Political Justice: Plato and Aristotle

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 1 August 2016

Political Justice: Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle had different ideas of politics and political justice. In The Republic, Plato creates the ideal city, which is needed to guarantee justice. He aims to create a peaceful united city that will lead to the greater good of the community and individuals. Unlike Plato who imagines the ideal city, Aristotle looks at actual cities in The Politics. He doesn’t want to create the ideal city; he aims to improve the existing city. While their ideas about politics and justice were different, they both strived to find a better way of life for society and hoped to achieve political justice.

In order to define justice, Socrates attempts to create an ideal city, one that is healthy and just. Socrates begins by “investigating what justice looks like in the cities” in order to “go on to consider it in individuals” (Plato, 45). He believes that it is through speech that one will see the way in which both justice and injustice come into being. Socrates argues that people come together as partners and form cities based on mutual needs because “each [person] isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much”: food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities (Plato, 46). It is in the need that the men have of one another in a healthy city that justice can be found (Plato, 49). In the Republic, Plato argues that justice is social, structural, and peaceful. He also believes that people function best doing one thing well.

According to Socrates, people naturally differ in nature; “different men are apt for the accomplishment of different jobs” (Plato, 46). Socrates argues for specialization by saying, “one man, one art” (Plato, 47). He argues that this concept of specialization is the only way to make certain that each job is done well. Socrates goes on to divide the city into three distinct classes: producers, warriors, and rulers. Socrates believes a just city requires a division of labor in order to guarantee the stability of the city and provide the common good for the citizens. He states that, “each thing becomes more plentiful, finer, and easier, when one man, exempt from other tasks, does one thing according to nature” (Plato, 47). A strict division of labor is the only way to construct a just city, in which few laws are required. Socrates uses the analogy of the healthy city to describe how “justice and injustice naturally grow in cities” (Plato, 49).

A healthy city becomes an unhealthy, “feverish” city when people become driven by desire and want more than the mere necessities of a healthy city. Some people will not be satisfied with the mere necessities; thus, relishes will be added. When people desire more and more luxuries, the city must be made bigger again and again because the healthy one is no longer adequate (Plato, 50). As the city grows, more land is required in order to be sufficient. At some point, one must “cut off a piece of [their] neighbors’ land” (Plato, 50). Socrates argues that encroachment will ultimately lead to war. He goes on to state that because of thisß inevitable war, the city will require Guardians.

According to Socrates, the Guardians of the state must have a very spirited soul be very well trained (Plato, 52). He goes on to argue that a good Guardian must be “a philosopher in nature, spirited, swift, and strong” (Plato, 53). They must never turn against the city and must know whom to do violence to. Therefore, “[the Guardians] must be gentle to their own and cruel to enemies” (Plato, 52). To ensure that they will never turn against the city, Socrates believes that they must be educated morally “in speech” through the stories of the Gods and heroes (Plato, 54). Socrates argues that the tales should be supervised and modified if need be, in order to instill the idea that Gods can do no wrong. Only the stories that display bravery and dispel the fear of death should be taught to the Guardians. As a citizen, a Guardian must defend their city, make war together against any enemy of the city, and fight vigilantly for one another.

While Plato believed that cities and state came into being because of mutual needs and social contracts, Aristotle thought otherwise. Aristotle views the polis, or city, as a political association or partnership. Aristotle opens The Politics by saying, “every city is some sort of partnership”, which “is constituted for the sake of some good.” According to Aristotle, the city must seek to achieve “the most authoritative good of all” (Aristotle, 35). He defines villages as collections of families. These different villages come together to create a good combination of both public and private life. This is a sharp criticism of the argument Plato makes in The Republic. Aristotle goes on to argue that a city naturally “arises from [the union of] several villages” (Aristotle, 36). In saying this, he argues that a city exists by nature (Aristotle, 37). A city forms for the purpose of living well and directs itself toward the common good.

One of Aristotle’s defining arguments is that “man is by nature a political animal” (Aristotle, 37). What Aristotle is arguing is that apart from the city there is no possible way for man to achieve the good life. Aristotle claims that what makes man different from other animals are that “man alone has speech” (Aristotle, 37). It is speech that makes possible the deliberation of politics and allows man to come up with the highest authoritative good. According to Aristotle, “speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust” (Aristotle, 37). In Aristotle’s city, it is speech and deliberation that justice can be found. Aristotle believes that the law developed through deliberation is “a guarantor of just things” (Aristotle, 98).

In order to define what he believes to be a citizen, Aristotle first argues things that do not imply citizenship: honorary citizenship, inhabiting a place, sharing in matters of justice, children, and the elderly (Aristotle, 86). He defines citizenship as “sharing in decision and in office” (Aristotle, 87). According to Aristotle, a citizen is one who takes part in the decisions that are being made. In Aristotle’s city, the citizen is “whoever is entitled to participate” (Aristotle, 87).

To him, the most important aspect of citizenship is that they are the foundation upon which the city is built. He believes that citizens have a share in the regime and should take part in administrating justice. In general, “a citizen is defined as a person from parents who are both citizens” (Aristotle, 88). Aristotle believes that as constitutions change, citizenship changes as well. Thus, there is different criterion for being a good citizen and being a good man. According to Aristotle, a good citizen upholds and respects the constitution. He claims, “a good citizen should know and have the capacity both to be ruled and to rule” (Aristotle, 92).

In the Republic, Socrates gives three waves that he believes are necessary to achieve justice in an unhealthy city. The first wave states that there should be equality among men and women of the Guardian class. He writes that men and women of the Guardian class are to share “everything in common” (Plato, 130). This wave not only deals with equality, it also deals with merit. Despite the fact that men are typically stronger than women, women should be nurtured in the same way as men and educated in the same things. Even though it may seem “shameful and ridiculous”, women are to be trained in gymnastics together with men (Plato, 130). After establishing the need for equality among men and women, Socrates moves on to the second wave.

The second wave, Socrates argues, is that women and children need to be held in common. He believes that “women are to belong to men in common” and that “no woman can live privately with any man” (Plato, 136). Socrates is trying to rid the unhealthy city of private life because he believes that justice is social. The Guardians must live as one single family in order to reduce factional conflict. In order for the Guardians to live as one single family, Socrates argues that not only are men and women to be held in common, their children are to be held in common as well.

“A parent will neither know his own offspring, nor a child his parent” (Plato, 136). The goal of this is to, again, rid them of the jealousies and rivalries that accompany private families. Socrates believes that this will make certain greater social equality and increase the unity among the Guardian class. Because the Guardians share everything in common, there will no longer be any concept of private ownership. Thus, there will be harmony and unity within the city. The third, and final, wave Socrates discuses details who it is that he believes should rule in a just city.

The third and final wave that Socrates believes is necessary for justice is that philosophers must be the rulers. After making this argument, Glaucon demands that Socrates defines what he means as a philosopher. Socrates believes that “the philosopher is a desirer of wisdom, not of one part and not another, but of all of it” (Plato, 155). The philosopher is a lover of wisdom and total knowledge. Because of this, Socrates argues that philosophers are the only people capable of having knowledge of everything all together; they are open-minded and constantly curious. To further his argument about the philosopher, Socrates states that the philosopher is a lover of the truth; he has knowledge of what is real instead of simply believing in appearances.

The first proposal that Socrates makes in The Republic makes sense to me. There should be equality among men and women, but they do not need to share everything is common. There needs to be a balance of both public and private life. It would not make sense to rid society of private life entirely. The second proposal that Socrates makes does not make much sense at all; it would not work if we wanted to enact a similar system in today’s society. It is not logical to think that children would be better people and that society would be a better place if children were taken from their mothers at birth and raised by wet nurses.

People need the bond of a private family, it is from family that children learn to love and be loved. The philosophers-as-rulers proposal that Socrates discusses makes sense but it seems extremely unrealistic. A philosopher is the last person that would want to rule a city. Overall, these proposals would every facet of a city. The proposals that he makes are intended to be extreme and ironic. Plato is trying to push his readers in absurd directions in order to establish that justice will never be found.

The healthy city in Plato’s The Republic gives the best definition of justice. The whole intention of creating this ideal city is to define what justice is. Essentially, in his ideal city, there is no injustice. Because Plato uses his ideal state to show how justice and injustice naturally arise in cities, it is much easier to grasp what justice is and how it comes into being. Because Plato creates the perfect government, he is able to give a clear definition of what justice is. Aristotle’s definition of distributive justice: giving equal things to equal people and unequal things to unequal people can be confusing. While the healthy city may give the best definition of justice, it does not provide the best model for politics. Though it may not be ideal, Aristotle’s ideal city provides the best model for politics.

In Aristotle’s view politics is only a means to an end; that end being the maximum happiness of its citizens. Unlike Plato, who places the burden of ruling solely in the Guardian class, Aristotle believes that everyone should take turn ruling and being ruled (Aristotle, 219). Aristotle argues that the purpose of politics and that city is to promote the good life for its people. He believes that the citizens of a state should agree about what is right and wrong, just and unjust. Plato believes that philosophers are the only people capable of knowing the truth. Aristotle gives a better argument that everyone is capable of knowing the truth. He believes that politics is responsible for educating men in what is right and wrong. Just as Aristotle argues, written law should have greater authority than the rulers. Thus, leading to justice.

Both Plato and Aristotle make good arguments about political justice even though the two do not completely agree. By creating an ideal city, Plato clearly defines what justice is. On the other hand, by looking at existing cities, Aristotle gives a good model for politics. While their ideas about politics and justice were different, they both strived to find a better way of life for society and hoped to achieve political justice.


Aristotle, The Politics. Translated with an introduction by Carnes Lord. (Chicago, 1984).

Plato (380 B.C.). Republic, translated by G. M. A. Grube, 2 nd ed., revised by C. D. C. Reeve, Indianapolis: Hackett (1992).


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