February 28, 2001

Political and Social Philosophy: Plato and Hobbes

3.) Both Plato, in his conception of democracy, and Hobbes, in his conception of the natural condition of man, consider human equality and freedom to be problematic. Explain the problem of equality and freedom in each case.

Plato argues that democracies are bad forms of government because they grant their citizens equality and freedom. Before we discuss why Plato believes it is bad for a government to grant its citizens equality and freedom, we need to understand two things: first, Plato’s conception of human beings and, second, exactly what he means when he says that democracies grant their citizens equality and freedom.

Let’s first look at Plato’s conception of human beings. According to Plato, people are inherently different, or unequal. While some people are naturally suited to be artisans, others are naturally suited to be soldiers, and still others are naturally suited to be rulers. For this reason, he believes that natural-born artisans should only do the work of artisans, natural-born soldiers should only do the work of soldiers, and natural-born rulers should only do the work of rulers. When one attempts to do work that he is not naturally suited to do—for example, when a natural-born artisans attempts to rule—then he will obviously not perform that task as well as one who is naturally suited to do that work.

Now that we’ve seen Plato’s conception of human beings, let’s look at what he means when he says that democracies grant their citizens equality and freedom. According to Plato, democracies grant their citizens equality by giving all citizens, regardless of their natural-born abilities, the opportunity to rule. As Plato writes, in a democracy, all citizens are given “an equal share in both citizenship and offices—and for the most part these offices are assigned by lot” (557a). And democracies grant their citizens freedom by giving each citizen the right to lead his life as he sees fit. As Plato writes, in a democracy, every man has “license to do as he likes.” And every man uses this license to “arrange a plan for leading his own life in the way that pleases him” (557b).

Now that we understand Plato’s conception of human beings and what exactly he means when he says that democracies grant their citizens equality and freedom, it is easy to see why Plato believes that democracies are bad forms of government. For, if human beings are not equal, then it is foolish for a government to treat them as though they were. First, it is foolish for a government to give all of its citizens, regardless of their abilities, the opportunity to rule (equality). For only a select number of its citizens are naturally suited to rule and, therefore, only a select number of its citizens will be good rulers—the rest will, more than likely, mess things up. Likewise, if human beings are not equal, then it is foolish for a government to give every citizen license to lead his life as he sees fit (freedom). For, since only a select few are naturally suited to rule, only these few will do a good job deciding how one’s life should be lived–once again, the rest will, more than likely, mess things up.

Although, unlike Plato, Hobbes does not discuss why equality and freedom are problematic in democracies, he does believe that both equality and freedom are problematic in the natural human condition. In order to understand why Hobbes believes this, we first need to understand his conception of human nature. Simply put, Hobbes believes that humans are naturally selfish beings. Instead of acting in ways that are altruistic, men are naturally inclined to act out of their own self-interest. As Hobbes writes, “of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some Good to himselfe” (192).

Given what Hobbes believes about human nature—that humans always act out of their own self-interest—we can see why he believes that equality and freedom are problematic. First, Hobbes believes that equality is problematic because, given their nature, men who are physically and mentally equal will end up fighting with one another whenever they desire the same object. Hobbes believes that men who are equal will fight whenever they desire the same object because from “equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends” (184). In other words, when men are equal, each man knows that he has a good chance of defeating the other and, thereby, attaining the object of his desires. When such equality exists, both men are, therefore, inclined to go to war with one another in an attempt to attain the object of their desires. On the other hand, when humans are not equal, then war does not break out when two men desire the same object because the weaker man realizes that he does not have a realistic chance of defeating the stronger man and he, therefore, backs down.

Second, Hobbes believes that freedom is problematic because, as he defines it, freedom, or liberty, is “the absence of externall Impediments” (189). Since, as we just saw, humans naturally find themselves in a state of war, war can only cease when some artificial “externall Impediment,” or power exists that is strong enough to deter men from fighting with one another. Therefore, when humans are free—when they have no “externall Impediment” or power to stop them from attacking one another—they find themselves in a state of war.


5.) One could say that Hobbes’ understanding of both the cause of war and its possible solution are contingent upon his conception of human nature. Explain and critique Hobbes’ conception of human nature in its relation to both the cause of war and the cause of peace.

In order to understand what Hobbes believes causes both war and peace, we first need to understand three of his fundamental beliefs regarding human nature: (1) humans are naturally selfish, (2) humans are rational, and (3) humans are generally equal. First, Hobbes believes that humans are naturally selfish. Instead of acting in ways that are altruistic, men are inclined to act out of their own self-interest. As Hobbes writes, “of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some Good to himselfe” (192). Second, Hobbes believes that, generally speaking, humans are rational. In other words, although there are some exceptions, most humans possess the ability to reason. Given the fact that humans are guided by their own self-interest, it follows that humans always use reason to aid them in benefiting themselves. Third, Hobbes believes that all men are generally equal, both physically and mentally. As he writes,
Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he (183).
To put it another way, Hobbes believes that, even though some men are stronger and smarter than other men, the weakest man is still capable of killing the strongest and the dumbest man is still capable of killing the smartest.

Now that we understand these three beliefs that Hobbes has regarding human nature, we can look at his belief regarding the cause of war, and see how this belief relates to his conception of human nature. Hobbes believes that war breaks out whenever two men desire the same thing. As he writes, “if any two men desire the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, . . . endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other” (184). War breaks out whenever two men desire the same thing because of two of the conditions of human nature that we just discussed: humans are guided by their own self-interest and humans are equal. Since humans are guided by their own self-interest, when two men desire the same thing, neither man wishes to give up his claim to that thing. And since humans are physically and mentally equal, each man knows that he has a realistic chance of defeating the other man and of, thereby, attaining the thing he desires. Therefore, given their natural self-interestedness and equality, whenever two men desire the same thing, they are naturally inclined to fight over it.

Although, according to Hobbes, human nature inevitably leads to war, men, out of hatred of death, ultimately desire to live in peace. As men discover through reason (in the first part of the first Law of Nature): “every man, ought to endeavour Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining” (190). In order to obtain peace, however, men must make contracts with one another, in which all parties agree to surrender their Natural Rights—“the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto” (189). Reason, of course, dictates that each man only make such a contract and lay down his Natural Right provided that and as far as others do also (190).

Hobbes tells us that, even though men desire peace, in their natural condition, they are unable to attain it. Peace, he writes, cannot be attained in the natural state because no one man can trust any other man to keep his side of a contract and thus lay down his Natural Right. As Hobbes puts it, men cannot trust one another in the natural condition “because the bounds of words [alone] are too weak to bridle mens ambition, avarice, anger, and other Passions” (196). Since, in the natural condition, men are unwilling to lay down their Natural Rights and, therefore, since peace cannot be obtained, reason tells men (in the second part of the first Law of Nature) to “seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of Warre” (190). Men, therefore, find themselves in a continual state of war.

Luckily, Hobbes tells us, there is a solution to the problem of war. And it, too, is related to his conception of human nature. Simply put, since war is the result of (1) human equality and (2) the fact that men act out of their own self-interest, it follows that war can be solved if we eliminate either (1) equality, or (2) the fact that men act out of their own self-interest. Since, apart from divine intervention, it would be impossible to change the fact that men are inclined to act out of their own self-interest, it follows that the problem of war can only be solved by making men unequal. Hobbes proposes that we make men unequal and, thus, solve the problem of war, by creating a “common Power” that is stronger than all men—so strong that it is able to make men honor their contracts. Since this “common Power” is willing and able to punish any man who refuses to honor his contract, whenever such a power exists, all humans are forced to honor their contracts and, therefore, lay down their Natural Rights. And when all men lay down their Natural Rights, they are able to live in a state of peace.