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Sample Essay on Political Philosophy

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Political philosophy is a subfield of philosophy that focuses heavily on the political, legal, and moral implications of different schools of thought within society. It is a field that goes back thousands of years to the time of Socrates, and more recently Machiavelli and Hobbes. These topics are covered below, or consider Ultius' other topics within the humanties and philosophy for additional information.

Socrates, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and political philosophy

Over time, a number of philosphers have tried to delineate the inter-related areas of morailty, justice, and the place of indiviudals within society. This essay will focus on Machiavelli's concepts of power, Socrates' emphasis on justice, and Thomas Hobbes' exploration of central political authority through his publication Leviathan, as well as Hobbes' understanding of selfish morality. When choosing between identifying with either the Socratic school of thought or a Machiavellian Prince, it is important to answer the question of how important power is to the individual.

The two schools of philosophical thought have two very different approaches in terms of what power is and the means of going about attaining it, and these factors must be seriously considered before someone identifies with either Socrates or Machiavellian’s ideology. From a personal standpoint, I must admit that I identify with the Machiavellian point of view and therefore would rather be a Machiavellian Prince instead of a Socratic gadfly, which is a person that acts as a stimulating and provocative, though negative, agent of change. 

Machiavelli responds to Socrates' political philosophy

Instead of acting under the premise that humans are inherently good and moral, and therefore achieves gains through good, Machiavellian has a more pessimistic attitude to human nature. He realizes that there will be those that are “other than good” and, therefore, power is built and maintained as a necessity to keep those at bay. In the present day, there is greater acceptance of the idea of changing moral judgements, instead of one set of rules, for a number of philosophers and writers.

Machiavelli though, focuses not on morality, but on power. He pushes for the notion of the preservation of power by those that obtain it. Machiavellian points out,

he (the leader of the state) must stick to the good so long as he can, but, being compelled by necessity, he must be ready to take the way of the evil” (Machiavelli, 63). 

In the most basic sense of political power, Machiavellian is pushing for the denial of morality in any and all political affairs and “that craft and deceit are justified in pursuing and maintaining political power” (Machiavelli, 63). Machiavelli's themes on the use of power by individuals and institutions are even used to study the complexities of Shakespeare. Ultimately, Machiavelli argues that in terms of power, the end justifies the means.

Socratic ideals within political philosophy

Socrates operates under a much different premise when compared to that of Machiavellian. Instead of assuming the inherent cruelty of some men, this doctrine preaches the importance of questioning why those that have power are able to morally have authority over others.  

Socrates was famous for his questioning of many of his time’s assumed truths about power, authority, and ethics. The major doctrine comes from questioning the reasoning and rationale for any and all of the actions of those in power. Socrates was famed for doing just that as he is usually portrayed as a man of “great insight, integrity, self-mastery, and argumentative skill” (“Socrates”). That being said, Socratic methods are usually a means of carefully justifying (through inquiry) actions that are morally permissible for all parties involved.

Political philosophy and political actions

The major rationale for discussing Machiavellen principles grows from this ideology, which allows for swift, efficient action in any given situation. Socratic gadfly is an excellent means for making sure that every possible action is justified in that it can reduce all actions to a series of questions and, subsequently, ask if those carrying out said actions are justified and morally permissible in doing so. But, the downside to such a thorough course of action is that it can slow down any real action to a crawl and a major debate that can ultimately end in a stalemate.

With Machiavellian’s ideology, one needs only see if the outcome of an event is favorable or results in a situation that is best for a particular group or society. A political issue or event can be quickly resolved because by the Machiavellian principle, one needs to simply arrive by whatever means possible to the optimal solution. The major issue that derives from this principle is in that of the people that have power under such a system.

The major drawback and argument against adopting a Machiavellian system of political ideology, more fully discussed in the essay on Machiavelli's The Prince, is that those in power will misuse it for their own personal benefits while oppressing and harming those with no power in the process. Those that do not favor Machiavellian’s ideology argue that saying the end justifies the means is a slippery slope to a system that allows an ambitious, power hungry individual to seize control similar to that of something like Nazi Germany.

However, if one makes this argument than they must also be opened to the possibility that the system can allow for a truly benevolent individual to take control of a political system and, with the ability to act decisively, can make swift, just, and fair actions to lead a group or state.

When examining how it seems that most entities operate in the world today, it seems evident that the vast majority of political groups operate under a very Machiavellian system. These states are able to act relatively swiftly and resolve issues quickly as compared to the institutions that follow Socratic gadfly’s principles.

A real world example of these doctrines in practice use in shown by the political power between the United States President’s use of executive orders compared to that of The United Nations process of passing political sanctions. The UN practices a carefully executed, debated approach before taking any action, and as a result, many feel this organization is relatively weak and powerless in terms of being able to take action and get the political process moving. On the other hand, when the President of the United States makes an executive order, immediate action is taken.

This is usually in response to an impending issue or concern that needs immediate action. Though the action can sometimes lead to the harm of a few, the country tends to follow a idea of justifying their actions by the results. Being that I am a person that wants to be able to make swift, decisive actions, I identify with the Machiavellian school of thought. 

Political philosophy by Thomas Hobbes 

Thomas Hobbes is an early American political thought leader and as one of the most influential minds in terms of political philosophy and will, most likely, remain so for centuries to come. His work Leviathan has been called one of the most significant pieces of writing in modern political ideology, rivaling the works of many famous minds including Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and many others. Hobbes believes that humanity is in need of a strong, central authority in order to be kept in control and not descend into a state of chaos and political upheaval.

This idea stems deeply from Hobbes’ political doctrine that has come to be known as the ‘social contract theory’, which is summarized in key points below.

  • Hobbes applies this ideology as a means of justifying actions carried out by those that have authority and power over those that are ruled and strongly feels that it is through the use of this doctrine that society will be able to be run peacefully in a controlled, normative fashion.
  • First, it is of the upmost importance to understand what Hobbes’ ‘social contract theory’ is and why he uses it for the means of much of ideology and writings in terms of the political processes of society. The social contract theory is defined as “the method of justifying political principles or arrangements by appeal to the agreement that would be made among suitably situated ration, free, and equal persons” (“Hobbes’ Moral”). Hobbes presents ideas and conclusions regarding government and use of power in Leviathan. 
  • By the application of the social contract theory, Hobbes feels that there is only one way in which society should be governed.
  • His conclusion is that the only true way for society to function is through that of an absolute sovereign power. In this way, the people governed by that power will be more inclined to follow the laws laid down as they are absolute and the government (in this case a single person with all the power) has the ability to severely punish any and all those that would oppose its rule.  

Leviathan and social contract theory

Leviathan is a way in which Hobbes furthers his ideas as laid down by his social contract theory. The Leviathan is a metaphor for the figurehead that would rule the commonwealth that Hobbes suggests and also can be seen in relation to the monster of the seas of both folklore and biblical references. In the text, Hobbes makes the general statement that when reduced to the most principle features of nature mankind is inherently both violent and full of fear driven actions. He describes this state as, “war of every man against every man,” (Hobbes).  

In this state, mankind is constantly trying to destroy one another in the hopes of gaining others resources and other material possessions while maintaining their own safety. To combat this state of pure fear and fighting, Hobbes speculates that man will want to find peace and in doing so move to this state by following the principles that he has laid out in his social contract. 

Hobbes' views on selfish morality means that he believes humans are inherently not good. This is not to say that mankind is purely evil, but Hobbes seems to operate under the notion that mankind will not be unwilling to hinder others for his own personal gain.  

Based on this logic, Hobbes calls for a form of government where an unbiased opinion is the one in charge of a particular society. In this sense, Hobbes' shares a scholarly interest in aspects of morality that have also been studied and explained by Descartes and Descartesian morality. Yet, Hobbes hoped to establish an authority of absolute power that will act in such a way as to better the society as a whole. Those that are governed by this system will want to follow it. However, Hobbes’ logic seems very flawed in the way in which the person is placed in charge of this form of government.

By Hobbes’ own logic, the figurehead, or leviathan, of his government is a flawed leader. Hobbes is quoted as saying that man will define morality in such a way that it will only preserve those persons own self-interests. By putting a person that is supposedly removed from that society, Hobbes feels they will be able to not pass judgments that are biased to their own self-interests. 

Unfortunately, if Hobbes truly believes that this is the way in which humankind will act when left to his own vices, the Leviathan of this society will eventually act in such a way that will benefit his (or her) self interests to some extent. Perhaps this sort of government would, theoretically, be possible in the time that Hobbes originally wrote Leviathan, however such a system could not be possible today. In modern society, the world is so interconnected that someone with such absolute power would clearly make decisions for a group that would have repercussions felt by that individual. In a world that is so connected in all aspects of life from economic to social issues, there is no possible way to have this leviathan like figure head that is removed from society and able to, as Hobbes says, “hold us all in ‘awe’, to reinforce the obedience to ‘common names, commonly understood' (Hobbes).

Political philosophy and an individual's self-interests

Hobbes operates under the simple premise that mankind will do only what is in their own interests when left alone. This pessimistic view on society lead Hobbes to create the social contract theory that subsequently lead to the underlying ideology of Leviathan. The creation of a central authority that is removed from society but still able to “hold us all in awe” is theoretically a perfect solution to Hobbes raised concern, however it would not be realistically possible in our society at this point.

The advancement of technology has made the repercussions of all nations actions interwoven so that we are now entering a time of global dependency and awareness. With this being the case, it is nearly impossible, and highly improbable, that a single entity could exist in such a way as the leviathan in Hobbes’ writings without that individual becoming themselves corrupted and acting in such a way to promote their own self interests. Though Hobbes’ basic idea of humankind acting in their own self interests holds true through the modern age, it would seem that the solution to the apparent destruction of “all moral law” is no longer viable.  

Works Cited

"Hobbes's Moral and Political Philosophy." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., 23 Aug. 2008. Web. 3 Mar. 2013. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/hobbes-moral>. 

Hobbes, Thomas, and J. C. A. Gaskin. Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print. 

Machiavelli, Niccolò, Thomas More, Martin Luther, William Roper, Ninian Hill Thomson, Ralph Robinson, Robert Scarlett Grignon, and C. A. Buchheim. The Prince. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910. Print. 

"Socrates." Britannica Online Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/551948/Socrates>. 



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