Ancient Greek Political Thought

David Keyt & Fred Miller. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

This chapter covers the classical period of Greek civilization (fifth and fourth centuries bc). It is organized by theory rather than by philosopher. We consider in turn relativism, contractualism, Platonism, naturalism, and anarchism. Since theories arise in reaction to other theories, the five we consider form, to a considerable extent, a logical as well as a chronological progression. The focus on theories rather than philosophers has several advantages. First of all, it allows us to highlight the different ways the five theories are grounded, as their names suggest. Second, it allows us to skirt the problem of the authorship of several of the theories. Plato is the chief source for three of them, and it is often a matter of controversy whether an idea expressed by a character in a Platonic dialogue is to be attributed to Plato or to the historical figure after whom the character is named. Finally, it allows the reader to judge the extent to which Greek political thought foreshadows later political philosophy in the West.

Two recent books on the entire period deserve mention right at the beginning: Rowe and Schofield (2000)—a mammoth history by many hands—and Coleman (2000)—a shorter introduction by a single author.

‘No Better than Slaves’

In the Memorabilia (I.2.40-6) Xenophon relates a (possibly apocryphal) conversation between the Athenian statesman Pericles and his teenage nephew Alcibiades over the nature of law. Pericles advances the thesis that law (nomos) is whatever the rulers in a city, or polis, enact. But what, Alcibiades asks, about enactments imposed by the strong upon the weak by force rather than by persuasion imposed, say, by a tyrant upon the citizens or by the few upon the many in an oligarchy? Pericles agrees that these are the negation of law (anomia). But what happens, Alcibiades continues, when the mass imposes rules upon the property owners in a democracy? Surely these are also examples of force rather than law. Pericles (the leader of the Athenian democracy) can only respond that when he was young he too used to devise such clever conundrums. This draws from Alcibiades a lament at not knowing him at his cleverest. This humorous interchange sets the stage for the rest of our chapter. It raises the question of the proper relation of ruler and ruled, expresses the widely held assumption in the ancient world that rule by force is illegitimate, and implicitly challenges the legitimacy of every existing government (assuming that rule by one, few, or many, exhausts the possibilities).

The prime relation in the Greek world based on force was that of master to slave (Aristotle, Pol. I.3.1253b20-3). The dread of slavery, which sprang from a very real fear, was a prominent feature of Greek life and thought. Greek cities were frequently at war, and it was a common practice to kill the soldiers and enslave the wives and children of a captured city (Thucydides III.62.2, V.32.1, V.116.3, and elsewhere). The Greeks regarded any relation of ruler to ruled based on force as akin to that of master to slave. Their word for such a relation was ‘despotic’ (despotikê, literally, ‘of a master’). To be forcibly subjected to another was in their eyes to be no better than a slave. This idea seems to be the driving force behind the evolution of Greek democracy, the most important political innovation of the Greeks. Freedom and equality were (as they still are) the defining marks of democracy (Plato, Rep. VIII.557a2-b6; Aristotle, Pol. V.9.1310a25-34, VI.1318a3-10). Freedom was popularly defined as living as one wishes (Herodotus III.83.3; Thucydides II.37.2; Plato, Rep. VIII.557b4-6; Isocrates, Areop. 20; Aristotle, Pol. V.9.1310a31-2, VI.2.1317b10-12). By this popular definition, to be forced to do something against one’s will is to lose one’s freedom, and to lose one’s freedom is to be enslaved. Thus, to be forced by a ruler to do something one does not want to do is to be treated as a slave. The Greek democrat, in consequence, was loath to be ruled at all. Wishing, however, to live in a political community, he sought to avoid the despotism inherent in the unequal power of ruler and ruled. Without equality there is, in his view, no freedom (Plato, Menex. 238e1-239a4). So he invented a number of clever devices for eliminating or minimizing inequalities of political power: self-rule (every free man is a member of the assembly), rotation of office, short tenure of office, and the use of the lot. Ironically, Athenian democracy under Pericles was denounced by its enemies for trying to enslave all the other Greeks by establishing a universal empire (Thucydides I.124.3).

The two major political thinkers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, though no less hostile to despotic rule over free men than Athenian democrats (Aristotle, Pol. III.6.1279a19-21; Plato, Laws VIII.832c), travel a different road. They are unimpressed by the democratic argument for two reasons. First of all, they understand freedom differently. Following Socrates’ lead (Xenophon, Mem. I.3.11), they define it as rational, rather than unimpeded, agency: a man who is enslaved to a passion but whose activity is unimpeded is free in one sense of the word but not in the other (Plato, Rep. IX.577d, 579d-e; Aristotle,Metaph. XII.10.1075a18-23). Second, they think that Athenian democracy, being in practice if not in theory the rule by force of the mass over the wealthy, is itself despotic (Plato, Laws VIII.832c; Aristotle,Pol. III.6.1279a19-21 together with 7.1279b4-6). Wishing to maintain rather than to minimize or eliminate the distance between ruler and ruled, they are led to distinguish different sorts of rule and in particular to distinguish the rule of the wise and the virtuous from despotic rule (Plato, Laws III.689e-690d; Aristotle, Pol. III.4.1277a33-b11). (The response of Greek intellectuals to Athenian democracy is the theme of Ober, 1996 and 1998; Saxonhouse, 1996; and Veyne, 1983.)


The modern term ‘political’ derives from the Greek word polis (plural poleis), which originally referred to a citadel or high stronghold. (The acropolis of Athens was still called the polis in the late fifth century: Thucydides II.15.6.) The polis came to include the households and businesses gathered around the citadel and later the surrounding territory, and thus evolved by the sixth and fifth centuries into the classical Greek city-state: for example, Attica with Athens as its urban centre (astu), and Laconia with Sparta as its urban centre. There were as many as 800 Greek poleis, and Aristotle and his students composed descriptions of 158 different constitutions. Despite important similarities, the poleis varied considerably in size, location (on the coast, inland, or on an island), economic activity (agricultural or mercantile in varying degrees), customs, and temperament. Each polis was a microcosm, geographically distinct, and, to a significant extent, economically self-sufficient and politically independent. Although its members remained tightly intertwined by relationships of kinship, economic exchange, custom, and religious practice, a polis was often subject to powerful revolutionary forces. Moreover, as the Greeks continued to found new colonies around the Mediterranean and Black Sea, they had to address basic constitutional issues: for example, what laws and political institutions should be established? Who should be recognized as citizens? It is understandable, then, that the polis was the object of reflection by Greek philosophers. A broad historical investigation of the Greek polis is currently being conducted by a team of scholars under the auspices of the Copenhagen Polis Center and its director, Mogens Herman Hansen.

The rise of Greek political thought was facilitated by the existence in the ancient Greek language of an elaborate political vocabulary based on the word polis. The following terms occur frequently:

polis = city, state, city-state

politês = citizen

politis  = female citizen

politeia = constitution, regime

politeuma = governing class

politeuesthai = participate in government

politik = of or pertaining to the polis or to a citizen

The adjective with the stem politik (the ancestor of the modern term ‘political’) has masculine (poli tikos), feminine (politikê), and neuter (politikon) forms. For example,

ho politikos (sc. anêr) = the politician or statesman

politikê archê = political office or political rule

politika (sc. pragmata) = political things (title of Aristotle’s Politics)

Finally, the feminine politikê is applied in various ways to the discipline of political thought:

politikê technê = political art

politikê epistêmê = political science

politikê philosophia = political philosophy

hê politikê = politics

The political vocabulary of English and many other modern languages is based on polis and partly on civis, the Latin word for ‘citizen.’ Consequently, and as the above list of equivalents shows, English does not mark out the special field of politics as vividly as Greek. It is especially difficult to render the word polis in English. It is variously translated as ‘city,’ ‘state,’ or ‘city-state,’ or else simply transliterated as ‘polis.’ Each rendering has disadvantages, and none of them suggests the interconnections among, for example, ‘citizen,’ ‘statesman,’ ‘constitution,’ and ‘politician.’

The unity of Greek political terminology lends the polis enough substantiality to be the subject of literary as well as philosophical works. According to some recent scholars, the polis was enough of a concrete entity in Thucydides’s eyes to displace individual men and women as the subject of his history. Thus, the eminent classicist Hugh Lloyd-Jones writes that Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War ‘is not the tragedy of Pericles, or of Alcibiades, or of any man or men, but the tragedy of Athens’ (1971: 144).


In addition to the strictly political vocabulary there are a number of related pairs of opposites that set the parameters and provide the universal themes of Greek political thought. Two of them have been noted already: ruler and subject, and free and slave. Some others are concord (homonoia, literally ‘like-mindedness’) and faction (stasis), persuasion and force, justice and injustice, and nature (phusis) and convention (nomos).

Two stories from Aesop illustrate the Greek attitude toward concord and faction, and persuasion and force. The first is about a farmer and his factious sons. When arguments were insufficient to get his sons to stop fighting with each other, the farmer turned to action and asked them to bring him a bundle of sticks. He ordered them to break the bundle, which try as they might they couldn’st do. He then untied the bundle and gave his sons the sticks one at a time, which they now broke easily. This illustrates, he told them, their invincibility while in concord and their weakness while engaged in faction (Aesopica 53). (On homonoia see also Democritus, DK 250, and Xenophon, Mem. IV.4.16.) The second story concerns a quarrel between the Sun and the North Wind over who was the more powerful. They decided that the quarrel would be won by whichever of the two could strip the clothes off a passer-by. The North Wind went first and blew hard, thinking by the sheer force of his blast to blow the man’s clothes off. The man responded by pulling his clothes more tightly around himself. The Sun, taking his turn, shone down upon the man and brought him relief from the cold, raw wind. When the Sun shone more brightly still, the man threw off his clothes. The moral of this story is that persuasion is often more effective than force (Aesopica 46).

Justice and injustice are among the themes of the earliest works of Greek civilization that have come down to us. The wrath of Achilles of which Homer writes in the Iliad is caused by Agamemnon’s unjust commandeering of the beautiful girl Briseis, the portion of the plunder awarded Achilles after a raid. The loss of the girl, representing as it does a loss of honour (Iliad I.171), touches his ego, his thumos, as much as his id. But Achilles too is in the wrong for not properly honouring Agamemnon (Iliad I.275-9). The Iliad is, thus, among other things, about a dispute over the just distribution of honour, the honour due to a great warrior and the honour due to a king (see, for example, Iliad IX.158-61, IX.318-36). As distributive justice is a theme of the Iliad, retributive justice is a theme of the Odyssey retribution for the injustice of Penelope’s suitors in their courtship of her, in their conduct in Odysseus’s house, and in their treatment of a stranger (Odysseus in disguise) (for the injustice of the suitors see Odyssey II.282, XIV.90). Lloyd-Jones (1971) argues that the justice of the gods is a major theme of Homer’s epics and that it continues to be a theme of Greek poetry, historiography, and philosophy until traditional ideas about the morality of the gods succumb to Plato’s destructive criticism. (Balot, 2001, is a valuable discussion of injustice in classical Athens.)

The crucial distinction among these pairs of opposites for the philosopher or theorist interested in the foundations of political thought is that between nature and convention, phusis and nomos. Nomos stands to phusis as the artificial, the man-made, stands to the real, and as common opinion stands to truth (Aristotle, Sophistici Elenchi 12.173a7-18). Two stock examples of the conventional are money (Aristotle, Pol. I.9.1257b10-17) and the names of things—one’s own name, for example (Plato, Crat. 384d). The idea that nomos and phusis are antithetical seems to have originated in the fifth century bc. Once it gained currency it set the terms for the discussion of ethical and political ideas. A favourite way of undermining the validity of something was to argue that it existed only by nomos and not by phusis (Plato,Laws X.889e-890a). Thus, when Antigone in Sophocles’ play invokes the eternal unwritten law calling upon her to bury her brother in the face of the law of Creon demanding that her brother remain unburied, her appeal to the eternal law (Sophocles, Antigone 456-8) is taken by Aristotle to be an appeal to nature in spite of the fact that her speech does not mention phusis (Rhet. I.13.1373b1-18, I.15.1375a25-b4). (There is a large literature on this distinction. One of the major works on the nomos-phusis distinction is Heinimann, 1945. On the evolution of ancient legal thought from earliest times see Miller, 2004.)


Given the antithesis between nomos and phusis, it is natural to wonder, once one becomes acquainted with the variety of nomoi among different peoples, whether any action, law, or custom is fine or just by phusis. Herodotus notes that all men think their own customs, or nomoi, are the finest (kallistoi, ‘most beautiful,’ ‘noblest’), offering in illustration the following anecdote. When Darius, the Persian king, asked some Greeks who were with him if they could be persuaded by a sum of money to eat their fathers’s corpses, they replied that no amount of money would induce them to do that. He then turned to some Indians whose custom it is to do just that, asked them what they would charge to cremate their parents (the custom of the Greeks), and received in reply a cry of horror (Herodotus III.38). What follows from this anecdote, strictly speaking, is only that the Indians and the Greeks cannot both be right in thinking their own custom for dealing with their parents’s remains is the finest; it does not follow that they are both wrong or that the two customs stand on an equal footing with respect to fineness. On the other hand, it seems like narrow-minded prejudice to affirm, in the face of cultural diversity, the superiority of one’s own customs. Thus, Aristotle remarks that ‘fine and just actions… exhibit much variation and fluctuation, so that they seem to exist by nomos only, not by phusis’ (ENI.3.1094b14-16). It is but a short (though invalid) step from cultural diversity to moral relativism.

There are other paths to moral relativism. Protagoras, the most prominent advocate of moral relativism in antiquity, derived it from a more general ontological relativism. In the opening and only surviving sentence of his work on Truth, Protagoras famously proclaimed that ‘man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.’ Plato takes Protagoras to mean that ‘things are to me as they appear to me, and are to you as they appear to you’ (Crat. 386a) and in general that ‘what seems true to each [man] is true for each [man]’ (Crat. 386c). Moral relativism is just one application of this universal relativism. In Socrates’s elaborate account of Protagoras in Plato’s Theaetetus, ontological and moral relativism are discussed in tandem. By the man-measure principle, if the wind feels cold to me but not to you, then the wind is cold for me but not cold for you (Tht. 152b); and by the same principle, ‘whatever things appear just and fine to each polis are so for it as long as it holds by them’ (Tht. 167c4-5). As the latter passage makes plain, the man-measure formula in Plato’s view applies to collections of men as well as to individual men. In one passage Protagoras is even made to apply his formula to individuals and poleis indifferently: ‘what seems to each private person and to each polis actually is [for them]’ (Tht. 168b5-6). Since by the man-measure formula ‘seems Fto a’ entails‘is F for a,’ there is for Protagoras nothing more ultimate than appearances, nothing deeper than convention. In particular, as Socrates duly notes, on Protagorean principles no polis is just by nature (Tht.172b).

The extent to which Socrates’ account of Protagoras can safely be attributed to the historical Protagoras remains an open question. The very fact that Protagoras does not speak for himself in the dialogue but only through Socrates should put the reader on his guard; it may be Plato’s way of disclaiming historical accuracy. Some scholars think, nevertheless, that there are clues within the speeches of Socrates that allow a careful reader to distinguish the ideas that are authentically Protagorean from those that are Plato’s own invention. When Socrates refers to the ‘secret doctrine’ of Protagoras at Theaetetus 152c10, for example, this is taken by such scholars to indicate that Plato is shifting from an account of Protagoras’s explicit doctrine to an implication that in Plato’s view can be reasonably drawn from the explicit doctrine (see, for example, McDowell, 1973: 121-2). Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a mark of Plato’s genius that relativism, very much as Socrates explains it in the Theaetetus, has taken on a life of its own unmoored from both Plato and Protagoras.

Socrates’s account of Protagoras is combined with spirited criticism. One question that arises about Protagoras’s universal relativism is whether it is self-refuting (Tht. 170a-171c). Applied to itself the Protagorean formula asserts that ‘man is the measure’ is true for those for whom it seems true. But to most men the Protagorean formula seems false. Thus, the formula is more false than true. (For more on self-refutation see Burnyeat, 1976.) A second problem, a problem in the political realm, relates to Protagoras’s claim to be wiser than others and on that basis to deserve his high fees (Tht. 167c-d). What role can there be for a wise man, a sophist, one might wonder, if truth is relative? Speaking through Socrates, Protagoras has an interesting answer to this question. He claims not access to truth that is denied to lesser mortals but rather an ability to change the way things appear to poleis: when harmful things seem just to a given polis the wise man can make beneficial things seem and be just to that polis. This response leads directly to a third problem over which Protagorean relativism seems to break down (Tht. 177c-179b). The laws of a polis, Socrates claims, aim at what is advantageous for the polis in the future. According to the man-measure formula, what seems to a lawmaker to be to the future advantage of his polis is to the future advantage of his polis; but when the future arrives, it may seem to be (and hence actually be) to his polis’s disadvantage. What seemed true may not be true.

The Platonic dialogue bearing Protagoras’s name contains a long passage (Prot. 320c-328d), customarily referred to as Protagoras’ ‘Great Speech,’ filled with ideas relating to political philosophy. Since the Great Speech and Socrates’s account of relativism in the Theaetetus are associated with the same philosopher, it is natural to wonder if the two are connected and to wonder, in particular, if the relativism expounded in the Theaetetus has any bearing on the political thought of the Great Speech. This is primarily an issue of the relation of the two fore-mentioned passages; whether it is also an issue concerning the historical Protagoras depends upon their authenticity. The authenticity of the Great Speech is difficult to gauge since the work or works of Protagoras on which it might be based are lost. (For a recent defence of its authenticity see Nill, 1985: 5-22.)

The Great Speech is an answer to two Socratic arguments that the political art (hê politikê technê), which Protagoras claims to teach, cannot in fact be taught. The answer is given first in myth (muthos) (Prot.320c-324d)—not to be taken literally, given Protagoras’ well-known agnosticism about the gods (DK 4 and Tht. 162e)—and then in argument (logos) (Prot. 324d-328d). The mythological answer is that the gifts of Zeus, justice and shame (aidôs) and the rest of political virtue (politikê aretê), unlike the technical skills such as metallurgy, spinning, and weaving distributed by Prometheus, are given to everyone. Demythologized, the gifts of the gods are the gifts of teachers, and the point of the myth is that political virtue is taught to everybody by everybody.

The Great Speech touches upon most of the antitheses that structure Greek political philosophy. Persuasion and force are the means by which justice and shame are taught (Prot. 325d5). Plato’s Protagoras, supposedly an advocate of the art of persuasion, is a surprisingly strong believer in the efficacy of the use of force. The child who resists his teachers’ admonitions about the unjust, impious, and base, ‘is straightened by threats and blows, like a piece of bent or warped wood’ (Prot. 325d; see also 322d, 325ab, 327d). Although nomos andphusis are not explicitly distinguished until later in the dialogue (Prot.337d), one of the themes of the Great Speech is that justice and shame come not by nature but by teaching (Prot. 323c-d). Since these virtues make possible ‘the bonds of friendship’ (Prot. 322c3)—the Protagorean version of homonoia these bonds and the poleis they hold together do not exist by nature either.

The prime interpretive issue concerning the Great Speech is its connection with the universal relativism of Socrates’s account of Protagoras in the Theaetetus. Some scholars such as Gregory Vlastos (1956: xvii) believe that Protagoras’s Great Speech presupposes his relativism, whereas others such as S. Moser and G. L. Kustas (1966) deny any connection with relativism. In any case a strong argument can be made that the Great Speech is inconsistent with a thoroughgoing relativism. In the Great Speech justice is given to man by Zeus to serve a particular purpose, namely, to create the bonds of friendship that hold a polis together. This end, or goal, would seem to limit the range of conceptions of justice. A notion that falls outside this range, that does not promote the bonds of friendship, would seem, by the theory of the Great Speech, not to be a notion of justice at all.

Another hotly debated issue concerning the Great Speech is whether it is a defence of democracy. The Great Speech does contain a defence of the democratic practice of the Athenian assembly of allowing every citizen a voice about issues of justice and temperance (Prot. 322d-323a). This has led one scholar to claim that Protagoras ‘has produced for the first time in human history a theoretical basis for participatory democracy’ (Kerferd, 1981: 144) and another to say that Protagoras is ‘the first democratic political theorist in the history of the world’ (Farrar, 1988: 77). Furthermore, there does seem to be a natural alliance between Protagorean relativism and democracy if the locus of relativism is the individual (Taylor, 1976: 83 4). By such relativism whatever seems good to citizen A is good for A, and whatever seems good to citizen B is good for B (Tht. 166c-d). But A and B cannot be friends if they thwart each other’s good. Thus, if there are to be the bonds of friendship, without which a polis cannot exist,A must take account of what seems good to B, and B of what seems good to A, and in general each citizen must take account of what seems good to every other citizen. Otherwise stasis results. But this ‘live and let live’ philosophy is one of the defining features of democracy. On the other hand, when the locus of relativity is shifted from the individual to the polis, Protagorean relativism does not seem to favour democracy over any other form of government: if oligarchy or monarchy seems just to the citizens of a polis, oligarchy or monarchy is just for them. (Rosen, 1994, is a useful survey of the extensive literature on both sides of this issue.)

A final issue of debate is whether a theory of the social contract can be found in the Great Speech. There are scholars on both sides of this issue. Although political relativism is consistent with a social contract, the elimination argument usually used to attribute a social contract theory to Protagoras—not by nature or by the gods, therefore by a social contract (see, for example, Guthrie, 1969: 137)—tacitly assumes a false disjunction. Another possibility, noted in passing by Plato, is that laws are due to chance in the guise of war, poverty, and disease (Laws IV.709a-b).

Schiappa (1991) is a recent book-length study of Protagoras.


The Greek word for a compact or a covenant is sunthêkê. There are four passages spread among Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus in which the word is used to express a view identifiable as a kind of social contract theory. In the Crito Socrates imagines what the Laws of Athens might say to him if he attempted to escape from prison: they would, he says, remind him of the covenants (sunthêkas) and agreements(homologias) through which he contracted with them to live as a citizen (Cr. 52d). In the Republic Glaucon, posing as devil’s advocate, asserts that the origin of justice lies in laws and covenants (sunthêkas) (Rep. II.359a). In the Politics Aristotle rejects the idea associated with the sophist Lycophron that law is a covenant (sunthêkê, ‘a surety to one another of just actions’) (Pol. III.9.1280a34-b12; for Lycophron see Mulgan, 1979). And, finally, in his Key Doctrines Epicurus says that ‘there never was a justice in itself, but only [a justice] in dealing with one another in whatever places there used always to be a covenant [sunthêkê] about neither harming nor being harmed’ (KD XXXI-XXXV = D.L. X.150-1). For the origins of social contract theory see Chroust (1946) and Kahn (1981).

These four passages share two ideas but differ on another. The two ideas that are shared are connected with the basic antitheses underlying Greek political thought. The first of these is that covenants are man-made, not gifts of the gods or of nature. The second is that the covenant to live as a citizen is also a compact to be of one mind (homo-noein). This idea rises to the surface in an interchange between Socrates and the sophist Hippias in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (IV.4). Hippias challenges Socrates to say what justice is, and Socrates responds like a contractarian by identifying the just with the lawful (Mem. IV.4.12). He goes on to connect obedience to the laws with concord, or homonoia, and to note that such homonoia is consistent with sharp disagreement on particular issues (Mem. IV.4.16).

The passages above differ over the relation of an original covenant to justice. In the Crito the personified Laws of Athens point out to Socrates that he has had 70 years to leave Athens ‘if his agreements [to live as a citizen under them] did not seem just to him’ (Cr. 52e). But if an agreement can be just or unjust, justice must be logically prior to the agreement; the agreement cannot be the origin of justice. This is what may be called ‘shallow contractualism.’ Deep contractualism, on the other hand, is the view that a covenant or an agreement is the origin of the distinction between justice and injustice. Glaucon and Epicurus in the passages cited above are deep contractualists. (Aristotle does not provide us with enough information about Lycophron to classify him one way or the other.) In modern philosophy Hobbes is a deep contractualist, Locke a shallow.

The shallow contractualism of the Crito raises at once the problem of principled disobedience. Since the covenant that Socrates, according to the Laws of Athens, tacitly consented to ‘by deeds, not by words’(Cr. 52d) is not the origin of justice, nothing in the covenant prevents laws and lawful orders from being unjust. Indeed, the Laws concede that Socrates’ lawful execution is unjust (Cr. 54bc). It is a Socratic principle, moreover, that one should never do anything unjust (Cr. 49b). Suppose, now, that the man ordered to administer the hemlock to Socrates realized that Socrates’ execution was unjust. Would the personified Laws of Athens allow him to disobey the lawful order? They insist, after all, that they do not issue savage commands, but offer two alternatives: persuade or obey (Cr. 52a). (Those who do neither are guilty of using force, the antithesis of persuasion, against Athens: Cr. 51c2.) The interpretation of the ‘persuade or obey’ doctrine is the central interpretive issue concerning the Crito, and it has generated a mountain of commentary. Interpretations range from authoritarian at one end of the spectrum—‘Change the law if you can; if you cannot, do what it commands or else emigrate’—to liberal at the other end—‘You can disobey as long as you act justly and render a persuasive account of your action.’ Every aspect of ‘persuade or obey’ raises a question. What is the nature of the disjunction? To whom is the persuasion addressed—the assembly or the popular courts? To what is obedience owed—an official’s command, a particular law or decree, or the legal system? What is it to persuade? Is it to try to convince or to succeed in convincing? Does it count as persuasion if one renders a reasonable account of a just action, whether one convinces anyone or not? The interpretation of the Crito is further complicated by the fact that in Plato’s Apology Socrates mentions several cases where he disobeyed or would disobey those in authority (Ap. 29c-d, 32a-e). (Five lengthy studies of these matters are: Allen, 1980; Brickhouse and Smith, 1994; Kraut, 1984; Santas, 1979; and Woozley, 1979.)

The Laws of Athens tell Socrates that he must do what his polis commands or persuade it ‘as to what is just by nature’ (hê(i) to dikaion pephuke) (Cr. 51c1). This seems to be an appeal to a higher standard than the laws themselves, the sort of standard needed by a person who thinks a law is unjust. The shallow contractualist will need to give an account of the ontological status of such a standard, an account missing from the Crito and from all of Plato’s early dialogues. This issue is bequeathed to the Republic and other middle dialogues.

Glaucon’s deep contractualism is based on views of human motivation, of human rationality, and of relative human equality (Rep. II.358e-359c). He supposes that people desire to get more and more, grabbing it from others if they can. But, being relatively equal, they lack the power to act unjustly and to avoid unjust treatment. Lacking such power but possessing what has come to be called ‘strategic rationality,’ they decide that it is in their interest to make a covenant with each other neither to act nor to be treated unjustly and ‘begin to make laws and covenants, and to call what the law commands “lawful” and “just”’ (Rep. II.359a3-4). Glaucon’s description of their situation before they make laws and covenants is not strictly accurate. Since their laws and covenants call into existence the just and the unjust, it is inconsistent to describe anything they do before they make their original covenants as unjust. To be consistent, Glaucon should have spoken of actions ‘that will come to be called “unjust”.’

On Glaucon’s view of justice as a necessary evil and a shackle of natural desires, no one is just willingly: people practise justice ‘as something necessary, not as something good’ (Rep. II.358c16-17). This is the point of the story of Gyges’s ring, the ring that makes its possessor ‘equal to a god among men’ (Rep. II.360c3) by giving him the power of invisibility. Glaucon claims that the possessor of such a ring would exploit its power to satisfy his natural desires unrestrained by justice. Antiphon in On Truth makes a similar point: if justice consists of obeying the laws of one’s polis, ‘a person would best use justice to his own advantage if he considered the laws [nomoi] important when witnesses are present, but the consequences of nature [phusis] important in the absence of witnesses’ (DK 44 col. 1; see also Caizz, 1999). The story of Gyges’ ring poses the problem that Plato addresses in the rest of the Republic, and echoes through the history of Western philosophy. Contemporary contractualists like Gauthier (1986: ch. 10) continue to worry about it, and Hobbes’ Foole seems to be a descendant of Gyges.


By ‘Platonism’ we refer to the rule of reason as Plato construes this idea in the four political dialogues Gorgias, Republic, Statesman, and Laws.

After 2,400 years there is still no settled interpretive strategy for reading Plato. Since he writes dialogues rather than treatises, the extent to which his characters speak for their author is bound to remain problematic. The major divide is between interpreters who respect Platonic anonymity and those who do not (see D.L. III.50-1). The former are impressed by the literary ‘distancing’ that Plato creates between himself and his readers. (The ideas attributed to Protagoras in the Theaetetus, for example, are thrice removed from Plato: they are expressed by Socrates, whose speeches are read in turn by Euclides, the narrator of the dialogue.) Interpreters who take such distancing seriously might be called ‘characterologists’ since they hold that the characters in the dialogues are literary characters who speak for themselves, not for Plato. Characterologists take the dialogues to be ‘sceptical,’ or aporetic, rather than ‘dogmatic,’ or doctrinal, and emphasize their dramatic and literary elements. Thus, Leo Strauss, a particularly fervent characterologist, claims that the dialogues must be read as dramas: ‘We cannot,’ he says, ‘ascribe to Plato any utterance of any of his characters without having taken great precautions’ (1964: 59). The opposing group of interpreters suppose that in each dialogue Plato has an identifiable spokesman: Socrates in the Gorgias and the Republic, the Eleatic Stranger in theStatesman, and the Athenian Stranger in the Laws (D.L. III.52). Such interpreters fall into three camps (1) Unitarians suppose that Plato’s spokesmen present a consistent doctrine in all four dialogues. (2) Developmentalists believe that the doctrine expressed by Plato’s spokesmen evolves from one dialogue to the next. They believe, of course, that the order of composition of our four dialogues can be established, the order usually favoured being, from earliest to latest, Gorgias, Republic, Statesman, Laws. (3) Particularists interpret each dialogue on its own. Though they allow that there may be thematic links among the four dialogues, they do not worry overly much about the relation of one dialogue in the group to the others. Griswold (1988) and Smith (1998: vol. I) are two useful collections of essays on interpretive strategies, and Tarrant (2000) is a major new work on Platonic interpretation.

The four great political dialogues form a connected series, the connecting link being the pre-eminent role assigned to reason and knowledge in politics. In the Laws the Athenian Stranger enumerates seven claims to rule—the claim of the wellborn to rule the base-born, the strong to rule the weak, and so forth—and concludes that the greatest claim of all is that of the wise to rule the ignorant (Laws III.690a-d). This conclusion is the animating idea of the four political dialogues. (We shall assume the current consensus on their order of composition.) In the Gorgias Socrates maintains that true statesmanship (politikê)differs from public speaking (rhetorikê) in being an art (technê) rather than an empirical knack (empeiria)—where an art, unlike an empirical knack, has a rational principle (logos) and can give the cause(aitia) of each thing (Gorg. 465a). He argues that none of the men reputed to be great Athenian statesmen practised true statesmanship (Gorg. 503b-c, 517a), and claims to be himself the only true statesman in Athens (Gorg. 521d6-9). In the Republic the role of reason and knowledge in politics is neatly encapsulated in the simile of the ship of state: just as a steersman must pay attention to sky, stars and wind if he is to be really qualified to rule a ship, so a statesman must have knowledge of the realm of Forms, a realm of incorporeal paradigms that exist beyond space and time, if he is to be really qualified to rule a polis (Rep. VI.488a7-489a6). Whether the theory of Forms was radically revised before the Statesman and Laws were written is a matter of great controversy. But, however that may be, the theme of the rule of reason is never abandoned or weakened. In the Statesman the Eleatic Stranger asserts that the only correct constitution is the one in which the rulers possess true statesmanship, all other constitutions being better or worse imitations of this one (Plt. 293c-294a, 296e4-297a5); and in the Laws the Athenian Stranger affirms the same principle (IX.875c3-d5). (The relations among these dialogues are discussed by Owen, 1953; Klosko, 1986; Laks, 1990; Gill, 1995; Kahn, 1995; and Kahn, 1996.)

The Gorgias is a forerunner of the Republic. The challenge of amoralism posed by Callicles and Polus in the Gorgias is reiterated by Thrasymachus and Glaucon in the Republic; but the response in theRepublic outstrips that in the Gorgias by as much as a nuclear eclipses a chemical explosion. The challenge of Gyges’s ring is to show that justice pays, that it is not a necessary evil but an intrinsic good. The response requires a definition of justice in the soul, or psychê. But instead of defining it directly Socrates first defines social justice, and then, assuming the analogy of polis and psyche, constructs a corresponding definition of psychic justice. The definition of social justice, as Socrates notes himself (Rep. IV.433a), is simply the principle of the natural division of labour, which was introduced to explain the origin of the polis. (According to Socrates, it is mutual need that gives rise to the polis rather than, as Glaucon hypothesized, fear of harm.) This is not the economic principle championed by Adam Smith and modern economists but an implicitly anti-democratic affirmation of human inequality and implasticity. Socrates’s principle has three parts: that a person has a natural aptitude for one sort of work, that he should devote his life to it, and that he should pursue no other (Rep. II.370a5-c6, 374b6-c2). The three great natural aptitudes (in terms of the myth of the metals) are for ruling (gold), for guarding (silver), and for working (iron and bronze), which by an application of the principle of the natural division of labour give rise to the three-tiered political structure of rulers, warriors, and workers (Rep. III.415a-c). The just polis is the one in which each person does the one job for which he is suited by nature and no other: rulers rule, warriors defend, and workers provision the polis (Rep. IV.432b-434c). By an independent argument Socrates infers that the psyche has three parts analogous to the three parts of the just polis, and then, following a principle of isomorphism, defines a just psyche as one with the same structure as a just polis. Thus, in a just psyche each of the psychic elements sticks to its own work: reason rules the psyche; spirit, or thumos, defends it from insult; and the appetites provide for its bodily support (Rep.IV.441d-442b). Psychic justice turns out to be something like mental health, an intrinsic good no one wants to be without, so the challenge of Thrasymachus and Glaucon is answered (Rep. IV.444c-445b). There is an ongoing controversy, however, over the cogency of Socrates’ response. For it is unclear that the Platonically ‘just’ man is just in the sense of the problem of Gyges’s ring. What prevents the Platonically just man from harming others? (The controversy, stoked by Sachs, 1963, has generated an enormous literature. Dahl, 1991, is a good representative of the current state of the debate.)

The absolute power of the rulers in Socrates’s just polis is justified by their knowledge, especially their knowledge of what is really good. As all the world knows, they are philosophers as well as rulers, not run-of-the-mill philosophers (like you and me) but brilliant individuals whose extraordinary talents and rigorous education have gained them access to a realm of Forms existing outside time and space—the realm of reality and nature (Rep. VI.501b2, X.597b6-598a3). At the apex of the realm of Forms stands the Form of the Good, the source of the being and truth of all other Forms and of the psyche’s knowledge of them (Rep. VI.506d-509c). Given the metaphysics and epistemology of the Republic, the argument for the rule of philosopher-kings is straightforward: only true philosophers know what is really good and how to achieve it; everyone seeks what is really good, not what merely seems good (Rep. VI.505d5-10); whoever seeks an end seeks the means to that end; consequently, everyone (whether they realize it or not) really seeks to be ruled by a philosopher-king. (Santas, 2001, is a ground-breaking study of the central concepts of the Republic.)

The Republic is the most controversial work in Greek philosophy. There is no settled interpretation of the dialogue as a whole, of any of its parts, or even of its characters. Of the current controversies surrounding its political ideas the most notable concern its communism, its view of women, its hostility toward Athenian democracy, and its utopianism. Plato’s rejection of private, or separate, families and of private property (at least for the rulers and warriors of his ideal polis) is usually examined through the lens of Aristotle’s critique of Platonic communism in Politics II.1-5. T. H. Irwin (1991) and Robert Mayhew (1997) reach opposite conclusions about the cogency of Aristotle’s critique. Whether Plato was a feminist and whether he masculinized women are hotly debated issues, especially among feminist philosophers. Tuana (1994) is a collection of diverse essays on this topic. Plato vents his hostility toward Athenian democracy not only in his sarcastic description of democracy in Book VIII but throughout the dialogue. His unfavourable view of Athenian democracy is implicit already in the principle of the natural division of labour introduced in Book II, one target of which is the pretension of the typical Athenian citizen to play multiple roles, to be at different times throughout the year worker, warrior, and ruler. Plato’s advocacy of intellectual aristocracy and caustic criticism of democracy were vigorously attacked in Popper (1971), the most provocative book published on Plato in the twentieth century. Though the intense controversy that erupted when the book was originally published in 1945 has abated, the issue is by no means dead. Monoson (2000), for example, disputes the canonical view of Plato as virulent antidemocrat. The controversy turns to some extent on one’s interpretation of Plato’s utopianism. Is the ideally just polis in Plato’s view a revolutionary goal, a guide for reform, a standard for evaluating existing constitutions, or something else entirely? A case can be made for each of these alternatives. The fact that the standard for being a true philosopher is set so high that even Socrates, by his own admission (Rep. VI.506b2-e5), fails to qualify strongly suggests that the ideal polis is not intended as an attainable ideal. (New books on the Republic appear regularly. Among the most notable are Cross and Woozley, 1964; Annas, 1981; White, 1979; and Reeve, 1988. Three recent collections of essays are particularly helpful: Fine, 1999: vol. II; Kraut, 1997b; and Höffe, 1997.)

In the Statesman the Eleatic Stranger pursues the idea of the rule of reason to its logical terminus and draws a conclusion that in the Republic remains tacit—that knowledge by itself provides sufficient warrant for the application of force, even deadly force, when persuasion fails (for the antithesis see Plt. 296b1, 304d4). It is within the bounds of justice, according to the Eleatic Stranger, for the true statesman, the man who possesses the political art and is ‘truly and not merely apparently a knower,’ to purge his polis, with or without law, with or without the consent of his subjects, by killing or banishing some of its members (Plt. 293a2-e2). The only true constitution is the one ruled by such a person. Since such persons are exceedingly rare (Plt. 292e1-293a4, 297b7-c2), a central question is how a polis bereft of a true statesman can share in reason. The answer of the Eleatic Stranger is that it can share through law, law being an imitation of the truth apprehended by the true statesman (Plt. 300c5-7, 300e11-301a4). Since the true statesman rules without law, there is a better and a worse way of imitating him. The rulers of a polis can imitate reason’s rule by ruling according to reason’s reflection in law, or they can imitate reason’s lawlessness by ruling contrary to law (Plt. 300e7-301c5). Given that the rulers are one, few, or many, there are three good and three bad imitations of the one true constitution. Since the fewer the rulers the stronger the rule, the six imitations form a hierarchy, fewer rulers being better when rule is according to law but worse when it is contrary (Plt. 302b5-303b5). The rulers under these imitative constitutions, we learn, are not statesmen at all but factionists (stasiastikoi); concord (homonoia) and friendship (philia), each an antithesis of faction, are within the purview only of the ruler of the one true constitution (Plt. 303c2, 311b9). One matter of controversy is the extent to which this latter ruler is a reprise of the philosopher-king of the Republic. (After long neglect the Statesman has recently come into the spotlight. Lane, 1998, is a study of its political philosophy; and Rowe, 1995, is an extensive collection of papers on all aspects of the dialogue.)

The Laws reaffirms the ideal of reason ruling without law but devotes itself entirely to the second best, order and law, since, as the Athenian Stranger explains, such ideal rule exists nowhere ‘except to a small extent’ (Laws IX.875c3-d5). In line with the change in focus the status of law subtly improves. The Athenian Stranger differs from the Eleatic Stranger in regarding law as an embodiment, rather than as merely an imitation, of reason. The various pairs of antitheses that structure Greek political philosophy provide a convenient framework for understanding the Athenian Stranger’s concept of law and his view of the mixed constitution developed in tandem with it. The important distinction between numerical and proportionate equality underlies the Stranger’s account of justice and its antithesis (Laws VI.756e-758a). Numerical equality, the equality of measure, weight, and number, counts each citizen the equal of any other; proportionate (or true) equality distributes honours in proportion to the virtue of the recipients, equals to equals, unequals to unequals. The Athenian Stranger calls proportionate equality ‘political justice’ and claims that it should be the guide in making laws and establishing poleis, though he reluctantly concedes that numerical equality must also play a role if stasis is to be avoided. Constitutions are divided into those that aim at the advantage of the stronger—at the continuation of the rule of those in power—and those that aim at what is common to the whole polis. The former are not constitutions at all strictly speaking, and those who live under them are factionists (stasiôtai) rather than citizens(politai). Only true constitutions have correct laws (orthoi nomoi) (Laws IV.714b-715b; see also III.697d). Which are the true constitutions? In the view of the Athenian Stranger only those that combine the principles of monarchy and democracy by distributing their offices on the basis of both proportionate and numerical equality (Laws III.693d2-e3). No pure, or unmixed, constitution, not even aristocracy or kingship, is a true constitution (Laws IV.712c-713a, VIII.832b10-c3). In framing correct laws the lawgiver aims at three things: freedom (the antithesis of slavery), friendship (the antithesis of faction), and wisdom (Laws III.693b3-5, 693d7-e1, 701d7-9). Through a strange paradox freedom is achieved through its antithesis. Enslavement to the laws is a major theme of the Laws (Laws III.698c1, 699c3, VI.762e4-5). When the rulers are slaves of the laws, safety and good things abound; when they enslave the laws, they destroy the polis by creating faction (Laws IV.715d, IX.856b). Similarly, persuasion and its antithesis are both elements of law (Laws IV.722b6). Persuasion is better than force, and statutes are to be accompanied by persuasive prefaces designed to motivate obedience; but sanctions must be attached to laws to rein in those who cannot be persuaded. One interpretive issue concerns the nature of this persuasion: is it manipulative persuasion or rational persuasion? Bobonich (1991) is a vigorous defence of the latter alternative. The third and most important instance of the union of antitheses is the uniting of law and nature, of nomos and phusis. The correctness of law, we are led to understand, is founded in nature (Laws I.627d3-4, 636b4-5, III.690c1-3, VIII.836c1-2), where nature is divine reason (Laws X.890d6-7). (Until recently the Laws has been a lonely field of research. Morrow, 1960, is still after 40 years the most important work in English on the dialogue. Pangle, 1980; Stalley, 1983; Saunders, 1991; Benardete, 2000; and Bobonich, 2002, represent the increasing interest in it.)


We discuss Aristotle’s political philosophy under the banner of ‘naturalism’ because of the prominent role played by nature in the Politics and because of the continuity between his concept of nature and the modern concept. Plato had already attempted to combat Protagorean relativism and conventionalism by an appeal to nature, but the nature to which he appealed was either divine reason (in the Laws) or a realm of incorporeal and changeless Forms existing beyond time and space (in the Republic). Though Aristotle too wishes to combat relativism by an appeal to nature, he wishes to do so without invoking a suprasensible standard or a supernatural being: his aim is to avoid Platonism as well as relativism. As Raphael’s famous painting The School of Athens so beautifully illustrates, Aristotle, by identifying nature with the realm of sensible objects and of change (Metaph. XII.1.1069a30-b2), brings it down to earth. Aristotle’s concept of nature, unlike Plato’s, would be recognizable to a modern physicist or biologist.

Aristotle regards the Ethics (in either its Eudemian or Nicomachean incarnation) as well as the Politics as a political treatise (ENI.2.1094b10-11; Rhet. I.2.1356a25-7; [MM I.l.1181a24-8, b24-8]). The two works are so closely intertwined that neither can be understood in isolation from the other. The ideal political community sketched in Politics VII-VIII has as its aim the life of virtue and happiness described in the Ethics; and the fundamental virtue in the Politics namely, justice (III.13.1283a38-40)—is the topic of Nicomachean Ethics V (= Eudemian Ethics IV). By the same token, many of the virtues studied in the Ethics such as bravery, munificence, and justice relate in one way or another to a political community; the life of moral virtue is for Aristotle a political life; and the theory of the Ethics cannot be put into practice without the aid of statesmen and lawgivers. (For more on the relation of the two treatises see Newman, 1887-1902: vol. II, 385-401 and Bodéüs, 1993.)

Nature makes its first appearance in three basic theorems that stand as the portal to the Politics: (1) the polis exists by nature, (2) man is by nature a political animal, and (3) the polis is prior by nature to the individual (Pol. I.2). These statements are referred to as theorems because they are not simply asserted but argued for. Nothing concerning them or the arguments supporting them is uncontroversial. The very content of the theorems is contested, for it is unclear what ‘nature’ means in each of them. Aristotle distinguishes several senses of ‘nature’ (Phys. II.1; Metaph. V.4), the most important of which correspond to his four causes (final, formal, efficient, and material); but he usually relies on the context to indicate the intended sense of a particular occurrence of the term. It has even been suggested that ‘nature’ has an entirely different sense in the Politics than it has in the physical and metaphysical treatises. The controversy over the content of the theorems leads naturally to controversy over the arguments for them. What is Aristotle tacitly assuming? Are the arguments valid or invalid? How plausible are his premises? The tenability of Aristotle’s naturalism depends upon the answer to these questions. (For the controversy see Ambler, 1985; Keyt, 1991b; Depew, 1995; Miller, 1995: 27-66; and Saunders, 1995: 59-71.)

Aristotle’s analysis of nature leads to a complex treatment of the antithesis between phusis and nomos. Nomos (law) is ‘a kind of order,’ in that it organizes human conduct through its commands and prohibitions (Pol. VII.4.1326a29-30). The legal is a product of human reason (legislative science) and is thus opposed to the ‘natural,’ in the sense of what has a natural efficient cause (see EN V.7.1134b18-1135a4). But Aristotle implies that law can (and should) be ‘natural,’ in the sense of having a natural final cause, that is, of promoting natural human ends (see Pol. I.2.1253a29-39). It is only in the Rhetoricthat Aristotle explicitly discusses natural law (I.10.1368b7-9, 13.1373b2-18, and 15.1375a25-b26). How this discussion relates to his discussion of natural justice in the Ethics and Politics is unclear, and this has generated controversy over whether Aristotle is ‘the father of natural law’ (for the controversy see: Shellens, 1959; Miller, 1991; Burns, 1998).

The concept of natural existence paves the way for the notion of an unnatural condition, and along with it an account of the opposition between force and persuasion. Only a natural entity can be in a natural or an unnatural condition: a horse can be blind and deaf, but not a statue of a horse (see Pol. I.5.1254a34-b9). Furthermore, Aristotle identifies what is contrary to nature with what is forced (Cael. I.2.300a23). He also thinks that natural entities, unlike artifacts, are unified wholes by nature and not by force (Metaph. X.1.1052a22-5). It follows, then, that it is unnatural for a polis, which in Aristotle’s view is a natural entity, to be a unified whole by force. This means that coercion and brute force are alien to a polis in a natural condition (the ramifications of this point are explored in Keyt, 1996). In a political setting the alternative to force is its antithesis, persuasion, the source of willing obedience (for the opposition see EEII.8.1224a39). Aristotle devotes an entire treatise to this subject, and addresses the question of political persuasion specifically (Rhet. I.4, 8). One central issue is whether persuasion in Aristotle’s view is essentially concerned with truth (compare Rhet. I.1.1355a29-33 and I.2.1356a19-20). Scholars are found on both sides of this issue and in the middle as well. (Three works that span the spectrum are Oates, 1963; Engberg-Pederson, 1996; Wörner, 1990.)

Aristotle’s account of justice and injustice is one expression of his naturalism. The prime justificatory principle in the Politics is that everything within the sphere of social conduct that is (un)natural is (un)just(Pol. I.3.1253b20-3, 5.1254a17-20, 1255a1-3, 10.1258a40-b2; III.16.1287a8-18, 17.1287b37-9; VII.3.1325b7-10, 9.1329a13-17). In the Ethics Aristotle distinguishes universal justice (or lawfulness) from particular justice (or fairness) and divides the latter into distributive and corrective justice (ENV.l-4). His theory of distributive justice consists in the combination of his justice-of-nature principle with the Platonic principle of proportional equality. By this theory a just constitution is one under which political power is distributed in proportion to worth, where worth is assessed according to the standard of nature the standard of a polis with a completely natural social and political structure. Aristotle describes such a polis in Politics VII-VIII, and virtue, rather than wealth or freedom, turns out to be nature’s standard (for details see Keyt, 1991a).

Since the perception of injustice often leads to stasis, or faction, the opposition between homonoia and stasis is closely tied to that between justice and injustice. Aristotle discusses stasis in Politics V andhomonoia, or like-mindedness, in Eudemian Ethics VII.7 and Nicomachean Ethics IX.6. Poleis are of one mind, Aristotle says, ‘when their citizens agree about what is advantageous, choose the same things, and do that which is decided upon in common,’ whereas when each of two rivals wishes himself to rule, they engage in stasis (EN IX.6.1167a26-34). The rulers under correct constitutions cultivate homonoiaby aiming at the common advantage, whereas those under deviant constitutions generate stasis by aiming solely at their own advantage (Pol. III.6.1279a 17-20). Scholars disagree over whether Aristotle understands the common advantage as the overall advantage (holism) or the mutual advantage (individualism). If the latter, then Aristotle’s theory of justice supports rights, or just claims, in an interesting sense. (For varying views see Miller, 1995 and 1996; Cooper, 1996; Kraut, 1996; Schofield, 1996. For Aristotle’s account of stasis see Yack, 1993, and the commentary on Politics V in Keyt, 1999.)

Aristotle’s treatment of slavery and its antithesis is also rooted in his naturalism. Aristotle’s defence of natural slavery in Politics I.3-7 is the most notorious passage in ancient philosophy. Aristotle argues that any person whose deliberative capacity is too enfeebled to provide for his own preservation is by nature a slave and, hence, can be justly enslaved. But who are these people? Are any of them Greeks? How strong is Aristotle’s argument and are its premises consistent with Aristotle’s own principles (see Newman, 1887-1902: vol. II, 146)? In Aristotle’s ideal polis the farmers are slaves (Pol. VII.9.1329a26, 10.1330a25-8). Are they slaves by nature or slaves by law only? Aristotle’s idea that freedom should be held out to them as a reward (Pol. VII.10.1330a32-3) seems inconsistent with their being natural slaves (and hence in need of a master); but if they are slaves by law only, his ideal polis, supposedly a paradigm of justice, rests on a grave injustice. (For discussion of some of these issues see Charles, 1990: 191, 196; Smith, 1991.)

The idea of slavery is not exhausted by Aristotle’s much pilloried defence of natural slavery; it enters his analysis of constitutions, and runs as an undercurrent through the entire Politics. According to this analysis constitutions that are based on force (Pol. III.3.1276a12-13, 10.1281a23-4) and are contrary to nature (Pol. III.17.1287b37-41) are despotic (despotikai) (Pol. III.7.1279a21). Despotikê is the adjective of despotês, ‘master (of slaves).’ The subjects under despotic constitutions (democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny in Aristotle’s view) are thus taken to be virtual slaves. Since most constitutions in the fourth century bc were democracies, oligarchies, or tyrannies, it is implied that almost everyone outside a ruling circle was a virtual slave.

The antithesis between rulers and subjects is a major topic in the Politics. Aristotle articulates a principle tacitly assumed in most of Greek political thought—that political communities must divide into rulers and ruled (Pol. VII.14.1332b12-13). This principle of rulership is an instance of a broader Aristotelian principle applicable to all of nature that in every unified entity there is ruler and ruled (Pol. I.5.1254a28-33). What this broader principle denies is that order ever arises spontaneously by an ‘invisible hand’ (as in a free economy) without some governing power. (For discussion see Miller, 1995: 366-73.)

The difference of political rule from regal and despotic rule, the key question of the Politics introduced in its opening chapter, is part of the same topic. Political rule is rule over people who are free and equal where each one rules and is ruled in turn (Pol. I.7.1255b20, III.6.1279a8-10). Such rule is characteristic of democracy (Pol. VI.2.1317a40-b17). Aristotle is more favourable to democracy than Plato, and in his famous ‘summation’ argument, which applies his favoured standard for distributing political power to men taken collectively as well as individually (Pol. III.11), he even offers an ‘aristocratic’ justification (for which see Keyt, 1991a: 270-2; Waldron, 1995). Political rule in Aristotle’s view is also the proper form of rule of a husband over his wife—as long as the husband is permanently ensconced as ruler (Pol. I.12.1259a37-b10). The rule is political since women have the same deliberative capacity as men, but it should be permanently in the hands of the husband since woman’s reason in Aristotle’s view is akuron ‘without authority’ (Pol. I.13.1260a13). This raises one question about Aristotle’s concept of political rule and another about his views of women. How can rule be political if one person is permanently ruled by another? And in justifying such permanent rule of husband over wife, what can Aristotle mean when he says that woman’s reason is ‘without authority’? Without authority over what—over her emotions (the intrapersonal interpretation) or over men (the interpersonal interpretation)? (Not surprisingly there is a large literature on Aristotle’s treatment of women. For a sample see Fortenbaugh, 1977; Saxonhouse, 1982; Smith, 1983; Swanson, 1992; Bar On, 1994.)

(After 100 years Newman, 1887-1902, is still the most important work on Aristotle’s Politics. Two recent commentaries are the unfinished series Schütrumpf, 1991a; 1991b; Schütrumpf and Gehrke, 1996; and the four volumes of the Clarendon Aristotle Series: Saunders, 1995; Robinson, 1995; Kraut, 1997a; and Keyt, 1999. Miller, 1995, and Kraut, 2002, are major studies of Aristotle’s political philosophy. Lord, 1982, and Curren, 2000, are studies of Aristotle’s views on education. Six collections of essays should be noted: Barnes, Schofield and Sorabji, 1977; Patzig, 1990; Keyt and Miller, 1991; Lord, O’sConnor and Bodéüs, 1991; Aubenque, 1993; Höffe, 2001. Galston, 1980, is an example of neo-Aristotelianism.)


Whereas Aristotle appeals to nature to vindicate the polis, at least one philosopher appeals to nature to undermine it and everything conventional. That philosopher is Diogenes the Cynic (kuôn,‘dog’), a contemporary of Plato and Aristotle.

As a champion of (primitive) nature (phusis), Diogenes led a life as free as possible from the bondage of material goods, possessing only a single cloak, a staff, and a beggar’s wallet, and dwelling in a wine-jar. As a foe of convention (nomos), he made a point of performing all bodily functions including urinating, defecating, and masturbating in public.

A full-blown anarchism is implied by some of the sayings attributed to this ‘Socrates gone mad’ (D.L. VI.54). He claimed to be without a polis (apolis) (D.L. VI.38), said that ‘the only correct constitution is that in the cosmos’ (D.L. VI.72), and declared himself to be a citizen of the cosmos (kosmopolitês) (D.L. VI.63). The second of these sayings entails that no constitution in a polis is correct (and hence just) whereas the first and third may be taken, consonant with this, to disavow citizenship in any polis. In the same spirit the famous anecdote of Diogenes’ encounter with Alexander the Great illustrates among other things his scorn for political power. Coming upon Diogenes sunning himself, Alexander asks what he can do for him and draws the reply, ‘Stand out of my light’ (D.L. VI.38; see also VI.32, 60, and 68). Diogenes had similar anarchistic ideas about slavery and marriage. ‘To those who advised him to pursue his runaway slave, he said, “It would be absurd if Manes can live without Diogenes, but Diogenes cannot without Manes”’ (D.L. VI.55). Diogenes implies in this saying that slavery should be a voluntary relation resting on the need of the slave for a master. ‘He also said that wives should be held in common, recognizing no marriage except the joining together of him who persuades with her who is persuaded’ (D.L. VI.72). In this saying Diogenes advocates free cohabitation and disavows marriage based on coercion.

(Navia, 1995, is an annotated bibliography of over 700 items on the Cynics. Two books on Cynicism that appeared subsequent to the bibliography are Branham and Goulet-Cazé, 1996, an extensive collection of essays, and Navia, 1996, an important new study.)

Controversy over Diogenes’ political ideas concerns the nature of his anarchism and cosmopolitanism. Is Diogenes a nihilistic or an idealistic anarchist? Is he ‘the saboteur of his civilization, the nihilist of Hellenism, the parasite of his culture’ or the apostle of a higher law and a higher authority (Navia, 1996: 102-3)? In a similar vein, is his cosmopolitanism positive or negative? When he refers to himself as akosmopolitês, a citizen of the cosmos, is he denying all bonds of citizenship or affirming a universal bond?

The latter is the Stoic interpretation. Claiming to be a follower of Diogenes, the first Stoic, Zeno of Citium (335-263 bc), wrote in his Republic that ‘we should regard all men as our fellow-citizens and local residents, and there should be one way of life and order, like that of a herd grazing together and nurtured by a common law’ (Plutarch, LA 329a). Like Diogenes, Zeno challenged conventions, holding that ‘men and women should wear the same clothes and keep no part of the body completely covered’ (D. L. VII.33); and his follower Chrysippus (c. 280-207 bc) claimed ‘that sexual intercourse with mothers or daughters or sisters, and eating certain food… have been discredited without reason’ (Plutarch, CS 1044f-1045a).

Ironically for a philosophy stemming from Diogenes, Stoicism became the de facto official philosophy of the Roman Empire through its popularization by Cicero (106-43 bc), Seneca (c. ad 1-65), Epictetus (c. ad 55-135), and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (ad 121-180). These later Stoics developed Zeno’s idea that all humans are governed by a ‘common law.’ Marcus Aurelius expounds a more explicit concept of natural law, the common law governing the cosmic polis (Med. III.11, IV.4, VII.9). Following Cicero, he thought the Stoic principle that natural law is the rule of reason justified Rome, acting as an agent of reason, in imposing its imperium over the barbarians. Although the later Stoics lavished praise on Diogenes, they subverted his anarchism, as the following argument of Marcus Aurelius makes clear: ‘That is advantageous to each person which accords with his constitution and nature. But my nature is rational and political. As Antoninus [familiar name of Aurelius] my polis and country is Rome, and as a human being it is the cosmos. The things that benefit these poleis are the only things good for me’ (Med. VI.44). (Erskine, 1990, and Schofield, 1991, are two recent studies of Stoic political philosophy. For Stoic theories of justice and rights see Schofield, 1995; and Mitsis, 1999.)