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Plato part 3: Plato and Hobbes on war and the way to peace

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Posted on March 25, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



3. Plato and Hobbes on the perpetual state of war and the way to peace

Author’s note: This is the third in a series of essays about politics and the moral life. The essays develop themes from a work by the philosopher Plato, titled Laws, which he wrote shortly before his death in 347 BCE. Laws is written as a dialogue involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos, Megillus, from Sparta, and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself. The link between Plato and Thomas Hobbes is not merely conceptual: both witnessed the horrors of civil war, and to gain perspective on his own situation, Hobbes turned to Thuycidides, whose history of the Peloponnesian war describes the formative period of Plato’s life.

As I read Plato’s “Laws,” I am repeatedly reminded of his resolute purpose to establish a necessary connection between government by rule of law and peace.

His task is the more challenging — although all the more interesting — because he has accepted a severe handicap. Early in Book I, Cleinias proudly defends his city’s practice of training its male citizens from early childhood to be warriors by casting scorn on peace-lovers. Their appeals to peace are mere sentimental talk, for it should be obvious to any realist that a state of war exists everywhere and always.

The Athenian stranger, Plato’s mouthpiece, seems to accept this, yet he continues to contend that a well-governed society can establish and maintain peace, as indeed it must. How is this possible, if war is a chronic human condition, if a perpetual state of war exists not only between states, but also between families and communities, and within them, between their members, and, if that were not enough, within each individual soul, which is divided and at war with itself?

This unhappy outlook is reminiscent of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), whose book, “Leviathan,” is a modern classic of political realism. Hobbes regarded human equality as a grim fact, which perpetuates war. We are all creatures of desire, wanting the same things, which, because they are scarce, force us into a chronic struggle against each other to satisfy our needs and desires. Hence we are always at enmity with each other.

Our relative equality in physical strength and cunning gives each of us hope that we might prevail in any contest, but not always in all of them; what we gain in one contest may be taken from us in another, and there is always the chance that we’ll lose not only our ill-gotten gains, but our lives as well. So, anxiety reigns within us; hope and fear are our constant companions.

Like Plato, Hobbes also believed that we are rational beings, able to assess our situation and find a remedy for it. For Hobbes, it is a primary rule of practical reason — or of common sense, for they are the same for him — that peace is the only solution. This evident truth, because it is about something imperative to life, takes its seat in our minds as a command of reason, ‘the first, and fundamental law of nature’: Seek peace, and follow it!

Notice that the command comes from within. The foundation of civil society is the proper implementation of it. Government is by consent of the governed, of people who voluntarily submit to the rule of law for the sake of peace. But to guarantee that this rule will prevail — remember that we are still also creatures of desire beset by fear and hope — an awesome power is needed to enforce it, one greater than any power known on earth.

This power resides in government and in a sovereign who represents us all, and who, therefore, has the right to exercise absolute dominion over us. Hence the paradox: We are obliged to obey absolutely a creature of our own making, an earthly god, who enforces from without a law that resides within each of us.

Plato rejected this sort of solution as leading to tyranny. Besides, he believed that rational thought was able to transform any of us into agents of peace. He supposed that a transformative power resides in the proper objects of thought — ideas — and that it flows into us and increases the more steadily we contemplate them.

Indeed, ideas possess the most fundamental power of all. They cause existence. The ideas of goodness and beauty are not just properties of things assigned to them according to convention; rather they themselves are the cause of goodness and beauty wherever they appear.

Accordingly, the very idea of justice transforms our minds the more steadily we conceive it. It inclines us to justice. Legislators rely on it as they endeavor to make just laws, and magistrates, when they execute them fairly, and judges, when they interpret them honestly. It is incarnate in the people, our body politic, who play their part as the chorus in the play of politics, whose voices are raised to publicize the just and peaceful purposes of law.

Plato and Hobbes present two conflicting forms of civil authority, both reasonable, inasmuch as their intent is to establish peace, which everybody desires.

Must we choose between them, or can we accept them both?

In practice, we do the latter. Consider this. We drive on roads marked with speed limits, which are meant to provide for safe and efficient traffic flow. Knowing this should suffice to cause reasonable persons like us to observe them. But we don’t. As a rule, we barely take notice of them. Only the expectation that one may be stopped and fined makes reasonable persons law-abiding in such instances.

So, it seems that the institutions of law persuade us from within and pressure us from without. And we accept this state of affairs. Our reason tells us to make peace, but we also count on peacekeepers to maintain it, and this dual practice seems most reasonable.

But beyond respect for law, peace depends upon friendliness. How is it realized? Friendliness is a sentiment that cannot be commanded from within or enforced from without. It is like an aura or gentle breeze that rules us by its charm, which pacifies us and makes us sociable. Plato believed that to bring it near, we must learn the art of love.

(To be continued in the next essay.)

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