The Life and Works of Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was born April 22, 1724 in Königsberg, near the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Today Königsberg has been renamed Kaliningrad and is part of Russia. But during Kant’s lifetime Königsberg was the capitol of East Prussia, and its dominant language was German. Though geographically remote from the rest of Prussia and other German cities, Königsberg was then a major commercial center, an important military port, and a relatively cosmopolitan university town.

Kant was born into an artisan family of modest means. His father was a master harness maker, and his mother was the daughter of a harness maker, though she was better educated than most women of her social class. Kant’s family was never destitute, but his father’s trade was in decline during Kant’s youth and his parents at times had to rely on extended family for financial support.

Kant’s parents were Pietist and he attended a Pietist school, the Collegium Fridericianum, from ages eight through fifteen. Pietism was an evangelical Lutheran movement that emphasized conversion, reliance on divine grace, the experience of religious emotions, and personal devotion involving regular Bible study, prayer, and introspection. Kant reacted strongly against the forced soul-searching to which he was subjected at the Collegium Fridericianum, in response to which he sought refuge in the Latin classics, which were central to the school’s curriculum. Later the mature Kant’s emphasis on reason and autonomy, rather than emotion and dependence on either authority or grace, may in part reflect his youthful reaction against Pietism. But although the young Kant loathed his Pietist schooling, he had deep respect and admiration for his parents, especially his mother, whose “genuine religiosity” he described as “not at all enthusiastic.” According to his biographer, Manfred Kuehn, Kant’s parents probably influenced him much less through their Pietism than through their artisan values of “hard work, honesty, cleanliness, and independence,” which they taught him by example.

Kant attended college at the University of Königsberg, known as the Albertina, where his early interest in classics was quickly superseded by philosophy, which all first year students studied and which encompassed mathematics and physics as well as logic, metaphysics, ethics, and natural law. Kant’s philosophy professors exposed him to the approach of Christian Wolff (1679–1750), whose critical synthesis of the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716) was then very influential in German universities. But Kant was also exposed to a range of German and British critics of Wolff, and there were strong doses of Aristotelianism and Pietism represented in the philosophy faculty as well. Kant’s favorite teacher was Martin Knutzen (1713–1751), a Pietist who was heavily influenced by both Wolff and the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Knutzen introduced Kant to the work of Isaac Newton (1642–1727), and his influence is visible in Kant’s first published work, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces (1747), which was a critical attempt to mediate a dispute in natural philosophy between Leibnizians and Newtonians over the proper measurement of force.

After college Kant spent six years as a private tutor to young children outside Königsberg. By this time both of his parents had died and Kant’s finances were not yet secure enough for him to pursue an academic career. He finally returned to Königsberg in 1754 and began teaching at the Albertina the following year. For the next four decades Kant taught philosophy there, until his retirement from teaching in 1796 at the age of seventy-two.

Kant had a burst of publishing activity in the years after he returned from working as a private tutor. In 1754 and 1755 he published three scientific works — one of which, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), was a major book in which, among other things, he developed what later became known as the nebular hypothesis about the formation of the solar system. Unfortunately, the printer went bankrupt and the book had little immediate impact. To secure qualifications for teaching at the university, Kant also wrote two Latin dissertations: the first, entitled Concise Outline of Some Reflections on Fire (1755), earned him the Magister degree; and the second, New Elucidation of the First Principles of Metaphysical Cognition (1755), entitled him to teach as an unsalaried lecturer. The following year he published another Latin work, The Employment in Natural Philosophy of Metaphysics Combined with Geometry, of Which Sample I Contains the Physical Monadology (1756), in hopes of succeeding Knutzen as associate professor of logic and metaphysics, though Kant failed to secure this position. Both the New Elucidation, which was Kant’s first work concerned mainly with metaphysics, and the Physical Monadology further develop the position on the interaction of finite substances that he first outlined in Living Forces. Both works depart from Leibniz-Wolffian views, though not radically. The New Elucidation in particular shows the influence of Christian August Crusius (1715–1775), a German critic of Wolff.

As an unsalaried lecturer at the Albertina Kant was paid directly by the students who attended his lectures, so he needed to teach an enormous amount and to attract many students in order to earn a living. Kant held this position from 1755 to 1770, during which period he would lecture an average of twenty hours per week on logic, metaphysics, and ethics, as well as mathematics, physics, and physical geography. In his lectures Kant used textbooks by Wolffian authors such as Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) and Georg Friedrich Meier (1718–1777), but he followed them loosely and used them to structure his own reflections, which drew on a wide range of ideas of contemporary interest. These ideas often stemmed from British sentimentalist philosophers such as David Hume (1711–1776) and Francis Hutcheson (1694–1747), some of whose texts were translated into German in the mid-1750’s; and from the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who published a flurry of works in the early 1760’s. From early in his career Kant was a popular and successful lecturer. He also quickly developed a local reputation as a promising young intellectual and cut a dashing figure in Königsberg society.

After several years of relative quiet, Kant unleashed another burst of publications in 1762–1764, including five philosophical works. The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures (1762) rehearses criticisms of Aristotelian logic that were developed by other German philosophers. The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God (1762–3) is a major book in which Kant drew on his earlier work in Universal History and New Elucidation to develop an original argument for God’s existence as a condition of the internal possibility of all things, while criticizing other arguments for God’s existence. The book attracted several positive and some negative reviews. In 1762 Kant also submitted an essay entitled Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality to a prize competition by the Prussian Royal Academy, though Kant’s submission took second prize to Moses Mendelssohn’s winning essay (and was published with it in 1764). Kant’s Prize Essay, as it is known, departs more significantly from Leibniz-Wolffian views than his earlier work and also contains his first extended discussion of moral philosophy in print. The Prize Essay draws on British sources to criticize German rationalism in two respects: first, drawing on Newton, Kant distinguishes between the methods of mathematics and philosophy; and second, drawing on Hutcheson, he claims that “an unanalysable feeling of the good” supplies the material content of our moral obligations, which cannot be demonstrated in a purely intellectual way from the formal principle of perfection alone (2:299).[4] These themes reappear in the Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy (1763), whose main thesis, however, is that the real opposition of conflicting forces, as in causal relations, is not reducible to the logical relation of contradiction, as Leibnizians held. In Negative Magnitudes Kant also argues that the morality of an action is a function of the internal forces that motivate one to act, rather than of the external (physical) actions or their consequences. Finally, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764) deals mainly with alleged differences in the tastes of men and women and of people from different cultures. After it was published, Kant filled his own interleaved copy of this book with (often unrelated) handwritten remarks, many of which reflect the deep influence of Rousseau on his thinking about moral philosophy in the mid-1760’s.

These works helped to secure Kant a broader reputation in Germany, but for the most part they were not strikingly original. Like other German philosophers at the time, Kant’s early works are generally concerned with using insights from British empiricist authors to reform or broaden the German rationalist tradition without radically undermining its foundations. While some of his early works tend to emphasize rationalist ideas, others have a more empiricist emphasis. During this time Kant was striving to work out an independent position, but before the 1770’s his views remained fluid.

In 1766 Kant published his first work concerned with the possibility of metaphysics, which later became a central topic of his mature philosophy. Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics, which he wrote soon after publishing a short Essay on Maladies of the Mind (1764), was occasioned by Kant’s fascination with the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), who claimed to have insight into a spirit world that enabled him to make a series of apparently miraculous predictions. In this curious work Kant satirically compares Swedenborg’s spirit-visions to the belief of rationalist metaphysicians in an immaterial soul that survives death, and he concludes that philosophical knowledge of either is impossible because human reason is limited to experience. The skeptical tone of Dreams is tempered, however, by Kant’s suggestion that “moral faith” nevertheless supports belief in an immaterial and immortal soul, even if it is not possible to attain metaphysical knowledge in this domain (2:373).

In 1770, at the age of forty-six, Kant was appointed to the chair in logic and metaphysics at the Albertina, after teaching for fifteen years as an unsalaried lecturer and working since 1766 as a sublibrarian to supplement his income. Kant was turned down for the same position in 1758. But later, as his reputation grew, he declined chairs in philosophy at Erlangen (1769) and Jena (1770) in hopes of obtaining one in Königsberg. After Kant was finally promoted, he gradually extended his repertoire of lectures to include anthropology (Kant’s was the first such course in Germany and became very popular), rational theology, pedagogy, natural right, and even mineralogy and military fortifications. In order to inaugurate his new position, Kant also wrote one more Latin dissertation: Concerning the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World (1770), which is known as the Inaugural Dissertation.

The Inaugural Dissertation departs more radically from both Wolffian rationalism and British sentimentalism than Kant’s earlier work. Inspired by Crusius and the Swiss natural philosopher Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728–1777), Kant distinguishes between two fundamental powers of cognition, sensibility and understanding (intelligence), where the Leibniz-Wolffians regarded understanding (intellect) as the only fundamental power. Kant therefore rejects the rationalist view that sensibility is only a confused species of intellectual cognition, and he replaces this with his own view that sensibility is distinct from understanding and brings to perception its own subjective forms of space and time — a view that developed out of Kant’s earlier criticism of Leibniz’s relational view of space in Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space (1768). Moreover, as the title of the Inaugural Dissertation indicates, Kant argues that sensibility and understanding are directed at two different worlds: sensibility gives us access to the sensible world, while understanding enables us to grasp a distinct intelligible world. These two worlds are related in that what the understanding grasps in the intelligible world is the “paradigm” of “NOUMENAL PERFECTION,” which is “a common measure for all other things in so far as they are realities.” Considered theoretically, this intelligible paradigm of perfection is God; considered practically, it is “MORAL PERFECTION” (2:396). The Inaugural Dissertation thus develops a form of Platonism; and it rejects the view of British sentimentalists that moral judgments are based on feelings of pleasure or pain, since Kant now holds that moral judgments are based on pure understanding alone.

After 1770 Kant never surrendered the views that sensibility and understanding are distinct powers of cognition, that space and time are subjective forms of human sensibility, and that moral judgments are based on pure understanding (or reason) alone. But his embrace of Platonism in the Inaugural Dissertation was short-lived. He soon denied that our understanding is capable of insight into an intelligible world, which cleared the path toward his mature position in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), according to which the understanding (like sensibility) supplies forms that structure our experience of the sensible world, to which human knowledge is limited, while the intelligible (or noumenal) world is strictly unknowable to us. Kant spent a decade working on the Critique of Pure Reason and published nothing else of significance between 1770 and 1781. But its publication marked the beginning of another burst of activity that produced Kant’s most important and enduring works. Because early reviews of the Critique of Pure Reason were few and (in Kant’s judgment) uncomprehending, he tried to clarify its main points in the much shorter Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as a Science (1783). Among the major books that rapidly followed are the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant’s main work on the fundamental principle of morality; the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), his main work on natural philosophy in what scholars call his critical period (1781–1798); the second and substantially revised edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1787); the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), a fuller discussion of topics in moral philosophy that builds on (and in some ways revises) the Groundwork; and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), which deals with aesthetics and teleology. Kant also published a number of important essays in this period, including Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Aim (1784) and Conjectural Beginning of Human History (1786), his main contributions to the philosophy of history; An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784), which broaches some of the key ideas of his later political essays; and What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking? (1786), Kant’s intervention in the pantheism controversy that raged in German intellectual circles after F. H. Jacobi (1743–1819) accused the recently deceased G. E. Lessing (1729–1781) of Spinozism.

With these works Kant secured international fame and came to dominate German philosophy in the late 1780’s. But in 1790 he announced that the Critique of the Power of Judgment brought his critical enterprise to an end (5:170). By then K. L. Reinhold (1758–1823), whose Letters on the Kantian Philosophy (1786) popularized Kant’s moral and religious ideas, had been installed (in 1787) in a chair devoted to Kantian philosophy at Jena, which was more centrally located than Königsberg and rapidly developing into the focal point of the next phase in German intellectual history. Reinhold soon began to criticize and move away from Kant’s views. In 1794 his chair at Jena passed to J. G. Fichte, who had visited the master in Königsberg and whose first book, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792), was published anonymously and initially mistaken for a work by Kant himself. This catapulted Fichte to fame, but he too soon moved away from Kant and developed an original position quite at odds with Kant’s, which Kant finally repudiated publicly in 1799 (12:370–371). Yet while German philosophy moved on to assess and respond to Kant’s legacy, Kant himself continued publishing important works in the 1790’s. Among these are Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), which drew a censure from the Prussian King when Kant published the book after its second essay was rejected by the censor; The Conflict of the Faculties (1798), a collection of essays inspired by Kant’s troubles with the censor and dealing with the relationship between the philosophical and theological faculties of the university; On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory, But it is of No Use in Practice (1793), Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), and the Doctrine of Right, the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Kant’s main works in political philosophy; the Doctrine of Virtue, the second part of the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), a catalogue of duties that Kant had been planning for more than thirty years; and Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), based on Kant’s anthropology lectures. Several other compilations of Kant’s lecture notes from other courses were published later, but these were not prepared by Kant himself.

Kant retired from teaching in 1796. For nearly two decades he had lived a highly disciplined life focused primarily on completing his philosophical system, which began to take definite shape in his mind only in middle age. After retiring he came to believe that there was a gap in this system separating the metaphysical foundations of natural science from physics itself, and he set out to close this gap in a series of notes that postulate the existence of an ether or caloric matter. These notes, known as the Opus Postumum, remained unfinished and unpublished in Kant’s lifetime, and scholars disagree on their significance and relation to his earlier work. It is clear, however, that these late notes show unmistakable signs of Kant’s mental decline, which became tragically precipitous around 1800. Kant died February 12, 1804, just short of his eightieth birthday.


Aristotle: Who Should Rule?


This brings us to perhaps the most contentious of political questions: how should the regime be organized? Another way of putting this is: who should rule? In Books IV-VI Aristotle explores this question by looking at the kinds of regimes that actually existed in the Greek world and answering the question of who actually does rule. By closely examining regimes that actually exist, we can draw conclusions about the merits and drawbacks of each. Like political scientists today, he studied the particular political phenomena of his time in order to draw larger conclusions about how regimes and political institutions work and how they should work. As has been mentioned above, in order to do this, he sent his students throughout Greece to collect information on the regimes and histories of the Greek cities, and he uses this information throughout the Politics to provide examples that support his arguments. (According to Diogenes Laertius, histories and descriptions of the regimes of 158 cities were written, but only one of these has come down to the present: the Constitution of Athens mentioned above).

Another way he used this data was to create a typology of regimes that was so successful that it ended up being used until the time of Machiavelli nearly 2000 years later. He used two criteria to sort the regimes into six categories.

The first criterion that is used to distinguish among different kinds of regimes is the number of those ruling: one man, a few men, or the many. The second is perhaps a little more unexpected: do those in power, however many they are, rule only in their own interest or do they rule in the interest of all the citizens? “[T]hose regimes which look to the common advantage are correct regimes according to what is unqualifiedly just, while those which look only to the advantage of the rulers are errant, and are all deviations from the correct regimes; for they involve mastery, but the city is a partnership of free persons” (1279a16).

Having established these as the relevant criteria, in Book III Chapter 7 Aristotle sets out the six kinds of regimes. The correct regimes are monarchy (rule by one man for the common good), aristocracy (rule by a few for the common good), and polity (rule by the many for the common good); the flawed or deviant regimes are tyranny (rule by one man in his own interest), oligarchy (rule by the few in their own interest), and democracy (rule by the many in their own interest). Aristotle later ranks them in order of goodness, with monarchy the best, aristocracy the next best, then polity, democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny (1289a38). People in Western societies are used to thinking of democracy as a good form of government – maybe the only good form of government – but Aristotle considers it one of the flawed regimes (although it is the least bad of the three) and you should keep that in mind in his discussion of it. You should also keep in mind that by the “common good” Aristotle means the common good of the citizens, and not necessarily all the residents of the city. The women, slaves, and manual laborers are in the city for the good of the citizens.

Almost immediately after this typology is created, Aristotle clarifies it: the real distinction between oligarchy and democracy is in fact the distinction between whether the wealthy or the poor rule (1279b39), not whether the many or the few rule. Since it is always the case that the poor are many while the wealthy are few, it looks like it is the number of the rulers rather than their wealth which distinguishes the two kinds of regimes (he elaborates on this in IV.4). All cities have these two groups, the many poor and the few wealthy, and Aristotle was well aware that it was the conflict between these two groups that caused political instability in the cities, even leading to civil wars (Thucydides describes this in his History of the Peloponnesian War, and the Constitution of Athens also discusses the consequences of this conflict). Aristotle therefore spends a great deal of time discussing these two regimes and the problem of political instability, and we will focus on this problem as well.

First, however, let us briefly consider with Aristotle one other valid claim to rule. Those who are most virtuous have, Aristotle says, the strongest claim of all to rule. If the city exists for the sake of developing virtue in the citizens, then those who have the most virtue are the most fit to rule; they will rule best, and on behalf of all the citizens, establishing laws that lead others to virtue. However, if one man or a few men of exceptional virtue exist in the regime, we will be outside of politics: “If there is one person so outstanding by his excess of virtue – or a number of persons, though not enough to provide a full complement for the city – that the virtue of all the others and their political capacity is not commensurable…such persons can no longer be regarded as part of the city” (1284a4). It would be wrong for the other people in the city to claim the right to rule over them or share rule with them, just as it would be wrong for people to claim the right to share power with Zeus. The proper thing would be to obey them (1284b28). But this situation is extremely unlikely (1287b40). Instead, cities will be made up of people who are similar and equal, which leads to problems of its own.

The most pervasive of these is that oligarchs and democrats each advance a claim to political power based on justice. For Aristotle, justice dictates that equal people should get equal things, and unequal people should get unequal things. If, for example, two students turn in essays of identical quality, they should each get the same grade. Their work is equal, and so the reward should be too. If they turn in essays of different quality, they should get different grades which reflect the differences in their work. But the standards used for grading papers are reasonably straightforward, and the consequences of this judgment are not that important, relatively speaking – they certainly are not worth fighting and dying for. But the stakes are raised when we ask how we should judge the question of who should rule, for the standards here are not straightforward and disagreement over the answer to this question frequently does lead men (and women) to fight and die.

What does justice require when political power is being distributed? Aristotle says that both groups – the oligarchs and democrats – offer judgments about this, but neither of them gets it right, because “the judgment concerns themselves, and most people are bad judges concerning their own things” (1280a14). (This was the political problem that was of most concern to the authors of the United States Constitution: given that people are self-interested and ambitious, who can be trusted with power? Their answer differs from Aristotle’s, but it is worth pointing out the persistence of the problem and the difficulty of solving it). The oligarchs assert that their greater wealth entitles them to greater power, which means that they alone should rule, while the democrats say that the fact that all are equally free entitles each citizen to an equal share of political power (which, because most people are poor, means that in effect the poor rule). If the oligarchs’ claim seems ridiculous, you should keep in mind that the American colonies had property qualifications for voting; those who could not prove a certain level of wealth were not allowed to vote. And poll taxes, which required people to pay a tax in order to vote and therefore kept many poor citizens (including almost all African-Americans) from voting, were not eliminated in the United States until the mid-20th century. At any rate, each of these claims to rule, Aristotle says, is partially correct but partially wrong. We will consider the nature of democracy and oligarchy shortly.

Aristotle also in Book III argues for a principle that has become one of the bedrock principles of liberal democracy: we ought, to the extent possible, allow the law to rule. “One who asks the law to rule, therefore, is held to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort; and spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men. Hence law is intellect without appetite” (1287a28). This is not to say that the law is unbiased. It will reflect the bias of the regime, as it must, because the law reinforces the principles of the regime and helps educate the citizens in those principles so that they will support the regime. But in any particular case, the law, having been established in advance, is impartial, whereas a human judge will find it hard to resist judging in his own interest, according to his own desires and appetites, which can easily lead to injustice. Also, if this kind of power is left in the hands of men rather than with the laws, there will be a desperate struggle to control these offices and their benefits, and this will be another cause of civil war. So whatever regime is in power should, to the extent possible, allow the laws to rule. Ruling in accordance with one’s wishes at any particular time is one of the hallmarks of tyranny (it is the same way masters rule over slaves), and it is also, Aristotle says, typical of a certain kind of democracy, which rules by decree rather than according to settled laws. In these cases we are no longer dealing with politics at all, “For where the laws do not rule there is no regime” (1292b30). There are masters and slaves, but there are no citizens.


The Importance of the Middle Class According to Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

In addition to combining elements from the institutions of democracy and oligarchy, the person wishing to create a lasting polity must pay attention to the economic situation in the city. In Book II of the EthicsAristotle famously establishes the principle that virtue is a mean between two extremes. For example, a soldier who flees before a battle is guilty of the vice of cowardice, while one who charges the enemy singlehandedly, breaking ranks and getting himself killed for no reason, is guilty of the vice of foolhardiness. The soldier who practices the virtue of courage is the one who faces the enemy, moves forward with the rest of the troops in good order, and fights bravely. Courage, then, is a mean between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. The person who has it neither flees from the enemy nor engages in a suicidal and pointless attack but faces the enemy bravely and attacks in the right way.

Aristotle draws a parallel between virtue in individuals and virtue in cities. The city, he says, has three parts: the rich, the poor, and the middle class. Today we would probably believe that it is the rich people who are the most fortunate of those three groups, but this is not Aristotle’s position. He says: “[I]t is evident that in the case of the goods of fortune as well a middling possession is the best of all. For [a man of moderate wealth] is readiest to obey reason, while for one who is [very wealthy or very poor] it is difficult to follow reason. The former sort tend to become arrogant and base on a grand scale, the latter malicious and base in petty ways; and acts of injustice are committed either through arrogance or through malice” (1295b4). A political community that has extremes of wealth and poverty “is a city not of free persons but of slaves and masters, the ones consumed by envy, the others by contempt. Nothing is further removed from affection and from a political partnership” (1295b22). People in the middle class are free from the arrogance that characterizes the rich and the envy that characterizes the poor. And, since members of this class are similar and equal in wealth, they are likely to regard one another as similar and equal generally, and to be willing to rule and be ruled in turn, neither demanding to rule at all times as the wealthy do or trying to avoid ruling as the poor do from their lack of resources. “Thus it is the greatest good fortune for those who are engaged in politics to have a middling and sufficient property, because where some possess very many things and others nothing, either [rule of] the people in its extreme form must come into being, or unmixed oligarchy, or – as a result of both of these excesses – tyranny. For tyranny arises from the most headstrong sort of democracy and from oligarchy, but much less often from the middling sorts [of regime] and those close to them” (1295b39).

There can be an enduring polity only when the middle class is able either to rule on its own or in conjunction with either of the other two groups, for in this way it can moderate their excesses: “Where the multitude of middling persons predominates either over both of the extremities together or over one alone, there a lasting polity is capable of existing” (1296b38). Unfortunately, Aristotle says, this state of affairs almost never exists. Instead, whichever group, rich or poor, is able to achieve power conducts affairs to suit itself rather than considering the interests of the other group: “whichever of the two succeeds in dominating its opponents does not establish a regime that is common or equal, but they grasp for preeminence in the regime as the prize of victory” (1296a29). And as a result, neither group seeks equality but instead each tries to dominate the other, believing that it is the only way to avoid being dominated in turn. This is a recipe for instability, conflict, and ultimately civil war, rather than a lasting regime. For the polity (or any other regime) to last, “the part of the city that wants the regime to continue must be superior to the part not wanting this” in quality and quantity (1296b16). He repeats this in Book V, calling it the “great principle”: “keep watch to ensure that that the multitude wanting the regime is superior to that not wanting it” (1309b16), and in Book VI he discusses how this can be arranged procedurally (VI.3).

The remainder of Book IV focuses on the kinds of authority and offices in the city and how these can be distributed in democratic or oligarchic fashion. We do not need to concern ourselves with these details, but it does show that Aristotle is concerned with particular kinds of flawed regimes and how they can best operate and function in addition to his interest in the best practical government and the best government generally.

Aristotle on Politics


Aristotle does not regard politics as a separate science from ethics, but as the completion, and almost a verification of it. The moral ideal in political administration is only a different aspect of that which also applies to individual happiness. Humans are by nature social beings, and the possession of rational speech (logos) in itself leads us to social union. The state is a development from the family through the village community, an offshoot of the family. Formed originally for the satisfaction of natural wants, it exists afterwards for moral ends and for the promotion of the higher life. The state in fact is no mere local union for the prevention of wrong doing, and the convenience of exchange. It is also no mere institution for the protection of goods and property. It is a genuine moral organization for advancing the development of humans.

The family, which is chronologically prior to the state, involves a series of relations between husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave. Aristotle regards the slave as a piece of live property having no existence except in relation to his master. Slavery is a natural institution because there is a ruling and a subject class among people related to each other as soul to body; however, we must distinguish between those who are slaves by nature, and those who have become slaves merely by war and conquest. Household management involves the acquisition of riches, but must be distinguished from money-making for its own sake. Wealth is everything whose value can be measured by money; but it is the use rather than the possession of commodities which constitutes riches.

Financial exchange first involved bartering. However, with the difficulties of transmission between countries widely separated from each other, money as a currency arose. At first it was merely a specific amount of weighted or measured metal. Afterwards it received a stamp to mark the amount. Demand is the real standard of value. Currency, therefore, is merely a convention which represents the demand; it stands between the producer and the recipient and secures fairness. Usury is an unnatural and reprehensible use of money.

The communal ownership of wives and property as sketched by Plato in the Republic rests on a false conception of political society. For, the state is not a homogeneous unity, as Plato believed, but rather is made up of dissimilar elements. The classification of constitutions is based on the fact that government may be exercised either for the good of the governed or of the governing, and may be either concentrated in one person or shared by a few or by the many. There are thus three true forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional republic. The perverted forms of these are tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. The difference between the last two is not that democracy is a government of the many, and oligarchy of the few; instead, democracy is the state of the poor, and oligarchy of the rich. Considered in the abstract, these six states stand in the following order of preference: monarchy, aristocracy, constitutional republic, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny. But though with a perfect person monarchy would be the highest form of government, the absence of such people puts it practically out of consideration. Similarly, true aristocracy is hardly ever found in its uncorrupted form. It is in the constitution that the good person and the good citizen coincide. Ideal preferences aside, then, the constitutional republic is regarded as the best attainable form of government, especially as it secures that predominance of a large middle class, which is the chief basis of permanence in any state. With the spread of population, democracy is likely to become the general form of government.

Which is the best state is a question that cannot be directly answered. Different races are suited for different forms of government, and the question which meets the politician is not so much what is abstractly the best state, but what is the best state under existing circumstances. Generally, however, the best state will enable anyone to act in the best and live in the happiest manner. To serve this end the ideal state should be neither too great nor too small, but simply self-sufficient. It should occupy a favorable position towards land and sea and consist of citizens gifted with the spirit of the northern nations, and the intelligence of the Asiatic nations. It should further take particular care to exclude from government all those engaged in trade and commerce; “the best state will not make the “working man” a citizen; it should provide support religious worship; it should secure morality through the educational influences of law and early training. Law, for Aristotle, is the outward expression of the moral ideal without the bias of human feeling. It is thus no mere agreement or convention, but a moral force coextensive with all virtue. Since it is universal in its character, it requires modification and adaptation to particular circumstances through equity.

Education should be guided by legislation to make it correspond with the results of psychological analysis, and follow the gradual development of the bodily and mental faculties. Children should during their earliest years be carefully protected from all injurious associations, and be introduced to such amusements as will prepare them for the serious duties of life. Their literary education should begin in their seventh year, and continue to their twenty-first year. This period is divided into two courses of training, one from age seven to puberty, and the other from puberty to age twenty-one. Such education should not be left to private enterprise, but should be undertaken by the state. There are four main branches of education: reading and writing, Gymnastics, music, and painting. They should not be studied to achieve a specific aim, but in the liberal spirit which creates true freemen. Thus, for example, gymnastics should not be pursued by itself exclusively, or it will result in a harsh savage type of character. Painting must not be studied merely to prevent people from being cheated in pictures, but to make them attend to physical beauty. Music must not be studied merely for amusement, but for the moral influence which it exerts on the feelings. Indeed all true education is, as Plato saw, a training of our sympathies so that we may love and hate in a right manner.

Politics and the Soul: Plato

Aristotle School

It can be contended that the whole argument of the Republic is made in response to the denial of justice as a universal moral value expressed in Thrasymachus’ statement: “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” Moral relativism, the denial of the harmony of interests, and other problems posed by this statement are a real challenge for Plato for whom justice is not merely a notion relative to the existing laws instituted by the victorious factions in power. In the Laws a similar statement is made again (714c), and it is interpreted as the right of the strong, the winner in a political battle (715a). By such interpretation, morality is denied and the right to govern, like in the “Melian Dialogue” of Thucydides, is equated simply with might. The decisions about morals and justice which we make are for Plato “no trifle, but the foremost thing” (714b). The answer to the question of what is right and what is wrong can entirely determine our way of life, as individuals and communities. If Plato’s argument about justice presented in both the Republic and the Laws can be summarized in just one sentence, the sentence will say: “Justice is neither the right of the strong nor the advantage of the stronger, but the right of the best and the advantage of the whole community.” The best, as explained in the Republic, are the expert philosophical rulers. They, the wise and virtuous, free from faction and guided by the idea of the common good, should rule for the common benefit of the whole community, so that the city will not be internally divided by strife, but one in friendship (Republic, 462a-b). Then, in the Laws, the reign of the best individuals is replaced by the reign of the finest laws instituted by a judicious legislator (715c-d). Throughout this dialogue Plato’s guiding principle is that the good society is a harmonious union of different social elements that represent two key values: wisdom and freedom (701d). The best laws assure that all the city’s parts: the democratic, the oligarchic, and the aristocratic, are represented in political institutions: the popular Assembly, the elected Council, and the Higher Council, and thus each social class receives its due expression. Still, a democratic skeptic can feel dissatisfied with Plato’s proposal to grant the right to rule to the best, either individuals or laws, even on the basis of tacit consent of the governed. The skeptic may believe that every adult is capable of exercising the power of self-direction, and should be given the opportunity to do so. He will be prepared to pay the costs of eventual mistakes and to endure an occasional civil unrest or even a limited war rather than be directed by anyone who may claim superior wisdom. Why then should Plato’s best constitution be preferable to democracy? In order to fully explain the Platonic political vision, the meaning of “the best” should be further clarified.

In the short dialogue Alcibiades I, little studied today and thought by some scholars as not genuine, though held in great esteem by the Platonists of antiquity, Socrates speaks with Alcibiades. The subject of their conversation is politics. Frequently referred to by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades, the future leader of Athens, highly intelligent and ambitious, largely responsible for the Athenian invasion of Sicily, is at the time of conversation barely twenty years old. The young, handsome, and well-born Alcibiades of the dialogue is about to begin his political career and to address the Assembly for the first time (105a-b). He plans to advise the Athenians on the subject of peace and war, or some other important affair (107d). His ambitions are indeed extraordinary. He does not want just to display his worth before the people of Athens and become their leader, but to rule over Europe and Asia as well (105c). His dreams resemble that of the future Alexander the Great. His claim to rule is that he is the best. However, upon Socrates’ scrutiny, it becomes apparent that young Alcibiades knows neither what is just, nor what is advantageous, nor what is good, nor what is noble, beyond what he has learned from the crowd (110d-e, 117a). His world-view is based on unexamined opinions. He appears to be the worst type of ignorant person who pretends that he knows something but does not. Such ignorance in politics is the cause of mistakes and evils (118a). What is implied in the dialogue is that noble birth, beautiful looks, and even intelligence and power, without knowledge, do not give the title to rule. Ignorance, the condition of Alcibiades, is also the condition of the great majority of the people (118b-c). Nevertheless, Socrates promises to guide Alcibiades, so that he becomes excellent and renowned among the Greeks (124b-c). In the course of further conversation, it turns out that one who is truly the best does not only have knowledge of political things, rather than an opinion about them, but also knows one’s own self and is a beautiful soul. He or she is perfect in virtue. The riches of the world can be entrusted only to those who “take trouble over” themselves (128d), who look “toward what is divine and bright” (134d), and who following the supreme soul, God, the finest mirror of their own image (133c), strive to be as beautiful and wealthy in their souls as possible (123e, 131d). The best government can be founded only on beautiful and well-ordered souls.

In a few dialogues, such as Phaedo, the Republic, Phaedrus, Timaeus, and the Laws, Plato introduces his doctrine of the immortality of the soul. His ultimate answer to the question “Who am I?” is not an “egoistic animal” or an “independent variable,” as the twentieth century behavioral researcher blatantly might say, but an “immortal soul, corrupted by vice and purified by virtue, of whom the body is only an instrument” (129a-130c). Expert political knowledge for him should include not only knowledge of things out there, but also knowledge of oneself. This is because whoever is ignorant of himself will also be ignorant of others and of political things, and, therefore, will never be an expert politician (133e). Those who are ignorant will go wrong, moving from one misery to another (134a). For them history will be a tough teacher, but as long they do not recognize themselves and practice virtue, they will learn nothing. Plato’s good society is impossible without transcendence, without a link to the perfect being who is God, the true measure of all things. It is also impossible without an ongoing philosophical reflection on whom we truly are. Therefore, democracy would not be a good form of government for him unless, as it is proposed in the Laws, the element of freedom is mixed with the element of wisdom, which includes ultimate knowledge of the self. Unmixed and unchecked democracy, marked by the general permissiveness that spurs vices, makes people impious, and lets them forget about their true self, is only be the second worst in the rank of flawed regimes after tyranny headed by a vicious individual. This does not mean that Plato would support a theocratic government based on shallow religiosity and religious hypocrisy. There is no evidence for this. Freedom of speech, forming opinions and expressing them, which may be denied in theocracy, is a true value for Plato, along with wisdom. It is the basic requirement for philosophy. In shallow religiosity, like in atheism, there is ignorance and no knowledge of the self either. In Book II of the Republic, Plato criticizes the popular religious beliefs of the Athenians, who under the influence of Homer and Hesiod attribute vices to the gods and heroes (377d-383c). He tries to show that God is the perfect being, the purest and brightest, always the same, immortal and true, to whom we should look in order to know ourselves and become pure and virtuous (585b-e). God, and not human beings, is the measure of political order (Laws, 716c).

The Best Political Order According to Plato

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787)

Although large parts of the Republic are devoted to the description of an ideal state ruled by philosophers and its subsequent decline, the chief theme of the dialogue is justice. It is fairly clear that Plato does not introduce his fantastical political innovation, which Socrates describes as a city in speech, a model in heaven, for the purpose of practical implementation (592a-b). The vision of the ideal state is used rather to illustrate the main thesis of the dialogue that justice, understood traditionally as virtue and related to goodness, is the foundation of a good political order, and as such is in everyone’s interest. Justice, if rightly understood, Plato argues, is not to the exclusive advantage of any of the city’s factions, but is concerned with the common good of the whole political community, and is to the advantage of everyone. It provides the city with a sense of unity, and thus, is a basic condition for its health. “Injustice causes civil war, hatred, and fighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose” (351d). In order to understand further what justice and political order are for Plato, it is useful to compare his political philosophy with the pre-philosophical insights of Solon, who is referred to in a few dialogues. Biographical information about Plato is fairly scarce. The fact that he was related through his mother to this famous Athenian legislator, statesman and poet, regarded as one of the “Seven Sages,” may be treated as merely incidental. On the other hand, taking into consideration that in Plato’s times education would have been passed on to children informally at home, it seems highly probable that Plato was not only well acquainted with the deeds and ideas of Solon, but that these deeply influenced him.

The essence of the constitutional reform which Solon made in 593 B.C.E., over one hundred and fifty years before Plato’s birth, when he became the Athenian leader, was the restoration of righteous order, eunomia. In the early part of the sixth century Athens was disturbed by a great tension between two parties: the poor and the rich, and stood at the brink of a fierce civil war. On the one hand, because of an economic crisis, many poorer Athenians were hopelessly falling into debt, and since their loans were often secured by their own persons, thousands of them were put into serfdom. On the other hand, lured by easy profits from loans, the rich stood firmly in defense of private property and their ancient privileges. The partisan strife, which seemed inevitable, would make Athens even more weak economically and defenseless before external enemies. Appointed as a mediator in this conflict, Solon enacted laws prohibiting loans on the security of the person. He lowered the rate of interest, ordered the cancellation of all debts, and gave freedom to serfs. He acted so moderately and impartially that he became unpopular with both parties. The rich felt hurt by the reform. The poor, unable to hold excess in check, demanded a complete redistribution of landed property and the dividing of it into equal shares. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms from both sides, Solon succeeded in gaining social peace. Further, by implementing new constitutional laws, he set up a “mighty shield against both parties and did not allow either to win an unjust victory” (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution). He introduced a system of checks and balances which would not favor any side, but took into consideration legitimate interests of all social groups. In his position, he could easily have become the tyrant over the city, but he did not seek power for himself. After he completed his reform, he left Athens in order to see whether it would stand the test of time, and returned to his country only ten years later. Even though in 561 Pisistratus seized power and became the first in a succession of Athenian tyrants, and in 461 the democratic leader Ephialtes abolished the checks upon popular sovereignty, Solon’s reform provided the ancient Greeks with a model of both political leadership and order based on impartiality and fairness. Justice for Solon is not an arithmetical equality: giving equal shares to all alike irrespective of merit, which represents the democratic concept of distributive justice, but it is equity or fairness based on difference: giving shares proportionate to the merit of those who receive them. The same ideas of political order, leadership, and justice can be found in Plato’s dialogues.

For Plato, like for Solon, the starting point for the inquiry about the best political order is the fact of social diversity and conflicting interests, which involve the danger of civil strife. The political community consists of different parts or social classes, such as the noble, the rich, and the poor, each representing different values, interests, and claims to rule. This gives rise to the controversy of who should rule the community, and what is the best political system. In both the Republic and the Laws, Plato asserts not only that factionalism and civil war are the greatest dangers to the city, more dangerous even than war against external enemies, but also that peace obtained by the victory of one part and the destruction of its rivals is not to be preferred to social peace obtained through the friendship and cooperation of all the city’s parts (Republic 462a-b, Laws 628a-b). Peace for Plato is, unlike for Marxists and other radical thinkers, not a status quo notion, related to the interest of the privileged group, but a value that most people usually desire. He does not stand for war and the victory of one class, but for peace in social diversity. “The best is neither war nor faction – they are things we should pray to be spared from – but peace and mutual good will” (628c). Building on the pre-philosophical insights of Solon and his concept of balancing conflicting interests, in both the Republic and the Laws, Plato offers two different solutions to the same problem of social peace based on the equilibrium and harmonious union of different social classes. If in the Republic it is the main function of the political leadership of philosopher-rulers to make the civil strife cease, in the Laws this mediating function is taken over by laws. The best political order for Plato is that which promotes social peace in the environment of cooperation and friendship among different social groups, each benefiting from and each adding to the common good. The best form of government, which he advances in the Republic, is a philosophical aristocracy or monarchy, but that which he proposes in his last dialogue the Laws is a traditional polity: the mixed or composite constitution that reconciles different partisan interests and includes aristocratic, oligarchic, and democratic elements.

Plato and Politics


Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.E.) developed such distinct areas of philosophy as epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. His deep influence on Western philosophy is asserted in the famous remark of Alfred North Whitehead: “the safest characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” He was also the prototypical political philosopher whose ideas had a profound impact on subsequent political theory. His greatest impact was Aristotle, but he influenced Western political thought in many ways. The Academy, the school he founded in 385 B.C.E., became the model for other schools of higher learning and later for European universities.The philosophy of Plato is marked by the usage of dialectic, a method of discussion involving ever more profound insights into the nature of reality, and by cognitive optimism, a belief in the capacity of the human mind to attain the truth and to use this truth for the rational and virtuous ordering of human affairs. Plato believes that conflicting interests of different parts of society can be harmonized. The best, rational and righteous, political order, which he proposes, leads to a harmonious unity of society and allows each of its parts to flourish, but not at the expense of others. The theoretical design and practical implementation of such order, he argues, are impossible without virtue.

From Politics to Philosophy

Plato was born in Athens in c. 427 B.C.E. Until his mid-twenties, Athens was involved in a long and disastrous military conflict with Sparta, known as the Peloponnesian War. Coming from a distinguished family – on his father’s side descending from Codrus, one of the early kings of Athens, and on his mother’s side from Solon, the prominent reformer of the Athenian constitution – he was naturally destined to take an active role in political life. But this never happened. Although cherishing the hope of assuming a significant place in his political community, he found himself continually thwarted. As he relates in his autobiographical Seventh Letter, he could not identify himself with any of the contending political parties or the succession of corrupt regimes, each of which brought Athens to further decline (324b-326a). He was a pupil of Socrates, whom he considered the most just man of his time, and who, although did not leave any writings behind, exerted a large influence on philosophy. It was Socrates who, in Cicero’s words, “called down philosophy from the skies.” The pre-Socratic philosophers were mostly interested in cosmology and ontology; Socrates’ concerns, in contrast, were almost exclusively moral and political issues. In 399 when a democratic court voted by a large majority of its five hundred and one jurors for Socrates’ execution on an unjust charge of impiety, Plato came to the conclusion that all existing governments were bad and almost beyond redemption. “The human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really philosophers acquire political power or until, through some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authority in the cities become real philosophers” (326a-326b).

It was perhaps because of this opinion that he retreated to his Academy and to Sicily for implementing his ideas. He visited Syracuse first in 387, then in 367, and again in 362-361, with the general purpose to moderate the Sicilian tyrants with philosophical education and to establish a model political rule. But this adventure with practical politics ended in failure, and Plato went back to Athens. His Academy, which provided a base for succeeding generations of Platonic philosophers until its final closure in C.E. 529, became the most famous teaching institution of the Hellenistic world. Mathematics, rhetoric, astronomy, dialectics, and other subjects, all seen as necessary for the education of philosophers and statesmen, were studied there. Some of Plato’s pupils later became leaders, mentors, and constitutional advisers in Greek city-states. His most renowned pupil was Aristotle. Plato died in c. 347 B.C.E. During his lifetime, Athens turned away from her military and imperial ambitions and became the intellectual center of Greece. She gave host to all the four major Greek philosophical schools founded in the course of the fourth century: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and the Epicurean and Stoic schools.

Political Philosophy 

Although the Republic, the Statesman, the Laws and a few shorter dialogues are considered to be the only strictly political dialogues of Plato, it can be argued that political philosophy was the area of his greatest concern. In the English-speaking world, under the influence of twentieth century analytic philosophy, the main task of political philosophy today is still often seen as conceptual analysis: the clarification of political concepts. To understand what this means, it may be useful to think of concepts as the uses of words. When we use general words, such as “table,” “chair,” “pen,” or political terms, such as “state,” “power,” “democracy,” or “freedom,” by applying them to different things, we understand them in a certain way, and hence assign to them certain meanings. Conceptual analysis then is a mental clearance, the clarification of a concept in its meaning. As such it has a long tradition and is first introduced in Platonic dialogues. Although the results are mostly inconclusive, in “early” dialogues especially, Socrates tries to define and clarify various concepts. However, in contrast to what it is for some analytic philosophers, for Plato conceptual analysis is not an end to itself, but a preliminary step. The next step is critical evaluation of beliefs, deciding which one of the incompatible ideas is correct and which one is wrong. For Plato, making decisions about the right political order are, along with the choice between peace and war, the most important choices one can make in politics. Such decisions cannot be left solely to public opinion, he believes, which in many cases does not have enough foresight and gets its lessons only post factum from disasters recorded in history. In his political philosophy, the clarification of concepts is thus a preliminary step in evaluating beliefs, and right beliefs in turn lead to an answer to the question of the best political order. The movement from conceptual analysis, through evaluation of beliefs, to the best political order can clearly be seen in the structure of Plato’s Republic.