Political Thought Before Plato

Political thought before Plato. The great age of Athenian public life fell in the third quarter of the fifth-century B.C., while the great age of political philosophy came only after the downfall of Athens in her struggle with Sparta. Here, as in so many cases in history, reflection followed achievement, and principles were abstractly stated only after they had long been acted upon. The Athenian of the fifth century was not much given either to the reading or the writing of books and, moreover, even if political treatises were written before the time of Plato, not much has been preserved.

Nevertheless, there are clear indications that much active thought and discussion were expended upon political problems during the fifth century and also that many of the conceptions found later in Plato and Aristotle had already crystallized. The origin and development of these ideas cannot be properly traced, but the atmosphere of opinion must be suggested in which the more explicit political philosophy of the next century could evolve.

Popular Political Discussion:-

That the Athenians of the fifth century were immersed in the discussion of politics need scarcely be said. Public concerns and the conduct of public affairs were their great topics of interest. The Athenian lived in an atmosphere of oral discussion and conversation which it is difficult for the modern man to imagine. It is certain that every sort of interesting political question was actively canvassed by the curious and inquiring minds of Athenian citizens. Indeed, the circumstances could hardly have been more favorable to certain sorts of political inquiry.

The Greek was almost forced to think Of what would now be called comparative government. Throughout the length and breadth of the Greek world, he found a great variety of political institutions, all indeed of the city-state type, but still capable of very great differences. At the very least there was one contrast which every Athenian must have heard discussed from the time he was old enough to follow the conversation at all, that between Athens and Sparta, the types of thé progressive and the conservative state, or of the democratic and the aristocratic state.

Then in the east, there was always the terrible shadow of Persia which could never belong out of any Greek’s consciousness. He hardly counted it, indeed, as a genuine government, or at all events, he counted It such a government as only the barbarian merited, but it formed the dark background upon which he projected his own better institutions. As his travels took him still farther afield to Egypt, to the western part of the Mediterranean, to Carthage, to the tribes of the Asiatic hinterland-he found continually new material for comparison.

That the Greek of the fifth century had formed already a lively curiosity about the queer laws and institutions which filled his world is amply proved by the fund of anthropological lore embodied by Herodotus in his History. The strange customs and manners of foreign peoples form a regular part of his stock in trade. Behavior which in one country is looked upon as expressing the greatest piety and goodness is regarded in another with indifference or perhaps even with loathing.

Each man naturally prefers the customs of his own country, and though there may be little in these customs which is intrinsically superior to those of another country, the life of every man must be lived in accord with some standards. Human nature needs the piety that belongs to some sort of observance.

Herodotus looked with a curious and a tolerant eye, but withal respectfully, upon the strange medley that he revealed. He considers it the most certain evidence of Cambyses’s madness that he despised and insulted the religious rites of other nations besides the Persians. It is, thinks, rightly said in Pindar’s poem that uses and won’t is lord of all.

Even in this very unphilosophical book, there is one rather startling bit of evidence of the lengths to which popular thought in Greece had gone in theorizing about government. This is the passage? in which seven Persians are represented as discussing the relative merits of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Most of the stock arguments appear: The monarch tends to degenerate into a tyrant, while democracy makes all men equal before the law. But democracy readily becomes mob-rule and a government by the best men is certainly preferable. And nothing can be better than the rule of the one best man. This is a genuine Greek touch which Herodotus certainly did not learn in Persia. This standard classification of the forms of governments, then, was a bit of popular theorizing long antedating anything known as political philosophy. When it occurs in Plato and Aristotle it is already a commonplace that needs not to be taken too seriously.

In the beginnings of political thought, no doubt disinterested Curiosity about foreign countries counted for something, but this was certainly not the main motive. The essential condition was the rapidity with which the Athenian government itself had changed and the tenseness of the struggles by which the changes had come about. At no date within the historical era had there been a time when Athenian life-or indeed Greek life-had been mainly regulated by unquestioned custom.

Sparta indeed could pose as a marvel of political stability but the Athenians had the perforce to take pride in progress since not much could be said for the antiquity of his institutions. The final triumph of democracy was not much older than the political career of Pericles; the constitution itself went back only to the last years of the sixth century; and the beginning of the democracy, counting from the establishment of popular control over the courts by Sofon, was less than a century older. Moreover, from Solon on the general issues of Athenian domestic politics had been the same.

The underlying causes were economic and the issue was between the aristocracy, dominated by the old and wellborn families whose property was inland, and democracy, dominated by the interests of foreign trade and aiming to develop Athenian power upon the sea. Already Solon could boast that the purpose of his legislation was to see fair play between the rich and the poor, and this difference of interest was still for Plato the fundamental cause of disharmony in the Greek government. Athenian history, and indeed the history of the Greek cities generally, had been for at least two centuries the arena of active party-struggle and the scene of rapid constitutional change.

Only occasionally is it possible to catch a glimpse that enables -one to guess how intense the discussion of political questions must have been that accompanied these struggles? In particular, the triumph of the democracy at Athens was the occasion of at least one astonishing bit of political description which probably did not stand alone and which serves to show how well the underlying economic causes of the political changes were understood. This is the little essay on the Constitution of Athens, written by some disgruntled aristocrat and formerly attributed (falsely) to Xenophon.

The author sees in the Athenian constitution at once a perfect instrument of democracy and a thoroughly perverted form of government. He sees also that the roots of democratic power are in overseas commerce and in the consequent importance of the navy which, under ancient conditions, was the typically democratic branch of the military system, just as the heavy-armed infantry was the typically aristocratic branch.

Democracy is a device for exploiting the rich and putting money into the pockets of the poor. The popular courts he regards as merely a clever way of distributing pay to the six thousand jurymen and of compelling Athens’s allies to spend their money in Athens while they wait to get their judicial business transacted. Like Plato later he complains that in a democracy one cannot even tell a slave when he jostles one in street, It Is obvious that Plato’s satirical picture of the democratic state, In Book VIII of the Republic was no new theme.

There is other evidence also that the Athenian public was no stranger to the discussion of the most radical programs of social change. Thus Aristophanes in his Ecclesiazusae, which was performed about 390, was able to make a comedy out of the idea of women’s; rights and the abolition of marriage, which has strongly suggested a relation to communism put forward seriously by Plato at about the same time.

Women are to oust men from politics; marriage is to be discarded, children are to be kept in ignorance of their true parents and are to be all equally the sons of their elders; labor is to be performed only by slaves; and gambling, theft, and lawsuits are to be abolished.

The relation of all this to the Republic is obscure since it is not known whether Aristophanes or Plato published first. But this is not a really interesting point. Aristophanes seems to be lampooning not a speculative philosophy but the utopian ideas of radical democracy.

And since the primary requirement of comedy is that it should go over the footlights, his audience must have known what he was talking about. It is an obvious inference that early in the fourth century at least, an Athenian audience found nothing incomprehensible in a thoroughly subversive criticism of their political and social system. Again Plato was not an innovator; he was merely trying to take the social position of women seriously, a serious question then as now in spite of the hare-brained treatment it may receive.

Order in Nature and Society:-

it is clear, then, that active thought and discussion of political and social questions preceded explicit political theory and that isolated political ideas, of more or less importance in themselves, were matter, of common knowledge before Plato tried to Incorporate them in a well-rounded philosophy. But there were current also certain genera conceptions, not exclusively political in their nature, but forming a kind of the intellectual point of view, within which political thought developed and which fur the first time it made explicit.

Here too the conceptions were present and had been expressed before they were abstractly stated as philosophical principles. Such assumptions are elusive but important, for they largely determine what sort of explanations are felt to be intellectually satisfying and therefore the direction that later theories will try to take.

As was said in the preceding chapter, the fundamental thought in the Greek idea of the state was the harmony of a life shared in common by all its members. Solon commended his legislation as producing harmony or a balance between the rich, and the poor in which each party received its just due.

The part which ideas of harmony and proportion played in Greek conceptions both of beauty and of morals has been too often emphasized to need repeating. These ideas appeared at the very beginning of Greek philosophy when Anaximander tried to picture nature as a system of opposite properties (like heat and cold, for instance) that are “divided off from an underlying neutral substance.

Harmony or proportion or, if one prefers, “justice’’ is an ultimate principle in all the earliest attempts at a theory of the physical world. The sun will not overstep his measures, said Heraclitus; if he does, the Erinyes, the handmaids of Justice, will find him out.

The Pythagorean philosophy in particular regarded harmony or proportion as a basic principle in music, medicine, physics, and politics. In a figure of speech that still persists in English, justice is described as a ‘‘square’’ number. This regard for measure or proportion as an ethical quality is registered in the famous proverb, Nothing too much. The same ethical idea in a literary form appears in Euripides’s Phoenician Maidens when Jocasta urges her son to moderation, begging him to honor

Equality, which knitteth friends to friends, Cities to cities, allies unto allies. Man’s law of nature is equality.

Measures for men equality ordained Meeting of weights and number she assigned.

At the start, then, the fundamental idea of harmony or proper nationality was applied indifferently as a physical and as an ethical principle and was conceived indifferently as a property of nature or as a reasonable property of human nature.

The first development of the principle, however, took place in natural philosophy and this development reacted in turn upon. its later use in ethical and political thought. In physics measure or proportion came to have a definite and somewhat technical significance,

It meant that the details or the particular events and objects that made up the physical world were to be explained on the hypothesis that they were variations or modifications of an underlying substance which in essence remained the same. The contrast here is between fleeting and ever-changing particulars and an unchangeable ‘nature’ whose properties and laws are eternal. This conception as a physical principle culminated in the formulation (late in the fifth century) of the atomic theory, according to which the unchanging atoms, by various combinations, produce all the variety of objects that the world holds.

The interest in physical nature that produced this brilliant first approximation to a scientific point of view lasted right through the fifth century, but at about the middle of that century, a change of interest began to make its appearance. This was a swing in the direction of humanistic studies, such as grammar, music, the arts of speech: and writing, and ultimately psychology, ethics, and politics. The reasons for this change, which came to have its chief center at Athens, were in the first place growth of wealth, an increasing urbanity of life, and the feeling that a higher level of education was needed, especially in those arts, like public speaking, which had a direct relation to a successful career in a democratic government.

The instruments by which the change was initiated were those itinerant teachers known as Sophists, who made their living-sometimes a very opulent living by offering instruction to such as we’re able to pay for it. But the force by which the change of interest was consummated was the tremendous personality of Socrates, supplemented by the incomparable representation of that personality in the Dialogues of Plato.

This change amounted in its results to an intellectual revolution, for it turned philosophy definitely away from physical nature and toward humanistic studies psychology, logic, ethics, politics, and religion. Even where the study of the physical world persisted, as with Aristotle, the explanatory principles were drawn largely from the observation of human relationships.

Never again, from the death of Socrates down to the seventeenth century, was the study of external nature for its own sake, irrespective of its relation to human affairs and interests, a matter of primary concern to the great mass of thinkers.

So far as the Sophists were concerned, they had no philosophy; they taught what well-to-do students were willing to pay for. But none the less some of them at least stood for a new point of view as compared with the hitherto prevailing interest of philosophy in the discovery of a permanent substratum for physical change. On its positive | side this new point of view was simply humanism-the twisting of knowledge toward man as its center.

On the negative side, it implied a kind of skepticism toward the older ideal of a detached knowledge of the physical world. This is the most plausible understanding of Protagoras’s famous saying that, Man is the measure of all things, of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not. In other words, knowledge is the creation of the senses and other human faculties and so is a strictly human enterprise.

Nothing that Plato says about Protaguras justifies the notion that he meant really to teach that anything is true which anyone chooses to believe, though Plato himself thought that this was what he ought to mean. This would be, indeed, a suicidal doctrine for a professional teacher. What Protagoras presumably meant is that the proper study of mankind is the man.

If, however, it was really the object of the new humanism to set entirely aside the ways of thinking followed by the older physical philosophy, it failed utterly. What it succeeded in doing was to give a new interest and a new direction. The earlier philosophers had gradually come to conceive of physical explanation as to the discovery of simple and unchanging realities to the modification of which they might attribute the changes that everywhere appear upon the face of concrete things.

But the Greeks of the fifth century had become familiar-through their contacts with foreign peoples and through rapid changes of legislation in their own states-with the variety and the flux of human custom. What more natural, then, than that they should find in custom and convention the analog of fleeting appearances and should seek again for a ‘nature’ or a permanent principle by which the appearances could be reduced to regularity?

The substance of the physical philosophers consequently reappeared as a “Jaw of nature,” eternal amid the endless qualifications and modifications of human circumstance. If only such a permanent law could be found, human life might be brought to a degree of reasonableness. Thus it happened that Greek political and ethical philosophy continued along the ancient line already struck out by the philosophy of nature-the search for permanence amid change and for unity amid the manifold.

The question remained, however, as to what form this permanent element in human life should take. What really is the unchanging core of human nature which all men have in common, whatever may be the veneer of second nature which habit and custom have laid over the surface?

What are the permanent principles of human relationship which remain after due allowance has been made for all the curious forms in which conventionality has clothed it? Obviously, the mere presumption that man has nature and that some forms of relationship are right and proper in no way settles what the principle shall be.

Moreover, what will be the consequence of finding it? How will the customs and the laws of one’s own nation look when compared with the standard? Will it enforce the substantial wisdom and reasonableness of the traditional pieties or will it be subversive and destructive?

If men discover how to be “natural,” will they still be faithful to their families and loyal to their states? Thus was thrown into the cauldron of political philosophy that most difficult and ambiguous of all conceptions, the natural, as the solvent for the complications, psychological and ethical, which actual human behavior presents.

Many solutions were offered, depending on what was conceived to be natural. Except for the skeptics, who finally declared in the utter weariness that one thin is as natural as another and that use and won’t are literally “lord of all,” everyone agreed that something is natural. That is to say, some law does exist which, if understood, would tell why men behave as they do and why they think some ways of doing are honorable and good others base and evil.

Nature and Convention:-

There is ample evidence that this great discussion about nature, versus convention, was spread wide among the Athenians of the fifth century. It might, of course, as frequently it has done since, form the defense of the rebel, in the name of a higher law, against the standing conventions and the existing laws of society. The classic instance of this theme in Greek literature is the Antigone of Sophocles, perhaps the first time that an artist exploited the conflict. between duty to human law and a duty to the law of God. Thus when Antigone is taxed with having broken the law by performing the funeral rites of her brother, she replies to Creon:

Yea, for these laws, were not ordained of Zeus,

And she who sits enthroned with gods below,

Justice enacted not these human laws.

Nor did deem that thou, a mortal man,

Could by a breath annul and override

The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.

They were not born today nor yesterday;

They did not, and none knoweth whence they sprang.

This identification of nature with the law of God and the contrast of convention with the truly right was destined to become almost a formula for the criticism of abuses, a role in which the law of nature has appeared again and again in the later history of political thought. In this role the contrast occurs also in Euripides, who uses it to deny the validity of social distinctions based on birth, even in. that critical case for Greek society, the slave:

There is but one thing bringeth shame to slaves, The name: in all else ne’er a slave is worse Than free men, so he bear an upright soul.

And Again,

The honest man is nature’s nobelman

The critical Athenian of the fifth century was quite aware that his society had its seamy side and the critic was prepared to appeal to natural right and justice as against the adventitious distinctions of the convention.

On the other hand, it is by no means necessary that nature should be conceived as setting a rule of ideal justice and right. Justice may itself be thought of as a convention having no other basis than the law of the state itself, and nature may figure as, in any usual sense, non-moral.

Such a view is associated with the later Sophists who apparently found it profitable to shock conservative sensibilities by denying that slavery and nobility of birth are “natural.” Thus the orator Alcidamas is credited with saying, God made all men free; nature has made no man a slave.

Most shocking of all, the sophist Antiphon denied that there was “naturally” any difference between a Greek and a barbarian. The end of the fifth century was a time when: the dearest prejudices of the fathers were being dissected by and for a not-too-reverent younger generation.

Fortunately, something is known of the political ideas of this sophist Antiphon since a small fragment remains of his book On Truth. He asserted flatly that all law is merely conventional and hence contrary to nature. The most advantageous way to live is to hold the law in respect before witnesses, but when one is not observed to follow nature, which means to consult one’s own advantage.

The evil of breaking the law is in being seen and rests only on opinion, but the bad consequences of going against nature are inevitable. Most of what is just according to the law is against nature, and men who are not self-assertive usually lose more than they gain.

Legal justice is of no use to those who follow it; it does not prevent injury or correct the injury afterward. For Antiphon ‘‘nature” is simply egoism or self-interest. But obviously, he was setting up self-interest itself as a moral principle in opposition to what is called moral. The man who followed nature would always do the best he could for himself.

These fragments show clearly that the radical speculation about justice with which Plato begins the Republic were not the inventions of his own imagination. The argument of Thrasymachus, that justice is only the interest of the stronger since in every state the ruling class makes those laws which it deems most conducive to its own advantage, is quite in the same spirit.

Nature is not a rule of right but a rule of strength. A similar point more elaborated is made by Callicles in the Gorgias when he argues that natural justice is the right of the strong man and that legal justice is merely the barrier which the multitude of weaklings puts up to save itself. If there were a man who had sufficient force he would trample underfoot all our formulas, and spells, and charms, and all our laws which are against nature.

In the same vein as the famous speech of the Athenian ambassadors ty Melos in Thucydides of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their own nature they rule wherever they can. It seems quite clear that Thucydides meant this speech to express the spirit of Athens’s policy toward her allies.

Of course, the theory which identifies nature with egoism need not carry quite such anti-social implications as it seems to have in Antiphon or as Plato gives it in speeches of Callicles. Glaucon in Book il of the Republic develops it more moderately as a kind of social contract, by which men agree together not to do injuries, in order that they may escape injury at the hands of their fellows. The rule would still be egoism, but enlightened self-interest might be compatible with law and justice, as the most feasible way of living together. This view, though not an invitation to lawlessness, is still not compatible with the idea that the city is life in common.

This cool way of holding a fellow citizen at arm’s length until one is sure he can get as much as he gives is not in the spirit of a “community.” Accordingly, Aristotle argues against it in the Politics,* where he attributes it to the Sophist, Lycophron. Since Lycophron was a Sophist of the second generation, a pupil of Gorgias, it is possible that a sort of contract-theory-a utilitarian development of the principle of self-interest-existed early in the fourth century. At a Jater date, this kind of political philosophy reappeared in the Epicureans.

Before the close of the fifth century, then, the contrast of nature and convention had begun to develop in two main directions. The one conceived nature as a law of justice and right inherent in human beings and in the world. This view necessarily leaned to the assumption that the order in the world is intelligent and beneficent; it could be critical of abuses but it was essentially a moralist and in the last resort religious.

The other conceived nature non-morally, and as manifested in human beings it was self-assertion or egoism, the desire for pleasure or for power. This view might be developed as a kind of Nietzschean doctrine of self-expression, or in its more moderate forms it might become a kind of utilitarianism; the extreme forms could become theories of a definitely anti-social complexion.

Already in the fifth century, therefore, there were ideas, nut as yet systematic or abstract, which contain suggestions of most of the philosophical systems which were produced in the fourth century. Perhaps it needed only that Athens should fall upon evil days, as she did at the close of the Peloponnesian War, to make her people contemplative rather than active, and to make her a “school for Hellas’ in a sense of which Thucydides never dreamed.


The personal agency by which suggestive ideas were turned into explicit philosophy was Socrates, and, curiously enough, all the possibilities were equally indebted to him. The profoundly exciting quality of his personality influenced men of the most different character and induced conclusions which were logically quite incompatible though obviously all derivative from Socrates.

Thus Antisthenes could find the secret of his personality in his self-command and could enlarge this into ethics of misanthropy, while Aristippus could see the secret of the same personality in a boundless power to enjoy and could enlarge this into ethics of pleasure two quite different versions of Callicles’s strong man who could trample underfoot the weakness of sociability. For the time being these philosophies seemed of minor importance, eclipsed as they were by the splendor of Plato and Aristotle, but in the event, each set up its ideal of the philosopher and that ideal; in both cases, was Socrates.

Nevertheless, it seems certain that more of Socrates’s personality and a juster conception of his ideas must have gone into the teaching of his greatest pupil, Plato But in all of Socrates’s pupils was consummated the humanistic reaction in which the Sophists began. The great interest of his mature years at least was ethics, in short, the puzzling question about the multitude of local and changeable conventions and the true and abiding right.

Unlike the Sophists, however, he carried into his humanism the rational tradition of the older physical philosophy. This is the meaning of the doctrine most characteristically imputed to him, the belief that virtue is knowledge and so can be learned and taught, and also of the method which Aristotle attributes to him, the pursuit of precise definition.

Forgiven these two, the discovery of a valid general rule of action is not impossible, and imparting it by means of education is not impracticable. Or to state it in somewhat different words, if ethical concepts can be defined, a scientific application of them in specific Cases is possible, and this science may then be used to bring about and maintain a society of demonstrable excellence. It is this vision of a rational, demonstrable science of politics, which Plato pursued throughout his life.

What exactly were Socrates’s conclusions about politics is not known. But in general, the implications of identifying virtue with knowledge are too clear to be missed. Socrates must have been an outspoken critic of the Athenian democracy, with its presumption that any man can fill any office.

This is broadly suggested in the Apology and practically stated by Xenophon in the Memorabilia and in any case, Socrates’s trial and conviction are a little hard to understand unless there was “politics” somewhere behind it. it may very well be, then, that some considerable measure of the political principles developed in the Republic really belonged to Socrates and were learned directly from him by Plato.

However this may be, the intellectualist cast of the Republic, the inclination to find salvation in an adequately educated ruler, is certainly an elaboration of Socrates’s conviction that virtue, political virtue not excluded, is knowledge.