Political Theory Responses To Locke, Montesqieu, Marx And Rousseau Essay, Research Paper
Realism or Idealism: Responses to Locke, Montesqieu,
Rousseau and Marx regarding human nature
In the history of the western intellectual tradition, a simple (though not simplistic) way of seeing philosophers of social thought is to place them in one of two categories: realism or idealism. Depending on what category they best fit in, one can draw conclusions about their respective theories of human nature, which in turn influences their whole philosophical project s ends. The four philosophers covered in this seminar all have distinct theories of human nature, and while reading and thinking about them, it was helpful for me to ask the following questions: What is the basic view of human nature of the philosopher? (i.e. is man basically cooperative and nonviolent or is he basically at his core an aggressor and selfish), Does he think human nature can be changed? and If it can be changed (or if it is perfectable), does the change come voluntarily or through coercion?
First, I define my terms. By “realism” I mean the trajectory of thought in the western intellectual and philosophical tradition that emphasizes the here-and-now, and posits that there is not an ideal image or way of doing things to which we must conform our agendas of rule and justice. I propose that “realism” is related to concepts like conflict as a fact of life, and aggression as a factor in man s motivations, and materialism (that people and everything else is constituted of matter only, and not, say, “spirit” as per Plato s idealism or the dualism of Christianity).
By “idealism,” I mean that train of thought in the west that identifies with ideas like there being a dualism of reality (matter and spirit) and that the world of ideals is a model for us to imitate, toward the end of moral or social perfection. Idealism at once holds that human nature is basically good and that when it is bad, it can be changed, perfected, improved. It sees people as being basically giving and socially interested, and interested in the good of the whole, if they would just have the right kind of education. It allows that conflict exists but that it doesn t need to exist that peace is possible through education.
Of the four philosophers none fits wholly into one of these two camps. Still, the two categories are useful for my reflection on the philosophers. Looking at Rousseau first, I see him as the most idealistic, the one evincing “idealism” most, of the four. He sees the distant past of man, as an animal in nature, as being man s natural state, a state he has left with society s development. Rousseau argues that this natural man has basically two kinds of drives within him: first, he is selfish toward the end of self-preservation, and yet, secondly, he also feels a repugnance to seeing any other living thing suffer. He sees man as being basically good. The problem in human nature crops up through the existence of private property, which is contrary to the state mankind was in nature. Rousseau solves this problem through the social contract, which is government consented by the masses for the common interest.
My response to his theory of human nature is twofold. (1) Contrary to Rousseau s theories, new knowledge about the nature of man in the wild (from ethologists like Conrad Lorenz or Lionel Tiger Men in Groups) provides evidence that man in his basic nature is an aggressor. This evidence is powerfully explanatory of many of our social ills, asserting that homo sapiens has a will to dominate and achieve an ever increasing standing in the social hierarchy, and that this factor and not the mere possession of private property, is largely responsible for inequality. Rousseau seems to think that politics alone is enough to change human nature that the government can legislate away the equality vs. freedom dilemma. (2) I also see that Rousseau in his glorification of the natural man fails to acknowledge that even man in society is natural per se, since man doesn t become “supernatural” or “unnatural” in society. Using increasingly complex tools to fashion increasingly complex ways of living doesn t change the fact that man is still essentially natural, for he isn t unnatural or supernatural, but merely more complex. This line of thought anticipates later critiques on “state of nature” theories which altogether dismiss them as bifurcating the sensible world into natural and unnatural, which is the same slippery slope as dividing it between natural and supernatural (as in the postmodern and post-Nietzschean critiques of “nature” and “natural law.”)
Marx s critique of capitalism and his solution of communism starts at the same place as Rousseau that we live in a corrupt society and are plagued by problems and challenges that the modern world presents. Marx, like Rousseau, has a basically positive view of human nature, and his theory of the natural state of man being one of cooperation can be seen in the same line as Rousseau s. Marx, like Rousseau, has three states of man. The first of these categories of man is like Rousseau s “natural man” in a state of natural society. The same holds for the second category, much like Rousseau s modern man who is alienated because of economic inequality (though Marx adds to and tweaks this part of Rousseau to emphasize economic and not social inequality, still blaming private property even if not fully). The third category is Marx s fulfilled man in the communist society. Like Rousseau, he sees private property and its acquisition as the major problem.
My response to Marx is twofold: (1) he falls into the same faulty idealism as Rousseau, since he doesn t allow that man s nature may be something other than perfectable and naturally good. Marx has the idealism of Hegel without the supernaturalism or the dualism. He cannot seem to accept that capitalism may be a “natural” outgrowth of man s human nature, and instead hopes to transform human selfishness into altruism (or excise unnatural selfishness through his brand of communism) by removing from man the opportunity to have anything to be selfish over. (2) Marx, while criticizing the idealism of religion as the “opiate of the masses” is guilty of providing an equally sating opiate: that man can have heaven here on this earth by following his precepts.
Locke and Montesqieu, in their critiques of the status quo and consequentially of the human nature that got us here are less idealistic and more realistic than Rousseau and Marx. While they can be seen more as realist, they are not wholly so. Locke, for instance, has an idealism which only comes out in his assertion that human reason alone, and not emotion, is the “right” way to solve problems confronting mankind. In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke implies a theory of human nature which is simple enough: merely than man likes happiness and doesn t like unhappiness. Man s desire for happiness and resistance of unhappiness, says Locke, should be kept in line with a reward or punishment system, a token economy. He denies that man is born either good or bad, and this part of his human nature theory is contrasted with typical idealist theories, which posit than man is born good and diverged from his natural goodness because of society s negative influence.
I liked Locke because he resists natural law positions, and seems well grounded in the here and now, even if he appeals to the theism of his time. My reservation is that in his optimism, he falls into the trap of positing that man is naturally reasonable enough to seek what is best for him, even at temporary pain or displeasure. He argues that man will naturally impose upon himself evident laws for his own good, and the good of society. The history of the western cultural project seems to show that this is not the natural sate of man, but that instead, man is naturally resistant to change and short-sided, unable to take into his reason the conflicting principles of good-for-all and good-for-himself. Still, Locke was able to exert an amazing influence in the western political tradition because he furthered the historical questions How should man be governed, etc.
By contrast, Montesqieu s theory of human nature is largely relativistic, humanistic and especially realist in its scope. In his Persian Letters, he sets out to show his opinions on his world, from the outside. By seeming to see the his world from the outside looking in, he forces his contemporary reader to at once develop a sense of self-consciousness, and to show that there is no one way of doing things, but rather a multitude of options. His “comparative culture” approach denies that there is an absolute, either morally or politically. His demonstration of viable alternatives flies in the face of the idealisms that say with emphasis that there is only one path, one true political system, one best way of behaving. Examples of this include his description of the Persian sexual mores in letter 20 and the letters concerning marriage and harems, and the letters discussing politics and subtly critiquing the France of his day,
Montesqieu was my favorite of the four philosophers we studied. I feel this way for three reasons. One, his literary expression of his philosophical and political insights made them more enjoyable to read than straight philosophical tracts would be. Favorite passages that show glimpses of his ability to provide political insight with literary acumen include letter 94, in which he talks about the origins of society. Letter 88, which shows his wit in relation to who has the real influence in French society, which comes from birth and really is not influential at all, also is a literary expression of his critique. Montesqieu denies the need for god but requires justice to stave off mankind s natural selfishness, which is realistic in viewpoint.
I appreciated the foundation that reading these four philosophers gave me in thinking about politics and social problems in the West. By looking at them through the lense of human nature questions, I was able to frame them in a way that helped me compare and contrast them in order to see whom I resonated most with.