All political activity involves either bringing a change from the worst to the better or preventing a change from the better to the worst.
An optimist, Plato saw humans as fundamentally good. It is the environment that corrupts. Humans are naturally not equal. The gold type are by nature equipped to rule. Silver is a small group who are guardians of the state. Brass is the rest of us. People do what they are best suited to do. I’d rather go for gold myself.
Aristotle (b. 384 BCE) and the state
The state was considered a natural progression from family to village to city. Humans are intended by nature to live in a state. The state meets human needs to make possible the good life for the citizen, making justice and virtue possible. There are inherent characteristics which prevent us from developing the perfect state.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Self-preservation
The state is natural only when ruled by one person. Humans need to be ruled because they are imperfect:
• We always seek our own self-preservation. We are all potentially murderers.
• Our self-preservation drives are harmful to others.
• All have an inclination to be good, to live with one another and with God.
Conflict is inevitable, so there is a need to be restraints. Human beings are not equal to know the truth and act virtuously; be ruled by men who know God’s laws, thus approved by the Church (veto power).
Do you see a “Holy War” coming on? Plenty of other groups state they know God’s laws.
This is a difficult one. One may know the laws, but are unwilling to follow them. The more educated you are, the easier to circumvent them.
Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Gaining Power
Machiavelli had a cynical view of human beings:
• the populace is naturally ungrateful, so use a system of rewards and punishments,
• judge people by what they do, and not on their morality (inferring not by their intent behind the actions), so
• do the hard things first, and
• the separation of religion and politics separates politics and power from ethics and morality
In a sense, Machiavelli discusses the “elephant in the room”: exercising of power has its own rewards and satisfactions. People are ambitious and have conflict with one another. A heroic figure is looked for to bring order out of chaos, which brings in opportunity for those who will seize it. Machiavelli challenges the simplistic by stating that the exercise of power cannot be limited with a conventional morality because one is dealing with others without moral scruples, thus “the ends justifies the means.” We may not agree with the loose way in which this is expressed, but certainly strategy may need to be unconventional.
Machiavelli advocates the use of violence to establish oneself as a ruler. Certainly under exceptional circumstances that may be necessary if a corrupt intractable situation is in play. What we can agree about is the attribute of assertiveness which is essential to not only acquire the power, but to maintain it.
He continues that people are interested in security, and not in politics. They are irrational politically, but rulers have to be rational, self-confident, and have more information. We see Machiavelli’s point as apathy sets in when the people feel helpless because they are without choices they can believe in.
Social Contract Theorists
What would life be like without government? Natural rights to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) State of Nature Theorist
Hobbes was less opportunistic than Locke. While people in a state of nature can reason, they do not think in group terms. They are much more concerned with self-preservation and are willing to kill to defend themselves. They strive for self-gratification and self perpetuation, and may hurt one another in doing so. They will eventually conclude that they are better off as a group within a state.
In his book Leviathan, Hobbes describes life in the state of nature as being nasty, brutish, short, unlike Locke who saw the state of nature as a rather pleasant place. People form a social contract with the state and give up their freedom in exchange for safety and security. Hobbes advocated a total form of government, unlike Locke who favoured a limited form.
Since humans are both rational and selfish they tend to perceive what is good for themselves, their personal interests but not for the group nor their interests. Hobbes theorizes that without a government we’d be in constant war with each other, solitary, nasty, brutish and short-tempered, we’d be in a war against everyone.
Thus, it is better to compromise and maximize our own gratification and minimize the likelihood of violent death. Surrender freedom for security. The contract requires obedience to an absolute ruler, to comply if the ruler protects.
I think of this theory whenever government claws back financial support to the poor. It is implied that families are good, whole and financially flush and fiscally willing to support the poor family members. Not in my world. The tax paying voters accept this myth for it is convenient to them as they pursue their own dreams. The subterranean thinking is the cull the herd through survival of the fiscally fittest.
John Locke 1632-1704, State of Nature Theorist
Locke perceived that people are rational with an innate moral knowledge of good and evil, their reaason enables them to cooperate with one another. People are born free, independent with reason–liberalism as a philosophy underlying government. They have a right to liberty, life and the pursuit of property through our own efforts (labor theory). Governments should not intrude on these rights except to prevent violence.
In short, Locke did not believe in big government nor that government be involved in economic matters. Much of the content of the U.S. constitution is based on Locke.
The Social Contract is to decide:
- Humans agree to live in community.
- Consent to government giving community its moral character. The majority cannot infringe on the property rights. Government is limited to interfere with right of property. One is free to pursue life, liberty and property. Limited government has been the hallmark to the American system. Checks and balances are in place to assure limited government.
- Government is a trust. People are morally self-sufficient to watch over its activities, not only in their own interests, but in interest to society at large. Influences the American Constitution.
Locke forgets that there are quite a number in the population who actually choose evil. Many are clever enough to carve lauded positions in the community. George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind. The 1940 movie Gaslight as well as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth give a good look at evil on the home front in personal relationships.