Published October 20, 2014-Updated March 4, 2018

What is the main task for any state? Providing security, creating a diverse and stable reform-oriented middle class, or unifying the citizenship through education into a strong community? These three views on political theory can be correlated with the names of Machiavelli, Aristotle, and Plato. I will discuss them briefly.

1. Security first: political realism and the role of power (Machiavelli, Hobbes.)

Political realists want first and foremost that the state provides security for its citizens. The state, therefore, needs to be strong in order to withstand internal or external challenges to its rule and to protect its citizens. Civil or international warfare is a threat against which the need for political order needs to be affirmed. Political relations between states are not ruled by justice, but power. Realists argue that security is the paramount and overriding goal of the state: it is the basis for all other expectations of citizens. Such a state does not have to be virtuous or just: this is a misleading ideal for any state; a dangerous distraction that undermines rather than enhances the quest for security.

Machiavelli (1469-1527) tells his prince that he should pursue only those policies that can “save his state.” He furthermore says, “If you look at matters carefully, you will see something resembling virtue, which, if you follow it, may be your ruin, while something else resembling vice will lead, if you follow it, to your security and well-being.” That is the politics of virtú or Realpolitik, and it involves a determined, pragmatic use of power without moral scruples. Leo Strauss states in his History of Political Philosophy: “Machiavelli consciously lowers the standards of social action” in order to satisfy, as far as possible, a realistic preeminent goal — our basic need for security.

This line of thinkers in the tradition of political realism reaches from Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes. (See the article in SEP).

2. Diversity and freedom: stability and reform (Aristotle, Locke)

All political systems must allow for some degree of diversity. Aristotle knows that Plato’ s ideal republic will have diversity in occupation and education. But Aristotle wants diversity among the participants in the process of political decision making, among those who wield political power. Contrary to Plato, he does not trust that the philosophical elite will consistently rule well. Aristotle’s idea of diversity means a broadening of the citizen class, a polis of “free and equal citizens” who share office and shape policy, meaning that “some rule and others are ruled” in turn, with “different sorts of persons” assuming the responsibilities of governing. Power must be concentrated in the hands of a few but distributed because of the “natural equality of all the citizens.” Plato would criticize this kind of system as rule by amateurs, reminiscent of the failures of a democratic Athens that lost the Peloponnesian War and executed Socrates. Aristotle responds that “it is true that unity is to some extent necessary, alike in a household and polis; but total unity is not. . . . It is as if you were turning harmony into mere unison, or to reduce a theme to a single beat”. Aristotle aims for a society that is based on friendship, rights, and community. For him, friendship starts in the family, which is the source and foundation of political life. The proper practice of politics aims at friendship and depends upon the development of a family structure conducive to that goal.

Aristotle’s view of diversity and democracy was further developed and modified by John Locke (1632-1704), whose theory becomes a foundation for the American political system. For John Locke, the individual is an autonomous unit, and enters into associations such as the family and civil society on a contractual basis, for limited purposes, and with limited obligations. He agrees with Aristotle on natural rights, but he focuses them more on private property. This requires a basic right of individual freedom. Locke’ s defense of diversity is connected to his idea of liberty. He fears, as much as Aristotle, the concentration of power in the hands of a few. “This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to and closely joined with a man’s preservation that he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life together.”

3. Community, unity, and vision (Plato, Rousseau.)

Plato and Rousseau have higher expectations than do either the realists or the reformers. They want to create a new kind of polis, what Plato calls the “republic” and Rousseau calls the “civil state.” Plato suggests his vision of a revolutionary community in the “Republic” in his metaphor of the three waves. The second wave imagines a unified ideal community. It “…most nearly resembles a single person. When one of us hurts his finger, the whole extent of those bodily connections which are gathered up in the soul and unified by its ruling element is made aware and it all shares as a whole in the pain of the suffering part; hence we say that the man has a pain in his finger.” Plato concludes that “the best-organized community comes nearest to that condition” because the ideal polity will be attained when the community “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 arid sorrow”. Plato says that such an ideal is most achievable by the Guardian-philosophers who, with their superior education, “feel together and aid at the same ends, because they are convinced that all their interests are identical.” Although that spirit of unity is felt primarily among the Guardians, their example infuses the entire community: “So our laws will secure that these men [Guardians] will live in complete peace with one another; and if they never quarrel among themselves, there is no fear of the rest of the community being divided either against them or against itself’.

Inspired by Plato’ s Republic, Rousseau suggests a similar view of the organic polis: “As soon as this multitude is thus united in one body, one cannot harm one of the members without attacking the whole body. . . . Thus duty and interest equally oblige the two parties to come to one another’s aid”. Even more than Plato, Rousseau infuses the ideal of the perfect community with a romantic conception of how the personal relates to the political: “Every man is virtuous when his particular will is in all things conformable to the general will, and we voluntarily will what is willed by those whom we love.” His theory of leadership is similar to Plato’s, however, because both believe that the leader must seek to transform the corrupt state into an ideal community. Rousseau’s “legislator” should feel able “to change human nature; to transform each individual . . . into parts of a greater whole, from which this individual receives in a sense, his life and his being; to alter man’s constitution in order to strengthen it; to substitute a moral and social existence for the independent and physical existence which we have all received from nature.” The theories of both Plato and Rousseau foresee a total transformation of the community so that it attains a higher consciousness and fuller realization of its human potential.

Plato and Rousseau both believe in a fundamental goodness of the human nature. As a result, they both confront the same fundamental problem. How can this nature be activated in order to heal our corrupt societies? In Emile, Rousseau asks whether a man “raised uniquely for himself” will be good for others also? In the Republic, Plato considers whether justice is a worthy choice for its own sake. Rousseau explicitly draws attention to the similarities and differences between his project and Plato’s. Plato answers the fundamental question about justice by means of an investigation into the best form of government and into the curriculum according to which the political leaders will be educated. For Rousseau, injustice is the result of inequality, and the way to address it is a “natural education” that is at once a form of embodied philosophy. To “get an idea of the public education,” he writes, one should, “read Plato’s Republic. It is not at all a political work, as think those who judge books only by their titles. It is the most beautiful educational treatise ever written.” If education is done right, it will strengthen and defend the human natural goodness. Education is, therefore, fundamentally also a political process that has the potential to lead us out of the current corrupt state of affairs.