plato&hobbes

Submitted by M. Hall.

Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosopher, once said that Plato was the greatest philosopher in history, that all philosophical tomes ever written are mere footnotes on his insight. Although this claim is grand and perhaps exaggerated, Plato’s work has influenced the world’s thinking in deep and profound ways.

Plato recorded his vision of an ideal society called Kallipolis in his book The Republic. If there is one mind in history that we should trust to organize the state, surely it is him. It’s well known that Plato despised democracy—indeed, it is what caused the death his teacher, Socrates.

What, then, did Plato propose?

“…philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize” –The Republic, Book VI [1]

Plato believed that the position of ruler was not for common man (who he viewed as unjust) but for the wisest men in society, who are in touch with what Plato called “Higher Forms”, a realm he illustrated in his famous cave analogy. [2]

Few of us believe such things today; and Plato’s vision never manifested.

Let us move on to our second Philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was a pessimist, who wrote in his book Leviathan that, without the state, man lived in a state of nature, where life was “…nasty, brutish, and short.” [3]

And how did he reconcile the fact that the state is itself made of men?

God.

Or more precisely, he claimed that God blessed the king with divine right, which gave him the absolute authority and wisdom to rule his subjects.

“Therefore the civil and ecclesiastical power were both joined together in one and the same person, the high priest; and ought to be so, in whosoever governeth by divine right; that is, by authority immediate from God.”

Unlike with Plato, history is full Hobbes’ vision of monarchic dictatorship displaying its grotesque colors.

Conclusion

What can we draw from the above examples? We can see that these philosophers could find no better justification for having a state than to cite spiritual or divine powers.

You probably do not believe in Plato’s Theory of Forms.

You may believe in God, and if you do, would you feel that your creator would need an organization of mortal humans to govern His children?

Without these justifications, there are no kings, presidents, or prime ministers – there are no demigods, prophets of “the people”, or masters.

Footnotes

[1] Plato, The Republic

[2] Plato’s Analogy of the Cave

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651