Category Archives: 1. An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education

3. Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone

“… The deepest trait of our earthly existence may be that the element of tragedy enters into the lives of us all, even the happiest of mortals.

“These two tragedies of Sophocles help us to understand this. Though one is the story of a king and the other the story of a princess, what befalls them could befall any of us. Oedipus and Antigone are each confronted with a choice between alternatives, neither of which can possibly turn out well. Yet they must choose. There is no escaping that. Nor, having chosen, can they escape the consequences of their choice.

“… This is the tragic element which, once we see it writ large in the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone, we can detect in out own lives and in the lives of those around us.”

Thus Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff introduce their guide to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone in the opening volume, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of Encyclopedia Britannica’s ten-volume The Great Idea Program. They go on to give a biographical note on Sophocles, consider Oedipus the King as a play, quote from what Aristotle says about tragedy, consider Antigone as a tragedy, and discuss several (nine!) questions about the two plays and tragedy in general.

Here I’ll just give a biographical note on Sophocles, identify the choices that Oedipus and Antigone had to make and provide links to the text of the two plays on the Internet so that you can find out how they chose and what happened as a result, and give one of the quotations that Adler and Wolff make from Aristotle and one the questions they pose on tragedy.

The Life of Sophocles

Sophocles was born about 496 B.C. and died in 406 B.C. Thus his life coincided with the rise and fall of Athens, his being born a few years before the victory over the Persians at Marathon (490) and dying just before the end of the disastrous Peloponnesian War with Sparta (404). When only fifteen or sixteen he was chosen to lead the Boys’ Chorus in celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at Salamis. In 442 he served as one of the treasurers responsible for collecting tribute money from the subject states of the Athenian Empire. In 440 he was elected one of ten generals, and he served with Pericles (the greatest leader of the time) in an expedition to bring a wavering ally back into line. He went on embassies, and in 413 (when 83) was one of the ten commissioners chosen to manage the affairs of the city after a terrible defeat in Sicily.

The Sophoclean tragedies are the most decisive facts in Sophocles’s life. He spent his last 65 years writing plays to be performed at the Great Dionysia festivals held annually in Athens. As early as 468, when he was only 28, he defeated the great Aeschylus in the festival playwriting competition. In all he wrote 123 dramas for the festival, competing 32 times (usually each competitor presented four plays at a festival) and winning at least 18 times. Only seven of his plays survive.

Sophocles’s epitaph honours his learning and wisdom and calls him “the favourite of the Graces and the Muses.”

Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King opens with a conversation between Oedipus, king of Thebes, and the priest of Zeus about the suffering which Thebes is experiencing. While they are talking, Creon (the brother of Oedipus’s wife, Iocasta) arrives bringing an answer from Phoebus (Apollo, the Greek god of the sun) to Oedipus’s inquiry about what he can do to deliver Thebes. Here is what Creon tells Oedipus:

“Phoebus our lord bids us plainly to drive out a defiling thing, which (he saith) hath been harboured in this land, and not to harbour it, so that it cannot be healed.… “By banishing a man, or by bloodshed in quittance of bloodshed, since it is that blood which brings the tempest on our city.… “Laius, king, was lord of our land before thou wast pilot of this State.… “He was slain; and the god now bids us plainly to wreak vengeance on his murderers‒whoever they be.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in volume 5 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 100)

Oedipus tells Creon and the priest that he would seek vengeance for the land and the god. He sends a messenger to bring the seer Teiresias to use seer-lore to discover who the slayers of Laius were. Reluctantly Teiresias tells him:

“I say that thou are the slayer of the man whose slayer thou seeks. “[Moreover] I say that thou hast been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin, and seest not to what woe thou hast come.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, page 102)

Oedipus rejects Teiresias’s claim. However on investigation he discovers not only that he was one of the men who killed Laius, not knowing who he was, but also that Laius and his wife (Iocasta, now Oedipus’s wife) were Oedipus’s real parents. Oedipus’s being married to his mother is what Teiresias was referring to when he told Oedipus, “Thou has been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin.”

To find out how this could have happened and what Oedipus did on realizing it, read the play at


Antigone opens with a conversation between the two daughters of Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene, about Creon’s having provided one of their brothers, Eteocles, with a proper burial but decreed that the other brother, Polyneices, should not be buried. Antigone tells Ismene that she plans to bury Polyneices.

After Antigone and Ismene exit, the chorus of Theban elders and Creon, dressed as a king, enter. From their speeches we learn that Eteocles and Polyneices had killed each other in battle and Creon had become the new ruler. Also Creon explains his edict regarding them

: “Eteoles, who has fallen fighting for our city, in all renown of arms, shall be entombed, and crowned with every rite that follows the noblest dead to their rest. But for his brother, Ployneices‒who came back from exile, and sought to consume utterly with fire the city of his fathers’ gods‒sought to taste of kindred blood, and to lead the remnant into slavery; touching this man, it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulchre or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 132)

Guards catch Antigone covering Polyneices with dust and bring her to Creon. She admits to him that she had done it despite knowing of the edict, defending herself thus:

“It was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the Justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.… Die I must‒I knew that well (how should I not?‒even without thy edicts.… So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if I had suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 135)

Creon affirms that Antigone will die for what she has done and, suspecting that Ismene had shared in plotting the burial, has her brought to him. Although Ismene had actually tried to dissuade Antigone from burying Polyneices, she tells Creon that she had done the deed and would share the punishment. Creon orders that Antigone and Ismene be confined while they await their being put to death.

Conversations follow between Creon and his son (Haemon), Antigone, and Teiresias (the blind prophet). Haemon, to whom Ismene is betrothed, tells Creon that the people of the city sympathize with Antigone and asks him to spare her (and Ismene); Creon refuses, and Haemon departs after telling Creon that he’ll never see Haemon again. Creon confirms to Antigone that she is going to be confined in a rocky vault until she dies. Teiresias tells Creon that the gods are displeased with his not allowing the corpse of Polyneices to be buried and that as a result a child of his will shortly become a corpse.

To find out what Creon does in response to Teiresias’s message and what else happens, read the play at


Adler and Wolff observe that Aristotle in On Poetics draws on Oedipus the King more than on any other play to illustrate his points. They quote this passage:

“We assume that, for the finest form of Tragedy, the Plot must be not simple but complex; and further, that it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity.… It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness.… Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery, [Adler and Wolff also quote Aristotle’s explanation of how none of the three inspires pity or fear.] There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g., Oedipus … and the men of note of similar families.” (Aristotle, On Poetics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 687)

Considering that according to Aristotle tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the spectators, Adler and Wolff ask why we enjoy seeing tragedies performed They answer:

“The answer must involve some considerations of the kinds of pleasure. It is clear, for instance, that enjoyment of comedy and enjoyment of tragedy are of different kinds. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the enjoyment of tragedy is more intellectual than other pleasures. It is certainly not a simple pleasure like a feeling of bodily well-being.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 34)

How would you answer the question?

1. Socrates in Plato’s Apology and Crito

“Plato’s report of the trial of Socrates and of his last days in prison vividly dramatizes for us one of the moving moments in the history of the human race. The charges brought against Socrates by the Athenians of his day typify the accusations which, in other countries and at other times, have been leveled against men who have been single-minded in their adherence to ideals that have set them apart from the society in which they lived.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, volume 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica: 1959, page 1)

Plato was a Greek philosopher who composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In this post I’ll consider two of those dialogues, the Apology on the trial of Socrates and the Crito on his last days in prison. In previous posts I’ve considered the first five of the ten books in Plato’s The Republic, in which he through Socrates discusses justice and the state..

I’ll base my consideration of the Apology and the Crito on Adler and Wolff’s study of them in The Great Ideas Program, the opening of which I quoted above. Their study is divided into three sections: the first on the relationship between Plato and Socrates and the background to Socrates’ trial and execution, the second on the picture that Socrates gives of himself in his defence, and the third on six specific questions about the Apology and the Crito. However I’ll substitute a sketch of the life of Socrates for their first section and include only the first four of the six questions they asked in their third section.

The Life of Socrates

Socrates was born about 470 B.C., the son of Sophroniscus, possibly a worker in stone, and Phaenarete, a midwife. His family couldn’t have been very poor because they were able to provide him with enough financial resources to serve as a fully-armed hoplite in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. However his later absorption in philosophy and his mission (see the next paragraph) made him neglect his private affairs and fall to a level of relative poverty. He probably loved philosophy more than his family, Xanthippe (whom he apparently married late in life) and their three sons.

The following description of Socrates’ mission is taken from The Columbia Encyclopedia (sixth edition, Columbia University Press, 2000):

“Socrates became convinced that his calling was to search for wisdom about right conduct by which he might guide the intellectual and moral improvement of the Athenians. Neglecting his own affairs, he spent his time discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens congregated.… In his self-appointed task as gadfly to the Athenians, Socrates made many enemies.” (page 2645)

In 399 Socrates was brought `to trial for neglecting the gods whom the city worshipped and for corrupting the young. He treated the charge with contempt and was convicted. The prosecutors asked for a penalty of death, and Socrates suggested a small fine. His claim to be a public benefactor incensed the court, and death was voted for by an increased majority. Because no execution could take place in the absence of the sacred ship sent yearly to Delos, Socrates was in prison for a month, receiving his friends daily, An escape was planned by those friends, but Socrates refused to take advantage of their kind offer on the grounds that such a course would be contrary to his principles.

Socrates’ Picture of Himself

Observing that “hardly anyone can read the account [of the trial] without feeling that a grave injustice was done,” Adler and Wolff suggest that “we may do well to examine how we ourselves would react to Socrates … if he were brought to trail in our time.” (The quotations are from Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 4-5.)

Both in his defence and, after his being condemned, his response to the requirement that he suggest a penalty for himself, Socrates was uncompromising, asserting that he would never change but would continue his offensive ways.

“Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend,‒a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens,‒are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

“If I tell you that to do as you say [go into exile and hold my tongue] would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard to persuade you.” (Plato, Apology, in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, pages 206 and 210 respectively)

Adler and Wolff comment:

“We may imagine, without considering the rightness of the doctrines involved, the effect such intransigence would have on a court or investigating committee in a ‘cold war’ situation where a Communist in a Capitalist country not only refused to recant but announced his determination to continue his ‘subversive’ activities; or, of course, the effect of such a position taken by a Capitalist in a Communist country.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 5)

Questions about the Apology and the Crito

Should an unjust law be obeyed?

Adler and Wolff explain that by an “unjust law” they mean a law that commands some unjust action or prohibits some just action. A contemporary example would be a Christian minister’s being required to marry individuals of the same biological sex. Adler and Wolff ask:

“What is a conscientious citizen to do about laws he really believes to be unjust? Should he disobey them? Or are there reasons for obeying even an unjust law?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)

What can be done when a law is unjustly applied?

Sometimes a just and good law is unjustly applied. Adler and Wolff cite the example of the Dreyfus case in France in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason and condemned to life imprisonment (eventually he was exonerated, Adler and Wolff ask:

“How, first of all, can [a citizen] be certain that a law has been justly applied? … When someone has been duly tried and been found guilty by a jury, we assume that justice has been done. But juries and judges are men and men are fallible.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)

“There is a second problem. Suppose that there is … no doubt that the wrong man has been accused, what are we to do? Does the duty of the citizen demand obedience or disobedience?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)

What are a citizen’s duties and responsibilities when a law is unjustly made?

A law may be just in content but imposed as a decree instead of by due legislative process. What should a citizen do?

Was Socrates justified in disobeying an explicit command, because it was unjust?

In the Apology, Socrates disobeyed a command:

“When the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent for me and four others into the rotunda, and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis, as they wanted to put him to death. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes; and then I showed, not in word only but in deed, that … I cared not a straw for death, and that my great and only care was lest I should do an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong; and when we came out of the rotunda the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end.” (Socrates speaking in Plato, Apology, page 207)

Yet in the Crito, he refused to disobey the laws when Crito offered to help him escape from prison (and death). Adler and Wolff ask:

“Can we reconcile [Socrates’] support of the law in the Crito with his asserted intention, in the Apology, to obey God rather than his judges?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)

14. American State Papers

The Declaration of Independence, the document declaring the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from British rule, was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, it affirms the natural rights of man and the doctrine of government by contract, which the Continental Congress felt had been repeatedly violated by King George III. The Constitution of the United States of America, the document defining the principal organs of American government and their jurisdictions, was drafted by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, after the ninth state had ratified it, was declared in effect by Congress on March 4, 1789. It consists of seven articles and numerous amendments, the latter affirming the basic rights of citizens as well as clarifying and updating the content of the articles. The Federalist consists of articles appearing in New York newspapers from October 1897 to April 1788 urging the people of the state of New York to ratify the Constitution. Its chief author was Alexander Hamilton, but some of its articles were contributed by James Madison (whose role in framing the Constitution was such that he is often called the “Father of the Constitution”) and some by John Jay; however all of its articles are signed “Publius.”

Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff conclude the introduction to their consideration of the three “American state papers” in volume 1, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959) with this comment about The Federalist:

“The adult who reads The Federalist for the first time will enjoy the sense of acquiring an understanding of his government which should be the property of every citizen. More than that, he will be struck by the clarity and power of both the thought and the writing. They exemplify the common level of political discourse in the days when this republic was formed. The articles which comprise The Federalist were current political journalism in the years 1787-1789. They were written for newspaper readers. If we contemplate that fact, and compare the level of their style and substance with that of political speeches, articles, or journalism in our own day, we are compelled to wonder about the education of our political leaders as well as of our citizens today.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 160)

Adler and Wolff go on to put the three papers in their historical context, to show how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people (favoured by Jefferson) and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power (favoured by the Federalists), to consider the remedy proposed by Madison in The Federalist to deal with faction in a popular government, to show how the Constitution provides for the separation of the powers of government, and to discuss four other questions about the papers. I opened this post by putting the papers in historical context, and in the rest of the post I’ll summarize what Adler and Wolff say about how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power, about Madison’s remedy for faction in a popular government, and about how the Constitution provides for the separation of powers. However I won’t share here from their discussion of the four other questions.

The Constitution a Compromise between Two Opposed Tendencies

Jefferson favoured placing power and responsibility in the hands of the people as far as possible, but the Federalists wanted safeguards against the uses to which the people might put such power. The Constitution contains many evidences of these two opposed tendencies. Adler and Wolff identify these three: (1) the Congress of the United States consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives with the House of Representatives’s being elected by the people and having its seats up for election every two years, but the Senate’s being chosen by the state legislatures instead of being elected by the people (this was changed by the thirteenth amendment) and having only a third of its seats changed at each election; (2) the President is elected by the people rather than by the state legislatures or governors, but the election is indirect with the people’s electing electors who in turn elect the president; and (3) only the House of Representatives can initiate bills having to do with money matters (presumably because taxation is to go along with representation), but only the Senate is consulted in matters of foreign policy (presumably because it is not subject to sudden and disastrous whims). Adler and Wolff explain how each of the three represents a compromise between the two tendencies.

Dealing with Faction in a Popular Government

In The Federalist, No. 10, Madison deals with the problem of internal instability, and faction in popular governments. Here is how he describes the problem:

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens…that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” (The Federalist in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 49)

Madison blames the problem on factions, groups of citizens which try to control the government for their own special interests rather than for the common good. He says that we can prevent this either by eliminating the causes of factions or by controlling their effects. Factions can be eliminated “by destroying the liberty which is essential to [their] existence” or “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” (The Federalist, page 50). However the first remedy is unwise, liberty’s being essential to political life, and the second remedy is clearly impossible. Thus he concludes that the way to deal with factions is to realize that they will always be with us and to concentrate on dealing with their effects.

Observing that a faction becomes dangerous when it becomes the majority in a popular government, Madison proposes a way to prevent a faction from becoming the ruling power‒having republican rather than democratic government. He points out these differences between a democracy and a republic:

“first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended” (The Federalist, pages 52-52).

And he claims that delegates will often recognize the true interest of the country better than the people themselves could and that a larger country suffers less from the evils of factions than a small one because it takes in a greater variety of parties and interests.

The Separation of the Powers of Government

The separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers is a basic provision of the Constitution. Locke mentions the separation of powers, but the doctrine that it is all-important for free government stems from Montesquieu. After explaining how liberty is threatened by the uniting of the legislative powers in the same person or body or the joining of the judicial with either of them, he affirms, “There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 70).

However, despite the importance of the separation of powers in the Constitution, there is considerable mixing of government powers (the so-called system of checks and balances). Although some mixture of powers is defensible, they should for the most part be kept separate. How can this be done? The Federalist answers:

“The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper place….

“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others….

“It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices….

“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counterattack ambition. The interest of the man must ve connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” (The Federalist, pages 162-163)

5. Aristotle’s Politics

“The blessings of political liberty and equality, which we so often take for granted, are the gift of two great inventions for which we are indebted to the ancient Greeks‒constitutions and citizenship. In the whole history of political thought and action, there are no ideas more revolutionary than these. Aristotle’s Politics is the first full statement of the theory of these two ideas. Its opening book repeatedly calls our attention to the fundamental difference in the condition of those who, on the one hand, live as slaves or as subjects of despotic kings and those who, on the other hand, live as citizens under constitutional governments and who, therefore, are ‘free man and equals, ruling and being ruled in turn.” (“Aristotle: Politics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 47-48)

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was born in the small Greek colonial town of Stagirus on the Aegean Sea near the Macedonian border in 384 B.C.; attended Plato’s Academy in Athens in 367-347; helped set up and taught in an academy in the newly-built town of Assus on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea in 347-44; moved to Mytilene, capital of the nearby island of Lesbos, where he studied natural history in 344-342; tutored Alexander (the Great) and studied/taught in Macedonia in 342-336; established and taught in a school in Athens called the Lycaeum in 336-23; and died in Chalcis (his mother’s hometown) in 322. Great Books of the Western World devotes two volumes to his writings, most of which represent lectures which he delivered at the Lycaeum.

In A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education Adler and Wolff discuss Book I of Politics. In it Aristotle considers the origin and nature of the state, slavery, and household management. Before summarizing what Aristotle says about each of those subjects, Adler and Wolff consider the relationship of Politics to Aristotle’s earlier Nicomachean Ethics and its structure, and after summarizing the three subjects they discuss several questions about Politics. I’ll consider just what they say about the three subjects. Incidentally, they study Nicomachean Ethics in another reading in A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, and I’ll consider it in when I share from the The Great Ideas volume on Ethics: The Study of Moral Values.

Regarding the origin and nature of the state, Aristotle says: “When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society [the family and the village] are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.” (Aristotle, Politics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 446).The state’s being natural means that it arises out of a human need, all men are meant to live in a state, what it is and how it comes to be cannot be completely due to human deliberation and rules, and it has an end or purpose.

After talking about the role of slaves as possessions of their masters used by them as instruments for maintaining life, Aristotle considers whether slavery is natural:

“But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature. “There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of facts. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” (Aristotle, Politics, page 447)

However there is another kind of slavery which in which the slaves are ones who have been taken in war rather than those who are slaves by nature. Aristotle questions whether it is just to view them as slaves.

Just as he distinguishes between natural and conventional slavery, Aristotle distinguishes between natural and artificial wealth-getting. Wealth-getting that is natural is part of the management of the household:

“Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches, for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited…. But there is a boundary fixed, just as there is in the other arts; for the instruments of any art are never unlimited, either in number or in size, and riches may be defined as a number of instruments to be used in a household or in a state. And so we see that there is a natural art of acquisition which is practised by managers of households and by statesmen, and what is the reason of this.” (Aristotle, Politics, page 450)

However there is another kind of wealth-getting in which the wealth-getters have unlimited desires and thus want the means of gratifying them to also be without limit. Just as he’d disapproved of conventional slavery, Aristotle disapproves of this art of wealth-getting, viewing both as unnatural.

In volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, Adler and Wolff discuss Books III-IV of Politics, in which Aristotle considers citizenship, the various forms of government, and the best state. See my earlier post on Politics,, for a summary of what he says about them.

2. Plato’s The Republic

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens from 428/427 to 348/347 B.C. For several years he operated a school of higher education, called the Academy, in his home. He composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In The Republic they examine the nature of justice. Here I’ll consider just the first two of its ten books, guided by the discussion of them by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff in volume 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica: 1959).

The discussion described in The Republic takes place in the house of an old man, Cephalus, who is a friend of Socrates. After quoting Pindar’s “Hope cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness, and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey,” Cephalus ascribes such hope to the good man rich enough that he has had no occasion to deceive or defraud others. Socrates responds, “Well said, Cephalus…but as concerning justice, what is it?‒to speak the truth and to pay your debts‒no more than this?” (The Dialogues of Plato in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 297). He challenges this view of justice on the grounds that there are some cases in which one ought not to pay one’s debts. Cephalus refuses to be drawn into an argument, but others are drawn in. In the course of their discussion, two other definitions of justice are proposed, both of which Socrates shows are also unsatisfactory:

“[J]ustice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies” (page 298).

“[J]ustice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger” (page 301).

Adler and Wolff summarize the rest of Book I of The Republic thus:

“Here we can now see a surprising development. Socrates’ refutation of Thrasymachus [he’d proposed ‘justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger’] gives us, by implication, the definition of a ruler’s justice as ‘acting for the sake of the ruled,’ or ‘acting so as to give the ruled their due.’ Now this is entirely compatible with Polemarchus’ earlier definition of justice as ‘acting so as to give each man his due.’ That latter definition only failed to satisfy Socrates because Polemarchus was mistaken about what each man’s due is [Polemachus had proposed ‘justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies’]. If Socrates’ definition of justice is valid, he must show what it is that is due to those who are ruled. And, of course, a great part of The Republic is devoted to just that.” (Adler and Wolff,  A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 18-19)

Book II of The Republic opens with two of Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, entering the discussion. Glaucon says that most people hold injustice to be superior to justice, and Adeimantus adds that appearing just rather than being just is advantageous. They ask Socrates to refute them by discussing the nature of justice. Socrates agrees but suggests looking for justice in the state rather than in man since it will more easily seen in the larger unit. He proceeds to consider the ideal state in the rest of Book II and in Books III-V. I commented briefly on those books, guided by Adler and Wolff’s discussion of them in volume 2, The Development of Political Theory and Government, of The Great Ideas Program, in an earlier post on The Republic,

Here is what Plato eventually concluded about justice in The Republic. He identified four virtues in a state–wisdom, which he associated with the rulers or guardian class; courage, which he associated with the warriors or auxiliary class; temperance, which he associated with the working class; and justice, which he summed up as “when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their business” (The Dialogues of Plato, page 350). Then he said that just as there are three classes in the state there are three principles in the individual–appetite, reason, and passion–and that in the same way as a state is just when each of the classes does its own business an individual is just when “the several qualities of his nature do their own work” (page 354).

11. Locke’s Concerning Civil Government

“In the history of human liberty, Locke’s essay Concerning Civil Government stands out not only as a great contribution to political theory, but also as an effective instigator of political action. It is a stirring pronouncement of the principles of the English ‘bloodless revolution’ of 1688, which brought about fundamental innovations in the British constitution. It also set the stage for the American Revolution of 1776 by furnishing inspiration to the writers of the Declaration of Independence.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, page 123)

Although this series of posts is on readings discussed in volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, I’m including this post on John Locke’s Concerning Civil Government, which is discussed in volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, because of its importance in the development of political theory and, as pointed out in the above quotation from Adler and Wolff, as an instigator of political action.

In their guide to reading Concerning Civil Government, Adler and Wolff discuss the significance of the date of its publication, the differences between the views of Locke and Thomas Hobbes on the origin of the state, and Locke’s concept of property and reflect on five problems posed as questions for readers of the essay to think about. Here I’ll just sketch Locke’s life and summarize what Adler and Wolff say about the three topics which they discuss. The sketch of Locke’s life, which is drawn mainly from the biographical note in Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 35, pages ix-x), is long and may be just skimmed or even omitted.

Locke’s Life

Born in Wrington, Somerset, on August 29, 1632, John Locke was the oldest child of a respectable family with Puritan leanings. In 1652 he won a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford. Although the Puritans had introduced some reforms in Oxford life, the curriculum was still the traditional one of grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, and moral philosophy, which Locke found insipid. Nonetheless after receiving his B.A. degree in 1656, he remained at Oxford to take his M.A. degree and then became successively lecturer in Greek, reader in rhetoric, and in 1664 censor of moral philosophy. Those activities not fully occupying his attention, he also read Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, and engaged in experimental science in collaboration with Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry, who was a close friend. Soon after he began the study of medicine and, although he didn’t get a medical degree until a later date (1674), by 1666 he was engaged in occasional practice. It was also at Oxford that Locke became interested in political questions such as the constitution of society, the relation of church and state, and the importance of religious toleration.

Although in 1665 he interrupted his medical studies to serve as secretary to a diplomatic mission to Brandenburg, Locke turned down another diplomatic post that he was offered on his return. However in 1667 he accepted an invitation from Lord Ashley, whom he had met at Oxford in 1662, to become part of his household staff in London as his personal physician. He served Ashley in various capacities for the next sixteen years, including becoming secretary of the Council of Trade and Plantations which Ashley established after he became the first Earl of Shaftesbury and the lord high chancellor of England in 1672. Locke’s many practical duties in London didn’t prevent him from pursuing his scientific and philosophical interests. He frequently held informal gatherings for the discussion of questions in science and theology. On one such occasion, a question arose concerning the “limits of human understanding” to which he undertook to provide an answer and, writing off and on, finally published twenty years later as An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

When the Earl fell from power in 1675, Locke withdrew from public life, going to France where he tried to restore his health and to work on his Essay. When the Earl again rose to power in 1679, Locke returned to England and resumed his former activities. However when the Earl’s plotting against the King led to his exile and death, Locke fell under royal suspicion and in 1683 he sought refuge in Holland. There he rapidly formed many new friendships and settled down to complete the Essay, in 1687 publishing an abstract of it. He was likely involved in planning the Revolution of 1688, having friends among the English refugees and being known to William of Orange, and returned to England in 1689 in the same ship which carried William’s wife, Princess Mary.

Although Locke was offered several responsible positions in the new regime, he preferred to devote himself to his writings and accepted only the comparatively light task of commissioner of appeals. Within four years he completed and published his most important works: First Letter Concerning Toleration, Two Treatises of Civil Government, the Essay, and Some Thoughts on Education. Prompted by ill-health and dissatisfaction with the course of public affairs, he retired in 1691 to Oakes Manor in Essex, where he lived as a guest of the Masham family and continued to work on his writings and to be occupied with political problems. Upon reestablishment of the Board of Trade and Plantations, he reluctantly accepted a post as one of the commissioners. This office absorbed all the time his health permitted him to spend in London from 1696 to 1700, when constant illness compelled his resignation.

Locke’s last years were spent quietly in retirement at Oates Manor, occupying himself with biblical studies and writing a commentary on the epistles of St. Paul. Many of his friends visited him there. He died on October 28, 1704, while Lady Masham was reading the Psalms to him. She wrote of him, “His death was like his life, truly pious, yet natural, easy and unaffected.”

Significance of the Essay’s Date of Publication

Locke’s Concerning Civil Government treatises were first published in 1690, the year after William and Mary ascended to the throne of England. He’d written them in Holland, where he’d lived in exile from 1683 to 1689. In his preface to them, he expresses the hope that they would “establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William‒to make good his title in the consent of the people, which, being only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin” (quoted by Adler and Wolff in An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 125).

In the first treatise, Locke argues against the theory that monarchs rule by divine right. In the second (the one we’re considering), he argues that governments derive their authority from those whom they govern. “Who shall be judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust?…To this I reply, The people shall be judge” (Concerning Civil Government in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 35, page 81). Thus the people had the right to replace James II with William of Orange.

The Origin of the State

Locke defines political power as “a right of making laws…for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good” (Concerning Civil Government, page 25). He maintains that such power (and the government which it wields) comes into being as a result of a contract made by people who’d previously lived in a non-political condition. Thomas Hobbes, whom I considered in “Hobbes’s Leviathan,” also had such a social contract theory, but Locke differed from him on what it involved.

Both Hobbes and Locke called the condition in which people lived before making the contract the “state of nature.” In “Hobbes’s Leviathan” I defined the state of nature as “a primitive condition in which there was no king, no law, and no civil society” and quoted from Leviathan to show that Hobbes viewed it as a state of war. Locke viewed it instead as a state of liberty in which people could “order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man” (Concerning Civil Government,  page 25). Locke himself points to the difference between his and Hobbes’s conceptions of the state of nature: “Here we have the plain difference between the state of Nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant as a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation; and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction are one from another” (Concerning Civil Government, page 29).

Both Hobbes and Locke viewed people as giving up rights when they entered into the social contract. “For Hobbes, man is in such a miserable state naturally that he gives up all rights [except the right to life and self-preservation, which according to Hobbes he can’t give up] upon entering civil society, in order only to be safe and protected from the lusts and passions of other men” {Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 128). But Locke doesn’t view people as giving up all rights upon entering civil society, saying: “But though men when they enter into society give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of Nature into the hands of society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative as the good of society, yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse), the power of the society or legislative constituted by them can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure every one’s property by providing against those three defects above mentioned that made the state of Nature so unsafe and uneasy” (Concerning Civil Government, page 54; the three defects are lack of an established, settled, known law; lack of a known and indifferent judge; and lack of power to execute the law).

Locke describes the actual formation of political society as follows: Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate [the state of nature] and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.” (Concerning Civil Government, page 46).

Locke’s Concept of Property

In the last paragraph I quoted Locke as saying that one of the reasons for men’s uniting into communities is for “secure enjoyment of their properties.” In Chapter V he takes up the question of property in detail, considering how it comes about that anyone has private property or owns something to the exclusion of all others. He summarizes his view thus: “[T]hough the things of Nature are given in common, man (by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it) had still in himself the great foundation of property; and that which made up the great part of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being, when invention and arts had improved the conveniences of life, was perfectly his own and did not belong in common to others” (Concerning Civil Government, page 34). Note that according to Locke “property” consists not only of a man’s land and goods but also anything else that is his, including his life and liberty, his stating this in the following passage: “Man…hath by nature a preserve his property‒that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men” (Concerning Civil Government, page 44).

Adler and Wolff comment:

“Since man has a natural right to property in this wider sense (i.e., life, liberty, and estate), the state cannot take it away from him, but must protect his right to it. The [American] Declaration of Independence echoes Locke, substituting, however, ‘pursuit of happiness’ for ‘estate’: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men….’” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 130)

One of the problems which they pose questions on is what the significance of the substitution is. They suggest that the reason might be that “pursuit of happiness” takes in more than “estate,” arguing “If pursuit of happiness requires a man’s estate to be secure, then the Declaration of Independence affirms that to be part of man’s inalienable right; but if other things are also required, it also asserts his right to those” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 134). Whether they are right or not, clearly Locke’s Concerning Civil Government was a source of inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, as affirmed in my opening quotation from them, and thus set the stage for the American Revolution.