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There is no unified definition for Natural Law. For Chandola Van, ‘‘every philosopher seems to have his or her definition of natural law.’’[1] However, for this overview, Natural law can be defined as a set of ‘‘standards of ethical conduct that can be known by all human beings without any special revelations from a supernatural source’’. In early philosophical conceptions on the topic, a close relationship was established between the Universe and human nature in the quest for the identification of rules and principles constituting the substance of Natural Law. Somehow, Natural Law was identified as a set of rules and principles pre-existing to human nature, or as rules and principles intrinsically connected and submitted to human nature. Theories of Natural Law have inspired contemporary legal systems, as well as modern political science and current conceptions of statesmanship. The modern conceptions of Natural Law evolved from early theories elaborated by Post-Socratic philosophers in Greece during Classical Antiquity. Indeed, the literature on this subject acknowledges that Plato and Aristotle would be seen as the precursors of Natural Law. Even if in their days, Natural Law was in its embryonic stage of development in the sense that it was not fully synthesized before the outstanding contribution of Cicero, Christian philosophers of the medieval and enlightenment era, it is not less established that fundamental ideas of Natural Law exist in the philosophical theories elaborated by Plato and Aristotle in their writings.

I. Plato's ideas of natural law, justice, and statesmanship

First of all, no explicit theory of natural law appears in Plato’s philosophical dialogues. Incidentally, the reference to Natural Law appears twice. First in Gorgias[2], second in Timaeus[3]. Based on this observation, Wild John affirms that Plato’s conception of nature has developed certain elements taken up by several theorists of natural law[4]. Furthermore, in The Republic, Plato’s conception of natural law appears in the form of a philosophical quest for justice and an ideal city. According to Plato, nature exists as a vast ordered whole which he calls sometimes “heaven”[5], sometimes “ideal city”[6]. However, any reference to an ordered universe implies the existence of a perfect order constituted by laws pre-existing in human nature. Therefore, the use of reason to acquire supreme knowledge of these laws becomes the ultimate goal of all life to achieve social harmony. In the allegory of the cave[7], Plato presents philosophy as the ultimate method to reach true justice presented as the Good. The concepts of Good, Virtue, and Justice are used synonymously. Justice is defined as the pursuit of collective happiness and well-being and would be achieved only when human beings transition from the physical world to the intelligible world through reason. Therefore, for Plato, the ideal community is a city that would be established by nature:

‘‘So, if a state is constituted on natural principles, the wisdom it possesses as a whole will be due to the knowledge residing in the smallest part, the one which takes the lead and governs the rest. Such knowledge is only the kind that deserves the name of wisdom, and it appears to be ordained by nature that the class privileged to possess it should be the smallest of all.’’[8] However, these natural principles which constitute the foundation of Natural Law are inaccessible to ordinary human beings. Mastering these natural principles requires the highest virtue of the ideal city which is wisdom that only philosophers possess. Based on this evidence, Plato will elaborate on the principle of the government of philosophers:

‘‘Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, or the human race, as I believe, -and then only will this our state have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.’’[9] It follows that according to Plato, the purpose of the art of government is the achievement of collective well-being through justice. It takes wisdom to achieve this goal, the statesman must come out of obscurantism thanks to reason to be a decoder of the laws established in nature to regulate and guarantee social harmony.

This conception of the status of a statesman is taken up in Statesman. Indeed, Plato foresees that the management of the city is a science that requires leading officials to exhibit the highest type of virtues gained through a unique education curriculum:

“As the adviser of a physician may be said to have medical science and to be a physician, so the adviser of a king has royal science and is a king. And the mast of a large household may be compared to the ruler of a small state. Hence we conclude that the science of the king, statesman, and householder is the same. And this science is akin to knowledge rather than action. For a king rules with his mind, not with his hands. And the statesman is not a groom, but a herdsman and his art may be called either the art of managing a herd, or the art of collective management.’’[10] Yet the wisdom required to direct public affairs is a virtue reserved exclusively for philosophers, as articulated in The Republic (484a-487a).

Finally, Plato culminates his conception of justice and politics by specifying: “(…) a true polity is one wherein law reigns undisputedly swayed, and where all the laws are framed in the interests of the community as a whole.”[11] The ordered universe reemerges with the idea that the law is an emanation of a Divine Supreme Being, and that it is up to the minority of well-educated rulers to receive it to perpetuate the virtue of wisdom in political society:

‘‘Athenian: To whom do you ascribe the authorship of your legal arrangements, Strangers? To a god or some man?

Clinias. To a god, Stranger, most rightly to a god. We Cretans call Zeus our lawgiver; while in Lacedaemon, where our friend here has his home, I believe they claim Apollo as theirs.’’[12]

II. Aristotle's worldview of natural law, justice, and statesmanship

Aristotle, a disciple, and critic of Plato approaches the theory of natural law by postulating the existence of a common law made up of rules and principles in conformity with nature and which are imposed on all without discrimination. In Rhetoric, Aristotle asserts:

“Universal law is the law of Nature. For there is, a very one to some extent divine, a natural justice, and injustice that is binding on all men, even those who have no association or covenant with each other’’.[13] For Aristotle, man is a political animal whose existence can only be conceived within the perimeter of a political community organized by laws:

“A proof that the state is a creation of nature and before the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficient; and therefore he is like a part of the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself. Must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.’’[14]The common point between Aristotle and Plato lies in the purpose of the political community: the pursuit of collective well-being. Like Plato, Aristotle asserts: ‘‘Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts to obtain that which they think good’’[15].

From Aristotle’s perspective, human beings cannot achieve their well-being outside of a political community established by pre-existing laws. Indeed, every single political community implies the existence of an orderly society with well-established rules and principles regulating the management of public affairs among community members. It appears that as developed by Plato in The Republic, Aristotle presents the virtue of justice as the pursuit and the achievement of collective well-being and happiness of the political community. In fact, ‘‘every community is established with a view to some good.’’

Lastly, to guarantee the perpetuation of the political community, Aristotle is aware that the government of the city should be established on principles of justice and should be led by virtuous and good leaders:

‘‘When the government is personal, the ruler is a king; when, according to the rules of the political science, the citizens rule and are ruled in turn, then he is called a statesman.’’[16]

‘‘But will there then be no case in which the virtue of the good citizen and the virtue of the good man coincide? To this, we answer that the good ruler is a good and wise man and that he who would be a statesman must be a wise man. And some persons say that even the education of the ruler should be of a special kind; for are not the children of kings instructed in riding and military exercises?’’[17]

First, Aristotle incorporates a community engagement approach to government in his definition of statesmanship. Citizens’ participation in the decision-making process provides the political community with the opportunity to achieve collective well-being.

Second, some standards of ethical conduct that a statesman shall be bound by appearing in this definition. Virtue and goodness are required, and a statesman shall be instructed to manage the political community for collective happiness.

In conclusion, Plato and Aristotle’s ideas on Natural Law outlined the quest of human beings for justice and collective happiness within an ideal political community. Collective well-being would be achieved only through compliance to principles and rules set in Nature by a Supreme Being, the sole source of justice and law. Moreover, Plato and Aristotle’s writings bear evidence of the fact that the need for true justice is part of human nature, because ‘‘God created man in his image’’ (Genesis 1:27, KJV) to rule over the creation in compliance with God’s commandments (Genesis 2: 15-17). The perfect connection between Natural Law and human nature is also addressed in the Scriptures:

‘‘For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.

It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and thy heart, that thou mayest do it’’ (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).


By Virgile Rivet Samba-Moussinga,

Cofounder and Coordinator of PAOPJE 


Aristotle (1943). Politics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett with an Introduction by Max Lerner. New York: The Modern Library.

Aristotle (1867). Rhetorics. London: Cambridge University Press.

Chandola, Van. ''A Unified Definition of Natural Law''. Kansas: The Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol.11(2001). p. 195.

Plato (1864). Gorgias. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and CO. 

Plato (1961). Laws. Translated by R.G. Bury, Litt D. London: Harvard University Press.

Plato (1871). Statesman.Translated by Benjamin Jowett. London: Oxford University Press.

Plato (1970). The Republic. Translation with Introduction and notes by Francis MacDonald Cornford. London: Oxford University Press.

Plato (1888). Timaeus. With Introduction and Notes by R.D. Archer-Hind. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Wild, John (1953). Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



[1] Chandola, V. ''A Unified Definition of Natural Law''. Kansas: The Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy. Vol.11(1), p. 195.

[2] Plato. Gorgias, 484.

[3] Plato. Timaeus, 83.

[4] Wild, John. Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.136.

[5] Plato. Republic. ix.591.

[6] Plato. The Republic. vii. 543a-550 c.

[7] Plato. Ibidem. 514 a-521b.

[8] Plato. Ibidem. iv. 428.

[9] Plato. Ibidem. 471c-474b.

[10] Plato. Statesman. p.6.

[11] Plato. Ibidem. p.15.

[12] Plato.Ibid. p.27

[13] Aristotle. Rhetoric. 1673.b2.

[14] Aristotle. Politics. p.6.

[15] Aristotle. Ibid. p.1.

[16] Aristotle. Ibid.

[17] Aristotle. Ibid. p. 51.


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