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A Ridiculously Brief Overview of Political Philosophy

A five-minute tour of some political thinkers and ideas by Anja Steinbauer.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), one of the greatest political thinkers of the Western tradition, declared that “man is by nature a political animal.” However, there is a tension between two forces which move us; the Greeks termed them ethos – morality and kratos – power. Is doing the politically prudent thing compatible with doing the moral thing? Aristotle, like Confucius (551-471 B.C.) much further east, believed in the continuity between moral character and political interests. And although he believed politics as well as morality to be based on knowledge Plato (427-347 B.C.) held that engaging in politics requires much specialised training, and that only an educated and morally accomplished elite could achieve political competence. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) finally drove a wedge between the unequal siblings of politics and virtue: A statesman should only be concerned with being powerful, not with being kind or good.

Why have politics at all? Given the many disadvantages which have accompanied political organisation throughout history – such as oppression, conflict and unhappy compromises – would human relationships not acquire a more genuine and superior quality without the mechanisms of politics? The Chinese philosopher Laozi (6th Century B.C.?) had early suggested that the best and most sustainable way for human beings to live together was in small communities with a minimum of political interference. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) believed the noble savage to be superior to humans formed by civilisation. Several theories contrasting the state of nature (a hypothetical state of affairs marked by the absence of politics) with political states, however, come to the conclusion that political structure is absolutely necessary for successful human flourishing. John Locke (1632-1704) argued that only in a political state would private property be protected. While Locke was a political voluntarist, stating that a government can only have powers over a person who tacitly or expressedly consents, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that political power could be legitimately acquired by force as well as by consent. This conviction was based on the assumption that, due to human beings’ innate selfishness, a state of nature would be marked by “war of everyone against everyone.” It is therefore rational to accept the dominance of a powerful political leader, a leviathan, who can protect his subjects and uphold the law.

Since only very few of us find the prospect of an allpowerful leviathan attractive, the question remains, which is the best way of organising ourselves politically? The answer which seems most popular today took a long time to reemerge. But despite Plato’s warning that “democracy passes into despotism,” thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries enthusiastically engaged in debate on democracy. One of the most eloquent writers on the subject remains Rousseau, who believed that the general will could best be addressed in a system of direct (rather than representative) democracy. However, Rousseau was pessimistic about the chances of implementing such an arrangement in society: “Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men.”

As we all know, this did not stop the spread of democratic ideals. And so we find Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), a young French judge and liberal thinker, reporting on his oneyear visit to America: “Society has been set in motion, and daily leads people further towards equality of conditions.” However, he also observes: “what repels me most about America is how little concern there is about tyranny.” This tyranny he feared was that of the majority dominating minorities, a worry that Tocqueville shared with his friend John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Mill wrote his On Liberty as a reflection on how the autonomous space of the individual might be safeguarded from the domination of the majority.

The tensions foreshadowed in the above writings mark contemporary political theory. Another tension is that between liberalism and communitarianism; between the concern for the individual and that for the needs of society. After a crisis in political theorising following the second world war, new inspiration came to the field with two events that took place in 1972. Firstly, a new forum for political debate, the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs was founded and, most significantly, John Rawls (1921-2002) published his Theory of Justice. Rawls argues that in a hypothetical situation of equality and ignorance of their individual social positions and preferences, people discussing the organisation of their society would agree on three fundamental principles: the greatest possible extent of certain civil liberties for all; equality of opportunity for all; and provision for the least advantaged members of society. The last principle refers to the difficult question of redistribution of wealth and of egalitarianism. Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) argued in favour of a minimal state, restricted to the defence of the individual against force: On the basis of self-ownership, Nozick argues that individuals have rights not to suffer aggression, and not to have to do anything for themselves or others. He therefore regards taxation for the purpose of redistribution, advocated by Rawls and some egalitarian thinkers, as ‘forced labour’.

Influenced by Karl Marx’ (1818-83) critique of capitalist systems, some social thinkers, notably the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School, such as Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Theodor Adorno (1903-69) and Herbert Marcuse (1898- 1979) have seen it as their primary responsibility to critique the political status quo rather than to develop theoretical models of an ideal society. Today, philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas (1929-) and Noam Chomsky (1928-) use their analytical skills to make a real difference to political reality.

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