Ancient Political Philosophy

Because the Greeks invented political philosophy in its technical sense, but it has had a long history since then, long past the time when the ancient models were accepted as defining the field and determining the problems to be considered, it is a mistake to approach their thought with a modern menu of expectations of what the subject will contain. At the same time, because the Greeks also invented other genres widely recognized todayamong them, history, tragedy, comedy, and rhetoricno understanding of their thought about politics can restrict itself to the genre of political philosophy alone. Some argue, for example, that Thucydides elaboration of the nature of the political through hisHistoryof the fifth-century Peloponnesian Wars between leagues led by Athens and Sparta is more important and instructive than that issuing from Platos philosophical dialogues (Geuss 2005). While that argument is contentious, it rests on an important broader point. Politics and what is political emerged as part of a widespread set of sociolinguistic practices, most notably and best documented in Athens, while philosophy was invented by a relatively small number of self-professed philosophical thinkers. Thus the invention of political philosophy as a genre can be understood as a deliberate challenge to existing practices, and conceptions, of the political. The challenge was directed in particular, though not exclusively, to democratic practices in mid to late fifth century Athens, which was thepolisboth intellectually dominant and in many ways politically exemplary at the time, as well as bequeathing the lions share of our surviving evidence from ancient Greece (Meier, 1990; on the evidence for ancient philosophy in general, see the entry ondoxography for ancient philosophy).

3.5 The Second-Best Regime of the

Socrates seems to have been the first philosopher to treat ethics as opposed to cosmology and physicsas a distinct area of inquiry. Asserting in PlatosApologythat the unexamined life is not worth living, he pressed for definitions of the virtues or excellences which were widely recognized and claimed by his fellows, but which they found difficult to explain. As depicted by Plato, the search for such definitions led invariably to a concern with knowledge of how best to live, as not only one of the conventional virtues (in the form of wisdom) but also as underpinning, even constituting, them all. That elevation of knowledge in turn led Socrates to militate against the practices of rhetoric and judgment which animated the political institutions of Athensthe law-courts, Assembly and Council. Instead he posited the existence, or at least the possibility, of political expertise, claiming (in PlatosGorgias) to be the one person in Athens who at least tried to pursue such a truepolitik techn(Grg. 521d). The notion of political knowledge limited to one or a few experts, as opposed to the embedded and networked knowledge produced and exercised by the wholedemosof Athens in their judgments and deliberations, struck at the central premises of Athenian democracy and those of Greek politics more generally (in oligarchies, wealth rather than knowledge was the relevant criterion for rule; in tyrannies, sheer power). Thus the nature of Socrates concern with ethics led him directly into a form of political philosophizing. The relation between politics and knowledge, the meaning of justice as a virtue, the value of the military courage which all Greek cities prized in their citizens, all seem to have been central topics of Socratic conversation.

The result is that

Ancient political philosophy is understood here to mean ancient Greek and Roman thought from the classical period of Greek thought in the fifth century BCE to the end of the Roman empire in the West in the fifth century CE, excluding the rise of Christian ideas about politics during that period. Political philosophy as a genre was invented in this period by Plato and reinvented by Aristotle: it encompasses reflections on the origin of political institutions, the concepts used to interpret and organize political life such as justice and equality, the relation between the aims of ethics and the nature of politics, and the relative merits of different constitutional arrangements or regimes. Platonic models remained especially important for later authors throughout this period, even as the development of later Hellenistic schools of Greek philosophy, and distinctively Roman forms of philosophical adaptation, offered new frameworks for construing politics from a philosophical point of view.

4.2 From Ethics to Politics by way of Law

Such conflicts were addressed by the idea of justice, which was fundamental to the city as it emerged from the archaic age, sometimes reflected in Homer, into the classical period. Justice was conceived by poets, lawgivers, and philosophers alike as the structure of civic bonds which were beneficial to all (rich and poor, powerful and weak alike) rather than an exploitation of some by others. Hesiods late eighth-century epic poemWorks and Days, for example, contrasts the brute strength with which a hawk can dominate a nightingale (You are being held by one who is much stronger I will make a meal of you, if I want, or let you go, lines 206208), with the peace and plenty which flourishes wherever justice, such as rendering fair verdicts to foreigners, is preserved (lines 225230).

Among equals, however defined, the space of the political was the space of participation in speech and decision concerning public affairs and actions. That invention of the political (what Meier 1990 callsThe Greek Discovery of Politics) was the hallmark of the classical Greek world. Citizens, whether the few (usually the rich) or the many (including the poorer and perhaps the poorest free adult men), deliberated together as to how to conduct public affairs, sharing either by custom, by election, or by lotthe latter seen in Athens as the most democratic, though it was never the sole mechanism used in any Greek democracyin the offices for carrying them out. Rhetoric played an important role especially, though not only, in democracies, where discursive norms shaped by the poor majority were hegemonic in public even over the rich (Ober 1989).

7. Political Philosophy in the Roman Empire

We find the etymological origins of both of our terms, [the] political and philosophy, in ancient Greek: the former originally pertaining to thepolisor city-state; the latter, as conceived by Plato and the subsequent tradition, being the practice of a particular kind of inquiry conceived as the love of wisdom (philosophia). These ideas were transmitted beyond the confines of the classicalpolisas the Greek city-states came under the suzerainty of larger kingdoms after an initial Macedonian conquest at the end of the fourth century B.C; those kingdoms in turn were eventually conquered and significantly assimilated by the Roman republic, later transmuted into an empire. Philosophers writing in Latin engaged self-consciously with the earlier and continuing traditions of writing about philosophy in Greek. In the case of political philosophy in particular, the ancient Greek classification (devised by Plato and adapted by Aristotle) of regimes or constitutions (politeia, singular) in Aristotles version, the three good regimes being monarchy, aristocracy, and a moderate form of democracy; and their three perversions being tyranny, oligarchy, and a bad form of democracycontinued to inform the discussion of politics in the context of the mixed regime of the Roman republic, held to combine elements of all three of the good regimes. Neither the transformation of the republic into an empire in the first-century BCE, nor the eventual abdication of the last pretenders to the Roman imperial throne in the Western part of the empire in 476 CE, prevented continued engagement with this Greek and Roman heritage of political philosophy among late antique and later medieval scholars and their successors writing in Latin, Arabic and Hebrew. Thus while all societies have had politics, and also organized reflection on politics, ancient political philosophy in this article refers to the plurality of discourses comprised in that Greek and Roman heritage.

That engagement with political philosophy was dramatically intensified when Socrates was, at the age of seventy, arraigned, tried, and sentenced to death by an Athenian court. Brought in the usual Athenian way by a group of his fellow citizens who took it upon themselves to prosecute him for the sake of the city, the charges against him were three-fold: not acknowledging the citys gods; introducing new gods; and corrupting the young (Apol.24b). Each of these had a political dimension, given the civic control of central religious cults mentioned earlier, and the broad political importance of educating the young to take their place in the civic order. Timed a few years after a short-lived oligarchic coup in which several of Socrates sometime associates (Critias, Charmides) participated, and after the ignominious Athenian defeat in the wars with Sparta which saw another earlier follower of Socrates (Alcibiades) turn traitor to Athens, the trial must be suspected of having served as a substitute for the prohibited political trials of the oligarchic partisans (such trials having been barred by a general amnesty passed in 403 BCE by the restored democracy; see Cartledge 2009, Ch.7).

2.2 Politics, Justice, and Equality

Socrates speeches in the court trialliterary versions of which were produced by Plato, Xenophon, and a number of other followersforced him to confront directly the question of his role in an Athens defined by its democratic institutions and norms. Socrates had played his part as an ordinary citizen, allowing his name to go forward for selection by lot to serve on the Council, and serving in the army when required. But he had not engaged actively in public affairs (ta pragmata,Apol.32e): he had not spoken in the Assembly (31c), nor, so far as we know, brought prosecutions or volunteered for selection for jury service in the law-courts. In Platos account, after countering the religious accusations, Socrates acknowledged this abstention from public affairs but claimed to have had a more significant mission laid on him by the god Apollo when his oracle at Delphi declared that no man was wiser than Socrates: his mission was to stir up the city like a gadfly (30e), discussing virtue and related matters (38a), and benefiting each person by trying to persuade him to care for virtue rather than wealth for himself and for the city (36c-d). He went so far as to claim that as a civic benefactor, he deserved not death but the lifetime free meals commonly awarded to an Olympic champion (36e-37a). Socrates here depicts himself as a new kind of citizen, conceptualizing the public good in a new way and so serving it best through unprecedented actions in contrast to the conventionally defined paths of political contest and success (Villa 2001).

This distinctive Greekand particularly Platonic outlook must condition any historical understanding of the development of ancient political philosophy. While one influential approach to the history of political thought takes its bearings from what a thinker was trying to do in and by what he or she said or wrote, it is important to recognize that the founders of ancient political philosophy were in part trying to define a new space of doing as philosophizing, independent of ordinary political action. This is not to say that they did not also have ordinary political intentions, but rather to stress that the invention of political philosophy was also intended as a mode of reflection upon the value of ordinary political life.

2. Politics and Philosophy in Ancient Greece

1. The Scope of Ancient Political Philosophy

The Laws of Athens appeal to a kind of social contract made between themselves and Socrates. The contract is unequal: the Laws compare themselves to parents and slaveowners, and Socrates to child and slave. Obedience is owed because the Laws have provided the whole basis for Socrates education and life in the city, a city in which he has notably chosen to remain, never traveling abroad except on military service. But the Laws also speak of the opportunity they afford to Socrates to persuade or obey them (51b; 51e-52a). The meaning of this clause and its relevance to civil disobedience is again much debated (Kraut 1984 remains a landmark). Nevertheless, the image of Socrates tried, convicted, and made to die (by his own hand) at the citys command has come to be the most vivid and powerful symbol of tension in the relationship between political philosophy and political authority.

That resolution rests on the division of the soul into three parts by which theRepublicplaces moral psychology at the heart of political philosophy. Both soul and city are posited by Socrates in arguments in Books II-IV and VIII-IX, in particular, to have a tripartite structure when the soul is embodied in a living person. In the soul and city respectively, the rational part or class should rule; the spirited part or class should act to support the rule of that rational part; and the appetitive part of the soul and producing class in the city should accept being governed by it. Both soul and city are therefore in need of, and capable of exhibiting, four virtues (427e-444a). Two of these pertain to individual parts: the rational part being capable of wisdom, the spirited part of courage. Two however are defined by relations between the parts: moderation as the agreement of all three parts that reason should rule, justice as each part doing its own (this echoes, in a radically new context, a conservative Athenian suspicion of excessive democraticpolupragmosunor busybody interference).

3.4 The Definition of Political Knowledge in the

5.4 Hellenistic Philosophies and Roman Republican Politics

While depicting himself in his defense speeches in PlatosApologyas a new kind of virtuous citizen, Socrates makes three remarks which have in modern times been seized upon as indications of the principled limits which he might have put on the requirement to obey the law. The first two recalled political incidents: while serving on the Council, he had voted against an illegal proposal (32b-c); and under the short-lived oligarchical coup of The Thirty, he had disobeyed an order of the ruling body to arrest a democratic partisan for execution (32c-d). The third is a hypothetical remark. If, he imagines, the jurors were to say to him, we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die, his reply would be: I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy (both quotations excerpted from longer sentences, 29c-d). Particularly in Anglophone twentieth-century scholarship, these remarks have engendered a view of Socrates as endorsing civil disobedience in certain circumstances, and so have framed the question of civil disobedience and the grounds for political obligation as arising in Plato. A significant debate on these matters took shape in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s at the time of widespread civil disobedience relating to civil rights and the Vietnam War: see for example Konvitz 1964, Woozley 1972.

That debate has had to confront the fact that Socrates did not actually disobey his own death sentence with which his trial concluded: when the time came, he drank the poisonous hemlock prescribed. Before that moment, Plato imagines Socrates being visited in prison by his friend Crito (in a dialogue which bears his name), and urged to escape for the sake of his friends and family, a practice which was tolerated in Athens so long as the escapee fled into exile. Socrates is not persuaded by Critos arguments. He begins his examination of them by recalling principles to which he and Crito had in the past agreed, including the principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it (Cri. 47a-50a). He then goes on to ventriloquize a series of speeches which he ascribes to the Laws of Athens against escape.[6]These speeches articulate a set of special connections between Socrates and the Laws of Athens which, depending on ones reading, either flesh out the principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to do it (by dramatizing reasons on which it would unjust for Socrates to escape), or else stand in tension with that principle by invoking absolutist grounds that go beyond those that it would authorize (Harte 1999). On any reading, it is important to bear in mind that Socrates is choosing to obey a jury verdict that has commanded him to suffer what is arguably an injustice but not to commit one.

Socrates then launches a speculation as to the origins of cities: the city is held to have an existence independently of ethical concerns, coming into being for economic reasons and immediately needing to defend itself in war (and also to be able to make offensive war for economic gain). However, this origin already gives rise to a proto-ethical dimension, first insofar as the members of the primitive city each do their own work (the structure of what will emerge as the virtue of justice), which is fleshed out when political rulers are established who are able to use their wisdom to help their subjects maintain a psychological balance in their souls that approximates, if it does not fully embody, the virtues of moderation and justice and so enables them to enjoy a unified rather than a divided soul. The question of why the individual should be just, figured at the outset by the contrast with the putatively happy tyrant, is resolved eventually by demonstrating that the tyrant is at once maximally unjust and maximally unhappy.

5. Hellenistic Philosophies and Politics

So understood, justice defined the basis of equal citizenship and was said to be the requirement for human regimes to be acceptable to the gods. The ideal was that, with justice as a foundation, political life would enable its participants to flourish and to achieve the overarching human end of happiness (eudaimonia), expressing a civic form of virtue and pursuing happiness and success through the competitive forums of the city. Whether justice applied to the citys relation with other cities was a further and highly contested point, memorably debated in Thucydides recounting of the Melian Dialogue in 416 BCE, in which emissaries of the Athenians debated the meaning of justice with the leaders of Melos, a city they were threatening with death and disaster should they fail to submit to Athenian domination (Thuc. V. 84114).

4.1 Aristotles Philosophical Method and Ethics

The distinctive understanding of politics forged in Greece was marked by the historical emergence of the independent city-state[1]and the variety of regimes which it could harbor. Notwithstanding fantasies of a pre-political Age of Kronos, thepoliswas widely understood as the acme of human civilization and the principal domain in which human fulfillment could be sought. The city was the domain of potential collaboration in leading the good life, though it was by the same token the domain of potential contestation should that pursuit come to be understood as pitting some against others. Political theorizing began in arguments about what politics was good for, who could participate in politics, and why, arguments which were tools in civic battles for ideological and material control as well as attempts to provide logical or architectonic frameworks for those battles.

This article therefore begins by surveying political practices and the reflective accounts to which they gave rise in the classical Greek period of the independentpolis. It then turns to the thinkers who invented political philosophy par excellence: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It continues to Hellenistic Greek thinkers before considering the main currents and roles of political philosophy in the Roman republic. While offering a survey of certain developments in the Roman empire, it leaves aside the Christian Fathers, and in particular the great upheaval of thought effected by Augustine, who is the starting point for the SEPs treatment of medieval political philosophy. (See the entry onmedieval political philosophy.) The article concludes with some reflections on how the nature of ancient political philosophy should, and should not, be understood.

3.2 Socrates Trial: The Political Philosophy of Citizenship

Most of the wise men (sophoi) and students of nature (physikoi) who appeared in this milieu thought within the same broad terms as the poets and orators. Justice was widely, if not universally, treated as a fundamental constituent of cosmic order. Some of thephysikoiinfluenced political life, notably the Pythagoreans in southern Italy. Others held themselves aloof from political action while still identifying commonalities between nature and politics. However, this picture of broad consonance was rudely challenged in the mid to late fifth century BCE by a new kind of thinker and political agent, the professional teachers (sophists), who began to ask whether the laws and customs (nomos, singular;nomoi, plural) embodying political justice were truly a reflection of justice in nature (phusis), or merely an imposition of arbitrary human norms. Most of the sophists argued the latter, though they did so along a spectrum of interpretation (for which our evidence rests heavily on Plato, who portrays Socrates arguing with a considerable number of sophists): for Protagoras (as depicted in PlatosProtagoras), the human creation of political life was a cause of celebration of human virtues and practical abilities; for Thrasymachus (as depicted in PlatosRepublic), it was a cause of condemnation, the powerful in any city imposing laws to serve their own interests. Thisnomos-phusisdebate raised a fundamental challenge to the ordering intellectual assumptions of thepolis, even though the sophists advertised themselves as teaching skills for success within it, a number of them being employed as diplomats by cities eager to exploit their rhetorical abilities. Socrates and Plato would respond to this challenge in shaping a new genre of philosophy which broke the mould of their predecessors. If Greek political thinkers presupposed justice, in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE many of them also increasingly problematized it.

4.4 Aristotle in Political Philosophy

In giving birth to philosophy, thepolisalso gave birth to a tension between what Aristotle would describe as two lives: the life of politics and the life of philosophy. A faultline between ethics and politics, so closely connected in an ancient culture preoccupied with flourishing (eudaimonia) and virtue(aret), opened here. Should philosophersactpolitically (and if so, should they engage in ordinary politics in existing regimes, or work to establish new ones), or should they abstain from politics in order to live a life of pure contemplation? There was likewise a question as to whether philosophers shouldthinkpolitically: were human affairs worth thinking about in the broadest perspective opened by the study of nature and of the gods? In engaging with questions of rhetoric, virtue, knowledge, and justice, Socrates philosophical life was engaged with the political even before his death (his trial and execution at the hands of the Athenian democratic regime) embattled him with it. But for his student Plato and Platos student Aristotle, the practice and even the study of human affairs such as politics were less divine, and so less admirable, than the broader study of truth about the natural and the divine realms. Philosophy might have to address the political but its highest calling soared above it. If Socrates political fate was part of the stimulus for Plato to invent a new metaphysics and epistemology in order to articulate an alternative realm of political possibility, Platos dialogues show Socrates simultaneously asserting an independence for those disciplines from the bonds of the political alone.[5]

TheCritodepends upon a notion of justice and injustice which it never defines. In theRepublic, by contrast, a dialogue in which Socrates is also the main character (and first-person narrator) but in which the views he advances go beyond the tight-knit pattern of debates in the dialogues discussed in section 3.1, Plato (424/3348/7 BCE)[7]offers an account of justice linking the political to the psychological and justice to a higher understanding of true goodness. (See the entry onPlato.) TheRepublicis, with theLaws, an order of magnitude longer than any other Platonic dialogue. Readers today are likely to think of theRepublicas the home par excellence of political philosophy. But that view has also been challenged by scholars who see it as primarily an ethical dialogue, driven by the question of why the individual should be just (Annas 1999). This section argues that the ethical and political concerns, and purposes, of the dialogue are inextricably intertwined.

According to Cicero, Socrates (469399 BCE) was the first to bring philosophy down from heaven, locating it in cities and even in homes (Tusc.V.10). A humbly born man who refused the lucrative mantle of the sophistic role as a professional teacher, yet attracted many of the most ambitious and aristocratic youth of Athens to accompany him in his questioning of them and their elders as to the nature of the virtues they claimed to possess or understand, he left no philosophical writings. We know him only through the surviving testimony of others, first the lampoons in Aristophanes comic plays, and above all the dialogues written by his student Plato and his associate Xenophon (dialogues by others are known only by titles or fragments), and the remarks of Platos student Aristotle, as well as other sources from after or long after his death (for a collection, see Giannantoni 1990). See the entry onSocrates.

7.2 Platonisms and Other Philosophies in the Empire

3.1 Socratic Ethics and Its Relation to Politics

Near the beginning of the dialogue, a challenge is launched by the character Thrasymachus, mentioned above, asserting that all actual cities define justice in the interest of the rulers. He takes this to mean that the ethical virtue of justice which their subjects are enjoined to cultivatetraditionally seen as the necessary bond among citizens and the justification for political ruleis in fact a distorted sham. (See the entry onCallicles and Thrasymachus.) The ethical question which Thrasymachus poses and which Platos brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus reformulatewhy should the individual be just if he or she can get away with not being just, when elevated above the demands of ordinary justice either by special power or good fortune?thus already has a political correlate from the outset.

Justice, then, depended on treating equals equally, with only the equals being full citizens. Yet how should the equal be understood? This became the major political faultline of the Greek fifth century BCE. Oligarchical regimes considered only thekalokagathoi[2]the elite and well-born, usually also wealthy landowners to be full equals; democratic regimes treated the many (or some large proportion of them) as political equals of the elite few, in the fullest democracies enfranchising all free- and native-born men.[3]Sparta, a unique political entity, still exemplified the same broad pattern in naming its citizens the equals (hoi homoioi).[4]The absence of slave status made one free but not necessarily a citizen. Slavery for its part was very little debated as a political question, serving to demarcate the domain of politics by contrast with it rather than being considered as a topic within it (see Garnsey 1996 for a full account including exceptions to that generalization). The exclusion of women from active citizenship in Athens was more consciously felt, giving rise to fantasies of female-dominated politics in Aristophanic comedy (Lysistrata,Assemblywomen) and to tortured reflection in many tragedies (consider the titles ofMedea;Phaedra;Trojan Women).

At the same time, politics was shaped by the legacy of archaic poetry and its heroic ethos and by the religious cults which included, alongside pan-Hellenic and familial rites, important practices distinct to each city-state. This was a polytheistic, rather than monotheistic, setting, in which religion was at least in large part a function of civic identity. It was a world innocent of modern bureaucracy and of the modern move to intellectual abstraction in defining the state: the entity we would call Athens in the abstract was called in its own day by the collective noun for its living and breathing citizens, the Athenians. So if ancient political philosophy left out much that modern political philosophy would include (e.g., for the most part, the question of the justness of slavery), it also included much that the latter would tend to exclude: viewing an unquestioned civic religious cult, as well as the patterns of child-rearing, cultural stories expressed in music, epic, and drama, gender roles and sexual practices, military participation, as forming part of the way of life which constituted thepoliteiaor constitution in its broadest sense (Lane 2014, 5962). This broadest sense was initially most evident to the Athenians when they looked at the peculiar customs of Sparta, but Plato taught them to recognize that democratic Athens was as distinctive a regime (Schofield 2006: 3143).

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