Authority, Government Purpose, and Human Nature According to Plato and Thomas Hobbes

[Posted 10 June 2020 - Anthony Hui - Introduction to Political Philosophy]

Authority, Government Purpose, and Human Nature According to Plato and Thomas Hobbes

Their Political Philosophies and Beliefs with Personal Commentary

In political philosophy, the three concepts of authority, government purpose, and human nature are fundamental and interconnected. They serve the important role of being foundations that uphold states and their government and society. According to the Western political philosophers of the Greek Plato (427-347 BCE) and the English Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 CE), the leader’s role and the government’s purpose were influenced by human nature. More specifically, in Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan, the government (and the state) is ruled by a single individual who has actions that are defined by or in response to human nature.

Plato was a Greek philosopher who was active in the Classical Period of Athenian Greece. He, along with his teacher Socrates and his student Aristotle, defined not only Classical Greek philosophical thought in the midst of a nascent yet influential Athenian democratic age, but also set the path for Western philosophy as a whole, influencing philosophers in eras like the Roman and Dark Ages. Nevertheless, some of Plato’s pivotal ideas to political philosophy can be examined through his magnum opus, the Republic, which encapsulates the themes of authority, government, and human nature. In his book, Plato introduces the theoretical concept of an ideal republic, an utopian society he calls the kallipolis, and highlights its governmental and societal aspects. Here, Plato believes that the best form of government is one that is ruled by a single authority figure and that society is best when “each person is fulfilling him or herself through the practice of arete.” He not only introduces his philosophy that human nature revolves around an individual’s arete or “the idea of trying to do your best in everything you do because true happiness is a result of self-fulfilment,” but he also defines who the authority figure is and his role in government. Societally, Plato introduces three specific and distinct classes of people—the Guardians, Auxiliaries, and the Artisans—who do not interfere with each other in the kallipolis. These three classes have different human natures that are defined by their respective aretes. The highest class, called the Guardians, have the arete of wisdom and would “find true happiness because they are fulfilled by their role in governing well.” The Auxiliaries, which compose the military portion of society, have the arete of fighting well and courageously in battle. Finally, the lowest class, the Artisans, have aretes that “went along with their particular trade” such as the farmer who “found fulfillment in growing crops” and the midwives who “would seek their virtue in helping women give birth.” Bearing the social class structure in mind, Plato clearly elucidates that the governing class with power and authority would be the Guardians, as they possessed the virtue of true wisdom and would “make laws, decide when to go to war … and generally fulfill all of the functions we normally associate with government.” In particular, the naturally wise Guardians would elect a Philosopher King (or Queen)—hereafter called Philosopher King in this essay—who would serve as the chief Guardian, steering the “ship of state” and governing well with the foremost interest of the citizens in mind. In his utopia, Plato believes that the role of the Philosopher King is similar to that of a captain guiding a ship—just like a competent captain guiding his ship and crew through rough storms, the Philosopher King is the captain of his “ship of state,” who leads his state by governing to the best of his ability, which includes considering his people’s interests and ruling for the common good rather than for personal enrichment. Furthermore, he rules society without any interference from the rest of the population because Plato states that only the Philosopher King and his Guardian peers have the human nature to govern well. In Book V of the Republic, Plato defines the Philosopher King as someone who “take[s] to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence” (Plato 5.437d). According to him, the Philosopher King has the background of not only commanding political power and authority via ruling, but also possessing philosophical intelligence involving his arete of wisdom. In other words, the Philosopher King’s role reinforces Plato’s human nature belief in the arete, where the Philosopher King not only has a natural inclination to use his special wisdom shared with his Guardian peers for the betterment of the kallipolis, but he also finds his true happiness from governing well. Besides defining the Philosopher King’s role, Plato believed that his goal was to rule and govern society for the common good which not only involves his human nature—the arete of ruling with wisdom, justice, and virtue—but also his relationship with his fellow Guardians. With this in mind, Plato’s view on the purpose of his kallipolis’ government largely coincides with the human nature of arete for specific groups (i.e. Guardians, Auxiliaries, and Artisans) or as he states, “the principle that everybody was to do the one work suited to his own nature” (Caste 31). Plato believes that the government’s purpose is to help facilitate people to “find happiness and fulfillment by doing their jobs well and not interfering with other classes” and that the only way is through a “well-ordered and self-fulfilling society.” In Book V of the Republic, Plato introduces various actions and plans that the government should implement in achieving this ideal society which include policies for the Guardian class. For instance, Plato states how despite the inherent inferiority of women compared to men, women experience an equality of opportunity, where they are “subject to similar or nearly similar regulations [as men]” in which “women must be taught music and gymnastic and also the art of war” just like the practice of men (Caste 30). Thus, he concludes that “all pursuits of men are the pursuits of women” which reinforces the idea that men and women have the natural capacity to rule as Guardians because “the same education which makes a man a good guardian will make a woman a good guardian” (Caste 33-34). Altogether, these excerpts highlight the government’s goal of facilitating towards a well-ordered society because it clearly advocates how men and women have the capacity to rule as Guardians, therefore maintaining order and authority in society. Furthermore, Plato underscores how the arete of ruling with wisdom is present in both men and women and that both will utilize it to govern society for the interests of the people and hence gain happiness and fulfillment. He also mentions other government policies dealing with the Guardian class, where in layman’s terms, mean sticking to one’s social lane. He states how the Guardians “must themselves obey the laws, and they must also imitate the spirit of them in any details which are entrusted to their care” and “must live in common houses and meet at common meals. None of them will have anything specially his or her own; they will be together, and will be brought up together” (Caste 36). This serves as an illustration on how non-interference between classes will create an ordered and prosperous community where everyone acts and performs to the best of their ability or arete, and in this case, the Guardians arete to rule with wisdom. Altogether, these government policies manifested into societal rules for the Guardian class underscore Plato’s belief in the purpose of government, which is by creating social distinctions, it will ultimately create an ideal society that is well-ordered and self-fulfilling.

Nearly two millennia after the life of Plato, an English political philosopher named Thomas Hobbes was active and prolific. He shared similar thematic beliefs on the concepts of authority, government, and purpose with Plato, though he was influenced by the historical and political milieus he lived in. More specifically, from his birth in the late 16th century to his death in the late 17th century, Hobbes resided in Western Europe that saw the rise of the “nation-state,” a “new type of political institution that combined many of the smaller kingdoms within its territory” and was run by strong centralized governments usually under the rule of a absolute monarch—a ruler with supreme autocratic authority and essentially free from any earthly authority that was enumerated with their divine right to rule (e.g. the French “Sun King” Louis XIV and the English King James I). For Hobbes’ case, England during his time was ruled notably by King Charles I and II, who “exerted much more power over its people” than other rulers of the past and even disregarded the actions of Parliament—which led to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. Bearing these contextual political movements and environments in mind, Hobbes wrote about the “rising of nation-states” and the concept of a strong authority figure governing a state in his most famous work, Leviathan—a name based off a very large Biblical ocean creature which served as a metaphor to the expansive size of the European nation-state. In his work, Hobbes introduces smaller concepts that “build up” to his philosophical belief of the state of nature and the subsequent role of authority (via the Sovereign) and his government in dealing with this state of nature. Firstly, Hobbes states how humans were bound to scientific laws that influenced their behavior such as “mechanistic-determinism,” where humans acted according to the laws of nature of mechanistically avoiding pain and seeking pleasures for themselves. He further develops this idea on human behavior by introducing the “Law of Self-Interest” which he believes controlled and influenced human nature. He simply states that “human beings always act in such a way as to advance what they perceived as their own self-interest.” For example, Hobbes in Chapter XIII of his Leviathan, states how “For such is the nature of men that, howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty or more eloquent or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves, for they see their own wit at hand and other men’s at a distance” (Caste 97). This case underscores how a person’s human nature that is influenced by the “Law of Self-Interest,” where regardless of someone’s thinking that there are truly others that can be more witty or more eloquent than himself, that person will always consider themselves first and ultimately conclude himself as the wisest of all. This theme of one’s “own self-interest,” would also synergize with one’s “Enlightened Self-Interest” and altogether would constitute an individual’s human nature living in the state of nature, an imagined concept where there is no government nor any social or political institutions. In a more hostile situation, Hobbes mentions how “if any two men desire the same thing which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and, in the way to their end … endeavor to destroy or subdue one another … and [to] deprive him not only of the fruit of his labor but also of his life or liberty” (Caste 97-98). This serves to elucidate how the conflict between the self-interests of two people, who want the same thing, will ultimately manifest into actual violence and belligerence that will lead to destruction and chaos to both sides. With these cases in mind, Hobbes argues that the state of nature is a concept that relates human nature and will warrant the implementation of government and a ruling authority: the monarchistic Sovereign. As context, Hobbes describes the state of nature in a very negative light, stating in “a [state of nature] there is no place for industry … no culture of the earth … no knowledge of the face of the earth, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Caste 98-99). In these few lines, Hobbes illustrates the harsh realities and negatives of man’s life in the state of nature. There is essentially, among other things, no productivity, learning, or society, and that personally, one’s life will be so violent and harsh, and unbearable because everyone’s own self-interests will coincide and conflict. Additionally, the state of nature is ironic in that instead of helping man fulfill his wants and self-interest, it actually detracts from his self-interest as no one can gain anything for their self-interest. With his clear philosophical belief of the misery and “self-defeating cycle” of the state of nature, Hobbes directs his attention towards the role of government and the sole authority, embodied by the Sovereign. According to Hobbes, the Sovereign’s most important role is to maintain and enforce the Social Compact (or Contract) between himself and his people. Generally, the Social Contract served as a medium for people to bond together and give up their natural freedom in the state of nature and in return “find a way to guarantee that they would be able to preserve whatever they achieved for themselves.” However, Hobbes believed that Social Contract involved people electing an authority figure—the Sovereign—who would “create the laws, enforce the laws, and be the ultimate judge of whether someone broke those laws.” When the people elected a Sovereign to rule over them, a Social Contract was created between the ruler and his subjects, where the Sovereign would maintain “law and order” via rule with fear; and in return, the people will live in a peaceful and secure society under the agreement of the Sovereign's laws. To reinforce this definition and idea of a Social Contract between man and Sovereign, Hobbes states in Leviathan Chapter XIV that whenever a man “transferreth his right or renounceth it, it is either in consideration of some right reciprocally transferred to himself, or for some other good he hopeth for thereby” and ultimately, this “mutual transferring of right is that which man call ‘contract’” (Caste 101). This excerpt directly underscores the exchange of rights between parties, which is likened to that of man and Sovereign, and the “good” that arises on both sides (e.g. peace and stability for the citizens that result from the authority and legitimacy for the Sovereign). In a broader note, this shows the influential nature of Hobbes’ work as he was one of the first Western philosophers that advocated and developed a Social Contract Theory, where people give up some of their rights to their government in return for protection, a concept advanced by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and prevalent to this very day. Nevertheless, the Sovereign’s goal in state and government was to rule with authority and with the emotion of fear. Ultimately, he aims to create a peaceful and secure society that transcends man’s original human nature of self-interests and the negatives that arise from being in an authority-less state of nature. Additionally, stemming from the crucial idea of the Social Contract, the Sovereign has the goal of making sure he owes his authority to the will of the people he rules and governs over and is obliged to protect the interests of the governed by assuring civil peace, stability, and security. This is because when the Sovereign “begins to act too harshly with his people, they would likely revolt” and if he was “too weak and did not enforce the laws, the state would revert to the insecurity of the State of Nature”—thus, the important overarching goal of the Sovereign in maintaining the balance between authority and rulership. Altogether, Hobbes makes clear the purpose of this monarchy government led by a strong single Sovereign, which is to ultimately create stability and peace under the doctrine of the Social Contract and to enforce laws for the protection and welfare of the everyday subject.

Bearing the individual political philosophies of Plato and Hobbes in mind pertaining to authority, government purpose, and human nature, there are some notable similarities and differences revolving around those three core concepts. Regarding the role of authority, both Plato and Hobbes believe in a monarchistic system of government where power and authority is vested in a sole ruler. For Plato, it is the Philosopher King (or Queen) who has the arete of ruling with wisdom and will find satisfaction and happiness for their actions of ruling for the people rather than for self interest in the kallipolis. Similarly, Hobbes believes that it is the single Sovereign who would be the ruler of his state that would instill order and therefore bring positive peace rather than chaos and disorder in society. Both philosophers believe that this single authority figure will do what is best for the benefit of society and state. In other words, their role is merely positive and meant to bring beneficial effects. More specifically, Plato believes that the Philosopher King will serve as the captain of the “ship of state” and will do the best of trying to rule for the common good and benefit of society rather than personal enrichment. Hobbes similarly states that the Sovereign, even though he will rule the emotion of fear, will allow for peace and harmony in society that has law and order—a stark contrast to the chaotic and miserable man’s state of nature. All in all, Plato and Hobbes share the similar philosophical view that the single and monarchistic ruler figure will do positive actions for the betterment of the state and its people. Furthermore, in a governmental sense, both Plato and Hobbes believe that the government has the purpose of benefitting society as a whole. This societal benefit criteria is interpreted differently by Plato and Hobbes but they both agree that government will benefit the people who live within it. For Plato, he believes that a government that is led by the Guardians and ruled by the Philosopher King will do what is best for them because they are simply wise enough to rule, as defined by their specific arete. The wise Philosopher King would “make crucial decisions” and “make the law, decide when to go to war, and therefore fulfill all of the functions associated with government.” Similarly, Hobbes believes that the government will benefit society through the maintenance of the Social Contract, where the subjects would give up rights to the Sovereign in return for just rule via his “Principle of Self-Interest” and therefore, protection, stability, and peace throughout. Hence, one can see the similar positive viewpoints Plato and Hobbes had on the role of government. However, there is one striking and notable difference between them regarding a fundamental concept—human nature. In his Republic, Plato states how human beings are intrinsically good and moral “not because they fear the social consequences of being immoral” but because “they realize that it is the only path to true happiness.” This optimistic view of Plato, which stems from his unique concept of an individual’s arete or excellence, is juxtaposed with Hobbes’ more pessimistic belief in human nature. This can be directly examined with the Hobbesian concept of the state of nature, where there is no government and authority. Here, Hobbes believes that this environment is a true platform that exhibits human nature and behavior. More specifically, in his Leviathan, he clearly states that an individual’s principle of self-interest would work to make man only caring of himself and for his own needs and desires, therefore leading to constant strife and conflict. Additionally, he states that “in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly glory” where “[Competition] maketh man invade for gain; [diffidence], for safety; and [glory], for reputation” (Caste 98). Here, it is evident that Hobbes believes that human nature is also constituted by personal desire for power, reputation, and protection. Altogether, there is a difference in human nature according to Plato and Hobbes: the former more optimistic by focusing on the positives that man can do and the happiness and fulfilment he gains, the latter more pessimistic by underscoring human nature’s self-interested and self-centered side.
With my readings, analysis, and interpretations of Plato and Hobbes’ beliefs, I would choose to live in a Hobbesian rather than a Platonic society because of these two reasons. Firstly, considering the government in which I was raised and also analyzing historical cases, I am a firm believer in the Social Contract (Compact) Theory present in a Hobbesian society. I agree with this theory because I believe that there should be order and control in society so that the welfare of the people is maintained. For instance, I was particularly drawn with Hobbes’ case of man being violent and self-interested in the authority-less state of nature, and that only peace and stability would arise when a Sovereign authority would facilitate the Social Contract. Additionally, I believe in most cases that Social Contract Theory works, such as in the United States, where it is enshrined in our founding documents like the Constitution. Here, we have civil rights and liberties that are granted and endowed by the government to the individual citizen, and in return we must abide by laws and rules. Therefore, I would choose to live in a Hobbesian society where a strong Sovereign would maintain a Social Contract between government and subject so that we can live in a well-functioning and harmonious society, just like my life in the United States. My second reason for my preference of a Hobbesian society is because I am against the controversial and rather shocking beliefs advocated in the Platonic society, which involve, among others, eugenics (selective breeding), infanticide, and sexist and divisive social structure. On selective breeding and eugenics, Plato states in Book V of his Republic, “do you breed from them all indifferently, or do you take care to breed from the best only? From the best” he says, and that ultimately, the principle should be “laid down that the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible” (Caste 36-37). When I read this practice in the Platonic society, I was a bit appalled by this Platonic notion of selective breeding and eugenics, where who the government deems as the best (e.g. brave warriors) would have the opportunity to marry and copulate with only others of the same “class” or “classification.” In other words, I disagree with the Platonic society’s idea that there is no choice and “free-will” for someone to marry and copulate with someone he/she desires and that essentially, the government plans and directs all marriages/copulation/breeding. I also disagree with Plato’s controversial view on family planning that revolves around the concept of infanticide. He states, that proper officers “will take the offspring [children] of the good parents to the pen or fold, and they will deposit them with certain nurses” but “the offspring of the inferior … [or] the deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be” and that this “must be done if the breed of the guardians is to be kept pure” (Caste 37-38). I would not live in a Platonic society that would do actions of infanticide, where they would take away babies and leave them to die because they had traits that were undesirable to even a specific group. This is because I believe that every person has an equal right to live and to exist, and should never be determined by the government. In other words, I argue that a Platonic society would curb the individual right to live without any representation or say from the “oppressed”—the young baby. Finally, I would not like to live in a Platonic society because it exudes some sexist natures where men have superiority over women. One notable case that struck me was when Plato states, and for “our braver and better youth [men], besides their other honours and rewards, might have greater facilities of intercourse with women given them; their bravery will be a reason, and such fathers ought to have as many sons as possible” (Caste 37). This social policy struck me in two ways; firstly, there is an underlying belief that not only one, but multiple women have the obligation to serve one man as their sexual partner because of a sole trait of bravery which is deemed desirable by the entire society and secondly, that sons were the most preferred option over daughters. Ultimately, I witness the inferior role women had in Platonic society where they were merely objects for the procreation for additional sons; sons who were supposed to continue and inherit the trait of bravery and courage from their father, but is scientifically untrue as those traits cannot be biologically passed down. In short, I would not live in the Platonic society that would have policies and actions that would negatively affect groups of people.


Frontispiece to the Leviathan

Plato - Wikipedia


Thomas Hobbes - Wikipedia

Thomas Hobbes

Source Texts:
  • Plato: Republic, Book II and V
  • Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, Chapter XIII and XIV.