Philosophy 201 - 11.1.1 The Just City in Ancient Greece

A person sits on the ground in front of the ruins of a large rectangular marble temple with many tall columns supporting what remains of the roof.
Figure 11.2 The history of political philosophy in the West is typically traced to ancient Greece. (credit: "parthenon" by claire rowland/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The history of political philosophy in the West can be traced back to ancient Greece. The term polis, from which is derived the word political, refers to the city-state, the basic unit of government in ancient Greece. Early inquiries were concerned with questions such as “Which qualities make for the best leader?” “Which is the best system of government for a city-state?” and “What is the role of a citizen?” For many philosophers, the most fundamental moral questions—such as “How should I treat others?” and “What constitutes a good life?”—are the basis for corollary political considerations. The philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) links the two through the concept of telos, which means “goal directed.” All things in life have a goal, or an end purpose, he says. It is the goal of human beings to live a good life, which is only achievable by living a virtuous life. Acquiring virtue is a difficult task, requiring constant practice. The acquisition of virtue necessarily involves a community to provide education, model virtues, and provide opportunities for a person to behave virtuously. Therefore, living in a well-constructed political society is an essential part of living a good life. According to Aristotle, “This truth is attested by the experience of states: lawgivers make the citizens good by training them in habits of right action—this is the aim of all legislation, and if it fails to do this it is a failure; this is what distinguishes a good form of constitution from a bad one” (1996, 1103b20).

Plato and The Republic

Plato’s Republic is perhaps one of the best-known early texts examining the concept of a just society and the role of the citizen. Plato (ca. 428–348 BCE) uses a method of guided argumentation, known today as the Socratic method, to investigate the nature of justice. Using his mentor, Socrates, as the main interlocutor, Plato opens The Republic by asking what it means to live a just life, and the text evolves into a discussion about the nature of justice. Socrates asks, Is justice simply an instrument used by those in power, or is it something valuable in itself?

Socrates believes that behaving justly provides the greatest avenue to happiness, and he sets out to prove this idea by using the analogy of the just city. If a just city is more successful than an unjust one, he argues, it follows that a just man will be more successful than an unjust man. Much of Plato’s Republic imagines this just city. First, society is organized according to mutual need and differences in aptitude so that all the people can receive essential goods and services. For example, some people will be farmers, while others will be weavers. Gradually, the city begins to develop trade and introduce wages, which provide a basis of a good society. But commerce with outsiders opens the city to threats, so soldiers are needed to protect and defend the city. Soldiers of a just society must be exceptional in all virtues, including skill and courage, and must seek nothing for themselves while working only for the good of the society. Plato calls these soldiers guardians, and the development of the guardians is the main focus of the text because the guardians are the leaders of the society.

The Role of the Guardians

The guardians’ training begins when they are quite young, as they must be exposed only to things that will develop a strong character, inspire patriotic feelings, and emphasize the importance of courage and honor. The guardians must not be exposed to any narrative that dwells on misery, bad luck, illness, or grief or that portrays death or the afterlife as something to fear. Furthermore, they must live communally, and although allowed to marry, they hold children and property in common. Because the guardians begin their education at such an early age, they are taught to view their lifestyle not as a sacrifice but as the privilege of their station. The guardians who are considered to be the most virtuous, both morally and intellectually, eventually become the city’s rulers, known as philosopher-kings: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one . . . cities will never have rest from their evils” (1892, 473d–e).

Plato establishes the four virtues upon which the state should be founded: wisdom, courage, discipline, and justice. While wisdom and courage must be present in the guardians, all members of the city must be at least partially disciplined, performing their jobs and roles to maintain the peace and harmony of the state. Even for those who are allowed private property, accumulating wealth is discouraged because it encourages laziness and selfishness, traits that endanger the peace of the city. The theme of communal property appears several times in The Republic. Socrates claims that when things are shared in common (including women and children), sufferings and joys are also shared (461e). Thus, when one person loses something, the whole community loses, but when one gains something, the whole community gains. Second, when words such as mine are eliminated, conflicts over property are also eliminated, along with a sense of lack or suffering when someone else prospers. Communal sharing helps eliminate rebellion, strikes, and other forms of discontent and promotes social harmony, which is essential for a good society.

Plato’s notion of three tiers of society—guardians, auxiliaries, and laborers—corresponds with elements of the soul. Just as these three groups work together for the good of the city, reason and knowledge work together with discipline to overrule passions that threaten to disrupt the harmony of individuals. These three qualities allow individuals to be just and virtuous.

The Tradition of Exclusion

When thinking about foundational texts, we must pause to consider the missing voices of those denied a role in governance, which ironically represents a significant injustice embedded in early theories of justice. In ancient Greek texts, as in many texts that make up the foundational base of political philosophy, the citizenry generally consists of wealthy men. Women are excluded from consideration, as are those born into slavery (rights are occasionally extended to enslaved individuals obtained through war). According to Aristotle, women are by nature born into a lower hierarchy than men and are not reasonable enough to engage in political life. Aristotle also deems the elderly to be no longer competent to engage politically, while children (presumably male children) are not yet old enough to be competent: “The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete” (1984, 1260a11). Aristotle’s requirements for citizenship are a bit murky. In his view, an unconditional citizen is one who can participate in government, holding either deliberative or judicial office. Nonetheless, Plato’s Republic does imagine a role for women as members of the ruling guardian class: “Men and women alike possess the qualities which make a guardian; they differ only in their comparative strength or weakness” (1892, 456a).

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax