Plato Vs. Hobbes

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1 | P a g e Dawood Altaf

37393 PHI 201


Plato and Thomas Hobbes differ significantly in their epistemological philosophies, especially in their view on human nature. Plato in his book, The Republic defines human beings as intrinsically good while Hobbes in his book, Leviathan defines man to be constituted by desire for power and what protects them the best. But, in spite of Plato‟s this optimistic outlook on human nature and Hobbes‟s completely opposite, pessimistic viewpoint on it, both of them agree on the subversion of truth if it serves the interests of the society. This essay will discuss in detail, Plato‟s and Hobbes‟s view on human nature and how these views contradict and lead these two philosophers into different fields of epistemologies whereby each will come up with a political theory and a suggested form of government that will lead to a „just society‟. But in spite of that Plato and Hobbes both uphold that the peace and wellness of the society should not be compromised in order to publish a truth that can harm or destabilize the society or their political systems and it is better to subvert that truth.

Plato believes that there is a strong connection between intellectual knowledge and moral motivation and he emphasizes on the Form, the perfect and abstract objects, of the Good to be designed to show how the acquisition of knowledge of the Forms provides one with the motivation to be virtuous. He says that even though humans are capable of committing horrible actions, this is only because of appetites and desires rather than a fundamental flaw in the human nature and also because human beings want things that are intrinsically good “even if the person does not realize the true nature of what is good” (Plato, pg. 156). Plato defends human nature and


2 | P a g e argues that humans do good not only for its consequences but also for its own sake and that is because human beings seek for the health and harmony of the soul which in turn leads to the health and harmony of the society. This optimistic outlook on the human nature led Plato to his idea of a just society and his political theory, which allows for a government that guides moral actions so that the already present best intentions of people are brought forth. His positive view of human nature also influenced his view on equality whereby he believed that some men have a capacity to guide the society better than the others as he said in The Republic, “The desires of the worthless many are controlled by the desires and knowledge of the decent few” (Plato, pg. 146), and these few elite philosopher kings are necessary to guide the average person as they are the sole possessors of the ultimate truth and have a metaphysical understanding, who (average person) would otherwise not know how to act in the society and fall prey to their passions and selfishness. Plato says it is this intrinsically good nature of human beings that makes them listen to the philosopher kings as they would want the best and listen to the calling towards the best as mentioned by him in The Republic, because they tend to be, “unwilling to take part in the affairs of men, because their souls are eager to spend all their time in the upper region” (Plato). This led Plato to establish different classes in his ideal society, whereby he attributed certain virtues to certain classes, again based on this positive perception of human nature. His ideal society gave the strongest, the most wise and powerful men the highest class in the society, with their wise ideas about justice flown down to the lower level of the society who also have virtues according to Plato, warriors have courage, producers have appetites, moderation is shared by all and justice is also shared by all. Plato also mentions in The Republic, “Each person must tend to the business that accords with his nature” (Plato, pg. 154), which means people are more effective when they live in groups whereby they function in their specializations to make the


3 | P a g e society most effective. The fact that Plato allowed for a society that would be run entirely by individual humans and called it to lead to an effective and a just society, shows his optimistic outlook towards human nature which is in stark contrast to the outlook that Thomas Hobbes holds towards human nature.

Hobbes has a very pessimistic outlook of human nature and believes that the basic motivation of humankind is “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (Hobbes, p. 517), where he defines power as “man‟s means to obtain an apparent good”, which is justified by a man‟s likes and dislikes based on his desire for power. For Hobbes, unlike Plato, knowledge comes from one‟s sensory apparatus and not from abstract forms, which makes him a materialist and bases his epistemologies on this belief. Hobbes‟s pessimistic outlook is seen in this quote from the Leviathan, “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man” (Hobbes, pg. 536), and humans “through vanity, or comparison, or appetite” will “provoke the rest” into war and aggression (Hobbes, pg. 519-548). Upholding his negative outlook on humans, Hobbes does not believe that individual humans have the ability to attain absolute truth and control others. Based on this perception of human nature, Hobbes led to his own political theory of governance in which he said that the role of the state is to reinforce the rights of every citizen to avoid bodily harm and thus keep the society at peace because according to Hobbes, “If two people want the same thing and they both cannot have it, they become enemies and endeavor to destroy one another” (Hobbes, pg. 535). Unlike Plato who believes that men are better off and more efficient in a group, Hobbes believes that man is constantly at battle with a fellow man because he is never satisfied with what he has. Thus, Hobbes does not think of any individual in the society to be intrinsically better than another or in fact good at all. Unlike


4 | P a g e Plato who based in his optimistic perception of human nature held some individuals more able than others but also held that all individuals are good at their own specialty and also made his ideal political theory to have classes, Hobbes based on his contradictory perception of human nature said in Leviathan, “Nature hath make man so equal in the faculties of the body and mind; as though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable” (Hobbes, pg. 534). Hobbes thus disregards individuals of any responsibility in his ideal political system, which he says should be a body politic, an artificial citizen, a sovereign Leviathan which should be absolute in power and strong enough to protect/control each member of the populace from the incursions of the others. Hobbes maintains that in absence of such absolute power in a state, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes, pg. 535).

This shows how these two philosophers have completely contradicting views of human nature and how that has led them to come up with totally different political theories and roles of humans within the state and the society. But in spite of these major differences in their philosophies, both these philosophers believe that the truth may be reasonably subverted if the need arises and serves the interests of the society. Even after having an idealistic passion for truth, Plato admits that a “noble lie” can be told in the interest of the society. In fact, Plato subverted truth in his own idea of the just society, whereby he believed that a “founding myth” needs to be created so that, “this might have a good effect towards making them care more for the city and for one another” (Plato, pg. 142). The myth that Plato fabricated was the “Myth of the Metals”, whereby the three classes of the society, the guardians/philosopher kings, the warriors and the producers would be told that they were born metals gold, silver and iron, respectively and had their own


5 | P a g e functions in the society. Plato even thought it to be acceptable if even the rulers, the guardians/philosopher kings were made to believe this myth. Plato believed that the rulers, being at the highest level in the society had an extra responsibility, since they could misuse their power and therefore a myth was created to prevent them from owning any money or gold, thus ensuring that totalitarianism did not prevail. Thus, Plato diffused misinformation in his „just society‟ to facilitate the peaceful working and the justness of the society. Plato is thus a firm believer of subversion of truth if it is in the interest of the society. In this regard, even Thomas Hobbes did not have any objections to untruths and propaganda created by the artificial citizen, the Leviathan because in his political system, the Leviathan has the absolute power and has the right to, “judge what opinions and doctrines are averse, and what conducting to peace” (Hobbes) and that “doctrine repugnant to peace, can be no more true, than peace and concord can be against the law of nature” (Hobbes), which means that the Leviathan has the full right to decide if truth should be subverted if it against the interest of the society. Both Plato and Hobbes believe in giving ultimate power to their governments, so that they control the populace in order to maintain peace and social order in society. They also agree that the government should have the wellness of the society as its highest priority, and not diffusing truth and if the truth harms the society in any way or threatens to weaken the government‟s legitimate authority then it should not be let out at all, provided that the lie does no harm.

We can say that while knowledge and reason are important tools but they should not be used if their influence is destructive to the society. This is the difference between wisdom and mere knowledge, it would be unwise to lead society to destruction and ruin for the sake of a harmful truth. Both Hobbes and Plato, thus agree on subversion of truth for the benefit of society even


6 | P a g e when their view on human nature is so contradictory that it has led them to have completely different political theories and ideas of governments in their just societies.


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Hobbes, T. Leviathan. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Classics of Western Philosophy (7th ed., pp. 519-548). Indianpolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc.

Plato. The Republic. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Classics of Western Philosophy (7th ed., pp. 113-177). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.





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