The Road to Liberalism

For as long as there have been philosophers, there have also been constant debates on what human nature truly is. A pattern has formed which suggests that the philosophical thinkers of the day usually have a great impact on the political institution that citizens decide to put together. This essay will show that throughout the centuries, a move from the classic approach to government has given way to liberalism. This has taken place over hundreds of years with thousands of philosophers being involved. Three of the most influential philosophers in this debate have been Plato, John Locke, and Jeremy Bentham.

Plato was the earliest of the three philosophers and had the only classic approach to human nature/political institutions of the three. Plato’s philosophy was that communal activities were more important than individual ones. He believed corruption and evil were started when individuals created private property. Plato went as far as to say that “wives, children and all education must be in common”(Plato 194). This type of communal behavior was extremely important in Plato’s philosophy. Plato also felt that everyone and everything had a purpose set out for it. Whether it was individuals or the political institution of the time, there was a system that needed to be abided by.

When it came to individuals, Plato believed that humans had three parts of the soul: reason, will and appetites. He believed that these three parts of the soul needed to stay separate from each other and not meddle in the other’s work. In Plato’s theory, the reason should shape the will to control the appetites of the soul. To Plato, the reason part of the soul should the most coveted and powerful. He felt that the individual and a political institution should be set up in the same manner. Everything he decided to put in his political institution came from what he believed the individual’s soul consisted of.

Therefore, Plato believed that people were born into classes and that they could be molded into their respective places within society. He used metals such as gold, silver and bronze to explain his theory. The rulers were supposed to be the individuals with gold in their souls. Guardians or military men had silver, and the working class had bronze. Plato set up a system in his society to weed out the different individuals and put people where they belonged.

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Plato also wanted, in his form of government, philosophers (the gold souls) to rule. He said, “cities will have no respite from evil…nor will the human race…unless philosophers rule as kings in the cities, or those whom we now call kings and rulers genuinely study philosophy”(Plato 133). The reason he wanted cities to be ruled by philosophers was that he believed that philosophers could understand the Platonic Forms. These forms were the true form of itness for Plato and were the way to a harmonious society. Beauty and “the good” were two examples of these forms. The only people who could really understand “the good”, in his view, were philosophers. He used parables like the cave and the ship to make this understandable. In both parables, Plato set up situations where the philosopher is the knower of the real truth and is responsible for relaying that knowledge to other citizens. This relates directly with him believing that the reason (philosophers) should mold the will (military men) to control the appetites (workers) in the individual soul of a person.

Another aspect in Plato’s philosophy is that of not trusting the common person. He believed that the vices in life were too great to be overcome by the masses and related it to the appetites of the human soul. He wanted philosopher kings to rule society just like he felt reason should rule the individual. In another of his parables, Plato set up the story of the ring of Gyges and told of how a man came into possession of a powerful ring, took advantage of it and killed his king. Parables like this clearly show that Plato did not trust the masses to rule themselves.

Plato’s writings in the Republic clearly show that he wanted a society that was set up in a way that allowed for communal relations and that had a political institution that would be in charge of looking over the less educated masses. He based his entire way of doing things on the individual’s soul and how he believed it worked. Therefore, because Plato believed that the individual had a duty to the government before anything else, that there was a teleological higher good to be had, and that only a select few could attain that understanding, Plato argued that the only legitimate political institution would be that of an aristocracy.

This aristocracy would be composed of a ruler class, a guardian class and a working class. These three classes, just like reason, will and appetites, would not intermingle at all and as Plato himself put it, “the meddling and exchange between the three established orders does very great harm to the city and would most correctly be called wickedness”(Plato 99). In Plato’s perfect world, community would come first, citizens would know their roles in society while embracing them, and the ruling class (reason) would have the only say in what political policies are adopted.

Contemporary liberalism was officially born with the writings of John Locke. His views and philosophies were completely contradictory to that of Plato’s. Locke believed that individual needs came before the community’s. According to Locke, individuals were created equal and not into predetermined classes as Plato once thought. Locke believed that an individual had rights that were created at birth: life, liberty and property.

In Locke’s theory, “the liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power, but that established by consent in the commonwealth”(Locke 17). Locke not only disagreed with Plato on community coming first in an individual’s life, but also felt that individuals should not be governed if they do not want to be. The rights of the individual come before everything else and therefore any government that rules the individual is held under what Locke called a social contract. This social contract allows citizens to decide whether the government is protecting their rights as individuals. If the government is not, then the individuals have the right to break their contract with the government and form a new one. This was the beginning of liberalism: the point of view that the liberty of the individual comes before anything else.

Another major area that Locke disagreed with Plato in was that of property. Private property was so important to Locke that he made it one of the three cornerstones of an individual’s rights. Labor was the reason behind people’s right to have private property and according to Locke, “every man has a property in his own person…the labor of his body and the work of his back”(Locke 19). Private property made through labor, according to Locke, was the responsibility of the political institution to protect from others who did not have a valid claim of ownership. This was the reason that he believed humans consent to a government in the first place.

Locke and the liberal viewpoint disagree in three major areas with Plato’s classical model: property, equality and liberty. In all three areas, Locke took the individual’s side and gave the power to the individual. Plato and the classical view did the opposite and gave the power to the community. Therefore, because Locke disagreed with Plato and believed the individual has certain unalienable rights, said the government should protect its citizens’ private property and liberty over everything else while abiding by a social contract, and believed that individuals should look at their own needs before that of the community, democracy would be the political institution of choice for Locke.

Plato argued that, “democracy only comes when the poor are victorious…and when they give an equal share of political power and offices…while distributing a kind of equality to the equal and unequal alike”(Plato 206). Locke believed, on the other hand, that men are not born to be ruled by superiors and said that, “the natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth”(Locke 17). As one can see, when philosophers like Plato and Locke disagree on what human needs and interests are they disagree with each other on what the correct political institution should be.

The third philosopher, and the most contemporary of the three, was Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was a liberalist like Locke, but one that was more refined to the needs of everyone. According to Bentham, “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”(Bentham 11). Bentham was known as a utilitarian because he believed that the individual is obsessed with having more of pleasure and less of pain, and that a political institution should bestow the greatest amount of good on the greatest number of people. Bentham disagreed with Locke on the scope of who is created equal. Locke stopped short of saying that everyone was created equal, and in essence, only gave that right to white, male property owners. Bentham, on the other hand, truly felt that everyone was created equal and therefore should be treated as such. He felt that the only objective of a government, therefore, should be to maximize the pleasures for all its citizens and minimize the pains. In Bentham’s view, a political institution should simply add up all the pleasures and subtract all the pains of its citizens to make public policy decisions. According to Bentham, “the general object which all laws have or ought to have, in common, is to augment the total happiness of the community”(Bentham 158).

Bentham thought social policy that would most enhance the population’s pleasures and lessen the pains should be left entirely to the people who studied social sciences. He felt that this type of scientist would be most able to make informed judgments that would improve society. Due to Bentham believing that everyone does everything in life to avoid pain and acquire pleasure, and that the only objective for a political institution should be that of adding up everyone’s pleasures and subtracting their pains to make social policy, his most legitimate political arrangement would be most like a form of contemporary socialism.

Bentham believed that, “pleasures and the avoidance of pains are the ends to which the legislator should have in view,” and therefore disagreed with Locke and wanted a political institution that would include everyone and not just white, male property owners (Bentham 38). A socialist form of political institution would be a great fit for utilitarianism because it takes into consideration everyone’s needs and not just a select few.

Both Bentham’s views on the individual and what the proper political institution should be are the most refined of the three philosophers, and are therefore the most practical. In contemporary society, one can see the realities of everyday life. Plato had great ideas in theory, but those theories would not work in today’s world. He puts too much power in the hands of too few. The dangers of his political institution far outweigh the benefits. History has shown that when leaders like Hitler and Stalin acquire too much power in government bad things can and do happen. The classic view of Plato does not hold true in contemporary society and therefore liberalism has taken over.

With that being said, both Locke and Bentham can be considered liberalists. The question is which one is closer to coming up with a solution that will deal accordingly with society’s problems. Although most of Locke’s ideas and policies are carried out everyday in governments of the western hemisphere, Bentham’s philosophies have more potential to make society a more successful and peaceful place to live. Locke’s philosophies do not take into account people’s overall greediness for money and power and how this can negatively affect a society.

Bentham clearly finds a middle ground between the two earlier philosophers. It is hard to argue with his ideas on pain and pleasure, and about having a political institution that makes the most pleasure for the greatest amount of people. While agreeing with Locke that the government should be responsible to its citizens and have a social contract with them, he also sided with Plato in having more respect of other citizens in the community. In Bentham’s philosophy, the government is not all powerful, but at the same time the individual has to concede to the government so that the greatest number of people receives the greatest amount of pleasure. Isn’t that what a political institution should strive for?

The current problems in Iraq, the Middle East, and other parts of the world seem to center around the problem of too much money being in the hands of too few, or the problem of dictators forcing their ideas upon the citizens of their countries. Both of these problems have direct correlations to both Plato and Locke’s ideas. Yes, it is true that the United States has prospered in dealing with mostly Locke’s principles, but when one looks more closely into the situation, there are people struggling to make it through every day without food or money. And although Plato’s ideas sound good on paper, history shows that power cannot be left to a select few. The only surviving model of the three, therefore, is Bentham’s. The only places that currently employ a political institution similar to that of Bentham’s are the Scandinavian countries of Sweden and Norway. When looking at the standard of living and the foreign relations of both countries, the good results speak for themselves.

Although we may never know the true nature of the human race and clearly understand what political institution should be set into place, philosophers will continue to experiment with ideas that move us into the 21st century and beyond. Plato, John Locke, and Jeremy Bentham all had very different ideas about what political institution would best cater to the needs of the individual. In the end, though, if philosophers of the new age want to truly understand human nature and learn from these earlier philosophers, they must first concede, as Lord David Cecil puts it, “The first step to knowledge is to know that we are ignorant.”