SECTION SEVEN: THE NATURE OF POLITICAL SOCIETY

We have examined types of societies, but it would be proper now to double all the way back and try to define “society.” In doing so we will take a look at two radically different kinds of political societies --society as conceived by Thomas Hobbes and society as conceived by Plato.

Let us define “society” with a straightforward definition. By “society” is meant “the coming together of rational agents to adapt means to obtain mutually desired ends.” A society, then, is the product of thinking persons who have desired ends or goals, and who come together to secure means to obtain those goals. A political society is a society which has a government. The purpose of the government is to enforce the rules or means by which the goals of the society are obtained.

There are two radically different conceptions of political society which we should examine. One is the political society which has as its showcase the contemporary societies of the Western world. The other is a society which was developed by the Greeks and flourished in the time of Socrates and Plato. Though both conceptions are very different, they have some common elements. A key element is that the conceptual founders of these societies (Hobbes and Plato) thought that if a society is to be understood, it is essential to understand the ingredients which make it up. With human society, the essential ingredients are persons. Thus, Hobbes and Plato insisted that before anyone could give an explanation of what a political society is, he/she must give an exposition of the characteristics of its building blocks, man. It is Plato and Hobbes’ different conceptions of man which lead to their radically different conceptions of political society.

1. Plato’s conception of man and society. In Plato’s great work, The Republic, he gives us an exposition of the nature of man. Man, he says, is constituted by certain characteristics. The first is that men are not equal in their abilities. Persons man be stronger, smarter, younger, more talented with instruments and so on, than others. For example, I may be able to cook better than someone who raises the food which I cook. Of course, the farmer has “green thumb” skills which I could never duplicate. The second is that man is not self-sufficient. By this Plato means that alone, a man is not capable of obtaining all the necessary conditions which would provide happiness and self-sufficiency. I need the farmer to produce the food; he needs me to cook it. Cooperating together, we both get what we want, a good life or a happy state of being. Third, man has the ability to adapt means to achieve desired ends. For Plato, society (the Greek term Plato uses is polis) is a natural condition in which men come together to cooperate to achieve mutually desired ends. Inasmuch as a good life is the ultimately desired end, a society is formed which has its bases in the facts that no one will be happy unless persons form a community.

An important aspect of Plato’s conception of the formation of a society or community is that he considers the process to be a natural one; persons, recognizing their differences and needs naturally come together to form a community. A community is a “natural state” of being for any human being. A creature who is not a member of a society would either be a beast or a god, for beings of those kinds are self-sufficient. Think of a society as the natural state of existence for different kinds of persons as one would think of the parts of a person’s body being conjoined to make up a whole which, when every part did its job or function well, could function to meet any requirement presented to it. Existing in a social environment is just as natural to man as using tools to build things.

Society consists of three parts. There are the workers who produce things. These are persons with technical skills and, accordingly, have the kind of knowledge called techne. Then, there are the members of the community who enforce the rules by which society is governed. They are the guardians of the polis who have a strong spirited element, so strong that they will not avoid their duties to the polis even when such an action would mean great personal reward for them. Finally, there are the leaders (few in number) who guide the polis through the various changes it may encounter. The key to the success or a polis is for all the constituents to do well what they do best. In fact, this formula for action is what Plato calls justice. A just society or polis is one in which every member does well what he does best. Thus, the workers strive to produce good products, the guardians enforce laws and help citizens, and the leaders think carefully about the proper goals of the polis and direct the polis towards those goals.

What is interesting is that Plato’s analysis of the polis does not stop at this macroscopic level. Again, to understand the nature of a society, Plato holds that we must understand the nature of its constituents, man. Accordingly, Plato finds three characteristics in each individual man which correspond to the characteristics of the polis. The appetites constitute the basic drives of a person. The objects of the appetites are the pleasures of life --good food, shelter, clothing, and a happy family life. There is an emotional part of the person, a spirited part, which enables a person to withstand temptations or calamities and not turn away from holding a true course for the right. Finally, there is a thinking part of the person which enables the person to choose the proper goals in light of the wisdom or knowledge he has gained.

A person whose appetites control most of his actions is associated with the working strata of the polis, the largest part of the polis. Workers have a mastery of the technical skills needed to produce, and when they do well what they know how to do, they produce goods sufficient for the for the polis. The guardians have a mastery of knowing how to protect and help. They are the police and soldiers, and can be relied on to defend the polis fighting unto the death. The main characteristic which makes them up is a spirited element, an emotional commitment to the polis which cannot be undone by temptation. The leaders have wisdom or knowledge. They have as the dominant part of their makeup a love of knowledge and a commitment to the proper use of that knowledge. When each member of society has his character or soul in order, he will be doing well what he is capable of doing best. When all the members of society are doing well what they do best, the society is self-sufficient and thus happy; all the needs of each member are satisfied appropriately. This is a just or happy society. It is an ideal towards which all persons should strive.

2. Hobbes’ concept of man and society. Thomas Hobbes came along well after Plato (most of his works were published in the 17th century). The concept of science as we noted was concentrating on atoms or quantified matter. An atom was conceived to be something which had all the properties within itself to be what-it-is. All other relations to it were accidental, for example, that it may conjoin with other atoms to form a large material body.

Hobbes picked up on this conception of matter. He, as we know, agreed with Plato that if we are to understand the nature of society, we must understand the nature of its constituents, man. But, Hobbes took things a bit further. Man is made out of atoms. So, if we are to understand man, who is composed out of atoms, we must model the concept of man after the concept of atoms. Which he did.

The concept of man, modeled after the concept of atoms, is quite different from that of Plato’s. In fact, it looks to be the opposite. First, for Hobbes, man is ,by nature, self-sufficient; he has within his powers all that is necessary for him to survive and be happy in the world. Second, men are more or less equal in powers and talents. All things being considered, where a man has a weakness in one area, he has a strength is another. So, overall, men are for all practical purposes equal. Third, Hobbes does agree with Plato that men are thinkers who can adapt means to achieve desired ends.

The interesting difference between Hobbes and Plato is that for Hobbes, society is an artificial condition for man, whereas for Plato, society is a natural condition. How so? Recall Hobbes’ conception of man. Basically, men are like atoms. They are what they are and do not need others for sufficiency. Any relation which an atom has with another atom is entirely accidental; the relation is not necessary for the atom to be what it is. Given free-rein, a man can gain through his efforts all that is needed for happiness. But, there’s the rub. Given free-rein, one man is bound to come into conflict with the actions of another man, especially if there are not enough goods to go around, which, needless to say, is the case. The net effect of men trying to get what they want is what Hobbes calls existence in the state of nature. There is a shorter more precise term for existence in the state of nature, war. To exist in the state of nature, one man against another, is to be at war. And, the conditions are such that life is “nasty, brutish and short.”

Man, being an intelligent thinker who can adapt means to acquire desired ends, comes to the obvious conclusion that he had better cooperate with others to survive. Society is formed by men contracting to utilize agreed upon means to acquire mutually desired ends --the foremost end, to get out of a state of war. A social contract is formed which specifies what powers each man has to give up to society. Essentially, it is the power to do harm. Having given this power up to society, a man can turn his efforts not to defending himself, but to enriching his life. How can he do this? Society ,as a large body, has at its disposal certain men (the government) who will enforce the rules which prevent men from being at war. No individual man is strong or smart enough to take on the government; no man in his right mind would even consider doing so. He would be surely harmed by the great powers of the government who would hunt him down and punish him. Thus, society is a state of being in which men gain the best possible outcome in getting out of a state of nature or war. And, that is to cooperate with one another. They cooperate not by nature as Plato would have it, but by necessity. Society is thus an artificial condition for man.

3. The contemporary blend of our society. Our society is founded very much on Hobbes’ concepts. However, some of Plato’s philosophy had crept in. The founding fathers agreed with Hobbes that the purpose of government was to ensure a removal from the state of nature, war. The general conception of government was a police force to protect the members of society from external and internal harm. The purpose of the government, in short, was to protect private property --one’s life being the most important private property one could have. The government was not designed to promote cooperation through the kind of natural association or bonding Plato would support. However, as time progressed, more and more the role of the government became not a police force, but an administrator of goods which were to be distributed to citizens. In other words, the conception of government went from preventing harm to producing good.

There are problems with this change which I shall briefly mention here. The first is that if the government is changed to an administrative role from a protective role, the power of enforcement of the rules diminishes. And with that reduction, the social contract is weakened. If individuals think that they can be smarter than the government, they will break the rules for their personal gain. If the government cannot catch them, and word gets out that the government is powerless (or even corrupt itself), then the world begins to return to a state of nature or war. A second problem is the problem of free-riders. If the government is a distributor of goods, and the government is the creation of the people, then the goods will be distributed according to the wishes of the people, or as we have seen, the majority. In some cases, the majority can be persons who are parasitical on society --free-riders. Government thus becomes an instrument of exploitation. How bad these problems become remains to be seen.

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