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Political theory and political philosophy • The primary aim of all the social sciences is the examination of the ways in which individuals are organized into a collective social system. Political science, as an academic discipline, focuses upon how this achieved by the agency of 'government’. In the most basic terms, political science is a study of the exercise of coercion.
The 'state' is construed to be the ultimate or 'sovereign' repository of coercive power within a defined geographic domain, and political science studies the institutions and practices by which this power is exercised. Even in small tribal societies, anthropologists tell us, the structure of authority is sometimes very complex.
A. PLATO, ARISTOTLE, AND POLYBIUS • Plato's Republic is not a description or analysis of the government of Athens in his tune, or an account of its historical development. Its purpose is to describe, in general terms, the main characteristics of a perfect system of government, one that would serve the welfare of the citizens, create civic unity and suppress conflict, provide a just social order, and, once established require no future alteration.
Unlike most other works of the Utopian genre' the Republic continues to be discussed by political scientists and philosophers 2,400 hundred years after it was written, because it raises issues of profound importance and advances a view of the foundations of good government that is still reflected, in various ways, in modem political thought and practice.
In Plato's ideal society, the rights and responsibilities of political power belong to a special class of 'guardians' consisting of a very small number of persons who have been selected in youth and subjected to many years of rigorous training.
Their selection and training are not designed to create a class of persons who are skilled in the arts of public administration Youths are selected who display those mental qualities that are necessary if one is to become a 'philosopher' and the long training is necessary to realize this potentiality.
In order to understand Plato's political theory, therefore we must note what he had in mind when he argued that, in the ideal society' the guardians must be philosophers. Plato's most famous student, Aristotle, disagreed with his teacher on many points. In his Politics (the second part of a general treatise on ethics) Aristotle severely criticizes both the method and the substance of Plato's political theory.
The method, complains Aristotle, is too abstract; and the conception of the ideal state reduces to a political system in which the authority of the rulers is really sustained by their ability to command 'heavily armed soldiers'. The study of politics can be scientific, says Aristotle, but it must be based on the empirical examination of real systems of government.
No detailed description of actual states is presented in the Politics, but Aristotle's argument is guided by what he conceives to be the lessons that have been supplied by political experience. The chief of these, in his view, is that no system of government is perfect.
All systems have essential properties which include defects as well as virtues, and even the best system of government is only comparatively better than others. Moreover, even in comparative terms, one cannot say that one particular system of government is best, for, though it may be argued to be so in the abstract, another system might be better in the particular circumstances of a specific society.
'It is evident,' says Aristotle 'that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is can act for the best and live happily,' but, unlike Plato, he does not undertake to present a design for a government that will, always and perfectly, serve these objectives.
B. THE VENETIAN CONSTITUTION • Venice lies at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, on the east side of the Ithacan peninsula. According to legend, it was founded by people who endeavoring to escape from the Lombard invaders of Italy in the sixth century' took refuge on the low-lying islands of a lagoon, where they were safe from marauders who were not skilled in water navigation, and commenced to build there the city that we can still see today.
The magnificent brick and stone palaces, churches, and other large buildings standing on wooden piles driven into the mudflats of the lagoon bespeak a past era of great opulence and indeed, in her prime, Venice was probably the wealthiest city in the world Her population was never much larger than a hundred thousand but by taking advantage of her strategic geographic position,
Venice dominated the lucrative trade between Europe and the East, which she supported by a strong navy and an extensive network of-naval and trading stations in the eastern Mediterranean. The important role of Venice in the economic development of Europe during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance has been amply described by economic historians,
but we are concerned here with another topic that has, unfortunately, been little recognized: the city's system of government and the influence of this upon European political thought.
C. SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND • The seventeenth century deserves some special attention from the student of the history of Western civilization. Many of the elements that we are now able to recognize clearly as factors contributing to the modern development of that civilization originated in or were firmly established during the seventeenth century.
In the field of science, it was during the seventeenth century that the modern approach to knowledge was established by solid achievements.
1. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) • The keynote of Hobbes's political philosophy is the supreme importance of social order and the justifiable fear that all rational persons have of anything that threatens order. Hobbes referred to himself as having been born with fear of disorder as his 'twin', since his birth was brought on prematurely by his mother's fright at the news of the impending invasion of the Spanish Armada.
But, fortunately for Hobbes, not all disturbances of orderly existence are misfortunes. Not long after Thomas's birth his father, a country vicar ill-suited to his profession, was involved in an altercation at the door of his church during which he assaulted a man who had provoked him.
Thinking it prudent to place himself beyond the reach of the local magistrates, the vicar abandoned his wife and three young children and departed. • That was the last heard of the paterfamilias. Fortunately, he also left behind a brother,
Francis Hobbes, who undertook to care for the family and saw to it that young Thomas received an excellent education, culminating in graduation from Oxford at the age of twenty. Hobbes then became tutor to the son of the Duke of Devonshire, which brought him into the circle of the most wealthy and powerful members of English society.
Hobbes turned his attention to political matters when the conflict between the King and Parliament was beginning to tear apart the political structure of English society. His most important book. Leviathan, was published in 1651, at one of the crucial points in the political history of the period:
after the execution of Charles I and the declaration of Britain as a 'Commonwealth' but before Oliver Cromwell assumed despotic power as 'Lord Protector'. • Hobbes subtitled the book The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil?. There is no doubt that he wrote it to influence the course of contemporary political events.
Whether it did so is debatable, even though Cromwell's behaviour as Protector and the role of the monarchy later, after the Stuart restoration in 1660, can be regarded as in line with Hobbes's analysis and advice.
But Leviathan most certainly influenced the history and philosophy of social science, being one of the major works that form the transition of thought on social questions from medieval scholasticism to modern science. The author of the article on Hobbes for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences concludes his assessment thus.
2. John Locke (1632-1704) • John Locke was born into a middle-class. Somerset family whose standard of living was made comfortable by the inheritance of some property from John's grandfather, who had been in the clothing trade. John's father was an attorney whose earnings were insufficient to enable him to add to the property, but he did not dissipate it, so John inherited sufficient wealth when his father died in 1661 to assure him a modest financial independence.
He was educated at good schools and went on to Oxford University. He found the curriculum rather boring, with its emphasis on scholastic philosophy, but he was attracted to the academic environment and in order to stay on at Oxford without becoming an ordained cleric (as was then required of all faculty members in the philosophic disciplines) he enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine.
He was much interested in science and became well acquainted with many of the leading scientific figures of the period, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Locke made no specific contributions to science but he was elected to the Royal Society m 1688, testifying to the esteem in which he was held by scientists.
D. MONTESQUIEU'S INTERPRETATION OF THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION • After the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, England entered a period of development which made her the most powerful and most influential nation in Europe. Many observers of the shift of the European centre of political gravity towards a previously negligible island on the western-edge of the continent credited the emergence there of a superior system of government with playing a leading role in this remarkable turn of history.
By the mid-eighteenth century, England was widely viewed by political commentators, as Venice had been earlier, as a working exemplification of an ideal system of government. The Spirit of the Laws, as it is entitled in English, was not written as a treatise on constitutional theory.
He did not intend to present the English constitution as a model that should be copied by all societies, since he firmly believed that societies differ in their cultural characteristics and that a system of government that fitted the 'spirit' of one society might not be suitable for another. • Montesquieu's main interest in political organization was, in a sense, 'sociological', since he believed that the political organization of a society must be examined in the context of the society's cultural ambience and values.
He did not intend to present the English constitution as a model that should be copied by all societies, since he firmly believed that societies differ in their cultural characteristics and that a system of government that fitted the 'spirit' of one society might not be suitable for another. His discussion of the English system of government was introduced as empirical support of this general thesis.
It was an admirable system because it harmonized with the cultural values that animated the English people. 'The government most conformable to nature,' he says, 'is that whose particular disposition best agrees with the humour and disposition of the people in whose favour it is established.'
In a later section of the Laws Montesquieu enlarges on this theme under the heading 'Of Laws in Relation to the Principles which form the General Spirit, the Morals, and Customs of a Nation*. 'Mankind,' he says, 'are influenced by various causes: by the climate, by the religion, by the laws, by the maxims of government, by precedents, morals, and customs;
whence is formed a general spirit of nations.' Even in a despotism, where there are no laws ('that is, none that can properly be called so'), there are 'manners and customs; and if you overturn these you overturn all', for people 'are in general very tenacious of their customs' and are unhappy if they are violently altered.