Plato Lecture 1
Politics in Ancient Athens: The Birth of Democracy:
The Ancient Greeks invented the idea and the practice of democracy. Of course, they invented the
word too: the rule of the peoplethThe clthsical origin of democracy as an idea and as a form of
government is in Athens in the 5 and 4 centuries B.C.
Some ancient Greek societies had a sort of democratic political system and thought democracy was
a good thing. But for 2,000 years or so after that, most societies in the world were not democratic at all,
and most people who thought about it believed democracy to be a bad thing. The main figures to discuss
the theory of democracyfor our purposesPlato and Aristotlewere anti-democratic thinkers.
Athens, like other Greek towns, was an independent city-state, the Greek world for this is
Polis. The central unit of government was very small, so that every full-
fledged member could participate in its affairs.
In the fourth century B.C., there were huge empires in Persia and Egypt, but in Greece there was a
distinctive type of small institution with an accompanying strong sense of community. This was the polis.
The Greek word polis is the root of our words politics, political, politician, policy,
police,and polo. (Actually, that last one probably comes from pulu, the Tibetan word for ball).
The best translation for polis is city-state.
Compared to modern nation-states, the average Greek polis was small. Athens, for instance, one of
the biggest of the ancient Greek city-states, had approximately 40,000 citizens as part of a total human
population of about 300,000 (including women, children, foreign residents, and slaves). So, the absolute
numbers were roughly the same as London, Ontario today, although the entire citizen-population could fit
into the TD Waterhouse Stadium.
Some of these citizens were very wealthy; others were poor peasants. The society was
characterized by significant equality before the law as well as considerable freedom of speech. Every
citizen had the right to address the ecclesia, that is, the assembly of all citizens, which met around 40 times
a year for 12 hour sessions in which citizens raised their hands to vote. In addition to this ecclesia, there
was also a Council of 500 people, chosen by lot, with a regularly rotating membership, and which prepared
the issues to be discussed in the assembly.
The other important institution was the courts, whose juries were chosen by lot, usually numbering
around 500. (At Socrates trial, there were 200 jurors). These were not only regular juries as we know
them; they also reviewed the work of the Assembly.
Greek democracy was direct and participatory. The Assembly and juries were open to all citizens,
and attendance at them was paid. Athenian democracy was both more and less democratic than todays
democracies. It was more democratic in that all citizens took a direct part in the main decisions affecting
themthis is direct democracywhereas todays democracies are indirect or representative, that is, the
citizens stand at some distance from the decisions made, say, in a parliament or Congress, where decisions
are made by representatives.
Direct democracy requires a citizen-body small enough to meet in one place, and where each citizen
has enough time free of other responsibilities to enable them to deal properly with arguments for and
against proposed policies.
But Athenian democracy was less democratic than modern democracies in that it restricted citizenship to free-born males: women, slaves and resident foreigners were excluded. These groups did the
productive work that enabled the citizens to have the time to participate in political activity. Women in
Athens had little in the way of legal rights, and were more or less confined to their homes: their most
important job was to produce male children who would become future citizens and property owners.
Until the twentieth century, modern democracies also excluded many potential citizens: women, the
unpropertied, and so on, did not even get the vote until quite recently. And even today, many adult
residents of countries are excluded from political participation, even though they contribute hugely to the
productivity of the economy. (Think of the illegal aliens in California and elsewhere in the developed
countries). Religion was the state religion. Also, the political and the social were not very sharply
distinguished, so that the Olympics involved representatives from the different cities.
Some Greek city-states were tyrannies, some were oligarchies (Sparta is the most notable oligarchy;
it fought and defeated Athens, the greatest democracy, in the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C). But in
all cases, public and private affairs were mingled together. It was the role of the state to provide for the
moral education of its citizens.
Our first theorist, Plato, was no democrat. He didnt much value liberty, thought equality was only
valuable if it was amongst equals, and valued solidarity but thought it was best achieved by a kind of social
unity in which democratic equality is specifically ruled out.
Socrates (469-399 B.C).
Socrates is the central figure in most of the Platonic dialogues. He was an Athenian, born in 469
BC. He is reported to have been fairly funny looking, with a snub nose and big bulging eyes, and he could
hold his liquor better than most.
Amazingly, Socrates wrote nothing. For us, he speaks in the works written by one of his followers,
Plato. Socrates didnt subscribe to any particular philosophical or theoretical doctrine. (In the Republic,
Socrates does offer some positive doctrines, but its generally agreed that these theories are Platos
invention rather than Socrates own views. The Socrates of The Republic, Book I, is probably pretty close
to the real Socrates). He cross-examined his fellow Athenians about their moral and political assumptions,
and he made a lot of people angry (largely by questioning their confidently held but poorly thought-out
beliefs). He seemed concerned most of all to follow an argument wherever it might lead. This attitude
reflected his deep commitment to discovering the truth, whatever it might be.
The Oracle at Delphi, a significant religious authority, called Socrates the wisest man in Greece.
Since Socrates claimed to know that he wasnt wise, he sought out men with reputations for wisdom, but he
foundafter pestering them and exposing their confused thinkingthat none of these people knew what
they thought they knew. Socrates therefore took his own wisdom to consist in this: I dont think that I
know things I dont know (Apology, 21d). Socrates made questioning, philosophical activity his lifes
work: as Socrates himself puts it: the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being (Apology,
38a). He wanted to discover the truth by appealing to argument rather than traditional authority.
He was tried for corrupting the youth and not believing in the citys gods, and he was convicted and
sentenced to deal. (On this, see the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, in The Trial and Death of Socrates).
Plato Lecture 2
Life of Plato (427-347 B.C).
Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family in 427 B.C, when Socrates was 42 years old. At
the age of 20, Plato joined the group of people who followed Socrates around; the years he spent as a
follower of Socrates had a huge influence on Platos subsequent development. There were no universities
in those days, so obtaining a higher education involved associating with sophists (itinerant teachers).
As we know, ancient Athens was a democracy. At the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C), that democracy was overthrown by a group of conservatives, including two of Platos relatives, who ruled
as the Thirty Tyrants for nine months. When the democracy was restored, it was a vengeful democracy,
and in 399 B.C Socratesassociate of some of the tyrantswas tried and sentenced to death for corrupting
the youth and not believing in the Athenian Gods. This must have had an enormous impact on the young
A few years later, Plato founded the Academy, and institution resembling a modern research
center. (Our word academic comes down to us by way of the influence of the Academy as the first of its
kind in European cultural history). Plato remained head of the Academy until he died in 347 B.C.
Plato is one of the finest writers of Greek prose, and he is considered to be among the greatest
philosophers who have ever lived. His works are all in dialogue form, conversations, that is, between two
or more people.
Overview of The Republic.
Here is a very rough outline of the main topics covered in The Republic. The dialogue begins by
addressing a question, What is justice? Several participants try to answer the question, but Socrates tries
to show them that their views are inadequate. After a heated discussion with Thrasymachus, Socrates then
spends the remainder of the dialogue setting out his own answer to this question and the related one, Why
The account describes how justice is harmony between parts of the soul (or person) and
analogouslybetween classes of people in the city or polis, with each part or class fulfilling its proper
role. A well-ordered soul or city is a happy soul or city, so justice is conducive to happiness (So, everyone
has a reason to be just).
The just polis is ruled by philosopher-kings. Philosophers are those who possess knowledge of the
Forms, and only a select few are capable of possessing knowledge in this sense. The best form of state,
therefore, will be a fo