May 19, 2024

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Why Obey?: A Look at Plato and Aristotle

7 min read


In Glenn Tinder’s Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions, one of the most important questions asked to the reader—and to those that have debated philosophy for centuries—is “Why obey?”. Along with written language and agricultural, obedience is one of the cornerstones of civilization. Obedience is what allows governments to thrive, it fuels society’s growth, and it offers nations the ability to provide their citizens certain liberties and freedoms. In Tider’s Political Thinking, he states that “[c]ivilization depends on obedience being normal and disobedience exceptional; otherwise, the fundamental order undergirding a cultivated life would break down.”[1]

Those that believe in the historical accuracy of the Book of Genesis are aware that obedience is one of the first lessons taught to mankind. Many philosophers take stock in ‘total depravity,’ the theological doctrine that every person is born into the world with the inability to refrain from sin, which was caused by Adam and Eve’s original sin. Whether the total depravity doctrine is to be believed or not, since Adam and Eve’s inability to be obedient, mankind has struggled with refraining from disobedience and sin. In comparing recent philosophers, like Glenn Tinder, with philosophers of classical ancient history, such as Plato and Aristotle, one can see how the argument for obedience has both similarities and differences that have occurred over millennia.

When understanding obedience, especially for the purposes of this essay, it is important to discern between different types of obedience. The following should serve as an examination on obedience as it pertains to government and its citizens, not, as Aristotle refers to in Politics as the obedience “between master and slave.”[2]

Aristotle, Plato, and Tinder all agree that rulers (or a ruling body) are necessary for the betterment of the state and the prosperity of its citizens. Plato believed in aristocracy, the rule of the best. He believed leaders needed to be wise and trained in how to properly run a state. Moreover, he believed that the best form of government was timocracy, and that oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny would all lead to “disorder of a state,”[3]—a state filled with disobedience.

Aristotle believed in sovereign rule; however, he believed in a “king’s rule according to the law over voluntary subjects.”[4] He did not agree with Plato’ timocracy state, but he did agree that democracy and tyranny were not suitable for a state’s growth. Aristotle believed that the creation of good laws and an effective justice system were essential to harmony between a monarch and his citizens. Furthermore, he believed not only was the line of royalty the way in which kings were decided upon, but believed that those kings that operated within the laws were those whom were most successful and willing to have obedient citizens.[5]

While Tinder brushes off divine right of the king as “absurd,” he does believe that a ruling body, that represents the general will, would be the most successful. He believes in a theory that “a government can legitimately claim obedience only when its commands represent the true, ultimate interest of all the people.”[6]

A staple of both Aristotle and Plato is constitutional or contractual rule. In Aristotle’s Politics, he speaks of a “constitutional rule,” a rule in which:

why obey

“[T]he ruler must learn by obeying, as he would learn the duties of a general of cavalry by being under the orders of a general of cavalry, or the duties of a general of infantry by being under the orders of a general of infantry, or by having had the command of a company or brigade. It has been well said that ‘he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.’ The two are not the same, but the good citizen ought to be capable of both; he should know how to govern like a freeman, and how to obey like a freeman — these are the virtues of a citizen.”[7]

This clearly shows as to why Aristotle thought that obedience was important. Not only did he expect the citizens to obey, but he expected the king to do so as well.

Plato was a firm believer of contractual rule. He believed that as a product of the state—receiving education and all the benefits that the state has to offer—one should live under the rules and consequences of the state. Additionally, he believed that all rules should be followed, whether they are seen as unjust or not. A passage from Plato’s Crito, shows his unwillingness to falter in his answer as to whether or not to obey.


“[A]fter having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good that we had to give, we further proclaim and give the right to every Athenian, that if he does not like us when he has come of age and has seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him; and none of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him. Any of you who does not like us and the city, and who wants to go to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, and take his goods with him. But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him. And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain, thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands; and he neither obeys them nor convinces us that our commands are wrong; and we do not rudely impose them, but give him the alternative of obeying or convincing us; that is what we offer and he does neither.”[8]

Another area in which Plato, Aristotle, and Tinder agree is in regards to revolution. Aristotle spoke staunchly against knaves. These were people who held their own self-interest above the interest of the rest—typically disrupting their government to do so. In Politics, Aristotle described these people as those that “lay information against rich men until they compel them to combine (for a common danger unites even the bitterest enemies), or coming forward in public stir up the people against them.”[9] Plato makes his opinion very clear on rebellion and revolution in Crito. As mentioned in the aforementioned excerpt from Crito, he believes that citizens have met “an agreement with [their government] that he will… [not] convinces us that our commands are wrong.”

Tinder is in full support of civil disobedience; he believes that it those that practice civil disobedience work to “affirm the principle of law by acquiescing in the penalties attached to disobedience.”[10] That being said, he also defines revolutions as “an extremely dangerous and difficult act.”[11]

While it has been proven, in current society, that civil disobedience and revolutions are working every day to affect social change, implement needed policy, and righting the wrongs of the past, there is some of what the world’s past and present philosophers believe that should be followed and present in the forefront of man’s minds as he decides whether or not to simply obey. Like Rousseau, is the human race willing to accept what is best for the majority? When looking at constitutional and contractual rule, is man willing to look through Locke’s eyes, or is he basing his decision to obey on the concrete, unwavering ideology of Plato?

Possibly, the real question is not “Why obey?,” but “Who to obey?”. Both Aristotle and Plato seem less concerned about whether or not to obey, but who to obey. In both Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, the emphasis was on the types of ruler that a state must have to succeed. Both philosophers believed that a corrupt head of government (or a democracy selected by its unwise masses), was certain to fail. In Plato’s Laws, he stated that “if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.”[12] In Aristotle’s Politics, he stated that “true forms of government will of necessity have just laws, and perverted forms of government will have unjust laws.”[13]

An answer to “Why obey?” is not one that can be decided upon now, and be expected to be correct for the rest of mankind. As Tinder stated, when it comes to obedience and freedoms in the West, man is “reasonably content.”[14] But at some point, like most nations, there will come a time when man feels obeying to be unjust, and that a uprising for human rights and freedoms might be worth the bloodshed.

[1] Glenn Tinder, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions 6th Ed. (New York: Pearson Longman 2004), 130.

[2] Aristotle, Benjamin Jowett. Aristotle’s Politics. (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press 1920) Book 3, Part 4.

[3] Plato, Benjamin Jowett. Plato’s The Republic. (New York: The Modern Library 1941) Book 8.

[4] Aristotle, Book 3, Part 14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tinder, 126.

[7] Aristotle, Book 3, Part 4

[8] Plato, Benjamin Jowett. Plato’s Crito. (New York: The Colonial Press 1900)

[9] Aristotle, Book 5, Part 5

[10] Tinder, 131

[11] Ibid., 129

[12] Anthony Black. A World History of Ancient Political Thought (Oxford University Press 2009)

[13] Aristotle, Book 3, Part 6

[14] Tinder, 129