The Ideal City

By Scott London

For Plato, the ideal city was one which mirrored the kosmos, on the one hand, and the individual on the other. As he described in The Republic, the ideal city, or polis, was one based on justice and human virtue. It was a form of social and political organization that allowed individuals to maximize their potentialities, serve their fellow citizens, and live in accordance with universal laws and truths.

This essay takes a cursory look at some early conceptions of the ideal city as set forth by Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Plato set forth a five-fold classification to describe how the city ought to be governed. The best form of government, he argued, was an aristocratic model based on the rulership of philosopher kings. A second form of government he called timocracy, or rule by a privileged elite of guardians, or strong men. Oligarchy, the third type, consisted of rule “by the few.” The remaining two — democracy and tyranny — represented rule by the many.

According to Plato, the ideal city had to be an enlightened one, one based on the highest universal principles. He insisted that only individuals who were committed to these truths, who could protect and preserve them for the sake of the common good, were fit to rule the city.

Becoming a philosopher king, or an ideal ruler, involved a rigorous course of study that extended into mid-life. The ideal ruler was therefore someone chosen by an inner calling, or daimon, not by circumstance or privilege. Therefore, the ideal ruler was not someone chosen by circumstance or privilege so much as by an inner calling, or daimon. This point is crucial because it distinguishes Plato’s ideal city from those of other thinkers who shared Plato’s faith in guardianship but favored oligarchical systems of government.

Aristotle drew heavily on Plato’s vision but also criticized what he saw as its excessively idealistic nature. He believed that Plato’s republic could never exist in the real world. It may be that Aristotle read The Republic too literally. Plato work was never intended as a political manifesto but as a work of moral philosophy.

In any case, Aristotle made a number of improvements on Plato’s ideal in the interest of making it more practically useful. In his view, there were three basic forms of political organization: rule of the one, rule of the few, and rule of the many. The first form, at its best, led to monarchy; at its worst, to tyranny. The second, at its best, to aristocracy; at its worst, to oligarchy. And the third, at its best, to something he called politeia; at its worst, to democracy.

Aristotle maintained that both monarchy and aristocracy were ideal forms of government, in the sense that they were virtually impossible to achieve in reality. He therefore invented a third form which drew from the unique strengths of both: politeia. This form combined rule of law and rule by the few. It was a brilliant formulation that incorporated many of Plato’s key elements (such as guardianship, the idea of self-sufficiency, and the critical role of law) while making it more practical — and thereby attainable. For example, he introduced land ownership and rulership by lot as crucial elements of the ideal polis, while dispensing with what he considered unrealistic concepts such as distributive justice and voluntary rule.

The ideas of Plato and Aristotle figured prominently in the political thought of both St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But the Christian philosophers introduced a new element — divine right. In so doing, they shifted the emphasis away from this world and toward the next world. The ideal city was no longer conceived as a system of purely social or political arrangements but rather as a means toward alignment with the laws of God. Authority was shifted from individuals (organized into one social body) to God. Legitimacy was now a matter of divine right, not individual virtue.

For St. Augustine, this idea took the form of the “City of God” — an ideal city to which humans could at best aspire, to which they could look for inspiration and guidance in carrying out their worldly affairs. For Aquinas, the ideal city was something which could only be fully grasped by a monarch of God. In a section of his Summa Theologica, he outlined a theory of “kingship” which made a forceful case for rule by a divine emissary, an individual capable of understanding and translating the will of God for all those who wished to one day enter the kingdom of heaven.

In this way, the ideal city was transferred to the next world. Human beings could only hope to attain it by committing their lives to Christian virtues, and not — as Plato insisted — by service to the common good or devotion to universal truths. While the metaphor of the ideal city had survived, its essential features had been radically transformed.