Plato, the Ancient Greeks and the idea of Sovereignty [SECOND PART]

The Ancient Greeks did not have a dedicated theory about the idea of sovereignty but they developed the conceptualisation of State and its implications so we in fact are able to at least have hints about their thoughts in regards also to sovereignty.
Plato sets up the basis from where the Greek philosophers and thinkers (even the modern ones) depart. Plato understands that we are in presence of a State “when we have got hold of enough people to satisfy our many varied needs, we have assembled quite a large number of partners and helpers together to live in one place […]”.[1]He summarised with his conceptualisation all the elements we consider nowadays essential for the existence of a State: population, territory, government. Note that law is not mentioned but will be present throughout his work.
It is time now to focus our attention on another element that is part of a sovereign State and the Ancient Greeks considered too: the government.
Plato is clear about the relationship between two elements of the equation: government and law: “[a]t any rate the next and necessary step in this amalgamation is to choose some representatives to review the rules of all the families, and to propose openly to the leaders and heads of the people – the ‘kings’ […]. These representatives will be known as lawgivers, and by appointing the leaders as officials they will create out the separate autocracies a sort of aristocracy, or perhaps a kingship”.[2]That is to say, the representatives of the people that live in a certain territory and the rules or norms that are used to allow their coexistence.  It is clear that Ancient Greek thinkers considered the government or representatives as a necessity or necessary condition—i.e. the population’s need to have a direction, a purpose.
In other words, Plato refers firstly to what we may understand nowadays as population and territory; secondly, their necessities. Depending on the context the representatives will be elected and the law will follow. The following quotation illustrates the point:
“There are two stages involved in organizing a society. First you establish official positions and appoint people to hold them: you decide how many posts there should be and how they ought to be filled. Then each office has to be given its particular laws […]”.[3]
Plato goes further by reviewing the qualities required in the Guardians (as he calls the representatives) or rulers: “[a]nd so our properly good Guardian will have the following characteristics: a philosophic disposition, high spirits, speed, and strength”.[4]He highlights here the idea of a “good representative” as a polar star to be aimed for. He is not being idealistic in the sense his dialogue is purely theoretical. He is only giving us a hint. That is the reason why he follows: “[a]nd it’s absolutely vital to give your best attention to choosing, first of all, Guardians of the Laws”[5]since they will be representing people’s will and in dong so they would have to excel, to stand out from the crowd due to their virtues. Indeed, the rulers had to be virtuous according to Plato, something that seems to have been forgotten after so many centuries and many of our current representatives should be reminded of.
People’s will is crucial. Without using the concept, Plato implicitly includes the notion of people’s sovereignty: “[s]o we must choose from among our Guardians those who appear to us on observation to be most likely to devote their lives to doing what they judge to be in the interest of the community, and who are never prepared to act against it”.[6]
At least in The Republic and the Politicus or the Statesman we can easily see the sovereign power rests o people’s shoulders. We can discuss if the sovereignty is an attribute of the population or of the representatives but it is definitely a human one. The Laws may suggest a change. However, I consider The Laws as a metaphor: if population and representatives are unable to coexist in an orderly manner, they create a “tool” in order to allow “civilised” relationships.
Plato will always aim for the best in everything. Being the representatives the pinnacle of a social system it is not strange that he requires from them the highest quality in terms of virtues (or excellences in a literal translation). The philosopher has the principal virtue (wisdom) that can balance the three key elements that are the essence of any human being: reason, spirit and appetite. So it is to be expected that:
“[t]he society we have described can never grow into reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, […] of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers […]”.[7]
Consequently, “[t]he ‘philosopher-king’ is not a mere addition or insertion: he is the logical result of the whole method on which the construction of the State has proceeded”.[8]
Next time The Laws, The Politicus, and The Republic.


[1] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 58.
[2]Plato, The Laws, translated by T. J. Saunders, Penguin Books, 1976, 125.
[3]Plato, The Laws, translated by T. J. Saunders, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 221.
[4] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 69.
[5]Plato, The Laws, translated by T. J. Saunders, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 223.
[6] Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 119.
[7]Plato, The Republic, translated by D. Lee, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 203.
[8]Barker, Ernest, Greek political theory: Plato and his predecessors, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1951, p. 170.

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