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A brief introduction to the study of political philosophy

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A brief introduction to the study of political philosophy

A brief introduction to the study of political philosophy

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  • 1. A Brief Introduction to the Study of Political Philosophy<br />Political Philosophy - What Is It?<br />In general, we can say that political philosophy is that branch of philosophy which deals with political life, especially with the essence, origin and value of the state. The fact that men live in political organizations, and that political organization involves rights and duties of an imperative nature, provides us with the subject matter of political philosophy. The subject-matter of this enterprise is the state and the main problem is the justification of its claim to possess sovereign power over the wills of its subjects. Political philosophy asks questions such as:<br />What is the ultimate justification for the existence of any form of government?<br />The government of a state claims absolute sovereignty over its subjects. Upon what grounds can this claim be justified?<br />What are, or ought to be, the proper limits of governmental power over the members of society?<br />Is it possible to have rigid control over the economic affairs of people without curtailing their political freedom?<br />Should elected representatives to a legislature be allowed to vote as they see fit, or should they merely reflect the majority opinion of their constituency?<br />It is important to define some important terms in the study of political philosophy, so there is no confusion among them:<br />A society is any group of people held together by actual or potential common interests.<br />A state is a society organized to make law possible. In a general attempt to identify state characteristics that would be recognized by a substantial number of political philosophies, one can say that the state is separated conceptually and historically from other kinds of political rule by<br />its extreme centralization or concentration of power internally, coupled with its rejection of so-called supranational power externally;<br />its secularism, or at least its nonreligious basis, necessitating, at a minimum, toleration of religious diversity;<br />its emphasis on the legal rights of its citizens rather than on the direct participation of all in day-to-day decision making;<br />its reliance on the authority of laws that it makes, interprets, and enforces itself through its own agents;<br />its operation -- once law is in effect -- through a bureaucracy, or civil service, that exists mainly to perform services for the public;<br />its refusal to leave decisive portions of power with any private or voluntary association, such as a church or a corporation. <br />A government is an organization, within society, whose function is to make and administer the laws. Note that the state is not the government.<br />It is also important to distinguish political philosophy per se from the academic discipline known as political science. Political science a branch of the social sciences dealing with the theory, organization, government, and practice of the state. It embraces both politics and administration, the two parts being coordinate rather than exclusive.<br />What about the commonly-used term " political theory" ? For our purposes here, this term refers generally to the entire body of doctrine relating to the origin, form, behavior, and purpose of the state. Somewhat arbitrarily, this body of doctrine may be given a fivehold classification:<br />Ethical<br />Speculative<br />Sociological<br />Legal<br />Scientific<br />The first of these classifications (ethical and speculative) is sometimes termed " political ethics" or " political philosophy" and is a branch of ethics for some political philosophers, while other political philosophers argue that ethics itself is a branch of politics. Regardless of where one stands on that issue, the ethical and speculative dimensions deal with what ought to be in the realm of matters political and its method consists of systematic rational analysis of commonsense notions and relevant data. Specifically, speculative political theory consists of imaginative constructions of ideal or utopian states such as may be found in Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and Tomasso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623).<br />Sociological political theory may well be described as a part of the broader theory of society. Its method is analytical and empirical and it seeks to determine the relation of the state to other aspects of society and to analyze the state as a form of social organization.<br />Legal political theory deals with the nature of law, the juristic concept of sovereignty, and legal situations arising out of the institutions and devices for distributing and controlling the exercise of political power.<br />Scientific political theory consists largely of empirical observations of political phenomena to ascertain probable trends or generalizations, the equivalent of " laws" in the empirical sciences, such as biology and physics. The study of the course and nature of political change, the relative efficiency of various governmental and administrative forms and processes, and the probable effect of given political institutions upon human liberty and social well-being, fall into this category.<br />It may also be useful to distinguish between the art of politics and the science of politics. The art, ideally, is the practice of government so that it accords with justice, so that the dignity and the effectiveness of institutions are maintained and good and able men are kept in control of public affairs. The science of politics analyzes and elaborates the theory of the state and examines the various types of public administration, past, present, and proposed. The two things flow into each other. The fields of " morals and legislation" tend to become closely united. It has been a common conception from the time of Thomas Hobbes to the present time, that the state itself creates morals or standards of conduct; that what the state decides and commends is ethically right. But there is a different view; namely, that there is a Moral Order higher than any human laws, higher than the state itself, by which all acts of authority are to be judged.<br />History of Political Philosophy<br />The science or philosophy of politics is one of the richest field of human inquiry. It possesses a great and classical literature in Western Civilization.<br />The ancient Greek philosopher Plato and his Republic is the beginning. This colossal work, whose main subject is justice in the individual and the state, contains conceptual analysis critical for both ethics and descriptive-explanatory inquiry. Plato attempts to define what justice is, first as a matter of individual just action, and eventually as a characteristic of the just individual and the just society. Furthermore, Plato's work outlines the structure and functions of the ideal state. It became the pattern for all the Utopias of later times.<br />The scope and form of reasoning in political philosophy, however, were first clearly developed by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, whose Politics lies at the base of subsequent discussion. Aristotle's studies were limited to the Greek " city-state" or polis, which, to his mind, represented the highest attainment of human freedom and law. His method was concrete and inductive. He collected hundreds of city-state constitutions, compared their provisions, and deduced general principles. The state, to Aristotle, was not a Utopia such as that imagined by Plato, but it was an actual institution realized in hundreds of examples throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. No writer has stated better, or in fewer words, the purpose of civilized society. " The state," says Aristotle, " comes into existence, that man may live. It continues, that man may live well." " Good life," in all its rich and noble expressions, is the aim and object of the state.<br />Centuries after Aristotle, another political philosopher, the Italian statesman Niccolo Machiavelli, examined the city-states of his own day, with results that offer starting contrasts. Machiavelli's political studies are embraced in two works. The first, called The Prince, is a discussion of the sinister principles whereby the Italian despot of that day maintained himself in power. The other, The Discourses, which is a far nobler and more suggestive work, examines the principles whereby a republic may endure.<br />A century later comes the period where national governments rise above feudal conditions. The king attains an absolute power and destroys the independence of the nobles. This monarchical movement met with opposition. In England it was overthrown by revolution. Out of the struggles of the period came several notable works -- The Republic by Jean Bodin, in which is first essayed a definition of the difficult conception of " sovereignty" ; The Leviathan, of Thomas Hobbes, who attempted to justify monarchical absolutism by the theory of a " social contract" between subjects and king; The Patriarcha, of Sir Robert Filmer, an attempt to found monarchy upon patriarchal authority conferred by God upon Adam.<br />A little later, in the 18th century, John Locke, in Two Treatises on Civil Government, turns the doctrine of the social contract against the monarchists, laying the basis for the " right of revolution" in the abusive exercise of a power which monarchs have contracted to use with justice and discretion. " Men are," said Locke, " by nature all free, equal, and independent." Only by free consent does man enter into the obligations of society, resigning his natural rights to a public authority in return for benefits which, if not satisfactorily conferred, he is at liberty to end. Misrule by a monarch, in Locke's view, not only justifies rebellion but makes it inevitable. Locke powerfully affected the minds of the English colonists in America, and some of his actual language appears in the Declaration of Independence. The revolutionary ideas of Locke we put into a winged form by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract contributed incalculably to the French Revolution and has remained to the present day an inspiration to political revolt.<br />Need for Government<br />There is a widespread disposition, by no means of recent origin, to question the usefulness of the state. To the anarchist, laws are a stumbling block and a stone of offense, and, to extremist reformers generally, governments are institutions for the exploitation of the many by the few. But a scientific canvass of society in its various stages, from savagery to civilization, reveals the certain fact that, however much governments have been and still are associated with acts of oppression, there is no escape from human ills in anarchy.<br />Mankind, without a common authority, is predatory. Society released, as occasionally happens, from the respect and dread of government, promptly exhibits the most violent and terrible tendencies. Imperfect as governments are, discriminating in their bestowal of advantages as they too frequently are, nevertheless they are the safeguard and security for the advantages of life.<br />The sentimental philosophers of the 18th century imagined a natural state enjoyed by savage peoples, in which the blessings of simplicity and freedom were attained. Modern study of primitive society reveals no such happy " state of nature," but everywhere a cramped and cruel savage existence in which life is never free from danger and the human mind seldom released from terror.<br />_________________________________<br />Noel C. Jopson, MATSS<br />