Philosophers and Politics

Disillusioned by his failed mission to turn the Sicilian tyrant Dionysius II into a Philosopher-King, Plato immortalised, in the Allegory of the Ship, the isolation of the philosopher in a world plagued by false ideas and unprincipled politicians. His mentor Socrates kept away from political intrigues to concentrate on his ‘daemon’ (or ‘spirit’) and how to reach truth through his ‘maieutic’ method of eliciting new ideas through argumentative dialogue. Diogenes shared Socrates’ splendid detachment from public affairs as illustrated by his famous rude remark to Alexander the Great: ‘Stand a little out of my sun.’

To what extent can a philosopher preserve the integrity of his reputation and the truthfulness of his teaching, in an ever changing political world? Stoics, like Seneca and Cicero believed in the edifying power of their philosophy and its beneficial influence on their contemporaries. Yet, Seneca got too close to Nero’s flame while Cicero’s tragic death was the predictable outcome of a life of murky compromises with perfidious men of influence. The great lawyer and thinker was no fool as to the perils of corrupt political system and warned that ‘when a government becomes powerful, it is destructive, extravagant and violent.’ 

Epicurus’ ideal of self-sufficient communities of ‘friends’ was the very opposite of what Plato’s ideal state purported to be, i.e. a hierarchical, highly-structured society where everyone knows his ‘proper’ place. But what would be the point of a closed circle of philosophers, wilfully estranged from their fellow-beings despite their knowledge of how to build an ideal state? Plato conferred to philosophy an unattainable political goal as if the outrageous death of Socrates could only be avenged through the philosophical reformation of the entire Athenian community and beyond. The Socratic duty of knowing oneself was extended by his student to a crusade for political justice as envisaged in ‘The Republic’. Although the Greek word ‘Politeia’ covers a much larger spectrum of meanings, ranging from ‘the specific rights of citizens’ to a ‘type of government’, the Latinised title would have amused Cicero, himself dramatically caught in the cesspool that became the late Roman Republic.

When in 529 AD, Emperor Justinian closed down the Athenian Academy, putting an end to centuries of intellectual speculations, a dark political age loomed over Europe. Philosophy survived thanks to Medieval Philosophy which resurrected Aristotelian thought through the works of Thomas Aquinas. Politics and Theology ran parallel until the advent of Italian ‘city-states’, such as Florence, Venice or Milan. Machiavelli (1469–1527) was the first modern philosopher, prepared to dirty his hands in the name of a Republican ideal, be it his beloved but highly volatile Florentine city. Banished from the City of the Medici, the author of ‘The Prince’ (1532) ended his days as a political exile.

The French humanist, Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) reluctantly left his estate to sit as a member of the Bordeaux ‘Parlement’ before serving as mayor of Bordeaux during two mandates (1581–1585). He also acted as an impartial negotiator between Catholic and Protestant factions, showing equal respect and understanding for both sides. His young friend, Etienne de la Boétie (1530–1563), destined to a prestigious judicial career, went one step further than the cool-headed Montaigne, in his controversial essay against absolute monarchy, ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator’. Long before Henry David Thoreau’s peaceful appeal to ‘resistance to civil government’ in 1849, La Boétie  advocated civil disobedience as he rejected all claims by political leaders to bring their subjects into submission and impose their single will over ‘voluntary slaves’: ‘I do not ask that you place your hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.’

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