- "Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable - the art of the next best."
– Otto von Bismarck
- "Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one."
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Early states are usually built instinctively, by capable rulers with foresight, which know what is best for their people. They are governed mostly by popular consent. But when states start turning into empires, when classes start arising and it becomes increasingly difficult to govern an expanding population, it becomes essential to organize politics and establish some ideological concept on what should government look like.
At its most basic, political philosophy is focused on the concept of the creation of government; what form it should take; what is meant by the likes of liberty, justice, the law and other civilized fictions; and the rights and duties of the citizens. As might be imagined, political philosophers do not agree on much. In fact, the meaning of the term “political” is itself one of the most contentious topics.
Political philosophy had its beginning in ethical debates on questions as to what constitutes a “good life.” Since people are by nature sociable – there being few proper hermits about – the question follows as to how a person should behave in the company of others. Chinese political philosophy, for instance, goes back a long ways, to the writings of Confucius in the 6th Century BC. The first work of Western political philosophy is the Republic by Plato, who sought solutions for what he saw as injustice and inequity; to do so, he proposed the first of what would be many utopian (in that they are “moral”) political systems. Roman political philosophy was heavily influenced by the Stoics, and so tended to be a bit more pragmatic.
After some centuries taking a more theological approach, Renaissance political philosophy returned to the pragmatic – as embodied by the works of Niccolo Machiavelli. Then a bunch of intellectuals … Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and the like … began spouting off about the “social contract,” human rights, equality and such, leading to a number of revolutions, especially the French one that turned civilization on its head. To confuse things even further, with industrialism taking hold, Marxist political philosophers (Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc.) proposed yet another sort of political structure – radical socialism – as the only “correct” form of government … leading to yet another bloody revolution.
And political philosophers have yet to agree as to who is right …