Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

2.1: What’s the Big Idea?

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Understand what a theory is, and what a political theory is.
  2. Understand the three main directions of political philosophy.
  3. Understand why the ancient Greeks and Romans were so important to the development of modern politics.

Behind (and in front and alongside) every flavor of politics, there’s a theory. Theory matters because it tells us something about why we do what we do. It can give us ideas about what we ought to do. It can help us understand why things happen the way they do. The best, most interesting theory seems to have grown out of crisis and trouble (and pain seems to be the genesis of much art—two enduring forms of American music, the blues and country, derive from the experiences of poor black and white Americans, respectively). Time and again, political philosophy has arisen at times when somebody saw something wrong and had to say something about it. Theory also matters because people use it to make political arguments today, snatching up (sometimes incorrectly) snippets of things that people are supposed to have said to justify what they happen to believe at the moment. (In American politics in particular, we find the Founding Fathers reinvented to support every current flavor of politics. And we should be careful about that, for, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “You just can believe all this stuff you read on the internet.”)

theory is a testable proposition about the nature and reality of something. In “hard” sciences such as physics, chemistry or biology, it’s often possible to physically test a theory: What happens when you do X to Y? We can begin with a hypothesis, and try to disprove it (because if you fail to actively disprove it, it might just be solid). In social sciences, such as political science, it’s a lot more difficult to actively test a theory, if only because people tend to object when you perform experiments on them. This is an oversimplification, of course; in behavioral economics, for example, researchers do in fact perform experiments on willing groups of subjects (such as setting up auction situations to explore whether people are rational when it comes to money). But even in that kind of test, even if there’s real money on the table, it’s not real life. So to test political theory, we have to observe what people actually do while trying to account for the other things that might make them behave one way or another.

What is a political theory? Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Political Thought (a pretty handy resource if you decide to get serious about political science) defines it as “Systematic reflection on the nature and purposes of government, characteristically involving both an understanding of existing political institutions and a view about how (if at all) they ought to be changed.”David Miller, “Political Theory,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Cambridge, Mass: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Granted, that’s a mouthful. But it shouldn’t be hard to dissect: Systematic, as in organized and purposeful. We don’t try to understand politics in a random way; we try to work thought things carefully, step-by-step, in hopes that we will miss fewer clues. Reflection, as in taking a step back and looking at what’s happened, to see what we might notice that we might have missed while we were in the middle of it. It’s usually to see where you were when you’ve moved on to someplace else. The nature and purposes of government: What’s it actually like, what’s it for, and what does it do? Political institutions: The structures of government, including the offices and agencies where elected and appointed officials serve. Congress and the Canadian House of Commons are examples of political institutions. Finally, should they be changed? Can they be improved? Would change make things worse? Along with much of the rest of political science, this is what political theory—also called political philosophy—tries to do. And at the moment you tell someone something you believe about politics, you have become, in the words of economist Paul Krugman, “an accidental theorist.” Everything we say about politics is essentially a theory that something is true or not true. We are all philosophers, in our way.

What Is and What Ought to Be: Three Versions of Politics

And that’s not new. Throughout recorded history, wherever people have developed writing, political philosophers have tried to figure out why people behave the way they do, and then to prescribe what they should do to create the ideal state. We have positive theory, which says this how things are, and normative theory, which says this is how things ought to be. Normative theory prescribes; positive theory explains. Theory can both drive politics and follow after it. Theory sometimes predates political practice; sometimes theory is developed to justify what’s already happening. Much of what we’re dealing with in this chapter is normative theory, but it tends to be based on positive theory about things really are. Most of history’s great thinkers had ideas about how things ought to be, as well as how they actually were. Remarkably, nearly all of them thought they were creating a better state.

We can group most political theories into a few broad categories. If we were put nearly 3,000 years of human writing about politics in a pot and boil it down to its essence, we might find three basic approaches in political theory:

  • One version says that people—lots of people—can know something. This is the version of theory that says it’s possible for people to participate in governing themselves. This school of thought argues that the actions of people create the conditions of government. Aristotle, John Locke and James Madison fall into this category. We might call this the democratic tradition, because in this tradition, people are expected to participate.
  • The second version argues that some people have knowledge, and some people have to be taught. The people, ruling themselves without proper instruction, will go astray. Plato and Marx fall into this category. We might call this the authoritarian tradition, because it tends to argue that if people do participate, more problems will arise than will be solved.
  • The third version argues that government is the problem, not the solution, and that the institutions of government in fact lead people astray. Rousseau, Proudhon and modern anarchists fall into this category. We can call this the anarchic tradition, because it argues that it is institutions, not people, who cause the most trouble in the world.

Of course, the theories often overlap. Madison, who was the chief author of the U.S. Constitution, did not have complete faith in the voice of the people. Marx, as we shall see, seemed to believe that people, once properly socialized, would be capable of living virtuously. Both the second and third schools of thought argue that the conditions of material life create people’s spiritual, mental and physical reality.

Different societies developed different ways of ruling themselves throughout antiquity, all over the world. In some places kings were elected, ruling for life, but not replaced by any of their children. In other instances, monarchy—rule by one person—became hereditary, so that a king or emperor was replaced by his nearest descendant (most often his oldest son).

Somewhere along the way, the king became king because he was the strongest man—the toughest, the smartest, the one who could organize and protect. And, as Plato was soon to note, if you had a really good king, like a really good CEO or a really clever professor, this could be a very good form of government. But, as Plato wrote in the fourth century BCE, in practice this could become the very worst form of government.

Why? A wise and clever king would sort things out. Like the biblical King Solomon, who, when confronted with two women each claiming that an infant was hers, offered to divide the baby in half. One woman said yes to Solomon’s offer and the other offered to give the baby, whole, to the first woman. Solomon then gave the baby to the second woman, reasoning that the child’s real mother would give up the child itself to preserve its life.

But kings weren’t always that wise, and even Solomon, according to the Bible, helped fracture his kingdom by excessive taxation in order to build more temples and monuments. (When his son Rehoboam continued the high taxes, Israel split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judea. When divided, they were less able to withstand attacks by invaders from the east.) Moreover, often a king had all of the power and there was no check on that power. So if the king was cruel and greedy as opposed to smart, kind and thinking ahead, there was nothing to keep the king from oppressing the people.

The Ancients: It’s All Greek (or Chinese) to Them

In ancient Greece and in ancient Rome, kings were overthrown in favor of various kinds of republics. And as these societies grew wealthy, people found time to write about what was happening and what they thought should happen. Although fragments and references by others tell us that there were political philosophers before Plato (some of whom, such as Thales, who might have had very interesting things to say), his work is the oldest that comes down to us in roughly whole form.

Plato lived in 424–384 BCE in Athens, the pre-eminent city-state of the ancient Greek world. City-states were just what the name implies—small, sovereign nations built around particular cities. The Greek city-states shared a common language, religion and culture, but tucked into the valleys between Greece’s many mountains, they developed into independent states, each with its own government.

Athens was sort of a democracy—every free, property-owning mail got to vote, although they elected councils and leaders above them to make decisions (although an estimated two-thirds of the city’s population were slaves). The Athenians, at their peak, were rich, powerful and a dominant force in the Mediterranean world. It is largely Athenian ideas and literature that survive to this day, and what they did has had a big impact on the development of Europe and the western world.

Politics was everything to the ancient Greeks—their golf game, Netflix and Facebook all wrapped up into one. Politics was sport, hobby and passion. Our word idiot derives from the Greek word “idiotes,” which meant those who are not interested in politics. So, perhaps like a nation devoted to cooking, the Greeks came up with a lot of recipes for politics.

This was the time and place that gave us two important philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. If you understand Plato and Aristotle, you understand most of what you need to know about politics. The two great traditions—democratic and authoritarian—flow from their ideas.

Unlike a lot of philosophers, Plato was a big, handsome, athletic guy. He also appears to have studied under Socrates (scholars disagree about the precise details of Plato’s life). Socrates created a framework for the study of politics by developing the Socratic method: asking enough good questions that you eventually get to something like the truth. Socrates is famous largely because Plato wrote about him at length.

Socrates made his living as a teacher. Wealthy Athenians paid him to teach their sons the basics of knowledge and how to achieve it. Socrates himself isn’t known to have written anything down, but was noted for his ability to ask probing questions to force his students to think things through. Plato uses the voice of Socrates to get his own points across.

Plato’s experience with Socrates seems to have driven Plato to a particular view of politics. Most of Plato’s work comes in the form of dialogues, involving Socrates and other historical figures of the time, exploring in their conversations all manner of philosophical topics, including politics.

What Plato saw in the history of democratic Athens was how common people tended to get carried away, and elect leaders who promised them everything but gave them very little. The Greeks developed the term “demagogue” to describe this kind of politics. A demagogue is someone who plays on people’s fears, prejudices and emotions in order to gain political power. History is full of demagogues (and full of people who call other people demagogues). But democracy in Athens came to mean that perfectly good leaders could get thrown out of office over some perceived offense, and be replaced by demagogues who would proceed to seriously mess things up. In Athens, for example, the citizens could not just vote somebody out of office, they could vote them out of the country (our word “ostracize” comes from the Greek ostraka, the shards of pottery on which citizens would write the name of someone who was to be expelled). For Athenian citizens, getting voted off the island (metaphorically speaking) was worse than death; it was like being forced to sit at the kid’s table at Thanksgiving but without any food. In Plato’s lifetime, the Athenian empire foundered, run aground on foreign adventures and questionable policy choices, while political leaders competed for control like contestants on American Idol.

Perhaps the last straw for Plato was when Socrates was charged with impiety and corrupting the youth, his only real sin appearing to have been asking hard questions about the current and democratically chosen government of Athens. Socrates was effectively put to death (he was ordered to commit suicide) by the democratically elected government of Athens, as people who go around asking difficult questions sometimes get branded as troublemakers.

For Plato, then, democracy was not the answer. It was the problem. In his mind, popular, widespread political participation put decisions in the hands of people who had not studied and did not understand politics and governance, resulting in the elections of poor leaders and in too many changes in political direction. How does one then avoid this problem?

In a famous dialogue in The Republic, Plato’s major work about politics, Socrates defines justice having people do those jobs for which they are best suited. The best farmer would grow the best crops; the best shoemaker would make the best shoes. Nobody would complain about having to do business with those folks. And, therefore, the best government would be run by the people best suited for the job of governing. Hence, the philosopher king—the perfect combination of wisdom and power.

Plato wrestled with the problem of how to find the philosopher king—the person with just the right stuff to effectively and fairly rule the state. To his credit, few other philosophers ever came up with such a precise prescription for how to do this. Plato’s answer to this problem—the efficiency of someone who can make a decision versus the risk of someone who makes bad decisions—was complicated but interesting.

In the course of the dialogues in The Republic, Plato develops how he thinks this could work. As justice is having everyone do what they are best suited for—some should be soldiers; others business people; others craftsmen and women;Plato is notable for being one of the first thinkers to accord a potentially equal role for women in politics. and still others should be rulers. Plato lays out a program to find out who’s best at what—a lot of schooling, experience at a number of jobs, and then, finally, advancement to the guardian class, who will rule the state, whose needs are taken care of, and who will both own and want for nothing, thus removing any urge to rob the people to enrich themselves. Moreover, anybody could apply to become a guardian, so in no way was the governing structure limited to any particular class. In this way, Plato believed, the just state could be created via rule by the wise.

Plato’s prescription has both sense and nonsense to it. Clearly, not everybody is equally good at doing everything. Some people are simply better at some tasks than others. For example, one of my brothers is very good with mechanical things; one is very good with computers. We’re all better off if the first brother works on cars and if the second brother works on computers. Plato applied this idea to the whole of society. Everyone will be better off if people do the jobs that they’re best at.

This system wasn’t tried in Plato’s time. The one ruler who invited Plato to implement his system ended up throwing him in jail for a time once he realized what Plato really had in mind.

But this system has been tried. In medieval times, the Catholic Church operated very much like this. The church effectively governed a lot of land and people throughout Europe. Anyone could apply to join the church; church leaders didn’t own anything personally; and they rose to power through years of testing and service. The Soviet Union also looked a bit like Plato’s just state—a system of governance open to anyone (via joining the Communist Party); very little private ownership for this governing class, although their physical needs were met by the state; and people rose to power through years of testing and service (and, in some instances, by being more ruthless than their rivals).

And that’s perhaps the biggest problem with this system: There is no check on the power of the guardians, and, particularly in the case of communist states, guardians arise who proceed to do very bad things to people. In practical terms, it’s also true that people don’t all develop at the same level. You might be better at something later in life, but a system that slots you into one job or another doesn’t account for that, or give you much choice about changing your mind.

Undoubtedly, Plato didn’t foresee this, nor would he have approved. And he said a lot of other interesting things. Like a number of political philosophers, he was an astute observer of his own times. He understood that too much disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor would cause social strife, and he understood that people don’t always pay as much attention to political affairs as perhaps they should. But he also believed that not everybody was fit to participate in government, nor could they even truly understand it.

Like Socrates, Plato was a teacher, and at the Lyceum, the college he established, he taught another bright young Greek, Aristotle (384–322 BCE). In many ways, Aristotle is the father of political science, the man who first sat down and catalogued what politics and government is all about. Honestly, if you read Plato and Aristotle, you will see pretty much everything we talk about today.

Aristotle, unlike Plato, didn’t write in dialogues, which can make him a bit easier for modern eyes to read. He just said what he thought. Like Plato, Aristotle didn’t find the common people to be so smart. His work has been described as “a severely aristocratic” political philosophy; he doesn’t have much good to say about ordinary people. But he recognized the flaws in Plato’s proposals, even as he recognized the challenges faced by different kinds of government. (Aristotle says, in a thinly veiled reference to his former teacher, if this is such a good idea, why is nobody actually doing this?)

Aristotle lays out what we he regards as the good forms of government: monarchy (rule by one);aristocracy (rule by the best); and polity (rule by the people). Each of these forms could erode into “perversions” of the original, however. Monarchy could become tyranny. Aristrocracy could decay into oligarchy, rule by the few for their own benefit. Polity could become democracy, rule by the mob.

Aristotle then laid down a couple of principles that are with us today. First he said, was that the people all together are likely to be slightly less crazy than any subset of the citizenry. So the common, aggregated wisdom of the masses stands a better chance of making fewer foolish choices in government. But he also said that the ideal state might want parts of polity, aristocracy and monarchy, so as to produce some balance of power within the state. This idea has been repeated often throughout political history, and became the foundation of American government, some 2,000 years later.

Across the world, another great thinker was in the process of coming up with ideas that would have an equally great impact on world history, Confucius (551–479 BCE), or Kung Fu-Tze (only one of many variations of his name, which was likely something else entirely). Confucius was a political official in the Chinese state of Lu, where he fixed quite a mess in the administration of justice through rational, respectful management. He either left his post over disgust with the ruler, or was done in by political intrigue, depending on which version you read. Either way, he became a sort of wandering scholar/consultant/teacher. He preached an ethical politics based on order, morality, and a respect for tradition. He might have been a conservative, and he might just been using a conservative appeal to push a different agenda. He favored an all-powerful ruler, whose power would nonetheless be checked by tradition, honesty and the rule of law. Like Socrates (and eventually like Mao Tse-Tung), he doesn’t appear to have written anything down, but his disciples did, sometimes generations after the fact. What’s important about Confucius in part is that his ideas eventually became central to the Chinese state. Study of Confucian classics became the backbone of the mandarin class, the Chinese civil servants who ran the state. At its best, this created a sturdy, predictable form of government (and the Chinese empire lasted for 2,000 years). At its worst, however, it created resistance to change and modernization and a state that was unable to cope with the technological superiority of the west.

When in Rome, Do as the Greeks Do (or Don’t)

The Greeks were a great influence on the Romans, even after the Romans conquered the Greek city-states and made them parts of the Roman empire. The Romans are more noted for their political practice than for their theoretical ideas, although Roman law had a big impact on development of law in the western world. When the Romans ended the monarchy that originally ruled them, they chose instead a republic. In a republic, people elect other people to make decisions on their behalf. Having lived through the rule of tyrants, the Romans devised a system of government that had checks on power. The elected Senate made laws; while the consuls were chief executives and the tribunes represented the people. But it wasn’t all that simple. In fact, the Roman republic featured a somewhat bewildering array of assemblies and elected officials, any one of who might check the power of any other person or body, to the point where it was often hard to get anything done. The system proved so cumbersome that the Romans often resorted to choosing a dictator to run the show during times of trouble.

Eventually the dictators became emperors and began to wield the real power in government, changing the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. (And it’s worth noting, for those of you who have seen the Russell Crowe film Gladiator, that neither Marcus Aurelius or any other Roman emperor ever toyed with the idea of restoring the republic). Why did this happen? In part because there were so many checks on power that reforming the state became nearly impossible. Because the Senate, the consuls and the tribunes could each say no to almost anything that came up, needed changes in land reform, taxes and citizenship, for example, never quite got accomplished. And, eventually, the empire, desperate for revenue but also for political support, raised taxes on the middle class, even while they cut them on the wealthy. Why? Because emperors needed the support of the wealthy to remain in power. Eventually, people became so poor that they sold themselves to rich people so as to stay alive. In the end, the richest, most powerful empire in the western world couldn’t afford to defend itself.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Political theory is a systematic way of studying the performance of government.
  • Political theories tend to fall into authoritarian, democratic and anarchic models.
  • Plato thought that average people were not fit to rule, and that people would need to be carefully trained to make them into rulers.
  • Aristotle didn’t trust common people either, but thought that a balanced constitution, combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy would be best.
  • Confucius thought that emphasis on order, tradition and respect would lead to the best government.
  • The Roman Republic had so many checks and balances it was unable to act when it nee

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Assume you were studying to be a member of Plato’s guardian class. What things would you need to know to be an effective ruler?
  2. In what ways to order and tradition play a role in everyday life today? Do these help or hinder progress?
  • Was this article helpful?