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SEMINAR ONE HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT

 

 

Introduction

Some people think that politics is a “dirty thing” and that by avoiding it they remain clean. But it is only an illusion. Politics indeed influences everybody. The German chancellor Otto von Bismarck was right when he said that “if a person is not interested in politics it doesn’t free him from its consequences.” A similar idea was expressed by the noted Danish philosopher S. Kierkegaard, “People choose even when they avoid choosing.” All people, irrespective of their participation in politics or abstention from it, are affected in many ways by what governments do or choose not to do. Political indifference often comes from a lack of knowledge about how your interests are affected by politics and from a sense that you can do nothing to affect politics. People’s indifference to politics is a dangerous thing because it reduces the accountability of the rulers to the ruled.

One of the aims of political science in a democratic society is to teach a citizen to orient oneself in political environment, to defend his rights and interests, and to respect other people’s rights, interests, and freedoms. Knowledge of political science helps people to realize that they themselves are responsible for their lives.

Political science helps us understand what lies behind the public speeches of politicians. Politically educated people better know whom to choose to parliament, and how to exert pressure on politicians to act in the interests of the people. A passive and politically uneducated person is an easy prey for political manipulations. He is going with the stream and is often a puppet (without realizing it) in somebody’s hands. The ignorant could easily be swayed by demagogues to support foolish or even evil causes. Such a person is easily influenced through radio, TV, magazines, and newspapers. He is not aware of being manipulated by somebody. Thus, the citizen’s role in political life begins with information and knowledge. Knowledge, indeed, seems to be power.

Knowledgeable citizens in democratic countries participate in the political process more than do less-knowledgeable citizens because the former have a better understanding of why politics is relevant to their lives. Political knowledge is also important because it promotes a broader acceptance of democratic values. Thus, political knowledge serves the interests of both the individual and the nation as a whole.

The famous ancient philosopher Aristotle considered political science the most important of all sciences (‘the queen of sciences’) as it deals with well-being of society in general. The study of political science is motivated by the need to understand the sources and consequences of political stability and revolution, of repression and liberty, of quality and inequality, of war and peace, of democracy and dictatorship. Political science explains how governments use politics, how politics affects the economy, and how politics influences organizations outside of government and human behavior in particular.



And last but not least, studying political science stimulates students to think critically. Critical thinking is one of the most important skills that a student can acquire from analyzing politics.

 

 

TOPIC 1

HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT

 

Studying any science envisages first of all mastering a history of its development. Knowledge of history of political thought helps one better understand contemporary political ideas and theories, which determine the activity of various political forces.

 

Political Teachings of Ancient East

In the third and second millenniums BC first civilizations developed along such great rivers as the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, Huang He, and Yangtze.

The need for creating and maintaining complicated irrigation systems led to the formation of highly centralized and even despotic states with very strong leaders and developed bureaucracy.[1] The figure of the ruler was sacred. He was considered as a half-god. He served as an important mediator between the gods and the people. Through him the gods’ will was revealed to the people. The gods’ will and laws could not be changed. That fact explains why these ancient civilizations (Egyptian, Babylonian, etc) had been the same for many centuries. Though they developed very slowly, they could boast of their political stability. People rarely tried to depose their leaders as they thought that their leaders were chosen by gods. Such a “divine ruler” with supernatural authority could hold together a large kingdom and draft the mass labor required to maintain the irrigation system or build monumental religious structures (pyramids or ziggurats). Such a government, in which the same person is both the religious leader and the political leader, is called a theocracy.

People in Ancient East did not have a notion of political freedom. All of them (the rich and the poor) were considered servants of the king. Although everybody was equal before the king, upper classes had more rights than lower classes. This social inequality was expressed in laws (commoners were punished more severely than upper classes for the same crime). Such a system of inequality is usually called hierarchy.

People in Ancient East had collectivistic mentality. It means that rulers like fathers in their families made decisions and people like children were supposed to be obedient and not analyze the decisions of their ‘fathers’ (rulers).

In general, typical traits of early eastern civilizations were 1) highly centralized structure of state power; 2) divine kingship (theocracy); 3) collectivism (where the interests of the individual were often neglected).

 

Political Thought in Ancient Greece

Greece is a mountainous country. There was no need to create an irrigation system there. Instead of a highly centralized bureaucratic state like Egypt, Greece produced a variety of self-ruled city-states. The Greeks were the first people in history to establish democracy (demos - people, cratos – power) – a government in which citizens rule themselves.

All citizens of a polis (city-state) were equal and possessed the same political rights. Women, foreign residents, and slaves were not citizens and, therefore, did not have political rights. (Women were denied political rights on the premise that they were incapable of thinking logically.) Every citizen of a city-state was supposed to take part in politics. It was his duty. A man who avoided that was considered useless or an idiot (from idiotes - a person who cannot communicate with others). Rather than being elected, officials were chosen by lottery – a process similar to picking names out of a hat.

Rationalism and freedom are probably the most important features of Greek civilization. In their political and intellectual life the Greeks relied on human reason, not divine guidance of their rulers (as was the case in Egypt and other eastern monarchies).

Greek social and political system was very flexible because rulers were considered as not divine and thus quite capable of making mistakes. Laws were emanated not from gods (as was the case in the East), but were the result of human decisions. So if laws became obsolete they were quickly changed.

In contrast to peoples of Eastern civilizations the Greeks possessed freedom. Eastern languages did not even have a word to describe what freedom was. Eastern monarchies were despotic. The concept of the individual’s dignity so familiar to the Greeks was completely alien to them. The concept of freedom is unthinkable without democracy. Each Greek citizen had the right to take part in government. Chosen leaders were responsible to the community for their activity. Freedom and democracy contributed to the growth of individualism among the Greeks, to the belief in their abilities, and eventually to the belief in progress which resulted in optimism. Ancient Greeks had a high respect for the dignity and worth of the individual man.

State power in ancient Greece was a subject for discussions. Everybody could discuss the activity of state officials in public without fear of being punished. People in ancient Greece were not submitted to the state as people in eastern monarchies. Greeks themselves controlled the state.

One of the setbacks of Greek democracy was the principle of isonomiia (choosing state officials by lottery). The famous philosopher Socrates criticized the practice of choosing officials by lottery. He said, “Nobody wants to choose a carpenter, ship captain, and musician by lottery, whereas state officials, who perform much more important work, are chosen by lottery.” Socrates did not write anything, all what we know about his ideas have come to us thanks to his pupils. The basis of affluent society was, according to Socrates, the rule of law. In such a society everybody regardless of his position must be subordinated to law.

Famous expressions by Socrates:

“I know that I know nothing.”

“Know oneself.”

“Marry or not you’ll regret anyway.”

“Some people eat in order to live, other people live in order to eat.”

“Speak that I can see you.”

“There are so many things here that I do not need,” said Socrates at the market.

Socrates was also famous for his so-called ‘Socratic method.’ He thought that the best way to persuade someone to change his opinion is to ask pointed questions and not even wait for answers. In such a way the asked person can accept your point of view much easier than when being forced to.

Despite the fact that Socrates and other noted people criticized the principle of isonomiia the Ancient Greeks decided to retain it. Many Ancient Greeks considered elections unfair because rich men, men who boasted a well-known family name, or men who spoke effectively in public would have an advantage. Moreover, rich people could buy the votes of the poor and be elected. Thus, in view of Ancient Greeks, through manipulation or bribery some “bad” people could be elected and establish dictatorship. The principle of isonomiia seemed to protect Ancient Greeks from these evils.

Democratic rule was severely criticized by Plato (427-347 BC), the most distinguished pupil of Socrates. (“Plato” is his nickname that means “wide” in Greek, probably because of his broad thoughts or a broad body; his real name was Aristocles). Socrates was sentenced to death by a democratic government for “corrupting public morals” (Socrates did not show a proper respect to gods, though he was not an atheist). That fact enraged Plato who started to criticize the “rule of mob” bitterly. He preferred an aristocratic government.

Plato wrote the earliest book on political science, The Republic. In this book he tried to describe an ideal society where everybody was happy. Plato wrote that a democracy is often turned into a tyranny by capable leaders who use demagoguery to fool the mob. “People’s leaders” often become cruel tyrants, stated the philosopher. Plato also believed that the result of people having too much freedom is social disorder. Society can not live long in uncontrolled conditions and it wants strong leaders capable of establishing order. These leaders in time become tyrants. Thus, according to Plato, too much freedom leads to anarchy, and anarchy leads to tyranny.

Tyranny in Plato’s view was the most horrible type of government. Then goes oligarchy (when rich people rule in their own interests). The best form of government is aristocracy (when a small group of noble and wise people rule in the interests of everybody).

Plato’s ideal society was divided into three groups of people: philosopher-rulers, warriors, and commoners (merchants, artisans, farmers, etc). Each group was formed according to their natural abilities. People who liked knowledge were philosopher-rulers; those who were brave and noble became soldiers; the rest were interested in wealth and, therefore, should be placed under strict state control.

The first two privileged groups did not have private property and families.[2] Women had the same rights as men.[3] Sexual intercourse for these groups was arranged by lottery. Children did not know their parents and parents did not know their children, who were raised in special boarding schools. Children also did not know their brothers and sisters. That measure was proposed by Plato to make people think of common interests more than of private interests. The philosopher also thought that if people did not know their real parents, sisters, and brothers they would respect everybody, since potentially they might be close relatives.

Plato gave more importance to the state than to the individual.[4] He believed that each person should place service to the community above strictly personal goals.

Everything in this ideal state was under strict governmental control. Education and literature were severely censored to protect the people from getting “dangerous ideas.” The rulers were expected to rule wisely and they were allowed to tell ordinary people “noble lies” to keep them obedient. Plato’s book has been especially popular with dictators for centuries.

Plato founded a philosophical school called the Academy in Athens. That school existed for several centuries and gave its name to institutions of higher learning throughout the world.

Famous expression by Plato:

“If we try to make others happy, we will find our own happiness.”

 

The most distinguished pupil of Plato was Aristotle (384-322 BC). He was also the personal tutor of the young Alexander the Great. In 335 BC Aristotle opened a school in Athens called the Lyceum, which, like Plato’s school, existed for several centuries and gave its name to a type of advanced schools all around the world.

Many of Aristotle’s writings were focused on political science. The most famous of his works devoted to this subject was called Politics, where he stressed the importance of the middle class. Aristotle preferred to have power rest with the middle class, because they knew how to both command and obey. Only the middle class can serve as a balance between the rich and the poor. Thus, the middle class assures stability and prosperity in a state.

Aristotle believed that since the poor have nothing to loose they are prone to radical actions and violence. Thus the poor should not have political rights. The philosopher also tried to justify slavery as natural phenomenon which should not be abolished. Aristotle thought that it would be desirable to have all hard and dirty work done by slaves, in order that citizens might have the leisure to devote themselves to politics, arts and other important things useful for the state. He wrote that some people are always “slaves by nature” and deserve their status; others will never accept slavery. Thus, in war, one should try to submit only those people who are worthy of being slaves.

Aristotle stated that Man is a social creature, who cannot live without government and, therefore, politics. Thus, political science was the queen of all sciences.

Aristotle was not only Plato’s greatest pupil but his serious critic as well. His famous saying “Plato is my friend but truth is dearer to me” went down into history.

Other famous expressions by Aristotle:

“Man is a political creature”

“Seek measure in everything.”

“The destruction of one thing means the birth of another.”

“Judge people by their deeds.”

“The brave are those who overcome themselves.”

“Who has friends has not the friend.” (It means that you cannot have many real friends. The real friend can be only one, according to Plato).

“The roots of studying are bitter, but the consequences are sweet.”

“Who advances in sciences but lagging behind in morals, he rather moves backward than forward.”

“Obscene words lead to obscene deeds.”

“Seriousness is destroyed by laughter, laughter is destroyed by seriousness.”

When asked why people prefer spending more time with good-looking persons than with unattractive persons Aristotle answered, “Who asks that is blind.”

In general Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did not like democracy as they thought that the mob could not be politically wise, and chosen by lottery officials were incompetent. Anyway, besides its setbacks, Ancient Greece laid the foundation for the Western concept of democratic government.

 


Date: 2015-01-29; view: 755


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