I assume that the idea of property already existed in ancient Greece, else there would be no slaves -- at least no privately owned slaves. Yes, I know that litte about the Greeks.

Who was the first philosopher of individual property -- as in ownership? If that's the same as asking who was the first philosopher of the state, then I may delete the question.

I read about the right to property on wikipedia

The Levellers emerged as a political movement in mid-17th century England in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. They believed that property which had been earned as the fruit of one's labour was sacred under the Bible's commandment "thou shall not steal". As such, they believed that the right to acquire property from one's work was sacred. Levellers' views on the right to property and the right not to be deprived of property as a civil and political right were developed by the pamphleteer Richard Overton.[22] In "An Arrow against all Tyrants" (1646), Overton argued:

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For everyone, as he is

himself, so he has a self propertiety, else he could not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be, except this. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man.[23]

But it begins with the renaissance, and surely the right to individual property was exercised long before that?

  • 1
    "There are extensive discussions of property in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Marx, and Mill", says SEP. There'd probably be something in pre-Socratics too, if we had more than their fragments. Who is "the first non-metaphysical philosopher", btw?
    – Conifold
    Nov 4, 2019 at 2:59
  • Gosh, how would i know? i'll edit
    – user38026
    Nov 4, 2019 at 4:13
  • Non-privately owned slaves? Was there ever such a thing? Guess there would be much "dipping in the slave pool".
    – christo183
    Nov 4, 2019 at 7:22
  • 2
    Aristotle was the "first philosopher" of everything… See e.g. Aristotle on Property Rights Nov 4, 2019 at 7:51
  • Try Adam Smith, 'The Wealth of Nations'. CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 4, 2019 at 20:25

3 Answers 3


Given our limited knowledge of the earliest Western and Eastern philosophy, we shall probably never know who originated or first analysed the concept of property. But in the Western tradition, a provisional first place may be held by Plato.


Plato is clear in Republic III.416d-417a, IV.543b , and V.464c-e, 466b-c that the Guardians are not permitted private property - and this has nothing to do with the possession of slaves. Plato's fear is that if the Guardians are allowed to accumulate money or goods, for instance, this activity and the concern to protect their property will distract them from their sole proper job of governing the polis.


Aristotle's take on property is different. He considers three possible arrangements for property and its use :

Patterns of ownership & use

(1) property is private, use is common; (2) property is common, use is private; (3) property is common, use is common. (R. Mayhew, ‘Aristotle on Property’, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Jun., 1993), pp. 803-831: 804.)

As Mayhew points out, It is not clear why a fourth option is not considered: : property is private, use is private.

Aristotle provides the following examples in his discussion of such arrangements:

(1) the soil may be [privately] appropriated, but the produce may be thrown for consumption into the common stock … Or (2), the soil may be common, and may be cultivated in common, but the produce divided among individuals for their private use … Or (3), the soil and the produce may be alike common. (Politics, II: 1263a3-8; Aristotle: The Politics, ed., S. Everson, Cambridge: CUP, 2010: 35.)

Private property and ethical virtue

In Nicomachean Ethics, II.vii, Aristotle enumerates and specifies a number of ethical (as distinct from intellectual) virtues. Among these is eleutheriotes - liberality, which is a mean state between prodigality or wastefulness (asotia) and ungenerosity (aneleutheria).

Now, liberality is ‘the appropriate generosity in giving money and the appropriate restraint in taking it’ (T. Irwin, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed, rev., Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999: 331.)

But there is an indication that the scope of liberality - generosity - extends beyond money to private possessions. See Politics II.1263b11-14: ‘liberality consists in the use which is made of [private] property’ (Everson: 37).

The argument then goes that since liberality is a virtue, the conditions for the exercise of that virtue are desirable; and the crucial condition for liberality is the possession of private property.


Plato, The Republic, tr. T. Griffith, Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

J.Annas, An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, Oxford: OUP, 1981, ch. 7 ‘Plato’s State’.

Aristotle: The Politics, ed., S. Everson, Cambridge: CUP, 2010: 35.

T. Irwin, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed, rev., Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999.

R. Mayhew, ‘Aristotle on Property’, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Jun., 1993), pp. 803-831.


While I am no authority on John Locke, I will say one important thing with regard to the far reaching influence he had on subsequent Thinkers, specifically, The American Founding Fathers.

The Declaration of Independence talks about, "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness". At first glance, one may think that such a phrase originated with its Author, Thomas Jefferson. Yet, the famous Jeffersonian phrase, "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness", actually came from John Locke, who coined the phrase, "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of property" approximately 100 years before The Declaration of Independence.

Locke, was one of the earliest Writers-(certainly one of the earliest Modern Writers), to advance the notion of a property owning society and civilization. For Locke, property ownership should not be limited to a tiny percentage of rulers and elites, but should be available and accessible to the society at large. He did not support the free giveaway of land and property, but, was one of the first Thinkers to establish the idea of property ownership as a fundamental Right for an economically productive class.

Essentially, John Locke championed both political, as well as economic rights...specifically, property owning rights. He had a significant influence on The Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, who edited part of his phrase with the word, "happiness".


Most every concept in philosophy has roots stretching back to prehistory. Philosophers don't 'invent' ideas like property as much as they express and examine something that is already present but unspoken in the world. When we talk about a 'first' philosopher on some topic, we're actually pointing at whomever best expressed some observation that has been floating around for eons, so the whole notion of 'first' becomes problematic.

Most theorists pin our modern conception of property on John Locke and his treatises on government, where he defined property as a right that comes from the investment of labor into a natural resource. Thus (to use his quaint example) acorns that fall from a tree are a free resource until someone expends the effort to collect them (with the intention of cooking and eating them, because yes, that was a thing). Once someone invests that labor of collection, the acorns become his property almost as surely as if he had already eaten them. Of course, this vein of thought was floating around in a lot of places during the Liberal Enlightenment — I could probably find people predating Locke by a hundred years who expressed similar sentiments — but Locke expressed the sentiment in a way that caught on.

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