Unit 1 Study Guide: The Polis

1a: Describe the social order and governance of society as presented in Plato's Republic.

In his book, The Republic, Plato (c. 428–348 BC) outlines the ideal state, relaying a discussion Socrates had with his companions about the individual and the individual’s relationship to the state.

    • Briefly describe the concept of the polis. What did it mean to Plato, and what does the term refer to now?
    • Explain the virtue of justice, as described in The Republic.

Review Plato’s thoughts on justice in Book I and Book II of The Republic.

    • Consider the questions: is justice always a virtue, and injustice always a vice? Is justice worthwhile, in and of itself? How does justice at the city-state level differ from justice at the individual level?

Review Plato’s thoughts on justice in Steven Smith’s lecture, Philosophers and Kings: Plato's Republic, III-IV.

Review the definition of polis in this introductory video to Unit 1, The Polis: Western Political Thought—Political Science 201.

Plato believes an ideal society is based on the principle of specialization. When labor is divided among citizens “justly,” and according to their natural inclinations, the city will reach its maximum potential.

    • Identify the three classes of society described in The Republic.
    • Describe the roles of each of the three classes.
    • Why does specialization in the three classes lead to a “just” society?

Review Plato’s writings on specialization in Book II and Book IV of The Republic, and the roles of the three classes in the course discussion at POLSC201: Unit 1 Discussion.

A key question in Western political thought is: who should rule? According to Plato, the ideal political community is ruled by a philosopher-king.

    • Describe the characteristics of a philosopher-king.
    • Explain why Plato thinks philosopher-kings are the ideal rulers.
    • How does rule by a philosopher-king reflect the principle of specialization? Be sure to understand the concept of the Form of the Good, and how it relates to the philosopher-king’s right to rule.

Review the “Form of the Good” in Book V of The Republic.


1b: Explain the narrative of Socrates' trial and subsequent death as told in Plato's Apology and Crito.

In The Apology, Plato outlines the speech Socrates (c. 470–399 BC), his teacher and mentor, made in self-defense when he was put on trial for impiety and for morally corrupting the youth of the city-state.

    • What do you think are the actual reasons Socrates was put on trial and sentenced to death?
    • Why did the Athenian authorities find Socrates threatening?

Review this material in Steven Smith’s lecture, Socratic Citizenship: Plato's Apology (time stamp 2:30 and 6:45). Reread the passages in The Apology where Socrates compares himself to a gadfly or a gift of God.

    • Consider what we mean by the Socratic Method.
    • Explain what characterizes Socrates’s speech in Plato’s work, The Apology. How is it unique?
    • Consider how Socrates’ rhetoric differs from the rhetoric and approach of his accusers.

Review the characteristics of the Socratic Method in the POLSC201: Unit 1 Discussion and in the text of The Apology.

    • Why does Socrates believe philosophy and poetry are in conflict?

Review Socrates’ conceptualization of a poet and philosopher in Book X of The Republic and in the article, Poetry and Philosophy (pay particular attention to the last paragraph).

In Crito, Plato recounts a debate between Crito and Socrates before Socrates’s death sentence is carried out.

    • Why does Socrates believe it would be better for him to die, than to confess or otherwise evade his sentence? Describe Socrates’ view of the Laws.
    • Why does Crito disagree with Socrates? How does Crito’s worldview contrast with the worldview of Socrates?

Review this material in the introduction to the Crito.


1c: Compare and contrast the arguments of Socrates in the Apology and Crito with his arguments in the Republic.

Some believe the views Socrates expressed in Crito conflict with those he expressed in The Republic and The Apology.

    • Explain the idea of a social contract, which Socrates describes in Crito. Why is the concept of a social contract an important contribution to the study of political philosophy?
    • Focus particularly on the role of the individual, as described in The Republic and The Apology, with the role of the individual Crito describes.

Review the article, The Antagonism Between Personal and Public Virtue, for a succinct comparison of Socrates’ views expressed in The Republic, The Apology, and Crito. Pay close attention to the first paragraph, and the second full paragraph on the second page.

Review the last third of Steven Smith's lecture, Socratic Citizenship: Plato's Crito, to help master this learning objective.


1d: Discuss the concepts of justice, equality, citizenship, and virtue as presented in the Republic with those presented in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.

According to Aristotle (384–322 BC), eudaimonia is the highest end of human beings.

    • What is eudaimonia? Describe the connections among virtue, intelligence, happiness, and eudaimonia.

Read the first paragraph of the article, The Doctrine of the Mean, and revisit Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to explore the concept of eudaimonia.

    • Compare and contrast eudaimonia with Socrates’ views of the highest end of man, as described in The Republic by Plato.

It may help to think about what Aristotle means by a "highest end," as described on page two of the article, The Good Life: Virtue and Well-Being. Then, return to Socrates’ discussion on the Form of the Good, in Book VI of The Republic.

We often say that Aristotle’s method of inquiry regarding virtue and justice begins from praxis.

    • What does this mean, and how does this differ from the metaphysical approach of Socrates?

Review this material in page one and page four of the article, The Good Life: Virtue and Well-Being.

Recognizing that Aristotle’s approach begins from praxis, think about how Aristotle addresses the following questions in his book, Nicomachean Ethics.

    • How do men live virtuous lives according to Aristotle? Think about what it takes to become a virtuous person. Does Aristotle believe we pick and choose our virtues?
    • What is the relationship between happiness and virtue?
    • What does it mean when Aristotle says virtue is a mean state?

Review Aristotle’s thoughts about questions about virtue in Book I, Book II, Book III and Book IV of Nicomachean Ethics. Also review page four of the article, The Doctrine of the Mean, and the full article, The Preconditions of Virtue.

Both Socrates and Aristotle explore the concept of justice, and believe it is supreme among the virtues. In fact, Aristotle even states that all virtue is summed up in the virtue of justice.

    • Explain why Aristotle believes that justice sums up all virtues.

Review this material in Book V of Nicomachean Ethics.

Socrates approaches the concept of justice by exploring it at the city level in Books III and IV of The Republic. He argues that justice at the city level will parallel justice at the individual level.

    • Explain why Socrates believes harmony is the guiding principle behind justice at the individual and city levels.
    • What does Aristotle think about distributive justice?

Review Aristotle’s thoughts on distributive and general justice in Book V of Nicomachean Ethics, Book III of Politics, and in this article, Distributive Justice as the Task of the Polis.

    • Compare Aristotle’s ideas of distributive justice with Socrates’ discussion of the principle of specialization (outlined in Book II and Book IV of The Republic).

Review pages three to four of The Good Life: Virtue and Well-Being, for additional insight into the differences between Socrates and Aristotle’s views of justice.


1e: Explain how Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics forms the basis for conceptions of government in Politics, and why Aristotle considers aristocracy based in virtue as the ideal form of government over oligarchy or democracy.

Virtue, justice, and eudaimonia are a few of the major points of exploration in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. However, Aristotle believes virtue is grounded in the real world and stems from praxis. Consequently, virtue is intertwined with the polis and cannot exist without it. In other words, there is no separate political and ethical sphere; instead, they are one.

Review the connection between virtue and the polis in the article, The Doctrine of the Mean (pay close attention to pages two to three).

    • Why does Aristotle believe that political science is the most authoritative of the sciences?

Review this material in Book I of Nicomachean Ethics, and in the first paragraph of the article, The Good Life: Virtue and Well-Being.

    • How is theoretical wisdom important to Aristotle’s conception of governance?

Review the concept of theoretical wisdom in Book X of Nicomachean Ethics, and in the article, Practical Reason and Politics (pay close attention to pages three to five).

    • As you work your way through these questions, consider other specific ways in which the main points from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, also appear in his book, Politics, and in his thoughts about government as a whole.

Review the article The Primacy of Law, to help think through these connections between Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.

According to Aristotle, a virtuous aristocracy is the ideal form of government.

    • What benefits and problems does he see with oligarchy? What about democracy?

Review Steven Smith’s lecture, The Mixed Regime and the Rule of Law: Aristotle's Politics, IV (time stamp 21:00).

    • Why does society benefit from a ruler who is a virtuous aristocrat? Consider what Aristotle means by virtuous and aristocrat as you formulate your answer.

Review Aristotle’s discussion on the various forms of government and their benefits in Book III of Politics. The article Distributive Justice and the Task of the Polis, also addresses Aristotle’s views on oligarchy, democracy, and virtuous aristocracy (pay particular attention to page two).


Unit 1 Vocabulary

      • Aristotle
      • Aristocracy
      • Auxiliary class
      • Eudaimonia
      • Crito
      • Democracy
      • Distributive justice
      • Form of the Good
      • Gadfly
      • Governance
      • Guardian class
      • Justice
      • Kallipolis
      • Nicomachean Ethics
      • Mean state
      • Metaphysical approach
      • Oligarchy
      • Poetry
      • Polis
      • Philosopher-king
      • Plato
      • Praxis
      • Producer class
      • Rhetoric
      • Social contract
      • Socrates
      • Socratic Method
      • Specialization
      • The Apology
      • The Republic
      • Theoretical wisdom
      • Vice
      • Virtuous autocracy
      • Virtue
Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2019, 7:02 PM