On Classical Political Philosophy

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If the end or purpose of a political community is to enable its members to develop their distinctive rational faculties, those who best succeed in developing those faculties or the virtuous have the best claim to rule. The goal of acquiring virtue also puts limits on the material goods and territory any individual or community needs to acquire.

In conditions of scarcity, Aristotle recognized, not all inhabitants of a given territory have the leisure or opportunity to develop their rational capacities or seek virtue. Some have to farm, others fight as soldiers, still others engage in trade. And because every community needs different goods provided by different groups or individuals, political communities are characterized by a fundamental controversy or conflict about who — what group or individual — should rule and why?

Aristotle saw that the just answer to that question depended upon particular circumstances. All political communities need to have a certain number of citizens or inhabitants who provide them with the material goods necessary to survive and soldiers for their defense.

If the goal of a community is not merely to preserve its members, but to enable them to become virtuous, however, the virtuous have the best claim to rule. In some communities the people as a whole may possess more virtue than any particular individual or group.

Class Schedule

Moreover, governments or regimes that do not include or have the support of the vast majority do not tend to last long. Because the people as a whole cannot lead an army or administer laws, their participation is necessarily restricted to electing magistrates and judging criminal cases. Since human beings tend to act on the basis of their passions instead of their reason, it is dangerous to give any individual or group unlimited power. Except in extraordinary circumstances, rule by law is thus to be preferred to direct rule by any particular human being or beings. The question nevertheless remains, who or what group is going to decide what the law is and how it is administered.

Strauss noted that contemporary students of politics disagree with the classics most about the status and character of democracy. Like the classics, we understand democracy to mean not only the rule of equals by equals, but also that each citizen will be free to choose his own way of life. Classical political philosophers understood democracy to be a less good form of government, because popular enlightenment becomes possible only on the basis of modern technology.

And, although he clearly did not foresee the development of modern technology, Aristotle expressed some reservations about the political effects of encouraging innovation. He revealed a failure to understand the extent to which obedience to the law on the part of most citizens is habitual by proposing to reward every citizen who suggested an improvement.

Aristotle did not deny that improvements could be made; the purpose of his own writing was to teach potential legislators how to perform their task better.


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But in contrast to other arts, in which there can be constant and continual improvements, every change weakens the law. A wise legislator will not advocate change per se. The more radical question of why living virtuously is raised only in the Platonic dialogues by characters like Thrasymachus and Callicles. Like Aristotle, Socrates suggests that political communities arise because human beings need to develop a division of labor in order to survive; but once they acquire everything they need to survive, their desires expand beyond what is necessary.

Some people in the community thus have to be trained not only to defend their land from others but also to restrain their fellow citizens. In seeking to discover how such guardians should be educated to be just, Socrates shows that the only human beings who are truly virtuous are philosophers.

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Ancient Political Philosophy

However, because they want to spend their lives, like Socrates, seeking the truth, philosophers do not want to rule. His contention that evils in cities will not cease until philosophers become kings reveals the limits and thus the nature of politics.


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  • Political communities need virtuous leaders in order to survive, much less prosper; but the attempt to discover what virtue is requires philosophers to investigate questions that transcend the boundaries of any city. Plato's depiction of his teacher Socrates is meant to show other philosophers why they should concern themselves with the political conditions that make philosophy possible. As represented by Socrates, Strauss emphasized, philosophy consists in a search for the truth, not the possession of knowledge. That search is not Sisyphean, however, because the search itself — the conversations Socrates had with his companions seeking to discover what virtue is — is the only truly satisfying form of human existence.

    And, Strauss concluded, this Socratic understanding of philosophy as a way of life constituted a response to Nietzsche's question about a source of meaning in human life that does not presuppose belief in the God of Scripture or complete knowledge of the universe. Modern political philosophy had culminated in doctrines that justified extreme forms of political oppression, but that fact did not make it possible to return to earlier modern conceptions. And … liberal democracy, in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from a way of thinking which cannot be called modern at all: the premodern thought of our western tradition.

    Classical and Medieval Political Philosophy

    Because people differ in their natural capacities or talents, they benefit from specializing in what they do best through a division of labor and system of exchange. However, because people have different talents or inclinations, once they satisfy their basic needs, they also tend to disagree about what is most important in life. Conflicts thus arise, which, if they are to receive a just resolution, require that the decision as to who gets what — honors as well as goods — needs to be made by someone who knows what is best for human beings.

    It is not clear that there is any such person who possesses the requisite knowledge of who can do what is best by nature; but even if there were such a person, it is even less clear that those to be ruled would agree to such rule. As Plato argues in his Statesman , people are not apt to trust someone who claims to be wise with absolute power, and, moreover, a wise person would not agree to rule. Indeed, it is not any more probable that a truly wise person would want to rule than it is that people will be willing to relinquish all forms of private property, abolish all distinctions between the sexes, and give their children over completely to the direction of the political authorities.

    So, as Plato shows in his Republic , it is extremely unlikely that a perfectly just regime will ever exist. Plato and Aristotle thus agree that all actual regimes represent a kind of compromise between the need for virtue — courage, wisdom, and trustworthiness — in rulers, on the one hand, and the need for the consent of the ruled, on the other. If the wise will not rule, rulers will of necessity be selected from the unwise; and it is clear that unwise rulers will need to be restrained by law and made accountable to the people they claim to be serving.

    To understand that the wise will not rule is, in other words, to understand that all political power is and ought to be limited Strauss : As Strauss observes: The classics had no delusions regarding the probability of a genuine aristocracy [that is, the rule of the truly best or most virtuous members of a community] ever becoming actual.

    For all practical purposes the [classics] were satisfied with a regime in which the gentlemen share power with the people in such a way that the people elect the magistrates and the council from among the gentlemen and demand an account of them at the end of their term of office. A variation of this thought is the notion of the mixed regime, in which the gentlemen form the senate and the senate occupies the key position between the popular assembly and an elected or hereditary monarch as head of the armed forces of society.

    Modern republican government is thus made responsible to, and so at least potentially limited by, the sovereign people. But who or what is to limit the people and their use of sovereign power? Rather than simply making governors answerable to the people they govern — which means in practice to the most powerful group in society and thus most often to the numerical majority — classical political philosophers saw the need to design and distribute offices so that the competing parts of a polity would have to work together to make decisions or laws for the whole.

    If citizens were truly equal, lot would be, as it was in Athens, the way to select public officials. The ancient democracies Plato and Aristotle criticized thus differed from modern democracies in two important respects. First, ancient democracies countenanced slavery; not all inhabitants, much less all human beings were thought to be free and, therefore, equal. Second, in ancient democracies the rule of the people meant in effect, as it still does, the rule of the majority; but under conditions of scarcity, they were poor, and being poor, they were uneducated.

    As a result of the development of modern natural science, and popular enlightenment, modern democracies no longer constitute the rule of the uneducated and poor. Modern liberal democracies are characterized by large middle classes whose children have the leisure for education. Many more people have an opportunity not only to acquire the requisite education but also to become political leaders.

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    The question thus arises how they can be persuaded to rule themselves, to adopt just laws, and to obey those laws once adopted. In the first stages of the development of modern liberal democracies, Strauss observes, the solution to this problem was sought in an education, based on the Bible, which led people to regard themselves as responsible for both their actions and their thoughts to a God who would judge them Strauss : Strauss recognized, however, that the sort of education necessary to sustain a democratic republic extends beyond religion.

    Modern liberal democracies are representative democracies. As we have seen, classical philosophy points to the desirability of rule of law. Laws do not make and administer themselves, however. It is important, therefore, to take account of the character, and thus of the education, of those who will make and administer the laws. But it aimed, above all, at preparing those who would become rulers to deliberate about the broadest questions of politics and philosophy. Strauss warns his readers not to expect too much from education, however.

    It is unreasonable to think that everyone will or should be liberally educated or that liberal education will unerringly have salutary political effects. Yet his hope remained that liberal education may make it easier for us … to understand again the old saying that wisdom cannot be separated from moderation and hence to understand that wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism.

    Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics. Although he praises their superior justice, Strauss does not unambiguously endorse modern liberal democracies or republics. He does not, because the prevailing view is that democracy must become rule by the educated, and this goal will be achieved by universal education.

    But universal education presupposes that the economy of scarcity has given way to an economy of plenty. And the economy of plenty presupposes the emancipation of technology from moral and political control. In the meantime Strauss reminds his readers of the real and present advantages of living in a modern liberal democracy. The full text of this article hosted at iucr. If you do not receive an email within 10 minutes, your email address may not be registered, and you may need to create a new Wiley Online Library account. If the address matches an existing account you will receive an email with instructions to retrieve your username.

    Leo Strauss | American political philosopher | whyeaspamisonis.tk

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    Michael Zuckert Search for more papers by this author. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation. Share Give access Share full text access. Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article. What Strauss Learned from Reading Plato and Aristotle Afresh Students of modern political philosophy need to look back at the ancient sources, Strauss urged, because modern political philosophers took many of their basic concepts from their ancient predecessors, even though the moderns often transformed the meaning of these concepts in significant respects.

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