Ultimately, whose vision of the ideal government is more authoritarian: Plato or Hobbes?

First, I will look at the definition of authoritarianism and how the definition should be used to compare Plato’s and Hobbes’ ideal governments. Then, I will look at the concept of personal freedom and how it relates to the level of authoritarianism between these states.

The definition of an authoritarian government, which shall be used in this paper, is a government led by a dictator in a state which values order and control above personal freedom. Personal freedom is a broad and vague term, which is why specifically for the definition of authoritarianism we will look at it in terms of the freedom of choice and equality. If we are to compare the level of authoritarianism between ideal states, this would involve understanding the capacity of freedom in each state and where freedom stands in the order of importance in these states. The government, which values personal freedom above order and control, will be the less authoritarian one. Whereas the government, which values order and control more, will be the more authoritarian one.

Plato suggests that if personal freedom, which includes the freedom of choice to think and place the self first, were to be valued over order and control, then we would regress from one state of leadership to another (546a-547b). Each government would be a worse environment than the previous one going from Aristocracy to a Timocracy, then an Oligarchy, a Democracy and ultimately to a state of Tyranny (546a-576b). The city would have evolved to “the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom”, justifying his idea that in an ideal state, humans should not be given such freedom (564a). Supposing that an authoritarian government is one that lacks personal freedom, Plato’s ideal government becomes one that certainly falls in line with that definition.

If we define “freedom” as encompassing the freedom to choose and to act, originating from the ability to acquire knowledge, we also see that in Plato’s ideal state, not everyone is equally “free”. He describes philosophers as “the few people who are born with best natures and receive the best education” (Plato 431c). The majority of the people of this city are inferior in experience and reason and “any other part of virtue” (484d), have no freedom in their desires as they are “controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few” (431d) and all collectively live in a city which is “in control of its pleasures and desires” (431d). Plato equates “those who are really deprived of knowledge” with the “blind” which reinforces the idea that they lack knowledge and are not able to choose what or how to act by themselves (484d). Plato describes philosophers as being the most suitable guardians and leaders of the city because they are neither blind nor are they “deprived of the knowledge of each thing” (484b-d) and because “as far as experience goes, he is the finest judge of the three…he alone has gained his experience in the company of reason” (582d). Despite the society having the “wisest” leaders, this society does not give its citizens freedom and believes some are born “superior” with “best natures” as though this lack of freedom and inequality was by birth (Plato 431c-d). Plato considers the members of the state as a collective in that they “…will share in pleasure or pain as a whole”, thus, if the majority of the state’s people are without individual freedom, this would reflect a state, which lacks individual freedom. In a state without personal freedom, freedom is placed at a lower priority relative to order and control, which by the definition makes Plato’s ideal state an authoritarian state.

As mentioned before, in a society where majority of its people are not able to acquire the necessary knowledge to make decisions, they will have their decisions made by those who do have this ability. Therefore, the majority of the citizens who lack this ability, also lack their freedom of choice. If there was equality amongst all the people, then no one would have their choices made for them and there would be no lack of freedom of choice. But the inequality in determining who has this “ability” is what causes the majority to lose their freedom. So, if we include equality in the definition of freedom, where each human is equal in strength and intellectuality (Hobbes XIII/1), then freedom becomes completely absent in Plato’s state. On the other hand, Hobbes’ ideal government seems to hold the idea that “Nature hath made men so equal…” (XIII/1). Plato’s selective freedom is not as freeing as Hobbes’ society’s freedom for all at birth. If we see freedom as equality at birth, then naturally, Hobbes’ state seems more equal than Plato’s and thus less authoritarian.

Hobbes goes on to explain how in a state of nature where every man “has a Right to everything, even to another’s body” (XIV/4), a man’s life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (XIII/8-9). Yet Hobbes’ explains that man knows no better until they are introduced to a “Law that forbids them…” (XIII/10). The result is that from the freedom we defined as equality, is born a necessity for a governing body, or as Hobbes calls it a “Common Power” to which men will “authorize” and “give up [their] powers and strength upon one Man, or…Assembly of men…” for the sake of order in men (XVII/13). In effect, this exchange of freedom of choice and equality, for order and control (XXI/10) seems more akin to the definition of an authoritarian state that is being used. However, if we follow Hobbes’ description of freedom under sovereign power meaning being able “to do what he has a will to” without being hindered (XXI/2), then we can conclude the act of being under a sovereign power is an act of free will. The social contract acts as a form of “artificial chains” (XXI/5) and since the subjects created the chains and are the authors to the social contract and the sovereign’s power (XVIII/6), they retain their right to their liberty (XXI/21). In addition to being the authors, Hobbes explains that should a sovereign not fulfill its duty of “…the procuration of the safety of the people, to which it is obliged by the Law of Nature”, the contract between the sovereign and man is broken (XXI/21). He is no longer bound by the contract and following the first law of nature of maintaining peace (XIV/4) he must place self-preservation at the top of his priorities. By describing the citizens as the authority behind maintaining a society’s sovereign power, it seems their freedom is placed above order and control. Since we are measuring the level of authoritarianism of a state by its value of freedom in comparison to order and control, Hobbes’ ideal state seems relatively less authoritarian than Plato’s.

In Plato’s ideal government, the “author” of the sovereign power is the random natural inequality decided at birth, whereas in Hobbes’, it is the citizens of his ideal government. Plato acknowledges the natural individual differences in humans, but it is as though he is classifying individuals as different types of components for the machine that is his society. One component out of the place it was put in “by nature” would bring “the city to ruin” (434b). He argues that only Philosopher Kings are able to understand all other classes, whereas the other classes are incapable of understanding the Philosophers (Plato 484c-d). If this is the case, then how can the members of society function as a collective state when the majority of the population cannot understand those “above” them? In effect, Plato debases some members of his society to mere cogs and bolts and makes others seem almost godly with their potential for insight and wisdom. It is also important to note, where Hobbes’ state leaves its citizens with the option to opt out of the social contract, this choice does not exist in Plato’s state since its citizens are bound to their positions at birth. Thus, it seems Plato’s ideal government is ultimately more authoritarian than Hobbes’.


(Section, letter):

Plato, G. M. A. Grube, and C. D. C. Reeve. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1992. Print.

(Chapter/paragraph number):

Hobbes, Thomas, and E. M. Curley. Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1994. Print.