PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday February 5, 2003


[3.2.] Criticism of Plato's Familial Communism (Politics II:3-4)


Problems Stemming From "Collective" Nature of Relationships

Here Aris makes a prediction about the attitudes the guardians will take about the property they hold in common (including their wives and children). When they think of property as "mine," they will mean this collectively, not individually. I.e., no one individual will think of property as belonging 100% to himself (as well as 100% to others); rather, he will think of it as belonging only partially to himself (and partially to others). As a result:

(i)                  each individual will be more apathetic about the property held in common and therefore will neglect it [here Aris seems to have in mind the phenomenon social psychologists call diffusion of responsibility -- the more people collectively responsible for a given matter, the less individually responsible any of them feels, and the less likely any of then is to act]

(ii)                relationships will be fractional, e.g. if 1000 men share a son, then that son is only 1/1000th of a son to each of them [Aris doesn't say exactly why this is bad -- he seems to be making a different point here than the previous point (about diffusion of responsibility), so presumably this is bad for some reason other than the neglect that will result from these fractional relationships]



Other Problems

(iii)               Plato's scheme requires that all be ignorant of who is actually the genetic parent of whom -- but this ignorance is not always possible, since many children will bear physical similarities to their parents. So eventually some people will know who their own children really are. (1262a, p.231)

(iv)              If you don't know who you're actually related to, you might slander, assault or kill someone without realizing he or she is your relative. What's worse, you might even have sex with them! (1262a, p.231)

(v)                There will be less friendship among the guardians if they share wives and children, and this reduces stability, since friendship decreases factionalism: "Friendship ... is the chief good of cities, because it is the best safeguard against the danger of factional disputes." (1262a, p.231) Under "friendship" Aris includes familial love (brotherly feelings toward brothers, fatherly feelings toward sons, etc.).

(vi)              Regarding the transfer of children between classes [remember, Plato's class distinctions don't carry across generations -- it's possible for a child born to merchants to have some "silver or gold" in him, or for a child born to guardians to have only "iron or bronze"]: such transfers will be impossible to keep secret -- because somebody has to administer them! Plus, problem (iv) will be even worse for those who are transferred -- e.g. a guardian born of merchants won't think of members of the merchant class as being related to him -- so he'll be more likely to accidentally slander, assault, kill, or feel "unnatural affection" towards someone to whom he is biologically related. (1262b, p.232)


[3.3] Criticism of Plato's Property Communism (Politics II:5).


Aris now turns to questions of property use and ownership (other than the ownership of wives and children). Which of the following is best?:

1.       property is owned privately, but use is shared

2.       property is owned communally, but use is private

3.       property is owned and used communally

[Oddly, he doesn't consider a fourth possibility: property being owned and used privately!]


First Aris argues that private ownership is better than common ownership: inevitably, some people will work harder than others and/or enjoy the same things less than others -- this will lead to conflict among property-owners: "If they do not share equally in the work and in the enjoyment of the produce, those who do more work and get less of the produce will be bound to raise complaints against those who get a large reward and do little work." (1263a, p.232)


He then insists that what's needed is a system of private ownership and common use:

·         when property is privately owned, there is less disagreement among individuals, and individuals will work harder to care for what they own.

·         although property will be privately held, it is morally good for owners to share what they own with others, e.g., to let others use their slaves, horses and dogs; to allow travelers to take what they need from their farms as they're passing through the countryside, etc.

·         to think of a thing as your own is pleasurable, as is helping others by giving to them-- which is possible only if property is owned privately. (1263a, p.233)

·         the exercise of the virtue of generosity is possible only if property is privately owned. What's more -- and here Aris is again broadening his criticism so that it's aimed not just at property communism but the extreme communism which includes shared wives and children -- it prevents one from exercising the virtue of temperance in sexual matters -- for one way to exercise such temperance is to restrain one's desires for the wives of other men.




[4.] Constitutions and Their Justification. (Politics III:6-8, 10-11).


[4.1.] Constitutions and Their Classifications (Politics III:6-8).


constitution (politeia): "the organization of a city [polis], in respect of its offices generally, but especially in respect of that particular office which is sovereign in all issues." (1278b, p.241)


The constitution (politeia) of a polis is the organization or structure of the polis; a polis' constitution determines what sort of polis it is (democracy, aristocracy, etc.) Another accurate translation of "politeia" is political system.


So Aris wants to examine the different sorts of politeia (constitution, political system): how many are there, and how do they differ?


First, a preliminary question: what is the purpose of the city? Aris' answer: the good life: the function of the polis is to produce a good life, for each individual and for the city as a whole. As Aris says later (in Book VII-which-is-fourth): "There is one thing clear about the best constitution: it must be a political organization which will enable anyone to be at his best and live happily." (1324a, p.262)


This points us towards a preliminary answer to the question about what sorts of politeia there are:


...those constitutions which consider the common interest are right constitutions, judged by the standard of absolute justice. Those constitutions which consider only the personal interest of the rulers are all wrong constitutions, or perversions of the right forms. Such perverted forms are despotic; whereas the city is an association of freemen. (1279a, p.241)


With this distinction in hand, he describes the six possible forms of government (III:7, p.242):



rightful -- the sovereign authority rules for the sake of the common interest (and thus has authorityN)

wrongful (perverted) -- the sovereign authority rules for the sake of itself (and thus has mere authorityD)

rule by one


tyranny -- rule by an individual, for his own benefit

rule by few

aristocracy (from "aristoi," the best)

oligarchy -- the wealthy, for their own benefit*

rule by many

"Constitutional Government" or Polity[1]

"democracy" -- rule by the poor, for their own benefit*


*It's not essential that the wealthy rulers in an oligarchy be few, or that the poor rulers in a democracy be many, but that's generally how it is. I.e., the real difference between oligarchy and democracy is not that one is rule by few and the other rule by many; the real difference has to do with the wealth or poverty of the sovereign class -- the size of the class is accidental.


[1] Here Aris uses the same word, politeia, that he used earlier to refer to any sort of political system. Here he clearly means it in a narrower, normative sense, whereas earlier he seems to have meant it in a broader, descriptive sense. On the descriptive meaning, any system of government (including a democracy) is a politeia (constitution, political system); on the normative meaning, only rule by the many for the sake of the common interest is a politeia (constitutional government, polity).

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