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Political Philosophy of Plato, Locke, and Aquinas, and Their Ethics of the State


By Fred Arnold

Why Ethics in the State? Philosophy on Politics

Political philosophy is the study of the city state. That is it is the study of how people should be governed. Ethics plays a big role within political philosophy because of the nature of the human itself. (Inet Enc. Section 1) Human’s, at least to ourselves, are seen in this day and age as beings who have a certain natural right to life, liberty, and property. This natural right brings up enormous questions when it comes to how a people should be governed. Should there be a compromise between the people and the city state? Should people relinquish power to the city state for its protection without hesitation? These are just two questions that political philosophies try to answer. To understand where, what, and why us human’s govern the way we do today, it is important to look at prominent political philosophers such as Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke.

The Philosopher King

Plato, through his Republic, reasoned that people could not be trusted to find a suitable ruler (this could be juxtaposed to how Plato did not trust the minds perception of things because what we perceive is not the true form). Because of this, Plato did not trust the ideals of a democracy where it was left to the people to vote on a ruler. Instead he proposed a philosopher king. To find the philosopher king that lived up to the duties that were required to rule, Plato proposed a long series of tests that would weed out those unfit to rule. He stated that any promising toddler would be taken by the state and for the first ten years be trained physically. The next ten years math, science, and music would be added to the routine. And after that there would come a point known as the great elimination where the person is subject to hard testing, rigorous study, pain, troubles, and conflicts. This assured the weakest would be weeded out and the strongest left behind. Once the person passed all these tests they were granted the permission to study philosophy.

Plato believed philosophy was the strongest weapon within the philosopher-king’s arsenal and would only teach it to those who were worthy. When the person was done mastering the art of philosophy he was brought back to isolation. This series of rigorous tests guaranteed to weed out the weakest candidates and leave the strongest. Only when one can complete these tests were they ready to become philosopher king. This ruler ruled unconditionally. They were trained in the art of making the hard decisions as well as the best decisions. (Mitchell, 356-359) However, the only way for this ideal to pan out appropriately would be if the state was not corrupt. A corrupt state could corrupt the philosopher-king and then corrupt the entire system. So although Plato formulated a world where a just ruler could be born, it was within a utopia that does not and cannot live within the modern values of today. (Brown, Section 2.1) Plato works to protect human’s against them selves since our perception of reality is skewed. Since reality is skewed, a group of people have no hope of finding a proper ruler, however, that is within a utopia where the state is not subject to human error. (Kelsey, 369b-372e)

Lecture on the Philosopher King:


A Difficult Unity

Thomas Aquinas pursued a religious view and was noted for bringing together his philosophical ideas to justify faith. These religious ideals spread into his ideas of politics and morality. To Aquinas the world was separated into very distinct levels of law. (Mitchell, 359-362) Aquinas took a stance that all knowledge could not be found by philosophical means but by the grace of a divine being. Philosophy was used as a tool to understand these ideas that were not understandable to the human mind. (Finnis, Intro)

Therefore, Aquinas adopted that law was eternal, natural, human and divine.

Divine law was the law that the Creator beset onto the world of men. Eternal law is law on part of God to govern the universe. Natural law is the participation in the eternal law by rational creatures. And human law is the law that men put in place upon themselves. Human law, to Aquinas, can not come between natural and eternal law. Human law must also follow the ideals of the divine law to keep morality in check in a civilization. (Finnis, Section 2) Aquinas’s ideas could be seen as a trend towards the natural rights of men/women. The natural rights of men/women protect those within a civilization under some form of government just as divine law attempts to protect those under the rules of human law.

A Strong Government

Thomas Hobbes had more of a Platonic view to political philosophy. He viewed humans, in their natural state, as aggressive and brutish. Because of this he came to the conclusion that people were unfit to rule themselves and a strong state was needed to protect the people.The state would regulate everything as a secular entity. This means the state was separate from god or the Church. The social contract between the state and the people would be absolute, and once the state is created it could not be dismantled. Hobbes, as well as the others, looked to protect the people of the state. (Mitchell, 362-365) This protection was from themselves as seen by Plato.

Lecture: What is political philosophy?


Social Contract

Each philosopher previously sought to protect the people from the error of human rule, either from the use of morality within a religion or through creating a perfect ruler that will always have the answer. John Locke proposed a new idea: Natural Rights. This could be seen some what in Thomas Aquinas’s human law. In his model, human’s had the right to their own law as long as it did not conflict with the eternal or natural level. Locke put forth a social contract that protected the rights of man. He saw the good within human’s through his experience with the Glorious Revolution.

This experience sprouted his ideals on the conservation of the right to life,
liberty, and property.

Human’s had the right to formulate a state that would protect those natural rights, and, opposed to Hobbes’ more cynical view, the social contract between the state and the people was conditional rather then absolute. If the state abused their power the people had the right to rebel. (Mitchell, 365-368) Locke held the strong belief that the state was subject to the people and that the people had the ability to do tremendous good for an entire society.


Political philosophy fights for the best kind of rule. Humans have grown to encompass the ideals of natural rights and through democracy humans find their ruler. But in the case of Plato, as well Hobbes, does a democracy really guarantee the best rule?? Voting gives people the freedom that they feel entitled to, but that freedom can also lead to unfit rulers and situations that could harm the state and the people as a whole. To conclude, Plato and Hobbes felt that an absolute ruler was necessary to protect the people, while Thomas Aquinas and Locke believed in the conservation of the rights of man to rule within themselves.

Sources Cited

1. Brown, Eric, Brown,. “Plato’s Ethics and Politics in The Republic.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 01 Apr. 2003. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <>.

2. Mitchell, Helen Buss. “Chapter 8.” Roots of Wisdom. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1999. Print.

3. Kelsey, S. “Notes on Plato’s Republic, Book 2.” Notes on Plato’s Republic, Book 2. J. Cutsinger and J. Frank, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013. <>.

4. Finnis, John, Finnis,. “Aquinas’ Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 02 Dec. 2005. Web. 04 Dec. 2013. <>..

5. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Political Philosophy []. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013. <>.

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Originally published March 3, 2015.

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