M.A.R. Habib, Dept. Of English, Rutgers University
The University College of Ripon and York, July 14, 1998

Plato’s thought represents an integral dimension of Modern Europe’s classical heritage. His complex and changing notions of identity and difference, his views of the connection between body and soul, passion and reason, and his own varying assessment of the theory of Forms, as refracted through Aristotle’s critique of all these concepts, have laid the groundwork of Western logic, metaphysics and political theory until modern times. Yet, in assessing precisely what modern European thought owes to its classical heritage, we need to confront the stubborn fact that Plato and Aristotle stood opposed to both the major philosophical and political tendencies of modern liberalism (empiricism, materialism, pragmatism, utilitarianism and the various forms of individualism) and the more recent theoretical attempts (such as deconstruction, Marxism and Feminism) to undermine those liberal dogmas. The positions of Plato and Aristotle on nearly of these issues are concentrated in their respective critiques of democracy.

This paper is motivated by the pivotal question: what can we learn from the detailed impugnment of democracy offered in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics? Both texts anticipate several problems which modern democracies have actually encountered: relativism, excessive individual licence, disorder in both family life and the state, and inordinate indulgence in appetite and sensation. In examining these critiques, I will consider the metaphysical notions on which they rest: unity, the relation between part and whole, the connection between individual and state, the concept of purpose and the nature of reason. What governs the connections between all of these concepts is the status accorded by Plato and Aristotle to the notions of unity and plurality. Hence, the final section of the paper will consider to what extent the idea of democracy rests on specific notions of identity and difference.

In the Republic Plato suggests that there five basic forms of government. His own ideal constitution can be conceived as either royalty or aristocracy (IV, 445D), where sovereignty lies with the carefully trained guardians. The other four forms represent a progressive degeneration away from this model: timocracy (where the pursuit of honour is paramount), oligarchy, democracy and tyranny (such an evolution, it might be added, has no basis in Greek history). Plato also describes five basic kinds of individual characters or souls, corresponding to the respective forms of government (VIII, 544E-545C).

Even the ideal city, acknowledges Plato, will ultimately crumble. Its deterioration will be caused initially by flaws in the selective breeding of guardians, generating intermixture and dissension in the ruling class itself (VIII, 545D-547A). The timocracy eventually produced will retain some features of the aristocracy such as honouring of rulers and the abstention of the warrior class from money-making; but in admitting to office men of high spirit rather than reason it will hold itself perpetually in a posture of war. Moreover, “a fierce secret lust for gold and silver” and private gain will infect its rulers. Such will be a state guided by the coveting of honour (VIII, 547D-548C). This system naturally gives way to oligarchy where government office is attached to a property qualification (VIII, 550C) and where the city is no longer a unity but divided effectively into two cities, between the rich the poor (VIII, 551D). Owing to this inequitable condition, such a city will be marked by crime and the pervasive presence of beggars (VIII, 552D). What is perhaps most interesting here is the way Plato characterises the “soul” of the oligarchic man. Though he prizes wealth and property above everything, he is “thrifty and laborious, satisfying only his own necessary appetites and desires…but subduing his other appetites as vain and unprofitable…” He is, in Socrates’ words, “a squalid fellow,…looking for a surplus of profit in everything…” (VIII, 554A-B). These words anticipate, almost verbatim, Weber’s description of the mentality of early capitalists. Ironically, while Plato’s “ideal” account of the evolution from monarchy and aristocracy to democracy and tyranny has little basis in the actual history of Greek society, it might be read as a valuable idealisation of the historical transitions in Europe from petty kingdoms through the vast edifice of feudalism to the hegemony of capitalism, each of these emerging, as Marx would have it, from internal discord within the previous system. In virtue of the “internal dissension” of the oligarchic man, whose control over his ebbing appetites is motivated by fear for his possessions, Plato characterises him as not a unity but a “double man” (VIII, 554D-E). Again, this might be paralleled with the ironic self-division of human beings in modern bourgeois society, as theorised by commentators from diverse traditions, including some of the Romantics, Hegel, Lukacs, de Tocqueville, and Sartre.

Democracy comes about as a popular revolution against the rich oligarchs; in the new constitution the people are granted an equal share in citizenship and political office (VIII, 556E-557B). What is worshipped here is individual liberty, leading to a number of undesirable consequences. Firstly, “every man has license to do as he likes” and “would arrange a plan for leading his own life in the way that pleases him.” Secondly, this constitution would generate all “sorts and conditions of men,” a greater variety than any other form of government. A democracy is thus “diversified with every type of character” and, shopping through the “bazaar of [individual] constitutions,” each person could “establish his own.” Thirdly, the government would be “anarchic and motley, assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike” (VIII, 557B-558C). Moreover, the disorder of a democratic society extends into private life: the relation of authority is undermined between parents and children, teachers and pupils, freemen and slaves, men and women. The spirit of liberty waxes so strong that eventually even the laws are disregarded and a condition of lawlessness prevails (VIII, 562E-563E).

And what kind of citizen, what kind of soul, would such a democracy foster? To begin with, the distinction between “necessary” and “unnecessary” appetites which constrained the desires of the oligarchic man is now abrogated. The “brood of desires” now “seize the citadel of the young man’s soul, finding it empty and unoccupied by studies and honorable pursuits…” (VIII, 560B-561A). The democratic man fosters all parts of the soul equally and “avers that they are all alike and to be equally esteemed.” His life will be run by “indulging the appetite of the day”, and “he says and does whatever enters his head.” In other words, “there is no order or compulsion in his existence” (VIII, 561D). Most tellingly, Plato affirms that the democratic man “is a manifold man stuffed with most excellent differences,…containing within himself the greatest number of patterns of constitutions and qualities” (VIII, 561E).

Hence democracy fosters genuine individuals, who resist the reduction of their social function, or indeed their natural potential, into one exclusive dimension. Also, democracy nurtures all parts of the soul equally, refusing obeisance to the law of reason. Above all,the “greed” for liberty is the hallmark of a democratic society. Such a constitution is the archetype of social disorder, individuality, emphasis rather than suppression of difference, and insubordination to reason. Its nature is rooted in self-will and physical pleasure, in a refusal to acknowledge the hierarchy either within the soul or that between the soul and body.

From the disorder of the democratic state, maintains Plato, tyranny will arise, with one man claiming to represent the interests of both social order and the downtrodden majority. In terms of the evolution of one system of government from another, Plato’s point is that tyranny, though ostensibly initiated as a reaction against the chaos of democracy, is in fact an extension of it. Tyranny embodies the utmost depths of anarchy and lawlessness. Hence the degeneration from aristocracy through oligarchy to democracy and tyranny represents not only the collapse of the original unity of the state but, equally importantly, of the unity of the individual into a lawless multiplicity. The unified, integrated person of the aristocracy who enjoyed a harmony between the various “classes” of his soul is fragmented first into the “double” man of oligarchy and then the “manifold” man produced by democracy; finally, even the vestiges of the soul’s structure collapse, in tyranny, into an uncontrollable proliferation of desires, an abyss of irreducible particularity, multiplicity and relativity.

It seems clear that the most fundamental metaphysical premises behind Plato’s indictment of democracy is the notion of unity. According to Plato, unity is the desired end of both individual and state constitution. He has repeatedly asserted that the democratic “mob,” be it the mob of appetites in the soul or the mob of citizens, must be controlled by a rational element (IV, 431A-D). Moreover, it is the goal of unity which dictates a strict division of labour, based on Plato’s view that individuals exercising a variety of functions would lead to the state’s ruin (IV, 434B). Plato actually makes explicit his assumption that unity is intrinsically a positive value while multiplicity is associated with disorder, indulgence and evil. He states, for example, that excellence is “one” while the varieties of evil are infinite (IV, 445C). The greatest evil for a state is that it should be “many” instead of “one”.

In like manner, Plato sees reason itself as a unity while emotion is variable (X, 604E-605C). The structure of knowledge as Plato conceives it comprises a movement toward the apprehension of data as an interconnected whole or system: the science of dialectic both uncovers the first principles and essences of things and sees them as part of an ordered structure (VII, 533C-D, 534B, 537C). What enables this perception of order is that each of the Forms is itself a unity which has distilled into itself, as it were, the concentrated essence of various manifestations in the material world (V, 476A-B). It underlies, categorises and explains these. But the unity of the Forms is apprehended only by philosophers; the multitude, says Plato, are dreamers who “wander amid multiplicities,” mistaking resemblance for identity and particular for universal (V, 476C; VI, 484B). Hence the guardians, after their initial study of music and gymnastics, must undertake the study of unity “as such” (VII, 524E), fostered by training in number or arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. These sciences depend, according to Plato, on the use of reason rather than the senses. The most fundamental strategy toward the political implementation of unity is to unite the functions of ruler and philosopher. Plato sees the current separation of these roles as itself an expression of multiplicity; at present, a “motley horde” pursues either task independently (V, 473D).

Plato here unwittingly reveals that, if the movement towards knowledge and justice is essentially a movement toward unity whether in individual or state, it is also a movement of coercion. The ruling faculty in the soul and the ruling body in the state do not unify any real differences: the unity Plato has in mind is achieved by suppressing all difference and imperiously positing itself as the constant inner structure of a given type of variety in the physical world. For example, there is no compromise either between the multitude of competing appetites and desires in the soul or between these and reason: they must fall under the absolute sovereignty of reason. Similarly, the unity of the state is not achieved by any true harmony of the conflicting claims of various classes or groups; the guardians, the privileged political embodiment of reason, determine absolutely the interests of the state. Hence “unity” is anything but a confluence or coexistence of equal parts. Rather, it is effectively a euphemism for a system of dominance, a rigid hierarchy whereby the “lower” (referrable to the body, the appetites or the majority of people in a state) is not merely subsumed under the “higher” but is divested by such subsumption of any independent claim to reality, meaning or value.

Plato’s overarching disposition towards unity asserts itself most pervasively and at every level, from the point of origin of a city to its formally articulated bureaucratic structure. What needs to be observed here is how unity — even more than the alleged goals of justice or the Good — is the ultimate teleological principle informing the interrelation of elements comprising the city’s overall constitution.

According to Plato, the originating circumstance of a city is that individuals are not self-sufficient. No person can adequately provide the total of his or her own needs (II, 369B). The deeper premise beneath this is a strict -specialisation of function whereby “One man is naturally fitted for one task” (II, 370B). Plato is adamant on this point, insisting that “it is impossible for one man to do the work of many arts well” and that in the ideal city every man would work at “one occupation…all his days” (II, 374A-C). This rigid division of labour is the foundation of the entire analogy between the just individual and the just city. The text’s overall purpose is to arrive at a definition of justice, which is reached in Book IV: justice is a condition where “each one man must perform one social service in the state for which his nature was best adapted.” It is also defined as the “principle of doing one’s own business” and “not to be a busybody” (IV, 433A-B). Socrates recognises here that this “principle” for which he had been seeking had in fact already been laid down as “a universal requirement” in the very origin of a city (as cited above). Justice “in itself” is a phantom exorcised by its very pursuit in the Republic: its function is reduced to pure circularity, acting at once as the origin and end of the state, with no intermediary logic connecting these extremes of its ostensibly structuring polarity. The circularity of argument is even more pronounced in Plato’s remoulding of his analogy between the state and the individual. Predictably, justice in an individual is defined as a condition of the soul where “the several parts…perform each their own task”, and where reason rules. Such an harmonious soul will be fostered by a correct blending of gymnastics and music (IV, 441E-442A).

Where the circularity of the concept of unity encompasses for Plato the origin and purpose of a state, Aristotle’s procedure in the Politics is strikingly different. To evince the overall contrast of both method and content between the two thinkers, it may be useful to consider firstly Aristotle’s metaphysical presuppositions, secondly his observations on the state in general, and finally his assessment of democracy as informed by these.

To begin with, Aristotle’s self-proclaimed analytic and somewhat empirical method (I, i) is far less prone to the strategy of hypostatization which governs much of Plato’s thinking in the Republic. Aristotle’s method is to begin with the notion of a composite whole which is broken down into its smallest parts. Hence, where Plato sees democracy and the other forms of government as having a fairly determinate essence or set of defining characteristics, Aristotle is adamant that there are different types of democracy, oligarchy and aristocracy. In fact, his delineation of what he considers the best constitution, which he calls “polity,” is dependent on precisely this definitional malleability of each constitution and its ability to be mixed with other constitutional forms. More importantly, this analytic mentality underlies Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s view that the state should comprise a unity. Aristotle holds that a state is a composite whole made up of parts; he also defines the state as an aggregate of citizens large enough to secure a self-sufficient life; a further definition suggests that the state is an association of citizens in a constitution (III, i-iii). Aristotle’s entire text stresses the plurality of parts in any state and the need to reconcile these (IV, iii). Given these assumptions, Aristotle maintains, as against Plato, that the state cannot be a unity; unity, in fact, would destroy the state’s self-sufficiency given that the state harbours not only a plurality of numbers but different kinds of men existing in relations of reciprocal equivalence and mutually supporting diversity of function. The state’s plurality, and lack of natural unity, is further evident in the rotation of office whereby citizens take turns to rule and be ruled; Aristotle goes so far as to say that such rotation entails the same citizens becoming different persons at different times (II, ii), a view which contrasts sharply with Plato’s advocacy of a strict specialisation of function. Aristotle does not, of course, suggest that a state exists in a condition of unconstrained plurality; whatever unity a state achieves is given in its harmonisation of various interests and is also a function of education in the “spirit” of a given constitution, an education which entails training of both habits and the intellect (II, v).

A second presupposition deriving from Aristotle’s metaphysics concerns the teleology of the state. The state’s purpose, for Aristotle, is arguably the chief element in its definition. Perhaps unfairly, Aristotle criticises Plato for reducing the state to the satisfaction of minimum needs, with no finer purpose beyond utility and necessity (IV, iv). Aristotle’s onw view is that the state does not simply exist for the utilitarian functions of providing a living, protection and the exchange of goods (III, ix). The state is a political association which aims at the “highest good” (I, i). According to Aristotle, the chief end of men, both communally and individually, is the “good life” (III, vi). In defining the good life, Aristotle has recourse to his own earlier formulations in the Ethics: “the life which is best for men, both separately, as individuals, and in the mass, as states, is the life which has virtue sufficiently supported by material resources to facilitate participation in the actions that virtue calls for” (VII, i). And, again repeating statements in his Ethics, happiness is proportionate to the achievement of virtue and phronesis or practical wisdom (VII, i). Hence the ultimate end of a state is primarily the achievment of virtue; it exists, says Aristotle, for the sake of “noble actions” (III, ix).
However, since for Aristotle, virtue and happiness are internally and not contingently related, he later qualifies the aim of a state: “we call that state best ordered in which the possibilities of happiness are greatest” (VII, xiii).

The third metaphysical premise, also repeated from the Ethics, is the principle that virtue is a mean between excess and defect (IV, xi). Aristotle, calling this the “principle of the middle way,” extends its applicability to the formation of constitutions (V, ix). Hence, in a political context, Aristotle defines the best life as “the middle life,” which habours a mean open to men of every kind (IV, xi). This principle will become important in both Aristotle’s assessment of democracy and his formulation of what he considers to be the most descirable constitution, which he calls “polity.”

These three metaphysical premises, which concern the connection between whole and part, unity and plurality, teleology and the principle of the middle way, underlie three characteristics which Aristotle ascribes as necessary in any state. Of all kinds of knowledge and skill, says Aristotle, the most soveriegn is statecraft. And the good aimed at in the state is justice. Secondly, the justice aimed at is defined as what benefits the whole community (III, xii). Thirdly, as a totality, as a whole, the state has a natural priority over the individual, who is merely a part (I, ii). This is qualified, however, by Aristotle’s view that the “same things are best for a community and for individuals” (VII, xiv). Finally, we might add that Aristotle regarded the most fundamental division of any state as that between rich and poor, which he regards as invariably occupying a relation of opposition.

Aristotle’s comments on democracy need to be understood against the foregoing background and also to be considered in the context of his general description of “correct” and “deviated” constitutions. A correct constitution, he maintains, must enable rule for the common good in accordance with “absolute” justice, not for private advantage. He lists three correct constitutions: monarchy, aristocracy (the rule of the best in virtue) and polity, which refers to the rule of the mass of people for the common interest. There are three respective constitutions which deviate from these: tyranny arises when the monarch rules for his own benefit; oligarchy results from aristocracy when the men of means rule for their own advantage; and democracy arises from polity when the poor rule in their own interests. Of these, tyranny is the worst, says Aristotle, then oligarchy. Democracy is the least bad because it is the most moderate (IV, ii).

In contrast with our modern notions of democracy, Aristotle would have seen demokratia as denoting the rule of the demos or common people in their own interests. This very principle would collide with what he saw as one of the essential purposes of any state. Another point on which Aristotle realistically insists is that the true distinction, found in fact, between oligarchy and democracy is not that between rule of the few and rule of the many but between sovereignty of the rich and sovereignty of the poor (III, viii). Aristotle later defines democracy as rule by those who are free but not wealthy (IV, iv). With equal realism, he implicitly rejects Plato’s hypostatization of democracy or any other form of government and argues that there are several kinds of democracy and oligarchy to be found in practice. The first form of democracy is based on the principle of equality, where the rich and poor have the same advantages. The second form stipulates a modest property-qualification for the holding of office. In the third and fourth forms, which are described rather vaguely, all of the citizens rule provided they pass scrutiny, but they all uphold the higher rule of law. In the final and most extreme form of democracy, it is not the law which is sovereign but the multitude of people: through the influence of demagogues who curry their favour against the nobles and rule popular opinion, the people itself becomes a monarch, one person composed of many. Aristotle, in fact, urges that such a democracy rests on no real constitution since the law does not hold sway (IV, iv).

It is true that, like Plato, Aristotle sees many actual or potential evils in democracy.The two hallmarks of democracy he cites as the sovereignty of the majority and liberty (V, ix). Like Plato, he is wary of the possibly inordinate extension of liberty to mean living as one likes. Aristotle rejoins that living according to the constitution is not slavery but self-preservation (V, ix). He also reiterates Plato’s charges that democracy may be marked by a general disorder and disrespect for the law, lack of control over slaves, women and children. However, it is vital to note that Aristotle’s criticisms are directed primarily at what he sees as the most extreme democracy, where all of the citizens share and deliberate (VI, iv). Moreover, the constitution which Aristotle himself advocates, called polity, is offered as a mixture of oligarchy and democracy, a mixture which can lean in either direction (IV, vi).

The principle of the middle way thus introduces itself on a number of levels in Aristotle’s exposition of polity. The aim of this constitutional mixture, says Aristotle, is to regard the interests of both rich and poor, the wealthy and the free. The criterion of virtue, paramount in an ideal aristocracy, is also to be included. Thus polity occupies a “middle” position in which the extremes of both democracy and oligarchy disappear (IV, viii-ix). Aristotle observes that all states contain three sections, the very rich, the very poor and those in the middle. Again invoking the principle of the mean, he asserts that to hold a “middling” amount of property is best of all. People in this condition, whom he calls hoi mesoi, are most easily obedient to reason; they exhibit the least reluctance and least eagerness to hold office; they are exempt from from the arrogance of the very rich, who cannot understand how to be ruled; and from the wickedness of the poor, who cannot understand how to rule (IV, xi).

Aristotle positively encourages enlarging this middle section of the citizenry since it is the most secure and acts to prevent excesses from the other two classes. It is, according to Aristotle, free of faction, and when it is large enough to outweigh any combination of the other two extremes the constitution has a good chance of being permanent. In general, the better mixed a constitution, the longer it will last. This middle section of people has given rise to the best lawgivers, such as Solon and Lycurgus, and any current legislators, whether in an oligarchy or a democracy, should include consideration of this class (IV, xi-xii).

While the practicability of Aristotle’s introduction of an ethical principle into economic affairs might be questioned, it is clear that the polity he has in mind is aristocratic, but with more leaning toward democracy than oligarchy. In fact, it comes close to Aristotle’s description of a “thoroughgoing democracy” where rich and poor together exercise power on the basis of an equality both arithmetical (regarding numbers) and proportionate (regarding wealth) (VI, ii). Aristotle urges the discouragement of either exceptional prosperity of any section of the population or extreme indigence. Overall, it may be that in his insistence on the supra-utilitarian functions of the state, the question of its purpose, and adherence to the principle of the mean, Aristotle is closer to our modern notions of democracy than is generally thought.