The foundations of the way in which people think about political life can be reconstructed and assessed through three primary models of foundations of political thought. These include the classical antiquity model, the medieval model, and the modern one. Contemporary perspectives in political science continue to question the foundations of political power, and sustain relevancy in modern society.
Political Thought in Greek Classical Antiquity
It is often stated that both philosophy and democracy were born in ancient Greece between the seventh and the fifth centuries BCE. In particular, the city-state of Athens in the fifth century BCE presents a model of democracy that continues to exercise its influence today. Although the thesis of the Greek birth of philosophy and democracy has recently been subject to much criticism by pointing toward the existence of multiple civilizations, the political thought then elaborated has nevertheless been highly influential in Western thinking. It, legitimately, laid the foundations for Western political thought.
The classical model is based on a strong conception of the common good. Against the challenge of the Sophists, who argued that politics and language result from mere conventions, the major thinkers of the classical antiquity argued that political life aims to attain the good within the community. The good of each human being was not seen as opposed to that of the community, but as homogeneous with it. This is because the political life was conceived as the natural condition for human beings, as the result of their specific place in the cosmos. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) famously argued that the human being is a political animal by nature. Living in common is so innate that Aristotle stated that those who can live outside political communities are either beasts or gods.
Plato (427–347 BCE), Aristotle’s master, had put forward similar views. In his Republic, living in common is the result of the very nature of human beings, who are not enough to themselves and need the collaboration of others to provide for their own needs. The society derives from a division of labor, with each person doing only one thing at the time, according to natural disposition, and relying on others for the necessities of life. Politics is thus the supreme and most important art, and its task is that of orienting all the other arts and therefore also the life of the community as a whole.
This is why Plato asserted that rulers must be philosophers or philosophers must become rulers. A just society is a society where every segment of the society performs its specific task in harmony with the others. Like the soul must be ruled by reason, so the polity must be ruled by philosophers, who are the only individuals who know the common good and can therefore orient the whole society toward its attainment. Philosophers do not seek material goods and honors, but only pursue the good of the community.
Aristotle followed his master in this view and also maintained that the political community aims to attain the common good. Aristotle gave this thesis a strong teleological connotation: since the human being is by nature a political being, the state comes before the individual itself. Conceptually speaking, the whole of a body comes before its parts, because without the whole, it does not make sense to speak of a hand or a foot. In his view, equally natural is the relationship of subordination between slaves and masters, women and men. As within the individual the soul dominates the body, so men dominate women and the most intelligent men dominate those who have only physical force and can therefore serve as slaves.
With the decline of the political system of the city-states and the rise of the large empires and monarchies of antiquity, a new model began to emerge. Greek democracy was based on the systematic exclusion of women and slaves from politics. Stoics argued that every human being is endowed with reason, and thus implicitly criticized Aristotle’s conception of natural subordination. Furthermore, in contrast to the ideal of the city-state or polis, they supported the ideal of a cosmopolis where all people can live in peace because they are all equally subject to the law of reason.
The Medieval Model of Political Thought
The rise of Christianity marked a rupture with the classical model, but an element of continuity also characterized the shift. This continuity occurs because both models are based on the idea that politics derives from the specific place of human beings in the cosmos, and therefore conceives of politics in a teleological way. The major difference is that the ordering principle is no longer a reason immanent to the cosmos itself, but the transcendent will of the God of Christianity. This generates problems specific to the medieval model.
In this respect, the Christian message stands in contrast to the classical model. Whilst the latter emphasized force and intelligence and argued for the superiority of the strong over the weak, the Christian message offers a subversion of these values, by evaluating weakness and the equality of all individual human beings in the face of the omnipotence of God. Although the message has a potentially revolutionary content, Christendom did not fully realize this message in political terms. The prevailing idea is that the full equality is an ideal to be realized in the spiritual world, but not necessarily in the earthly one. Jesus’s saying, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” became the object of a lively debate about the relationship between Christianity and secular authority.
In particular, after the creation of a sacred Roman Empire, the problem became that of the relationship between the authority of the emperor and that of the pope. Questions arose whether the temporal authority of the ruler was autonomous, or whether the spiritual autonomy of the pope superseded it. For highly religious thinkers, the prevailing idea is that of the superiority of spiritual authority. Differences, however, emerge with regard to the degree of autonomy recognized in the temporal authority and politics.
According to Saint Augustine (354–430 CE), for instance, without the Christian message, there cannot be justice, and, without justice, there cannot be a legitimate polity. As he argued in the fourth book of his De Civitate Dei, without Christian justice there cannot be a union of citizens under law and for the attainment of the common good. As he provocatively puts it, without justice, a political community is in no way different from a mere association of bandits, which are united just to burgle and then share the loot. Although Augustine’s position was more nuanced on this point, his name became associated with the view of the subordination of temporal power to the spiritual one.
After the diffusion of the Latin translation of Artistole’s Politics, a different position emerges. Authors who had been inspired by Aristotle, such as Thomas Aquinas and Marsilius of Padua, recognized the autonomy of political power. Following Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) argued that politics is deeply rooted in human nature. In a more radical way, Marsilius of Padua (1275–1343) argued that peace cannot be guaranteed unless political authority is recognized without any superior power. As he wrote in his Defensor Pacis, the law must derive from the will of the citizens or of the prevailing part—both in quantitative and qualitative senses. By rooting the law in the will of individual human beings, Marsilius’s theory anticipates the modern model.
Political Thought in The Modern Age
The modern model stands in contrast to both the classical and the medieval one. While the latter grounded politics in the idea of a cosmos teleological ordered for the common good, where every being is assigned its specific place in the hierarchical chain of beings, the modern model places the foundations of politics in the will of individual human beings. The ancient world is by nature closed and hierarchically ordered, yet the world depicted by the modern science is open and infinite, so that human beings can stand in a position of free equals within it.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) offers the clearest view on this. His political philosophy accompanied the emergence of the modern system of sovereign states, providing a powerful justification for its existence. Hobbes’s phrase autoritas non veritas facit legem (it is the authority and not the truth that makes the law) marks the decline of a model of political thought that had prevailed for centuries. The foundation of political power consists no longer of pursuing a common good, but in the will of the citizens themselves. According to Hobbes, and all the other thinkers who endorse the contractarian model, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and John Locke (1632–1704), a contract that human beings stipulate among themselves—in order to exist in the natural condition of absence of government—justifies political power. Through such a contract, human beings cede part, or all, of their sovereignty to a common power in order to receive from it the protection of their fundamental rights. The conception of such rights varies in the different thinkers, ranging from the mere right to survival (Hobbes), to political freedom (Rousseau), or to private property (Locke), as well as diverge in the forms of government they envisage—an absolutist (Hobbes), a democratic (Rousseau), and liberal one (Locke).
Notwithstanding all those differences, which ultimately derive from their different conceptions of the state of nature, understood as a brutal condition of potential perpetual war (Hobbes) or as a condition where the rights are simply not enough guaranteed (Locke), all these thinkers share the premise that political power derives from the will of individuals. The contractarian model of political order accompanied the rise of European modernity, with its institutions of an emergent system of sovereign states and capitalist economy. While the model did not fail to provoke severe criticism, it also exercised a deep influence on Western political thought.
The criticism raised by German idealists at the beginning of the nineteenth century contributed to the crisis of the contractarian model. In particular, Georg W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) sharply criticized contractarianism for grounding the state in the contract—a category of private law. In his view, grounding the existence of the state in the mere accidental encounter of individual wills amounts to misunderstanding its deeply ethical nature. The state is the reality of an ethical idea, the culminating point of the objective spirit of an epoch. As such, it transcends, in the sense of the German aufheben, not just private law and morality, but also other inferior incarnations of the objective spirit such as the family and civil society.
Hegel thus endorsed the idea of a separation between the civil society and the state—a view that still exercises its influence today. Whilst contractarian thinkers work with the simple opposition between a state of nature and a civil society, thinkers influenced by Hegel maintain a sharp separation between the two. In his critique of the bourgeois society, Karl Marx (1818–1883) radicalized such a distinction by arguing that the state is part of a superstructure which is separated from, but also reflects the relationships of, domination taking place in the economic structure: the exploitation of the proletariat by a capitalist bourgeoisie. In this view, political power is a means for the bourgeoisie to sustain its system of exploitation, and contractarian theories are the mere ideological covering of such a system of exploitation.
The rise of the capitalist economy was accompanied by a new awareness of the deep economic inequalities and forms of exploitation that sustained it. Radical thinkers such as socialists and anarchists saw in political power a means for domination to be expropriated and put in the hands of the proletariat (communism) or to be abolished altogether (anarchism). Anarchism represents the most radical answer to the question of what constitutes the foundation of political power. In this view, the state always implies a form of asymmetry of power so that a minority of the people—those who are part of the state apparatus—dominate over a majority. Anarchists, therefore, see no possible reform of the system of the sovereign states: it must be abolished. In their place, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) and Michail Bakunin (1814–1876) proposed a noncoercive political system based on the free federal associations deriving from the specific needs of the society. In their view, only through a bottom-up organization of society can the freedom of individuals be guaranteed.
Contemporary Trends in Political Thought
A useful way to group contemporary approaches is according to the answer given to the question regarding whether there are foundations for political power. Among those who provide a positive answer, and therefore stand in the tradition of modern political thought, is John Rawls. By reviving the contractarian model after a few centuries of decadence, Rawls argued that a just society is the society that people would chose if put in an hypothetical original position. In this place, known as the veil of ignorance, they do not know their specific position in the society, their comprehensive doctrines, and natural talents. In Rawls’s view, such a society would be based on two principles that provide for (1) the maximum freedom for every individual compatible with a similar system for all, and (2) the arrangement of social and economic inequalities so that they are both to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and attached to offices and positions open to all.
While Rawls’s theory envisages a method for the discovery and the justification of the just form of political power, postmodern thinkers tend to see no possible foundations for it. By criticizing the very attempt to provide rational foundations for the existence of political power, postmodern thinkers argue that the Western canon of political theory is nothing but a myth—the myth of the white man. The very attempt to provide rational foundations for the existence of political power is seen as a result of a logo centric practice, which is the hallmark of Western tradition. Together with questioning the possibility of rational foundations, the merit of postmodernism has been that of casting doubts on the adequacy of the Western models of political thought as a whole. In a world that must accommodate diversity and pluralism of histories and worldviews, there is the possibility that the Western canon is only one among many possible stories.
An intermediate answer is that of authors who work in the tradition of a critical theory of society. Jürgen Habermas’s deliberative democracy attempts to propose a form of democracy that can account for the possibility of public deliberation in a postmetaphysical setting and a condition of pluralism. His attempt to ground democracy in the ideal conditions for speech and deliberation has attracted so much attention that some authors have spoken of a deliberative turn in political philosophy.
The activity of boundary questioning thus deeply contributed to repositioning the foundations of political thought. In a global age, it is not only the possibility of foundations of political thought that is called into question, but also that of its traditional boundaries. Post statist political theory questions the boundaries between the sovereign states by arguing that in a globalizing world, a form of democracy beyond the traditional state boundaries must be found. Feminist political theory questions the traditional boundaries between the public and the private sphere by arguing that this is a means for perpetrating the domination of males in the former and segregation of women in the latter. Finally, there is a variegated set of approaches that point toward a new form of green political theory. Such approaches question traditional ways of conceiving the boundaries between politics and the natural environment, arguing that the latter is not the mere background of the former. In an epoch of artificially induced natural catastrophes, the foundations of political thought must be rethought in order to assure both justice among human beings and their survival.
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