If only we were able to resolve political discussions, which probably makes up most of the discussions, by saying that “I am right in this issue because Socrates says …” or “This is the right thing to do because Marx wrote…”, but we can’t. Thank God we can’t. Taking Plato’s “Republic” as the starting point, discussions on what the best regime is, what makes a government legitimate, who shall make the laws, or most significantly, who will educate the students and according to what, haven’t been resolved for the last 2400 years, they are only getting improved and shaped with each philosopher. This might be the reason why political philosophy is so different and interesting for an engineer like me, who has been trained with numbers and single correct answers: political philosophy has no single correct answers, indeed.
Obviously books that were written centuries ago cannot answer today’s questions; we read philosophers not for the answers they gave centuries ago but for the questions they asked. Plato and Aristotle, who witnessed temporary collapse of Athenian Democracy founded by Solon and Pericles, considered Aristocratic Oligarchy as the best regime. This is not valid today, at least not for the civilized world. Yet, we still read Plato and Aristotle, because they had asked the questions “Why do we need laws?” and “What is real justice?” for the first time. Likewise; there is no slavery now in the modern world, but we still read St. Augustine’s books where he told why slavery was necessary and ethically right, though these books have no validity today. This is because we evaluate each book and philosopher in their own historical circumstances and we want to see and understand each step of the development of political philosophy or in other words, the development of individual rights and freedoms. We know that issues which would be even ridiculous to discuss today, such as the idea that the ruling power of kings is not divine, cost lives when it was expressed 500 years ago. We now admiringly read the philosophers’ questions where they challenged their period’s rules, which were accepted as unarguably true then. This make us think of the facts we might be unable to see or our blind spots. We feel encouraged to question the “rights” of today that everybody agrees on (which will most probably become the “wrongs” of the tomorrow). We certainly do not intend to regulate today’s social life or seek answers to today’s problems according to the books that were written centuries ago; that method is already available, we call it religion and it is definitely irrelevant for us in this discussion.
In mankind’s struggle to find the best regime, which has lasted for thousands of years, everything progresses in a relevant way and it is surprising to find out that even schools of thought which seem totally opposite are actually interrelated. It is not a coincidence that, Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince where he made a secular interpretation on the administrative science that had been shaped by religion for thousand years at the expense of showing the ruler cruel and people with bad will, was followed by Thomas More’s Utopia, where everybody was as good as angels or the monarchic state monster disregarding individual rights in Thomas More’s Leviathan was followed by John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government which was founded on individual freedoms so wide that they formed the base for the American Constitution to be established one century later; on the contrary, this is action and reaction. Every philosopher asks the questions of his own age and prepares the intellectual context for the next philosopher to study on and ask his own questions.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651 First Edition Book Cover /
Leviathan is the name of a mythological monster in Old-Testament; apparently Thomas Hobbes
made the best choice to symbolize absolute monarchy.
It is not auspicious to deal with political philosophy, indeed; because it would be inevitable for a person who starts to read the history of views on state and regime, to start questioning his own believes when he recognizes that, not only even the most basic questions have not been answered precisely for centuries but also there are "rights" and "wrongs" in every shcools of thought. And maybe the most importantly, one who starts to read political philosophy will realize that some rights that were agreed on only two centuries ago are today’s wrongs, which means, the values we truly believe might become ridiculous two centuries later and one will have to replace the comfort provided by beliefs and the thought that he/she knows the rights with the uneasiness caused by skepticism. On the other hand; how nice and safe it is to believe in something which we have no doubt about its rightness, to belong to a community/party, to act in coherence with our society, to talk with slogans to walk with anthems together with millions of people like us.
Who knows, maybe a few centuries later there will be an order like Universal League of Nations embracing all free and equal people of the world instead of the countries and dogmatic beliefs in today’s sense. Let’s imagine a world where individual rights and freedoms, intellectual freedom and equality of opportunities are far beyond the present day, knowledge is shared unbelievably fast thanks to advanced technology, all world population is represented in the same parliament regardless of religion, language or nation. Would that be possible? We don’t know this, yet. Nevertheless, it would be wise to be precautious. We should think twice before supporting any notion other than widening of individual rights and freedoms for everybody. Particularly if the notion or idea we support includes terms such as “almighty”, “holy”, “glorious”, “supreme” etc., twice wouldn’t be enough, we should think ten times. The only sustainable tendency we can observe in long term in this centuries old adventure we call as political philosophy is that, the more information gets accessible, the more mankind gets free.
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