Plato and Aristotle on the American State

by Bruce K. Adler

What seems to have been forgotten is that one reads past [political] theories, not because they are familiar and therefore confirmative, but because they are strange and therefore provocative. … What we should expect from a reading of Aristotle [or Plato, Augustine, Locke, Rousseau, and others] is an increase in political understanding. … The cultivation of political understanding means that one becomes sensitized to the enormous complexities and drama of saying that the political order is the most comprehensive association and ultimately responsible as no other grouping is for sustaining the physical, material, cultural and moral life of its members.
— Sheldon S. Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation”, The American Political Science Review (December 1969)
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Bruce K. Adler

A long distinguished political theorist, Professor Wolin died in October. His obituary, printed in the New York Times, notes that starting in the 1960s he “galvanized the profession by gathering key political philosophers, beginning with the Greeks, in a grand debate on democracy and examining their ideas not as historical artifacts, but as a way to criticize current political structures.” I can further attest – being fortunate indeed to have had him as a teacher and adviser – that his lectures were not only an academic pleasure, but demonstrated the power of an ever-reflecting, ever-curious mind. He was a “Plato” who drove his students to marvel at and then ponder political order.

So I want to take this opportunity not just to pay tribute to his life and work but as much if not more to carry forward an obligation that by his example he imparted to all of his students: To try, now and again, in a thoughtful and positive way, to contribute to our common social conscience. For such is essential for any society, and a democracy most of all, if it is to sustain itself more nobly than desperately.
Now it might appear that “asking” Plato (424/423 – 348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) to “comment” on modern-day America is but a ploy to advance one’s personal views through the guise of others’ estimable authority. But such an inquiry, seriously pursued, can yield credible insights. For in reading Plato’s and Aristotle’s writings with their observations of life in ancient Greece and their considered conclusions about what makes for the good and just society, we can see well enough where their understandings of political order roughly parallel or markedly diverge from our own.

In fact I was originally inspired in this essay by attempts in recent years to use Plato’s and Aristotle’s writings to further validate the Second Amendment and support gun rights in this country. For example, Aristotle argued that weapons are one of the things that are essential to a society’s existence because citizens “must carry them even among themselves, both for internal government in the event of civil disobedience and to repel external aggression”.[1] So I will use this issue as my entry point into their writings to get at their related political perspectives, which will allow them to “speak” to the nature of the American state today.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees an individual right to own guns for private use. Advocates of such a right have since worked to expand and defend state and local laws that facilitate the common purchase of guns as well as their concealed or open carrying in public. Given Aristotle’s view of the necessity of carrying weapons in public, it appears that he – and as he was at one time a student of Plato, perhaps Plato, too – would thoroughly approve of this current state of affairs in America.
But no. Both would almost certainly see it as an abomination. Why or how so?
The reason has to do with the nature of individual rights in America. That nature is probably best described in the refrains of the Declaration of Independence. It states (with emphases added):
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Thatwhenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government …
Accordingly, individual rights in America derive from – what the Founding Fathers believed to be – the essential nature of human beings. And this comports with the outlook and assertions of many advocates of gun rights today. For example, they tend to oppose much of the existing or proposed regulation of gun ownership since they see it as violating that “Right of the People” to be able to oppose governmental tyranny as well as to defend one’s home and oneself in public against any form of violence. As one pithy saying has it: “An armed society is a polite society.” And enthusiasts would as likely add a “good and just” society.
Plato and Aristotle, however, conceived of “gun rights” rather differently. In their visions of the ideal or best form of society – which is described in their respective works Republic and Politics – ownership of a weapon is not an individual right as such. Instead, it is an obligation of being a citizen. Moreover, only a certain portion – a special class – of the citizenry or membership of the society is to have that obligation: those who have the necessary virtue and capability and consequent training to be the public servants and rulers of the society.[2] (In Aristotle’s case, he essentially defined that class as the citizens proper.[3] And though Plato does not expressly limit the possession and use of weapons to his equivalent “Guardian” class, the schema of their education virtually requires it.[4])
The basic idea here, which Aristotle clearly described, is that there should be an identity between those judged fit to rule and those judged capable of serving policing and military roles, for then the society is guaranteed to be rightly governed and maintained. Any would-be tyrant or conspiracy due to the corruption of the few would be quickly put down by the majority of the others in that same class. (Remember, those in that class are originally determined to be the most fit and virtuous to defend and lead that society, and are carefully trained and tutored to do so. In theory, then, corruption could not easily take hold, and if it did, it would only ever be among the few.)
If we now turn this perspective– Plato’s and Aristotle’s “gaze” if you will – on our American state, I think it is clear what they would think about “gun rights” here. In particular, the oft-made argument that the Second Amendment serves to prevent tyranny would strike them as nonsensical in both theory and practice. For where owning a gun is founded on an individual human right that applies to nearly all the members of the given state, their status as citizens in this regard is literally overwritten and the citizenry as such is politically sundered from the state. For now the stance and outlook of every so-called citizen exists “outside” of the state, which can no longer be seen simply as a homeland, but also and evermore as a potential enemy to be guarded against and when “necessary” – as determined perforce on an ad hoc basis – put down.
In short, one cannot be an individual – one’s own master – and at the same time a citizen and in this case a patriot. And yet that is exactly how the American state has been conceived and set up. And that – Plato and Aristotle would say – is the abomination!
It is important to understand that in their thinking, and that of the ancient Greeks generally, the state (which was traditionally a polis or city-state) does not come to exist out of happenstance – like the American model based on a so-called social contract and “the consent of the governed” – but instead is the innate aim and product of our human nature. Plato held that “a state comes into existence since no individual is self-sufficing; we all have many needs”.[5] Aristotle famously asserted that “man is by nature a political animal”,[6] and pointedly compared human beings living within and without the state:
A man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development [by being a member of the state], so he is worst of all when divorced from law and morals. Wickedness armed is hardest to deal with; and though man while keeping his weapons can remain disposed to understanding and virtue, it is all too easy for him to use them for the opposite purposes.[7]
The purpose of the state, according to Plato and Aristotle, is to facilitate and complement “the best” or “the good” in each and every member. And that conception contrasts sharply with the stated purpose of the American state to secure individual rights such as liberty. Aristotle dismissed both equality and liberty as the defining characteristic of the best state. Instead, for him it is “noble actions”.[8]
Consequently, Plato’s and Aristotle’s shared concern about America would not be limited to “gun rights”, but every instance of an individual right that served in the main to displace citizenship in favor of base self-interest. And there would be many. Too many to allow them to feel anything but profound disappointment with the next great democracy to arise after ancient Athens.
But, perhaps, they might then shrug and say something like “it is what it is”. For they each knew all too well how hard it can be to motivate a state to significantly reform its political order. And in America’s case their preferred recommendation would likely be rejected as unthinkable as it would in fact call for rethinking the U.S. Constitution as well as rewriting or just deleting the Bill of Rights (where the latter document, they would be curious to learn, was not thought by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison to be such a good idea in the first place).
So if Plato and Aristotle accepted the American state “as is”, how might they yet hope to see it “working out” as a good and just political order? The most practical course for them, I think, would be to advocate that the political paradox they exposed be strictly incorporated into the American psyche, becoming a key part of the political dynamic that every person has to deal with as a member of society, especially in a pluralism. As the saying goes, one “wears many hats” throughout life. We each have calls upon our time from and owe personal loyalties to various “others” – as a child to one’s parents, as a parent to one’s child, as a spouse to one’s spouse, as a friend or neighbor to one’s friends or neighbors, as a Good Samaritan to strangers in need, as a supplicant to one’s religious faith, and as an employee to one’s employer (or vice versa).
Each of these relationships, and others, are species of our individualism and self-interests. Each by itself can result in interpersonal conflict, as where a marriage devolves into divorce or one’s neighbors play loud music. But as well each can come into conflict with one another and produce a wholly internal personal crisis, as where a spouse wants to divorce but as a parent does not want to divide the family.
What Plato and Aristotle could propose is for every American to “recommit” to our other fundamental identity as citizen. Because while we Americans most certainly do acknowledge ourselves as citizens, those instances are few and far between those where we are individuals first and foremost. We are citizens “first and foremost” really only in matters of voting, immigration, international relations, and war.
But Plato and Aristotle might propound that hereafter “we the people” must be juxtaposed with “we the citizens”. That would mean that for any politically-charged issue that concerns us Americans, we are now obliged to answer two questions – “What is in my personal best interests?” and “What is in my country’s or my fellow citizens’ best interests?” – and then determine which answer is the better guide to resolving the issue. In this way, Plato and Aristotle could hope that the American state would yet become, to some extent anyway, what they envisioned as the best society.
Some examples of this approach to present-day issues:
Voting. The individual would be inclined to vote as long as the process was not too inconvenient. The citizen would consider voting to be a moral imperative.
Open-Carrying of Guns. The individual would choose to do so as that is, at its best, an exercise of free expression and a warning to “the bad guy” to mind his manners. But the citizen would choose not to do so because it would project an offensive stance to everybody, spreading tension and uncertainty and thus doing much more social harm than any good, not to mention undermining public confidence in official law enforcement.
Syrian Refugees. The individual might well fear the prospect of refugees and thus the possibility of one or more would-be terrorists being allowed to live in the U.S., and would much prefer that that chance not be taken unless for each refugee absolute proof exists that he or she is no threat whatsoever. The citizen might well fear the chance of terrorism, too, and would want reasonable efforts made to screen refugees, but would otherwise accept the risk on the view that it is better to die living the life that exhibits the values one believes in than doing everything possible to “guarantee” a long life, including sacrificing some of those values, which would amount to a spiritual treason.
Capitalism. The individual would, ideally, like to acquire great wealth, and would not hesitate to embrace any promising opportunity, from entrepreneurship to investment, to accomplish that goal. The citizen would also like to acquire wealth, but would be wary of and tend to avoid financial opportunities that in the extreme could result in economic chaos, like recessions, or other national harms, like long-term environmental damage.
Politics. The individual may strongly prefer to communicate and associate only with those who agree with his political values. The citizen would prefer from time to time to put his political values “to the test” by engaging with those who hold different values; he also would never use political beliefs as a litmus test for friendship let alone a scale of human worth.
Whatever they might have thought about this application of their political visions, Plato and Aristotle would surely have agreed on a related final point. And indeed Wolin, too. That is that for anyone, whether as a speaker or writer or listener or reader, to engage in thoughtfulness requires significant time – time to comprehend, to reflect, to assess, and in the end to judge or decide. And the same is especially true in a democracy. Democracy depends on its citizens being able to “take their time” in deciding what is true or best. In this digital age, then, with online “communities” of all persuasions, flowing emails, on-the-fly tweets, and racing comments, it is unfortunate that more and more of our personal time is becoming ever shorter and more urgent. This abating of time is the new enemy of democracy. And of philosophy. So we individuals and citizens must muster the strength of purpose necessary to defend the time needed for us to reflect on what we should stand for and what we should do in order to be a good and just people in a good and just state.

1 Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, Chapter 8.

[2] Plato, Republic, Book II. 372 A-374 E, 375 A-376 E; Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, Chapter 9.

[3] Politics, ibid.

[4] Republic, Book II. 376 E-Book III. 412 B.

[5] Republic, Book II. 367 E-372 A.

[6] Politics, Book I, Chapter 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Politics, Book III, Chapter 9.
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Bruce K. Adler is a retired lawyer whose legal practice involved products liability, commercial law, civil liberties, and constitutional law. He remains active in community affairs and local planning. His academic interests include the philosophy of law, social and political philosophy, and the history and philosophy of science. He is fascinated by the “problems” of consciousness and free will. And he feels inspired to do some serious writing on at least law and its related topics.