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N.K. Silverman
A.P. American Government
SOCRATES (Greek: 469-399 BC) Socrates lived in poverty and neglected his own affairs, spending his time
teaching and discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens gathered. When he was forty years
old, the Oracle of Delphi pronounced him the wisest man in Greece. Some felt that he neglected public duty since
he never sought public office, although he was famous for his courage in military campaigns. Among Socrates’
contributions to philosophy was a new method of approaching knowledge, called Dialectic, in which he would
ask a series of questions, each designed to lead to another question until the final answer was the one Socrates was
trying to elicit. People resented being questioned in public by a man who said he knew nothing, when the result
seemed to prove their ignorance and his wisdom. He taught the techniques to the young men of the city; his
disciples came from wealthy families with oligarchical sympathies. He was commonly considered undemocratic
because he believed that in government, as in medicine, expert opinion alone is of value and that only those
trained to do so should rule. He disapproved of the democratic concept of popular election to public office. All
Greek city-states were slave-owning societies. Socrates made numerous enemies so in 399 BC he was accused of
corrupting the youth and of believing in gods of his own and not the gods of the city. He was found guilty and
condemned to die by drinking hemlock.
PLATO (Greek: 428-347 BC) Plato was an upper class Athenian who attached himself to Socrates early in life
and left Athens upon Socrates’ death. During his travels he formed a lasting friendship with Dion, who would
advise Dionysius II, tyrant of Syracuse. Upon his return to Athens in 386 BC, he established the Academy that
was much concerned with political science in its early years, and would continue until 529 AD. He left Athens
only twice after that, both times to unsuccessfully try to get Dionysius II to reform his government. His dialogues
include: Apology (defense of Socrates), Meno (he asks whether virtue can be taught), Gorgias (absolute nature of
right and wrong), Phaedo (nature of Forms and Ideas), Symposium (path to the highest good is described as the
ascent of true lovers to eternal beauty), and Laws (discusses in practical terms the nature of state). In his
masterpiece, The Republic, he recreates a dialogue with Socrates seeking to answer the question “What is
Justice?” which he uses to describe an ideal or perfect society, the first Utopia in literature. He asserts the
philosopher is the only one capable of ruling the just state, since through his study of dialectic he understands the
harmony of all parts of the universe. Each social class happily performs the function for which it is suited. The
philosopher rules, the warrior fights, and the worker enjoys the fruits of his labor. Democracy is a state in which
man does n=as he pleases, while in a republic justice reigns supreme.
ARISTOTLE (Greek: 384-322 BC) Aristotle studied philosophy with Plato, although he was more scientific and
less drawn to the ideal than Plato. He did scientific work as a member of the Academy until Plato’s death. He
began tutoring the thirteen-year-old Alexander the Great when Alexander became king. He had to leave Athens
after Alexander’s death because he was charged with impiety, similar to the charge brought against Socrates.
Aristotle’s treatises include Organon or Instrument (studies in logic, a science he invented), Physics, Metaphysics
(inquiries into the true nature of reality), Ethics (an inquiry into the nature of Good), Poetics (literary criticism),
and Politics. Politics discusses government from the point of view of the city-state, which Aristotle explains
developed from a union of families. He argues that it is the best type of political organization for man because he
says it is natural. He feels that man is a political animal, and that the purpose of the state is to provide its citizens
the means for living the good life. The state alone is able to do this because the good life cannot be lived in
isolation. Moreover, since this purpose is moral, not material, government should rest in the hands of the good.
He regards three types of government as true (monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government or politeia),
and three types as perversions (tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy). Ideally, the best of the six is a monarchy in
which absolute power is exercised by one person for the good of all, but as this is unattainable, a constitutional
government is the most effective and practical since it is the most stable.
THOMAS HOBBES (English: 1588-1679) In 1640 after his political writings had brought him into disfavor with
the parliamentarians, Hobbes fled to France where he tutored the exiled Prince Charles. He later came into
conflict with the English in France and went back to England where he lived peacefully. In 1651, he published
his political philosophy in The Leviathan. He argues from a mechanistic view that life is simply the motions of
the organism and that man is by nature a selfishly individualistic animal at constant war with other men. In a state
of nature, men are equal in their self-seeking and live out lives that are “nasty, brutish, and short.” Fear of violent
death is the principal motive that causes men to create a state by contracting to surrender their natural rights and
submit to the absolute authority of a sovereign. Hobbes believes that the power of the sovereign is derived
originally from the people, thus challenging the doctrine of the divine right of kings. He argues that the
sovereign’s power is absolute and not subject to the law. Additionally, temporal power is always superior to
ecclesiastical power. Though Hobbes favored a monarchy as the most efficient form of sovereignty, his theory
could equally well apply to king or parliament. His political philosophy led to investigations by other political
theorists, such as Locke and Rousseau, who formulated their own radically different theories of the social
JOHN LOCKE (English: 1632-1704) Locke held minor diplomatic and civil posts, and then after he lost his
office he met French philosophers. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) examines the nature of
the human mind and the process by which it knows the world. The mind is born blank, a tabula rasa, on which
the world inscribes itself. Locke is most renowned for his political theory. He greatly affected Rousseau and
Jefferson. His doctrine and phrases are imbedded in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
Locke’s Two Treatises on Civil Government in part justifies the Glorious Evolution. Contradicting Hobbes,
Locke believed that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. In that state,
all men were created equal and independent, and no one had the right to harm another in his “life, health, liberty,
or possessions.” The state was formed by social contract because in the state of nature each was his own judge,
and there was no protection against those who lived outside the law of nature. Rights of property were important
since each man has a right to the product of his own labor. Locke forecast the Marxist labor theory of value. The
policy of checks and balances as followed in the Constitution was also set down by him, as was the doctrine that
revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but also an obligation. Locke based his ethical theories upon
a belief in the natural goodness of man. The inevitable cooperation, and in the long run private happiness and the
general welfare coincide. Immediate pleasure must give way to a prudent regard for ultimate good, including
reward in the afterlife. He argued for broad religious freedom, legislating against only atheism and Roman
Catholicism. Locke summed up the Enlightenment in his belief in the middle class and its right to property, in his
faith in the new science, and in his confidence in the goodness of man.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de MONTESQUIEU (French: 1689-1755) His greatest
work, The Spirit of Laws (1748), is a comparative study of three types of government—republic, monarchy, and
despotism—and shows Locke’s influence. Its main theories are that climate and circumstances determine the
form of government, and that the powers of government should be separated and balanced in order to guarantee
the freedom of the individual.
JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU (Swiss-French: 1712-1778) Rousseau’s thought begins with the assumption that
man is by nature good, and with the observation that in society man is not good. The fall of man was a social
occurrence; we never return to a time of innocence. With the social order, Rousseau’s aim is freedom, which
again does not involve a retreat to primitivism but perfect submission of the individual to what he termed the
general will, which is what rational men would choose for the common good. Freedom then, is obedience to a
self-imposed law of reason. The purpose of civil law and government, of whatever form, is to bring about a
coincidence of the general will and the wishes of the people. Society gives government its sovereignty when it
forms the social contract to achieve liberty and well being as a group. While this sovereignty may be delegated in
various ways—monarchy, democracy, and republic—it cannot be transferred. It resides ultimately with society as
a whole and with the people, who can withdraw it when necessary. Rousseau’s political philosophy assumes that
there really is a common good, and that the general will is not merely an ideal. Under the right conditions, the
general will is actual and full development will take place. Anyone who publicly recognizes these dogmas, but
behaves as if he does not believe them, should be punished by death.