

[1] It certainly isn’t for the reception they will receive. Plato thinks the returning philosopher will appear completely ridiculous to those still imprisoned. The shackled will denigrate their knowledge as folly and may even meet them with violence. And Plato insists that there is no pleasure superior to that which attends contemplating the Forms.

[2] Republic 540b. Plato uses the language of compulsion to describe the choice at 500d, 521b, and 539e and describes ruling as what is necessary or what must be done at 520e and 540e. The philosopher is least eager to rule (520d) and the fact that they are not lovers of ruling increases their suitability (521b).

[3] Just as a statue’s painter must not, in seeking beauty, paint the statue’s eyes in such a way “that they no longer look like eyes at all […] similarly, in the present case, you must not force us to give our guardians the sort of happiness that would make them something other than guardians” (420d-e).

[4] One sign that Plato is wrong is his concession that all manner of dishonesty and deception would be required for laws like his to be implemented without widespread resistance. If a ruler requires his citizens to act viciously, then they have failed in their charge.

[5] Aristotle insists that when we engage in political science, “our purpose is to consider what form of political community is best of all for those who are most able to realize their ideal of life” (Pol. II.1, 1260b25-26) and goes on to say unequivocally that, “the end of the state is the good life” (III.9, 1280b39-40).

[6] EN X.9, 1180b25-26 and I.9, 1099b29-32. Aristotle is clear about what these laws will look like: “But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for excellence if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than what is noble” (EN X.9, 1179b32-a5; cf., I.2, 1094a24-b11 and II.2, 1103b3-6).

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, p. 109. The priority of the civic good is, for Aristotle, manifest at the level of the virtues of character insofar as he takes complete virtue to be identical to general justice. It is manifest at the level of practical reasoning as well: the practically wise deliberator will locate their lives within the broader context of their whole community and will only pursue their own good in ways that respect the priority of the city’s good.

[8] Pol. III.9, 1280a31-32 and I.2, 1253a27-30.

Featured Image: taken by Sébastien Bertrand, Athena Looking Over Plato, taken on 1 October 2004; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0


Christopher Frey

Christopher Frey is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He has published several articles on ancient Greek metaphysics and natural philosophy and on contemporary philosophy of perception and mind and is currently writing a book on Aristotle's theory of life and soul.

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