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Aug 11, 2015

Ancient Origins of a Modern Debate: Socialism in Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle both embraced a vision of the good life which saw commercial activity as necessarily beneath political, academic, and artistic life.

The exposure of the various facets of human life to market forces has always been a point of contention between capitalists and socialists.1 “Commodification,” that is turning goods, services, and even ideas into marketable items to satisfy needs and desires, raises questions as to the limit of the market in governing human relations and, to some extent, humanity itself.  Even before Marx argued that the development of capitalism alienated individuals from the products of their own labor and, as such, excluded them from enjoying full humanity, Rousseau, in two essays, questioned both the advance of the then burgeoning scientific revolution and increase of commercial society, both which he saw as contributing to the loss of man’s original, natural independence and to his moral corruption.2 And even before the advent of the modern age, as I will argue, these debates have been carried on. In Antiquity, Plato and Aristotle objected to the commodification of certain aspects human relations, especially politics and philosophy, which they saw were “elevated” and “noble” as contrasted with the “banausic” (base) and “necessary” facets of human life such as trade and commerce. As such, their noted penchant for excluding those engaged in trade and commerce from political life did not merely stem from their aristocratic biases, but was derived from their conceptions of the human Good and Virtue, as will be discussed shortly. Mainly, I hope to show that underlying various restrictionists’ anti-market positions is a teleologically-informed picture of what it means to be a flourishing human, a philosophical notion which has been handed down from antiquity, and which needs to be understood properly before it can be debated.

Firstly, I want to say that I am not picking sides nor am I claiming that what I am elucidating is the sole and main reason why restrictionists of commodification maintain their position. Nor am I the only one who has seen this,3 but I hope by laying it down in sketch, that I can help elucidate why and how restrictionists arrive at their policy positions. My attempt is to not side dogmatically with either side, for being a dogmatist is against the project of understanding and philosophy, but to lay bare the essences of the debate between the two. I hope in doing so, I can show the underlying assumptions which inform their positions, and this I think this is supremely helpful. That is, to argue for the pros and cons resulting from capitalism or socialism would be fruitless unless one understands what are, at their core, their ultimate philosophical differences. It is not merely as some say a debate between the means, as if the critical difference between capitalism and socialism was how to get to a wealthy society, or a society in which the poor and disadvantaged are not left behind at the expense of the well-off. Capitalism and socialism, using these terms broadly for the laissez-faire and restrictionist attitude respectively with regard to market forces in human relations, differ in an even more deeper way, a way that touches the very core of each philosophical understanding of human nature. I will begin today by discussing socialism.

Socialism is not new, if we understand by socialism the restriction of market forces to only certain aspects of human life. Plato in the Republic advocated a degree of communalism that, even in his day and age, would have shocked not a few of his contemporaries, because he excluded many aspects of human life such as family relations, the education of children, and politics from individual free choice as well as excluding workers (hired-hands) and artisans from the ruling classes. Interestingly, Aristotle objected to Plato’s communism merely on practical grounds, but to a certain extent agreed with Plato philosophically, as can be seen in his discussion of citizenship in his Politics. This means that both Plato and Aristotle agreed, in the end, that some aspects of a specific kind of human flourishing would be harmed by exposure to market forces, a position from which many philosophers, including Marx, certainly drew their theories.

If one reads the Platonic dialogues, one is struck Plato’s comprehensive and hierarchical understanding of human nature in relation to the world in which humans live. To pick one of the many important facets of Plato’s comprehensive theory, his notion of the soul has important consequences for many of his political ideas. If we take, for instance, the beautiful imagery of the charioteer and his two horses in the Phaedrus as a metaphor for Plato’s notion of the human soul (Socrates likens the soul to “a natural union of yoked horses and a charioteer”4), we can see how Plato understands the soul as uniting three parts, the Reasoning (logos), the Thumoedic (willing), and the Appetency (appetites, e.g., sex, food, etc.).5 The Reasoning part of the soul, represented in the metaphor as the driver of the chariot, is the best part because only it can participate and lead in a philosophical process called dialectic which when carried out properly would “lift up” the soul to glimpse the Truth and pursue the Good.6 The two other parts of the soul, represented by two horses, one unruly (Appetency) and one obedient (Thumoedic) to the charioteer, can either assist in the ascent or drag the soul away from achieving the charioteer’s endeavor. It is for this reason that the Reasoning part of the soul must command as its ally the Thumoedic (willing) part to keep the Appetency part in check as the soul gains ascent through dialectic in contemplation and pursuit of the Good. Hence, since tradesmen, artisans, and laborers all cater to the appetites of men, i.e., they satisfy one’s needs and desires, they hardly, if at all, contribute to the reasoning part of the soul, which must be attended to by philosophers and those engaged in the cultivation of political and moral virtue.

In close similarity, Aristotle himself views the human soul as rather similarly composed. For Aristotle, what separates humans from beasts and plants is that which makes men unique as a genus, i.e., man’s logos, or reason, or his capacity for speech.7 Plants have a nutritive soul enabling them to metabolize whatever it is that they need to live, and animals have further more a sensitive soul which permits them to gain perception of the world in which they live and react to stimuli, and a motive soul which enables them to move. Humans share in these souls, by having nutritive, sensitive, and motive souls, but have one more, the reasoning soul which animals and plants lack. Similar to Plato, without going too much into their differences, Aristotle believes that the cultivation of reason in humans is our purpose because this is our peculiar quality. Both philosophers hence believe that in the cultivation of one’s reason, either through dialectic in Plato, or through virtue in Aristotle, or through philosophy in both, is the true purpose for which humans exist, and this “purpose” is the “end,” or telos, of our nature under which all other aspects of our lives, the bodily desires and satisfaction of our needs and desires, must be subordinated.

This teleological, and as such, hierarchical, understanding of human nature has important political and economic consequences. Firstly, because reason must be cultivated through virtue and philosophy, only a few have the leisure and natural capacity for this teleological human excellence. The majority of mankind, by contrast, will have to work unendingly just to live. Plato’s ship analogy, in which the mutinous and vulgar crew overthrows the captain whose extensive education in astronomy, meteorology, and other arts relating to navigation is seen by them as useless because of their inferior, and thus unwise, education, demonstrates the importance which Plato places upon education, especially philosophic education, which gives those who have taken the time to cultivate these virtues the right to rule, e.g., the philosopher kings.8 By demonstrating the need for extensive education that requires leisure, Plato shows why only some will be able to pursue to the fullest extent these virtues, while the many or hoi polloi will unfortunately not be able to because of economic circumstances. Furthermore, Aristotle’s discussion of political hierarchy and the importance of slavery in the Politics can be seriously misunderstood without an understanding whence he arrived at these positions. Slaves in Aristotle’s politics are not “people” because, since they lead a life that is dictated by biological necessity (like animals), they do not participate in leisurely pursuits such a philosophy or politics which are pursuit proper to man’s reasoning soul.9 Political participation in Aristotle, and to big extent Plato if we consider the philosopher-kings and their auxiliaries in The Republic, requires leisure, or rather abstention from activities that contribute to bodily needs. Slaves and servants were thus required, as Aristotle thought, to enable citizens of a polis for other pursuits such as study, gymnastics, music, and philosophy - pursuits which contribute to the reasonings part in humans, and “best” because they are pursued for their own sakes, in contrast to commerce which is pursued for the sake of other things, e.g., wealth.10 As such the privileged few, by cultivating these philosophical and political virtues in leisure, would be elevated above the banausic forces of the necessities of life, and by not having to “earn a living wage,” they live a life of pure consumption in pursuit of nobility. Aristeuein (to excel) for the aristoi (best men) equalled essentially leisured living occupied in activities pursued for the sake of the good life above and beyond mere survival.

As a consequence of such an understanding of human nature, moreover, politics, art, literature, philosophy, and war-making all became élite pursuits, isolated from and elevated above market forces which dictate the lives of the masses who live a day-to-day existence and who could not participate in such “excellent” and “virtuous” pursuits. Exclusionary politics, interpreted as part of vested interests’ effort to secure their own power, is not the full picture. Such political arrangements must be understood as following from the philosophical understanding of the separation in kind between those who were fit to rule and be ruled, and those who were fit to be subject to dominion. There is a difference here between rule/ruled and subject/dominion that should not be missed.11 Aristotle defined the best citizen as he who knew how to rule and be ruled (i.e., to be engaged in politics). Because he participates in politics, the ruled was not categorized a “subject.” Those who were “subjects” (slaves) were excluded from political life altogether since they lacked any sort of deliberative capacity.12 They were the slaves under the dominion of the household lord whom and only whom the polis considered a citizen and who was allowed to participate in the “rule of the free.”13 When the citizen retreated into the confines of his house, he assumed the role of the household lord that had dominion over his subjects, i.e., his slaves, who, by managing the household, gave their master “freedom” from such pursuits and enabled his leisure. In such a hierarchical political arrangement, economics, which has its etymological root properly in the Greek oikos, or house, only played the restricted role of managing the affairs which supported the free citizen’s leisure.14 Our discussion of socialism has thus reached its earliest origin, in the peculiarly aristocratic understanding of human nature which followed from a hierarchical vision of the soul, human relations, and the purposeful end for which humans were made.

To recapitulate, even if Plato and Aristotle had vested interests as elites in their society (which in Plato’s case was even more markedly true), their anti-egalitarian and “socialistic” ideas of human relations followed directly from their teleological understanding of human nature. If human excellence consisted in rising above merely satisfying one’s material needs and desires, it follows that a certain degree of leisure, a certain degree of abstention from obtaining the necessities of life for oneself, is needed. The marketplace, or the agora, will hence be separated from political and philosophical life as understood in this sense, and commerce will be understood as that which is necessary to sustain life, but definitely not part of what consisted in the good life. This political expression possibly reached its acme in Sparta where coinage was rendered useless, luxury faded away, and all trade ceased,15 and in which a multitude of slaves (helots) were subjected to the rule of Spartan citizens whose predominant preoccupation was politics and warfare. Even in Athens, the closest thing one has in antiquity to a “commercial democracy,” the market of the Piraeus was separated from the Acropolis. In the Republic of Plato, not only was Cephalus, in whose house the entire dialogue was conducted, a rich metic merchant, but also Socrates had to ‘go down’16 into the Piraeus, both indicating the superior nature of political citizenship (and civil freedom) to banausic commerce, and the fact that even riches through trade did not guarantee one’s place in the polis. There thus were facets of human life excluded from the market, and they were excluded because they were elevated.

Such an understanding certainly predominated in the ages preceding the rise of the anti-teleological, and as such egalitarian, political philosophies which helped produce modern liberal market democracy. Socialism and communism both ostensibly argue for political and economic equality, however, upon closer inspection, these theories—such as those which try to ensure a just distribution of goods, or provide a floor below which a citizen of a society may not fall—all share in the idea that to be human means that one has to rise above merely living by necessity. Freedom from necessity, taken in this sense, and their denial that any choice made as a result economic necessity is in any way voluntary, follow from the aforementioned understanding that human flourishing is in some ways non-marketable. To say that socialists or communists have an intention to abridge freedom would be to seriously misunderstand and discredit their intentions.

Of course, even if the end of human life, the Good, and all these ideas which since the birth of philosophy have been debated have now been examined more skeptically—as a result of modernity’s rejection of whatever teleological vision of human nature either the ancients or Christianity offered—we must not assume that the debate for more market restrictions comes from a misunderstanding of the means to achieve greater wealth, or from other more insidious motives which portray restrictionists as power-hungry despots seeking to abridge individual freedom. By demonstrating how even Plato and Aristotle, who both certainly enjoyed great personal freedom and the relative wealth which commercial Athens provided, arrived at more or less similar views which made politics anti-egalitarian and confined market forces to a less visible role, we can see a peculiar understanding of human nature which led to such conclusions. Nonetheless, this is not the entire story. I have only just elucidated the philosophical reasons from those who see in market forces something base and denigrating of human excellence, but have not given voice to those who, by rejecting restrictionist, teleological political philosophies, have envisioned new avenues for human flourishing through a different understanding of the role of commerce and virtue, who have seen in market forces something which advances the goal of philosophy rather than hinders it, and who see in the burgeoning market-based liberal democracies a new form of public Enlightenment that promises to bring the whole fold of humanity, as Kant exhorted, out of their self-incurred minority.17 I will discuss these issues next.


  1. By drawing the distinction so broadly and so generally, I do not mean to say that there are no finer political and philosophical positions that may stand between (or even apart from) these two. As I use them, “capitalism” and “socialism” are merely placeholder nouns for positions that respectively advocate for and object to the greater influence of market forces within society.
  2. Marx’s theory of commodification is found in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, Section 3 (“The Form of Value or Exchange Value”), Part 4 (“The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof”). An earlier critique of capitalism in its infancy can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes’ (1754) (commonly known as his Second Discourse). His critique of the advance of human arts and sciences and its deleterious effects on human morality is found in his earlier essay for which he won the Academy of Dijon’s prize, Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750) (commonly known as his First Discourse).
  3. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958) and Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962) have both highlighted the differences between ancient and modern (or commercial) understandings of the importance of market forces. Another includes Montesquieu especially in his perspicacious discussion of  commercial England in L’Esprit des lois.
  4. Phaedrus, 246a
  5. Phaedrus, 2460-254e discusses the famous Chariot Allegory which Socrates uses in an inquiry into Love. The Phaedrus Chariot Allegory depicts a charioteer steering two horses along a heavenly circuit. Since one horse is heavenly and obedient, but the other is rough and unruly, the charioteer must handle both horses carefully as he crosses the heavens, which symbolizes the ascent of Enlightenment, and the fall from which, should the troublesome horse gets his way, illustrates one’s fall from contemplative philosophy. Plato’s Republic in 434d-441c also discusses the tripartite nature of the soul, but in the Republic Socrates uses this discussion of the soul to show how the just man orders his soul according to the better part, i.e., his reason, and not his appetites which would lead him astray and make him tyrannical in the pursuit of satisfying unsatisfiable desires, and how such an arrangement reflects the just ordering of the parts of city with the reasoning part of the soul corresponding to the philosopher kings of the city who rule absolutely, but always in the best interests of the whole.
  6. Of course what is the Good and the Truth in Plato is much contested, especially since Plato believes that these are self-evident to those who have perfected the art of dialectic - a position definitely in need of clarification. Nevertheless, without debating what the Platonic “Good” and “Truth” are, understanding the pursuit of these objectives as crucial to Plato’s insistence on the use of dialectic serves the purpose of this essay.
  7. See Aristotle’s De Anima III-11, 434a 10-11. For the political implications of man’s capacity for speech, see Aristotle’s Politics, Book 1, 1253a. Here, Aristotle begins the purposefulness with which Nature provides man his “gift of speech.” Speech in man indicates that man was meant to live in community with others, not merely in pursuit of the necessaries of life, but, when in cooperation and coexisting with others, to seek a good life. This normative aspect of living well definitely involves morality which can only inhere among beings who are able to communicate via speech to each other what is good or bad, just or unjust.
  8. Plato’s Republic, 6, 487d-488e
  9. Aristotle’s Politics, Ι, 1260a, 13
  10. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958), drawing from Aristotle and ancient Greek political thought, divides human action into (1) labor, (2) work, and (3) action. Labor is that which contributes directly to the sustaining of human life, e.g., agriculture for food, but is so intertwined with the biological processes that it is hardly elevated in the sense of rising above bare life-processes required to continue the natural species; work is that which tries to fashion out of nature something which is more permanent, and hence, in defiance of the process of generation and decay of the natural world, e.g., the construction of a marble memorial to stand the test of time; but most importantly, and most uniquely human, because it requires man’s capacity for speech, is action which, because of man’s freedom and rational quality, is able to rise above the necessities of nature altogether and transcend the natural world. Action is thus equated to undertaking something from mere volition, and as such, is a cause, in the Aristotelian sense of the word aitia. Slaves belong to the realm of labor; artisans and workmen to the realm of work; but citizens and those fully engaged in politics, because emancipated from labor, belong to the realm of action.
  11. Aristotle clearly distinguishes between two kinds of rule, despoteia and politike, in Politics, 1255b, 16-35. Despotic government is the rule of the oikos in which the house lord is the sole head and has dominion over his wife, children, and slaves, which are his property and which contribute to his emancipation from activities relating to the necessary tasks of sustaining life so that he can pursue other leisurely pursuits that contribute to the good life. Despotic rule is not the same rule as political rule, as when the house lord emerges from his oikos into the public spaces, he becomes a free equal vis-à-vis his fellow citizens. The despotic rule is characterized by inequality and total subordination to the house lord, whereas political rule is characterized as the arena in which men freely meet each other as equals, deliberate on political matters, and conduct the business of the polis.
  12. Aristotle’s Politics, Ι, 1260a, 13, “for the slave has not got the deliberative at all.” And since the slave lacks any deliberative part, i.e., a free, rational side to his nature, it is for this reason that the slaves are only “serviceable for the mere necessaries of life” and thus require “only a small amount of virtue…just enough to prevent him from falling in his tasks owing to intemperance and cowardice,” 1260a, 34-36.
  13. Politics, 1255b, 17
  14. Politics, 1255b, 16-35
  15. Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, 9, 3-4 recounts how the lawgiver of Sparta did away with all “the unnecessary and superfluous arts” by making Lacedaemonian coinage worthless for trade. “For the iron money could not be carried into the rest of Greece, nor had it any value there, but was rather held in ridicule. It was not possible, therefore, to buy any foreign wares or bric-à‑brac; no merchant-seamen brought freight into their harbours; no rhetoric teacher set foot on Laconian soil, no vagabond soothsayer, no keeper of harlots, no gold- or silver-smith, since there was no money there. But luxury, thus gradually deprived of that which stimulated and supported it, died away of itself, and men of large possessions had no advantage over the poor, because their wealth found no public outlet, but had to be stored up at home in idleness.” The Parallel Lives of Plutarch, published in Vol. 1 of the Loeb Classical Library Edition.
  16. Plato’s Republic, I, 327a.
  17.  Immanuel Kant, Was ist aufklärung? (1784)