Arendt, Hannah. (2014). The Origins of Totalitarianism. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reflecting on the atrocities of the Axis’ regimes which dominated her life in the early twentieth century, Hannah Arendt, a Prussian political theorist, addresses the means by which totalitarianism is able to establish and maintain control of a society in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt defines totalitarianism as the total collapse of the social sphere; a disintegration of any prior-existing social classes to simply masses subject to the rule of a supreme leader whose dictates fill the vacuum previously occupied by social fabric, resulting in an alienated existence that demands total loyalty to the leader by threat of violence. Under this new, wretched existence, the individual has no allies except for that which is fed to him by the leader and underlying ideological movement. Tools of mass-propaganda encourage maintenance of the status quo as, when one has been reduced to an insignificant member of the masses, the only solace is consistency in protection. This, in turn, causes a feedback loop where the masses must subscribe to any and all information fed to them by the party. This life of fear, of total domination, and cynicism exists within the bounds of what Arendt terms the “iron band,” which replaces the social fabric, constraining the masses to a malleable and weak tool to be mobilized by the supreme leader to exact his will. Most notably, Arendt explores how the changes that Europe –and more broadly speaking, the world– underwent permanently and negatively transformed how society was able to experience life as reflected by her arduous efforts to preserve the truth after the efforts of totalitarian revisionism.
Aristotle. (2014). Politics. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In his series of books titled Politics, Aristotle, a student of Plato, continues the trend of discussing optimal governmental structure, differing from his mentor insofar as he focuses on man as the political animal who is teleologically fulfilled through participation in the political life. Along with teleology ¬–the degree to which something is good as measured by how well it fulfills its designed purpose– Aristotle invokes discussion of virtue ethics and how a virtuous life is the one which is achieved through the life of the polis. While these types of central fulfillment are exclusively available for men (not women, children, or slaves), the heart of Aristotle’s argument has had major influences on the wester canon of philosophical thought. One such artifact of his otherwise dated observations about ideal government which can be drawn from Politics is the necessity of the middling element: pragmatically speaking a large middle-class to serve as a buffer between the wealthy and the poor which prevent an otherwise unavoidable class war born out of inequity. Additionally, Aristotle catalogues six regime-types in pairs (good regimes, and their perversions): monarchy and tyranny, aristocracy and oligarchy, polity and democracy. Discussing the pros and cons of each in a not-so-straightforward manner spanning several of the books, Aristotle concludes that the polity (self-sufficient fusion of an oligarchy and democracy) is the most practical form, but the aristocracy (similar to Plato’s philosopher-king ruling class) is the ideal government.
St. Augustine. (2014). The City of God. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
As a response to the increasing abdication of morality in the early 5th century C.E. from a primarily theological perspective, St. Augustine writes as a prolific Roman, against Rome in an effort to correct the failing practices of the falling empire. Discussing themes of the nature of man in the context of good and evil, Augustine asserts that every man desires peace and tranquility. Expanding from an analogy of a man who orients his household around God by chastising sin as a means of correcting fault, Augustine states that so, too, a nation can be run. He argues that humans can only be virtuous –and by extension, just– when they worship and make sacrifices to God, which was not what most Pagan Roman societies were doing at the time. As a result of the times, no political authority could make a man good; it could merely contain his evil tendencies. From this reality, Augustine proffers a dualistic image of the city: the City of God and the City on Earth. Both coincidental and distinct, the members of the City of God would be oriented around serving Him, while the City of Earth would be concerned with maintaining temporal peace via imperfect authority. For Augustine, this is sub-optimal, as he argues that “where this [God’s] justice does not exist, there is certainly no ‘association of men united by a common sense of right, and by a community of interest’” (251).
Burke, Edmund. (2014). Reflections on the Revolution in France. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Writing from the perspective of an Irish member of British Parliament, Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France as a conservative criticism of the French Revolution unfolding across the Channel. Whereas he viewed the American Revolution as a reclamation of Englishman’s rights which, for the most part, preserved the social structure that existed prior, he considered the French Revolution to a be a reactionary, radical, and violent pursuit of abstract rights which defaced years of political tradition and –which he rightly predicted– set the European Stage for terror and instability. Arguing that man does not have the right to choose his government (at least not in the revolutionary sense that was commonly held in France), Burke condemned the efforts of the revolutionaries, highlighting the reign of terror, the hypocrisy of their regicidal means of achieving “freedom”, and the fragility of The Rights of Man. He states that man’s rights outside of the Natural rights are bestowed only by the state and that eradicating it would not result in freedom. Burke highlighted the shortcomings of the French Revolution so as to persuade English compatriots not to get any revolutionary, anti-monarchical ideas.
De Tocqueville, Alexis. (2014). Democracy in America. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A French student sent to the post-revolutionary America to examine the prison system in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville ended up writing a survey of Democracy in America. Identifying noble characteristics such as the “equality of conditions,” as well as the public spirit which he describes as an arrogant and obnoxious concern of everyone with all public matters, de Tocqueville produced what is revered as the most important source on democracy. What he terms the “equality of conditions” is the absence of institutional classes maintained by inherited titles and authorities which gives way to the American Dream marked by unprecedented social mobility. However, the public spirit he identifies introduces criticism of the majoritarian politics in which: the minority is enslaved, art and discussion are bounded by the limits imposed by the social majority, and mediocrity is inevitable due to the middling nature of the majority. De Tocqueville points out that although everyone is politically involved to a degree that was unusual in Europe, this results in inefficiency, heightened awareness of inequality (and therefore greed), and unskillful governance.
Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James. (2014). The Federalist Papers. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In their periodical testimonies as to the efficacy of the form of government they were advocating for under the pseudonym Publius, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton set out to flesh out solutions to many of the concerns of states (namely Virginia and New York) still hesitant about ratification of the proposed Constitution in light of the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation. The particular articles covered –#1, #10, #39, #51, and #85– which were authored by Madison and Hamilton, discuss some of the most pressing concerns of the time.
The first essay, authored by Hamilton, discussed the great opportunity the young nation then had to set an example of the ideal form of government. Federalist 10, authored by Madison, presented the republican federal government as a means of counteracting man’s inherent tendency toward faction by incorporating bureaucratic inefficiency as well as a focus on national interests. Madison’s contribution within the 39th essay proscribes the means of election and appointment for the primary participants in the proposed government, elaborating on systems of direct and indirect election as well as presidential appointment for Representatives, Senators, and Federal Judges, respectively. Federalist 51 makes the argument for the benefits of the branched government, explaining how equipping each branch with means of checking the other two branches will counter the fundamentally faction-driven behavior of each department creating a balance. Lastly, Federalist 85 serves as a call to action as well as a summary of the past year’s vindication of the proposed federal government as well as it’s parity with respect to the state governments. The Federalist Papers served as an as-comprehensive-as-possible argument in favor of the ideology that lay beneath the surface of the proposed Constitution.
Hobbes, Thomas. (2014). Leviathan. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
After multiple younger attempts arguing for a central authority that were poorly received by the instable, anti-royalist, and warring English elite of the time, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan which served as the far more refined presentation of his argument for the necessity of a strong authority (government) to protect man. Transforming the contemporary idea of the social contract, Hobbes argued that prior to the establishment of government and civilization, man lived in a state of nature wrought by base desires where, in order to prevent a “war of every one on every one” (320), people would mutually forfeit their natural rights to defend themselves and otherwise be unbound by anyone else to single authority for greater assured protection. Outlining several laws of nature that compel men in this state of nature, Hobbes identifies three inevitable causes of quarrel: competition, diffidence, and glory. His proposed remedy is the hypothetical collective forfeiture of the aforementioned natural rights to a strong central government, namely a monarchy or oligarchy – a mass of people obedient to a single source that they might be afforded protection from the rest of the lawless motivations within nature.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. (2014). “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Addressing the liberal population whose inactivity made them complacent with the inequality facing African-American’s in the 1960s, champion of civil rights and renowned orator Martin Luther King Jr. penned one of the defining letters of several movements to come, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in order to explicate the necessity of his and his fellow activists’ demonstrations. In his letter piecemealed together from prison after being arrested for marching in opposition of the latent inequality due to segregation in the South, King heavily referenced Christian theology in order to delineate between the civil disobedience he refused to stop inciting and petty crime for the sake of personal gain. He outlines the four basic steps to a nonviolent campaign as: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action – iterating over each step and explaining why the first three had proven to be ineffective in bringing about change. He states that privileged groups rarely give up their privilege freely, thus necessitating the direct-action he had been leading in Birmingham. Only through dramatic crises brought about through direct action, he states, does a community become fully aware of the need for immediate change. Justifying his civil disobedience on the grounds that unjust laws –those which fail to reflect God’s natural laws and instead damage the human personality and distort the soul– must be opposed for as long as injustice exists, justice is threatened. He evokes brutal images of the oppression blacks had been facing for centuries in order to reprimand the clergy who published the criticism of his actions, asking how they could possibly ask him to wait and let things sort themselves out in due time.
Locke, John. (2014). The Second Treatise of Government. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Writing in response to the English civil war which demonstrated the flaws of absolute, unchecked power, John Locke published his Second Treatise of Government which served as the refined amalgamation of his less popular political pieces from the prior decade in which he expands on Hobbes’ Leviathan by introducing aspects of individualism and tacit consent. Whereas Hobbes was almost singularly concerned with protection, Locke expands the social contract theory to include other aspects of life such as religion and private property. Arguing that private property is derived from the combination of ones’ own labor with land, Locke also provides limits as to how far this ‘equation’ can be extrapolated constrained by greed and spoilage. Additionally, in response to the absolutist rulers of his era, Locke rejects the idea that the government –or Hobbes’ Leviathan– is a binding and permanent covenant. Rather, he suggests that participation in society under such a government is contingent upon just rule. Writing from a more pragmatic stance, Lock adapts many of Hobbes’ ideas regarding social contract theory.
Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. (2014). Manifesto of the Communist Party. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Writing after the Industrial Revolution as a student of Hegelian philosophy and in collaboration with Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto as a response to the destruction of social bonds as a result of the unfettered competition ushered in by capitalism. Arguing that this excessive competition inherent in free market societies leads to the gradual cessation of means of production by the working class which, in turn, contributes to the downward trend of wages and working conditions, Marx and Engels identify the division of social classes into two camps around labor: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The proletariat were defined as the people lacking control of the means of production who are therefore obligated to exchange their labor for wages, and the bourgeoisie defined as the elite, oppressive class who do own the means of production and are able to exploit the working class for profit. The duo identified the Industrial Revolution as the catalyst which enabled the unprecedented levels of exploitation they witnessed throughout Europe, pointing out that in previous societies, feudal conservatism dictated that machinery ought to be sustainable and low maintenance. In contrast, the influx of mechanical innovation in the mid to late 19th century saw a dissolution of job security of much of the working class as “work” was continuously stripped of its meaning via the proliferation of industrial means of production. Laborers became indistinguishable as machines became increasingly autonomous and specialized. In response to the many grievances of the comparatively young regime of radical capitalism, Marx and Engels present ten points of a communist society culminating with abolition of private property –with the caveat that ownership of private property deprives man of the power by subjugating the labor of others by means of appropriation; by means of social power known as capital– and the call to action: “Working men of all countries, unite!”
Mill, John Stuart. (2014). On Liberty. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Raised as a member of the English elite, destined for leadership with utilitarian influences from his father that influenced his later essays, John Stuart Mill published many works on the orchestration of society with respect to the individual; On Liberty is no exception. In On Liberty, Mill outlines the existing limitations of governmental intervention into society on the grounds of regulating freedom of speech and idea. From there, he explores how society as a whole acts as a censor of scope of thought by pushing homogeneity via the majority opinion and how this ostracizes minority opinions. He demonstrates how normalization of doctrine born out of tradition damages human progress by pointing out that the most efficacious means of discerning truth is through rigorously challenging every thought and idea. He bolsters this claim by examining the perceived flaws of the main form of doctrine he witnesses in Europe: Christian religion, namely the Catholic Church. He argues that ideas taken on word or faith go unchallenged by critical thinking which could reveal new truths. Additionally, he points out that many of the most significant social contributions stem from genius which is a minority trait. Mill offers a thorough defense of the necessity for constantly challenging everything for the purpose of strengthening our collective perception of truth and never becoming complacent in what we hold to be true.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (2014). Beyond Good and Evil. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Writing in the 19th century as a post-Marxist German philosopher, Nietzsche addresses his disillusionment with the nihilist tendencies that stem from the post-industrial message espoused by Marx and the represented by the rational society born out of the dissolution of structures that were previously provided meaning and truth like religious institutions. A central tenet of his belief system centered and absolute truths and seeking higher values oriented around these truths through manifestation of power. He represents this process of self-actualization for the sake of one’s future self (“beyond the constructs of good and evil”) through an Übermensch figure. Targeting the constructs of morality and politics which he asserts to be borderline-distractions from these absolute truths, Nietzsche underlines the importance of finding meaning beyond these things before they too –like religious institutions– lose their meaning. His views both are and were very abstract and therefore lent themselves to gross misappropriations by myriad groups including Nazi’s (viewing themselves as manifestations of said Übermensch). He juxtaposes a master and slave morality where people who subscribe to the former change and create their values (ideally oriented towards absolute truth), and people of the latter who relegated themselves to adopt the established values and succumb to a pessimistic outlook on the human condition. Nietzsche is revered as the father of nihilism, although much of his work offers cautionary, albeit cryptic, advice as to how one ought to avoid falling into such a mindset.
Plato. (2014). Republic. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In his transcription of a discussion between his mentor Socrates and some of his friends, Plato engages in a dialogue contemplating the nature of man and how it effects a society. Plato structures the dialectic such that the strongest arguments against what Socrates says are systematically defeated. Plato starts by attempting to define justice (enactment of good as defined by the people, where everyone acknowledges their role and nothing else), then argues why cities need old, educated zealots for posterity to rule: philosopher kings. He argues that people would be most happy where they are most efficient, rather than having to divide their labors between other things like governance. In the seventh chapter, he presents the famous cave allegory to demonstrate what he believes wisdom to be –knowing what you do not know– and how philosophers, who have seen the proverbial light outside of the cave, know what they do not know and are therefore both misunderstood by society and also best suited to orchestrate government. This dialogue presents the strongest arguments for and against his ideas, giving rise to a system of thought known as the dialectic.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (2014). Of the Social Contract. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Arguing that man is naturally good and equal, that his passions are only corrupted by unequal institutions, and that communal forfeiture of authority to the ‘General Will’ results in freedom, Jean-Jacques Rousseau casts his hat into the ring of social contract theory with one of the more optimistic perspectives in relation to his contemporaries. Seemingly ignoring the existence of minorities at first, Rousseau postulates that the ruling authority is comprised of moral people and, by extension, the laws of said society protect the beliefs of each man within it. To Rousseau, participation in this community is voluntary, so the obligations therein are more literally contractual than his predecessors’. He argues that, when each, naturally good and equal man enters into the contract, recognizing his peers as other naturally good and equal men, the General Will of the people does serve as a ruling authority. His approach is highly optimistic and is constrained by a colonial perspective on the size of a given community as it relies on the frequent, dedicated, and morally good participation in society in order to check the executive ruling authority (which everyone agrees to submit to) as well as to legislate according to the General Will. In his book Of the Social Contract, Rousseau presents an optimistic view of society, qualifying his beliefs that all men are born equal and good with the caveat that inequal institutions give rise to the base, chaotic passions identified within Hobbes’ state of nature.
Young, Iris Marion. (2014). “Five Faces of Oppression”. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Elaborating on the ideas proffered by the “New Left” in the wake of the Vietnam War, Isis Marion Young expounds on the simplistic and unitary blanket term “oppression” in order to classify (and better address) the many forms it takes in her article published under The Philosophical Forum Journal “Five Faces of Oppression.” Rather than simply characterize oppression as actions taken against a minority individual by a tyrant, as many of her contemporaries had, Arendt explores how society discriminates on bases of group-membership via institutionalized structures. The five faces she describes are exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Exploitation involves use of labor without fair compensation. Marginalization is the pushing of people towards the fringes of society such that they are treated worse than those within ‘society.’ She defines powerlessness as the domination of minority groups by the majority by devaluing their contributions and efforts to change society. Similar to powerlessness, cultural imperialism is the practice of dictating the cultural norms for society and ostracizing those who do not share similar tastes or practices. Lastly, she says that violence is that exactment systematic harm on specific groups of people (more nuanced than random acts of violence between individuals). While she develops positions on each of these forms of oppression, Young asserts that marginalization is the most harmful as it totally removes people from society in such a way that does not draw attention to the mechanisms by which this pseudo-genocide may occur, unlike violence which would be demonstrably obvious and identifiably objectionable.