Towards a Sustainable State

Towards a sustainable State: A glance at the history of Western political philosophy (BC) and its influence over the modern Age

Dr. Ahmad Reza Taheri

10 August 2011

Presented by Ahmad Reza Taheri, Memorial Hall of Jawaher Lal Nehru, Pune. International Seminar on Scholar Day, Iranian Islamic Association & Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 08 DEC 2008.


Formulation of, and experimentation with different political institutions such as monarchy and democracy has been the greatest task of political philosophy. It has been the assignment of many political philosophers to design ideal or sustainable forms of states. As the title indicates, this paper goes back to the history of western political philosophy before Christ. Therefore, the main political theories (liberty, justice, equality) of the first four major schools of western political philosophy which belong to Plato, Aristotle, Epicure, and Stoic, shall be debated. Although today a number of these theories about state failed to attract a widespread attention, many of them are still influential in the modern world. Each of these political philosophers project their own ideal state and that largely each of them has left its impact on the modern political philosophy.


The real aim of a sustainable state is to improve the quality of human life. A natural state is that supreme institution, which emerges out of, will of the society to serve the society. It must follow the principles of social contract, a contract in which mutual consent, public good, healthy life and education, access to resources needed for a decent standard of living, political freedom, human rights, freedom from violence, and lives of dignity and fulfillment, are guaranteed. Future generations are affected by present generation and when present actions do not threaten the benefit of future generations, rather safeguard the interest of them, it can bring about sustainability.

Sustainability of a state highly depends on a major general factor i.e. accepting the obligation or condition to seek harmony with the society. The guiding principle is that state and society must have a perfect understanding and care for one another. In a sustainable state, the socio-political mechanism systematically determines the policies for the benefit of her subjects’ moral and intellectual development. It goes without saying that the state-society relationship has been the core of debates in political philosophy, which developed systematically in Greece by the Greek before Christ. Therefore, ancient Greeks can claim the credit of being pioneers in studying the discipline methodically. Theory of state or formation of an ideal state has preoccupied political philosophers throughout the world history. It extended from Socrates and Plato to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, and Marx and so on to John Rawls (1) of the recent period.

These social scientists along with many others have substantially contributed to work on theories of state in order to design and produce sustainable forms of state for the human societies. Among types of states that developed at various times in history were the city-states of ancient Greece. During the middle Ages, Europe was divided politically into many small principalities, the boundaries and sovereignties of which changed frequently. The modern nation-state, which consists of a group of people with the same or similar nationality inhabiting a definite territory, emerged by a gradual process extending over centuries. The type of government has varied, first taking the form of absolute monarchies and later of constitutional monarchies or republics, some of them federations or unions of semi-independent states. In the 20th century totalitarian dictatorships, in which one ruler assumes absolute power, have been established in some states, etc.

All these concrete examples can be taken as different forms of state inspired initially by Greek philosophers whose central concern of political philosophy revolved around the theory of state and its institutions. Socrates (469-399 bc) profoundly affected not only western philosophy but also world philosophy through his influence on Plato. Socrates believed that he had received a call to pursue philosophy and could serve his country best by devoting himself to teaching, and by persuading the Athenians to engage in self-examination and in tending to their souls. He believed the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth. He always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendship and a sense of true community because Socrates felt this was the best way for people to grow together as a populace. He believed citizen owes the state gratitude for his upbringing. People are made for society thus they may obey their society even if the society is wrongly administered. To break any of the state’s laws would result in a dangerous undermining of the authority of law. However, if people realize that the law of society is unjust and unfair, they may migrate elsewhere. If they remained in the society, it can be implied that they accept the law of state. This also implies that they entered into a political contract with the state. Socrates refers to this as political obedience. Socrates, however, failed to keep a systematic record of his political philosophy. Unlike Socrates, Plato was the first philosopher who systematically organized political philosophy.


Plato (428 or 427-347 BC) in 387 founded the Academy in Athens, the institution often described as the first European university. ‘Republic’, Plato’s celebrated work, is concerned with the question of justice and therefore with the questions “what is a just state” and “who is a just individual?” The ideal state, according to Plato, is composed of three classes. The economic structure of the state is maintained by the merchant class. Security needs are met by the military class, and political leadership is provided by the philosopher-kings. A person’s class is determined by an educational process that begins at birth and proceeds until that person has reached the maximum level of education compatible with interest and ability. His entire system of education is a prerequisite to the organization of an ideal state. Those who complete the entire educational process become philosopher-kings. They are the ones whose minds have been so developed that they are able to make the wisest decisions.

Thus, Plato’s ideal educational system is primarily structured to produce philosopher-kings. Plato believed the just state is one in which each class performs its own function well without infringing on the activities of the other classes. In his thesis, Republic, Plato believes both private property and marriage institution are to be abandoned. Marriage should be based on eugenic method. (2) This idea is, of course, within the domain of Plato’s communism, in which says, those who run the state must live in the barracks and take their food on a common table. They must not own home and property. He says every individual belongs to a small community called state and not beyond that like the world community. War is necessary for the creation of state. Without war the hidden superior talent of human beings cannot flourish. Although war is not preferred, it is necessary. War is the result of desires and necessities. Countries of the world should exist independently without connection to each other, this may avoid war. The ignorance of politicians has cursed democracy. Artisans, at least, know their roles, but politicians know nothing except to provide the means for the sensuality of the beasts.(3)

Plato believes, as a physician is able to diagnose illness, in a similar manner, a ruler should be able to understand the problems of the state. It is only knowledge which distinguishes between a true ruler and a false ruler, as only knowledge can distinguish a true physician from a charlatan. In ‘Republic’, he criticizes the direct and unchecked democracy of his time precisely because of its leading features. Firstly, although freedom is for Plato a true value, democracy involves the danger of excessive freedom, of doing as one likes, which leads to anarchy. Secondly, equality related to the belief that ‘everyone has the right and equal capacity to rule’ can bring to politics all kinds of power-seeking individuals, motivated by personal gain rather than common good. Democracy is thus highly corruptible. It opens gates to demagogues, potential dictators, and thus may lead to tyranny.

Plato’s main charge against the democracy he knows from the ancient Greek political practice is that it is unstable, leading from anarchy to tyranny, and that it lacks leaders with proper skill and morals. Democracy depends on chance and must be mixed with competent leadership. Without able and virtuous leaders, such as Solon or Pericles, who come and go by chance, it is not a good form of government. If ruling the state is a craft, indeed statecraft, as Plato argues, needs expert rulers and they cannot come to it merely by accident, but must be carefully selected and prepared in the course of extensive training. Making political decisions requires good judgment. (4) In Republic, Plato gives us an imaginary state or utopia where king is philosopher. He draws a wonderful vision of a state where philosopher king can rule without law. However, subsequently, such a theory for him would be considered as a mere dream. Therefore, in his third book “Law” Plato holds, law is the sign of civilization which can prevent people and rulers from corruption. Thus, Plato confesses a state with law can flourish better than a state with philosopher king above law. Human beings whosoever are not that much mature intellectually and politically to live without law. Nonetheless, Plato does not reject his first theory.


Fifty years after the formation of the Academy by Plato, Aristotle (384–322 BC) established his own school in Lyceum. In regard with cancellation of marriage as was prescribed by Plato, Aristotle disagrees with his teacher (Plato). He believes the institution of family which is as the result of marriage gives meaning to the life leading to the establishment of valuable social norms. Family is the first social institution however that is not enough for the nourishment of human faculty. Aristotle regards state as the perfect institution. State is the perfect human establishment, but if state failed to protect the interest of its citizens then it can be turned down. He has distinguished six kinds of political systems, as noted in the following way.

A state with only one ruler is either a monarchy or a tyranny. A state with several rulers is either an aristocracy or an oligarchy. And a state in which all rule is either a polity or a democracy. In each pair, the first sort of state is one in which the rulers are concerned with the good of the state, while those of the second sort are those in which the rulers serve their own interests. Although Aristotle believed monarchy is to be the best possible state in principle, he recognized that in practice it is liable to degenerate into the worst possible state, a tyranny. He, therefore, recommended the formation of a polity or a constitutional government, since their degenerate forms can be the least harmful of the bad kinds of government. In fact, Aristotle agreed with Plato that a monarchy ruled by a wise king would be the ideal political system, but, on the other hand, he recognized the establishment of such a state is impossible, due to the nature of human beings. Perhaps that is what which makes him to go for a well cultured democracy (polity) as another ideal option. In his theory of knowledge, Aristotle rejects the Platonic doctrine that knowledge is innate and insists that it can be acquired by generalization from experience. He interpreted art as a means of pleasure and intellectual enlightenment rather than an instrument of moral education.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle believes through private property human beings can promote production. Although private property leads to self-interest, society can be benefited from it. Private property cannot be distributed equally among the different sections of the society. He says people are not created equal, therefore, inequality is natural. All people have no similar talents, thus, all cannot be expected to participate in high level politics. He has excluded slaves, foreigners, and petty merchants from holding statecraftship. Man is a socio-political animal who can find his reality within the society; therefore, priority is given to the society and not to the individual. Aristotle also believes that constitution must be compatible with the nature and necessities of the society. He holds a state’s leadership is elected by the will and consent of its subjects. Although Aristotle believes monarchy, aristocracy, and polity are the ideals forms of government, he suggests and agrees with a state build up of a combination of the three — monarchy, aristocracy, and polity.


Thirty years after the establishment of Aristotle’s school, another school of philosophy founded in 306 BC by Epicure (341-270 BC) (5) in Athens. Epicureanism, thus, is a system of philosophy based chiefly on the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicure. The essential doctrine of Epicureanism is that pleasure is the supreme good and the main goal of life. Intellectual pleasures are preferred to sensual ones, which tend to disturb peace of mind. In the terminology of political philosophy, Epicure has been regarded as a materialist, evolutionist, philanthropist (6), and atheist.(7) Epicure believes all forms of social and political institutions are the product of human talent only. Society is based on the interest of masses. People form society because they believe through the formation of society they can receive more benefit. Besides, state and society can protect them against enemy.

Therefore, if a time comes that state failed to give its subjects protection and service, its presence then would not be necessary. On justice, he says, there is no absolute justice; rather justice is a contractual affair. So good and bad are contractual too. Whatever people within a society or state accept as good, it can be considered good, on the other hand, whatever people consider bad, it can be regarded as bad. Therefore, justice is different, depending upon the nature of the states. Although Epicures do not give much value to state, they prefer monarchical form of states, believing monarchies are more powerful and thus better can safeguard the interest of citizens. Epicures believe law is a code, which is accepted by society, and so members of the society wish to live accordingly. Since such a law exists between state and society, therefore, it is a socio-political contract, which can be reformed or altered. Thus, people can break the law if they think it is unjustified, provided, breakers would escape the punishment.

For Epicure, virtue does not exist in knowledge, as believed by Socrates and Plato, rather it exists in securing the pleasure and happiness. It has been regarded that Epicure was a supporter of moderation, equality, peace, and competition. He was against inordinate desires or excessiveness in everything. Peoples of the world are all equal and no nation is superior to other. Epicure supports women and slaves’ welfare and improvement. He supports altruism and a common way of education for all. Participation in social life does not bring prosperity for the human being. Wise men and philosophers, he believes, should not accept governmental positions and avoid taking responsibilities. The right path is to follow one’s own individuality, independence, and ambition for personal interest. He believes human being essentially is a self-centered and egotist, therefore, what is expediential for someone may be detrimental to others. People enter into a socio-political agreement and form state so that not to disturb each other.


Stoicism is the fourth major school of philosophy, which founded in ancient Greece in Athens about 300 BC by Zeno of Citium in Cyprus. The stoic philosophy was developed from that of the Cynics (8), whose Greek founder, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. It is worthy of mention that the second period of stoicism (200-50 BC) embraced the general promulgation of the philosophy and its introduction to the Romans, and in fact, Panaetius introduced stoicism to Rome. The third period of stoicism was Roman. The stoics, like the Epicures, emphasized ethics as the main field of knowledge, but they also developed theories of logic and natural science to support their ethical doctrines. Stoicism holds personal interest can be sacrificed for the benefit of the society, that is to say, the global society. In the world there should be only one state and one society which should be universal, following universal law. People naturally are members of the global community and thus belong to this community.

Therefore, the ideal society is the universal society. Human beings are all equal irrespective of their race, wealth, and status and that law of the state must be in accordance with the natural rights. In other words, a distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism. All people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another. External differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Virtue does not belong to a particular group rather it belongs to people of all different walks of life. Stoics were positivist or Stoicism was a system of philosophy based on experience and empirical knowledge of natural phenomena. Also, materialism and mysticism are among the characteristics of stoicism. The first period stoicism, however, considered to be atheist. Though stoicism in the beginning of its inception tended towards seclusion, in the process of time gradually changed such tendency and was reformed to a notable degree. However, this philosophy could not reach to that concrete emphatic notion of city- state which considered the participation of every citizen essential and indispensable for citizenship. Among the then philosophies of Greece, stoicism could be more compatible with the spirit of people. In fact, no other philosophy except the philosophy of ‘world community’ of stoicism could justify the Romanian conquests. This school of thought may be regarded as the most influential philosophy in the Roman Empire during the period preceding the rise of Christianity.

Impact on Modern political philosophy

What is evident is that throughout the history of political philosophy BC, all these four major schools of thought have tried to work out and formulate an ideal state. They tried to understand, explain and analyze the relationship between society and state. Some like Epicure give more importance to individual liberty and some like Socrates give priority to the society. Some like Stoicism believe in equality of human beings while others like Aristotlianism do not believe in such equality.

Liberty leads to reformation and revolution; on the other hand, law and authority lead to recession. If we go for absolute liberty then law and authority may not have a space, if we go for absolute authority, then liberty may not find its room. Equality like liberty is an ambiguous concept, so is the case with justice. If equality given to all irrespective of status, it may lead to anarchy. The dilemma, however, has led to a compromise — western political philosophy prescribes a limited liberty and a calculated equality, which is good for the human society. Stoics recognized and advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings. Thus, before the rise of Christianity, which also teaches brotherhood, it can be deduced the idea of brotherhood has been introduced by Stoicism, and not by Christianity.

The universal declaration of human rights also has its roots in the political philosophy of Stoicism in which it says, the ideal society is the universal society, where human beings are all equal irrespective of their race, wealth, and status. The concept has also inspired almost every modern constitution, which stipulates similar kinds of statements on liberty and equality. Although Epicureanism has attracted eminent persons in all ages and is regarded as one of the leading schools of philosophy, compare to other schools of Greek political philosophy such as that of Aristotle, they shunned politics. For example, to achieve the best pleasure and prevent pain Epicure counseled his disciples to live a quiet and secretive life apart from society, avoiding responsibilities in public life or social life like getting married.

Referring to its political philosophy, however, Epicureanism has its own influence over modern political philosophers. For example, the social contract theory was not invented by modern political philosophy. Epicures developed the notion of justice as a social contract. He defined justice as an agreement “neither to harm nor be harmed.” The point of living in a society with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that one is free to pursue happiness. Because of this, laws that do not contribute to promoting human happiness are not just. Epicureanism has also influenced Thomas Hobbes over the theory of social contract between people and state. Nevertheless, the reason why Epicureanism failed to attract the attention of masses was because public opinion at that time failed to compromise with the cardinal principles of this philosophy and that the importance of religion at that time was growing.

In regard with Plato and Aristotle, right after the demise of these philosophers their theories have remained generally unnoticed for around two hundred years, but since then till the contemporary period their ideas have remained very influential, inspired various philosophies of politics that exist in the contemporary world. The political theories on state and society which developed by modern and contemporary social scientists, have been originated in the ideas of these two Greek philosophers. The old idea of philosopher-king, for instance, has been an inspiration of practicability for many states throughout the history of the world. To a great extent, the constitutional structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on such a theory, where it places leadership on the top most position.

Communism too, was not pioneered by Karl Marx, rather was the philosophy of Plato. On the issue of democracy, one cannot simply opine that Plato was against it, as has been the perception of many contemporary social scientists. It can be claimed that Plato was against a nominal or poor democracy but not against a rich democracy, as he elaborated this concept in his ‘Republic.’ Interestingly, history of the states tells us, contrary to rich democracies, poor democracies have never been successful states. John Lock’s social contract has its origin in Aristotle’s philosophy, where he says that a state is valid so long as it meets the requirements, otherwise it can be regarded as a failed state. Adam Smith also had been under the influence of Aristotle on the issue of private property. Aristotle favored private property for the development of the society. Aristotle also suggested the idea of consultation, which later on adopted by other social institutions like Islam. Indeed, Plato and Aristotle’s classification of states, which belongs to around 3000 years ago, are as such intact and perfect. No other political philosopher after them could ever formulate a truly new form of state.

Today, many of their philosophies or theories such as constitutional governments are highly practiced, however, some other theories like Plato’s communism can be considered as failed theories. In short, each of these four political philosophers who projected their respective ideal societies or states have helped and paved the way for many others to work on the issue, and to a great extent each of them influenced the subsequent generations of social scientists and social institutions.

Notes, References, Further Readings

(1) John Rawls (1921 –2002) was an American philosopher, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University and author of A Theory of Justice (1971), Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001). He was a recipient of the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of how Rawls’s thought helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.

(2) The proposed improvement of the human species by encouraging or permitting reproduction of only those individuals with genetic characteristics judged desirable. It has been regarded with disfavor since the Nazi period.

(3) Here by beast Plato means, a powerful dictator.

(4) For more, see, Plato’s Political philosophy,

(5) Epicurus was a Greek philosopher, who was privately educated by his father, a schoolteacher, and by various philosophers. He founded a philosophical school in Mitilíni on the island of Lésvos about 311, and two or three years later he became head of a school in Lampsacus (now Lâpseki, Turkey). Returning to Athens in 306, he settled there permanently and taught his doctrines to a devoted body of followers. Students from all over Greece and Asia Minor flocked to Epicurus’s school, attracted as much by his charm as by his intellect.

(6) Philanthropy is a desire to benefit humanity: a desire to improve the material, social, and spiritual welfare of humanity, especially through charitable activities.

(7) Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods, but he emphatically maintained that as “happy and imperishable beings” of supernatural power they could have nothing to do with human affairs.

(8) They were members of a school of Greek philosophers founded during the second half of the 4th century BC. The Cynics contended that civilization, with its attendant ills, was an artificial, unnatural condition and that it should be held in contempt. Hence, they advocated returning to a natural life, which they equated with a simple life, maintaining that complete happiness can be attained only through self-sufficiency. Independence is the true good, not riches or luxuries. Diogenes’ pupil, Crates of Thebes (flourished late 4th century BC), had some influence on Zeno of Citium, the Cyprian philosopher and founder of Stoicism. The basic difference in attitude between the two schools is that the Cynics viewed the external, material world with contempt, while the Stoics advocated indifference. Although not an important philosophical school, the Cynics attracted attention by their eccentricities and by their insolence, and their name is given to those distrustful of human nature and motives.

(9) For further readings; A History of Political Theory; George H Sabine and Thomas L Thorson”; Oxford & Publishing Co. PVT. LTD, 1973.

(10) For further readings; History of Political Philosophy; Bahaodin Pazargad; Entesharat-e Zavvar; Tehran, 2003.

(11) For further reading; Western Political Thought, from Plato to Marx; Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay; K P Bagehi & Company, 1980.

(12) For further readings, see, Western Political Philosophy, Encyclopedia & Wikipedia.

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