The Personal and the Polis: The Intersection of Individualism, the Family and the State (Part 2 of 3)



Plato and Aristotle by RaphaelII. Classical Political Theory: Plato and Aristotle

While as moderns we tend to congratulate ourselves on having discovered gender equality, and imagine the past to be a wasteland of misogyny and hierarchical patriarchalism, the really radical explorer of equality was one of the earliest political theorists, Plato himself. (It should be noted, however, that this was a theoretical exploration that extended only to elite men and women.) When he constructed his model utopian Republic, Plato envisioned a society marked by a strict equality between men and women, at least among the leadership philosopher and guardian classes. Shorthand descriptions of his schema usually refer to “philosopher-kings,” but Plato himself was careful to underscore that his template for leadership was gender-neutral. After Socrates finished describing the education necessary to produce the leaders of the kallipolis, Glaucon comments: “Socrates, you’ve produced ruling men that are completely fine.” To which Socrates responds: “And ruling women, too, Glaucon, for you musn’t think that what I’ve said applies any more to men than it does to women who are born with the appropriate natures.”


Thank you (foot)notes:

This work was originally published by Charmaine at the University of Virginia.

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Also see Part 1

This equality was predicated on an abolition of the family, which Plato believed was a threat to societal stability. The way to social unity, he argued, was to abolish private property, which was the source of societal discord and upheavals. “Is there any greater evil we can mention for a city,” Socrates asked Glaucon, “than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one? Or any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?” Private property, he argued, led people to say “mine” and “not mine.” As a result, citizens would not be bound together by common joys and pains, but separated by private passions and ambitions. In this category of potentially inflammatory property he included “private wives” and children. By having everything in common, he believed, “they’ll be spared all the dissension that arises between people because of money, children, and families.”

Plato constructs a hypothetical alternative society in which all familial, sexual and parental life is communized. In Plato’s Brave New World the rulers are bred like dogs and the Greeks “noble fighting birds.” Socrates explained the system to Glaucon with a stunning bloodlessness:

. . . the best men must have sex with the best women as frequently as possible while the opposite is true of the most inferior men and women, and, second, that if our herd is to be of the highest possible quality, the former’s offspring must be reared but not the latter’s. . . then, as the children are born, they’ll be taken over by the officials . . . they’ll take the children of good parents to the nurses in charge of the rearing pen situated in a separate part of the city, but the children of inferior parents, or any child of the others that is born defective, they’ll hide in a secret and unknown place . . .

Mothers are then brought to the rearing pen to nurse the chosen children, but not allowed to know which one is their own. The result, said Socrates, would be a leadership class that considers everyone a family member. This is one of Plato’s great ironies: he wants to abolish the family in order to eliminate inter-family dissension, and yet he depends on familial bonds to provide the social cohesion of his rulers.

This irony highlights the dynamic tension between the family and the polis. According to Max Weber, “political order began in the family and sib,” where the sib is the cohesion of the extended family into a small society. These pre-political human associations came together for defensive protection against other family-oriented, organized communities. The large Greek and Roman cities, said Weber, were formed by synoikismos, the “gathering of sibs.” However, in direct contrast to the modern view of the family as the “haven in a heartless world,” and where the “private” is extolled as a source of solace and self-actualization, the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the family as a mechanism for meeting the basest of human needs. If the Greeks had written Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, family would have been at the bottom of the scale, while self-actualization at the top of the scale would have been found only in the public sphere, in politics.

Hannah Arendt, in her exploration of the public and the private in The Human Condition, explained that Plato and Aristotle differentiated between the natural and human needs and the political needs of mankind. The former belonged in the private family realm; the latter in the public, political realm:

The natural, merely social companionship of the human species was considered to be a limitation imposed upon us by the needs of biological life, which are the same for the human animal as for other forms of animal life. According to Greek thought, the human capacity for political organization is not only different from but stands in direct opposition to that natural association whose center is the home (oikia) and the family.

This is an important facet of Plato’s desire to abolish the family; he not only wants to rid the polis of property-induced competition, ambition and self-aggrandizement, but he wants to free the rulers from the petty tedium of providing for their base human needs. As Socrates explained, the system of common life he has envisioned will enable the guardians to escape from the “pettiest of evils” which include: “the perplexities and sufferings involved in bringing up children, and in making the money necessary to feed the household, . . .and in some way or other providing enough money to hand over to their wives and household slaves to manage.” This quotation also underscores one of the basic foundations for the intractable inequality of women: they were intrinsically involved in these private, household and reproductive functions that, by this account, did nothing but provide for rudimentary, base human needs and did not involve the elevation of the human mind and spirit.

The family, then, far from being a source, well-spring or model for public life, was, for those confined there, an impediment to all things noble and elevated. Plato’s communist utopia, then, was in actuality an effort to take the family functions that were necessities — reproduction, for example — and reorient them outward, minimizing the useless private sphere and enlarging the public one.


Although they reached very different conclusions about the role of the family, Plato and Aristotle shared this theoretical view of the gulf between the private and the public. In order to understand this distinction, as moderns, it is helpful to look at our different understanding of the word “private.” The word in Latin is privatus, or privare – the same root word for “privation.” This is a foreign concept in a milieu that associates privacy with a concept that has come to be associated with a positive legal right. But for the ancient Greeks, privacy was a negative concept. Arendt commented that “We no longer think primarily of deprivation when we use the word ‘privacy,’ and this is partly due to the enormous enrichment of the private sphere through modern individualism.” For the Greeks, however, the private sphere was anything but rich; it was a place of functionality where women and slaves were constrained in servile roles and barred from the world of intellectual pursuits.

For Aristotle this belief in the privative nature of the private sphere was derived from his famous formulation that “man is by nature a political animal.” Since this was true, he believed, then man’s highest good would be expressed only in and through political association. “The ‘nature’ of things,” he wrote, “consists in their end or consummation.” The polis, then, is the seat of self-actualization, with the family playing only a supporting role. Indeed, in what might seem one of his most puzzling and counter-intuitive statements, Aristotle claims: “. . . the city is prior in the order of nature to the family and the individual . . . the whole is necessarily prior to the part.” Richard Krouse explains that this Aristotelian philosophy must be understood in terms of the ends of each; their “transcendent purpose” determines their role:

Genetically, the family is in the order of history prior to the polis. But teleologically, the polis is in the order of nature prior to the family. The family exists for the sake of the polis, not the polis for the sake of the family. It exists, that is to say, for the sake of economic production and sexual reproduction – to provide the material basis upon which the spiritual life of the polis rests. The polis is the realm of freedom, or transcendence, where men pursue the good life through public forms of speech and action. The family or household is the realm of necessity, or immanence, where women and slaves preserve “mere” life through private forms of productive and reproductive labor.

This is an interesting configuration because a modern defense of the family often refers to the family’s essential role in providing “the material basis upon which the spiritual life” of the society flourishes. However, turning Aristotelian thought on its head, this argument usually casts the family in the role of a well nourishing the barren and parched soil of common life.

Lastly, Aristotle completely rejects Plato’s idyll of communal family life. Far from being a liability, he argued, the different interests involved in private interests and private families brings not disunity but vibrancy to the city. “A real unity,” he wrote, “must be made up of elements which differ in kind . . . It is as if you were to turn harmony into mere unison, or to reduce a theme to a single beat. The truth is that the city . . .is a plurality.”

Part 3, The Christian Individual: Augustine


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2 Responses

  1. Gracchi says:

    Fascinating analysis. I do think you are right about the antithesis between private and public in both thinkers. As an interesting sidelight- do you think comparatively one of the interesting things about them is that Plato definitely has a very different view of the hierarchy of passions with reason at the top. Moderns following Christianity might put sexual love near the top and yet Plato would relegate that to a lower virtue. Just a thought- good post though.

  2. TomATS says:

    I thought you’d like to know that I have a link to your site in my Avenues to Success Notes blog for 2/20/09. It is about the image of Plato you currently have on this posting. In his painting, Scuola di Atene, Raffaello Snazio used Leonardo Di Vinci’s face for Plato.