A PRIMER ON POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
- Topic 1
The application of this form of exploration reached its peak with the period of the Rationalists. As long as we realize that the work of a philosopher is an expression of the the dominant thought of his time, we can see that the role of his work is as a mechanism that directs the progress of cultural evolution through positive feedback. With this understanding we can approach the two different directions that western political evolution took as two separate expressions of the cultural changes that were occurring at the time. The prominent philosophers acting as both spokesmen of their times and as feedback mechanisms that helped to drive the engine of political evolution. These two different directions were determined by the social reaction to the rejection of the same forces that made the rationalists popular. The English reaction led to a rejection of the ideas of the rationalists beginning with John Locke's rejection of innate knowledge. The continental reaction, on the other hand, beginning with Rousseau and Kant, led to the rejection of reason as a path to truth. But to understand both we need to look at the political thought of the end of the renaissance
Philosophical thought at the end of the Renaissance was dominated by Thomas Aquinas. This excerpt from the Summa illustrates the underlying theme of Aquinas' political thought from the perspective of "Man in the state of Innocence." This is taken from the Summa Theologia.
Government should be considered in two ways. In one way it is opposed to slavery; so a ruler is he to whom a slave is subject. In a second way it should be considered in opposition to any kind of subjection. According to this way, any one whose office entitles him to rule and direct free men may also be called a ruler. ... Therefore someone is governed as a slave when he is controlled simply for the utility of the one governing him. But because everyone desires his own welfare, he cannot without regret yield this to another. Because such government cannot exist without suffering those subject to it, such domination of man over man could never have been in the state of innocence.
We will begin with the evolution of English political thought, but first we need to look deeper into the thought of Aquinas because his thought acted as the springboard from which the English experience grew. This excerpt from "God Science and Reason" will help to explain the how political thought of the late renaissance was translated into the form of early English government.
- Topic 2
Of course, you may legitimately ask, isn't this is a description from a particularly English point of view? And you would be correct. I am taking this route for two reasons. First, because Empiricism, as developed during this same period in England, derives knowledge directly from experience. And governments, as they were evolving during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were evolving out of experience. The second reason is the we will take up the Continental view a little later because the split between The English and the Continental approaches to the evolution of government were determined by the two different reactions to the same Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, whose ideas we will take up next.
Hobbes did not argue from a state of innocence as Aquinas did, but from man in a perpetual state of war. This is his description of the motivation for a society of men as he found it taken from his book, Leviathan.
For the Laws of Nature (as justice, Equity. modesty, Mercy. and (in Summe) doing to others, as wee would have done to,) of themselves, without the terror of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural Passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride. revenge. and the like. And covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all. Therefore notwithsnnding the Laws of Nature, (which every one hath then kept. when he has the will to keep them, when he can do it safely,) if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men. And in all places, where men have lived by small Families, to robbe and spoyle one another, has been a Trade, and so farre from being reputed against the Law of Nature, that the grater spoyles they earned, the greater was their honour; and men observed no other Lawes therein, but the Lawes of Honour; that is, to abstain from cruelty, leaving to men their lives, and instruments of husbandry. And, as small Families did then; so now do cities and Kingdoms which are but greater Families (for their own security) enlarge their Dominions, upon all pretenses of danger, and fear of Invasion., or assistance that may be given to Invaders, endeavor as much as they can, to subdue, or weaken their neighbors, by open force, and secret arts, for want of other caution, justly; and are remembered for it in after ages with Honour.
It is very important that we look at the political theory of Thomas Hobbes from both perspectives. For the history of our western political world (and the problems of the adaptation of non-western cultures as well) are intimately tied up in either the acceptance or the rejection of the theories of Thomas Hobbes. This selection from "God Science and Reason" will provide more insight into the thought of Thomas Hobbes.
- Topic 3
Next we turn to another Englishman, whose theories were to dominate both English and American political thought for over a century. It is noteworthy that Locke played a strong part in the "Glorious Revolution", the act that brought stability back to England through a mutual agreement between Parliament and the Crown concerning the extent of each others powers. The difference between his thought and that of Thomas Hobbes, lay in his vision of man in the state of nature. As you recall, Hobbes saw man in the state of nature as in a state of war one against another. Locke's vision was almost totally opposite.
To understand political power aright, and derive from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
John Locke was a unique individual living during a unique time. Perhaps because of the direct connection between the events of his period and his personal role in them, his ideas found fertile ground both in England and in the newly developing colonies of the Americas. In this selection from "God Science and Reason" will help to bring out the thought of John Locke at least enough for you to see how his thought came to play such an important role in English and American political thought.
- Topic 4
Some years after the revolution was over John Adams wrote to Jefferson and stated this simple fact; 'The American Revolution was a revolution of ideas. The fighting was only an aftermath." If you can understand why this statement is important you are well on your way to developing a truly anarchist revolution. The underlying political ideas that brought about the success of the American Revolution may have been straight out of John Locke, but the expression of these ideas was purely American. Thomas Paine was not an American but he caught the fever that was pervading the colonies toward the end of the eighteenth century. Because the widespread acceptance of these ideas was so important to the success of the American "revolution of ideas" I will present them through the works of three very different writers of the period. Thomas Paine, Jonathan Edwards, and Benjamin Franklin.
- Topic 5
If the revolutionary ideas of Thomas Paine were simply the expressions of a vocal minority the revolution of ideas that John Adams was talking about would never have occurred. While all this was happening America was going through its first "Great Awakening." This was a religious revival which has made America even to this day one of the most religious countries in the world. The words of a Connecticut minister who was a very important part of that great awakening, Jonathan Edwards, will show us just how ingrained into the American thought the ideas of John Locke were.
- Topic 6
However, though the American heartland was turning Christian to an extent never before seen in the history of the world, the American intellectuals were not. The men who were most responsible for putting the revolution into the words of the "Declaration of Independence" and the American Constitution were, for the most part, not Christians. They were Deists. Yet if their ideas did not resonate in the minds and hearts of the people of America these great works would never have had the impact they had.
- Topic 7
On the Continent the evolution of political thought took a very different direction. Instead of simply rejecting the ideas of the rationalists, the Europeans rejected reason itself, at least as a source of truth. The man who caught the imagination of the French people of the eighteenth century was Jean Jacques Rousseau. As a result our next study will help us to understand for the events that took place in European politics following the eighteenth century. For a philosopher, whose very existence depends on the assumption of a rational world, to reject reason, may seem like the ultimate absurdity. However, this attitude has been the underlying basis for European philosophy since Rousseau and is still an strong force today.
- Topic 8
While Kant expressed his admiration for Rousseau and the idea of a social contract, the thread we have been following from Hobbes that concerned the need for an absolute monarch is equally as important. Following the lead from Rousseau, Kant based his idea of the ideal civil state on the necessity and importance of freedom. But he derived this freedom through a "Universal theory of right." he put it, "Every action which by itself or by its maxim enables the freedom of each individual's will to co-exist with the freedom of everyone else in accordance with a universal law is right."
- Topic 9
Categories, universals if you will, are real. They are the source of our knowledge of the world. But things are not real. They are merely appearances because we cannot know them. They have particularity because they are individual. They have existence, their being does not depend on their being known. But they are not real, they are only appearances. This the core of Hegel's reversal of Aristotle. It is important for our discussion of political philosophy because it underlies some powerful currents of thought occurring in Europe in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even the twentieth centuries. In particular an understanding of the European fascination with the three totalitarian forms of government, Nazism, Communism, and fascism.
- Topic 10
Heidegger was a brilliant and stirring speaker at a time when Germany was rebuilding itself in the aftermath of the first world war. He was also a brilliant philosopher who based his ideas on a thorough knowledge of ancient Greek language and philosophy, However, we must be wary as we examine his thought because he was as aware of the meaning of his ideas as accepted by the typical German as he was of their deep philosophical significance. It was this dual interpretation that Heidegger was more aware of than most philosophers that made him so important to our understanding of the emergence of national socialism in Germany
- Topic 11This short primer on political philosophy is not meant to be exhaustive. Its purpose is to bring out those ideas that have helped to shape the politics of the west over the past three hundred years. Once we have an understanding of the structure of political systems we can apply this knowledge to develop our own anarchistic revolutionary plans.