Marcus Aurelius: A Wise Emperor Speaks

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) succeeded his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, as Emperor of Rome in 161, reigning until his death in 180. As a young man, he was interested in sports and other activities, but was attracted to Stoic philosophers at an early age. He is the author of one of the most famous books of ancient wisdom, the Meditations.[1] At least a part of his Meditations was written during the last years of Marcus’ life, a period of almost constant military activity. He died in Austria during a military campaign in March 180 at the age of 58. He probably never dreamed that his little book of sayings, written for his own edification, would become a classic of ancient literature. As with Cicero, in Marcus Aurelius we experience the reflections of a person who is active in public life.

The Meditations are difficult to summarize because they consist a series of not always interconnected passages written over a long period of time. I am going to emphasize a few aspects of the thought of Marcus Aurelius important for political philosophy. Before launching into that task, it is important to begin by noting the humility of the writer. Marcus begins his Medications with a series of attributions, giving thanks for his parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and others for all the gifts and the example they set for him. In particular, he gives thanks to his father for his character and to his brother Severus, from whom he learned that classics and “received the idea of a state in which there is the same law for all, a state administered with regard for the equal rights and equal freedom of speech, the idea of kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.” [2] Here we see the view that freedom is not only to be protected in democracies but in all wise forms of government.

A Rational World

For Marcus, as for Stoics generally, there is a rational order to the world. The world embodies a “universal nature,” and everything in the world exhibits and reflects that nature, “…for the universal nature is the nature of all things that are; and all things that are have a relation to all things that come into existence. And, further, this universal nature is named truth, and is the prime cause of all things that are true.” [3] The universe embodies a created rationality that is, and should be, reflected in both nature and society.

The universal nature has both moral and social significance. Those who act contrary to universal nature or reason act with impiety and irrationally, which is bound to be destructive either of the world or of human society, which participate in this universal nature. This aspect of Stoic thought was much criticized by Cynics, since there is a great diversity both in physical nature and in the human societies built upon that nature. However, to Marcus, the universe displays a kind of order that should not be violated, and the one who violates it “fights against the nature of the universe.” [4]

A World of Relationality

There are aspects of Marcus’ thought that are surprisingly “post-modern,” contrasting starkly with the mechanical world view of the modern era. Marcus sees that all things are related and part of a whole that cannot be dissected without loss. Thus:

This you must always bear in mind: what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole, and there is no one who can hinder you from always doing and saying the things that are in accord with the whole of which you are a part. [5]

In this quotation we see much of the wisdom and understanding of the writer: First, there is an order to “nature,” defined as the system of being in which every individual is immersed. This nature is both physical and social. Second, the wise person has to understand the environment he or she is in, what makes up that environment, and what is his or her relationship to the whole.

Based on this insight, Aurelius urges his readers to;

Consider frequently the connection of all things in the universe and their relations to one another. For things are somehow implicated with one another, and all in a way friendly to one another, for one thing follows in order after another and this is by virtue of their active movement and mutual agreement and the unity of their substance. [6]

Our world is a world in which all things are related to one another, and the wise person constantly considers the nature and implications of these relationships. In addition, what will be is implicit in what already is. Present reality is constantly passing away into what will be and is implicit in the new reality to follow. Finally, there is a religious dimension to this, for “All parts of the world are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred.” [7] This notion that the world is relational and sacred is a part of the stoic belief that God is a part of all the entire universe.

A World of Constant Change

Another of Aurelius’ foundational ideas is found in the previous quote: the world is constantly changing. The universe and any society in which an individual finds his or herself is one of constant change. In this respect, Aurelius is an organic and process thinker as opposed to a mechanical thinker. Thus, he says:

Observe constantly that all things come about by change; accustom yourself to reflect that nature of the universe loves nothing so much as changing things that are and making new things from them. [8]

No one, not even an emperor, can be successful or wise without an awareness of the reality of constant change. One might say that for Aurelius, like modern process thinkers, the fundamental reality is change. The attempt, so common in the modern world, to achieve “an end to history,” i.e. some perfect state of political and social organization, is doomed. All that can be done is to live and govern faithfully within the boundaries of the circumstances in which one finds oneself.

For every individual, there is an arrow of time in this constant change—an arrow that leads from birth, through maturity, and onwards towards death. Just as the Psalmist urges God to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12), Aurelius urges his readers to recognize their mortality. The arrow of time for all men, Alexander the Great and the lowliest slave, is the same—an arrow of time that leads from birth to death.

A Social World

This infinitely complex and delicately interwoven world is designed for social relationships and cooperation as much as for conflict. This is true of nature and of society:

As it is with members of unified bodies, so it is with the rational beings that exist separate, but are designed for co-operation. You will realize this more if you say to yourself: ‘I am a member of a system of rational beings.” [9]

Marcus Aurelius would agree with Aristotle that human beings are by nature social. Thus, “The primary principle then in men’s constitution is the social.” [10] This insight is much different from the modern notion that the individual is primary, that society is made up of autonomous individuals, and that social life is fundamentally a constant conflict for power. Rational cooperation, not conflict, lies at the foundation of a sound social order.

The social order of the world is one of the foundations of wisdom and of morality. The wise and good person recognizes that all of his or her actions are a part of the order of the world and influence the world for good or ill:

As you yourself are a component part of the social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life. Whatever act of ours then has no reference either immediately or remotely to a social end, this tears asunder your life. [11]

Here is a relational principle that strikes at the root of the problem of the individualistic ethos of the modern era in which people see themselves as self-seeking and independent. The entire idea of the detached individual is irrational because we are all component parts of a social whole which involves our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and fellow citizens. It is not enough to think of myself or my own advantage, for every act has a social impact and therefore a social end. The idea that I can seek my personal best interests and have a society that is stable, is simply wrong.

Universal Commonwealth of Humanity.

Marcus’ subscribes to the Stoic ideal of a universal commonwealth.  He expounds on this idea as follows:

If the faculty of understanding is common to us all, the reason also, through which we are rational beings, is common. If this is so, common also is that reason which tells us what to do and what not to do. If this is so, there is a law common to all men also. If this is so, we are fellow citizens and members of some political community, and thus the world is in a way one commonwealth. [12]

This is an important stoic principle that illustrates a difference between the thought of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius from Plato and Aristotle.  The world is not fundamentally divided into Greeks and Barbarians or Jews and Gentiles. There is a common humanity, bound together by one common nature that causes us to be part of one commonwealth, whatever commonwealth we happen to be a part of at any one time. In this, Marcus and Stoic thought in general is similar to the Christian notion of the brotherhood of the human race. In this insight we see a break with tribalism as the primary form of political organization.

Marcus does not identify this universal commonwealth with the Roman Empire, which as Emperor one might think he would. Instead, Marcus is aware that though we are a part of one human race and a commonwealth of rational people, we find ourselves as part of a local political unit to which we owe loyalty.

Serenity in a World of Constant Change

A world of constant change, the way to achieve wisdom and serenity begins with accepting what comes. The wise person is satisfied with their place in life and does not hurry from place to place or activity to activity. [13] There are limits to human striving, and the wise person respects those limits. As a general matter, Marcus urges human beings to do those things that it is their social duty to do and to avoid things that are not necessary, and which lie outside their social duties.

The serene person does not think too seriously or often about what others think, especially critics. “How much trouble he avoids who does not look to what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only what he does himself that he may be just and pure.” [14] Instead of constantly desiring more and different things, true serenity is found in retiring into one’s self and being happy with the circumstances in which one finds oneself: “Remember then to retire into this little realm of your own, above all do not distract or strain yourself, but be free and look at things as a man and as a citizen and as a mortal.”  [15]

Too often, we consider striving, success, and personal accomplishment as central to social life. Our political system is based on the notion that good policy decisions are made in an essentially conflictual process dominated by irreconcilable alternatives. The nature of the process created out such a notion traps politicians and political leaders in a process and life-style that excludes the search for serenity and personal wholeness. If anyone might be trapped in such a situation, it would be an emperor of Rome. Nevertheless, by embracing an essentially rational, relational, and social notion of political life, Aurelius seems to have found serenity and personal wholeness in the midst of a busy life.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations” in Marcus Aurelius and his Times; The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, tr. George Long (New York, NY: Walther J. Black, 1945), pp 11-133). All quotations are from this edition of the work.

[2] Id, at 14.

[3] Id, at 91.

[4] Id. I believe that this idea of a rational order to the universe and to a well-founded and ordered society is an important part of any project of reconstructing a wise and moral society.

[5] Id, at 22-23.

[6] Id, at 63.

[7] Id, at 69.

[8] Id, at 40.

[9] Id, at 69.

[10] Id, at 71.

[11] Id, at 96.

[12] Id, at 34.

[13] Id, at 58-9. This is the hardest part of this blog to write. The nature of Marcus’ work means that it is filled with many aphorisms that are applicable to everyday life.

[14] Id, at 38.

[15] Id, at 34.

Cicero: A Lawyer Speaks at Last!

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-53 BC) was a Roman statesman, lawyer, and scholar who played an active role in the politics of the late Roman Republic, including during the period of the First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus) and the Second Triumvirate (Marc Anthony, Octavian, and Lepidus), both of which he resisted hoping to restore the Roman Republic. He was killed by supporters of Mark Anthony. Thus, Cicero was the most prominent defender republican principles during the series of crises that led to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

Cicero is included in this series because of his status as the foremost Roman philosophical and legal theorist. Having lived prior to the emergence of Christianity, he forms a bridge between the classical and Christian aspects of this series of blogs. Finally, Cicero is included because he was not only a theorist but an active politician, whose views are informed by practical experience. He attained high positions in the Roman Republic and was successful in his endeavors until the emergence of Caesar and the end of the Republic.

Cicero’s “On the Commonwealth” (hereinafter, “Commonwealth”) is a dialogue between Roman political intellectuals and leaders, all practical people of the world with strong intellectual qualities. [1] The Commonwealth is characterized by its organic look at the evolution of the Roman constitution through the time of Cicero, and its defense of this historical approach. In many ways, The Commonwealth shows that it is the reflection of a lawyer. This is seen in the sometimes tedious (to the modern reader) description of the intricacies of Roman law. Nevertheless, its approach reflects the methods of a practical lawyer, who meticulously builds his case with the evidence at hand, in this case Roman Constitutional history, as well as a person with philosophical training and capacity.

The Value of the Practical Man of Affairs

As might be expected in a book by a stateman, Cicero begins by a defense of the man of practical accomplishment. The art of politics is a practical art, and theoretical knowledge is of limited value if not put into practice. A statesman is greater than a teacher because he or she puts into practice in the affairs of a commonwealth the ideas of those who have only theoretical knowledge. This is a matter of risk, for in desperate times the people of a commonwealth will sometimes turn against the statesman, and the potential for failure and tragedy is ever-present. Cicero experienced this very fate.

In defending the art of the statesman, Cicero returns to a metaphor used by Plato in the Statesman: that of a pilot. The knowledge that a statesman needs is not the intricate knowledge of philosophy that a scholar must possess, but that level of knowledge that the pilot of a ship has as to the sciences involved in sailing, i.e. sufficient knowledge to guide the ship safely to its destination. In this regard, those with purely theoretical understanding may sometimes think that they are better qualified to guide the ship of state in a crisis than the person of practical experience. This is untrue, because:

You cannot aid a state in moment’s notice or when you wish, although she is faced with great danger, unless you are in a position to do so. It has always seemed especially strange to me in the discourses of the learned, that men who admit that they cannot pilot the ship when the sea is calm, because they have never learned how nor troubled about such knowledge, nevertheless declare that they will take the helm when the waves are highest. [2]

Thus, the statesman is a practical workman with the special skills of understanding the structure and functions of government as well as the means by which it can be maintained. In order to be successful, the statesman requires both knowledge and experience such that when the opportunity for leadership arises, the statesman is ready to serve the commonwealth.

The Nature of a Commonwealth

According to Cicero, a true commonwealth is not just a gathering of human beings, but a voluntary union of a great number of people as a result of a common understanding of how they might be governed. Commonwealths are formed because of the natural instinct of human beings to seek social bonds and intercourse with other human beings. In other words, Cicero agrees with Aristotle that human beings are social animals. [3] Government does not fundamentally arise as matter of the gaining of power over human beings with an eye to defense, but out of the natural human desire for social connection with others.

For a commonwealth to exist, it must have institutions of government that reflect the will of those who brought the commonwealth into existence. Some form of appropriate deliberative authority relevant to the people and circumstances that brought the commonwealth into existence in the first place must be created. The precise nature of this form of government can, and has throughout history, been different in different historical and cultural circumstances.

This leads Cicero to the adoption of the three-fold category of governments adopted by Plato and Aristotle: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy with their three decadent forms, tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule. So long as capable and just persons rule, each of these forms can be successful, though all are unstable. Thus, there is a natural tendency for monarchy to become tyranny, aristocracy oligarchy, and democracy mob rule.

The Mixed Form of Government

This leads Cicero to the recommendation that the best form of government is mixed in its form, having appropriate elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Any other form is inherently unstable and degenerates into its own negative form. It is the mixed form in which the benefits of each primary form can be maximized, and the negative attributes of each form minimized, to the benefit of all citizens. Near the end of the dialogue, Cicero observes:

For you should master the principle that I set out at the beginning: Unless there is in the state such an equal distribution of legal rights, functions, and duties that the magistrates possess an adequate power, the council of the chief men an adequate influence, and the people an adequate measure of liberty, the balance of the commonwealth cannot be preserved unchanged. [4]

In other words, because all the primary forms of the state are essentially unstable, their needs to be a “fourth form of organization” (mixed government). Returning to the image of “statesman as ship pilot,” it is the business of the statesmen to for see the weaknesses of the constitution of the state and to remedy any weaknesses before they can become fatal:

It is the business of the philosopher to understand the order in which these changes occur; but to foresee the impending modifications, and at the same time to pilot the state, to direct its course, and to keep it under control, is the part of a great statesman and a man of all but godlike powers. [5]

The mixed state is the fourth form that can assist in maintaining the stability of the commonwealth.

In setting out the basis of a well-designed mixed form of government, Cicero begins in the place one might least expect of a Roman—with the consent of the people. There must be some representative function in the well-formed commonwealth because if the people have no say in their government it will be inherently unstable, vulnerable to tyranny and revolution. What makes monarchy and aristocracy so susceptible to corruption and ultimate revolution is the absence of real power in the hands of the common people.

Thus, a mixed form of government begins with some kind of representative democracy, because if the populace is involved in the choice of leaders and the development of policy, the state will be more stable than if the people have no say in the government—which is a form of tyranny. From this perspective, Cicero understands that democracy, with all its faults, is the foundation of any stable form of government. [6]

Despite its advantages, the democratic element cannot survive alone. For stable and wise government to exist, there needs to be a level of experience in those chosen to actively lead the state. There can be no haphazard or random choice of leaders. Those chosen must not be inexperienced or incompetent pilots, they must be capable and experienced. [7] There must be some level of experience, practical wisdom and moderation of conduct for leaders to wisely lead a commonwealth through the perils of history. While a monarchy is capable of providing such an executive function, Cicero believes that some kind of aristocracy is the best practical alternative for the wisest leaders to be chosen with the least danger of error. [8]

Times of danger are the most demanding and call for leadership of a different character than that which is necessary in normal times. In this situation, Cicero defends the practice of a constitutional dictator and the centralization of power in times of danger:

For you may play the fool as long as you have nothing to fear, as on a ship in calm weather and often in disease when it is not critical. But the passenger calls for a single skilled pilot when the seas begin suddenly to rise; and the invalid calls for a single doctor when his illness takes a turn for the worse. [9]

Democracy, in and of itself, is not stable and can and does degenerate into the worst form of government—the violent rule of the mob which has no respect for person or property. One is here reminded of the French revolution and its horrible excesses. [10] In the United States, from Lincoln through George W. Bush, wartime Presidents have often been “granted” powers that would not be given to a leader in other times. [11]

No form of government, not even a benevolent monarchy of the wise and just ruler, can provide the kind of balance and adaptability that a mixed form of government is capable of producing. Thus, Cicero concludes:

For I hold first that there should be a dominant and royal element in the commonwealth; second that some powers should be granted and assigned to the aristocracy; and third that certain matters should be reserved to the people for decision and judgement. Such a government insures at once an element of equality, without which the people can hardly be free, and an element of strength. [12]

A mixed form of government, wisely-formed under these principles has the best chance to remain strong and survive the fortunes of history. There is, however, once circumstance under which no form of government can survive: the degeneration of its leadership.

The Leadership of the Sound Commonwealth

As indicated at the beginning, one of the most attractive features of Cicero is his practical experience and lack of sympathy with some of Plato’s utopian and unworkable suggestions, such as the holding of all women and property in common, which he views as ridiculous. The best governments are not the creation of a single person, however gifted, but of the cooperative efforts and the experience of many capable people. [13] The slow generational evolution of Roman law and polity is one good example of this notion of generational cooperation. Cicero is suspicious of the innovations of a single person and inclined to trust the slow, organic evolution of governmental institutions.

Rome was made great not by individual genius but by the wisdom, discipline and cooperation of many people over a long period of time. This is a message that we, living in a “revolutionary cultural era” where the history and traditions of our own commonwealth are often denigrated in schools, in academia and in the popular media might well consider the value of the slow adaptation of fundamentally sound institutions over a long period of time. This cannot happen if we are led by the inexperienced in life, the unfaithful to our history and tradition, and the uninterested in the past and its lessons. This week, one of the major parties has been busily suggesting that massive changes might be needed in the form of our government if they do not win a particular political battle. [14]

Role of Justice in the Commonwealth

Finally, it would not be right to end this blog without emphasizing the role that justice plays in Cicero’s thought. He was well aware of the arguments of the sophists who did not think that any transcendent ideal such as justice exists. He was aware of those who thought that the ideal if justice was incompatible with the wise exercise of power by a leader to achieve goals. He was aware of the tendency to see justice as simply the utilitarian result of the balance of interests. Nevertheless, Cicero believes that justice is an important value. Because human beings are sociable, they are inevitably interested in being treated fairly, and a society based on injustice would be impossible to maintain. Self-interest is not a guarantee of a sound society. Indeed, if nothing but self-interest exists it is impossible to envision how a sound society can exist. Justice forms the basis of a sound society and is the basis upon which any sound polity is formed. [15]


It is impossible to summarize the depth and ingenuity of Cicero’s thought. He is one of the most important constitutional thinkers of world history and important to our founding fathers and to thinkers like John Locke who were important to the formation of the American democracy. His practical approach is a true “bottom up” approach to political thought.

Cicero is best remembered for his ultimately doomed attempt to save the Roman Republic from its demise under the pressure of the greed and lust for power of men like Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Octavian and the like. He was unsuccessful in his struggle against historical and political forces beyond the control of a single voice. Perhaps he simply could not see beyond the history and traditions of the Roman Republic, which he so loved, into a new era characterized by some kind of new political organization that would preserve the best of the old republican form of government while adjusting the political reality of Rome to the existence of its new empire. Nevertheless, he was one of the most important statesmen of history and a model for our day. Therefore, I will give him the last word in the explanation of his life and thought:

The pilots aim is a successful voyage; a doctor’s health; a general’s victory. Similarly, the goal set before the ideal ruler of the commonwealth is the happiness of his citizens; and he strives to make them secure in their resources, rich in wealth, great in renown, distinguished in virtue. This is the task—the greatest and noblest in human life—that I would have the governor carry through to completion. [16]

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Cicero, On the Commonwealth tr. George Holland Sabine & Stanley Barney Library of the Liberal Arts, ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1929). All quotes are from this edition.

[2] Id, at 111.

[3] Id, at 129.

[4] Id, at 185. This is the chief principle of the mixed state and of the separation of powers.

[5] Id, at 134.

[6] Id, at 135-6.

[7] Id, at 137.

[8] Id, at 139.

[9] Id, at 140. In the case of Rome, they obeyed their magistrates in times of danger and even appointed a single ruler I times of great emergency. One is reminded of the singular powers that Lincoln adopted during the American Civil War when the union was in mortal danger. At the time, he was even called a “dictator.”

[10] Id, at 148-149.

[11] The alleged misuse of the national security apparatus at the end of the Obama administration against an incoming President seems to have marked the end of the willingness of the public to grant the administrative state the relatively unlimited use certain powers which arose out of the aftermath of “9-11”. One can see in the way in which the Bush Presidency ended the historical antipathy of Americans to any kind of security apparatus that interferes with personal liberty. The recent changes in FBI and other agency policies with respect to “unmasking” citizens is a positive movement back towards some kind of “Pre 9-11” norm.

[12] Id, at 151.

[13] Id, at 155. He critiques Plato’s “arbitrary” creation of an “imaginary state.”

[14] Recently people like Nancy Pelosi, Alexandra Octavia-Cortez and others have used anti-democratic, revolutionary rhetoric in response to perceived political setbacks. The threat to impeach the President or pack the Supreme Court if the Democratic Party does not get to appoint the next Supreme Court Justice after the election  is a good example of  immature and dangerous speech and behavior. by elected officials in response to a potential political setback. The media is also responsible for this kind of immature behavior, as in Don Lemon’s recent comments on “Blowing up the entire elite” on CNN. For a stable society to exist there must be some agreed upon boundaries, especially among political contenders, that acts as a moral barrier against ultimately harmful speech and behavior. in a free society, this cannot be mandated, but it can be demanded by the public which desires to maintain free, democratic institutions.

[15] Id at 219.

[16] Id at 247.

Plato’s Statesman: Qualities of the Authentic Political Leader

This week, I want to share a few thoughts derived from Plato’s Statesman. [1] The Statesman is one of Plato’s later dialogues. Those who study the dialogue sometimes believe it reflects a decline in Plato’s dialogical style and intellectual capacity due to age. Nevertheless, the Statesman represents the fully-developed thought of Plato on matters of political philosophy. One explanation for the character of the Statesman is that it represents a mature Plato, disinclined to restate the utopian idealism of the Republic and perhaps disillusioned by the bitter experience of a long life.

Who is the Statesman?

The Greek title of the dialogue is, “Politikos,” which we might accurately translate “Politician,” except that the term as used by Plato is better translated, “Statesman,” for Plato does not mean by his analysis to talk about the technique of the politician but of the qualities of the experienced, practical and moral leader of a polity. Plato wants to talk about the ideal leader not about the run-of-the-mill politician.

In English, the term “politician” refers to anyone who is active in political life. In English, the term “politician” often has a derogatory connotation. A politician is frequently described as someone who is solely concerned with gaining public office without reference to political or moral principles. It can even mean one who in any kind of organization gains advancement in ways that are morally questionable.

The role of rhetoric in the character of the mere politician is dealt with by Plato:

STRANGER: The members of all these States, with the exception of the one which has knowledge, may be set aside as being not Statesmen but partisans, —upholders of the most monstrous idols, and themselves idols; and, being the greatest imitators and magicians, they are also the greatest of Sophists.

YOUNG SOCRATES: The name of Sophist after many windings in the argument appears to have been most justly fixed upon the politicians, as they are termed. [2]

The term “sophist” refers to a person who uses the art of rhetoric in a deceptive or misleading way without concern for the truth or accuracy of what is being said. Much of modern political thought is pure sophistry, made worse by the lack of concern for truth in the media and other institutions of society.

On the other hand, in English the term “statesman” refers to a politician who is also accomplished in matters of the state—someone with a particular kind of practical and theoretical wisdom, knowledge, ability and expertise in directing political affairs, and especially where important policy issues are concerned. For example, Abraham Lincoln was a politician with the ability to be elected President, but also demonstrated the capacities of a stateman in directing the United states though the American Civil War. A statesman is concerned with advancing the public good regardless of short-term political gain or loss. In the Statesman, Plato is concerned with the qualities that mark a true “statesman,” not a mere “politician.”

Qualities of the Statesman

As indicated above, for Plato, as for us, the defining quality of a statesman is practical wisdom in the achievement of the end of a political unit, an end which for Plato is assumed to be what we would call a well-constructed and led political unit that is able to achieve for its citizens the safety, affluence, and order that is the goal of a wise leader.

For Plato, the art of the statesman is the art of the architect and builder, that is the art of envisioning and constructing a good society. This metaphor of builder is not, however, the only metaphor Plato uses, for the statesman is also like a ship’s pilot guiding it safely through a long voyage, or like a physician that prescribes a cure for a sick patient, or like a weaver who weaves a piece of clothing. Each of these examples involve practical occupations requiring knowledge, skill and experience for their accomplishment. Thus, for Plato, the statesman is one who has the required understanding, technical ability to govern, and experience to wisely lead the state. [3]

Of the moral qualities of a statesman, Plato outlines two contrasting qualities that must find a balance in the life of a statesman: Courage and Temperance. Thus, Plato remarks:

In like manner, the royal science appears to me to be the mistress of all lawful educators and instructors, and having this queenly power, will not permit them to train men in what will produce characters unsuited to the political constitution which she desires to create, but only in what will produce such as are suitable. Those which have no share of manliness (active courage) and temperance (wise calmness in action), or any other virtuous inclination, and, from the necessity of an evil nature, are violently carried away to godlessness and insolence and injustice, she gets rid of by death and exile, and punishes them with the greatest of disgraces.[4]

The wise stateman has the capacity for courageous action and the ability to moderate action in order to achieve the harmonious goal of society. Going back to my earlier example of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg described Lincoln as a man of “steel and velvet,” a reference to his moral, intellectual, and political will and strength, as well as his compassion for those who he led.

The most famous metaphor used by Plato to describe the Greek statesmen is the metaphor of the “statesman as weaver.” This particular metaphor is developed by Plato as a way of showing the contrasting qualities of the statesman:

The rest of the citizens, out of whom, if they have education, something noble may be made, and who are capable of being united by the statesman, the kingly art blends and weaves together; taking on the one hand those whose natures tend rather to courage, which is the stronger element and may be regarded as the warp, and on the other hand those which incline to order and gentleness, and which are represented in the figure as spun thick and soft, after the manner of the woof—these, which are naturally opposed, she seeks to bind and weave together in the following manner:…” (emphasis added). [5]

According to Plato, this spinning and weaving is the activity of the divine muse in human nature guiding the statesman in his activity for the common good. [6]

The education of the stateman is fundamentally concerned with creating the proper character so that the state will be in good hands. Educators will seek to moderate in their pupils the active and the passive virtues:

I said that there would be no difficulty in creating them, if only both classes originally held the same opinion about the honorable and good;—indeed, in this single work, the whole process of royal weaving is comprised—never to allow temperate natures to be separated from the brave, but to weave them together, like the warp and the woof, by common sentiments and honors and reputation, and by the giving of pledges to one another; and out of them forming one smooth and even web, to entrust to them the offices of State. [7]

The Status of Law and the Statesman

There is no area of the Statesman in which the weaknesses of the Greek notion of the relationship between law and politics is more evident than in the critique that Plato makes of the relative importance of law and the political leader. It is this weakness that may underlie the end of the city/state and the inability of the unified Hellenist Empire to survive the death of Alexander. The Greek ideal of leaders and leadership undermined the role of law and of the maintenance of constitutional order in Greek thinking, a deficiency that was only remedied by the emergence of Roman leadership and Roman law.

Plato’s lack of sympathy for the rule of law is boldly stated in more than one place. For Example, in one interchange between the Stranger (who I take to be Plato) and Socrates it is plainly said:

“STRANGER: And any individual or any number of men, having fixed laws, in acting contrary to them with a view to something better, would only be acting, as far as they are able, like the true Statesman?

YOUNG SOCRATES: Certainly.” [8]

The ideal of the statesman who acts contrary to law is was a danger to Greek polity—and it is a danger in contemporary America.  It is no coincidence that the emergence of what is sometimes called the “Imperial Presidency” in the years after Roosevelt, and what is often called the “Activist” Supreme Court coordinates with the emergence of a willingness on the part of elites to ignore the plain wording of the Constitution and of the law to gain an advantage or address an issue. The willingness to be governed by the will of an elite as opposed to law was a threat to Athenian democracy and it is a danger to our own.

I have had other opportunities to critique the “great man” theory of history and the tendency of modern politics to revolve around a discussion of the qualities of a leader as opposed to policy matters. [9] Both the moral qualities of a leader and his or her commitment to the rule of law and the order of the political system are important. It is a mistake to think that a good leader can overcome systemic issues without great sacrifice and the constant danger of failure.

Types of Polity

Plato, like Aristotle, divides the forms of government into three types, with each type having a counter-type. The three main types are monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with each type having a degenerate from: tyranny, oligarchy (plutocracy), and mob rule. Plato, like Aristotle, is tempted to seek the best form of government as the mean (aristocracy):

The government of the few, which is intermediate between that of the one and many, is also intermediate in good and evil; but the government of the many is in every respect weak and unable to do either any great good or any great evil, when compared with the others, because the offices are too minutely subdivided and too many hold them. [10]

Plato in the Statesman is still too tied to the ideal of a “philosopher king” that we will see when we look at the Republic, some time from now. This leads him to prefer an aristocratic form of government, ignoring the practical wisdom that is often not found in those born to privilege.

Limits of the Platonic Vision

The vision of Plato and Aristotle, as previously noted, was deeply formed by the Greek City/State and by the Greek ideal of the perfect “warrior king” exemplified in the Iliad. By the time of Aristotle, that ideal had simply come to an end, for by that time the city/state was a political form passing from history with the emergence of the Macedonian and then Alexandrian empires. The limitations of the Greek city/state as envisioned by Plato and Aristotle are a particular challenge for one who, like the author, is inclined towards a communitarian, “bottom up” polity. The fate of the city/state is a warning that local governmental units, as important as they may be, are not the only important units.  The proper construction and leadership of a nation such as the United States of America, which has a world-wide economy and a web of political and economic alliances that stretch around the world, is also a matter of supreme importance.

Just as the polity of the Greek city/state had to bend before the power of Rome, Macedonia, and the example of the great Eastern empires of the Middle East, local and regional governments must be adjusted for the reality of the post-modern world and the existence of the modern state. In the attempt to emphasize the importance of the family, neighborhood, city, region, state and national government does not mean that larger political unites are not important nor does it mean that international arrangements are unimportant. The point is that their health cannot be divorced from the health of smaller units of society.

I am not going directly on to deal with the Republic at this moment in time, but will return to it later on in this series of blogs. The next blog will be on Cicero.

Copyright 2020, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Statesman tr. Jowett (Apple Books., downloaded on September 16, 2020). All references to Statesman in this blog are to this edition.

[2] Plato. “Statesman” previously cited.

[3] This is a place where I think Plato can become confused, for he emphasizes the mental qualities of the statesman in the beginning of his dialogue, sometimes to the detriment of a focus on practical wisdom.

[4] Plato. “Statesman.” Apple Books. (downloaded September 16, 2020). I have added the parentheticals “courage” and “gentleness” which are in my mind better words to describe the qualities desired.

[5] Plato, “Statesman” Apple Books. Previously cited. I do not have the time to go into detail concerning this metaphor and how it is used by Plato, but it is one of the unique features of the dialogue and unique to the Greek weaving industry.

[6] “The meaning is, that the opinion about the honorable and the just and good and their opposites, which is true and confirmed by reason, is a divine principle, and when implanted in the soul, is implanted, as I maintain, in a nature of heavenly birth.” Plato, “Statesman” Apple Books.

[7] Plato, “Statesman” Jowett tr. Apple Books. (downloaded September 17, 2020).

[8] Plato, “Stateman” previously cited.

[9] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Leading/Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love (The Tao Te Ching for Christ-Followers) rev. ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge, 2016), xxvi-xxvix, 114-119.

[10] Plato, “Statesman” previously cited.


Aristotle’s Politics: An Ancient “Bottom Up” Thinker

This week, I am looking at Aristotle’s Politics, probably the most important book on political philosophy from the ancient world. Aristotle’s views are important, not only in their own right, but because they profoundly influenced the greatest of the Middle Age philosophers, St. Thomas Aquinas, through which Aristotle has continuing influence in Roman Catholic and other intellectual circles today. Pragmatists have appreciated Aristotle’s approach to politics when compared with the idealism of Plato. A generation of contemporary ethicists and political philosophers, such as Alister McIntyre, have been influenced by Aristotle’s virtue approach to politics and ethics in attempting to address modern nihilism. In other words, Aristotle is worth reading.

Aristotle was born in Macedonia. His father was a court physician for Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedonia. Aristotle lived beyond the reign of Alexander, who was his pupil for a time. When Alexander died, his empire was divided, and the parts were eventually incorporated into the Roman Empire. As a result of repercussions of Alexander’s death in Athens, Aristotle was forced to flee in order to avoid the same fate that overtook Socrates—an untimely death.

Aristotle’s work is the concluding achievement of Classical Greek civilization. Aristotle, unlike Plato, does not begin by attempting to outline a perfect society but by describing the various kinds and types of polities with which he is familiar. In this sense, Aristotle is a “bottom up” inductive thinker. His reasoning is careful and his recommendations measured. As a result of his approach, his politics is easier to follow than that of Plato.

A modern reader will find aspects of Aristotle’s thought troubling. He defends the institution of slavery, despite misgivings. His notion of the family places males in control of family life. He is dismissive about the capacities of women. Like Plato, Aristotle inherits the ancient martial Greek ideal from the Iliad that forms part of his understanding of politics differently than that of a modern person. Nevertheless, his work is illuminating and important.

Types of Governments

The most famous observation in Aristotle’s Politics is his division of governments into three basic types: the rule of one (monarchy), the rule of the few (oligarchy), and the rule of the many (democracy). Each of these types have a corresponding decadent form: tyranny for monarchy, oligarchy for aristocracy, and mob rule for democracy. Each form in its positive embodiment tends to deteriorate into its negative form. Historically, each of the six governments has existed and continues in some form to exist today.

Graphically, one might picture Aristotle’s description as follows: [1]

Good Form Decadent form Comment
Monarchy Tyranny Rule by one
Aristocracy Oligarchy Rule by the able
Moderate Democracy Mob Rule Rule by the many

The American founders, and especially Madison and the most important framers of our Constitution, were familiar with Aristotle and with his concerns for Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Mob Rule. One reason why the notion of Separation of Powers was important to them was the desire to block the emergence of tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule.

On the other hand, the framers of the Constitution were aware of the need for a strong executive, wise and experienced counsel, and representation of all. Their initial way of assuring the positive aspects of Aristotle’s categories was the Presidency (strong executive), the Senate (wise counsel chosen by local leadership), and the House of Representatives (democratic representation). One might add that a wise federal court system is an aristocratic feature of almost every system of government, since all governments must have laws.

The Social Foundation of Government

Aristotle understood that the development of political structures is contextual and the precise nature of a sound polity will differ from city/state to city/state. Like Plato, Aristotle sees the family as the original political unit of society. After the family, small villages composed of the descendants of a single family evolved. In Aristotle’s mind, when villages gather together to form a single society, one has the best possible form of government. Such a society is on a human scale. In addition, such a society protects the family as the foundation of all healthy human society. The city/state and empires evolve from the smaller units that preceded them.

According to Aristotle, the family is the fundamental unit of any sound society. He thinks that natural parents are the best persons, indeed the only citizens who can and will properly raise their children. He thinks that those philosophers that advocate that all children in a society being in common are engaged in foolishness. As Aristotle aptly observes: “Let each citizen then in the state have a thousand children, but let none of them be considered as the children of that individual, but let the relation of father and child be common to them all, and they will all be neglected.” [2]

Aristotle believes that the evolution of the city/state was a natural result of the human social impulse. Human beings are by nature social animals. [3] Aristotle quotes Homer for the view that a human being who is without a society, without a social surrounding, without a family, is really not fully human. People who grow up without a healthy family influence are inevitably at least somewhat antisocial, quarrelsome, and socially  irrational. Those who grow up without a family or in seriously dysfunctional families lack the fundamental emotional and moral qualities needed for a sound society. Thus, it is important for to protect and properly structure human family relations. We might not agree with the precise way in which Aristotle suggests that families be structured, but his insight remains valid.

The Importance of the Middle Class

Although Aristotle appears to prefer a form of aristocracy, he actually speaks favorably about a mixed form of government containing elements of all three of his basic types. He recognizes that this kind of government is difficult to achieve without a strong, vibrant middle-class. Without a strong middle class, there is a tendency for governments to degenerate into either oligarchy or mob rule.

This is a feature of Aristotle’s thinking that contemporary Americans also need to consider carefully. Over recent decades, the American middle class has consistently shrunk as a percentage of the population. During this same period, American society has developed attributes of a kind of oligarchical rule. Under these circumstances, a vibrant democracy is difficult to maintain.

Moral Foundation of the City/State

Another feature of Aristotle’s thinking that deserves consideration is the importance of moral qualities in leaders and in society as a whole. Aristotle does not believe any form of government can succeed unless its leaders and citizens are properly educated and have the requisite skills to make wise decisions. Without literacy, judgment, and understanding of public policy, and a respect for the foundations of a society, a stable government is impossible to sustain.

Aristotle is a realist concerning human nature and human weaknesses. Human beings are flawed; and therefore, all human endeavors are flawed, including human governments. Therefore, it is not enough for those who would have a good government to concentrate of human potential. There must also be a dispassionate examination of the reality of the human situation.

Aristotle’s views of politics are related to his ethics in a fundamental way: ethics is related to politics, and politics related to ethics. Aristotle did not separate, as modern thinkers are inclined to do, the practical art of governing (“real politik”) and morality (“idealism”). Because human beings are social, there can be no division between politics and morality. As indicated earlier, the state exists because families gathered together to provide a kind of secure life impossible without social intercourse. Sound morals can only arise in sound families and societies, and sound government, can only arise where there are sound human beings. Governments, when they are good, make a good life possible for individuals. No government can endure if it is led by the violent, the immoral, or the unjust.

This is yet another aspect of Aristotle with contemporary relevance. As I have mentioned before, modern politics, and especially since Marx, has been dominated by the hope of an earthly paradise in which all the problems of human society and history are solved and a just society achieved once and for all. In this sense, modernity is platonic. Wisdom and attention to the reality of the human situation argues for another approach, embodied in Aristotle’s thought: slow, wise progress founded in an appreciation of human weaknesses as well as human potential.

The Role of Education in the Good Society

It logically flows from Aristotle’s views of the family, raising children, and the importance of character, that the education of citizens and leaders cannot be ignored. Aristotle does not believe, as moderns often do, that education is the be all and end all of human advancement. Education alone cannot create neither good citizens nor wise legislators. Thus, “…whosoever shall introduce any education, and think thereby to make his city excellent and respectable, will be absurd, while he expects to form it by such regulations, and not by manners, philosophy, and laws.” [4] Aristotle understood the limits of education, but nevertheless recognized its importance, especially for a functioning republic. [5]

The problem with relying upon education for the stability of society is that education alone cannot form character. This is particularly true for modern “value free” education. Unfortunately, our American system of education not only does a poor job of transmitting the history, traditions, and moral values of our society, it too frequently consciously or unconsciously undermines them. The problem of political violence in our culture is exacerbated by a kind of nihilist education, particularly prevalent in the liberal arts, that undermines all belief in the reality of love, beauty, truth, justice, goodness, courage and the other virtues. Aristotle, however, recognized that a stable state of whatever kind required leadership and citizenry educated in the history, traditions, virtues, and values of the society.

A Political System as Evolutionary and Adaptive

Plato, as mentioned in a previous blog, has a static view of the good society. His search is for an unchanging ideal. Aristotle has an “evolutionary” notion of society. He recognizes that change and adaptation is inevitable and necessary. Thus,

Nor is it, moreover, right to permit written laws always to remain without alteration; for as in all other sciences, so in politics, it is impossible to express everything in writing with perfect exactness; for when we commit anything to writing we must use general terms, but in every action there is something particular to itself, “which these may not comprehend; from whence it is evident, that certain laws will at certain times admit of alterations. [6]

Despite this acknowledgement of the need for laws to change because of changing circumstances, Aristotle does not think it wise to change existing laws without good cause:

“For a law derives all its strength from custom, and this requires long time to establish; so that, to make it an easy matter to pass from the established laws to other new ones, is to weaken the power of laws.” [7]

The wise legislator is both willing to change laws when necessary and reluctant to do so without good cause.

There is a balance to be drawn between the conservative impulse to maintain the status quo and the liberal impulse to change things. A wise leader and government manages the pace and degree of change with the goal of adapting the system to change as well as creating necessary and important change.

Teleology and Political Ideals

This aspect of Aristotle’s thought coordinates with his teleology. Aristotle believed that things tend towards their proper end, including human society. Modern thought tends to be interested only in material causes, powered by a kind of evolutionary faith that those who succeed are those favored by the path of survival of the fittest. Both ideas are important to consider and combine in one’s thinking.

However true in the arena of biological evolution, is a flawed approach to politics and human life. As I like to observe, “If the human race destroys itself in a nuclear holocaust, it will turn out that cockroaches and sharks are the fittest because they might survive.” Because we are conscious beings, created in the image of God, human beings have the capacity to create and form a future inspired by faith, hope, love, fortitude, truth, justice, and temperance. Thus, no purely mechanistic or evolutionary approach to human society can succeed—in fact it is doomed to create foolishness and suffering, as Communist and “Social Darwinist” regimes clearly show.

Aristotle’s approach to government begins with the “teleological” goal of a society in which people can achieve the ends for which they were naturally created—the good life. This aspect of his thought needs to be recovered in a post-modern form. Going back to an observation of a couple of weeks ago, C.S. Peirce divided evolutionary growth into three kinds: chance, order, and love. This love part he called, “agapistic” evolution. The notion that a kind of self-giving, justice-loving, truth-seeking, preserving and adapting, love may be part of the evolution of the world allows the observation that human societal evolution needs to be guided by a kind of agapistic search for a good society in which all can achieve their potential. This, however, is the subject of a future blog.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I have chosen “Moderate Democracy” for the good form of democracy that Aristotle calls, “Polity” and “Mob Rule” for the decadent form Democracy, because Aristotle’s language is so much different than modern language. He uses “Democracy” for the unbridled rule of the masses, often irrational, moved easily to violence, and imprudent. He uses “Polity” for the form of government we would call “Republican Democracy”

[2] Aristotle, Politics: A Treatise on Government Apple Books. September 7, 2020). Aritotle is dismissive of Plato’s radical and unworkable ideas concerning marriage, family, and child-raising. The parts of the Politics in which this is discussed contains some of his most acerbic comments.

[3] If Aristotle’s most famous idea is the division of kinds of political systems, his most famous quote is, “Man is a social animal.”

[4] Aristotle, “Politics: A Treatise on Government.” Apple Books. September 7, 2020).

[5] This aspect of Aristotle’s thinking is also relevant to the modern “regulatory state.” Regulations are necessary as a part of government, but they cannot by themselves create the character and circumstances in which a good society develops and endures.

[6] Aristotle, “Politics: A Treatise on Government.” Apple Books. September 7, 2020).

[7] Excerpt From: Aristoteles. “Politics: A Treatise on Government.” Apple Books. (downloaded September 7, 2020).

A Brief Look at Plato

This week, I am taking a trip into history to look at Plato’s Laws, Plato’s last work in the area of political philosophy, which may have been incomplete at his death. I am leaving his more famous work, “The Republic,” until later in this series. The Laws is not considered one of Plato’s best works, perhaps as a result of age and declining powers of concentration. (I can relate.) It is set as a dialogue between three men, a Spartan, a Cretan, and an Athenian walking from Cnosis to the Temple of Zeus on a hot summer day. As with a reading of any ancient writer, while there is much in the book to ignore or object to, there are also insights as applicable today as in the time of Plato.

Virtues and the State

As a result of the Enlightenment and the development of modern “Political Science,” there has been a tendency to ignore or push to the sidelines the moral basis of a sound political system. If one were to write a book of”scientific” political philosophy today, one would not spend  time listing virtues, and especially not on the virtues of war. However, in Plato’s day, the development of physical and emotional skills for the conduct of war and the maintenances of a state were necessary to be discussed.

We are probably very near the end of the period of history. in which the moral qualities of leaders (as opposed to development of a  “politically correct character”) of leaders can be ignored.  The decline of Western democracies, accompanied by the decline of the societies that have adopted a “morally neutral” approach to education and politics, gives every indication that the secular project is coming to its end.

The Spartan state was designed to endure a perpetual state of war. In the dialogue, the Cretan state is similarly focused. The Athenian city/state, on the other hand, was concerned with all the virtues, and not just with the virtues of war. Peace and the virtues of human society rank first in the Athenian hope for political life. Thus,

Every legislator will aim at the greatest good, and the greatest good is not victory in war, whether civil or external, but mutual peace and good-will, as in the body health is preferable to “the purgation of disease.” He who makes war his object instead of peace, or who pursues war except for the sake of peace, is not a true statesman. [1]

The modern ideal of “moral free” education, in which children choose their own “lifestyles” is far from Plato’s ideal. For Plato, the first duty of the state is to provide an education and environment in which children honor God, their parents, and the laws of their society. Education is not to create radicals inclined to defy laws and tradition, but to nurture citizens who “naturally” follow the laws, support society, and upheld the traditions of their city/sate. Moral education, together with reading, writing, music, mathematics, and gymnastics are all part of the education of a good Greek citizen. The ultimate goal of the education of the future leadership of a nation was, in Plato’s mind, the cultivation of wisdom, temperance, justice and courage, without which no state can endure.

We might make a pause to contemplate the difference between the Platonic ideal and American reality. We tend to think that education should create “independent individuals.” Often public schools, colleges, universities, and graduate schools do not consider it their responsibility to form the character of their students.  Plato, however, regards the first and primary duty of educators to be the creation of good citizens. Plato’s vision, to which I will return in analyzing The Republic, emphasizes the social and moral aspect of education in the development of the individual as a citizen, and thereby places less emphasis on individual development of the private “self,” modern education may not pay enough attention to an education that develops a good citizen.

Perhaps the there is a balance to be found between individual self-development and social cohesion. Modern “value free” education is unlikely to create citizens with the virtues of wisdom, temperance, a sense of justice, and courage. We need a new and different, “constructive post-modern” theory of education. This is also a theme to which I intend to return.

The Community of the Polis

A second aspect of the Laws that immediately interests a contemporary reader has to do with the kind of overt social engineering in which Plato engages. Once again, a critique of this method will come later when I look at The Republic, but for now, it is enough to observe that a good deal of the Laws concerns a detailed description of an ideal state in which everything is regulated by law and law provides an order for property allocation, marriage, holidays, social intercourse, public and private property, education, music, drama, and all of cultural life—and all of it regulated with a view towards creating a society that is stable, unchanging, and healthy for its human inhabitants. Plato does not give enough emphasis to freedom, change, the evolution of social institutions and the adaptation of such institutions to changing reality. [2]

While the Laws does not have the same focus on the creation of an ideal state as does The Republic, Plato is still trying to logically outline a completely structured society from first principles. This is very much unlike Aristotle, whose Politics is more oriented towards the observation of actual human societies and commentary on them. It is this part of Plato that one finds most irritating, unless one is inclined towards social engineering by elites, which I am not.

Some of Plato’s ideas were ludicrous when developed, as Aristotle observes. Others have been seen to be foolish over the long history of the human race since Plato. Most surprisingly, Plato often fails to see the value of the slow, incremental evolution of a society and polity. He is often seeking a “once forever” organization of society, which is a fool’s pursuit. This is surprising, because as is seen below, he is well aware of the gradual evolution of Greek political systems.

The Origin of the State

Plato understood that human history extends far back into time and political organizations have changed and differed from place to place and time to time. Unlike modern Americans, who tend to think of democracy as a given, Plato understands that there have been various forms of government throughout human history. Democracy is only one, and not the most common.

The first governments were those of familial, usually patriarchal rule. Plato understood that all of the splendor of Hellenist politics evolved from the family, which is the first form of human government. Generally, their laws were the customs of their ancestors, but adaptation to changing circumstances required chieftains and laws. The original, small local political units s arose out of the union of single families, who survived into larger and larger units.

As people increased in number, and agriculture developed, families joined together against danger, human and animal. Out of this primitive organization, the city/state gradually emerged. In other words, unlike the modern mind that sees a social contract and individual assent at the foundation of political entities, Plato sees that governments are organic. They have evolved from the demands of circumstances and human necessity. Although he fails to see that they will continue to evolve beyond what he sees as the best Greek model, he does see that what is has an antecedent that must be understood. Here too, Americans may have a lot to learn from Plato.

In the earliest states there was both an element of compulsion (parents, the strong and the militarily gifted ruled) and democracy (good parents are never tyrants and kings were subject to being over thrown). Thus, the fundamental forms of government are rule by the one and rule by the many, monarchy and democracy. [3] No actual government has been fully one or the other, and the attempt to create a pure form of one of the primary forms of government is unwise due to human flaws.

Interestingly, the Founders debated the issue of how much democracy and how much monarchy they desired for the new nation they were forming. Many thought Washington should, or inevitably would, become their king. Washington, however, was committed to the republican ideals of English thinkers such as Locke. At the constitutional convention, he supported, and the delegates adopted, an executive branch with a strong President, having independent powers. The President would be both the head of state and the chief executive of the nation, with all the powers of the executive branch of government, while the legislative power belonged to Congress. In this way, the Founders hoped to overcome the weaknesses of both democracy and monarchy. [4]

A Balanced Polity

Having said that there is and excessive idealistic quality about Plato’s Laws, he does have insight into the human condition and the problems of human society. Plato is aware of the defects of human nature. He outlines a theory of balance of powers based upon the tendencies he sees in human nature and in those who have access to political power. While Plato is not a democrat, or fond of democracy, he sees the need for the common people to have a say in their own destiny. On the other hand, like Aristotle (and the Founding Fathers), he is concerned about the tendency of democracy to deteriorate into mob rule and the oppression of the minority.

This is a warning we can easily apply to contemporary politics. In America, there is nothing more popular than the notion that the majority should rule. However, those who drafted our Constitution were careful to create structural impediments to the tyranny of a majority. The founders lived close to the experience of the French Revolution, and they were concerned that American not follow its example. They had read deeply in history and in political philosophy and understood that democratic majorities could often be moved by emotion and fear with terrible consequences.

One interesting facet of contemporary American political life is the emergence of a group of people who did not live through the Second World War, what is called the “Cold War,” and who have no memory of the deaths of millions and millions of people under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol, and others. In each of these cases, a majority came to power and simply obliterated anyone who stood in their way. Unfortunately, the rhetoric far-left politicians and groups today is identical to the rhetoric that brought misery and death to millions upon millions of people.

Balanced Leadership

Plato was the inheritor of the virtues of the Iliad, where the courage of the martial life was an assumed good. Nevertheless, the virtues of an Achilles were not the sole goal of Plato in the creation of a leader. Plato believed that to be a good statesman requires sober prudence, and a depth of understanding, with the goal of maintaining the peace of society. Such a person does not automatically emerge. A sound education is necessary to create the kind of character fit to lead a sound polity. The goal is “a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and how to obey” not “wealth or strength or mere cleverness.” [5] Such a person embodies the virtues necessary for a sound polity.

As becomes clearer in The Republic, Plato is inclined to see a kind of monarchy as the best form of government, in his case a “tyranny of the wise.” The problem, which Plato sees, is that power easily corrupts the virtues of prudence, practical wisdom, courage, teachability, temperance, love of justice, and the other virtues good leaders need, even among the wise and well-educated. Plato recognizes that no human leader embodies the virtues of the perfect leader—only God, he says can rule wisely and finally cleanse the human race of the evil of bad government. In this, Plato anticipates a Christian view of the secular state.

Plato also warns against a danger to which all forms of government, but particularly democracy, are subject (which is why he desires power to be separated and appropriately limited): If a faction or small group gains a monopoly on power, and refuses to share power with those they rule, there is no check up on what such a group of people can do. In Nazi Germany, in Soviet Russia, and communist China, and in other places we’ve seen the consequences of “factional rule.” According to Plato, such a government is not a polity at all, and the laws or not for the benefit of all people, instead it’s a kind of class or mob rule.

Religion and the State

Plato understands that  religion is essential to the state. It is religion that creates the virtues upon which a stable state must rest. It is only in the service of the gods, for Plato assumes the existence of many guards, that’s a good can be found for society. Thus,

God holds in His hand the beginning, middle, and end of all things, and He moves in a straight line towards the accomplishment of His will. Justice always bears Him company, and punishes those who fall short of His laws. He who would be happy follows humbly in her train; but he who is lifted up with pride, or wealth, or honor, or beauty, is soon deserted by God, and, being deserted, he lives in confusion and disorder. [6]

While no serious American thinker would want a kind of state established religion designed solely for the maintenance of the state, Plato’s ideas support the notion that religion has a place to play in the modern state—not as ruler but as a servant of the society (not necessarily the state) in nurturing the virtues of humility, love of truth, goodness and beauty, and the creation of a meaningful life. This is a matter to which I will return in a later blog.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Laws tr. Jowett, (downloaded August 28, 2020).

[2] I am preparing a blog on Aristotle’s Politics, in which he critiques this aspect of Plato and has a great deal less patience with social engineering as even potentially successful. In addition, when I discuss The Republic I intend to also look at Carl Poppers, “The Free Society and Its Enemies,” which is a critique of Plato.

[3] By the end of the  Laws, Plato has recognized the Aristotelean outline of the kinds of polities as monarchy, tyranny, democracy oligarchy, and aristocracy, though he does not develop his thought in the way Aristotle does.

[4] In an interesting aside, Plato, after discussing the figure of Cyrus of Persia and the way in which his government deteriorated into tyranny in the hands of those who followed him, says “The Persians have lost their liberty in absolute slavery and we in absolute freedom.”

[5] Laws, previously cited.

[6] Laws, previously cited.