When you stroll through that red-bricked part of Philadelphia that features Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Franklin Mint, and the other historical sites where the Founding Fathers sat down and penned the Declaration of Independence, it is easy to wax eloquent about the nobility of the American experiment in democracy. After all, it was a ragtag group of revolutionaries who, upset about being told what to do by the government that had established the colonies where they lived, decided that they would stop paying taxes to that government and would instead declare their own independence. Rather than submit to the British government, they decided to form their own government and create a new country on a new continent. Never mind, of course, that on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, during the 1876 Presidential election, the Republican Party would sell out the former slaves by walking away from Reconstruction in exchange for the contested electoral votes in three Southern states. Elections in the South already had begun to feature voter intimidation efforts by Southern white groups, but now the door had been opened for such absurdities as poll taxes, literacy tests for voting, and the Jim Crow laws. The greed within human nature makes leaders seek short-term solutions that suit their own ends, even when those solutions end up harming the country over the long haul; however, this is nothing new. When one reads such works as Hobbes' Leviathan and the Republic of Plato, though, it becomes clear that human nature has not changed significantly over the centuries. While technology has changed significantly, altering the world beyond what either Plato or Hobbes would easily recognize, humanity remains much the same as far as the areas of morality and ethics go. Plato's philosopher-king is slightly more sanguine than Hobbes' sovereign within the larger Leviathan; both figures, though, indicate the pessimism which both thinkers felt about the stability of government over time. While the philosopher-king would usher in preferable outcomes for his subjects during the time of his reign, the subsequent transition into disorder and tyranny is a poorer long-term choice for a society than the ironclad social covenant that serves as the foundation for the Leviathan.
Hobbes' Leviathan refers to a commonwealth that operates through the enforcement of a social contract. According to Hobbes, that is the optimal way for society to function. Of course, the many different forms that contract has taken throughout history has shown the difficulties in creating an ideal contract. Whether the contract has taken the form of a monarchy, on one end of the spectrum of individual freedom, or a utopian community, far down on the other end, there has always been a tension between individual liberty and the interests of social order. According to Hobbes, the people should establish a sovereign entity and endow it with collective permission to bring punitive measures down on anyone who should violate the covenant. The primary motivation that the sovereign has to use on the members of the community is fear.
The Leviathan is a huge figure in Hobbes' extended analogy, with the sovereign as the head. As Hobbes puts it, “The only way to erect such a Common Power, as may be able to defend them fromthe injuries of one anotheris, to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon an Assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices until one Will” (Hobbes). Ideally, this goes beyond a simple consent; instead, it is a “real Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person, made by Covenant of every man with ever manas if every man should sayI Authorize and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man” (Hobbes).
The reason behind the creation of a commonwealth is to give the people in the community a better life than the state of nature can provide, and to give the people a sense of peace and common defense. It might seem odd as a twenty-first century reader to consider the fears that living in a state of nature created in people in the age of Plato, and even the age of Hobbes. For both writers, living to the age of fifty was a considerable accomplishment, and the ravages of disease, climate, and famine ran rampant through both ancient Greece and Hobbes' England with a severity that modern films like Outbreak can only suggest. The likelihood of marauding armies or budding empires running roughshod over one's lands, with only minimal warning of their arrival, was also a much more palpable part of life for both of these writers than it is in modern times, at least in the West. These fears gave Hobbes' Britons and Plato's Greeks a much more compelling reason to sign away such individual freedoms in exchange for a measure of security. This is why the creation of the Leviathan seemed more palatable in Hobbes' time than it might now.
While the Leviathan is led by the Man (or the Assembly) that can provide peace and public order, the philosopher-king of Plato's Republic begins, at least, as one who might seem the least likely to lead Hobbes' coercive commonwealth. The wisdom-lover, who makes the best sort of philosopher-king, is not just one who loves the truest forms of knowledge. Instead, he is the only one who can perceive the Forms – in Plato's world, these are the central realities that stand behind all of the temporal representations. One example is the Form of Beauty, in contrast with specific examples of beauty. While one might not expect one with such intuition to be willing to devote time to ruling others through fear, as in Hobbes' ideal society, one perhaps would expect this leader to have truer insights as to the best decisions for his city. As Plato put it, “a true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship” (Plato). What this means is that the philosopher-king must be able to make sense of the reality around him if he is truly to lead his people in a wise way.
Even in Plato's conception of society, the philosopher-king would not be able to rule for long, as the wisdom with which he would rule would only last for a brief time in his city. Over time, the material desires of those in power, as well as those in the rest of society, would keep wisdom from being the guiding principle of the city. As individualism slowly began to rear its head, the city would transition from being under the rule of the philosopher-king into an oligarchy, then into a republic, and finally into a tyranny. As long as material needs are met, people will give up more and more liberty over time; after all, governing oneself takes a great deal of time and effort. If the government can provide material stability, it is shocking what independence people will surrender. Plato knew this; Hobbes knew it too.
In American history, the most fundamental shift in the responsibility of government did not come with the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. Instead, it came in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when the American government took upon itself the function of creating a safety net to keep the poor from dying as a result of starvation or a lack of shelter. The Depression had led to major upheavals in society, as thousands of unsuccessful farmers in Oklahoma and the surrounding area had simply headed west, their farms foreclosed behind them, looking for migrant work in the orchards of California. Because so many more farmers headed west than what was needed, the state featured a glut of poor, homeless people simply looking to survive. Many turned to a life of riding the rails; many others entered the newly created rolls of public assistance. Still others found themselves unable to support themselves, and many of them died from health problems or other issues involved with the complete uprooting of their lives. Of course, with the additional safety net came a higher level of taxation. The creation of the Social Security safety net created a new payroll tax that was supposed to support into perpetuity. And so with this net came a loss of liberty in the form of higher taxes; for those who wanted public assistance, there were forms to fill out and rules to follow; again, with this assistance came a loss of personal freedom. The choice that Hobbes resolved by creating the Leviathan, and the choice that Plato knew would lead from a city led by wisdom to an extremely comfortable prison that would satisfy its residents' material needs, is the decision that every government makes: the amount of liberty to permit – and the amount of order to require.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-
Plato. The Republic. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html. Web.