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Plato writes that, “Nothing else can enable one to see what is right for states and individuals, and the troubles of mankind will never cease until either true and genuine philosophers attain political power or the rulers of states become genuine philosophers.” Do philosophers or theorists have anything of value to offer in the conduct of politics? Discuss with reference to at least two of the political thinkers you have studied.
In the political realm, philosophy works to establish the values that society lives under.
If we understand politics as the question not of who will rule but of what values should rule, it is clear that philosophy is the ultimate form of politics. In this sense, philosophers such as Socrates (469 BCE – 399 BCE) and Niccol Machiavelli (1469 CE – 1527 CE) claim that politics stems from philosophical theory. Both philosophers, by using contrasting arguments and ideas, set out to show us “how to live” in society. Socrates was an idealist, and Machiavelli was a pragmatic realist.
I will discuss whether it is in fact it is true that philosophy or theory has anything of value to offer in the conduct of politics. Socrates’ argument is that philosophy has something of value to politics, but Machiavelli does not completely agree.
The writings and thoughts of Socrates and Machiavelli outline a deeper sense of political activity for philosophers. Socrates did not write down his thoughts, but his ideas have been declared through the writings of Plato and other philosophers. Thus it is often difficult to identify which ideas belong to Socrates and which belong to Plato.
Whether recognised as rulers or not, philosophers, by determining through philosophical activity what the highest values are, are in fact directing the politics of the society of which they are a part. “Philosophy, I said, tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life.” Thus philosophy and politics are inherently linked and when philosophy takes place in the public realm, politics is understood as the ruling values of a society.
Socrates did not approve of tyranny or of democracy. He believed that the best form of government was one ruled by an individual possessing the most capability, wisdom and virtue. Socrates was an idealist, identified as one of the first political scientists, due to his investigation into political systems. Niccol Machiavelli and Socrates were separated by major changes in government, society and philosophy that took place in the time between Ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance. Far from being based on an idyllic society, the political philosophy of Machiavelli, whose name has passed into modern vocabulary as a synonym for ruthless power- was built on his observation of what worked efficiently in the real world. Starting from two entirely diverse ideas, the conclusions of Socrates and Machiavelli are naturally different.
Socrates attitude toward politics was obedience, but he believed that he had received a call to pursue philosophy and convince the Athenians to engage in self-examination and in tending to their souls. Our best sources of information about Socrates’ philosophical views are the early dialogues of his student Plato, including some of Socrates’ ideals in ‘The Apology.’ Founded on the basis of rational intellect, Socratic ideas depend on the idea that philosophy is universal; that logical people would arrive at his conclusions and present no objections. Socrates’ ideal was a class-based society, with the ruling class bred and dedicated to government, and the working class likewise born to the remaining functions of society. Power lay with the ruling class, and was protected by a subclass of guardians whose function was state defence.
Through the writings of Plato, Socrates suggests that he wanted to get away from the idea that government could only be formed through “fear and faith, indolence and improvisation” Instead there is the unprecedented suggestion that the political functions of a government could be treated as a philosophical exercise. Socrates conveys the notion that philosophy is an innately political endeavour. In its practice, philosophy is a group activity. In “The Apology,” Socrates discerns that when philosophising takes place publicly, it is no longer private interaction between two people but a group activity. Even so, this idea of philosophy needs rules to operate, so thus the question of what is suitable philosophical methodology becomes political, and philosophy becomes valuable in political conduct.
Socrates asked questions of authorities and of men in the street in order to arrive at political truths. Although the Socrates found in the pages of Plato questions others and professes no political expertise of his own, he had some philosophical positions that he held as valuable to political conduct. However, Socrates suggests that the constant failures in arguments with him, of those who accept views opposed to his own, are informative. In one case, Socrates found that anyone who urged that injustice with impunity was positive could never effectively support his view in discussion. Thus, Socrates concludes that injustice with impunity cannot be constructive and that justice and virtue consistently brought the greatest benefits.
The majority of “The Republic” is an endeavour to create a just state that Socrates recognised did not exist. However, Socrates indicated that this philosophy has an important part to play in politics, for anyone who wished to consider it. The state portrayed starts with a minimal society based on a separation of labour. Once luxuries are demanded, a growth of territory ensures that war becomes essential. Specialisation leads to a division of classes, however the state would stay small enough to remain united and ordered. Justice would occur when the individual carried on with their appointed position in society. This form of government is called an aristocracy and although Socrates was a philosopher, he had studied political systems and was the first to propose an ideal but also to outline the models of government he had observed.
On a similar note, Socrates tells that he believes that the individual should never hurt anyone else or have revenge if harm occurs. Socrates suggests that it is better in the conduct of politics to suffer rather than to do evil or harm. Hence Socrates saw the role of politics as being to instruct people on what is right, just, the “good life” and that “virtue is knowledge.” Each of these philosophies has instructs the conduct of politics, and it is only through these ideas that politics has boundaries to outline its direction.
As a theorist, the ideals that Socrates had had value to offer to the conduct of politics. In describing the four principal political systems and how each was likely to deteriorate from the one directly above, Socrates demonstrated how a larger state reflects the individual psychology, dominant in the community. “States,” he said, “are as men are, because they grow out of human characters.” Timocracy, which is government based on honour and ambition, extends from the aristocracy because of the military tendency over the philosophical state. The result is, “he being not originally of a bad nature, but having kept bad company, is finally brought by their mutual influence to a middle point, and gives up the kingdom which is within him to the middle principle of aggression and passion, and becomes arrogant and ambitious.” Through his philosophical observations of political matters, Socrates suggests that politics should be enacted through education.
There is little doubt that Socrates believes the best way to pursue happiness is through the development of virtue through political education. This philosophy can be applied to the conduct of politics, or the interaction between people. If real good is that which is beneficial to happiness, the only real good is the virtue of one’s soul, which Socrates identifies with traditionally recognised moral virtues.
If Socrates fit his system of government to an idealism that described the perfect civilization, Machiavelli’s political philosophy evolved in the time he spent as a civil servant. Although Socrates spent his life as a philosopher, he never held a public office. Machiavelli, on the other hand was Chief Secretary and a head of the Second Chancery. His participation in national and external affairs let him study his own government and the political structures overseas. Like Socrates before him, Machiavelli’s own political work, “The Prince,” was a deviation from common philosophy. Machiavelli wanted a new theory free from static ideals and ethical codes relating to political conduct.
Machiavelli’s, “The Prince” was written to describe the ways a leader may gain and keep power. Socrates, through Plato’s “The Republic,” uses state and ruler to reveal justice. It was not intended to be practiced like that of Machiavelli’s. Machiavelli, recognised this, but explained that it was his intention to write what was that true, real and useful for society and politics and not something idealistic. “For many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen.” Unlike Socrates’ idealistic philosophy, Machiavelli’s description of government was of a practical, efficient idea that changed with situations instead of abiding to strict laws, morals, or traditions. Every political thinker before Machiavelli treated the use of power as a means to an end; their differences lay in what they considered that end to be. Machiavelli considered this use of power to be an end in itself. Whilst standard governments followed some form of moral code the only policy followed by a Machiavellian prince was the “acquisition, retention, and expansion of power,” and there were no restrictions placed on any activity in the search of this.
According to Machiavelli, a good leader’s responsibility is to protect his country. According to Salmon: “Machiavelli says that rulers should be truthful, keep promises, and the like when doing so will not harm the state, and that they should generally appear to have the traditional virtues. But since the goal of the ruler is to conquer and preserve the state, he should not shrink from wrongdoing when the preservation of the state requires this.” Machiavelli, promotes violence, if it justifies the ends to a means, “virtu”. However, in doing this offers a way of separating morality from politics, to ensure the utilitarian good. Machiavelli warns that total honesty is not always what a good Prince needs to hear, “but he ought to ask their opinion on everything, and after hearing what they have to say, should reflect and judge for himself.” Machiavellian ideas on politics are important to the conduct of rulers and their decisions.
Socrates and Machiavelli both argued with the welfare of the state in mind, their theories valuable to politics. However, their differences lie in that Socrates’ good was absolute, universal and recognisable to the rational person. Machiavelli’s idea, which would vary from prince to prince, is comparatively subjective. Machiavelli defended this inclination to amorality, calling it the purpose of the state. “For where the very safety of the country depends upon the resolution to be taken, no consideration of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, nor of glory or of shame, should be allowed to prevail. But putting all other considerations aside, the only question should be: What course will save the life and liberty of the country?” In other words, Machiavelli’s political theory is that the prince should do whatever it takes to maintain the state.
As maintained by Machiavelli, the power of the republic, was dependant on its blend of the “good” forms of government: “I say, therefore, that all these kinds of government are harmful in consequence of the short life of the three good ones and the viciousness of the three bad ones. Having noted these failings, prudent lawgivers rejected each of these forms individually and chose instead to combine them into one that would be firmer and more stable than any, since each form would serve as a check upon the others in a state having monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy at one and the same time.” Machiavelli understands politics as a public responsibility not based on individual morality. This philosophy has a valuable contribution as his conception of the political’ has relevance for any idea of the political realm.
It is interesting to consider how different Socratic and Machiavellian political theories are. However, it can be stated that Machiavelli’s approach to politics was more practical in a real world that was less than ideal. Although, the theoretical approach to politics is dissimilar, the idea remains the same. If Socratic and Machiavellian ideas are indicative of other theorists, then philosophers of politics have definite value to offer in the conduct of politics.
It is my argument that philosophy plays an integral role in politics. Not only does it ideally shape, and uphold ethics, but also it gives politics purpose and counsel. The principles of philosophy, justice, morality should guide society. While Socrates and Machiavelli may not offer the ideal solution to the way society should be run, or even have complementary philosophy of politics, their pursuit into political conduct highlights its value. Philosophy is the theory behind politics, the idealistic pursuit to the perfect political system, for politics to measure itself against. It is through philosophy that politics can be improved. Philosophers and theorists such as Socrates and Niccol Machiavelli have an integral part to play in the conduct of politics. It is only through continued thinking or philosophising about politics that the “troubles of mankind,” may cease.
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