Commitment in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Post-Aristotelian Pagan Antiquity

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised date: October 10, 2011

It would be reasonable to ask at this point in the course, what are the commitments of the Greek philosophers we have studied so far and how do they relate to the actually existing societies of their time? The key to the commitments these philosophers advocate has to do with their understandings of the good life (happiness) and the moral excellences.


Suppose we take The Defense Speech of Socrates as indicating Socrates' position: it is clear that he is committed to the examined life, the life of philosophical inquiry. But it would be mistaken to leave it at that. He is concerned with human affairs, not with natural scientific inquiry. And he is concerned with the nature of human virtue, which he regards is essential for praiseworthy political leaders. The pursuit of wisdom is more or less identical to the search for the qualities of the good statesman; a good statesman is one who promotes the common good of the citizens.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato builds upon Socrates. He is more optimistic than the Socrates of the Defense Speech that some human beings can discover the true natures of the moral virtues. In other words, the search for wisdom can result in a discovery of these natures, which are standards for action, and, if the opportunity presents itself, for reforming society and governing it. The standards themselves are eternal forms.

Plato and Aristotle can be understood as recommending that those who are able to develop their moral virtue and wisdom should do so, and that those unable to develop wisdom should acquire enough moral virtue that they can follow laws designed by those who have enough wisdom. They define happiness in such a way that nobody who lacks moral virtue and, at the very least, practical wisdom, can be fully happy.

They are well aware that people who equate happiness with a life of wealth, or a life of physical comfort and the absence of pain, will not accept their conclusions. Since in the last analysis they do not believe that most people are capable of becoming wise, in the strict sense that they understand it, they do not think that most people will be attain happiness understood as the greatest good available to human beings.

They believe that government by the wise minority (if it exists) will decrease the tendency of states to dissolve into a condition of civil war. They see internal civic strife as a political disease that should be avoided.

You are familiar with the three classes of Plato's ideal state. It is important to remember that this is an ideal for Plato, not the reality he lived in. But it gives us a clue about the social realities of his time: they were already hierarchical; some people had political power and others were subordinate to them. This was true even in democracies like Athens in the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. Not only did resident foreigners and slaves lack all or most political rights, so did Athenian women even if their parents were both Athenians; of the citizens, even at the height of the democracy, it was clear that those with wealth, those who were well-connected with powerful families, and those who had rhetorical skill had much more influence in shaping decisions than those without these qualities. The difference between a democracy and a non-democracy was that in a democracy magistrates whose activities proved unpopular could be removed from office by a vote and even exiled from the city.

In Plato's day, there were many states in the Greek-speaking world; they had different types of regime—democracies, oligarchies, and tyrannies of various kinds. Given this diversity, it made some sense to imagine an ideal regime and at least theorize about bringing it about. Plato seems to be slightly (but only slightly) more radical than Aristotle, with his recommendation that philosophers become kings or kings philosophers. Aristotle favors gradual improvements in the laws, but opposes rapid, drastic changes because such changes would, he thinks, undermine the respect for the laws.

What do Plato and Aristotle say (mostly indirectly) about the commitments that nonphilosophers can and should make. The answer is connected with the idea of the moral virtues. Plato's view, in the Republic, is that only wise and fully virtuous philosophers can follow the best form of life. But he does seem to think that in a genuinely good society, non-philosophers (the warriors and producers) can possess a second-class sort of virtue, correct belief aligned with the wisdom of the rulers.

What if the society is not the best kind? Plato seems to say that, in flawed societies where some personal freedom is allowed, philosophers with independent means, i.e., a certain amount of personal wealth, can develop their own personal wisdom and virtue in small communities of friends.

Hellenistic and Roman Society

This situation changes drastically with the rise of large, imperial states such as Alexander the Great's empire and the three Greek-speaking monarchies into which it fragmented after Alexander's death (323 B.C). These monarchies were centered in Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt. (They are sometimes described as Hellenistic monarchies and the Hellenistic period is dated from Alexander's death.) Gradually philosophers conclude that society in the Mediterranean world is not subject to fundamental political change—at least there is little chance for a change in the general structure of a regime, say, from an oligarchy to a democracy. It remains true that individual monarchs come and go, and one empire may conquer and absorb another. That is, boundaries shift. (The Roman "Republic," already operating like an empire in relation to conquered peoples, gradually defeats and absorbs the Hellenistic monarchies.)

Philosophers then tend to develop a less active, more passive conception of their roles and duties and try to fashion a notion of the good life, to which one can reasonably be committed, within that framework.

Aristotle's notion of the practically wise statesman seems to be more sensitive to the social reality that was developing in his time. The practically wise statesman is not assumed to be a philosopher; still he has the intellectual virtue of prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis; that requires that he possesses moral virtues as well, and he may be willing to learn from a philosopher who studies ethical and political questions, as Alexander's regent Antipater might have been able to learn from Aristotle. (Antipater ruled Macedonia and Greece while Alexander was on his military expeditions to the East and South.)

Philosophers in this new period tend to accept the view that everyone has a position in society and that each person should do the duties associated with that position to the best of his or her ability. MY STATION DETERMINES MY DUTIES. Our positions are based on our social roles (peasant farmer, tax-collector, carpenter, son, daughter, parent, servant, beggar, master, student, teacher, doctor, orator, military leader). Whatever our stations, whatever our roles, our duties correspond to that. This entails a heavy reliance upon tradition. This approach is quite conservative. Tradition in this period tends to defend established inequalities in wealth and power as well as male domination. Normally, within any given role, even that of beggar or slave, it is up to each of us to do his or her task well or badly. Doing it well, that is, virtuously, insofar as it is within our power, is the key to the good life for us.

This approach is widespread but it is developed most thoroughly by the Stoics, of whom the 2nd century CE philosopher Epictetus (AD 55-135) is a good example. Epictetus lived under the Roman Empire.

Roman-era Stoics like Epictetus tend to see the hierarchical order of society as something natural and god-given, continuous with non-human nature over which Zeus or Jupiter rules.

The transition to the post-democratic era starts to take place in Aristotle's lifetime. The rulers were more like the warrior guardians (focused on honor and victory) than like Plato's philosopher kings. They were often the same group as the large landowners and those who owned large numbers of slaves.