Ancient vs. Modern Political Thought

First installment in my new college essays series: This is one of the essays I wrote during the political theory general exam for my PhD. The exam was an approximately 15-hour marathon session, involving 6 out of 12 essay questions, for a final total of 33 double-spaced pages written without access to any notes or sources.

In Thoughts on Machiavelli, Leo Strauss wrote that “Machiavelli does not bring to light a single phenomenon of any fundamental importance which was not fully known to the classics.” I have not yet read Strauss’s book, so I cannot speak for him regarding what precisely he meant by this statement but I suspect that what he meant bears some similarity to a growing sense within me that the ancient Greeks developed, at least in essence and prototypical form, every or most major philosophical positions that have been advocated at one time or another in modernity. If anything is fundamentally new about modern political philosophy, I think that it lies in the sheer predominance and popular acceptance of certain of these philosophical positions: namely, those related to the positivist-empiricist-historicist paradigm of our age. Modernity is plagued by a host of artificial dichotomies, reified abstractions such as realism-idealism, rationalism-empiricism, mind-body, Self-Other, subjective-objective, science vs. philosophy and foundationless value-judgments, and so forth. Classical or premodern political philosophy might be characterized by the search for right order, modern political philosophy by the search for order simplicitor, and postmodern political philosophy by giving up on the search for order altogether (moral, immoral, or amoral) (but perhaps this last is starting to change?). I find that these are dominant trends only, however; exceptions abound.

To begin with, are the features characteristic of modern political philosophy fundamentally new? The atomism, materialism, and mechanism that underlie a good deal of modern political philosophy and most of the social sciences were present already in ancient Greece in the ideas of such thinkers as Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and some of the sophists. Social contract theory and state-of-nature theorizing is a distinguishing characteristic of the modern, Enlightenment liberalism of Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Kant, and Rawls and even critics of liberalism like Rousseau. Plato makes a prototypical social contract argument in the Crito, however, and Aristotle recognizes that the immediate motivation for social and political life, if not its natural end, may be personal advantage. Plato and Aristotle explicitly combated the sophistic view that the polis is an artificial convention, such as Glaucon’s reformulation of Thrasymachus’ argument in Book II of the Republic that justice is a conventional compromise between doing injustice (good) and suffering injustice (bad). There is even an explicit, if not self-conscious, state-of-nature tale in the form of the Promethean myth told by Protagoras in Plato’s Protagoras; granted, this myth was told by Protagoras in order to illustrate why he thinks virtue is teachable and not to justify or explain the origin and purpose of government, but the seeds are there. Moreover, the Greeks and Romans were no strangers to absolutist and amoral (or immoral) arguments such as “might makes right” and “justice is the advantage of the stronger,” nor were they strangers to power politics.

The lines become even more blurred when we consider modern political theorists who shared some of the concerns of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas about right order and virtue. Even Locke, for whom the origin and purpose of government is solely the protection of life, liberty, and property argued (unlike Hobbes) that natural moral law still applied even in the state of nature, that liberty in the state of nature was not license or “do whatever you please’.” Algernon Sidney and Montesquieu were republicans concerned with ordered liberty and moral and civic (or republican) virtue. If I remember correctly, Strauss, in his “Thoughts on Hobbes’s Political Philosophy,”1 has argued that the state of nature originally played a role only in Christian theology and was first given a role in secular and political philosophy by Hobbes. We have already seen that this is not quite true; there is an example of the state of nature in Greek myth and ethical/political philosophy even if it wasn’t self-consciously labeled a state of nature and used for familiar social contract purposes. There is another instance of the state of nature being used in political philosophy prior to Hobbes, five decades earlier in fact. One can debate whether this example counts as premodern or modern, but the Spanish Scholastic and Jesuit Juan de Mariana explicitly employed the state of nature to ground his pre-Lockean argument for popular sovereignty and a radical defense of tyrannicide in his 1599 book De Rege. The Promethean myth, Mariana’s account, and modern Hobbesian and Lockean accounts of the state of nature bear important descriptive similarities.

Nevertheless, as I noted in the beginning, I think the primary difference between premodern and modern political philosophy lies in the dominant trend that received philosophical and popular acceptance. The premodern political philosophers whose thought achieved dominance — Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, and others — were primarily concerned with the search for right order. They generally accepted essentialism, teleology, eudaimonism, and natural law-type virtue or deontic ethics. Modern political philosophers tend to be more concerned with the search for peace and order, consequentialist or deontic ethical systems concerned primarily with social order, and are more likely to be rationalists or empiricists and base their theories on reductionist foundations. To illustrate, I will briefly examine the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas on one hand and Machiavelli and Hobbes on the other. Aristotle and Aquinas would probably view the political philosophies of Machiavelli and Hobbes as reductionist and insufficiently concerned with promoting virtue and the pursuit of the good life. Machiavelli and Hobbes have criticized classical political philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas for being overly concerned with utopias and idealistic regimes, and for having a misguided, idealistic view of the world and human nature.

Aristotle is a classical virtue ethicist who views man’s natural end as a life of well-being, flourishing, or happiness (eudaimonia). Classical supply-side theories of virtue ethics like Aristotle’s start from the question “What kind of person should I be?” not, as in typically modern demand-side theories, “What rules should I follow?” or “What consequences should I aim for?” The good life is a life of reason lived in community with other rational beings. The virtues are traits of character constitutive of the good life that tend to be conducive to man’s natural end. There is not and cannot be an exhaustive set of rules governing human behavior that is universal to all human beings and applicable in every situation. Virtue is right action, a mean between the vices of excess and deficiency, the mean relative to us. The moral virtues are generic principles that guide us in our pursuit or search for the good life. They must be applied to particular situations in light of our individual context. The intellectual virtue of practical wisdom or prudence (phronesis) guides the proper application of the moral virtues to specific contexts. Prudence is not mere cleverness or calculation of the best means for any ends. One might say that prudence without the moral virtues is empty, the moral virtues without prudence are blind. Given that man’s natural end is the good life, and that man is a political being who requires community to pursue that end, the polis is natural and its end is the eudaimonia of each and every one of its citizens. To this end, the constitution and laws of the polis ideally will be designed to promote virtue and discourage vice. Education is extremely important.

The Christian theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas sought to integrate Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian theology and medieval political thought. To Aristotle’s intellectual and moral virtues, he added the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. As a Christian, and particularly one coming after Augustine, Aquinas still held that moral perfection is the natural end of man but that it cannot be fully and perfectly achieved in this life and even then only by the aid of divine grace. As an Aristotelian, however, and living in the high Middle Ages, Aquinas was not so pessimistic as Augustine that he would settle for the purpose of the secular institutions of the City of Man as being purely the maintenance of peace and order (shades of Hobbes) while the Church concerned itself with the salvation of souls. Human law should encourage virtue and discourage vice, but it cannot achieve moral perfection directly and should focus primarily on prohibiting and punishing the worst forms of vice, those that severely threaten the social order (theft, murder, and the like). Even in Mariana, late in the Scholastic-Thomist tradition, we see the end of political society to be not merely peace and order but also living well.

With Machiavelli we see a relatively new scientific method and a focus on realist-practical politics. Machiavelli rejects the search for right order and the best regime as utopian, declaring that none of these ideal constructions of his predecessors have ever existed anywhere and never will. He finds fault with their ethical theories as well, arguing that to follow them is to invite ruin and that they are antithetical to great and successful politics. In place of classical inductive and deductive methods, and dialectic, Machiavelli claims to employ a new method of enumerative generalizations from historical experience to discover an evolving set of maxims that will tend to lead to success in politics. As a pre-Enlightenment thinker, however, and as bold as he is, Machiavelli is not so bold as to claim that he has discovered a means by which man can completely overcome Fortune. Arguing that a prince must know when not to be good, Machiavelli attempts to establish a separate set of rules for political and private life. In politics, the ends justify the means and the principal end is a great and well-ordered commonwealth or republic. Tellingly, Machiavelli’s table of virtues is of the same number as Aristotle’s, eleven, but its composition is markedly different and justice is strikingly missing. All of the virtues and vices in Machiavelli’s table involve reputation, how the prince is viewed by others, and usefulness for success in politics.

With Hobbes we see the hubris characteristic of the Enlightenment in full flower. In the introduction to his Leviathan, Hobbes likens the ability of man to create an artificial man (i.e., the State) to the miracle of God’s creation of man himself. The tone of power and optimism in the capability of human reason to reshape the world and human nature is striking. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes reduces politics to power (but arguably not as consistently as Spinoza) and goes even further, reducing the purpose of government purely to maintaining peace and order and its origin to base human passions: the desire for power over others, fear of death in the unsafe and miserable state of nature, and calculating self-interest. The people agree to install a ruler as sovereign and he is to have absolute power; law is the dictate of the sovereign. Justice is an artificial convention, having no place in the state of nature where force and fraud are the cardinal virtues. The laws of nature are prudential (in the calculating, not the Aristotelian, sense): the first is to seek peace and follow it, but the first right of nature is to utilize any means necessary for self-preservation. The second law of nature is to form a compact and give up all of his rights and some of his liberty when others are willing; the corresponding second right of nature is that if others are not willing, he may do whatever he likes to defend and advance himself. The third law of nature is the origin of justice: that men should perform the compacts they make.


  1. I’m not sure if this is the exact title for the essay. 

In Category: College Essays, Philosophy

Geoffrey Allan Plauché

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Libertarian political philosopher, writer, editor, and web designer. He is the founder of the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association. His academic work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Houston, TX with his wife and two children.

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