The art of caring for the whole human community

“The art of caring for the whole human community”


Hans Sluga


          Plato’s dialogues Protagoras and Politikos (The Statesman) both relate a creation myth and both do so for political ends. In each version the gods are said to have made the cosmos but at some point to have abandoned it to its own devices. In each of them the origin of human politics is traced back to that moment. Both myths proclaim thus that politics belongs to a world in which the gods are absent and we are, in consequence, obliged to take care of ourselves. Each myth also makes clear that we are forced to become political at this point because we are incomplete beings, not well-equipped to survive when left to our own devices and not naturally prepared to live and labor together. Both accounts agree, thus, that politics is grounded in human deficiency.

But the two versions of the myth serve radically different purposes. In the Protagoras the myth is told in the context of a satirical portrait of the sophistic movement and is put in the mouth of the sophist Protagoras. Politics is for Protagoras the process by which we develop and nurture our capacity for coexistence and cooperation; politics is, in his words, the care, the epimeleia, through which we succeed in establishing and maintain friendship and justice. The great sophist uses his myth, in other words, to justify a secular, participatory, egalitarian, and optimistic conception of politics. The Statesman puts its creation myth into the mouth of the Eleatic stranger who replaces Socrates as the main expositor of ideas in Plato’s late dialogues. The stranger tells us that politics is, indeed, the care of the common, the epimeleia koinonias. But he diverges from the Protagorean account in maintaining that such care must model itself on the original, divine rule (arche) of the world. The care of the common must, hence, take the form of (arche); politics must be conceived as the rule of the polis and human rulers must tentatively seek to occupy the place of the gods. Only a few will be qualified to do so and even so, human rule will never equal the divine governance of the world. Human politics will inevitably move towards decline until we reach the moment when “only a god can save us.” The Statesman version of the myth proposes, thus, I conclude, a theological, royalist, non-participatory, non-egalitarian, and pessimistic conception of politics.  

            The formulation that politics is the care of the common comes to us as Protagoras’ contribution to political theory; I believe it, in fact, to express a broader, pre-Platonic, and, indeed, pre-philosophical conception of politics. I assume, in any case, that Plato derived the idea from his great sophistic opponent. I want to interpret the reworked creation myth in The Statesman, finally, as Plato’s rejoinder to the Protagorean conception of politics. I want to maintain, in particular, that this broad conception of politics – which is, after all, compatible with many different realities – led Plato in search of a proper, precise definition of the concept of the political, that it led him (and Aristotle afterwards) to define politics specifically as the rule of the polis, that it is, in modern terms, as government of the state. In other words, that it led to a view of politics has prevailed ever since and that is only now becoming problematic. To explore Protagoras and Plato together means to examine this problematic.



It is not altogether easy to recover the original confrontation between Protagoras and Plato. While Protagoras was the author of about a dozen books (of unknown size) on various philosophical problems, all of them are now lost and we are, in consequence, dependent on fragments and secondary reports for our understanding of his views. Our richest source of information about him is (ironically) Plato who mentions Protagoras in ten dialogues and elaborates on his ideas at some length in the Theaetetus and the Protagoras. Plato is, however, a dangerous source and that for two distinct reasons. There is first of all Plato’s well-known hostility against the sophistic tradition of which Protagoras may be considered a founder.  Plato’s dialogues were, furthermore, never intended to be historical documents. Plato plays invariably the role of “producer, stage-manager and script-writer” in his dialogues (as one scholar has put it) and freely adapts his material to his own purposes. For all that, we cannot dismiss what he tells us about Protagoras. The great sophist was, after all, still a widely respected figure at the time when Plato was writing. Most if not all of his writings were available and it would surely have been detrimental to Plato’s argumentation had he criticized views unrelated to the ones he ascribed to Protagoras. We can see, also, from the Protagoras and the Theatetus that Plato entertained a grudging respect for Protagoras despite his general dislike of the sophists. It may even be that he was not entirely unsympathetic to Protagoras’ thinking. There was, indeed, a view in the ancient world – propagated no doubt by Plato’s enemies – that he had plagiarized portions of his Republic from Protagoras’s political writings.[1]

A few words about Protagoras may help illuminate his importance. Born around 490 BCE in Abdera in Thrace he lived for many years in Athens during its greatest age “a period of profound social and political changes, in which intellectual and artistic activity was intense.” [2] There he became one of the theorists of the newly emerging “pure” or “radical” democracy. He also joined the circle of Pericles (together with Anaxagoras, Herodotus, Sophocles, Phidias, and Aspasia, etc.) and was given by him the task of designing the constitution of the newly founded Athenian colony of Thurii. Like some other members of the Periclean circle he eventually suffered political persecution. He was tried and convicted of impiety, his books were confiscated and burnt in the agora, and he drowned at sea after leaving Athens around 421 BCE.

Plato’s account of the Protagorean views has all the reliability of a polemical but serious treatment. It tells us things that are undoubtedly correct but is likely to have transformed them in a hostile direction. We must, for this reason, be particularly cautious when Plato ascribes to Protagoras views that are either patently absurd or that agree overly with Plato’s own ideas. The historical Protagoras would certainly not have held that virtue (areté) cannot be taught, if it is not knowledge (epistéme), and that virtue is a single whole – views that Plato ascribes to him in his dialogue. Both claims conflict directly with Protagoras’ crucial distinction between technical and political skills and they would show him to be either inconsistent or unsteady in his views. That was, indeed Plato’s polemical aim: to expose Protagoras as an unreliable and even unworthy teacher. But we must be equally cautious when Plato suggests that according to Protagoras politics comes in the end to “ruling and being ruled by law,” as he also claims in the dialogue. Plato may be suggesting here more affinity between Protagoras’ views and his own than is warranted. We are thus well advised to ask ourselves at every point to what extent Plato gives a trustworthy account of the Protagorean doctrines.

One such question arises immediately with respect to the creation myth that Plato puts into Protagoras’ mouth. Did the historical Protagoras actually put some of his teachings into mythological form in the way Plato did? Are we to conclude, moreover, that Protagoras was some kind of creationist? Plato himself may have been drawn to some kind of divine creation story as we can see from the Timaeus. But Protagoras was a self-declared agnostic and cannot have taken such a myth literally. He had begun one of his books with the words: “Concerning the gods I cannot say either that they exist or that they do not, or what they are like in form; for there are many obstacles to knowledge: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.” And by this he had not simply meant to discount one particular religious belief but had had set out to undermine possibility of any religious or metaphysical grounding of our beliefs about the world. He had extended this sense of uncertainty, as we know, also to human knowledge, declaring that “man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, and of those that are not that they are not.” Each individual he held to have his own particular grasp of the world to which that individual was fully entitled even though not everyone is equally healthy and, hence, not everyone equally justified in his truth. This picture of human understanding had obviously political implications. Since human beings cannot rely on divine guidance in their affairs and can have no absolutely certainty in their beliefs they must take care of themselves as best as they can in their civil existence. They are forced to pursue the care of the common without the help of absolute truths, proceeding instead from fallible assumptions, seeking to establish and maintain bonds of friendship and justice under conditions of permanent uncertainty.



In Protagoras’ myth the gods created the world but abandoned the project well before the task was completed. The heroes Prometheus and Epimetheus (“Forethought” and “Afterthought”) – we might call theme the Kipper kids of ancient mythology – were thus left to finish the job but botched it. In equipping the animals, Epimetheus, “not a particular clever person,” thoughtlessly lavished all his resources on the non-human creatures and as a result man was left “naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed.” (321c) [3] In desperation, Prometheus stole fire and technical skills from the gods and bestowed them on men so that they could create language, build houses, make clothes, shoes, and bedding, and obtain food from the earth. But this proved insufficient for their survival since “there were no cities” and men were, in consequence, devoured by wild beasts. They were in every respect weaker than those beasts “and their technical skill, though a sufficient aid to their nurture, did not extend to making war on the beasts, for they had not the art of politics, of which the art of war is a part.” (322b) Perceiving this, Zeus eventually took pity on these creatures and decided to provide them with a sense of respect and fairness “so as to bring order in our cities and create bonds of friendship and union.” (322c) When Hermes, who was to deliver these goods, asked how he was to distribute them Zeus replied: “Let all have their share. There could never be cities if only a few shared in these virtues, as in the arts.” (322d)

One must stop at this point in the story to weigh its astonishing implications. Protagoras, so it appears, has three basic insights. The first is that human beings are forced to engage in politics because the gods do not take care of them and they must, therefore, take care of themselves. In the Protagorean myth the gods have, in fact, forsaken the world even before its completion and politics is thus, so to speak, a godless business; it is work in a god-forsaken world. Shocking as the thought may be, it is still an recurring idea in our own political thinking. We find it in the political thinking of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Schmitt, and Arendt and it lies, in effect, behind all attempts to separate the secular, political sphere from the religious domain. Anyone who is genuinely convinced that god will take care of each hair on his head, as the true Christian professes, will hardly find reasons for engaging in politics. Whatever happens will be for him a sign of god’s will. How could human machination hope to improve on god’s design? It is, of course true, that both believers and non-believers engage in politics but this means that both must in some ways subscribe to the Protagorean thought that god does not fully take care of human life and that human beings are therefore forced to do so themselves. There is a second and equally important insight contained in the Protagorean story. According to it, human beings are forced to be political because they are under-endowed by nature. They can, therefore, be described only in negative terms as “naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed.” The words foreshadow the famous remark in Hobbes’ Leviathan that human life under natural conditions will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Human beings are, in other words, for both Protagoras and Hobbes essentially creatures of need and they are so more profoundly than any animal. Nature does certainly not supply to them abundantly and freely. They must, rather, achieve their survival through their own effort. In contrast to the animals, human beings do not even possess the natural means to cater for their own needs. If they want to survive, they must create their own world, make up language, produce clothes, build houses, and obtain food. They are not natural beings but creatures of artifice, forced to be clever, and they are in that sense for both Protagoras and Hobbes the true children of Prometheus. To this thought Protagoras adds as his third insight that there exists no natural political order and hence no naturally established political hierarchy. Human beings are, rather, naturally unqualified and awkward in their relations with each other. When they first attempt to make cities they fail and their civic order falls quickly into disarray. They are not even naturally capable of waging war, since warfare is part of the art of politics and it is precisely this that they naturally lack. Thus, human politics, when it finally comes into being, is preceded by anarchic conditions and it may always lapse back into those. Protagoras’ myth comes then to this: politics is a godless business; politics is an “unnatural” business; politics is grounded in anarchy.

For Protagoras it is evident that human beings will need two kinds of skill to survive. The first are technical skills. These are required in order compensate us for our natural shortcomings and to satisfy our basic needs. Protagoras is convinced, moreover, that the technical, Promethean skills are divided unevenly among human beings and that from this inequality arises a natural division of labor. Technical skills alone are, however, insufficient to guarantee human survival. In order to work together, as the division of labor requires, human beings must also know how to live together, how to cooperate, how to form communities and cities. In other words, they must also have political skills. And these must be had by all. Asking himself “is there or is there not some one thing in which all citizens must share, if a polis is to exist at all?” (324e), Protagoras replies that “a man cannot be without some share of fairness, or he would not be human.” (323c) Therefore, “when the subject is political competence … everyone must share in this kind of virtue; otherwise the state could not exist.” (322e-323a) He adds, moreover, that the Athenians agree with him on this point. They defer to experts when faced with technical questions because they believe that technical skills are distributed unevenly, “but when the subject of their debate involves political wisdom … they listen to every man’s opinion.” (323a) Athenian democracy is, thus, justified in giving everyone a voice in political matters. Protagoras does not mean by this, however, that all opinions are to count as equal. While all voices must be heard and respected and everyone is entitled to his own view of the world, not all opinions are equally justified. He allows that everyone must have a share in political skills but he is not committed to the idea that everyone has an equal proportion of such skills. Challenged to explain why the sons of Pericles seem less politically adept than their father, he admits that bad sons may be born to good fathers and good sons may be born to bad fathers. “Teaching,” he is reported to have said, “requires both nature and practice.”[4] Everyone can nevertheless still nurture and develop their basic political skills, whatever they are. As a result, even “the most unjust person ever reared among human laws and among humans is a just man and a craftsman of justice” in “comparison with people who lack education and law courts and laws and any constant compulsion to the pursuit of virtue.” (327c-d)

In this assessment Protagoras is seriously at odds with Plato. The latter certainly rejects the egalitarian and democratic implications of Protagoras’ view and justifies this rejection by a refusal to distinguish between technical and political skills. Every skill is for Plato a form of competence (areté) and all competence is of one kind. There is indeed, in a sense, only one single areté for Plato; it is to be considered a kind of knowledge (episteme) and as such, like all knowledge, unevenly distributed among human beings. Only a few are therefore likely to have appropriate political skills in Plato’s picture and if politics is needed for human survival then these few must be put in charge.

The contrast between Protagoras and Plato is, however, less extreme than it appears at first sight. While Protagoras assumes that political competence is something that everyone must have as a divine gift  – or, let us say, as a natural endowment -, this competence is to begin with only a basic, raw, undeveloped capacity. A fully realized political competence is, by contrast, “not by nature or of spontaneous growth, but in whomsoever it is present the result of teaching and practice.” (323c) Only through care (epimeleia) can men develop respect for each other, a sense of fairness or justice; only through care can they learn to form bonds of friendship, and thus, in short, acquire political competence. Politics consists, in fact, in all those acts of care that develop, nurture, and maintain the qualities that make human survival possible. Care is, thus, on Protagoras view not merely the precondition of politics but constitutes its content and essence. We can even say in reverse that all nurturing is political in character in that it is fosters political skills. Thus child-rearing is for Protagoras part of that care which develops political competence. “As soon as a child can understand what is said to him, nurse, mother, tutor and the father himself vie with each other to make him as good as possible, instructing him through everything he does or says, pointing out: ‘this is right, and that is wrong, this honorable and that disgraceful, this holy, that impious: do this, don’t do that.’ If he is obedient, well and good. If not, they straighten him with threats and beatings, like a warped and twisted plank.” (325d)

Protagoras evidently conceives of politics here in broader terms than we are used to. Child-rearing is for us part of the child’s “socialization” and not part of political training. But we must recall here, of course, that Protagoras and the Greeks lacked a separate concept of the social. This is sometimes explained by saying that they used the word “politikós” indiscriminately to refer to what we have learned to distinguish as either “political” or “social” in the modern sense of these words. But this is surely mistaken. The fact is, rather, that for the Greeks everything we call social was political in the strict sense of the word. Thus, religious practices, athletic games, and theatrical performances, for example, were for the Greeks political events. They were part of the life of the polis, financed through public funds, politically controlled, and directly intertwined with other aspects of polis life that even we would recognize as genuinely political. The Greeks did therefore not think of politics as a particular kind of “social” phenomenon and of political institutions as a subclass of “social” institutions. It is thus not at all implausible for Protagoras to conceive of what we would call the child’s socialization as a political process.[5] The crucial point for him was, in any case, that human beings can assure their survival only by working together and that this requires constant nurture or care. Nurture or care is, thus, of the essence of politics. Politics is, indeed, the care of the common, the epimeleia koinonias.

We can call this conception of politics, if we wish, a pedagogical one. At the heart of politics lies, on this view, a cultivation of the individual that will make him a suitable member of the polis. Politics is, in other words, not understood as primarily focused on questions of economics, or conflict, or even rule. Protagoras has, in fact, nothing to say about economic matters, or warfare, or even the various forms of political organization that so often constitute the subject-matter of political theorizing. At the heart of the Protagorean understanding of politics lies rather the ideal of Greek “paideia.” This becomes more apparent as we follow Protagoras’s elaboration of the idea of politics as a care of the common. After child-rearing conceived as part of the care of the common comes for him the inculcating of manners in school, instruction in writing, the reading of good poets, and the learning of inspirational poems – all of which are to be conceived in political terms. Protagoras declares even instruction in music to have a political function insofar as it teaches a student self-control and because knowledge of rhythms and harmonies makes him more civil, more cultivated “for to be more rhythmic and more harmonious is essential to speaking and acting.” (326b) The same holds for physical training; it, too, has a political function for Protagoras since it is essential “that a good mind may have a good body to serve it.” (326b) At a further and third stage in the process of political education the city makes boys learn the laws and to use them as patterns for their own lives. “The city sets up laws devised by good lawgivers of the past, and compels citizens to rule and be ruled in accordance with them. Whoever strays outside the lines, it punishes.” (326e) Law serves thus as one of devices by which we take care of our communal existence. I leave it open whether Protagoras was speaking in this context of “the rule of law” or whether the term “rule” was introduced here by Plato in order to make the Protagorean conception conform more closely to his own view of politics.

While this is where Plato stops his account of the Protagorean conception of politics, it should be clear to us that this is not yet quite the end of Protagoras’ own story. For Plato quotes Protagoras in his dialogue at an earlier point as saying that he believes himself capable of further enhancing the political skills of his students. Asked what he offers to his followers, he responds: “The proper counsel in his personal affairs, so that he may best manage his household, and also the state’s affairs, so as to become a real power in the city, both as a speaker and a man of action.” (318e) The Protagorean art goes thus beyond the pedagogical care that parents, schoolteachers, and even the city in general offer. He means to train students in being effective speakers who can put forward persuasive arguments, sway the public assembly, make and enforce laws; and these additional skills are as much part of politics, and instruction in them part of political training, as the skills developed in the earlier stages of education.

Protagoras qualifies and modifies in this way his initially egalitarian conception of politics. While he assumes that everyone has a share in the political capacities (though, perhaps, to varying degrees), he is fully aware that not everyone has an equal chance to develop them. Parents, teachers, and the community at large will help to develop these capacities to some degree, but only the affluent can afford to have their offspring coached in athletics, schooled in the arts, and educated in the law. “That is what people do who are most powerful; and the most powerful are the wealthiest. Their sons begin school at the earliest age, and are freed from it at the latest.” (326c) It is from this class, also, that Protagoras draws his students. If sophistical teaching actually succeeds in its goals, its graduates will have indisputable advantages in political life and particularly so in a political system – like that of Athenian democracy – in which verbal skills are decisive. Protagoras’ pedagogic conception of politics allows thus for an elitist and ultimately anti-egalitarian twist. This will become more obvious later when Plato and Aristotle adopt Protagoras’ pedagogical model of politics. For them, too, education turns out to be at the heart of politics. But Plato believes that only the few have the capacities to benefit from such a political pedagogy, and Aristotle is convinced that only the few will have an opportunity to do so. They take the Protagorean conception of politics as pedagogy, in other words, and shift it further in an elitist direction.

Protagoras, by contrast, understands his formula to imply the validity of the democratic organization of politics. But his commitment to that ideal is still marred since he so readily accepts that not everyone will have a chance to profit from the process of political pedagogy. The powerful and rich will have a decisive advantage and their political skills will, for that reason, be more finely honed than those of other citizens. In conceiving the care of the common as a pedagogic process, Protagoras, furthermore, accepts the idea of an inherent inequality between those in authority (nurse, parent, trainer, the law) and those under their guidance. As a result, the original picture of an egalitarian politics begins to give way to the idea of the rule of the properly trained and that, in turn, suggests the idea of the rule of the trainers. Protagoras’ pedagogical version of politics turns, thus, easily, into the rule of Plato’s philosopher-kings. We can mitigate this shortcoming in the Protagorean conception by understanding pedagogy in a somewhat different fashion, not, that is, as the unequal relation between a master and a pupil, but allowing for the possibility that these roles can change and that he who is master at one moment and in one discipline may well be a pupil at another moment and in another field, that teaching can, indeed, be mutual and that learning can be shared. This picture does not do away with all expertise, but it allows for the possibility that in politics, as elsewhere, the weights are not as permanently and as clearly divided as the Protagorean conception of politics might suggest.

There is, however, a further problem with the Protagoras’ understanding of politics as the care of the common that we need to consider. Protagoras takes his formula, indubitably, to mean specifically that politics is the care of community and that this community is the polis. But we are no longer sure that we can take community for granted. This is perhaps, once again, not irreconcilable with Protagoras’ intentions. He appears, indeed, to be thinking that human community is not naturally given, that we must strive to establish, define, and preserve it through the acts that constitute the care of the common. This would agree with our own sentiment that if there is to be community we first need make it. But Protagoras appears at the same time convinced that this community will naturally turn out to be the polis. In this he was surely in agreement not only with the Plato and Aristotle but with general Greek sentiment. But we no longer live in a polis and our cities are not politically self-contained entities. In seeing politics in terms of the polis Protagoras’ theorizing finds itself confined by the historical conditions of the polis as it in his time and that means also with its inherent inequalities, its gulf between rich and poor, its assignment of an inferior status to women, its political exclusion of slaves. For all these reasons we find ourselves now removed from the Protagorean conception of the political and forced to raise the question anew what it could mean for us to engage in the care of the common.



It is not, in any case, the Protagorean formula that has come to define for us what politics means. It was Plato rather together with Aristotle who provided us with the terms with which until now we seek to understand ourselves as political beings. Their conception of politics is based, so we can summarize, on three equations. The first is that politics concerns the life of bounded communities, in other words, the equation politics = polis or its modern counterpart politics = state. The second is the thought that the essential feature of such communities is their internal organization; in other words, the equation polis = politeia or its modern variant state = constitution.  The third, that this constitution concerns always the rule or government of the state or polis. Hence politeia = rule (arché) or, in modern terms, constitution = government. These three equations are now all in question. While politics is still often seen as concerned with bounded communities, these communities are today more and more merging into a single global totality. While politics is still often seen in terms of systems of organization, we are increasingly aware that organizational structure does not necessarily coincide with political function. Third, while politics is still often conceived in terms of rule or government, our historical experience tells us that politics can also take on revolutionary, anarchic and self-regulatory forms.

(1) Politics = polis. The derivation of the adjective politikos from the Greek word for city (polis) provided Plato and Aristotle with a decisive clue to its meaning.[6] The Greek polis was for them the natural and unquestioned model for all political community. Aristotle formulated this thought most sharply when he wrote that “the polis is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal [i.e, an animal destined for the polis], and that anyone who is without a polis, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman.” [7] Neither Plato and Aristotle meant to say merely that human beings can survive only by acting jointly and are thus made to live in some form of political community or other; they meant, rather, more specifically that human beings are made to live in the distinctive type of community exemplified by the Greek polis. Aristotle is, once again, helpful on this point. He recognizes in his Politics that the polis is just one type of community in addition to the household or family, the village, and clusters of villages. But the polis, he insists, is the dominant and highest form of any community. In contrast to the others, it is self-sufficient in being able to provide for the basic needs of its inhabitants but, unlike other forms of community, it serves also more than the needs of survival. Succinctly, he writes of the polis that “it comes to be for the sake of living, but it remains in existence for the sake of living well.”[8] The polis is for Plato and Aristotle both a utilitarian and a moral institution, the place not only of human survival but also the place where questions of justice are raised and settled. “Justice is a political matter,” as Aristotle puts it once again succinctly. “For justice is the organization of a political community.”[9]

Plato and Aristotle were certainly right in emphasizing the great contributions of the polis to Greek culture and politics. Cities have, moreover, remained until today significant venues of cultural inventiveness and hearths of political consciousness and activity. But none of this permits the conclusion that the Greek polis is the unique or even the exemplary place for politics. The Platonic-Aristotelian claim is peculiar in any case because the characteristic structure of the Greek polis was itself a late arrival and the product of a decisive break in the history of Greek culture, politics, and thinking.[10] Plato’s and Aristotle’s insistence on the polis as the perfect model of political community is just as problematic in the light of the circumstances of their own time. They both knew, of course, of the Egyptian and Persian empires and they must both have had some inkling that the Greek city-states were increasingly threatened with losing their valued autonomy.  Just as they were proclaiming the unique role of the polis these independent political units were soon going to be swallowed up into the Alexandrian empire and then subsequently into the Roman. Politically independent cities were soon to disappear from the Western world to resurface only once again in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

Later readers have tended to overlook this discrepancy by taking Plato and Aristotle to have meant any kind of political community by the term “polis.” Hence, the common translation of the Greek word first as “republic” – a Latin term that initially referred to the political order of the city of Rome and later on to the Roman empire – and then as “state” or “city-state.” What remained in these translations was the Platonic-Aristotelian idea that the practice of politics is tied to some form of organizational structure, be that the Greek polis or the modern state. In this broadened sense the formula is still widely accepted by our political philosophers. But republics, empires, states and nation-states are just as much contingent formations as the Greek polis and our modern thinkers can give no more reason for why human beings should live in an empire or a state than Plato and Aristotle could for their claim that they should ideally live in a polis. We are therefore still left with the question why it should be natural for human beings to live under any such form of organization. We can certainly argue that under specific historical conditions (of population density, of needs and interest, and of technical resources) one or the other of these formations is likely to emerge, but from this we cannot deduce that political activity will always and necessarily take place in an organized and bounded political structure or that it must always be understood in relation to such a structure.

The Platonic-Aristotelian conception of politics has a number of significant, though problematic implications. (a) With it politics is naturally conceived in terms of the internal conditions and functioning of the political institution. Politics is, in other words, first and foremost internal politics. So dominant is this view that one must wait till Carl Schmitt to find a thinker for whom the model of politics is, by contrast, quite explicitly foreign politics. (b) Politics becomes on the Platonic-Aristotelian view primarily or even exclusively the care of those in one’s own community. Those outside its boundaries are ignored as aliens or as potentially inimical to the community’s interests. In the hands of ambitious politicians, this conception of politics becomes thereby an easy means of justifying acts of conquest, subjection, and the exploitation of others. (c) The division of human beings into a multiplicity of specific communities is on this view a natural fact and as such unproblematic. There may be different views as to the characteristics that define membership in a particular community (descent being a primary factor, residence another), but the question of why and how a community is generated and then maintained gets rarely asked. Characteristically, Plato suggests that there are natural divisions in politics and naturally constituted “herds.” Modern nation-state politics has similarly postulated a natural division of human beings and various forms of racist politics have assumed natural racial divisions. We must oppose to this attitude the question of the self-constitution and identity of a community.

(2) Polis = constitution. Once again it is Aristotle who expresses this identity most clearly. In his Politics he asks himself in what conditions “we ought to say that a polis is the same or not the same but a different one.”[11] The identity of the polis, he answers his own question, is not defined by either its location or its population. Instead, “we must look to the constitution (politeia) above all when saying that the polis is the same.”[12] According to Aristotle’s reasoning, “if indeed a polis is a sort of community, a community of citizens sharing a constitution, then, when the constitution changes its form becomes different, it would seem that the polis too cannot remain the same.”[13]  In translating Aristotle’s politeia as “constitution” and in speaking here of the constitution as that which defines the identity of the polis we must understand., however, that a politeia is for Aristotle neither a written document nor a set of unwritten principle concerning the polis and its policies. He means by “politeia,” rather, the actually existing order or structure of the polis. The Aristotelian view of the identity of the polis relies, I note here in passing, on his metaphysical distinction between form and matter. Locations, people, and other substantive items characteristic of a polis are for him only the matter of which such a polis is composed whereas its identity is given by its form, just as the identity of any physical object is determined by its form rather than its matter.

This “formalism” has significant consequences for the direction that political philosophy will take with Plato and Aristotle. The philosophers will, from now on, concern themselves first and foremost with the different forms of government, with the classification and evaluation of different constitutions. They will examine the distinction between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy as the rule of the one, the few, and the many, respectively. They will separate good and bad versions of each such as the rule of a king as a good version of monarchy, that of a tyrant a bad one. They will write books mapping out new kinds of constitution such as Plato undertakes to do in the Politeia – a title we translate as The Republic but should really be translated as The Constitution – and Aristotle in his Politics. Political philosophy becomes, in consequences, less and less concerned with the actual, concrete political realities. It becomes less and less “realistic” and develops, instead, a normative, moralizing tone. In consequence, our philosophers neglect large parts of the spectrum of political phenomena, the diverse range of things that make up political life; they become, instead, the philosophers of an abstractly conceived polis or state, of its structures and its underlying principles. They become theorists of justice, experts in proposing and criticizing abstract principles. They neglect even to ask how their classificatory concepts and their normative principles are to gain a footing in actual political life. They concern themselves, in other words, only with “pure” theory, not with its application (Rawls). They retain little sense for the particularity, adhocness, the fleetingness, and historicity, the uncertainty, and the formlessness of actual politics.

(3)  Constitution = rule. In the Politikos Aristotle asserts the general principle that “whenever a number of constituents … are combined into one thing, a ruling element and a subject element appear.” (1254a) He assumes this, moreover, to hold for all human associations such as that of husband and wife, owner and slave, father and children. The principle is also meant to hold for the polis at large. Here, too, there must always be a ruling and a ruled element. This does not mean that Aristotle dismisses altogether the possibility of human equality. While he rejects the idea of the equality of everyone, he believes, as he puts it so quaintly, in the equality of those who are equal. The freemen who are meant to rule the polis are equals in this sense. They are so because they are all qualified to rule. But in the actual process of governing even they must accept inequality if only of a temporary kind. In Aristotle’s “Republican” constitution they will take turns in ruling and being ruled. Aristotle provides no justification for his principle. Plato, on the other hand, thinks that he can justify some such a principle by arguing that politics is an art, a techne, that art is a form of knowledge, and that knowledge is unevenly distributed. In The Statesman he writes:”No other art would advance a stronger claim than that of kingship to be the art of caring for the whole human community (epiméleia dé ge anthropínes sympáses koinonías).” And then he adds right away that this art will be the art of “ruling all mankind (pánton anthrópon arches eînai téchne).”[14] And he goes on to illustrate by telling the story he means to be the counter-myth to the Protagorean one.

Once the cosmos was steered by the god Kronos.[15] He ruled the whole universe and took care of its cosmic rotations. Divine spirits divided the living things among themselves at that time and like herdsmen provided for all their needs “so that none of them was savage, nor did they eat each other and there was no war or internal strife at all.” Human beings, too, lived without toil in this age. “A god tended them…and given his tendance, they had no political constitutions.” But eventually came the moment when “the steersman of the cosmos, let go – as it were – of the bar of the steering-oars and withdrew to his eerie.” Then the cosmos was thrown into turmoil and human beings found themselves all of a sudden without their accustomed resources. “Their food supply was no longer freely available and they did not yet know how to provide for themselves, having had no shortage to force them to do so before.” They had to fall back then on the gifts the gods had left them – “fire from Prometheus, crafts from Hephaestus and his fellow craft worker, seeds and plants from others” – and through teaching and learning they finally managed to take care of themselves. But such human care-taking is on Plato’s account always imperfect and at best succeeds only in holding up the decay that is inevitable in a world lacking divine guidance. At first, after the god had withdrawn from the cosmos, it still moved more or less according to the divine principles but with passing time its disharmony inevitably increases. In the end, the universe is bound to reach the point “where it is in danger of destroying both itself and the things in it.” Then at last the god, “concerned that it should not, storm tossed as it is, be broken apart in confusion and sink into the boundless sea of unlikeness, takes his position again at its steering-oars, and having turned round what has become unsound and broken apart in the previous rotation, when the world was left to itself, puts it in order and setting it straight makes it immortal and ageless.”

As in the Protagorean version of this myth we must ask ourselves what we are to take away from this story. We can say for sure that Plato assumed the existence of some highest principle, a point of origin from which everything derives and on which everything depends. This point he called with Anaximander the arché, the beginning and origin of everything. Since Homeric times, the word “arché” had, however, also meant political rule. Plato’s myth, so it appears, relies on both meanings. The entire cosmos is for him an “archaic” structure and as such a system of rule. Its ruling principle is, however, not part of the temporal world; eternal and ageless it lies outside the cosmos and serves as measure and standard for all that exists. Our temporal world is, in fact, always in danger of sliding away from this standard, away that is from the self-identity of the forms (goodness is good, beauty is beautiful) into what The Statesman calls “the boundless sea of unlikeness,” that is, an unlikeness to the Platonic forms as the principle that makes things what they are. On Plato’s, just as on Protagoras’, view we will find ourselves engaged in politics only to the extent that the god has dismissed us from his care. We discover then that nature does not cater to our needs, that there is no natural order on which we can rely, and that there are no naturally appointed masters. Without gods and masters, we find ourselves literally in a state of an-archy. In order to stave off chaos, we must seek to model our politics as much as possible on the divine order of the world, on the principle, the arché that provides things with their reality and identity. Even then our politics will prove flawed; human action can only defer the inevitable decay of a world left without divine guidance since human knowledge is always deficient. There will come a moment of greatest danger when human life is threatening to fall into the abyss of unlikeness, and then only a god can save us. His return will naturally mark the end of human politics. The task of human politics must be, meanwhile, as far as possible to maintain and restore the arché. But human effort cannot fully do so; it can, at best, only delay the decline. For that reason, our only and ultimate hope is that the original arché will restore itself to the world.  Human politics must orient itself thus on the principle that rules the world. Politics and the art of ruling are one and the same.

As we consider the kernel of Plato’s myth, we become aware of an ambiguity that will remain a feature in all subsequent political thinking. Does political rule in Plato’s (and our) sense mean personal governance or the rule of principle or law? Plato’s myth suggests that it means, first of all, the divine governance of the world by a personal god and this thought is re-enforced in the non-mythologizing parts of the The Statesman when Plato speaks of human politics as demanding the personal rule of a politikos. We should rely on the rule of law in politics, he insists, only when the true politikos is absent. The rule of law marks thus for Plato a double absence – that of the god and that of the true politician.  In this version, Plato turns out to be the founder of the doctrine of sovereignty. There is for him a single, highest god and, there must, on this view, be only a single holder of ultimate political power. But to what extent Plato is ultimately committed to the idea of personal rule? In the Republic he seems to conceive arche rather in terms of his order of forms. Kings are qualified to their office in so far as they are also philosophers, in so far, that is, as they have come face with the forms, and can now order the polis in the light of that vision. We can speak of this view as a “political idealism” in contrast to the political theology of The Statesman. The philosopher-kings are on this view only the mediators and facilitators of the rule of the forms not personal sovereigns. This “ideocratic” conception of politics has, of course, its own notion of sovereignty. While it lacks the notion of personal sovereignty, it introduces that of the sovereignty of the good or the law.

Looking over the equations politics = polis, polis = constitution, and constitution = rule, we are left wonderings why Plato and Aristotle should have succeeded in imprinting this particular view of politics on our entire subsequent tradition of political thought and through it even on our political “common sense.” Was it because their conception was intrinsically so compelling? Was it that their reasoning about politics was so superior? No, it was in the first instance because their philosophizing was so sharply attuned to the changing conditions of their time. As Plato and Aristotle were writing, the formations of actual Greek politics were in fact undergoing deep geological shifts. These brought about the integration of the polis into larger imperial structures, the growth of imperial bureaucracies detached from local conditions, and an increasing differentiation of life in the Hellenistic and Roman world. In the course of this development it looked as if politics was, indeed, reducible to the governance of a distant ruler. The newly powerful had an interest in convincing their subjects of the truth of this reductive conception of the political. “Leave politics to us who are qualified,” they said to their subjects. “You are too far removed from centers of power to make a difference.” Plato and Aristotle did not, in other words, speak the timeless truth of politics but they were, we have to admit, attuned to what politics was becoming and their conception of politics worked well for those now attaining power.

The earlier Greeks had, of course, always known that the ambitious and powerful are keen to rule either in the name of some divine dispensation, or with the help of their military, or with their money, or even by the means of the law. Why did they nevertheless think that politics could be conceived in terms other then those of governance or rule and why did Plato and Aristotle no longer share their faith? And how did Plato and Aristotle succeed in imposing their particular way of understanding of politics on the whole tradition of Western political thought? The answer is that they did so because they convinced us not of the plausibility of their own concept of the political but of there being no alternative to it.  For their most decisive move was not the elaboration of a new concept of the political, but their insistence that there is no distinction between recognizing a conception of politics and having a specific concept of the political. The pre-philosophical Greeks had by contrast maintained that distinction and had thereby, in effect, implied that every particular concept of the political, including their own, was just one possible embodiment of their conception of politics as care of the common. This meant, in effect, that every particular concept of the political had alternatives, that there were many ways in which politics could be embodied, that the dominance of one concept of politics at a given moment and in a given place was always and only a historical fact, not an inevitable necessity, and also, finally, that it was a historical and political task to determine for each moment what concept of the political was appropriate. All these insights were swept aside by Plato’s and Aristotle’s insistence that the nature or essence of politics was fully captured in the concept they proposed and that this concept is, in turn, unchanging and eternal. The outcome of all this was a normalization of our understanding of politics in which we learned to conceive of it only in the terms that Plato and Aristotle offered us. It is, precisely, this process that has led to our current dilemma. For the unhappiness we feel about politics today is unhappiness not only with the governments we have but also with the idea of government or rule altogether. But since Plato and Aristotle have taught us that politics means government or rule, this unhappiness turns for us by necessity into one with politics itself. And since they have also taught us to think that the nature or essence of politics is exhausted by the idea of government or rule, they have made it impossible for us to imagine the task of forming a new and more adequate conception of the political.

Thus we remain more or less trapped in the understanding of politics that Plato and Aristotle substituted for the pre-philosophical understanding of the political. Their idea that politics is circumscribed by the concepts of government and the state is still fixed in our thinking. Even where we aspire to democratic and egalitarian ideals we hold on to the thought that politics is government and hence a matter of rule and of leadership. We say thus that democracy calls for the government of the people by the people and for the people. But that way of speaking is far removed from the democratic ideals as the pre-philosophical Greeks conceived them. For them, not government but the care of the common was the meaning of politics. Because we no longer understand this formula, our kind of democracy has become separated from the original Greek model and it is for this reason also that our conception of democracy seduces us so easily into authoritarian and totalitarian practices. We are, in other words, the heirs of the Platonic-Aristotelian understanding of politics whether or not we agree with their particular blueprint for a political order.

The Platonic-Aristotelian conception of politics has proved seductive. Its subtleties, as compared to the sketchiness of pre-philosophical thinking, have animated philosophers ever since. But such gains have been bought at a price. After Plato’s and Aristotle’s formulation of the classical conception of the political the philosophers’ active concern with the question of the concept of the political died away. Ever since then thinkers have taken the classical notion of the political for granted. Or rather, they have taken the Platonic-Aristotelian interpretation of the nature of politics for granted. Plato and Aristotle, in other words, succeeded in normalizing their concept of the political and thereby making it ours as well. After them it was generally accepted that politics = governance and the philosopher’s question became instead who should govern and how. It was granted then that from now on political philosophy should concern itself with the search for normative principles. It was assumed that such principles were to be found and could be applied through the use of philosophical reason. And it was, finally, considered obvious that such principles refer to a definite, naturally constituted, given community: the city or the state. Political philosophy was, in other words, from now on concerned with the principled, rational governance of states. And given this normalized conception of politics, philosophers no longer thought it worthwhile to reflect on the concept of the political. They assumed that we know what it means to be political and, therefore, by implication also that we know already why, in what form, and to what extent we need to engage ourselves politically.

It is only under radically changed circumstances such as our own, circumstances that manifested themselves first in the political revolutions of the modern age, that the political equations which Plato and Aristotle have put before have come to be questioned. This has come about at a moment when philosophy as we have known it since Plato may also be coming to its natural end and the character of human knowledge is once again being re-thought. It is only now under these extreme conditions that the question of the nature and meaning of the political comes once again back to haunt us.



[1] Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of the Philosophers, book 3, chs. 37 and 57.

[2] B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, Cambridge U. P., Cambridge 1981, p. 1.

[3] I follow largely the translation by W.C. Guthrie, Penguin Books, London 1956.

[4] Diels-Kranz 80B3.

[5] One might consider the teaching of language to be part of this “political” training and this would fit Protagoras’s characterization of the process of nurture as conducted mainly in verbal terms. But he classifies language, in fact, as a technical skill. This is surprising in the light of the sophistic concern with “rhetoric,” i. e., in the social uses of language. But in his own thinking about language Protagoras seems to have been mainly concerned with the question of the “correctness of names,” that is with problems in syntax and the theory of reference and these issues may well have looked to him “technical” in character. On his and the sophistic theory of language see G.B. Kerferd, loc. cit., ch. 7.

[6] The Greeks had as yet no noun for politics; they were forced, instead, to use phrases like “the political art” (politikē techne).

[7] Aristotle, Politics, 1253a.

[8] Ibid, 1252b.

[9] Ibid, 1253a.

[10] Vernant, loc. cit.

[11] Politics, 1276a.

[12] Ibid, 1276b.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Plato, The Statesman, 276c.

[15] The story is told at 271-275 and I quote in the following from this passage.

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