Republic vs Politics: Compare & Contrast
The leader has been of particular interest to philosophers – from the ancient Greek thinkers to Machiavelli to the modern-day theorists. Such fascination stems from the fact that leaders are power-wielders and they had the capacity to affect profound change in society and the lives of people either positively or negatively. The philosophers, particularly in ancient times, took it upon themselves to identify the ideal leader and they often went as far as claiming the responsibility of educating them, building and modifying their core values in such a way that they satisfy the requirements of the ideal ruler. Leadership is a fundamental element in these philosophers’ visions of a good political community, one that is characterized by the absence of harmful conflicts and the promotion of virtue This paper will explore what typify of the Platonic leader and the good Aristotelian leader.
In the Republic, Plato uncovered the most general principle underlying society. He saw society as resting naturally on a mutual exchange of services that contributed cumulatively to the creation of personal happiness when the exchange was anchored on virtue. Virtue, in turn, is based on the knowledge of the good, and knowledge is conceived of as analogous to the exact, deductive procedure of mathematics to which factual knowledge contributes nothing beyond illustration. The virtuous state would be one ruled by a knowledge of what is precisely correct public policy in every situation and that such knowledge can only be achieved by rulers of the ideal state. This discourse can be found in part three of the republic spanning Books V to VII. In this regard, Plato created the figure of the philosopher-king, one who combines power and wisdom. This also underscores for Plato his view that spirituality is an intellectual and emotional search for inner enlightenment, realized in our soul through recollecting the genuine forms and ideas of life. Plato’s Academia was the center of this principle. In this place, physical, mental, and spiritual training was given in order to achieve a degree of enlightenment that is necessary to become a good leader.
Plato knew that the pure intellect of the philosopher-king would be unavailable in the real world. But he still believed, wrote Cal Jillson, that governments based on laws designed to promote the public good could take three forms: They could be organized around the best man available in the polity, a monarchy; around a few good men, an aristocracy; or around the many, a democracy. (p. 3) What Plato sought in his philosopher-king was an individual with the ability of discernment and the understanding of object good for the attainment of a well-ordered state. Plato’s trips to the court of Dionysius of Syracuse were an attempt to put his theories on the philosopher-king into practice with an actual monarch.
There are two problems in Plato’s vision of leadership. First, is that it is totalitarian. It allows the ruler and his government to intrude into every area of life. There was the plan for eugenics, the “noble lie, its outlawing of the family, and even censorship of art. The citizens in the Republic are subservient to the requirements of the leader and are expected to sacrifice every element of personal freedom to this end. Finally, there is Plato’s notion that only rulers can be just and that other individuals from other classes are incapable of such faculty. (Warburton, p. 16) According to Plato, “few men, if any, can be expected to reach this goal… But they alone will be really fit to govern; the rest must be schooled by them in popular or civic virtue.” (p. 464)
While Plato used his ideal leader as a prerequisite of an ideal state, Aristotle used his statesman as a cornerstone of his vision of an ideal city. In Politics, Aristotle outlined the concept of the imaginary founder, whom he calls politicos and, more often the city’s “legislator” (nomothetes). He is supposedly the one who decides not only particular laws but also on the fundamental goals and structures of the city (e.g. whether all citizens are to be decision-making powers.) For Aristotle, this leader is someone who has studied politics in a disciplined way; that is, he has considered the ethical topics discussed in Aristotle’s treatises (including Politics itself) and has studied the political systems of existing Greek cities. In Book I:13 of Ethics, Aristotle outlined specific criteria that characterize his leader:
- The true politikos seems to be one who has concerned himself especially with virtue, arête, because his aim is to make citizens good and law-abiding;
- The politikos must know something about the psyche, just as the one who is to heal the eyes, or the body must know something about the eyes, or the body.
- The politikos, therefore, must study the psyche; and he must do so with these objects in view and to the extent sufficient for the purposes of his inquiry. (Aristotle 2000, 1102a)
In the aforementioned criteria, one can see that Aristotle agrees with Plato in some regard. He set store in the significance of virtue and the happiness of the citizens as the obligation of the leader.
Unlike Plato, however, Aristotle did not elaborate on the relationship of his leader to his subjects. What this tells us is that the Aristotelian leader is not necessarily someone who has a permanent position of extraordinary power since the ideal city has offices that are shared equally.
One of Aristotle’s most important arguments is that the political leader need only know how to achieve happiness for the citizens, and not how to persuade or compel them to engage in the activity in which happiness consists. This principle has its share of critics. Richard Kraut, commenting on Politics, argued that it is highly implausible, that “if the political leader is not a tyrant but a political leader, he must try to persuade people to accept his point of view.” (in Plato, p. 67)
Another dimension to the Aristotelian leadership that deserves to be mentioned is that the political leader – that one with the obligation to engage in the kind of thinking that typifies the statesman – is not confined to those who hold public office. Such kind of thinking can be translated as fundamental policymaking that is why the head of a family can and should be a statesman, for example. In contrast to Plato’s leadership that places leadership faculties to the ruler alone.
As stated previously, the ideal leader is part of Plato and Aristotle’s wider vision of a good community. It is here where we found several similarities (e.g. the importance of virtue, citizen’s happiness, and so forth). However, this also underlines fundamental differences. For Plato, the cohesion and integrity of the polis rested fundamentally on the creation of a special elite – the guardians or the philosopher-kings. These are leaders who are selected at birth and reared communally in order to fulfill their great obligations. They should, ideally, not know the private property or private family presumably to eliminate the strongest sources of the vested group- and self-interest. All in all, their education would stress a particular kind of lifestyle, immersion in heroic ideals, and perfection of knowledge necessary for leading their communities.
Aristotle, on the one hand, also emphasized leadership in the context of the ideal community. However, the education that Plato wanted for the rulers and the elite was aimed by the philosopher towards all citizens so that they would be capable of electing the ideal ruler.
Good community required citizens of virtue, breadth, and commitment to a moral framework guided by philosopher-kings and statesmen. Here, with the theories posited by Plato and Aristotle, we are left with the powerful principle that education – either for the ruler or for all individuals – is necessary in order for a community to produce a good leader. Plato stressed more on leadership than did Aristotle but that that they both considered the community – the city, the state – to play a fundamental part in achieving the good for its existence and those citizens within it.
Aristotle. (2000). Nicomachean Ethics. Roger Crisp (ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Aristotle. (2000). Politics. Benjamin Jowett (trans.). H.W.C. Davis.
Jillson, Cal. (2007). American Government: Political Change and Institutional Development. New York: Routledge.
Plato. (1945). The Republic. Francis Macdonald Cornford (trans.). Oxford University Press.
Warburton, Nigel. (2001). Philosophy: the Classics. London: Routledge.