Plato and Aristotle on the Family: Selected Quotes

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.
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Plato and Aristotle have proposed radical views on the family, which influenced the debate on the topic in Western philosophy. Check out these quotes that demonstrate just that.

Plato on the Family

Plato, one of history's most respected philosophers, provided his thoughts on the family in both the "Republic," his most influential work, as well as in "Laws."

A Family in Name Only?

Shall they be a family in name only; or shall they in all their actions be true to the name? For example, in the use of the word 'father,' would the care of a father be implied and the filial reverence and duty and obedience to him which the law commands; and is the violator of these duties to be regarded as an impious and unrighteous person who is not likely to receive much good either at the hands of God or of man? Are these to be or not to be the strains which the children will hear repeated in their ears by all the citizens about those who are intimated to them to be their parents and the rest of their kinsfolk? – These, he said, and none other; for what can be further ridiculous than for them to utter the names of family ties with the lips only and not to act in the spirit of them?—"Republic, Book V"

Under the Rule of the Eldest

When these larger habitations grew up out of the lesser original ones, each of the lesser ones would survive in the larger; every family would be under the rule of the eldest, and, owing to their separation from one another, would have peculiar customs in things divine and human, which they would have received from their several parents who had educated them; and these customs would incline them to order when the parents had the element of order in their nature, and to courage, when they had the element of courage. And they would naturally stamp upon their children, and upon their children's children, their own likings; and, as we are saying, they would find their way into the larger society, having already their own peculiar laws.—"Laws, Book III"

Aristotle on the Family

Aristotle, another famous Greek philosopher who was a student of Plato's, also made observations on the family, both in "A Treatise on Government" and "Politics."

Man Without Family Is Reviled

Hence it is evident that a city is a natural production, and that man is naturally a political animal, and that whosoever is naturally and not accidentally unfit for society, must be either inferior or superior to man: thus the man in Homer, who is reviled for being "without society, without law, without family." Such a one must naturally be of a quarrelsome disposition, and as solitary as the birds.—"A Treatise on Government"

Whole Comes Before the Parts

Besides, the notion of a city naturally precedes that of a family or an individual, for the whole, must necessarily be prior to the parts, for if you take away the whole man, you cannot say a foot or a hand remains, unless by equivocation, as supposing a hand of stone to be made, but that would only be a dead one; but everything is understood to be this or that by its energic qualities and powers, so that when these no longer remain, neither can that be said to be the same, but something of the same name. That a city then precedes an individual is plain, for if an individual is not in himself sufficient to compose a perfect government, he is to a city as other parts are to a whole; but he that is incapable of society, or so complete in himself as not to want it, makes no part of a city, as a beast or a god.—"A Treatise on Government"

Family Is More Than the State

I am speaking of the premise from which the argument of Socrates proceeds, 'that the greater the unity of the state the better.' Is it not obvious that a state may at length attain such a degree of unity as to be no longer a state? Since the nature of a state is to be a plurality and intending to greater unity, from being a state, it becomes a family, and from being a family, an individual; for the family may be said to be more than the state, and the individual than the family. So that we ought not to attain this greatest unity even if we could, for it would be the destruction of the state. Again, a state is not made up only of so many men, but of different kinds of men; for similars do not constitute a state.—"Politics, Book II"

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Borghini, Andrea. "Plato and Aristotle on the Family: Selected Quotes." ThoughtCo, Jun. 27, 2021, Borghini, Andrea. (2021, June 27). Plato and Aristotle on the Family: Selected Quotes. Retrieved from Borghini, Andrea. "Plato and Aristotle on the Family: Selected Quotes." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).