Frank van Dun        Ph.D., Dr.Jur.     -    Senior lecturer Philosophy of Law.

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Frank van Dun
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Political Philosophy

Subject, Predicate, and Context

Logic and Rhetoric
Inferences and Proofs

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Human nature and politics

The basic insight of Western political philosophy is that human nature and politics do not mix. Therefore, in order to have a well-ordered world one of the following must occur:

- Humans beings should have no role in politics--the smaller their role, the better. Accordingly, politicians should be as non-human or superhuman as possible.
- Politics should be kept on a very short leash and turned into a trivial pursuit that would be quite innocent even in human hands.

The first alternative leads to the conclusion that human nature should be changed or even eliminated to make the world safe for politics.

The second alternative implies that politics should be trivialised or even eliminated to make the world safe for human beings to live in.


The Greek philosopher Plato clearly defined the problem of politics in his great treatise on justice (a.k.a. The Republic). Many important insights of political thought in the West can be traced to that work.

One of these is the notion that economics and politics are fundamentally different sorts of human activities. Plato holds that the economic life is the natural life for human beings because it concerns itself with satisfying human needs without creating any antagonism between one man and another man. As long as economic considerations predominate in the organisation of human societies the latter are, in Plato's words, healthy. In fact, Plato spoke of 'a golden age of man' to eulogise this idea of a purely economic society, which in his view is the natural, healthy form of society.
According to Plato, politics enters the picture when human beings become obsessed with desire and greed. They then will seek not only to satisfy desires that are contrary to their own health well-being (for example, the desire for sweet food and intoxicating beverages) but also to satisfy desires by other than economic means (for example, by means of violence and fraud). These other, non-economic means are the stuff politics is made of.
Politics, then, appears at first as the criminal invasion of economic conviviality by acts of violence and fraud. As long as such acts are no more than amateurish attempts by individuals to satisfy their greed by non-economic means, there is little danger. However, Plato notes that human society is an organisation of specialised trades. Thus, when politics infests social life, it does so in the form of the appearance of class of men who specialise in violence and fraud. Against such specialists in aggression, there is no economic defence. Economic activity cannot cure the sickness that is politics. Indeed, economic activity is the precondition of political parasitism. One man's economic activity simply creates more opportunity for the robbers. Moreover, in a direct confrontation with the specialists-in-violence, the economic specialists (bricklayers, shoemakers, artisans, farmers, traders, bankers, sailors, and the like) are doomed to defeat. 

Plato's definition of the problem of politics follows from the foregoing observations. The warriors (skilled in the use of arms and violence) and the tricksters (skilled in the methods of deceit) are robbers and thieves, but that is to say only that they are human beings who seek to attain economic ends by non-economic means.  Now, it is natural (i.e. physically necessary) for a human being to seek to attain his economic ends, but it is not natural (i.e. compatible with respect for the natural order of the human world) to do so by non-economic means. Human nature always directs a person to seek to attain his economic ends, but when that person possesses means of violence and the skills to use them then he will use those means and those skills for his own economic ends.

Already, it is clear that Plato has laid the intellectual foundations for his 'ideal political society'. Indeed, it follows from his argument that in an ideal political society the means of violence and the skills to use them must be kept out of human hands. Consequently, the great practical task of the political philosopher who is aware of the problem of the politics and eager to solve it, is to find a way to achieve that end. Of course, his great difficulty is that he cannot directly confront the warriors and frauds. He must acknowledge their superiority in their own field of specialisation. In some way or other, he must learn to use the warriors and tricksters to defeat the warriors and tricksters.

In practical terms, the problem is well-neigh insuperable. However, Plato argues that there is a logically possible solution of the problem. It actually might have been available at the time when politics first appeared in human society, but even if it is now perhaps too late to put into effect, it still is theoretically sound.

Plato's theoretical solution is modelled on the domestication of wild animals, which proceeds by taking their young and then attempting to change them gradually into useful and servile things. In this way, wolves have been turned into watchdogs, which are enormously helpful in protecting men's live and property. Clearly, selective breeding and relentless and intensive training can do the trick. In the same way, Plato suggests, a defender of economic society might succeed in breeding, raising and training a class of men that have all the technical skills of the warriors and the tricksters but no longer have a motive for using them for their own advantage. In that way, that breed of human beings is gradually deprived of its original human nature and equipped with an 'artificial' or 'second' nature, which by design is appropriate for a 'guardian of society'.

The logic of the theory requires that the political class of the 'guardians' be kept strictly separate from the economic classes, so as not to get any taste for the human or economic way of life. Thus, their way life must be based on principles that are directly opposed to those of normal human beings. They must not have any family of their own, no property that they might call their own, no personal friends, nor anything else that might give them a reason or motive for acting otherwise than they are told by their supreme leader, the ruler of the political society. That ruler, obviously, should be a 'guardian' himself and indeed the most perfect 'guardian'. If he were a normal human being, he would use the power of the guardians and their mastery of the skills of  violence and fraud for his own benefit--and that is not part of the theoretical scheme.

Thus, Plato came to the conclusion that the political or guardian-class of society should be kept in strict separation from the economic world of man. It should spend its life in 'the barracks', where personal economic ends cannot corrupt their political mission and their mastery of political skills cannot corrupt economic life outside the barracks.

Plato's insight in this matter received an echo in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, when the idea of the separation of state and society became institutionalised in the program for a 'constitutional state' and the radical separation of 'public' (political) and 'private' (economic) law. Even before that time, medieval rulers relied on monks (who also live in a 'barracks') rather than on their near-equal noble knights in their attempts to create a guardian-class that would be less likely to use it powers for personal ends. When absolutism became the political rule in Europe, the kings immediately began to organise a standing army, the members of which were professionals who lived in military barracks, wore distinctive clothing (uniforms), had their own code of honour and indeed their own legal codes. Needless to say, none of those (consciously or unconsciously Platonic) experiments in separating politics and economics came near to achieving its Platonic purpose.

We must note another important insight of Plato, even if it is a direct consequence of his political philosophy. That insight is that politics is 'education', the conscious and deliberate attempt to control men's minds by controlling every input into their lives as rational beings.