This is something I had addressed originally while I was in school at BYU. And it is something that everybody, especially today, fights about: “What is the right kind of citizen?” While my original response to that questions was quite lengthy (as all university productions seem to be), this one has been pared down to fit on the site Thelatest.com.
But to refine it even further, St. Thomas Equinas, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle agreed, essentially, that the best citizen was someone who believed that their actions, and their choices, were accountable to some greater (or higher) power, or “The Highest Good.”
(Originally posted on https://thelatest.com/tlt/6157)
In describing the ideal citizen, Plato explains in The Republic about what he calls “The Highest Good,” or deity. Most ancient philosophers refer to The Good as an idea or being that gave purpose to human existence and a point-of-reference for all human action.
Thomas Aquinas said,
“Since such acts take their species from their objects, and are known through their objects, any given one of these acts will be the more perfect, the more perfect its object is. Consequently, to understand the most perfect intelligible object, which is God, will be the most perfect instance of the activity of understanding.”
Deities did not begin as instruments of fear, but embodied the perfect idea of justice, equity, and intelligence. We can understand why this was so important to the Greeks, specifically, because of the role of the city in their lives.
To the Greeks the city was the measure of the health of the people, it was the pride of the Greek people in every city. This is hard for us to understand, but to them, the city was like your favorite team, your country, and family rolled into one.
Aristotle described the role of The Highest Good in the city:
“A young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action”
This makes sense. They could not trust the affairs of state to one who is not skilled in politics, nor could they entrust warfare to one who has never waged war. So how could they trust the most important thing (the city) to one who is less than deity?
Therefore, Plato says the best ruler is an oligarchy of philosophers. He says that philosophers best approximate The Good. However, he admits this will inevitably form a democracy which, he says, is one of the worst forms of government because democracies are driven by the base desires of man.
Eventually this natural decline of morals creates a society from which spring dictatorships. Plato says that the people will fall so far from The Good that they will choose someone to replace it.
Is it any surprise that after the gap between the ancient The Highest Good and the people began to form that tyrannical kingdoms were ever more frequent?
It is a pattern that has repeated itself many times throughout history: when pharaoh replaced Egypt’s gods with his personification of the sun god, Egypt was crippled for a time. When Rome replaced theirs with an altered version of Christianity, it became a tool of political power, and Rome fell shortly thereafter.
The ideal citizen, according to the Greeks, must be concerned with his neighbor and approximate The Good.
The attributes of The Highest Good can be found in every religion. In The Republic, Socrates said:
“…to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State […] Observe […] that there will be no injustice in compelling our philosophers to have a care and providence of others…”