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Plato and Natural Law Theory

In Arts & Letters, Communism, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Natural law theory, at its essence, is not far removed, conceptually at least, from Plato’s theory of forms.  According to Plato, only the philosopher kings are equipped and trained intellectually to comprehend the true forms as opposed to the sensible forms that are readily understandable in the phenomenal world.  These philosopher kings can grasp the Form of the Good, for instance, which is the fountainhead from which flow all true forms, including knowledge, truth, and beauty.  But how are we to know who these philosopher kings are?  How are we to distinguish them from charlatans?  And why should the polis uncritically accept the supposedly sound judgments and determinations of those who cannot prove to us their purportedly superior faculties?

There is no ideal city, no Platonic Utopia, nor even a realm approaching the character of Magnesia.  Plato’s communistic fantasies have never been achieved,[1] and the disenchantment one senses in The Laws differs markedly from the tone and confidence exuded in The Republic. It is as if Plato, having aged, realized the dreaminess of his younger vision in The Republic and wished to correct the record, even though he did not go far enough.  At least in The Laws he acknowledged that the first principle of politics is to attain peace; the absence of military conflict ought to be the chief aim of the legislator; judges are another matter.

Plato seems to have continued to admire tyranny, despite his criticism of tyrants in The Laws, for elsewhere in that work he discusses how leaders ought to create an obedient disposition among the citizens.  Commonplace though that proposition may sound, it suggests that the State and its politicians should condition citizens to act for the good of the State.  The problem is that the State is made up of those who live off the citizens, so unchecked obedience to the State means that the citizens ensure their perpetual subordination to those who exploit citizen labor.  It is little wonder that the Platonic State devotes itself to educating the young, for the State must guarantee that there are future generations of uncritical followers to take advantage of.

This is not to suggest that Plato’s works are without truth, only that they are underdeveloped and often misguided.  Aristotle seems to have thought so, too.  The free polis is a multifaceted collection of networks bound together by the voluntary acts of free agents whose rules of habit and exchange exist separately from legislative fiat.


[1] Aristotle himself recognizes that Plato lacks a proper understanding of unity because Plato treats it in terms of property ownership because it is contracted by experience.  “[A]though there is a sense in which property ought to be common,” says Aristotle, “it should in general be private.  When everyone has his own separate sphere of interest, there will not be the same ground for quarrels; and they will make more effort, because each man will feel that he is applying himself to what is his own.” Aristotle, The Politics (Translated by Ernest Barker; Revised with an Introduction by R. F. Stanley). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. P. 47.

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  1. The rights of Plato’s theory are nor clearly mentioned

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