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Ancient Political Philosophy

Politics and Philosophy in Ancient Greece

(Last Updated On: August 14, 2018)
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Politics and Philosophy

In giving birth to philosophy, the polis also gave birth to a tension between what Aristotle would describe as two lives: the life of politics and the life of philosophy. A faultline between ethics and politics, so closely connected in an ancient culture preoccupied with flourishing ( eudaimonia ) and virtue

(aretê ), opened here. Should philosophers act politically (and if so, should they engage in ordinary politics in existing regimes, or work to establish new ones), or should they abstain from politics in order to live a life of pure contemplation? There was likewise a question as to whether philosophers should think politically: were human affairs worth thinking about in the broadest perspective opened by the study of nature and of the gods? In engaging with questions of rhetoric, virtue, knowledge, and justice, Socrates’ philosophical life was engaged with the political even before his death (his trial and execution at the hands of the Athenian democratic regime) embattled him with it. But for his student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle, the practice and even the study of human affairs such as politics were less divine, and so less admirable, than the broader study of truth about the natural and the divine realms. Philosophy might have to address the political but its highest calling soared above it. If Socrates’ political fate was part of the stimulus for Plato to invent a new metaphysics and epistemology in order to articulate an alternative realm of political possibility, Plato’s dialogues show Socrates simultaneously asserting an independence for those disciplines from the bonds of the political alone.

This distinctive Greek—and particularly Platonic – outlook must condition any historical understanding of the development of ancient political philosophy. While one influential approach to the history of political thought takes its bearings from what a thinker was trying to do in and by what he or she said or wrote, it is important to recognize that the founders of ancient political philosophy were in part trying to define a new space of doing as philosophizing, independent of ordinary political action. This is not to say that they did not also have ordinary political intentions, but rather to stress that the invention of political philosophy was also intended as a mode of reflection upon the value of ordinary political life.

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