Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Aristotle and Plato: The Rule of Law

Aristotle and Plato viewed the nature of government and the rule of law in many unique and necessary ways. There are a number of commonalities that continuously exist between the two great philosophers. Arguably the most important of their similar views is that democracy as a form of governance is not only synonymous with the rule of law, but also the most effective in enforcing the law itself. Furthermore, the law is subject to all individuals, whether part of the polis as a citizen or a member of the government. The idea that law is absolute and constant was shared by both Aristotle and Plato. By analyzing critical elements of the rule of law, such as justice, equality and the essential democratic governance one can understand the similarities of Aristotle’s and Plato’s respective views.

It is imperative to grasp why the rule of law was necessary to enforce in the first place in order to comprehend the commonalities between Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle states in The Politics:

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all. If man be without virtue, he is a most unholy and savage being, and worse than all others in the indulgence of lust and gluttony. (Aristotle, The Politics)

In his belief, Aristotle thought that law and justice were two elements that must be upheld in the polis to keep man from resorting to primal instincts. Furthermore, without the enforcement of law and justice society would consist of self serving citizens leading to a chaotic survival of the fittest world. In short, Aristotle knew the worst characteristics of humanity would prevail had law and justice not served as the backbone of society.

Understanding that human beings were their own worst enemies is a notion that Plato expressed in The Republic as well. While explaining the basis of social organization Plato states:

If we are to have enough pasture and plough land, we shall have to cut off a slice of our neighbours’ territory; and if they too are not content with necessaries, but give themselves up to getting unlimited wealth, they will want a slice of ours. So the next thing will be that we shall be at war…We have discovered the origin of war in desires which are the most fruitful source of evils both to individuals and to states. (Plato, The Politics)

Plato introduces the concept of always being in a state of war based on the desire to always want more than what one has. The lack of faith in humanity that Plato describes is similar to Aristotle’s beast. The essence of evil desire is described in Plato’s quote while explaining the nature of a commonwealth and its components. It was Plato’s uncertainty in human beings themselves that led to his concept that a whole army would be necessary to defend the citizenry. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that rule of law must be enforced to protect the people from not only others, but themselves as well. It was a common understanding by both Plato and Aristotle why society needed law, but what exactly should the law consist of?

The definition of justice by the philosophers is paramount in understanding right vs. wrong with respect to the rule of law. In The Politics, Aristotle expresses his vision of justice stating:

And this is the art and science of politics-the end in view is the greatest good and the good which is most pursued. The good in the sphere of politics is justice; and justice consists in what tends to promote the common interest. (Aristotle, The Politics)

Aristotle explains that what is just must be the greatest good. The implication of Aristotle’s statement is that good which is most pursued will promote the common interest among the people. Therefore, if what is being pursued is in the common interest of the people it will be considered justice and righteousness. Interests not pursued with the greater good of the people in mind will be injustice and all that is wrong.

Plato similarly believed that justice is defined by the people and their common interests. He states in The Republic:

We thought we should have the best chance of finding justice in a state so constituted…the state which will be happy as a whole, not trying to secure the well-being of a select few. (Plato, The Republic)

According to Plato, justice for the individual that takes precedence over the many would not be justice at all, but rather injustice. In the creation of a state, justice could only be defined as a concept that put the needs of an entire group, or the people, before the needs of an individual. Therein lies the difference between right and wrong for both Aristotle and Plato. Justice must be what is right for all people based on the greater good and what is wrong can be defined as interests pursued only to benefit the good of the individual. While Aristotle and Plato displayed commonalities about the importance of justice in reference to the rule of law, they also both understood the importance of equality.

Aristotle and Plato both admit that inequality exists and the best type of political society is one that by large consists of the middle class. Aristotle, in The Politics, when describing the relationship between master and slave in society states:

The result is a state, not of freemen, but only of slaves and masters: a state of envy on the one side and on the other contempt. Nothing could be further removed from the spirit of friendship or the temper of a political community…A state aims at being, as far as it can be, a society composed of equals and peers and the middle class, more than any other, has this sort of composition. (Aristotle, The Politics)

Clearly, Aristotle stresses the importance of friendship within a community, as he firmly knew that friendship couldn’t only exist among those who were equal. Equality, although it may never be truly achieved, is an essential component of the rule of law and composition of a just society. A society that continuously moves towards the goal of equality by way of the middle class would prevent the extreme opposing forces from becoming dominant, resulting in the best form of political community.

Plato’s vision of equality is comparable to Aristotle’s through his description of the role of women as guardians stated in The Republic:

It follows that one woman will be fitted by nature to be a guardian, another will not; depending on whether they possess the qualities for which we selected our men Guardians…women of this type must be selected to share the life and duties of guardians with men of the same type…there is nothing contrary to nature in giving our guardians’ wives the same training for mind and body…we shall not have one education for men and another for women, precisely because the nature to be taken in hand is the same. (Plato, The Republic)

Equality of education, and type of work pursued are both evident in Plato’s statement. While men and women may have differences in physical limitations, those who are capable of conducting the job as guardians will be afforded the same opportunity and education to do so provided they display the abilities to perform their respective duties as such. The extraction from both Plato and Aristotle’s vision of a society that moves toward equality is an affirmation of a just community that abides by the rule of law. Not only did Plato and Aristotle exemplify why justice and equality were critical elements in carrying out the rule of law, they also have analogous beliefs on how a democracy, that is a community in which the majority is sovereign, is the best fit environment to form a constitution and enforce the rule of law itself.

Aristotle grasped the conception that some individuals would naturally be better at performing certain tasks, such as governance, better than others. However, he still knew it was necessary for all individuals to take part in the process by creating and enforcing laws. A society that is inclusive of everyone and provides a level playing field for all to succeed is the best community to live under the rule of law. This is apparent from Aristotle’s statement in The Politics:

It is not the individual member of the judicial court, or the council, or the assembly, who is vested with office: it is the court as a whole, the council as a whole, the popular assembly as a whole, which is vested; and each individual member-whether of the council, the assembly, or the court-is simply a part of the whole. It is therefore just and proper that the people, from which the assembly, the council, and the court are constituted, should be sovereign on issues more important than those assigned to the better sort of citizens. (Aristotle, The Politics)

Plato echoes Aristotle in The Republic:
Does not the worst evil for a state arise from anything that tends to rend it asunder and destroy its unity, while nothing does it more good than whatever tends to bind it together and make it one? The best organized community comes nearest to that condition; and it will recognize as a part of itself the individual citizen to whom good or evil happens, and will share as a whole in his joy or sorrow. (Plato, The Republic)

Plato plainly outlines the conditions that are necessary for a community to work together to become the best and most just society under the rule of law. Without cohesion amongst members of the polis, where everyone cares for one another equally through shared responsibility, order in society and abiding by the rule of law would breakdown.

In conclusion, the commonalities between the two great philosophers, consisting of justice, equality and essential democracy with respect to governance and the rule of law, are all critical components to maintain the order of the polis. Without those key elements the rule of law would cease to exist and a civil society which calls attention to the greater good for all by way of collective participation and responsibility would not be possible. Perhaps Aristotle and Plato could serve as a reminder to contemporary politicians why they serve in the positions they are elected to fulfill; In order to preserve democracy, the rule of law, justice and equality in which America stands for.

Works Cited

Plato, The Republic.
Aristotle, Politics.

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