The Pathos of Politics (13-2) Political Philosophy continued 1


Equally irrelevant to the history of political thought were the grand cities of the Maya civilization. Like the Chinese, the Mayans practiced the divine right of kings long before the notion embedded itself into the European theater as a backhanded justification for monarchial tyranny. From these distant corners of the far East and far West came nothing of import to world political discourse.

It is fair to say that the platform upon which political thought arose was built by ancient Athenians, a trading people with scholars who mused about how differently other city-states had organized themselves. If they had not lived where they did and arranged their societies and economic activities as they had, there would have been no contrast to reflect upon.

The Israelites of Old Testament times were also quite conscious of their neighbors, not least because the Egyptians and Babylonians often enslaved them. But this is the history of a people who did their level best to have no politics.

The Jews saw themselves as ruled by God. For them, politics was a fall from grace.

Contrastingly, for the Greeks, politics was an achievement. It was when argumentative Athenians started articulating the flaws of polities that the history of political thought began.

Ancient Greek polies were much different from the European empires that emerged afterwards, and the states that evolved worldwide in the modern era. Nonetheless, the way in which justice, governance, and sovereignty are conceived echo down the corridors of time from ancient Greece.

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Accounts of the history of political thought typically begin with Plato. This is a paradox, as Plato’s political thought was anti-political.

Plato’s political analysis amounts to an exercise in fantasy. Instead of considering the conflicts and possible paths of resolution inherent in politics, Plato posited a utopia.

Plato was not the only political philosopher with his head in the clouds. More than 2 millennia later, Karl Marx had nothing to say about the politics of a communist society. Marx sophistically thought that the abolition of capitalism would dissolve economic conflict, and thereby the need for politics.

There were of course politics prior to Plato. But, aside from the Histories (450s bce) by Greek historian Herodotus, little was written about the varying political dynamics in Greek city-states and beyond.

Virtue is harmony. ~ ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras

The bedrock thought behind the Greek idea of the state was harmony in the lives its citizens. This was merely an extension of Greek aesthetics relating to both beauty and morals, in which harmony and proportion were the protagonists: ideals which appeared at the onset of Greek philosophy.

Justice was another notion well-considered in 5th century bce Greece. This came from contrasting Nature against convention.

One view conceived Nature as a law of justice inherent in human beings and the world. This precursor to natural law saw the order in the world as intelligent and largely beneficent.

The other view apprehended Nature non-morally. Justice manifested in humans as an assertion stemming from the desire for pleasure or power. This perspective evolved variously: its moderate form into utilitarianism and social contract theory; more provocatively into Machiavellian and Nietzschean expressions of will to power; and, in extreme forms, theories with an antisocial complexion, whether fascist or anarchist.

Not necessity, not desire – no, the love of power is the demon of men. ~ German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

The seeds from which all modern political philosophies sprouted were sown in ancient Greek thought, from men who knew little or nothing of antecedents.

Herodotus’ Histories has a passage in which 7 Persians are discussing the relative merits of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Most of the stock arguments appear: monarchy tends to degenerate into tyranny; democracy becomes mob rule; government by the best men is preferable, and nothing is better than rule by 1 best man.

Governments had been classified, and their tendencies known, well before Plato and Aristotle took aim. Nonetheless, it was only after the downfall of Athens to Sparta that the great age of Greek political philosophy dawned. Failure has its way of focusing minds.