Plato and Aristotle on an Ideal State


Since ancient times, philosophers try to define and develop the concept of an ideal state and government, which meets the needs of both citizens and state rulers. Plato and Aristotle created their ideal in accordance with the rules and traditions of their historical period and its values. In a society, a variety of power groups, both in and out of government, exercise their powers individually or in concert in such a way as to oppress some of the citizenries in some things at some times, and not necessarily to oppress all men (or even the citizens generally) in all things at all times. If this is so, the exercise of governmental power may, by restraining an economic or religious or another nonpolitical power group, liberate an individual or group from the abuses to which he or they might otherwise be subjected. The example of Matrix Trilogy shows that the idea of state power has not changed significantly since Plato and Aristotle based on the strict authority of a rule and government control over the lives of citizens.

Plato’s Ideal State

Plato supposes that an ideal state is an aristocracy. For Plato, the ruling class members are civil servants selected by rigorous examinations for the performance of certain functions necessary to the attainment of the common good. The development of a sense of class distinctions and class interests is a sign of social decline. In the Republic, all are friends and mutual supporters of one another. Plato speaks constantly of the “privileges” of the guardians. In Plato’s view the sound exercise of the governing function for the common good is no privilege, but a burdensome responsibility. If the guardians do anything for their own special interests, they are obstructing the common good and thus betraying their function. They are provided with no material goods beyond their necessary needs and live an arduous life, intensively devoted to a common good in which, of course, they justly share. Even though critics may disagree with such a view, it is not correct to refer to it as the rule of a privileged class in the modern sense of this word. If by slave critics mean a human being whose natural rights are disregarded and violated, this charge is certainly erroneous. The artisans perform productive functions for which they are naturally fitted. As rational beings, they are given the same education primarily in music and gymnastics that is given to all, until they reach the age of twenty. If this is true, Plato’s imagination was politically far ahead of his own time, as it certainly was in the case of the rights of women.

The Republic is an imagined ideal community which in Plato’s conception demands the discovery of actual truths, especially concerning the most important and basic matters of a moral and philosophic nature. Therefore, they cannot distinguish between the claim to possess such truth and undiluted dogmatism and tyranny. As critics have already suggested, this is the basic philosophical issue between Plato and his most bitter critics. This is why they attempt to defend a violent contrast between Socrates, “the agnostic,” who believed in no “final truth” at all, and Plato, the totalitarian dogmatist, who betrayed his master by openly defending an articulate and full-fledged philosophy. Plato believed that in the ideal state political power and love of the good would be combined in the same individuals. This is the essential meaning of his declaration that in the ideal state philosophers will be kings and kings philosophers. He meant by “philosophers” lovers of wisdom, seekers after the good. Whereas Plato, however, believed that only a few members of society could ever aspire to a life of virtue, it is the faith underlying modern democracy that all men may aspire to that life of virtue which Plato would restrict to the few.

Much of The Republic is dedicated to a description of the system of education of the Guardians, as proper education is deemed essential to the development of the knowledge and skills needed to rule and administer the state. The educational process consists of several tiers, depending upon the talents and inclinations of individual students. Education for children of Guardians begins at an early age, with small children between the ages of three and six being taught carefully chosen myths that help to indoctrinate them in the official ideology of the state. The body is trained as well as the mind, and from ages, seven to ten emphasis is placed on gymnastics and on the development of a strong, healthy body and of the physical skills needed for later military service. For the next three years, reading and writing are taught, and ages thirteen to fifteen are devoted primarily to training in music and poetry. Plato did not hold Athens to be a pure form of democracy, exemplifying all the corruptions described in Book VIII. though it may have closely approximated this at the end of the war when he himself may have heard drunken rhetoricians clothed in armor stepping up to the rostrum to persuade the popular assembly by impassioned oratory to embark on acts of mad and hopeless aggression. He probably held that during much of its history Athens was a mixture of democracy with oligarchy and timocracy. In his view, Sparta was also not a pure timocracy, but a timocracy probably tinged with oligarchy and even tyranny. No safe conclusions concerning Plato’s attitude toward his mother city can be drawn from the formalistic discussions of Book VIII of the Republic.. According to Plato, the ruthless imperialism of Athenian war policy and the cultural decay which followed the war must be traced back to certain sophistic movements which began in the age of Pericles. He identified this form of democracy with irresponsible anarchy and condemned it both in itself and in being the mother of tyranny. Indeed, in Book VIII of the Republic, he places the pure form of democracy under oligarchy and holds that it is exceeded in degeneracy only by tyranny. From this, it has been inferred that Plato must have held that democratic.

Platoon Equality

It is in the light of this law that all men are equal not in wealth, in talents, in physical strength or learning but equal in the capacity to distinguish justice from injustice, right from wrong. And it is this capacity, guided by the law of nature, that makes possible to all men equally the life of virtue which Plato thought possible only for the few. And it is these two doctrines the doctrine of natural law and the equality of men–which lie at the foundation of what today critics call “democracy” and which sharply distinguish it from the totalitarian systems. Freedom and authority are often thought of today as being in opposition to one another, and critics frequently hear the modern dictatorships referred to as “authoritarian.” Now authority means the right to enforce obedience, but it is precisely the unwillingness of dictators like Hitler and Stalin to feel any necessity for justifying their power that is characteristic of their rule. They deny that anyone may question their right to rule, indeed, deny that there is any authority or any standard of right in terms of which their actions may be evaluated.

World war has changed all that. Plato’s so-called “idealism” is now seen for what it is a grimly realistic estimate of the moral and intellectual capacities of the masses. Knowing what class war and revolution mean, Critics can understand why Plato advocated dictatorship to prevent them. Having some experience of the effects of propaganda, critics can treat “the noble lie” not as an amusing fantasy but as an extremely practical instrument of government. Plato now turned his attention to describing the specific operations and medium that could combine in the right measure to constitute a good society where a good life could be led by every citizen.The laws themselves (in spite of the criticism of inflexible statutes offered by Plato in the Statesman) are fixed and stabilized in such a way that they look almost impossible to change: for a change in law, everybody must concur from the public assembly to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi! In addition to education, a belief in natural theology–the existence, goodness, and providence of the gods is required by law, and heresy will be punished. Critics find some striking omissions: the system of education contains no critical “dialectic” at its summit; no one in the state will have the sort of virtue which is grounded in certain knowledge as opposed to conditioned opinion, and it is doubtful what the fate of Socrates himself would have been under Plato’s late legal system. A selected list of provisions of the code may show the planned weaving together of equality, merit, profit, and prestige; and the sensible application of mathematics to institutional social planning. Each citizen, for example, will own an estate that he cannot sell or mortgage; his additional income and property (up to a statutory maximum) locates him in one of four economic “classes” which the laws recognize. Elections for the Assembly, a representative body, are regulated in such a way that representatives of the two lower economic classes are in effect elected by voters of the two upper classes, and vice versa. A fine for non-attendance is imposed on the lower class on the first two.

Certain specific offices-such as those of the Superintendent of Education, and the Magistrates – can be filled only by citizens meeting high requirements of experience and merit. Others are by appointment, others by popular election; for example, membership in the state Academy of the Nocturnal Council is strictly appointive. Slaves constitute the fifth group; they are protected by law from arbitrary mistreatment but are severely punished by the laws for any failure to keep their place. And a difference is recognized by the laws in the behavior expected from members of each economic class. For Plato, cowardice on the part of an upper-class citizen, who is expected to set a responsible example, is fined much more heavily, in proportion to his respective property, than it is for one of the lower class; but insolence (e.g., an unjustified challenge of a state official’s conduct in office) brings on the lower-class offender a proportionately heavier penalty. With at least a partial prevision of the prestige value of “conspicuous waste,” sumptuary laws allow the upper class proportionately more as maximum expenditure for funerals and for wedding feasts than the other classes.

This was Plato’s picture of Athenian democracy – a poor old skipper bullied, deceived, and cajoled by a gang of knaves, and he believed that its desperate plight was caused by its refusal to admit that law and order are only possible if the government is in the hands of an elite specially trained for the task. From this follows naturally his third criticism of Athens. Here again, was a task which should be entrusted only to the expert and to the man of proven probity. It had allowed anyone who wished to earn his living in this way, whatever he taught. As a result the man in the street, under the influence of irresponsible publicists, demagogues, and rhetoricians, had ceased to believe that such things as law or justice existed. The equalitarian philosophy which held that each man’s opinion was as good as his neighbors had destroyed respect for authority and had turned democracy into licentious anarchy.

Aristotle’s State

Societies appear in different forms. The first thing to be stressed in connection with Aristotle’s idea of a State is its size. ‘A State cannot be made from ten men — and from 100,000 it is no longer a State.’ The Greek city-states whose histories formed the factual background to Aristotle’s political theory were, most of them, of pygmy proportions. A-State is a collection of citizens, and a citizen, in Aristotle’s view, ‘is defined by nothing else so well as by participation in judicial functions and in political office. The affairs of a State are run directly by its citizens. Each citizen will be a member of the assembly or deliberative body of the nation, he will be eligible for the various offices of State, which include financial and military appointments, and he will be a part of the judiciary (for under Greek legal procedure the functions of judge and jury were not distinguished).

How much political power a citizen possessed would depend on the type of constitution which his State enjoyed, different constitutions entrusting to different persons or institutions the authority to pass legislation and to determine public policy. Aristotle produced a complex taxonomy of constitutions, the three main types of which are monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. In certain circumstances, he favored monarchy: “When either a whole family or an individual is so remarkable in point of excellence that his excellence exceeds that of everyone else, then it is just that that family or that individual should be king and sovereign over all matters”. But such circumstances are rare or non-existent, and in practice, Aristotle preferred democracy: ‘”The view that the multitude, rather than a few good men, should be sovereign… would seem perhaps to be true. For although not each member of the multitude is a good man, still it is possible that when they come together”. A State, however, constituted, must be self-sufficient, and it must achieve the goal or end for which States exist.

It is evident that a State is not a sharing of locality for the purpose of preventing mutual harm and promoting trade. These things must necessarily be present if a State is to exist, but even if they are all present a State does not thereby exist. Rather, a State is a sharing by households and families in a good life, for the purpose of a complete and self-sufficient life.

The ‘good life, which is the goal of the State, is identified with eudaimonia, which is the goal of individuals. States are natural entities, and like other natural objects they have a goal or end. Teleology is a feature of Aristotle’s political theory no less than of his biology. This notion of the goal of the State is linked to another high ideal. ‘A fundamental principle of democratic constitutions is liberty. One form of liberty is to rule and be ruled turn and turn about. Another form is to live as one wishes; for men say that this is the aim of liberty, since to live not as one wishes is the mark of a slave.’ Liberty at home is complemented by a pacific external policy; for the Aristotelian States, although armed for defense, will have no imperialist ambitions. But these generous sentiments are forgotten or suppressed when Aristotle turns from generalities to particular political arrangements. And it is at once evident that in fact liberty will be severely restricted in an Aristotelian State. First, liberty is the prerogative of citizens, and a large majority of the population will not possess citizenship. Women are not citizens. And there are slaves. Some men, according to Aristotle, are slaves by nature, and it is, therefore, permissible to make them slaves in fact. “Someone who, being a man, belongs by nature not to himself but to someone else, is a slave by nature. He belongs to someone else if, being a man, he is an article of property – and an article of property is an instrument which aids the actions of and is separable from its owner”, Slaves may enjoy a good life – they may have kind masters. But they have no liberty and no rights.

Aristotle considers all possible pairings of simple propositions and determines from which pairs a third simple proposition may be inferred, and from which pairs no conclusion may be inferred. He divides the pairings into three groups or ‘figures’, and his discussion proceeds in a rigorous and orderly fashion. The pairings are taken according to a fixed pattern, and for each pair, Aristotle states, and proves formally, what conclusion, if any, may be inferred. The whole account is recognized as the first essay in the science of formal logic. Aristotle makes great claims for his theory: ‘every proof and every deductive inference must come about through the three figures that critics have described’; in other words, every possible deductive inference can be shown to consist of a sequence of one or more arguments of the type which Aristotle has analyzed. Aristotle is, in effect, claiming that he has produced a complete and perfect logic; and he offers a complex argument in favor of the claim argument is defective, and the claim is false. Moreover, the theory inherits the weaknesses of the account of propositions on which it is based – and it contains a number of internal deficiencies to boot. Nonetheless, later thinkers were so impressed by the power of Aristotle’s exposition that for more than a thousand years Aristotelian syllogistic was taught as though it contained the sum of logical truth.

Aristotle on Equality

The citizens own slaves, and they own other forms of property. Aristotle argues at length against communism. But his notion of property is a restricted one: “Evidently it is better that property should be private – but men should make it common in use. And he immediately adds that ‘it is the task of the legislator to see that the citizens behave like this”. The State will not own the means of production, nor will it direct the economy; but the legislature will ensure that the citizen’s economic behavior is properly governed. The voice of the State, muted in economic affairs, is strident in social matters. In the last books of Politics Aristotle begins to describe his Utopia or ideal state. The State intervenes before birth.

Aristotle describes in considerable detail the various ways in which the State should regulate the lives of its citizens. Each regulation, however benevolent in purpose, is a curtailment of liberty; and in Aristotle’s claim that the citizens ‘all belong to the State,’ the reader will detect the infant voice of totalitarianism. If Aristotle loved liberty, he did not love it enough. His State is highly authoritarian. What has gone wrong? Some may suspect that Aristotle erred at the very first step. He confidently assigns a positive function to the State, supposing that its goal is the promotion of the good life. Given that, it is easy to imagine that the State, eager to ameliorate the human condition, may properly intervene in any aspect of human life and may compel its subjects to do whatever will make them happy. Those who see the State as a promoter of Good end up as advocates of repression. Lovers of liberty prefer to assign a negative function to the State and to regard it as a defense and protection against Evil. On individual occasions one does not ask what one can do to promote theory; one applies moral rules (‘keep promises’, ‘tell the truth’) or puts into practice moral virtues (courage, kindness). The theory says, these rules and virtues are what they are, and can be justified because a society whose members generally live according to them will be a society in which philosophic contemplation has the best chance of flourishing; such a society will provide the best possible harmonious setting in which those with the capacity for theory will be able to exercise it.

That, then, is the theory. But is it at all plausible? If critics were to ask ‘What rules of life, if adopted in a community, would promote maximum theory in the long run [or, in more modern terms, would produce the most civilized and cultured society]’, would our answer look anything like ordinary morality? Well, the answer would surely have to take into account the whole nature of the human beings in the community, and their diversity. Only rules of life that ensured a balanced satisfaction of many human needs and desires (selfish and altruistic) could bring about and maintain a stable, smoothly-running society capable of encouraging and sustaining Institutes of Higher Learning. It is widely held that the aim of morality is balanced satisfaction in the long run of diverse human needs and desires. The theory that the ultimate objective of morality is the promotion of theory is quite compatible with saying that its more immediate objective is that balanced satisfaction; the society that achieves the latter will be the society in which theory has the best chance to flourish.

The result was that in each case the machinery of State became the instrument of class interest: the law did not rule but was enslaved to a section of its own subjects. It was on this score that Plato leveled his most bitter attacks against Athenian democracy. The people claimed to govern themselves and proudly refused to submit the control of policy to anybody of experts. Instead, the citizen assembly itself made all important decisions. In his day, as in ours, the clash of ideologies could only too easily destroy the possibility of peaceful change and constitutional government. Wherever that occurred, violence became the only weapon in the struggle for survival, and dictatorship was the only organization to ensure economic interests. Aristotle realized that, unless the class war could be ended, Greek culture could not long survive. But between the Left and the Right, he found little to choose. Both were actuated by selfish class interests: both were willing to sacrifice the national welfare to the immediate interests of their supporters. Both used religion and morality as rhetorical devices for attaining their material ends. If there were any advantage, it lay with the oligarchs, for their system was more stable: because the policy was concentrated in the hands of a few, it was less likely to be swayed by gusts of popular passion. In Plato’s view the class war, if it were allowed to continue, could end logically only in the destruction of all social life. For the qualities necessary to survival were not decency or wisdom or righteousness, but brutality and low cunning. But if the class war was the prime evil of life, there were, in Aristotle’s opinion, two other contributory evils of great importance. The first was the idea that government belonged by right to a particular social class or to the people as a whole. He believed that it was a whole-time job and demanded abilities of a peculiar kind. The State could only prosper if political power were granted to men and women who were capable of using it correctly.

Comparison between Plato and Aristotle

Both Plato and Aristotle agree that an aristocracy is an ideal form of the state. Following Plato, the totalitarian dictatorship is the embodiment not of authority but of naked power–it repudiates the demands of reason, justice, and God. It is an effort to fill the void left by the repudiation of reason and of God by a will that is unguided by reason, unrestrained by considerations of justice, and unmindful of the commandments of God. It is not the government in the true sense of the word but a perverted attempt to employ the techniques of government when government fails. The total character of the dictatorship is necessitated by the lack of any common authority. The will of the tyrant is the final court of appeal, and that will is a purely arbitrary one. It is useless to appeal to the tyrant’s reason or sense of justice, for the tyrant denies that he must justify his actions in terms of reason or of justice. It is not a characteristic feature of democracy that it dispenses with authority; that is, instead, characteristic of tyranny. There can be no freedom without authority, for without authority freedom degenerates into license. The state of anarchy which Plato describes as preceding the rise of tyranny is characterized by the lack of any order in individual and social life, by the lack of rational restraint.

In contrast to Plato, Aristotle underlines the importance of strict control of the state over the life of citizens. Plato did not lay it to the charge of the restored democracy but admitted that the new government acted with considerable moderation. He saw, indeed, that it was one of those events which no foresight or human volition could have prevented. Because it could happen under a moderate democracy, it disturbed him profoundly. For years he had talked with Socrates and studied with him the new science and mathematics and theology: more than most of his contemporaries he had understood the Socratic spirit. He had not failed to see Socrates’ deep disgust with the aristocratic clique and his contempt for their politics. Aristotle had grasped the reason for his refusal to escape from prison, and seen him as he was, not an agnostic, but a conscientious objector.

The example of the Matrix trilogy suggests that strict control of the state is an ideal form of government that allows rulers to manipulate and guide society. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, the world order portrayed in Matrix includes a number of depictions of sinister public institutions that seem to exist almost exclusively for the sake of their own power. Similar to Athens, Matrix is a world of state control and authority but it can be changed in accordance with rulers’ needs and demands. Athens can change laws and legislation if it is required by a new political or social situation. Freedom of speech, for example, is vital primarily to those who object to, not to those who applaud, a given view; and it is most vital to those who object the most. But since those who applaud now may on a later occasion stand to protest, the democrat insists on protesting at all times the invasion of basic rights. In Matrix, justice exists only for rulers but it does not exist for ordinary citizens like Neo. In Matrix, the red color symbolizes the truth and freedom of an individual. The Republic contains Plato’s plan for the building of a perfect state in which every citizen is really happy. He imagines himself invested with supreme power and asks how he would use it to save humanity from its present miseries. But if you are going to build a perfect society, you can only do so by reconstructing existing institutions; and so Plato was forced to consider the city which he knew so well, and to ask himself what was wrong with Athens. When he had discovered this, he could construct a city free from the evils of Athenian society. In Matrix, every citizen is happy until he knows the truth. An individual can free his mind through training and development. Similar ideas are expressed by Plato and Aristotle who stated that education is a vital part of state development. Policemen, scientists, politicians, preachers, and other representatives of public power are consistently portrayed as villains whose goal is to persecute anyone who differs from the official norm and thereby extinguish all individualism and genuine creativity.

There are similarities between an individual dependency in Matrix and independence in Athens. Plato believed that these evils were three in number: class war, bad government, and bad education. Class war was the most obvious of the three. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle underlines that most Greek cities were either oligarchies or democracies, and many alternated through a series of revolutions between these two forms of class dictatorship. Aristotle supposes that a state should exercise strict but fair control over citizens. The people being incompetent, power fell into the hands of demagogues: and “ruling” became the prerequisite not of the wise statesman, but of the mob-orator who knew how to cajole the people and to pander to its worst tastes. One after the other, Matrix examines discourses and institutions that have traditionally been figured as forces for human liberation, only to suggest that these forces have been conscripted in the service of individual enslavement. For example, religion, a traditional locus of hopes for human liberation, is simply a con game used for purposes of domination and control.


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Barnes, J. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. Cambridge, 1995.

Michelini, A. N. Plato as Author: The Rhetoric of Philosophy. Brill, 2003.

Plato’s Theories On The Ideal State. 2008. Web.

Plato. The Republic, 2008. Web.

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