Aristotle vs. Plato vs. St. Augustine

Over the past few days, I have been thinking of what an “ideal” society would include.  I stumbled across an essay by journalist Scott London about the different views of the ideal city according to Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine that led me to a sort of conclusion to this question.

In summary, London declares that “according to Plato, the ideal city had to be an enlightened one, one based on the highest universal principles. He insisted that only individuals who were committed to these truths, who could protect and preserve them for the sake of the common good, were fit to rule the city.”  So basically, philosopher kings should rule and create a sort of aristocracy.  These philosopher kings were chosen by an “inner calling” or daimon after rigorous study and training.  Because of this way of thinking, Plato dismissed the idea of democracy.

Aristotle argued this philosophy, calling it “excessively idealistic” and saying that it could never exist in the real world.  However, in Plato’s defense, his Republic, was based on moral philosophy, and not intended as a political doctrine by which societies should take literally.  In order to create a more obtainable form of government for the people, Aristotle created his own form of political organization including “three basic forms of political organization: rule of the one, rule of the few, and rule of the many. The first form, at its best, led to monarchy; at its worst, to tyranny. The second, at its best, to aristocracy; at its worst, to oligarchy. And the third, at its best, to something he called politeia; at its worst, to democracy.”  In other words, he morphed together some of Plato’s ideals with his own to create a system of government that combined the rule of law and the rule of the few and called it politeia.  Aristotle also dismissed democracy.

St. Augustine took these philosophies even further by adding the Christian element of divine right.  In doing this, they put more emphasis on the next life, rather than this one.  London summarizes by saying “the ideal city was no longer conceived as a system of purely social or political arrangements but rather as a means toward alignment with the laws of God.”  Therefore, St. Augustine created a sort of “City of God” that serves as an inspirational place where people can figure out their worldly affairs.  However, the only way to get to this ideal city, according to St. Augustine, one would have to commit to a life of God and Christian virtues as opposed to Plato’s view that everyone should devote their lives to finding a common and universal good.  I think that this would work if everyone believed in the same God or belief system, but in reality, it would be difficult for absolutely every person to accept this system of government.

So the question still stands: what really is the “ideal” city or form of government?  I suppose that the ideal city would be one where everyone lives morally and justly.  However, if everyone lived justly, then there would be no need for people to work together for a common good because everyone would be good, in the Socratic sense.  Therefore, there would be no need for a government as it were.  In this society, wouldn’t we all be equal and, therefore, would naturally form a democratic society?  This would not work because, in reality, all people are not equal and we laws and people of higher power to enforce these laws.  I think that both Plato and Aristotle are hinting at the fact that an ideal form of government would be one where the people in positions of power are just and philosophically sound and the people that they rule would accept their place in society because, after all, there would be a place for everyone and everyone would stay in that place.

The article is:


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