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pathways (essays)

Fr. Seamus Mulholland

The Contribution of Plato to Political Philosophy and the Search for the Common Good in Hobbes, De Tocqueville and Marx

Political philosophies are those theories and ideas that seek to study the impact of various political idealisms on society, and their impact in the shaping of social, political, and economic ideas. The questions which political philosophy seeks to turn its attention towards range from describing what the state of Man actually is at the existential level, to the types of social regimes, which are necessary to tame and organise that nature. In this context, there is a measure of truth in the suggestion that the answers, or visions they give are not, necessarily, entirely original. Plato, the student of Socrates, was himself keenly interested in political philosophy and set himself the task of conceptually evolving a society which would function properly. Plato's ideal society was comprised of rulers, guardians, and the masses. All these various strands within society are moulded at a young age to play a societal role, in order that they might contribute positively and affirmingly to the betterment of their own social arena. Within the context of the history of political philosophy, Plato emerges as one of the more gifted political theorists, if not, perhaps, the best. While closely examining the needs of society, he was able to recognise the needs of society as well as the needs of the individual. He humbled the ego of Man when he acknowledged that one individual could not survive on his own and that all people are dependent on others to survive. His idea of an organised community has been the focus of many political philosophy debates and has been the stepping-stone by which many political philosophers have created their own ideal social environment. Though their theories may not be identical to those of Plato, signs of his structures are definitely present.

Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century political philosopher, had some theories and ideas keenly similar to those of Plato. Hobbe's view of the state of nature was a very primitive one: he felt that in the state of nature there was a war of every person against every person. In the natural state justice was impossible, because without set limits and structures, everyone has the right to do whatever they wish and anarchy is almost inevitable. The only ay to escape the unfortunate state of anarchy was for everyone to agree a covenant. The conditions of the covenant were to give the sovereign full discretion in dealing with citizens. It was up to the sovereign to protect the lives of the citizens. Quite ironically, the sovereign also had the right to have citizen killed. Fortunately, the citizens did not give up their right to fight back and, indeed, were allowed (usually to no avail). As long as the sovereign was keeping the majority of the citizens alive and maintaining absolute power, the covenant could be considered successful and a civil society would have been created. The covenant proposed in Leviathan was meant to keep the common good of peace. As long as people were not killing each other, the common good was being reached and the monarchy itself could be considered successful.

There is clearly a similarity here between Hobbes's ideas and Plato's theory of a civil society. Plato pointed out the inter and intra dependence of society's citizens and that no one could survive without such dependence or without a controlled society. Hobbes takes Plato's ideas of dependence to extremes when he points out that men and women will kill each other in order to survive. Why? Because other people have what we need in order to maintain our lives, whether it be property, food etc. But why do we need a civil society? Because people are selfish and are willing to do whatever it takes to live they are going to violate others in order to better themselves. Only in a society where restrictions and laws are placed upon people, will they begin to work together instead of against each other in the effort to survive and use the expertise and resources that each person has to offer. Hobbes's way of governing this communal society is different from that of Plato's but it still stems from the same premise. The sovereign that Hobbes describes will be given complete discretion and entrusted to act on what is best for the whole society. Likewise Plato's rulers are entrusted to bring the community together in the hopes of establishing a strong and flourishing civil society. A marked difference between Hobbes's and Plato's conception of rulers is that Plato's ruler would be naturally picked because of their inherent wisdom, in other words, Plato's ruler would have been born wise and meant to have been in the ruling position; Hobbes's ruler would be someone the citizens picked and acknowledged as the absolute sovereign in the society's covenant.

Alexis de Tocqueville is an interesting political philosopher of the nineteenth century whose ideas stemmed from Plato's philosophical roots. Coming from an aristocracy in France, De Tocqueville went to America initially to study the penal system. But instead of following through his work, he found himself intrigued with the political system that occupied America. His work 'Democracy in America' became a political comparison between Aristocracy and Democracy. Instead of studying people in the primitive state of nature, as Plato and Hobbes had one, De Tocqueville focused on the present and what would be the best political structure for the people in an already existing society. This method of constructing political philosophy was different from that of Plato and Hobbes, yet it was still effective in helping him analyse what type of societal structure would contribute to the most to the common good of the individuals within that particular society.

De Tocqueville was intrigued by the amount of political freedom that all people, from the lowest to the highest classes were entitled to. He was amazed how America could manage to maintain such a strong political system without having a central dominating party that had the final and absolute say in which laws were passed. To his great surprise, people of even the lowest financial class as to what rules and laws the government could pass. This was most evident for him in the American judicial system where every person was capable of being on a jury and deciding the fate of another person. He was intrigued that the person on trial was not heard by a single superior being, but was instead given the opportunity to place their case to a jury of their peers from every social and financial class. This provided the plaintiff with an equal opportunity for justice since the jury was selected randomly from all strands within the society regardless of what their social or financial status may have been. He was amazed that this type of judicial system could protect the rights of individuals and maintained the nation's declaration of the Common Good.

The selected jury, he felt, was akin to Plato's concept of the 'guardians' who were to defend that the ancient founders had established. Among other things De Tocqueville was dumbstruck by the ease with which citizens of American society could voice their opinions. And, that despite their opinions, citizens were more willing to follow the rules and laws which the nations set, even if they were not in favour of their particular social, economic or political philosophy. He came to the conclusion that:

'As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is undertaken, but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, every one is silent, and the opponents, as well as the friends unite in assenting to its propriety...'

Because decisions such as what laws and rules are to be passed are decided by a majority after weighing the pros and cons, people are more willing to yield to the decision because it has been fairly weighed and considered, analysed and presented by both sides and not just by a Hobbsian monarch with absolute and irrevocable say. The absence of a monarch, he concluded, was to ensure that the goal of the Common Good would never be endangered by injustice. The way in which America handles its citizens allows for amendments to laws and an equal chance for everyone to succeed regardless of an individual's preceding family history.

Here may be discerned another similarity with Plato's Republic when De Tocqueville directs his attention to how the people of America work together in the attempt to build a strong community: instead of fighting each other to survive, they are aware of their dependency on each other. One person cannot pass a law in America; a majority vote is needed in order to pass laws and governance, which will be of benefit to the Common Good and not just to the individual. De Tocqueville explored the Common Good of American and was able to precisely locate the reasoning as to why the American political system could continue to progress in such a democratic framework without any major bursts of anarchy. After dissecting the political system and the people of the country, his own conclusion became clear to him: people who came to America had come many different origins and had come together in search for the Common Good. The Common Good in the American mentality was independence, and independence could only be fully found in a democratic society. People who came to America had come from places of oppression and monarchic rule and were deathly afraid of such rule. With the Founding Fathers of the American state all in agreement that they wanted as secure system that would prohibit any kind of monarchy, the Common Good for all citizens came into play.

This agreement, though quite different in content, was equivalent to Hobbes's covenantal notion by which all society should be structured, in that it was an agreement honoured by all. What baffled De Tocqueville was why such a democratic configuration could be possible in Europe. In his comparative study he confronted the reasons why the specific democratic system of American was viable there, but not in his native Europe. The justification that he came up with is actually quite interesting. He concluded that the aristocratic ways of Europe are so ingrained in the political system that any attempt at an American style of democracy would cause more conflict than compliment in their social arenas. People in Europe are enthralled by past ancestry and culture. Because such societies are leading lives with of such social segregation any glimpse of complete equality would lead to great social upheaval/

Bringing people of lower and higher social class to the point where they are no longer separated by financial or family restraint would cause chaos within society. With people holding their ancestry so close to their hearts, feelings of spite and harshness are bound to bring about a mass anarchy that would far outweigh the societal unity that would normally be expected with a nascent equality and independence. Democracy would not be in the interest of the European nations and the strong feelings of tradition that they hold to. The Common Good of Europe is not necessarily the same as that of America. De Tocqueville deduced an answer, which for him seemed to be accurate when comparing the two approaches to government structure. He was very practical when he decided to base his social ideals on the present situations of people, instead of trying to start from very difficult position of the primitive and natural stages of Man. Though this aspect of his research is different from that of Plato and Hobbes, it still allowed him to come up with a similar solution to the preceding philosophers. De Tocqueville's way of looking at society allowed him to see that though a democracy may be the best way forward for one particular nation to reach its Common Good, it may not be suitable for other countries in every case.

Marx, like Plato, Hobbes and De Tocqueville had a vision of how a community segregated by social class could possibly take up a new governmental structure that would be of benefit to all citizens within that society and not just the aristocracy. Marx's ideal society would be a 'classless' one. He saw the structure of society to be the result of history that would eventually come to some state of equilibrium. The initiatory point of his vision of the classless society was the ending of Capitalism. For Marx, Capitalism was the method the bourgeois employed to exploit the workers in order to increase the value of their productions. But Marx felt that Capitalism contained within the seeds of its own destruction: the voracious need to compete and dominate the production market. The competition among producers to produce more and more would eventually result in their going out of business, so that with such less competition there would be more lower and oppressed proletarians. This effectively changed the society from being a Capitalist community to a community of Socialism. Eventually this ever-changing society would move from a Socialist society to a completely classless one.

Marx firmly believed that industrialism was the key to the new classless society. He calculated that more machines bearing the brunt production would liberate humans from the harsh labour they had endured. Because machines can produce more in a shorter space of time, he speculated that there would be enough produce to allow everyone a more generous life. Hence, everyone would have access to this different life and so society would change from an aristocracy to a classless society. This classless atmosphere would be communist environment where no one person owns land, but instead property and goods produced on property would be in the custody of the State and not the individuals within the state. Marx's theory of the State being the owner of all property, in a real sense, put every member of the State on an equal footing. Because the State owned all the property, they were able to distribute all the good to all citizens. This ensured that the well being of all citizens was being met and not just the elite and select few, and this having been done, the Common Good would be attained.

Because of Marx's sensitivity towards the proletariat and their needs, as well as towards the needs of the middle classes, his political philosophy had as its teleological end the Common Good of all and not just the elite citizens i.e. those who controlled the means of production. Marx's mentality puts him in the same vein as Plato, Hobbes and De Tocqueville. He sought a means towards improving the community and Communism was the was the final concept which emerged within his thinking since he felt that such a political philosophy could truly enhance the life of all in such an environment. Though Hobbes sought a monarchy with one sovereign to lead the State, and De Tocqueville discovered that what is good for one state is not necessarily good for another, and Marx felt a Communist government would work best for his concept of the State, they all, nevertheless, shared a common goal.

What is obvious is the centrality of the search for the perfect state within the political thought of each one of these philosophers. They shared the same goal which was to seek the final solutions that would resolve the dilemmas that their states faced: and, ultimately, they were all searching for the best political philosophy that would meet the Common Good. What in essence separates them is the method they employed in an attempt to come to a political and societal teleology. Plato was the earliest whose ideas and aspirations were based on the knowledge that he acquired from his teacher, Socrates. His vision of pursuing a common good for a community of people, and not just for an individual, were foundational thoughts which had a profound impact on many subsequent political philosophers. Hobbes, De Tocqueville and Marx all had tremendous impact not just on political philosophy but also on the history of ideas. Yet the root of their thinking lies in Plato's search for the Common Good. Hobbes, De Tocqueville and Marx's writings were the 'branches' that sprang for the 'seedling' that Plato planted to whom the ideas of political philosophy owe so much. Without Plato's initial investigations, we would not have the strong foundation that has allowed us today to search for the means to obtain a proximity to achieving the ultimate good of society.