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Introduction to Political Science

3.1 The Classical Origins of Western Political Ideologies

Introduction to Political Science3.1 The Classical Origins of Western Political Ideologies

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the key political concepts developed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
  • Identify common themes in the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
  • Illustrate how the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle contribute to contemporary political thought.

How should people organize their lives together in society? What rules should direct individual and collective behavior? This chapter begins in Athens, a city often seen as the apex of the Western classical world.

Socrates and Plato

In the fifth century BCE, Athenian philosopher Socrates maintained that people should seek the answers to the most fundamental of life’s questions through reason, accepting as true only ideas that have withstood criticism and can be stated clearly and precisely.

Socrates’s legacy is preserved mostly through the writings of one of his pupils, Plato (428–348 BCE). In The Republic, Plato develops a detailed, reasoned argument that political power should be vested in individuals of exceptional skill who possess knowledge about the true nature of the world and a genuine love of wisdom. Plato believed that philosophers best fit this bill and should hold unrestricted political power. Such rulers would be free from temptations to corruption and would understand what is best for the communities over which they rule. Such a government, Plato argued, would secure true justice.

A line engraving shows a stone bust of a man. He has curly hair and a curly beard.
Figure 3.2 Plato argued for wise and benevolent rulers who would be guided by reason. (credit: “Plato. Line Engraving by L. Vorsterman after Sir P. P. Rubens,” Wellcome Collection, Public Domain)


Plato’s student Aristotle (384–322 BCE) agreed that either rule by a supremely wise and virtuous ruler who attends to the good of the community, which he called a monarchy, or rule by a group of such virtuous rulers, which he called an aristocracy, would be the ideal political condition. However, both Aristotle and Plato worried that a system in which rule was given to one man might turn into a tyranny, with one person ruling only for their own good. Similarly, if rule was vested in a small group, that group may become an oligarchy, defined as rule by a few in service of their own advantage. Given these possibilities, Aristotle asked if political rule could safely be lodged in the majority of citizens in the form of a democracy. Aristotle suspected that this, again, might result in a form of rule that would neglect the good of the whole in favor of the interests of the majority.8 Even today, monarchs and authoritarian rulers often justify their rule based on skepticism about the ability of the majority to pursue the interests of the whole of society.

Aristotle believed that the best hope that a majority of citizens could hold political power and rule with the goal of securing the public good would be if the majority of citizens were what is now called the middle class. Ideally, for Aristotle, political offices would reflect the wealth disparities that exist, with both those with more wealth and those with less becoming political leaders,9 and the society would have great respect for the rule of law.10 He called such a form of government a Politeia.

In a Politeia, the government would serve the public good, and society would be able to move toward fulfilling the true human potential of its citizens. Aristotle argued that this would be so because only by exercising the distinctly human capacity for rational debate, discussion, and judgment on matters that involve the good of a community can people take advantage of the full human potential. Because political participation can involve these kinds of activities, to reach one’s full potential as a human, one must participate in the exercise of political power that is structured around debate and deliberation concerning the common good of society.11

Inspired by Aristotle, contemporary thinkers such as Stanford University professor James Fishkin have argued that by expanding the number of citizens engaged in political debate and decisions, a society can both assemble perspectives in a way that advances the public good and enable citizens to realize their full potential. Modern technology, Fishkin argues, makes this possible to achieve on a large scale.12

  …Rules on Behalf of…
Self All
Individual Tyranny Monarchy
Few Oligarchy Aristocracy
Majority Democracy Politeia
Table 3.1 A Summary of Aristotle’s Categories of Political Regimes

Other contemporary thinkers agree with Aristotle’s assessment that income inequalities that divide the populace into groups at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum serve to undermine the common good. Traces of Aristotle’s thought appear in frequent political messaging, in the United States and elsewhere, that the middle class is the backbone of the nation and deserves government support and protection.13

Aristotle held that a properly governed regime must encourage its citizens to cultivate certain virtues, such as wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. In order to achieve these virtues, individuals need the government, Aristotle maintained, because government has the authority to regulate family life, school, media, the arts, and the prevailing behaviors in the broader culture. Inspired in part by Aristotle, a number of contemporary educational reform advocates have argued for a heightened role for character education in public schools to instill what they consider to be the appropriate virtues.14

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