Jorge Zhang

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Political and Social Thought (PHIL-099) Part 1

In order to study for my Philosophy midterm, I decided to write up my class notes on my blog. Hopefully it is at least somewhat interesting to you. In this post, I will outline the arguments of each philosopher as they were covered in lecture, and provide a few real-world examples (also from the lecture). The professor is Richard Boyd.

Class Intro

Reading List:
Sophocles, Antigone. (Chicago)
Aristotle, The Politics. (Oxford Classics)
Machiavelli, The Prince. (Chicago)
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. (Hackett)
Karl Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader. (Norton)
Richard Wright, Native Son. (Harper)
Art Spiegelman, Maus I: My Father Bleeds History. (Pantheon)
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. (Hackett)
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals. (Vintage)
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. (Bantam)

What do these books have in common? According to the professor, these were mostly subversive books that were critical of their own time. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that many of these philosophers were highly controversial in their times, which is why studying them from the angle of political philosophy can be worthwhile. Political philosophy is important because it clarifies concepts such as liberty, equality, or justice. It asks about the difference between what “ought” and what “is.” It asks not just what one “can” do, but what they “should” do.

Antigone (by Sophocles)

Summary: This ancient Greek play is a “sequel” to the Greek myth of Oedipus, so it is important to know the context of this play. In the myth of Oedipus, a prophet tells the king of Thebes that his newborn son would grow up and kill him. The son, Oedipus, is abandoned and left to die. Some shepherds find Oedipus and decide to raise him. Oedipus, now a grown man, encounters the king on the road and (unknowingly) kills his father after a squabble. Oedipus then comes across the Sphinx, who will not let him pass unless he correctly answer a riddle. Oedipus is the first person to correctly answer the riddle, and so he is declared king and marries the queen (who, unbeknownst to both of them, is his own mother). They have 4 children: Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polynices. Several years later, a plague sets in over the city, and Oedipus realizes that it is the wrath of the gods. He eventually discovers the truth about his mother and father, and blinds himself. In order to spare the city, Oedipus exiles himself, leaving his sons Eteocles and Polynices to share the throne. Eteocles refuses to share the throne, so Polynices brings an army and attempts to oust Eteocles. Both brothers die in the conflict, and so Creon (the queen’s brother) is declared king.

King Creon declares that Polynices is a traitor for bringing an army to Thebes, and that due to his crimes, his body would not be buried. This is a big issue for Antigone, who claims to be deeply religious. Antigone tells Ismene that she will bury Polynices’s body anyway. Ismene protests this because she knows that this will force Creon to kill her: Antigone’s response is that she plans to do so in broad daylight and let everyone see her. Antigone seeks out death because she thinks it is inevitable and glorious. Creon doesn’t want to be seen as weak, and also wants to prevent his son from marrying Antigone, so he sentences her to death. Upon hearing the news, his son pleads with Creon and tries to convince him otherwise to no avail. Next, a prophet warns Creon about his decision, but Creon rejects the advice of the prophet because he thinks that the prophet has a ulterior motive (making money). It is only when the chorus (which stands in for the public opinion) tells him to free Antigone that he does so: only to find that he is too late. Antigone, his son, and his wife had all committed suicide.

Antigone (the character): The play deals heavily with free will vs. determinism, as do many other Greek works of literature. At first glance, it seems like what happens to Antigone is pre-determined by prophecy: Antigone believes that she is bound to die, and ultimately does for her cause. Yet, this was very avoidable if Antigone had not rushed to her own doom. These extremists are either admirable or “terrorists,” depending on whether society agrees with their views or not. Antigone appears to believe that the ideals of family obligation and faithfully practicing religion triumph the ideals of politics (though whether she genuinely believes this, or is simply using it as an excuse to stir up trouble and break the law, is hard to determine). This would have gone against the prevailing opinion of those living in Ancient Greece, who generally viewed matters of politics as highly important, equally or even more so than familial or religious obligations.

Additionally, it seems that Antigone is motivated first and foremost by glory. She wants to take credit for her crimes, and when her sister (Ismene) tries to defend her by saying that they were both responsible for the crime, Antigone refuses on the grounds that Ismene doesn’t deserve the glory that Antigone (at least, in her mind) earned. Antigone also seems to be incapable of making distinctions, saying that she must love both brothers equally, and thus demands a burial for both brothers (despite the fact that Polynices, at least in Creon’s eyes, committed a far greater crime). These facts make a compelling case that Antigone is an uncompromising extremist at best.

Creon: Creon views the political above all else, including religion. While he espouses religious views in public to maintain his public image, in private and through his actions it becomes clear that this is a facade. For example, when a prophet warns Creon that he has offended the Gods, he accuses the prophet of having been bribed. Creon seems to legitimately believe that he is the most fit ruler, yet in the play he either waffles under pressure, or is unwavering in his methods seemingly interchangeably. This inconsistent style of ruling plays a large role in creating the tragedy of Antigone. By “drawing a line in the sand” and declaring that anyone who buried Polynices would be killed, he left himself in a tough situation when Antigone went ahead and buried Polynices anyway. Creon decides to proceed with executing Antigone instead of walking back his claim. Then, he tries to walk back his claim under the pressure of public opinion once it is already too late. This only serves to further undermine his own political power.

Ismene: Unlike Antigone and Creon, Ismene sees the possibility of compromise in political life. Her solution of burying Polynices at night would have prevented the entire tragedy. Ismene, unlike Antigone, hold her life in high regard, but is not afraid to risk it when necessary. An example of this is when Ismene risks her life to warn Oedipus of a plot against his life in a previous play.

Example: One could draw parallels to the civil rights movement. Here, Ismene would represent compromise/peaceful protest, while Antigone would represent violent/drastic action. Antigone was not willing to compromise to find a common ground, which resulted in a tragedy. If Ismene got her way, she might not have achieved everything that she hoped for, but the ultimate outcome is better.

Ship of State Speech: Creon’s Ship of State speech is an important part of Antigone. In it, Creon justifies his rule – though it is important to note some of the apparent logical gaps in Creon’s reasoning. These contradictions reveal a lot about why Creon failed to be an effective ruler: namely his inexperience.

He first attempts to justify his rule by saying that society was guided by heaven (as we learn, Creon was likely disingenuous with this argument). Yet, Creon’s emphasis on religious justification for his rule seems to imply that the Gods determine everything, and thus, politics doesn’t matter that much. He next claims that he is rightfully ruler because he is next in line by blood. This is dubious because he is not a direct blood relation, but an uncle. He then argues that his merit as a statesman ensures that he deserves the throne. Yet, while he believes that he would make a strong leader due to his knowledge of the State, he has little practical experience. As seen later on, his leadership skills turn out to be questionable, as knowledge does not always translate to a great leader. Creon goes on to honor Eteocles for dying to defending the state, saying that people should die fighting for their country, which seems to be at odds with the state existing for the preservation of life. Finally, Creon demands absolute obedience from his citizens, all in the while endorsing speaking out if the country is headed for ruin.

Example: Harry Truman was (arguably) a good president despite being a “placeholder appointment.” Thus, it is hard to tell whether someone will be an effective ruler or not until they have had a chance to rule.

Ode to Man: This speech is made by the chorus. It is a list of mankind’s achievements that seem to imply that human nature is to conquer nature, and that Earth is designed to be conquered in this way. Yet, it also says that humans must respect the laws of nature and the gods, or this conquering will lead to destruction. This seems to reference how Creon, who disrespected the gods, was eventually punished. The Ode to Man speech seems to make a distinction between evil/”ugly” and good/”fine” dominations of nature. Example: an ugly domination of nature could be genetically modifying humans.

The Politics (by Aristotle)

Aristotle is very concerned with the purpose (telos) of things, which Aristotle believes is the defining characteristic of something. For example, Aristotle believes that the purpose of a chair is to sit on it, and so the defining property of a chair is the fact that people sit on it. Aristotle applies this logic to the state. For him, the purpose of the state is to allow humans to achieve their purpose: pursuit of virtue and the “good life.” Since humans can only achieve their purpose through the state, the purpose of humans must be to advance the state. This is where one of Aristotle’s most famous quotes comes from, “man is a political animal.”

Natural Slavery: Aristotle provides a defense of slavery by stating that some slavery is “natural.” He applies the same logic as before. Since a slave’s purpose is to serve another, a slave would need to be so lacking in mental reasoning that they cannot possibly be self-sufficient. These people, acknowledging their inferiority, would voluntarily decide to serve a master. Thus, Aristotle believes that slavery is a mutual agreement between the master and slave. It is interesting to note that Aristotle’s definition of a slave is irrespective of heredity or race.

Aristotle acknowledges that natural slaves are quite rare, and that in most instances slavery is unjust. That being said, Aristotle concedes that this injustice is necessary because otherwise the state cannot exist: and without the state, man cannot achieve his purpose. Aristotle seems to suggest if society advanced far enough (perhaps through creating new machines to automate the labor necessary for society to function), slavery would no longer be necessary.

Virtue: For Aristotle, exercising virtue is the purpose of a person’s life. It represents the “good life,” which is when one’s natural needs are completely met. It also represents happiness. Aristotle argues that one person cannot achieve virtue on their own: they must be a part of the state (interestingly, Aristotle says that someone not in a political community is either a beast or a god). This is because nature is so deadly and cruel that someone would likely die if they were alone. Even a group of people, such as a village, is not enough to achieve the “good life,” because the state leads to advancements in human knowledge and achievements (such as the development of modern technology) that are not possible outside of the state. Because the state is necessary to lead the “good life,” it is through participating in the state that one attains virtue. Additionally, it is not simply through participating, but by ruling that one achieves their highest possible virtue. Since not everyone can participate in ruling the state (mostly wealthy men), this also means that the greatest virtue is reserved for citizens.

Liberty: Aristotle argues that true liberty is being able to participate in the state as a citizen and achieve virtue. So, what makes a citizen? Aristotle says that legal status, territory, and birth are all insufficient for citizenship. Those who have legal status might not have citizenship rights. He says that the territory where one happens to be born is arbitrary. Finally, being born to citizens shouldn’t sufficient to make one a citizen: as their parents might not have been citizens (and you can keep going up the ancestry until that is the case). Aristotle also argues that mechanics and laborers should not be citizens. This is because these jobs are so physically demanding that they would have no way of becoming educated enough to be informed. Moreover, due to their dependance on an employer, they can be easily coerced to vote in the best interest of their employer. On the other hand, those who don’t have to work for a wage to secure a living have no similar conflict of interest because their livelihood doesn’t depend on it. Aristotle doesn’t specifically outline what conditions should determine citizenship, as this would depend on the regime type. Aristotle also believes that citizens should take turns ruling and being ruled.

Humans Vs Nature: Aristotle believes humans should completely embrace their nature (this nature is to be a political animal). He believes that it is unnatural to use a thing for something other than its intended purpose.

Miscellaneous: Aristotle argues that pursuing wealth is virtuous: but only to a certain extent. Once one has achieved enough wealth to live comfortably and “practice the good life,” further acquisition of wealth is actually destructive. That’s because pursuing wealth is time-consuming, and so someone who spends their time trying to grow their wealth is actually not very virtuous. Interestingly, this point of view might be a result of the fact that philosophers often arrogantly claim that they could be wealthy, but choose not to be. A famous story among philosophers at the time illustrates this point. Thales of Milatus was extremely poor, and lived on the streets in a shabby state. He was actively mocked for devoting his time to studying the weather and astronomy rather than earning a living. In response to this mockery, Thales declared, “I could make a lot of money if I wanted to, I just choose not to.” So one day, Thales decides to put his knowledge to good use by taking a loan and purchasing all the olive presses in the town. He does this because after studying the weather patterns, he knows that there will be a great harvest this year. Since olives spoil very quickly, once harvest time came around, Thales was able to jack up the prices and make a lot of money by pressing olives.

Example: Jeff Bezos has enough money to live comfortably for many lifetimes, yet he still dedicates a lot of time to obtaining wealth. Aristotle would likely criticize Bezos for not living a virtuous life. Instead of participating in the state and making it better for everyone, Bezos only pursues additional wealth that is not actually making his life improve in quality.

Aristotle also talks about women, and seems to argue that women are less fit than men to command. While Aristotle doesn’t think that the husband should make all the decisions in a husband-wife relationship, he believes that men should have the majority of power in the relationship. Aristotle elaborates further on why, though people have interpreted his explanation in 3 different ways. First interpretation: there is no difference between men and women, it is just that men don’t pay attention to women. Second interpretation (most likely): men are better than women at reasoning, but only because women in ancient Greece stayed in the household and were less educated, so their reasoning skills were stunted. Third interpretation: there is a categorical difference between men and women, and men are overall more fit than women to command.

Aristotle’s analysis of regime types

Interestingly, Aristotle views democracy as “bad” because it allows everyone to vote. He prefers a polity, which is a system where only some people can vote (in his view, these people should not be wage-laborers). This is because Aristotle’s ideal system is one where the people making decisions do so in the interest of the public good and not in their self interest. He believes that people who live comfortable lives are more fit to vote without bias.

Example: People who need their jobs in order to put food on the table will have distorted votes. My professor’s example is that while he personally believes that the US should decrease military spending, since his wife works in the defense sector, he would vote against any decrease to military spending that could affect his wife’s career. This would not be the case for someone who does not have a job. Donald Trump is a good example of someone who can say extremely controversial things precisely because he cannot be fired- it is hard to imagine someone who needs to work for a living saying the same things that Trump says (as they would quickly be fired, and unable to find a new job).

That all being said, Aristotle provides an interesting defense for rule of the many (including democracy). Despite the fact that individuals tend to be uninformed and unfit to vote, they collectively can have wisdom. He calls this “wisdom of the multitude.”

Example: One could think about a potluck where everyone brings a dish. While some of the dishes might be poor, the overall potluck experience can be quite good.

Aristotle argues that rule of the few can be effective because some people simply have a higher capacity for virtue than others.

Example: If you had a box of instruments and had to distribute them to a group of people, instead of distributing them randomly, everyone would be best off if you gave the flutes to the flute players, trumpets to the trumpet players, and so on.

Finally, rule of the one can make a lot of sense, especially if you have one person who is so virtuous that they simply are many times more virtuous than anyone else. In this rare circumstance, Aristotle says that society must either give them total power, or cast them out of society.

Example 1: George Washington was so popular and virtuous that his presidency was practically uncontested. People recognized that he was the right ruler.

Example 2: In sports, if one team is significantly stronger than all the others in the league, it no longer becomes fun to watch. Similarly, Aristotle would argue that if someone is so virtuous that no one else can achieve the “good life,” society may be best off by casting them out.

Example 3: In an episode of the TV show Glee, someone joins the school’s singing club and is a much better singer than anyone else. Recognizing that if she stayed in the club, she would take all of the solo parts, the other club members decided to pull a prank on her in order to make her leave the school.

The Prince (Machiavelli)

Before going deeper into Machiavelli, it is important to note that Machiavelli often gets distilled down into “the ends justify the means.” His theory, however, is much more complex under a closer reading of the text. It is more accurate, I believe, to categorize Machiavelli’s main argument to “sometimes, a little bit of evil is necessary to reduce overall evil in the long run.”

Better to be feared than loved: Machiavelli makes the argument that a ruler who is loved has a significant disadvantage as they have to meet expectations, or else the populace will feel betrayed. If the ruler is feared, then there are no expectations, and with a docile population comes more political flexibility. Furthermore, by strongly establishing one’s power through fear in the beginning of a new rule, a new leader can effectively establish order. Once order has been established, fear may no longer be needed in the long run. On the other hand, if the leader allows the population to become complacent, fear is much less effective when instituted later on.

Example: After using military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s rule, the US left the region, leaving a power vacuum. The US expected that they would be loved by the Iraqi people for overthrowing an unpopular leader, but this move ultimately bred contempt for the US. Despite not being loved, Saddam Hussein arguably was able to establish order and be an effective leader through fear.

Virtu Vs. Fortuna: Machiavelli defines fortuna as luck/circumstance. While Machiavelli does not deny the role that fortuna plays in political rule, he believes that bad fortuna can be overcome through virtu. Machiavelli states that bad fortuna can be an opportunity for those brave and courageous enough. Machiavelli describes hereditary princes as being born with fortuna, and new princes as having bad fortuna, but strong virtu.

Cesare Borgia: Cesare Borgia had the goal of uniting Italy. To do so, he needed to conquer Romagna, a region infamous for its lawlessness. This proved to be an easy task, but holding onto the region would be much more difficult unless Borgia could establish order. Borgia does this through hiring Romano Dorco, a bloodthirsty and borderline-psychopathic general of his. He instructs Dorco to kill all of the thieves and criminals in Romagna. Soon after, the region becomes extremely peaceful, as people are afraid of Borgia’s rule. Once peace was established, Borgia began creating laws and legal structures (such as courts), and thus Dorco was no longer necessary. One day, Borgia has Dorco killed, and leaves his corpse in the center of the city with the bloody knife beside him, leaving the people “satisfied and stupefied.” Machiavelli has high praise for Borgia, despite the fact that Borgia ultimately failed: he gets sick, and his father dies early. Thus, Borgia is ultimately undone by bad fortuna.

Agathocles the Tyrant: Agathocles came from humble beginnings, but quickly rose the ranks of the military. One day, he called a meeting with the most important senators and citizens, supposedly to discuss an important matter. It was, in fact, an ambush, and in one fell swoop Agathocles killed everyone that he had invited. This allowed him to establish himself as an absolute monarch, and he ultimately succeeded in maintaining his power until his death. One would expect Machiavelli to praise Agathocles- yet, Machiavelli actually harshly criticizes him. Machiavelli says that Agathocles took power not through good fortuna or virtu, but by deceiving friends and slaying his own citizens. Thus, Agathocles does not deserve glory, and indeed is remembered as “the tyrant.”

Ferdinand of Aragon: Ferdinand is a king who manages to acquire a solid reputation as a great ruler. Soon, Ferdinand looks to go on foreign conquests, and invokes religion in order to justify them. Machiavelli seems to praise Ferdinand for being a successful leader. On the other hand, he criticizes Ferdinand for enacting “pious cruelty” by expelling non-christians from his kingdom through the Spanish Inquisition and using religion as a cloak to hide his cruelty. To Machiavelli, pious cruelty is not justifiable, even if it leads to success.

Cruelty well used: People have used the previous 3 examples that Machiavelli brings up to argue that Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is simply an elaborate joke. After all, why does he praise Borgia, someone who was ultimately not successful, but criticize two leaders who were? The answer is that Machiavelli does not simply believe that “the ends justify the means,” and has moral standards. To him, cruelty is allowed, but it must be well-used:

Mutual self-interest: Machiavelli also talks about the fine details of maintaining an empire. He says that a ruler cannot simply rely on cruelty, as it is often not enough. A leader can also not rely on patriotism or loyalty, as these are limited. Instead, a ruler must ensure a mutual self-interest between his subjects and the ruler.

Example: A kingdom is about to be sieged by a foreign power, and so the people who live outside of the city (such as farmers) must come within the city walls for protection. Yet, this is a huge vulnerability: it allows these people to be blackmailed by a foreign power. Thus, Machiavelli advocates for the ruler to burn down his own subject’s property and grain fields in order to keep his subjects dependent on the ruler for food and shelter.

Example 2: In the Italian mafia, people who don’t “spill the beans” might get 3-7 years in jail, but during that time they know that the mafia will take care of their families, and that they will get a very nice retirement package once they get out of jail. Thus, many mafia were willing to keep a code of silence, as it was still in their best interest to do so. Once the RICO statutes were enacted (laws that could deal out 30+ years for “conspiracy”), arrested mafia began spilling secrets to get a better bargain. As Machiavelli would say, it was no longer a mutual self-interest, and loyalty only means so much under those circumstances.

Religion: Machiavelli heavily critiques christianity, saying that it is categorical in nature and therefore acts as shackles on a leader who must do what is necessary. One such example is “Thou shall not kill,” a statement that Machiavelli believes is arbitrarily restrictive, as one might need to kill to prevent an even greater evil.

Example: Batman refuses to kill criminals on principle, resulting in a lot of criminals escaping from jail and committing crimes again and again. Had he been willing to use deadly force to kill criminals such as the Joker or Bane, he may have saved a lot more lives in the long run.

Example 2: Had George H.W. Bush (senior) killed Saddam Hussein in Gulf War 1, Gulf War 2 may have been preventable.

Example 3: Dropping the atom bomb was “unchristian,” and so Truman struggled with the decision immensely. Yet, Truman ultimately reasoned that Japan was unlikely to surrender without some large display of power, and so dropping the atom bombs may have ultimately resulted in more lives saved overall than not.

Fortune is a woman: Machiavelli compares fortune to a woman when elaborating on his point about how force is not always enough to overcome luck. He seems to say that when wooing a woman, one must dominate her. Yet, this doesn’t mean that using force and “beating her down” is the best way to proceed. Rather, seduction/persuasion is a better mode of progression as fortuna must “let herself be won.” Thus, according to Machiavelli, the agency actually belongs with the woman.

Hobbes (Leviathan)

Hobbes wrote during a period of instability in England, and was forced to flee during the “English Civil War.” This informs a lot of his theories, which were highly controversial at the time to both the royalists and the puritans. What is interesting about Hobbes is that he is a social contract philosopher – think John Locke or Rousseau – and believes that state power is derived from the consent of the people. This is different from god-given authority (divine right absolutism) that claimed that state power came from God. Yet, Hobbes also argues that the state should have near-absolute power. Thus, royalists strongly disagreed with Hobbes’s assertions that state power was not derived from God, while puritans strongly disagreed that the state should have absolute authority. Hobbes’s main idea is captured in the below graph:

Without authority, there is anarchy. In a state of anarchy, there can be no liberty. Thus, by giving up liberty to the state, people can get liberty back in return more than they would have otherwise. If they give up all of their liberties to the state, then they might get back very little liberty in return.

Hobbes is saying that liberty is not “zero sum,” and that by giving up some of their liberties, people can get more back than they would have otherwise.

Example: Forcing everyone in a country to speak a common language may seem like it reduces liberty. But in practice, it can actually enhance liberty by allowing people to express thoughts to each-other. Thus, even though some liberty is taken away from forcing people to learn a language, they get that liberty back in the form of being able to communicate ideas with others.

Social Contract, and why you should obey it: Hobbes writes on many laws of nature, but the first two are the most important (listed below). Keep in mind that these are not like laws of physics in that they aren’t always true, but laws in the sense that people generally obey them.

In accordance with the first and second laws of nature, people agree to a social contract with a sovereign that will protect them. If they don’t, then they will be in the state of nature and likely be quickly killed. Hobbes says that there are 4 reasons to obey the social contract:

Once the contract is signed, the sovereign has no further obligations. The sovereign can even kill its own subjects and the subjects can do nothing about it. Yet, the subjects must always obey the sovereign, as they are the ones obligated to do so by the contract.

Why does the sovereign get so much power?: According to Hobbes, the greater risk is that the state is not powerful enough, and not that the state will be too powerful. This makes sense if you contextualize Hobbes’s arguments in the midst of rebellion in England. Hobbes believes that you should always err on the side of giving up authority to the state to prevent this danger.

Additionally, the sovereign must be distinct and different from individuals

Totalitarian or Liberal?:

Liberty: Hobbes believes in negative liberty, which means that people have unlimited freedoms until a law prevents them from doing something. One may wonder about whether this contradicts Hobbes’s idea that one has more liberty under the sovereign: but to Hobbes, there is a difference from theoretical liberty and liberty in practice. In theory, you have the most liberties in the state of nature, but in practice you have the most liberty under a strong state. One can contrast this with positive liberty, as seen by Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. Paul believes that liberty in the state of nature is a myth: we have no liberties in the state of nature because we would simply be slaves to our passions. It is only through internally restricting ourselves and being faithful to God that we can overcome sinful desires and have liberty. This can also be contrasted to Aristotle’s liberty, which is being able to participate in the state and achieve virtue.

Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

© 2020 Jorge Zhang