Ancient and Medieval Political Philosophy

How should society be structured? What is the proper role of government? Which values and rights should be upheld? These enduring questions have challenged philosophers across centuries. Core debates on justice, authority, and the public good that shaped ancient Greek and medieval European thought continue to inform political discourse today.

This article will survey major developments in ancient and medieval political philosophy. First it will examine Greek thinkers including Plato and Aristotle who pioneered systematic political theorizing in the West. Next it will discuss leading Roman, Christian, and Islamic political ideas during the Middle Ages. Key themes and questions will be compared across the traditions and timespans. Understanding this seminal foundation helps illuminate why modern democracies take their present forms.

Ancient Greek Political Philosophy

Classical Greek philosophy arose around the 6th century BC as thinkers abandoned purely mythological explanations and began using reason and observation to explain the natural world.[1] Bold innovations in science, ethics, and politics followed. Political tumult shaped much of this theorizing.


Plato (c.428-348 BC) composed his major works amidst war and instability in Athens. He believed better leadership could restore order and justice.[2] In The Republic, Plato described an ideal city-state ruled by enlightened philosopher-kings selected and trained from birth. Strict social classes perform distinct roles like guardianship, production, and governance.

Plato’s revolutionary utopia subordinated family ties and private property to collective needs. Truth-seeking philosophers benevolently guide the masses towards order and self-mastery. Though profoundly authoritarian by modern standards, Plato’s vision inspired later thinkers to imagine ideal societies.[3] However, his pupil Aristotle would reject Plato’s totalitarian leanings while adapting other insights.


Aristotle (384-322 BC) distinguished constitutions by whether they serve the common good or corrupt rulers’ private interests. In his Politics, he categorized political systems as rule by one, few, or many. Monarchy risks tyranny of a despot, while aristocracy can enable enlightened decisions but may devolve into oligarchy.[4]

Aristotle favored polity, a constitutional form mixing democracy and oligarchy that balances wisdom and consent. Laws should promote human flourishing through moderation. He was among the first to systematically study regimes’ stability, transitions, and causes of political strife.[5] Aristotle crucially distinguished theoretical ideal systems from messy realities. His empirical tendencies better suit modern analysis than Plato’s abstract utopias.

Greek Concepts and Debates

Ancient Greek thinkers originated several foundational political concepts:[6]

  • Justice – Proper order in the state and fair allocation of resources among citizens.
  • Equality – Whether law should disregard status and wealth distinctions.
  • Citizenship – Defining political community membership and participation.
  • Constitutions – Purposes and structure of political decision-making systems.

They also disputed recurring issues like:

  • Individual rights versus communal duties to the state.
  • Balance of political power across distinct branches and social classes.
  • Qualities of virtuous leaders, whether philosopher-kings orequals.
  • Relationships between ethics, law, and education in shaping citizens.
  • Causes of political instability and how to preserve order.

These themes carried forward but were adapted as thinkers applied reason to new contexts. Decline of direct Greek democracy shifted focus toward mixed constitutions and the rule of law.[7]

Roman and Christian Political Thought

The Roman Republic and Empire dominated the Mediterranean for centuries after displacing Greeks. Roman thinkers emphasized law, administration, and pragmatism over abstract philosophy. Christianity then infused classical ideas with biblical theology and ethics.[8]

Roman Contributions

Roman leader Cicero (106-43 BC) in On The Republic praised Greek philosophy but grounded politics in Roman history. He advocated a mixed constitution balancing monarchy (consuls), aristocracy (Senate), and democracy (public assemblies). Law must establish order, justice, and reasoned governance.[9]

The Roman poet Virgil crafted the Aeneid as a national epic legitimizing Augustus’ reign. By linking Rome’s founding to divine destiny through heroic Trojan warrior Aeneas, Virgil provided divine sanction for imperial authority. Such myths bolstered political legitimacy based on Roman virtues and greatness.[10]

Roman jurisprudence also contributed legal concepts like natural law, public vs private realms, and property rights that continue shaping modern politics.[11] As the Empire eventually Christianized, the Church became entwined with imperial rule.

Early Christian Thought

Christianity arose within the Roman Empire but came into conflict with its worship of earthly rulers and pagan gods. As the minority faith spread, thinkers addressed political questions. The New Testament prescribed obedience to governing authorities but prioritized God and spiritual redemption.[12]

Saint Augustine (354-430 AD) in The City of God outlined dual loyalist ties to earthly and heavenly cities. Secular and sacred authority should cooperate but not overreach their proper jurisdiction.[13] Augustine developed the doctrine of just war, laying criteria for Christian participation in conflicts. His work dominated medieval Christian thought.

Islamic and Judaic Contributions

Meanwhile in the Middle East, the spread of Islam from the 7th century sparked extensive engagement with Greek philosophy and political questions. Islamic scholars preserved and elaborated many Greek texts.[14]

Key figures like Miskawayh (932-1030 AD) and al-Farabi (872-950 AD) adapted ancient Greek ideas of virtue, justice, and ideal rulership to Koranic principles. But contention also emerged between religious orthodoxy and rationalist methods.[15]

Jewish thinkers including Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 AD) synthesized Aristotelian philosophy, theology, and law. His writings unified reason and revelation while clarifying faith and commands. This integration of ancient and scriptural knowledge suffused medieval thought across faiths.[16]

Medieval Theories of Authority

During the European Middle Ages, monarchs and ecclesiastical hierarchy dominated but faced challenges to their legitimacy. New theories emerged on the sources of ruling authority and rights.

Divine Right

As Roman power dissolved, Germanic tribes carved new kingdoms from the remnants. Early medieval rulers invoked divine will to legitimize conquest and amalgamate people of varied backgrounds.[17]

In England and France, priest-penned coronation rites compared monarchs to Old Testament figures chosen by God. This sanctification aimed to stabilize dynastic power amid contention over territories and vassalage systems. Over time, divine right doctrine risked overempowering kings against papal authority.[18]

Papal Supremacy

In the 11th-13th centuries, Church reformers asserted papal primacy over secular rulers. Canon law codified papal powers to enthrone and excommunicate rulers. Popes claimed ultimate authority over Christendom.[19]

This emboldened Gregory VII to humble Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV by forcing him to repent begging for pardon. But papal overreach also catalyzed conflicts like the English investiture crisis where kings resisted appointment of bishops by Rome.[20] The Church struggled to impose order across an anarchic web of warlords and monarchs.

Early Constraints on Power

In 1215, English nobles pressured King John into signing the Magna Carta, among the first documents limiting royal authority and upholding legal rights.[21] It protected church privileges and feudal barons’ interests but also contained proto-democratic ideals that seeded future parliamentary power and constitutionalism.[22]

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) synthesized Aristotle and theology. He argued constitutional oversight rightfully constrains monarchs prone to sin and excess. Law should uphold ethics and welfare.[23] Aquinas exemplified tensions in medieval thought between order under divine chains of being versus proto-democratic stirrings.

Late Medieval Crisis and Transition

As the Middle Ages waned, turmoil undermined established theories and institutions of authority. The Church was riven by schisms. War and revolt toppled rulers. New theories responded to instability while drawing deeply on ancient learning.[24]

Marsilius of Padua’s 1324 text Defensor Pacis (“Defender of Peace”) attacked priestly corruption and advocated proto-secular rule of law under representative assemblies.[25] The unsettled era seeded political concepts and power conflicts that anticipated the coming Renaissance.


Greek, Roman, medieval Christian and Islamic thinkers formulated enduring questions and alternative models of political organization. Debates on human nature, justice, authority, rights, constitutions, law, and political morality evolved through eras of turmoil. Ancient principles like virtue, natural law, and just war doctrine carried forward but were also contested and adapted to new contexts. This rich heritage continues to inform modern politics.


[1] Lloyd, G. (2002). The origins of political philosophy. In Vickers, J. (Ed.) The History of Human Conduct. Acumen Publishing.

[2] Kraut, R. (2017). Plato. In Zalta, E.N. (Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Popper, K.R. (2013). The open society and its enemies. Princeton University Press.

[4] Aristotle, & Sinclair, T. A. (1981). The politics. Penguin.

[5] Mulgan, R. G. (1977). Aristotle’s political theory. Clarendon Press.

[6] Shields, C., & Samaras, A. (2016). Aristotle’s psychology. In Zalta, E.N. (Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[7] Raaflaub, K. A. (2004). Political thought, civic responsibility, and the study of ancient history. In Raaflaub, K.A. (Ed.) Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders. Blackwell Publishing.

[8] Ullmann, W. (1965). A short history of the papacy in the Middle Ages. Methuen.

[9] Zetzel, J. E. (1999). Cicero: De republica selections. Cambridge University Press.

[10] Galinsky, K. (2012). Augustus’ legislation on morals and marriage. In Galinsky, K. (Ed.) Augustus: Introduction to the Life of an Emperor. Cambridge University Press.

[11] Johnston, D. (1999). Roman law in context. Cambridge University Press.

[12] Berman, H. J. (1983). Law and revolution: The formation of the western legal tradition. Harvard University Press.

[13] Markus, R. A. (2006). Gregory the Great and a papal missionary strategy. In Straw, C. & Lim, R. (Eds.) The Past Before Us: The Challenge of Historiographies of Late Antiquity. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

[14] Gutas, D. (1998). Greek thought, Arabic culture: The Graeco-Arabic translation movement in Baghdad and early Abbasid society. Routledge.

[15] Butterworth, C. E. (2015). Ethics in medieval Islamic philosophy. Journal of Religious Ethics, 43(2), 268-291.

[16] Leaman, O. (1985). An introduction to medieval Islamic philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

[17] Kantorowicz, E. H. (2016). The king’s two bodies: A study in medieval political theology. Princeton University Press.

[18] Strayer, J. R. (1970). On the medieval origins of the modern state. Princeton University Press.

[19] Pennington, K. (1993). The prince and the law, 1200-1600: Sovereignty and rights in the Western legal tradition. University of California Press.

[20] Robinson, I. S. (1990). Church and papacy in the Middle Ages. Variorum.

[21] Carpenter, D. A. (2015). Magna Carta. Penguin UK.

[22] Hindley, G. (2013). A brief history of citizenship. New York University Press.

[23] Sigmund, P. E. (1988). Law and politics. In Kretzmann, N. et al (Eds.) The Cambridge history of later medieval philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

[24] Canning, J. (2011). Ideas of power in the late Middle Ages, 1296-1417. Cambridge University Press.

[25] Ryan, M. (1981). Marsilius of Padua and the Truth of History. Journal of the History of Ideas, 42(3), 451-462.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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