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Essay: Idealism and realism – Plato, Tocqueville, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Locke

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When reflecting on premodern political thought and modern political thought, the biggest difference between the two is the idea of who is fit to lead and the concept of idealism versus realism. This is evident in how the philosophers view the rights of the everyday people within society. Overtime the philosophers have leaned farther away from idealism and closer to realism, Plato being the most idealistic and Alexis de Tocqueville the most realistic.

Plato philosophized that those who govern should be of a higher intellectual and moral caliber. “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.” This is more of an idealist point of view as power does not usually go to the virtuous and intellectual. Especially because Plato says people are ruled by their desire. People are born with the desire to have more wealth, power and sex than others. If this is to be believed, then Plato’s argument that the morally sound and virtuous should rule would be nearly impossible thus making him an idealist. If everyone is driven by their greed, only the greediest of individuals will acquire great power. This makes it impossible for the morally sound and virtuous to rule.

Plato’s idealism is also evident in his concept of specialization. Plato asserts that people should do what they are suited to and nothing more. He says “we must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him, and does it at the right time, and leaves other things. Those who rule just rule and those who farm just farm. Everyone sticks to their lane. This would not work if people were driven by the desire to acquire more power and wealth as they would not be content staying in one place without the ability to move up. Plato writes about an ideal society while also recognizing that what he believes is the natural instinct of man will never allow that society to happen.

Thomas Aquinas is also an idealist. Aquinas states that “Granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence…the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason.” (ST, I-II, 91.1). He explains the concept of eternal law wherein power is given divinely. He goes on to say “the very idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law. And since Divine Reason’s conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal, according to Prov. viii, 23…this kind of law must be called eternal.” (Ibid.). It is through eternal law that God can govern his subjects. As humans have free will, they stray the perfect governance of God and follow natural law. Natural law is just the way in which humans interpret and follow eternal law. This theology is idealist as it is unrealistic that humans will follow the natural law perfectly and strive to do good and avoid evil. He also states that political society is created to meet the needs of human nature rather than by human’s own ingenuity.

Machiavelli is more of a realist as he sees the world through a pessimistic view. He sees people as self-interested and calculating rather than what people ought to be. He speaks frankly about the downfalls of mankind and their He writes about how one should go about getting and maintaining power in the realm of greedy self-interested individuals. Like Plato, he argues that “a wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men” (41) or in other words, only some are suited to lead. Similarly, to Plato, Machiavelli believed in lying for the sake of the greater cause. While Plato wrote about the noble lie, Machiavelli states that a good prince has the five qualities: mercy, faithfulness, humanity, religiosity, and uprightness. He goes on to say that the prince did not necessarily need to meet these criteria he just needed to “appear to have them.” He is essentially saying that lying is ok if it is for the greater good.

Machiavelli speaks very bluntly about the nature of man and what is needed to be successful and while this may seem pessimistic, it is much more realistic than the philosophers that came before him. His pessimistic but also realistic pint of view is evident when he says “Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved. . .. Love endures by a bond which man, being scoundrels, may break whenever it serves their advantage to do so; but fear is supported by the dread of pain, which is ever present.” (Ch. XVII). His words are based in logic and basic truth as he recognizes that people will be quick to be disloyal and being loved is not enough. The ruler needs to have enough power and fear instilled to stop small rebellions. To maintain rule, the people need to obey. Both mercy and cruelty are needed.

John Locke takes an even more realistic point of view as he studies man in the state of nature. He alleges that people choose to enter into society consensually rather than out of fear. “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” In this way they enter into a contract with the government wherein they agree to follow the rules and in return the government will protect them and their rights. He says, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” This is a more realistic philosophy as Locke combines what he knows about human nature and humans desire to have belongings and be safe. Since individuals will want to acquire and keep goods they will inevitably come into conflict and therefore be willing to consent to certain standards of behavior. Unlike Plato, John Locke sees the government as a representative of the interests of the people. In this way, the people have the right to replace the government if they fail to do their job.

Lastly, Alexis de Tocqueville is the clear realist of the bunch as he recognizes both the pros and cons of democracy and equality but argues for the voice of the minority. He reflects on the sovereignty of the majority which he isolates as one of the important variables of American society. He states that this majority group has the potential to become tyrannical. He goes on to say that the very power and strength of American institutions could lead to their downfall as the powerful can become tyrannical. He also states that this power can be checked through America’s system of checks and balances. While he does say that he does not think France should copy America’s government, he does see many positives to American democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville studies the American “equality of condition” which is the lack of social hierarchies. While Tocqueville recognizes there is a chance of this leading to tyranny, he sees many positives to overall equality. He alleges that valuing equality will keep peace and prevent revolutions. He goes on to say that the prospect of social mobility will encourage people to strive for their best whereas a society in which everyone stays in their particular position with no chance of moving up might make people less motivated. This is in direct contrast to Plato’s concept of specialization where individuals stick to one job and do not have an opportunity to move up or down in a social hierarchy.

Alexis de Tocqueville also argues that religion is missing from American government. Like Thomas Aquinas he thinks that religion has a place in government as it mitigates American’s inherent selfishness and materialism. He critiques Americans saying they don’t concern themselves with philosophy or theology but instead focus on simple things. He says, “I think in no country in the civilized world there is less interest in philosophy than in the United States” (Tocqueville, 698).

Tocqueville also talks about equality and specifically equality in America. He saw America as the greatest example of successful equality of his time. He specifically talks about American individualism. He warns that a society of individuals can run the risk of becoming uniform. He says, “each citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd” (1196).


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