Winston Churchill famously quipped, "The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter." Plato also seems to have held such a view, where he wrote in The Republic that "philosopher kings" should lead city-states in a sort of oligarchical system.

Although Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are often talked about in the same context, their views have historically diverged on various topics. In the case of government ideals, did Socrates and Aristotle differ in their views from Plato? If so, in what ways?

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    note that the democracy of ancient Greece was not the same as that of today. It was not universal suffrage, but rather excluded slaves, women, debtors, and those who had not completed military training. Still revolutionary for the time (no real wealth component) but still not like today.
    – Mitch
    Oct 31, 2011 at 19:23
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    Note that democracy, say, 150 years ago didn't let slaves, women, debtors, non-landowners vote either. Athenian democracy was, in almost every sense, more democratic than any form of government since. Look into Athenian judicial law--it's fascinating and, in my opinion, overly democratic. What we mean when we say democracy today is a more democratic form of constitutional republics. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more democratic democracy than Athens 2500 years ago. (Of course, it'd need to be of a comparable size as well.)
    – Jon
    Nov 5, 2011 at 20:02
  • what was ideas of Socrates on education Feb 5, 2017 at 19:01

5 Answers 5


Well, it is difficult to get a good handle on Socrates's philosophy without relying on Plato; however, all sources (including Xenophon) agree that Socrates was associated with Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants-- in other words, we can safely assume that Socrates's view of Athenian democracy was not terribly positive.

Similarly, Aristotle was (up until a year or two before his death, at least) tutor to Alexander, and was thus associated with Macedon, which had subjugated Athens. So, he, too, was no friend to Athenian democracy.

In short: I'd argue that (in broad strokes, at least), Socrates, Plato and Aristotle shared a fundamental partiality toward oligarchy.

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    I think you're misremembering the Republic. Where does it ever appear that oligarchy is favorably depicted? And your comment about Aristotle is lacking any sort of citation. Arist. was Alexander's tutor; he also lived in Athens; he founded the Lyceum; and after Alexander's death was threatened by Athens because of his relation to Alexander. He fled, claiming, "I wont let Athens sin twice against philosophy" or something of the sort. Read his Politics to understand what he think about political philosophy. And Socrates' association with Critias means what?
    – Jon
    Nov 5, 2011 at 20:07
  • As for the Critias comment, Socrates' was associated with many people who were exiled and/or killed by the thirty tyrants. It is interesting that quite a few of those people are either interlocutors, or listeners, to the conversations Socrates has in the Republic. Doesn't that completely contradict any presumed association with the thirty tyrants?
    – Jon
    Nov 5, 2011 at 20:18

"Plato also seems to have held such a view, where he wrote in The Republic that "philosopher kings" should lead city-states in a sort of oligarchical system." The progression, or lineage, of "cities" (men) in the Republic is as follows: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. (Remember that it is a degradation.)It seems you meant aristocratic when you said that Plato advocates an "oligarchical system." This is an important difference. But again, is it Plato or Socrates who seems to advocate this un-decayed political form? Perhaps perusing Plato's Laws and Xenophon's Socratic works may help sharpen the boundaries between the political philosophies of Plato's Socrates, Xenophon's Socrates, Socrates, and Plato.

The Laws is an oddly pragmatic account of the political (and does not feature Socrates). Xenophon's Socrates is, perhaps like Plato but not Plato's Socrates, hyper-concerned with the practical side of life (and politics). The dryness often associated with Xenophon's writings is largely a factor of his interest in the pragmatic. (The interest is often attributed to Xenophon rather than Socrates.)

Regardless, I've heard and read countless interpretations of the Republic that claim Plato advocates aristocracy, democracy, timocracy, etc.. Even if we can disregard the setting of the Republic (it takes place during the height of the Peloponnesian War--probably at the time when Thrace joined sides with Athens, after Pericles’ death, a ruler Thucydides calls the “first citizen” of Athens, and before the rule the thirty tyrants) and the historical situation that Plato lived in (a world without Socrates, a defeated Athens, etc.), we still cannot disregard Socrates's audience in the dialogue. His main interlocutors are Glaucon and Adeimantus, Plato’s two brothers (all three are sons of Ariston-- sons of the best). They, as do Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, exhibit certain characteristics of the forms of "cities" that Socrates speaks of. But of course, the forms cities are really the forms of men (but they look at cities so as to see a men's souls more clearly). --Hence the laughter at the beginning of Book V. Plato knows intimately that the multi-colored cloak of democracy can so easily lead to tyranny. It is the very nature of democracy to proclaim liberty and equality for everyone, including giving freedom and equality to tyrants. So it is in the democratic principle of indiscrimination that leads to the demise of democracy. (This is a pertinent question in political philosophy: If a political system guarantees the freedom and equality for all its citizens, what do we do with those citizens who seek to discriminate against others--either in act or speech?) But, of course, in the Republic, the tyrannical Thrasymachus is constrained by the democratic Polemarchus (and others), and defeated by the arguments of Socrates. He is silenced. This interaction takes place entirely in the first book of the Republic. But there is a somewhat parallel sequence in Books VII and VIII. Democracy is dangerous. But is Plato advocating against a democratic form of government? Or is he advocating against a democratic soul? --Or neither. --Or both?

Now what did Socrates think? Do we mean as an historical figure or literary figure? Both questions seem impenetrable. (Similarly, who knows what Plato actually thought?) But, of course, we haven’t even talked about Plato’s Statesman. (Personally, I’m inclined to think that Plato’s own political philosophy is most truthfully presented in the Statesman and the Laws.) But perhaps the most lucid, most practical, expression of Plato’s political philosophy can be found in his Seventh Letter. In it, (if I remember correctly), Plato claims the second best form of government (to the rule by the philosopher king) is the rule of just law. We might call this “second best” form of government a constitutional government.

Aristotle says, in his Politics, that the preferred system of government is of a constitutional form. That is, a government that is ruled by laws. Thus, it seems that Aristotle and Plato shared a fondness for “just” law. How we come to what is a “just law” is another story. But this is where the Republic and Statesman could help us.


Plato and Aristotle were reacting against what they believed was a corrupt democracy, which, in their opinion was no better than say a corrupt dictatorship. The chief "end goal" of government—in their opinion—was to produce virtuous citizens, and if a democracy could do that, fine, but an oligarchy of the worthy would be even better.

  • Again, I don't see where people are getting this idea that Plato is advocating "oligarchy." It isn't anywhere in the Republic, Statesman, Laws, or Gorgias (These are often considered his most blatantly political dialogues). And as for Aristotle, he clearly shares his own (that is his esoteric) views of the political in his Politics. There is no advocation of oligarchy there. Remember that the writings of Aristotle that we have are his esoteric writings (often claimed to be lecture notes). Plato, on the other hand, left us with his public writings with his private thoughts concealed.
    – Jon
    Nov 5, 2011 at 20:29

Yes, Plato and Aristotle had very different views regarding the role of Government.

Plato-(and probably Socrates), were no fans of Democracy. For Plato, Democracy, was an inferior political system that ultimately, led to the unethical trial, conviction and execution of his Mentor Socrates. And despite his lionization by today's Western public, Plato's political views would probably offend many within the greater Public.

Plato's political philosophy was written within two works called, The Republic and The Laws. While The Laws is perhaps his lesser known (and more cynically written) political work, The Republic has stood the test of time. The Republic, eloquent in its style, is a work which argues AGAINST the virtues and pragmatism of Democracy. The Republic gave birth to the glorified concept of The Philosopher-King-(or "The Aristos"). It is the singular wisdom and virtue of the Philosopher King that should rule over the more dominant and intellectually inferior masses. For Plato, the philosophical and moral intellect of a Ruler, such as his Philosopher King, should serve as the basis for an intellectually and morally sophisticated civilization.

Aristotle-(who was Plato's student), saw things, "a bit differently", with regard to Plato's larger Philosophical worldview...especially his Political worldview. Aristotle had a more realistic understanding of Politics and tended to dismiss the loftiness of Plato's political idealism.

Keep in mind that Aristotle, was first and foremost, an Analyst, as well as a Scientist. All or nearly all of his topics of interest were comprehensively analyzed, including, the role and function of a "Polity". While Aristotle did not favor Direct Democracy, he did pioneer the idea of a Representative Polity whereby Public Officials would work on behalf of the citizenry at large. However, Aristotle was cautious regarding the role of a Polity or Representative Democracy whereby Anarchy, was its more sinister twin, if and when a Polity or Representative Democracy should fail its citizenry and the State at large.

When comparing Plato-(Socrates) and Aristotle's Political Philosophies, one will see visible differences in terms of how a state should be properly governed. Platonic politics was unapologetically hierarchical and contemptuous towards the public at large, whereas Aristotelian politics was cautiously supportive of a "Polity" or Representative Democratic system.


While it is true that the main bulk of Socrates teaching is due to Plato and the rest of the sources are small e.g. Xenophone, there is nothing inconsistent between the sources with what Socrates believed about Democracy.

To put it differently: Socrates spend his life showing that all the people which had a certain social position, lacked the necessary knowledge to be justified to claim to be what they are.
E.g. that politicians are ignorant on how to improve citizens and their lives etc.

And eventually this road lead him to execution by the Athenian Democrary.
So what does this tell you?

Relating to Plato and Aristotle, I will not even bother explain in detail.

Plato (which was a wittness of how the Athenean Democracy treated his teacher) had openly recomended and admired aristocratic legislations always pointing towards Sparta and Kreta as model cities.

Aristotle, in this aspect, was in agreeance with his teacher, and remember he was Alexander the Great's teacher.

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