II. THE STATE
In The Republic Plato wrote that the ideal society should be comprised of three classes—philosopher kings, military men, and merchants. People's membership in a class would depend on their education: Those who had completed the highest level of education would make the wisest decisions and thus should be the rulers of society.
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The central concern of political theorists throughout history has been the theory of the state. Plato contributed to the founding of this theory in his discourse the Republic, which attempted to reconcile moral theory and political practice by projecting a community in which property was to be owned in common and which was to be governed by an aristocracy of philosopher-kings who would train the young. Such doctrines, in highly distorted form, have been used in modern times as the basis of the system of government known as totalitarianism, which, in contrast to democracy, asserts the supremacy of the state over the individual. A variant of this system, known as absolutism, vests the ruling power in a limited number of persons or in institutions, such as a priesthood, supporting certain fixed and generally immutable principles.
GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE
From Plato's Republic
What is the nature of knowledge? And of ignorance? The 4th-century-bc Greek philosopher Plato used the myth, or allegory, of the cave to illustrate the difference between genuine knowledge and opinion or belief. This distinction is at the heart of one of Plato’s most important works, The Republic. In the first part of the myth of the cave, excerpted here, Plato constructs a dialogue in which he considers the difficult transition from belief based on appearances to true understanding founded in reality.
Aristotle is generally regarded as the founder of the scientific approach to political theory. His Politics, which classified governments as monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies, according to their control by one person, a select few, or many persons, successfully combined an empirical investigation of the facts and a critical inquiry into their ideal possibilities, thus providing a challenging model of political studies.
III. CHURCH AND STATE
Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian statesman and writer, is considered one of the most significant political thinkers of the Renaissance. His best-known work, The Prince, describes cunning and unscrupulous methods for rulers to gain and keep power.
Important shifts of emphasis have usually been related to the challenges of concrete historical and social problems. In the Middle Ages, for example, much political writing dealt with the outstanding political issue of the time, the protracted struggle for supremacy between the Roman Catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire. The Italian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas defended the role of the church in his Summa Theologica (1265-73), while Dante argued in De Monarchia (On Monarchy, c. 1313) for a united Christendom under emperor and pope, each supreme in his appropriate sphere. In The Prince (1532) the Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli transcended the traditional church-state debate by realistically evaluating the problems and possibilities of governments seeking to maintain power.
IV. THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
Sir Isaiah Berlin
Alexis de Tocqueville
British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin is best known as a proponent of secular liberalism. In his book Four Essays on Liberty, Berlin advocates “negative” liberty—that is, freedom from restrictions on the individual.
Alexis de Tocqueville
French historian, political theorist, and author Alexis de Tocqueville became famous for his compelling analysis of American democracy. While traveling through the United States in the early 1830s, Tocqueville recorded observations of American society, which he compiled in the book Democracy in America (1835-1840). A liberal, Tocqueville believed in the concept of democracy, but worried that the will of the masses might stifle individual freedoms.
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English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes is best known for his treatise Leviathan. Written during the mid-17th century amidst the tumult of the English Revolution, Leviathan outlines Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty (political authority
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The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes also stressed governmental power. His major work, Leviathan (1651), argued that the sovereign's power should be unlimited, because the state originated in a so-called social contract, whereby individuals accept a common superior power to protect themselves from their own brutish instincts and to make possible the satisfaction of certain human desires. Another 17th-century English philosopher, John Locke, accepted much of Hobbes's social-contract theory but argued that sovereignty resided in the people for whom governments were trustees and that such governments could be legitimately overthrown if they failed to discharge their functions to the people.
GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE
From Second Treatise on Government
English philosopher John Locke anonymously published his Treatises on Government (1690) the same year as his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In the Second Treatise, Locke described his concept of a “civil government.” Locke excluded absolute monarchy from his definition of civil society, because he believed that the people must consent to be ruled. This argument later influenced the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
The ideals and rhetoric of Locke later contributed to the establishment of the United States through their expression in the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist, two major documents of the American Revolution. Important contributions to republican and democratic ideals were also made by the French philosophers Jean Jacques Rousseau, who expressed ideas similar to those of Locke, and the Baron de Montesquieu, who proposed a separation of governmental powers in prerevolutionary 18th-century France similar to that later embodied in the U.S. Constitution. The political theories of Locke and the early Americans, constituting the attitude generally known as liberalism, were further refined by the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill.
English philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill was one of the most important thinkers of the 19th century. The son of English philosopher James Mill, he refined and elaborated on the work of his father and of English philosopher-economist Jeremy Bentham in his book Utilitarianism (1863). Utilitarian philosophers argued that all decisions could be made according to the principal of the greatest “utility,” or benefit, to the greatest number of people. In this section from the end of the work, Mill discussed the issue of criminal punishment and examined how it related to concepts of justice and fairness and to the doctrine of utility.
V. MARXISM AND OTHER FORMS OF TOTALITARIANISM
Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, defined communism. Their most famous work was the Communist Manifesto (1848), in which they argued that the working class should rebel and build a Communist society.
Karl Marx was in many respects the most influential political theorist of the 19th century. He sought to combine factual analysis and political prescription in a thorough survey of the modern economic system. Arguing that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” and that liberal governments and ideology were merely agents of the exploiting owners of property, Marx advocated the abolition of private property and predicted the demise of capitalism after a series of recurring crises. The abolition of property, and therefore of class exploitation, would make possible a situation in which individuals would contribute according to their abilities and take according to their needs. The state, following a transitional period in which the working class would rule, would eventually wither away. In the 20th century, Marxism has been the subject of conflicting interpretations. It served as the official ideology of a number of totalitarian states, and it was also the inspirational credo of many revolutionary and nationalist movements throughout the world (see Communism; Socialism.
French philosopher Louis Althusser challenged prevailing interpretations of the works of German political philosopher Karl Marx. Althusser was the most influential Marxist theorist in the West during the 1970s.
Another type of political theory, also constituting a form of totalitarianism, emerged after World War I in the political movements known as fascism and National Socialism. Both asserted, in varying degrees, the doctrine of the total supremacy of the state and justified the use of force to achieve political ends.