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Plato – The Republic, Machiavelli – The Prince, Hobbes – Leviathan Essay

1. The Lessons of Nature

The most important lesson I believe I have learned about modern and historical politics from my reading of Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, is that Western society has historically viewed politics as a way to grapple with human nature and the self-interests which are believed to drive human behavior. Although this perception of human nature has opposing views among Western philosophers such as Locke, I took the collective impact of The Republic, The Prince, and Leviathan as penetrating insights into the hierarchical and self-interested aspects of humanity, which in some ways, by some points of view seemed contrary, to me, to the essential viewpoint and philosophical perspective which may be necessary for Western society to embrace in the future.

So an important insight for me, in fact, the most important insight in my opinion is that these great philosophers denote, to a very large degree, the visions of the past, and ideas about politics, which, while still very current, are probably apt to evolve in the future.  One might even go so far as to suggest that the present, with its global discord and challenges presents a time of “punctuated equilibrium” for Western philosophical and political thought.

2. Hobbes’ Lesson of the Leviathan

To begin with, viewing the massive, sometimes oppressively “omnipotent” government in contemporary times as something which is not only necessary, but — in fact – demonstrates both the triumph of humanity over the hostilities of nature, but also the attainment of “justice” is sometimes difficult for me to see.  On the other hand, I have no issue with seeing that many other people, and in fact, people in powerful positions in government, belive this completely. When Hobbes writes that: “

Hitherto I have set forth the nature of Man, (whose Pride and other Passions have compelled him to submit himselfe to Government;) together with the great power of his Governour, whom I compared to Leviathan, taking that comparison out of the two last verses of the one and fortieth of Job; where God having set forth the great power of Leviathan, calleth him King of the Proud”  (Waller,1901, p. 231), I shudder to think that actual people in positions of power in the real world believe this as gospel. I think, specifically, of the Bush administration’s recent attempt to expand Presidential authority: “There is nothing, saith he, on earth, to be compared with him. He is made so as not to be afraid. Hee seeth every high thing below him; and is King of all the children of pride.” (Waller, 1901, p. 231)

3. The Lesson of the Modern Presidency

The logical outcome of the modern vision of the President as the leader of a specific political party, rather than the Constitutional conception of the President as a non-partisan arbiter of the Congress, is that individual Presidential candidates, rather than the political parties themselves, would emerge as the foremost consideration in Presidential elections. Hobbes’ Leviathan needs a “head” and in modern times his admonition, quoted below, seems especially frightening:

“The maintenance of Civill Society, depending on Justice and Justice on the power of Life and Death, and other lesse Rewards and Punishments, residing in them that have the Soveraignty of the Common-wealth; It is impossible a Common-wealth should stand, where any other than the Soveraign, hath a power of giving greater rewards than Life; and  of inflicting greater punishments, then Death (Waller, 1901, p. 326)

In practical terms, the rise of the “candidate” campaign has eliminated the old method of “platform” politics where a political parties ideological and issue-related stances are measured against one another with the direct contest between one  candidate and another.  One clear result of this practice is that individual candidates are now virtually dissected by the media and by prospective voters to measure their probable “characters” and “defects.” The fascination with individual manners, faux pas, manner of dress, speech, religious affiliation, past memberships in social organizations or clubs, or even past associations with friends or acquaintances now play, arguably, a more important role than issues in recent Presidential elections.

In modern Presidential politics, the political parties often seem like afterthoughts. The present day situation presents a precisely opposite vision of a Constitutional model for the American Presidency. Because the Presidential candidates are now regarded as leaders of their respective parties and not simply as nominees of them, the expectation is that a given candidate will follow, to partisan exclusion, the  aims and desires of his or her party. In fact, the expectation in modern politics is that the party and the candidate are virtually identical, but that in the long run executive, rather than democratic, authority is the final word. An entire library of observations could be written about the expansion of Presidential authority — indeed, the tyranny of Presidential authority — relative to political parties which is exemplified by the Bush administration.

4. The Lesson of Plato and Slavery

When reading political philosophy, I am usually aware of historical relationships that might seem a bit odd to others. Therefore, my thinking about not only the historical, but contemporary, impact of African American slavery in America while reading Plato’s Republic may seem off-beat at first, but the thought-process I underwent, and the conclusions I drew are part of the important lessons about political philosophy I learned from class-readings. One thing that stood out for me in all three writers was the hierarchical fundamental assumptions that comprised the core-beliefs of all three philosopher’s works. An example of this rigid, hierarchical thinking is found in the following passage of the  Republic:

they should receive the laws from us in the finest possible way like a dye, so that their    opinion about what’s terrible and about everything else would be color- fast because they had gotten the proper nature and rearing, and their dye could not be washed out by those lyes so terribly effective at scouring, pleasure (Plato,1991, p.108)

The kind of cultural schism encouraged by this kind of thinking, is, in reality, both profound and of long duration. I started to wonder what it would be like if one ruling class, reared on the airy ideas of Plato, the “objective” and hierarchical ideas of Hobbes, and the self-interested mastery of Machiavelli enacted the principles set forth in these philosophies, not as mere ideas, but as deep culturally encoded principles. Obviously, it was not a stretch to think fo the history of African Americans, first subjected to the tyranny of slavery, then cast into the role of “other” after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, who became a culture without any identity other than that which had been thrust upon them from their former “masters.”

However, African Americans were cast into an equally prejudicial cultural role in America and this time, the justification for both Northerners and Southerners was that slavery, though evil, had at least allowed for the “humanization” of the African race. This deep-seated racism obstructed any chance for the African Americans in the post Civil War era to geminate a specifically African American culture of their one making and instead cast them back into a role  very similar to the one they had occupied as slaves. The institution of slavery in America was malicious enough and long-lasting enough to genuinely sever African Americans from their historic cultural roots. The loss of their indigenous culture gave rise to hybrid African American cultures and a search for African American identity which, although many gains in civil liberties and social awareness have taken place,  continues to this day.

My thought is that any distinction of hierarchy where the intimation is that the rule of one class over another is both natural and necessary, will result in the erosion of culture in both the ruling and subjected classes.   Plato ridicules such an idea:

if the people are discontented and say that it is not just for a son in his prime to be supported by his father, but the reverse, the father should be supported by the son; and that they didn’t beget and set him up so that when he  had grown great they should be    slaves to their own slaves and support him and the slaves along with other flotsam, but so that with him as leader they would be freed from the rich and those who are said to be gentlemen in the city; and they now bid him and his comrades to go away from the city  like a father driving a son along with his trouble- some drinking fellows out of the house? (Plato, 1991, p. 118)

However, I would suggest that the historical case of African American slavery represents a very apt model for how the political philosophies of hierarchy can lead to enduring corruption because the contemporary political situation of the United States both domestically and internationally, is still very much connected to race and race-based hierarchies. By following Hobbes’ idea that the ruled must be led by their rulers, or Plato’s idea that the ruled should be indoctrinated to love their station in life, or Machiavelli’s idea that the ruled should be placated or tricked by their rulers into a state of  passivity, there is a feeling in my mind that an entirely different mode of thinking could be and should be engaged, not to vindicate, but to rescue the world from the antiquated philosophies of the past.

5. The Lesson of Machiavelli and Assassination

The point at which the self-interest of leaders becomes, itself, the most dangerous threat to any nation, culture, or society, is among the most important lessons I learned from the class readings and I most specifically learned this from reading The Prince, which I found to be, like Hobbes and Plato, much more illuminating on  the subject of how Western society has viewed itself and its political institutions than as a penetrating glimpse into humanity’s essential nature  or future cultural and political existence.

Machiavelli stresses that all acts of a political nature are rooted in self-interest. It is not a matter of public-service, but of public passivity and censure that drives the politician. Speaking of Oliverotto’s murder of his enemies, Machiavelli remarks: “After this murder, Oliverotto mounted his horse, paraded through the town, and besieged the chief officials in the government palace; so that out of fear they were forced to obey him and to constitute a government of which he made himself prince” (Machiavelli, 1998, p. 32). Implicit in this remark is not only the idea that murder can be an expedient political strategy but that any political act is partially only what it is perceived to be.  Machiavelli mentions of Oliveratto “And when all those were killed who, because they were discontented, might have harmed him, he strengthened himself by instituting new civil and military institutions; so that, in the space of the year that he held the principality,(Machiavelli, 1998, p. 32).

In conclusion, the political philosophies of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Plato represent a compelling collection of ideas which seem to have driven Western politics for centuries. However strong the rational conclusions, observations, and inspired thoughts of these past philosophers –to my mind — none of the theories offered seem to address the issues which seem most problematic and current in contemporary society. By following the ideas in these philosophical systems which elevate self-interest, social schism, warfare, and political expedience, the social, political, and cultural resources of the West are weakened, not strengthened.


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