Platonic and Hobbesian Epistemologies and Their Political Implications

Summary

The differences between The Republic and Leviathan stem in part from how their authors approach the question of knowledge. Plato postulates that humans can only know truth from internal mental processes and proposes a state based on metaphysical principles, while Hobbes believes that the senses are paramount and proposes a state based on mechanistic principles.

(Written March 13, 2006 and submitted to Dr. Stella Gaon for her course on the History of Political Thought. This essay was nominated by the St. Mary’s University Political Science Department for the Larry Collins Prize in 2007. It has been adapted from its original format.)

Introduction

One of the cornerstones of any coherent theory is an underlying network of evidence to support its assertions. Philosophical models, in order to be defendable, must have concrete and rational arguments that arise from fundamental assumptions, and the best arguments are those that start small and build upwards. Plato and Hobbes both use theories of knowledge to justify their respective political models; however, although both take steps to define how humans acquire and use knowledge, these two philosophers take two radically different approaches to politics. Although both philosophers attempt to construct a model of the best possible form of political association, there is an essential schism between Plato and Hobbes: while Plato postulates that humans can only know truth from internal mental processes and proposes a state based on metaphysical principles, Hobbes believes that the senses are the principal means by which people conceive the nature of reality and proposes a state based on mechanistic principles.

Part I

By examining how both of these philosophers approach the issue of epistemology, one can begin to see why Plato and Hobbes reach different conclusions in their political treatises. Plato’s approach is entirely intellectual and is epitomized in his allegory of the cave: he argues in Book VII of Republic that it is impossible for people to be certain that what they perceive via the senses is, in fact, real. The prisoners in Plato’s metaphor “would hold the shadows of those manufactured articles to be the only truth” (128) and would be unaware of anything with any substance. As people can never be certain that what they perceive is real, Plato reasons, humans must construct a political theory built on purely intellectual grounds, divorced from the illusions of the physical world. Plato’s theory is thus highly idealized and hinges on defining relationships and correlations between metaphysical concepts, often drawing conclusions from comparisons and metaphors; one of many examples is when Plato argues that young men should be tested under duress “just as young horses are taken into the presence of noise and tumult” (67).

However, while Plato’s theory is based in immaterial conceptualizations, Hobbes’ theory is rooted firmly from a materialist perspective. This is made clear very early on in Leviathan; in Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the text, Hobbes categorically states that “there is no conception in a man’s mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense” (387). This initial premise immediately sets Hobbes at odds with Plato’s metaphysical approach. Hobbes’ epistemology is mechanistic, in that he outlines a series of causes and effects in how humans perceive their physical environment; an “external body, or object […] presseth the organ proper to each sense” and causes an “endeavour;” this endeavour, Hobbes argues, is what humans regard as “sense” (387). Thus, while Hobbes regards the senses as supreme in his epistemological approach, he also admits that there is a fair degree of inaccuracy present in how humans regard objects; “the object is one thing, [while] the image or fancy is another” (387). Plato and Hobbes’ epistemologies are different in that Plato focuses on how immaterial absolutes can be apprehended by the human mind, while Hobbes focuses on the relationship between the human mind and its environment. The difference between these two approaches factors heavily in how Plato and Hobbes construct their ideal political states.

Part II

Having established two different theories of knowledge, both Plato and Hobbes go on to address the political implications brought about by their respective epistemologies. Plato’s metaphysical approach leads him to construct a model state ruled by individuals with metaphysical understanding; he undergoes a line of reasoning that relies heavily on immaterial concepts such as justice and virtue. As is revealed by the allegory of the cave, Plato regards philosophical truth as emancipation from ignorance; when perceived, the idea of the good is shown to be “the source of all that is right and beautiful” (130). Plato argues that the perception of this good, once ingrained within individuals, causes those individuals to tend to be “unwilling to take part in the affairs of men, because their souls are eager to spend all their time in that upper region” (130); as such people are best equipped to institute just rule within society, they must be placed “under the […] obligation of guarding and caring for the others” (132). Plato’s essential argument is that those individuals who are rational and who have knowledge of the world of the forms are best qualified to rule the city; this stems from a theory of knowledge that places its value on metaphysical understanding.

However, Hobbes’ epistemological approach posits that humans gain knowledge through their sensory apparatus and focuses more on the relationship between the input, or “object,” and output, or “endeavour.” His epistemology, when combined with his perspective on human nature, forms the basis for his political theory: stating that the life of man in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and that “every man is enemy to every man” (403), Hobbes reasons that a powerful, overriding force is required to overcome every man’s natural self-interest. As people are affected principally by sensory input, it is necessary to change that input in order to change human behaviour.

Hobbes’ theory does not allow for Plato’s idealistic, philosophical ruling class, as his epistemology lacks the dazzling light of the world of the forms; he instead takes a more pragmatic approach by arguing that humans must enter into a commonwealth with an all-powerful sovereign in order to prevent themselves from destroying each other. As “the laws of nature […] are contrary to our natural passions” and “covenants, without the sword, are but words” (415), Hobbes declares that humans must “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will” (417). This model, Hobbes’ infamous Leviathan, follows from his perspective on human nature and his theory of knowledge; thus epistemology is fundamental to Hobbes’ political theory.

The basic division between Plato and Hobbes’ thinking is epistemological in nature: Plato believes in a metaphysical realm that can be understood by the human consciousness and translated into the material world, while Hobbes sees the world from a materialist perspective and focuses on how humanity’s conditions can be improved by altering sensory input in the form of an absolute sovereign. Despite this division, however, both Plato and Hobbes agree that strong governments are necessary: Plato declares that, in his model state, “the desires of the vulgar many are there controlled by the desires and wisdom of the cultivated few” (73), while Hobbes’ entire political theory is based on absolutism in government.

Part III

Despite their different approaches to epistemology and the political implications of knowledge, both Plato and Hobbes agree on another point: that the truth may be reasonably subverted if it serves the interests of society. Plato, despite his idealistic passion for the truth, readily admits that a “noble lie” can be disseminated in the interest of society: in Republic, he deliberately fabricates a fictional creation story that could be taught to the people of a city, so that “this might have a good effect towards making them care more for the city and for one another” (69). Plato even goes so far as to say “we may bring even the rulers themselves, if possible, to believe it” (68); what this means is that, from Plato’s perspective, misinformation can be diffused if it benefits the society and causes no harm. Even the philosopher-kings should be brought to believe this myth, if at all possible, in order to facilitate the process.

Hobbes, for his part, has no objections whatsoever to untruths and propaganda disseminated by the sovereign; he argues that the sovereign has the right to “judge what opinions and doctrines are averse, and what conducting to peace” and that “doctrine repugnant to peace, can be no more true, than peace and concord can be against the law of nature” (419); in other words, the sovereign can and should disregard the truth if it is in the interest of society to do so. These parallel conclusions from two such radically different philosophical approaches present an interesting epistemological perspective: while knowledge and reason are important tools, they must be withheld if their influence is destructive to society.

As stated previously, both Plato and Hobbes believe in the value of powerful governments that can maintain social order and restrain the baser instincts of their populations. If a government that is otherwise beneficial can be weakened by absolute truthfulness, either through the lack of political association amongst the masses or a scandal that would undermine its claim to legitimate authority, Plato and Hobbes agree that the government must value the maintenance and wellness of civilized society above the truth. As political theorists, they observe the preservation of political association and societal well-being as being more important than the truth, provided that the lie does no harm. While this may appear objectionable at first, one must consider that the meaning of the word “philosophy” is “love of wisdom.” It is this sacrifice of pure truth that reminds us of the difference between wisdom and mere knowledge: it would be irrational to drive society to destruction and ruin for the sake of a harmful truth.

Conclusion

In conclusion, epistemology plays a major role in both Plato and Hobbes’ philosophical approaches. It influences how both philosophers commence their deliberations and moulds their conclusions. Epistemology is, after all, a necessary facet of philosophy; if one is to make claims about what political state is best or about who should govern, eventually one will be compelled to provide a rational justification for those views. Using their respective theories of knowledge, Plato and Hobbes construct two different versions of the ideal state: Plato favours a meritocracy based on principles of rationalism and metaphysical understanding, while Hobbes favours an authoritarian government that can rule with an iron fist and sustain civilized society.

Despite differences in their approaches and ideal governments, both philosophers agree that strong governments are necessary to prevent the desires and appetites of the masses from creating social unrest and chaos. In some cases, it is even acceptable to sacrifice the truth to maintain social cohesion. By presenting two different theories of knowledge, both Plato and Hobbes establish the basic frameworks for their respective philosophical approaches, and the reason that their political theories have survived the twin tests of time and criticism is because the two models are both powerfully coherent and consistent.

Works Cited

Steven M. Cahn, ed. 2002. Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plato. “Republic.” Cahn 32-167.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Cahn 386-440.

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