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The philosophy of politics

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Chinese political thought emerges, as in the archaic Greece, in a context of crisis. The decomposition of traditional political structures in fact arouses in both cases a philosophical and political awareness. Effective from the 8th century BC, the decline of the empire of Zhou, allows the various strongholds and seigniories to emancipate themselves and to constitute multiple independent kingdoms.

”In a Chinese society divided by feudalism, Confucius sought to restore order and peace through respect for traditions, the legitimacy of power and social hierarchy. Beyond his guiding principles, his experience leads him to the following theoretical conclusion: for political power to live and be sustainable, the Prince is required to behave like a man of quality, a wise man by constantly showing the ‘example.’ If a man knows how to govern himself, what difficulty will he have in governing his state?”.

Ancient Greece

The political thought of Socrates can be summed up in two fundamental contributions. First, the development of a critical method of evaluating political knowledge. Unlike Protagoras, Socrates asserts that truth exists. However, this truth is not dogmatic: it can only be reached by the constant exercise of a critical mind. Reluctant to concepts, Socrates strives to instill doubt as to the morality and effectiveness of political systems: “by putting his interlocutors in contradiction with themselves, he shows that opinion is (…) incapable of serving basis for deliberation and political decision-making, which ruins the Athenian postulate (…) of the universal competence of citizens”. Second, the conceptualization of morality as an object of science. There are, according to Socrates, universal moral laws which can only be discovered by a truly philosophical education. Rarely innate, the science of government is learned; so that for Socrates, Politics appears as a real job.

Initially derived from Socratic theories, Plato’s political philosophy is based on the question of the good and the faculties of the soul, a question which affects both individual human behavior and education: there is, for Plato, no virtue that one could acquire individually, and philosophy itself is an activity of thought that always presupposes an education and political conditions that remain to be defined. For Plato, political philosophy is then inseparable from moral philosophy (as is the case for all ancient Greek philosophy), so that politics, by means of education, aims to take care of the soul of citizens. For these reasons, politics is the science of good in general, and it is therefore superior to all other sciences and techniques, which is why Plato designates it as a royal technique.

As opposed to Socrates who starts from the world of ideas, from which our souls come, to deduce concrete applications, Aristotle tends to want to rely on the observation of reality to deduce theoretical principles. This Aristotelian approach is also true in politics. For Aristotle, man is made to live in a political community. For him, the City is willed by nature and is therefore inherent to any human group, according to the principle that man is by nature a being destined to live in a city (ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον / anthropos phusei politikon zoon).

In his work Politics, Aristotle analyzes the origin and functioning of the different political regimes of his time, the fourth century BC, to define the best of them, which must give birth to the Ideal City. Hellenistic philosophy will mark a clear withdrawal from these political concerns.

Renaissance and secularization

Machiavelli embodies an absolute break with the Christian political tradition and, as such, appears as the first modern political thinker. According to him, indeed, “a new prince, in a city, or a conquered province must make everything new”. For Machiavelli, three principles must guide the Politician: force, respect for the laws, cunning. For Machiavelli, the prince does not need to make a profession of a good man. These political conceptions are coupled with an equally renewed theological interpretation. Indeed, according to Leo Strauss: “Since he characterizes as tyrannical a way of acting which the New Testament attributes to God, he leads us to the conclusion, no, he is indeed saying that God is a tyrant”.

Also, for Machiavelli, the prince must be efficient, in other words the prince must be useful. What is a revolution for the time because it implies that the prince is not necessarily useful, that the prince is not an end in itself but that his place and his function must be deserved.

17th–18th centuries

The question of the state of nature and the social contract is part of a particular context of Western thought. From the 17th century onwards, a challenge to Aristotelian political theses began, based on a humanist counter-argument. For Aristotle indeed: “The State is a fact of nature”, and “Naturally, man is a sociable being”, by the simple fact that he masters rational language, and is thus able, more than any other animal, to group together in society: “man is infinitely more sociable than all the other animals which live in groups”. It follows that “Nature therefore instinctively impels all men to political association” and that “ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον” — “man is a political animal”.

On the contrary, “for the modern age, the humanity of man does not depend essentially on his relationship to others in the construction of a just order” (Aristotle). In the spirit of humanism, the relationship between man and morality or nature is indeed not collective, but individual. Insofar as man precedes the State, the latter cannot be a fact of nature, and could only have been established at a precise moment in human history, to meet needs no less precise.

Such a conventionalist position already existed in the time of Aristotle. In addition to a number of sophists cited by the latter and whose work has not survived time, such as Lycophon, Epicurus shared these conceptions. For the latter, the State was established by convention (Sunkhétai), in order to allow philosophers to devote themselves to science, without fearing the insecurity of human relations: “Epicurus sees the foundation of the city, and more generally of bonds of law, in contracts or conventions binding autonomous subjects […] men associate because they have experienced the pain of suffering damages […] man is not a naturally political animal ” (Philippe Raynaud). The chance of the transmission of the texts contributed to concealing this conventionalist position, then relatively frequent.

Rehabilitated by Hugo Grotius, who establishes the existence, in his Treatise on the Law of War and Peace, of a natural law pre-existing to the various political rights, the State of nature is clearly exposed by Samuel Pufendorf in the first book of the Law of Nature and People. For him, the state only positively confirms a system of rights and duties preexisting in man: there are natural laws, such as the law of sociability, which govern human relationships. However, in order for these natural laws to really be applied, the intervention of a political authority is necessary: ​​”The object of the lawmakers of this earth is to regulate the outward actions of everyone, as best as possible”.

Includes texts from Wikipedia with license CC BY-SA 3.0, translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu

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