Aristotle On Happiness In Plato’s State




The following is a guest post from Toby Coe.

In Book Two of The Politics we witness the exciting clash of two conflicting political ideologies, Aristotle’s politics being primarily based on pragmatic concerns; whilst Plato’s state is founded on more idealised principles. In this essay we shall examine Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s utopia and whether these criticisms are valid, concluding that Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato are broadly successful, because they expose Plato’s conception of happiness as false.

Aristotle has two main complaints concerning Plato’s state:

1) The practice of wives and children being held in common is both impractical and wrong.

2) Communism among the guardians will be inimical to their happiness and bad for the state.

One of Aristotle’s main criticisms of Plato concerns his desire for women and children to be in common. Plato proposes “That all these women shall be wives in common for all these men… That children shall in turn belong to all of them.”1 According to Mayhew, he does this to avoid factionalism,2 as rivalry over women and the desire for particular children to do better than others will be disastrous to the guardians way of life. This is because they are meant to be perfect protectors of the state, totally dedicated to the cities welfare and not their own. These attitudes are also out workings of Plato’s feelings towards private property, which we will discuss later.

Aristotle’s chief complaint regarding this is that “each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually”.3 Aristotle thinks that for someone to really be a son at all the relationship must be personal and not merely a formal one. To be someone’s son is to be part of an exclusive intimate relationship where there is a degree of intimacy and knowledge between the parent and the child that does not exist in public life. Aristotle seems to be objecting to Plato’s assumption that it is possible for one person to have kinship with many people, furthermore, that this intimacy can reach the high level of affinity typical in most families. Aristotle thinks that is simply impossible, in the end everybody’s wives and children will be no one’s. In addition, it will be difficult to stop children recognising their parents as they will bare family resemblances (literally, not just in Wittgenstein’s sense).4 Such recognition will in all likelihood lead to chaos as guardians directed by their paternal urges will try and claim their own children, which will lead to repression by the state and therefore, discontent amongst the guardians.

Are these criticisms of Plato fair? Plato might respond to Aristotle’s first criticism that he has underestimated peoples’ altruistic capabilities, further, that children will be able to be moulded into exemplary citizens by the state as they will be educated and brought up by the state.5 Without the influence of parents they will be able to be shaped into whatever the state wants them to be. By exerting its influence the state will be able to inculcate the youth with the desire to love all members of the state like their family. In addition, by dissolving the family unit Plato hopes to make the guardians lives better as they are spared from the toil and worries involved in raising children,6 instead they are able to pursue individual excellence. Also, being ignorant of who are their children and who are not they will be less likely to do the city harm, as they might be ruining the lives of their offspring.7 In this way Plato hopes to utilise ignorance as a tool for social cohesion.

Aristotle would not accept this justification because he would insist that, firstly human nature cannot be changed by any amount of interference by the state. Secondly, that eventually love between citizens “will be diluted”8 because no citizen will be able to feel love for a vast plethora of “sons” and “wives”. Finally, the very concept of the family will be devalued by the state declaring everyone is part of the same family.

On the other hand, it is highly likely that the guardians will have a burning desire to form families and do so without the state’s sanction, according to Plato if the guardians keep private families they will “tear the city apart”.9 If the Republic was ever actually realised this would most likely happen, signalling the death throes of Plato’s dream.

Aristotle answers Plato’s argument that the guardians will be happier if they are free from the burdens of family life when he states that “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants”.10 If the family is removed from society these basic wants will not be fulfilled, which will be detrimental to the lives of the guardians. Because they will be denied the warm intimacy of family life, such goods as love, kindness and solidarity are more valuable than any goods resulting from individuals having more leisure.

Furthermore, that it would be far better to be a real cousin of somebody “than to be a son after Plato’s fashion!”11 It would be far better to be a distant but genuine relation to someone as there would be natural grounds for a friendship, than to have a fictional relationship commanded on both of you by the state.

It is difficult to tell which of the opposing claims as to the guardians happiness or unhappiness in this particular case is true, presumably some would delight in the freedom that the community of wives and children allowed, others would crave intimacy that the rules of society forbid and thus be miserable.

Now we turn to Aristotle’s other main criticism of The Republic by seeing what Plato’s attitudes to private property are. In essence, Plato thinks that private property should be abolished where the guardians are concerned for similar reasons that he provided for the removal of the family from the guardian’s lives. “Once they start acquiring their own land, house and money they will have become householders and farmers instead of guardians”.12 The guardians must live for the citizen body around them. If they have property they will be tempted to pursue other more selfish goods. Under communism they will be free from such dangers, and able to pursue a more fulfilling life and achieve the Republic’s aim of bringing, happiness to the whole population.13

So what does Aristotle make of all of this? Predictably he takes the opposite view from his teacher, he sees the guardian’s lives as a miserable existence.14 He thinks this because far greater pleasure is to be gained when “a man feels a thing to be his own”15 all property being in common denies him this joy. On top of this, communism is only applied to the guardians, not to the lower classes, creating an inverse hierarchy where those lower down in society have more than those above them turning the guardians into a “occupying garrison”16 unable to enjoy the same lifestyle as their social inferiors. Aristotle believes that this inequality of possessions will lead to great tension in the society. These tensions may either result in the guardians abdicating their office for riches, or the guardians becoming jealous towards the lower classes for having property.

What are we to make of these criticisms? It is not clear that communism is as impossible as Aristotle makes out, once again Plato can bring the force of state education to bear on the young minds that will be tomorrows citizens. Whilst the drive to create families may be a fundamental part of the human psyche, it is far harder to say the same about private property. For we only learn about property by being immersed in societies which have it. Whilst the family unit is something far more basic, that can be seen both in the animal kingdom and in humans, many societies such as monastic orders have managed perfectly well without it. If children can be educated to despise private property then they may well be able to do without it and like monks remain perfectly happy if not more contented than the average person. Thus this criticism from Aristotle does not really make any progress in addressing Plato’s position.

The main problem for Plato is that he allows some to have property and others not to. Such inequality will be difficult to justify to the philosopher elite who make up the guardians, who cannot be relied upon to always be selfless no matter how many tests and selections they undergo. A great deal of effort will have to go into inoculating the guardians against the pleasures that are being continuously perceived in the very fabric of the society around them. As Rice puts it many are “not going to accept the stations they happen to occupy”.17 The guardians will continually be confronted by what they do not have, such a situation will cause much temptation for the guardians to acquire property. If this “deprives the guardians even of happiness”,18 as Aristotle contends, it is surely a fatal weakness in Plato’s system. Because by Aristotelian standards, the lower castes of the Republic will be happier than the guardians as they have some degree of liberty and the joy of having their own families and possessions.19 Thus we are faced with two conflicting standards of happiness, the Platonic ascetic standard of fulfilment in which people must transcend lower inclinations to contemplate what is higher, and the conflicting principle of Aristotle that happiness is to be found in the everyday world by pursuing excellence of human nature and harnessing the passions for good.

The Aristotelian principle is to be preferred because it is easy to see whether people are actually in the normal sense “happy” or not. Under the Platonic conception any apparent unhappiness might just be a symptom of the passions rebelling against a “higher” self, this attitude if pursued to its logical conclusion will lead to all kinds of horrors being imposed on the citizens: wives and children being in common, communism, and censorship. All in order to realise what Isaiah Berlin describes as “positive freedom”,20 it is this tendency that leads Plato into quasi totalitarian territory in The Republic. Of course the idealist might criticize the Aristotelian model of happiness as being too modest in its aims leading to endless compromises and in the end Machiavellian pragmatism. However, the vices of the Aristotelian state are to be preferred to those of the Platonic system because they are clearly discernible, unlike the Platonic flaws which are disguised by the smokescreen of the supreme forms.

In conclusion, the denial of Platonic standards of happiness has been tacitly present in all of Aristotle’s criticism’s of The Republic. Aristotle has exposed Plato’s ability to “dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages.”21 The holding in common of wives and children and the communism for the guardians are all ostensibly presented as ways to make the citizens happy, but as Aristotle’s criticisms have shown they will in fact make them miserable. While Aristotle does not prove that these practices are impossible to implement, he does show that they are undesirable in light of clear notions of what is best for human beings.


1 Plato, The Republic, p. 154

2 Mayhew, Aristotle’s Criticisms of Plato’s Republic, p. 26

3 Aristotle, The Politics, p. 33

4 Ibid, p. 34

5 Plato, The Republic, p. 246

6 Ibid, p. 165

7 Ibid, p. 112

8 Aristotle, The Politics, p. 35

9 Plato, The Republic, p. 164

10 Aristotle, The Politics, p. 12

11 Ibid , The Politics, p. 33

12 Plato, The Republic, p. 110

13 Ibid, p. 111

14 Aristotle, The Politics, p. 39

15 Ibid, p. 36

16 Ibid, p. 38

17 Rice, A Guide To Plato’s Republic, p. 56

18 Aristotle, The Politics, p. 39

19 Aristotle, The Politics, p. 36

20 Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, p. 16

21 Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 122


Aristotle, (1996), The Politics and The Constitution of Athens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Berlin, Isaiah, (1958), Two Concepts of Liberty, London: Oxford University Press

Mayhew, R. (1997), Aristotle’s Criticisms of Plato’s Republic, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Plato, (2000), The Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rice, D. H., (1998), A Guide To Plato’s Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Russel, Bertrand, (1961), A History of Western Philosophy . London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.


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