Hobbes and Plato both constructed images of an ideal state, based on their accounts of human nature. Hobbes had a more negatively skewed view of human nature; a materialistic view, while Plato essentially believed that humans are inherently good. This essay will discuss how their differing views are conveyed in their imagined states, and subsequently will critically compare the two.
Thomas Hobbes had a materialistic philosophy; he held a mechanistic view of the universe. In his opinion, human nature is the the combined result of mechanic desires and aversions, arbitrated by constant power struggles.He posited that there is no true right and wrong but that morality is subjectively relative, “He states that there is no good but the object of a man’s desire, no evil but an object of aversion, and that there is no absolute right or wrong, but merely a relative morality that favors the reason of the user” ( Tyluski, associatedcontent.com).
In Hobbes view, man’s natural condition or state of nature is innately violent and aggressive, saturated with fear. He illustrates his belief with the hypothetical image of the natural state of mankind, prior to a government ruling society, as one of constant war, aggression, fear and death. He proposed that since resources are limited, as soon as two people want the same thing, a power struggle results and inevitably war erupts. If men were to live in this state of nature then all lives would be “…solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”( Hobbes, pg.186).
Based on this diabolical image, Hobbes contends that the best solution to this state of nature is his Leviathan. He argues that in order for mankind to exist and live in peace and harmony, they must first submit to a sovereign power. Hobbes truly believed that control by an oppressive government was infinitely better than living under the threat of war. In order to alleviate the constant fear, mankind must enter into a social contract in a commonwealth ruled over by a sovereign head. Thus the Leviathan is formed in order to overcome the fear based lives of men in the state of nature. However, ironically the Leviathan is only possible if it uses fear itself as a weapon. Therefore fear is never completely dismissed. However fear under the Leviathan at least brings the promise of peace and protection of life, in contrast to fear in the state of nature. Following from this, the Leviathan seems immensely more desirable a condition to live in. It appears that it is only under a sovereign power that people have actual liberty. Certainly there are rules and regulations to live by, but as the subjects actually wrote the social contract they find themselves under, they are indeed authors of the sovereigns power. It seems that freedom can only really exist under a soverieign power permitted by its people, “…establish a Leviathan whose power is assigned to it by its subjects” (Tyluski, associatedcontent.com).
In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus have entreated Socrates to explain that the best life a man can live is a just one, and that it will ultimately lead to happiness. Socrates must show that justice should be chosen for its own merit and not for the results that derive from it. Since a city is larger than a man, it is easier for Socrates to first look for justice at a political level within a state, and following from that to see whether the virtues found can be transferred to an individual. “Morality might exist on a larger scale in the larger entity and be easier to discern…And then we can examine individuals too, to see if the larger entity is reflected in the features of the smaller entity” ( Plato, pg 58). Therefore the collective justice found within a state will be reflected in the justice of an individual. Plato saw justice not as a set of behaviours, but rather as a structural entity. The structure of a city holds political justice while in an individual justice can be found in the structure of the soul.
Plato explains that in his ideal state there must exist the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. His imagined state will be divided into three classes of people; producers, auxilaries and guardians. The producers are the lowest class, such as farmers, artisans, and craftsmen. They must use the skills which nature honoured them with. Auxilaries are the warrior class who must defend the rulers beliefs and doctrines. The guardians are the highest class and they are the rulers of this imagined state. When the balance and relationship between these three classes is correct then this is a just society.
Plato then takes his image of a perfect state and starts searching for each of the previously mentioned virtues. He begins by discovering that wisdom resides in the class of the guardians. They are the smallest class in the city. The guardians have had the best education, and have been finely honed for this role. They have a thorough knowledge of running a city. They are rational and desire what is in the best interest for the city as a whole. Therefore with the city in their hands, it is made wise, “the wisdom it has a whole is due to the smallest grouping and section within it and to the knowledge possessed by this group, which is the authoritative and ruling section of the community” ( Plato, pg. 135).
The next virtue Plato comes across is courage and this is found in the auxilaries. The auxilaries must fight for the city and defend the wishes of the guardians. More specifically, the type of courage which is found in the auxilaries is civic courage. That is to say, it is a type of courage which is based on belief rather than knowledge. He defines courage in this instance as, “the ability to retain under all circumstances a true and lawful notion about what is and is not to be feared” (Plato, pg. 137). Plato places great importance on the significance of education and thorough training.He emphasises how imperative standing by the specific role of performing with courage as an auxilary is, regardless of the pressures which arise “keeping it intact and not losing it whether one is under the influence of pain or pleasue, diversion or aversion.” (Plato, pg. 136).
Moderation is the thrid virtue, and is found throughout the state, “ self-discipline(moderation) literally spans the whole octaval spread of the community, and makes the weakest, the strongest, and the ones in between all sing in unison”( Plato, pg. 139). While courage and wisdom are essential qualities which are found in only specific parts of the community, moderation is a virtue which reconciles and brings together all the parts of the city. Moderation comes about by the acceptance that all are in agreement concerning who should rule the city. It is found in all classes, and is attained by a common understanding of what is best for all people. With regard to justice in the state, again it is found throughout the state. Justice complements moderation in the city. Plato deems that “morality(justice) is doing one’s own job and not intruding elsewhere” (Plato, pg. 140). Plato believes that justice best comes about when everyone attends to the role that they are most suited to.
As a just society is made up of three classes, similarly a just soul parallels it and is tripartite in its structure; the rational, the spirited and the appetitive. A just soul constantly attempts to achieve and live completely in truth. Therefore the rational part of the soul rules, and the spirited part supports the rational, with the appetitive part submitting and following reason. That is to say the whole soul is geared towards satisfying the desires of the rational, just as in the imagined state everyone fulfills the rulers desires. Within the society, each class is dominated by the corresponding part of the soul. Producers are ruled by their appetites; their urges for money, material things and pleasure. Warriors are ruled by their spirits; they are brave and courageous. Rulers are influenced by their rationale. Therefore justice in a soul as in the state, relies on the the appropriate power relationship between each part, “Morality, then is an inner state….It is harmony between the parts of a persons mind under the leadership of his or her intellect” ( Plato, pg. 152). In this way Platos account of human nature directly informs his theory of an ideal state.
Plato’s Republic and Hobbes Leviathan both share the common understanding that without a state or governing body in place, all mankind would disintegrate into a state of chaos; with desires, appetites and aversions being the dominant cause behind behaviour. They reflect each other in that both believe submission to and acceptance of a ruling body will result in harmony. However beyond this similarity, the views of these philosophers greatly differ.
The Republic is based on a quest for justice in both the state and individual; in Platos view people are inherently good. Plato constructs his ideal state,and then searches for virtues within it, which will also be present in the tripartite soul of individuals. By this method, he shows that in a just state or soul, these virtues must be present and each class or reciprocal part of soul must have the correct balance of power. In this way harmony is attained. Although men may commit some terrible acts, this is due to their appetitive desires rather than an innate negative drive. Although Hobbes also believes that men are dominantly driven by their desires and aversions, he does not think that men are ultimately driven to do good but rather by what will give them power and will ultimately protect them. Hobbes builds his state on a foundation of fear of war and terror. He does not consider that what is correct and just is found naturally in humans, “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place” ( Hobbes, pg. 188). He does not look for virtues in men but instead only seeks , “those qualities of man-kind that concern their living together in Peace, and Unity.”( Hobbes, pg. 160). Hobbes does not believe there exists a state of happiness in the soul, that it is a state that is a constant, that can be held on to, “Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another…” (Hobbes,pg. 160).
Plato builds his state on the principle of specialization, “At the center of his model is a principle of specialization: each person should perform just the task to which he is best suited.” (Brown, SEP). Every man has a place, and does the job for which he is deemed most fit for. In this way all jobs in the state are done to the highest standard, and the needs of the state are met adequately, resulting in a healthy state. This ensures each class remains in a fixed state of power and influence. In contrast, Hobbes does not see men as being any different from each other, rather he believes that we are all completely equal, “Nature hath make man so equal in the faculties of body and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable” (Hobbes, pg. 183). Plato believes that there exists an elite few that possess a greater knowledge and absolute truth. It is these few who convey the moralistic way of life to the rest of society. Converesly, Hobbes does not think that there is any one who is in possession of truth, and does not see the state as responsible for moral reasoning within society. Rather the only role the government plays in his eyes is a lawful one, a peace keeping role to avoid the harm one man may cause another.
While Platos state is often referred to as an unattainable Utopia, it is still a model which can be aspired to, as an existence with order, meaning and harmony, both within the individual and on a larger scale. Hobbes Leviathan contrarily, is built out of fear and chaos, rather than being something to aspire to, it seems to be more something that is settled for, when there is no other alternative.
Brown, E., 2009, Plato’s Ethics and Politics in the Republic,
Hobbes, T., 1968, Leviathan( Pelican Classics), London, Penguin.
Plato, 1993, Republic: translated by Robin Waterfield, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Tyluski, M., 2009, Human Nature in Hobbes Leviathan,
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