At least since the time of the ancient philosopher Plato, private property rights have posed challenges to those aspiring to craft a just political society. During the nascent years of American civilization, the Pilgrim settlers of the New Plymouth Plantation followed a partly Platonic model of a commonwealth. The survival of their settlement, they initially believed, depended upon pious men sharing food and property in common to protect the good of the whole city instead of simply their own private interests. Yet, this Platonic experiment was plagued by inefficiency and Governor William Bradford opted to restore private property rights. “The experience that was had in this common course and condition . . . amongst godly and sober men,” Bradford explained, “may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”
Bradford was by no means the first to critique Plato’s seeming skepticism of private property rights, on display especially in the Republic. In this famous work, the philosopher proposes that a group of elite guardians should share their property in common. Distractions from the common good, such as property, reduce the unity necessary for the guardians to protect the city and must be severely restricted. Yet, Bradford ignores Plato’s divergent interpretation of property in the Laws. This later work suggests legislation to protect private property and rejects communism as a viable form of economic organization. The apparent discrepancy between the Republic and the Laws, this essay demonstrates, does not indicate any fundamental change in Plato’s political philosophy. Instead, it evinces that the two works address different situations. The Republic offers a “city in speech,” that embodies perfect justice in a virtuous soul, whereas the Laws founds a more practically realizable “second best city” comprised of virtuous citizens. Both works demonstrate Plato’s conviction that virtue is the end of politics and that private property—to the extent that it detracts from public virtue—can be limited, though material possessions are no moral evil in and of themselves.
Justice and Unity: Private Property in The Republic
The very opening of Plato’s Republic teaches attentive readers about the relationship between justice and private property. Socrates, goes “down to the Piraeus” to pray and investigate a brand new festival being held there. The Piraeus booms with commercial activity and maintains an extraordinary level of civic diversity. Not only do the citizens exchange different goods and services, they also worship unique divinities. Socrates, however, will not make it to his destination. A slave of Polemarchus’ interrupts his travels and invites the philosopher to the home of Cephalus. Upon his arrival, Socrates finds himself engrossed in a serious discussion about the nature of justice. The elderly, traditionally-minded Cephalus contends that justice requires only telling the truth and paying back one’s debts. Socrates, however, is not convinced; after all, would it really be just to return a borrowed weapon to a maniac? In setting the work in the privacy of a man’s home, Plato suggests that the ideal of justice must be discovered abstractly in dialogue removed from the pedestrian affairs of commercial society. Additionally, it is in this opening that Socrates first suggests that perfect justice rejects a totalizing view of private property rights. There are instances, including insanity, that would justify the confiscation of private property for the protection of society.
Socrates faces the challenge of proving to his interlocutors that a just life is better for its own sake, and not simply due to consequences that follow it such as wealth, health, or power. The just soul, he argues, can be best conceived by assessing the just city, for the city is nothing less than the soul writ large. The city comes into existence because people are not self-sufficient and need companionship. By working together in political society, people are able to provide food, housing, and clothing on a greater scale than would be possible living in isolation. This nascent city provides for each citizen’s utmost necessities, but it does little else. Once the city begins to expand, the citizens divide their labor and serve the public good by filling the job most “according to their nature.” The true city allows for the possession of property, commercial activity, and even protects the merchant class. Unfortunately, it is a short step from this harmonious order to the “feverish city.” No longer content to serve the common good and have their needs provided for, the citizens devote themselves to luxury at all costs and become consumed by their love of property. Importantly, civic degeneration begins not with the introduction of property per se, but with the onset of luxury in the soul’s disposition, indicating the supremacy of the soul in political arrangements.
As his agents of restoring the just city, Socrates proposes a class of citizens known as the guardians. These elite guardians protect the city from disorder at home and invasion abroad by being “gentle to their own and cruel to enemies.” The education of this class, however, is far from simple, and it is in this context that Socrates’ most notorious ideas about property take place. The guardians live modestly, obtaining enough property to survive, but nothing in excess. Neither wealth nor poverty plague the guardians, for “one produces luxury, idleness, and innovation, while the other produces illiberality and wrongdoing as well as innovation.” For the guardians to be as publicly-spirited as possible, a near-total abolition of their property—and even their privacy—ensues. They possess all things in common, “except for what’s entirely necessary” and no one can prohibit a fellow guardian from entering their home. Free of the bargaining, faction, and competition that stems from the love of property, the guardians become completely unified in identity. Sharing the same pains together, having the same family, and owning the same possessions, they become nothing less than “like a single human being.” Yet, as Adeimantus earlier objected, it is difficult to conceive of these people being truly happy while living so meagerly. The Republic, however, posits that happiness consists not in the enjoyment of property or material goods, but in virtue of the soul.
The implications of private property for the just city and soul find an important expression in during Socrates’ account of the degeneration of the city into tyranny. After detailing the philosopher-king, the embodiment of the well-ordered, virtuous soul in whom reason reigns, Socrates moves to describe the inferior regimes. Like the degeneration of the true city described earlier, the descent of the just aristocracy of the philosopher-king corresponds with a rise in public avarice. Timocracy, the rule of the honorable, emerges when citizens of lesser natures shift the regime in a commercialistic direction. Wealth and private property are viewed as instruments of honor. No longer despising money, citizens of such regimes “delight in participating in the money-lover’s nature” and cannot be pure in virtue. Eventually, the regime devolves into an oligarchy and property no longer bears even the pretense of honor; money is seen as an end in and of itself. As factitiousness, greed, and corruption multiply, the city’s final spiral towards the lawlessness of democracy and tyranny are assured. Socrates believes that, ultimately, virtue and the love of private property tend towards opposite directions. Adulation of wealth focuses a citizen’s gaze upon fulfilling their passions instead of moderating them. The ideal, best regime shares its property in common, not because private property is intrinsically evil, but because the human soul tends towards a corrosive obsession with it at the expense of civil unity.
Virtue and Moderation: Private Property in The Laws
The best regime of the Republic illustrates both the desirability and the difficulty of establishing a regime according to perfect justice. In this regime, each person minds their own business and serves the public good in the manner most consistent with their nature. Yet, the practicality of communizing property to abolish private interests and individuality remains dubious, even within the Republic. It is left to one of Plato’s final dialogues—the Laws—to deal with the practical political realities so often neglected in the Republic. At the very onset, it is clear that this dialogue emits a very different atmosphere when juxtaposed against the Republic. Socrates is replaced with an anonymous “Athenian Stranger;” the setting is Crete, not Athens; and the goal of the dialogue is to propose the optimal legislation for a particular place and context rather than formulate an unchanging, abstract notion of perfect justice in the ideal regime. This is not to deny the important similarities that exist between the two works, but it does indicate that Plato himself recognized the role of context and circumstance in shifting the discussion about politics and, by extension, private property.
Early in the Laws, the Athenian Stranger establishes that the purpose of the law is to do more than merely provide citizens with a certain amount of private property, such as food, drink, and land. Politics exists for the sake of public happiness, and that happiness comes about only through the cultivation of virtue in the citizenry. The Athenian Stranger comments on the regime of Crete, allegedly an example of a good regime: “It is correct to begin from virtue and say that he [Crete’s founder, Minos] laid down the laws for the sake of this.” While lesser regimes erred in their conviction that public happiness ensues through the exclusive provision of material goods, Crete recognized the primacy of divine goods such as the virtues of justice, moderation, prudence, and courage. In stark contrast to the best regime outlined in The Republic, Crete’s emphasis on divine virtue does not debar the existence of private property in any class of citizens. The Athenian Stranger recognizes wealth as nothing less than a legitimate “human good” that plays a role in building public happiness. It is, however, the lowest ranking of all human goods behind health, beauty, and strength. The Athenian Stranger insists that the great legislator persuades his citizens to care first for the divine goods and secondly for the human goods.
As the purpose of the law is virtue—not simply economic abundance—there may be need of certain restrictions on the accumulation of private property. For example, the Athenian Stranger prohibits money-making from obscene occupations of “gross vulgarity” that “distort the character of a free man.” Additionally, citizens cannot justify their accumulation of excessive wealth for the purpose of leaving an inheritance to their children: “This is better neither for them nor for the city . . . children should be left an abundance of awe rather than gold.” There will be no gold or silver in this city; instead, the city will have its own currency so that it retains a unique cultural identity. Finally, there are caps to the amount of money that may be earned so as to prevent excessive wealth disparities in the city. None of these policies, it must be emphasized, seek arbitrary vindictiveness against the rich. These are intended to be the founding laws of a brand new city—not reforms for a setting in which wealth disparities have been well-established. The Stranger thus anticipates and accepts that the wealthy may not wish to live in this regime, and he also avers that political circumstances may demand adjusting these policies. The goal, nonetheless, remains the establishment of a harmonious political society in which people relate to and love each other, not simply their own private property.
Though the Athenian Stranger deviates far from contemporary libertarian instincts, his proposals must not be conflated with an authoritarian form of socialism. He never questions the fundamental dignity of labor, the value of hard work, or even the legitimacy of inequality. In fact, he proposes that citizens must be reared in diverse trades, such as farming and construction, so that they can build skills and contribute to the city in the way best befitting their unique talents. He decries the notion that citizens should have all of their meals provided for without any contribution to the city, arguing that this unjust and ignoble lifestyle is no better than that of a “fattened animal.” Finally, his political policies are inegalitarian, proposing instead “unequal classes” in which people receive greater honor for using their money virtuously. The Stranger understands that the cultivation of a virtuous soul demands more than just the right set of political policies. Charity, in his view, is a disposition of the soul that cannot be imposed by legal sanction. The impoverished citizen who has no desire to give to others is no less blameworthy than the rich man who gives nothing. As the Stranger eloquently states in 730e-731a, “the possession itself should not be dishonored on account of the possessor, and one should still strive to acquire it, as much as one can.”
As the right use of human goods such as private property depends upon the possession of a virtuous soul, the Athenian Stranger maintains that the law should prioritize piety towards the god. Before the legislator can allot any property to his citizens, he must first establish places of worship to ensure that religion has a place in the city. The very first exchange in the dialogue affirms that a god is the founder of political laws, not merely a man. As the god creates the law, citizens must prioritize their soul even more than their property and they must also recognize that the law carries divine weight. The Stranger also connects the city’s allotment of property to the worship of the gods. When the industrious make more money than the law allows, their wealth will not be redistributed to the poor—it will instead be donated to the places of worship. Those citizens who demand more property than what has been allotted to them thus reject the “sacred . . . gift of the god” in favor of fleeting material things. Theft, therefore, is condemned by the gods and punished by whipping. The ownership of other humans in the form of slavery is not outright banned, but it is nonetheless constrained “within the limits of what is pious.” The Stranger provides divine sanction to private property, moderating its use and ensuring that the citizens prioritize their soul over the accumulation of property.
The Republic and The Laws Compared and Contrasted
At first glance, Socrates and the Athenian Stranger appear to possess profound differences of opinion on both the implications of private property and the possibilities of politics. Socrates in the Republic repeatedly relates private property to disunion, faction, and discord. The guardians must “possess nothing private but the body” because “human beings divide into factions over the possession of money, children and relatives.” The degeneration of the best regime into a timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and, finally, a tyranny corresponds with a rise in faction paralleling a newfound emphasis on material goods. The oligarchic man, for instance, divides between the rich and the poor because he “is not free from faction within himself.” To eradicate disunity, Socrates appears to believe that private property must be abolished in the best regime. The Athenian Stranger of the Laws, in contrast, has no expectation of seeing private property annihilated. Instead, he favors moderating each citizen’s commercialist instincts by properly educating them, instilling in them a devotion to the gods, and convincing them to follow the legal restrictions on property. The Stranger also suggests that protecting property can actually benefit the common good by providing people with the resources to have spare leisure time. “One wouldn’t find, nowadays,” he claims, “another city the equal of ours in its provision of leisure time or of the necessities, but it is nonetheless necessary for this city, just as for a single human being, to live well.”
In addition to their apparent differences of opinion on the role of property in the city, Socrates and the Stranger seem to diverge on the optimal structure of government to carry out their proposals. Perhaps the most famous teaching of Socrates’ in the Republic involves his contention that justice will not exist in the city until “philosophers rule as kings” and “political power and philosophy coincide in the same place.” The second-class of citizens, the guardians, possess the spiritedness demanded to protect the city but they also maintain the virtuous education needed to give up their love of property and love the city in its stead. Relatively little is said about the lowliest of citizens, the auxiliaries, who simply undertake the tasks most-suited to their nature and perform the pedestrian tasks of the city, such as farming and housebuilding. The city of the Republic represents perfect justice in the soul because reason, spiritedness, and appetite each rule in their proper place, leading to a perfect harmony in the regime. The Athenian Stranger in the Laws, in contrast, spends much more time delineating the role of virtue in the citizenry. The citizens here must be educated towards virtue because the legislator must “look to the whole of virtue” rather than merely a part. These differences inform the Platonic teaching of private property in important respects. The Republic anticipates that only a portion of the city should communize their property, whereas the Laws dismisses communism and provides more importance to the virtue of the actual body of citizens.
However important these differences may appear, the similarities between the Republic and the Laws cannot be overlooked. The end of political society according to both texts remains the cultivation of human excellence in the form of virtue, the only state of the soul that can produce true happiness in each citizen. “Virtue,” Socrates explains, “would be a certain health, beauty and good condition of a soul, and vice a sickness, ugliness, and weakness.” Much as the doctor should seek to return his patient to health when they succumb to an ailment, the ruler should rear his citizens in virtue and steer them away from vice. With respect to these ideas, the Athenian Stranger of the Laws is in emphatic agreement with Socrates: “[W]e would assert that the life that possesses virtue, of body and soul, is more pleasant than the life possessing vice, and that in the other respects—beauty, correctness, virtue, and fame—it is far superior to the life of vice.” The best laws seek to instill virtues, both divine and human, in the citizens so that they take pleasure in the right things and despise what is wrong.
With the end of virtue unequivocally established in both texts, private property is placed in a subordinate role to one supreme good. Among the vices most routinely deplored by both Socrates and the Stranger is the excessive love of private property in the form of greed. “When wealth and the wealthy are honored in a city,” Socrates avers, “virtue and the good men are less honorable.” The Athenian Stranger likewise rebukes the “insatiable greed for gold and silver” that motivates citizens to “perform without disgust any action whether pious or impious, if only it gives him, like a beast, the power to eat and drink all sorts of things and provides him with total gratification of every sexual lust.” In both instances, the speaker indicts a citizen in possession of a poorly-disposed soul: the first of whom “honors” wealth, while the second possesses “insatiable greed.” In contrast to those critiques of private property that posit that the property is in and of itself the impetus for all destructive human actions, both Socrates and the Stranger seem to accredit the intangible soul—and not property—with far more priority. They fear that excessive focus on property in the city, through its encouragement of the vices of immoderation and greed, stirs citizens to focus on their worldly interests instead of their eternal soul.
Socrates and the Athenian Stranger assail the notion that the protection of private property is the exclusive purpose of politics not only because they fear the loss of virtue in the soul, but also because such a reductionist account precludes any recognition of man’s political nature. Both Socrates and the Stranger anticipate Aristotle’s later remark that “man is by nature a political animal.” When Socrates accounts for the origin of political society, he argues that citizens decide to live together because they would be incomplete otherwise. Citizens can more easily provide for bodily needs such as food, housing, and clothing when living in a community with others. Even more importantly, Socrates repudiates the sophistry that identifies justice as an unnatural, artificial creation of individuals who associate with each other only out of fear of suffering injustice to their lives and property. Similarly, the Athenian Stranger in the Laws describes the earliest political societies as arising when families and clans banded together out of their “delight” for building relationships with additional people. Private property rights such as food and wealth were “not something that they fought over.” Plato in both dialogues suggests that humans are naturally relational, political creatures who desire to live together in a harmonious community of friends. When political governments emphasize only the pursuit of property, they dampen the potential for harmony in the city by promoting conditions leading to factionalism, commercialism, and individual self-interest over the good of the whole city.
The Republic and the Laws maintain a mutual interest in producing virtuous souls and in fulfilling man’s political nature. Why, then, do the texts appear to disagree over the best means to accomplish these ends? Their disagreements can be accounted for by considering their different goals. Interpreters err who consider the Republic to be first and foremost a work striving to provide legislators with a set of political policy prescriptions to be carried out. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau correctly observed, the Republic “is not at all a political work, as think those who judge books only by their titles. It is the most beautiful educational treatise ever written.” Plato sought in the Republic to encourage an education that orients the human soul towards the good by teaching them about the nature of justice. Socrates claims that if his students can watch “a city coming into being in speech,” they will probably “see its justice coming into being, and its injustice.” By the end of the work, he has established that the just city and soul are ordered according to nature. Reason rules, while spiritedness and appetite play a subordinate role. The communism of property in the guardian class represents that the spirited portion of the soul must not be allowed to be overcome by the appetite for the accumulation of property. In truth, “it makes no difference” whether the city in speech can ever exist “outside of heaven” because it has accomplished Socrates’ mission of teaching about the conditions for a well-ordered soul.
Though the Laws provides profound claims concerning subjects such as theology and education, the text is in general much more politically motivated than the Republic. Consequently, the Athenian Stranger possesses a more realistic attitude about politics. Referencing the utopia of the Republic, the Athenian Stranger in the Laws affirms that “that city and that regime are first, and the laws are best, where the old proverb holds that . . . the things of friends really are common.” In this respect, he appears to agree with Socrates’ idea that abstract, perfect justice demands the abolition of property. The Stranger goes on, however, to remark that “such a city is inhabited, presumably, by gods or children of gods” who “dwell in gladness, leading such a life.” As humans are decidedly unlike the gods, the construction of a just political society must take into account the more limited capacities of human nature. Communism, the Stranger maintains, “would be too demanding for the birth, nurture, and education” that he has proposed throughout the Laws. Unlike the philosopher-king of the Republic, who must rule the city according to abstract conceptions of justice, the statesman of the Laws must be a realist who takes into account the traditions and culture of his city. “The one who orders things should aim at what is possible, and not waste his wishes or his efforts on what is vain.” The most effective reforms in the city do not take place by expelling those over ten years of age, as in the Republic. Instead, the Stranger admonishes the legislator to strive for “small, careful transformation that gradually produces a small result over a long period of time.”
Plato’s teachings on private property within the Republic and the Laws do not contradict each other; in fact, they complement each other. Socrates in the Republic paints a portrait of a city arranged according to an unrealizable ideal of justice. Each citizen has a single-minded devotion to the common good. Private interests are abolished in this abstraction because perfection demands complete unity behind the common good. In the Laws, the Athenian Stranger shares Socrates’ disdain for disunion but no longer believes that private interests such as property must be abolished. Instead, he favors moderating avarice through political institutions such as education and religion. Compared with the Republic, the Laws presents a more realistic regime in which the law recognizes the limits of human nature but nonetheless strives to improve the souls of each citizen. In both the Republic and the Laws, Plato never loses sight of virtue as the task of politics and he subordinates private property to this higher goal. Private property must be understood as a means to the end of obtaining a good soul, and not as the end in and of itself. “Poverty,” he admonishes, “consists not in the lessening of one’s property but in an increase of one’s avarice.” Ultimately, the goods of the soul matter more than property—however necessary it may be in an imperfect world.
Plato’s understanding of politics as the forging of good-souled citizens doubtless sounds alien to modern readers habituated to think of politics in terms of who can best provide citizens with great amounts of wealth. The debate between the political right and the left, in many cases, is between divergent visions for how to create a more economically abundant society. The socialist intellectual Harold Lasswell defined politics as “deciding who gets what, when and how.” Similarly, a successful presidential campaign suggested that the nation’s priority was “the economy, stupid” and not the creation of a virtuous soul. In the context of this modern atmosphere, Plato’s belief that statecraft is soulcraft appears hopelessly outmoded—perhaps even dangerous. For this philosopher, those who believe that the good legislator only needs to “make the city . . . as rich as possible” displace man’s eternal soul for the sake of earthly goods. If human nature demands certain goods to achieve true happiness, such as piety, virtue, and political community, then his teachings may explain the West’s current beleaguered state of mind and crisis of purpose. Plato reminds denizens of cities all over the world that “the art of politics” is nothing less than “the art whose business it is to care for souls,” and it is that view that must temper a just view of private property.
Aristotle, Politics. 2nd ed. Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2013.
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Modern Library, 1967.
Lasswell, Harold D. Politics: Who Gets What, When How. New York: McGraw Hill, 1936.
Plato. The Laws of Plato. Translated by Thomas L. Pangle. New York: Basic Books, 1980.
Plato. The Republic of Plato. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile or On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979.
Notes William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Modern Library, 1967), 121.  All Republic citations taken from Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom, 2nd edition (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 7.
3] 3, 327a. Ibid., 327a.  Ibid., 7, 331a-e.  Ibid., 44, 367a-e.  Ibid., 47, 370c.  Ibid., 47-48, 370b-371e.  Ibid., 49, 372e.  Ibid., 52, 375c.  Ibid., 99, 422a.  Ibid., 95, 416d.  Ibid., 141, 462c.  Ibid., 97, 419a.  Ibid., 226, 549b.  All Laws citations taken from Plato, The Laws of Plato, trans. Thomas Pangle (New York: Basic Books, 1980).  Laws, 10, 631a.  Ibid., 631c.  Ibid., 631c.  Ibid., 129, 741d.  Ibid., 114, 729b.  Ibid., 129, 742a.  Ibid., 132, 744d-745b.  Ibid., 133, 746a.  Ibid., 23, 643a-e.  Ibid., 196-197, 806e-807a.  Ibid., 131-132, 744b-c.  Ibid., 737e.  Ibid., 3, 624a.  Ibid., 158-159, 771b-d.  Ibid., 745b.  Ibid., 771b.  Ibid., 313, 914b.  Ibid., 313, 914b.  The Republic, 144, 464d-e.  Ibid., 232-233, 554d.  Laws, 23, 643a-e; 218, 828a.  Ibid., 219, 828a.  The Republic, 153, 473d.  Laws, 9, 630e.  The Republic, 9, 630e.  Ibid., 20, 342e.  Laws, 121, 734d.  Ibid., 32, 653c.  The Republic, 228, 551a.  Laws, 222, 831d.  Aristotle, Politics, 2nd ed, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2013), 1253a.  The Republic, 46, 369d.  Ibid., 37, 358e-359c.  Laws, 61, 678e.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 40.  The Republic, 45, 369a.  Ibid., 592a-b.  Laws, 126, 739c.  Ibid., 126, 739e.  Ibid., 126-127, 740a.  Ibid., 130, 742e.  Ibid., 123, 736d.  Ibid., 123, 736e.  Harold Lasswell, Politics:Who Gets What, When, How (New York: McGraw Hill, 1936), iii.  Laws,130, 742d.  Ibid., 31, 650b.
This was published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on December 29, 2019.