Sunday, November 25, 2012

A philosophical essay on the question of governance in Europe.

In the recent years across Europe and the world, we observe major political, ideological changes and developments. Many nations go through an economic crisis while others through a total change of regime.

During this time it is natural for people to question their governments, demand for change and envision a new political establishment for their country. They feel betrayed and let down and there are numerous debates on how to best move forward and out of the crisis.

In these debates people naturally focus on the weaknesses of the political system of their country and on ways to better it or even at some cases, reform it entirely.

The question is, how is best to reform an old and outdated political system, which is the best form of governance and what is the importance of having a government in achieving a civilized society? Is the existence of a state even necessary for our societies?

Humans are known to be social creatures and since the antiquity the communities they have formed were ever changing. And with every change the political or religious leaders, the scholars and thinkers of each era, have long debated about which is the best form of governance and state.

Humans developed from being hunter-gatherers into farmers and that made them form permanent settlements. These settlements later developed into cities, kingdoms or states. But could a large number of humans live peacefully side by side, if they haven’t placed a common set of rules, an agreement between them for a harmonious co-existence?

In ancient Greece we observe the first attempt to analyze the best political system for a fully functioning human society. The philosophers of that age, notably Plato and Aristotle, were among the first and most important to this day to attempt exploring how we can create a just and acceptable political system.

In Plato’s work The Republic, we read the story of Gyges, a shepherd in the ancient kingdom of Lydia. After an earthquake he discovered a magic ring that made whoever wore it and twisted it from one side to the other, invisible! He soon used his newly acquitted power to get the queen’s favor and overthrow the king, claiming his kingdom.

The issues raised from this story are obvious: would anyone do the “right thing” if he had superhuman powers? Are we prone to do just or unjust things? Can there be a just society and can we deal with any injustice and inequality, since there is the urge in every single of us to do injustice, if we could get away with it?
And as Plato explains, even if there were two rings and one was taken by a man who would do justice and the other one by a man who would do injustice, we would end up having the same issue. And that to him is a proof that any man is just not willingly or because he thinks it is the right thing to do, rather because he is afraid of becoming the victim of injustice too.

So that conclusion shows our behavior in a society and how can we create a just society. When everybody has the tendency of doing unjust things, we need perhaps to promote a mentality among the population that would prevent them from doing them. Promote laws, moral rules and role models that advocate justice as something that we all benefit from and we should strive to achieve.

If we all behave in an unjust way, then simply there would be no society to live in and with no society we would have no civilization. To develop any form of civilization, we need a group of people living and working together to create a successful, prosperous establishment that will allow them to develop their creativity and skills.

And how can so many people live so close together, if they have strong tendencies to harm each other. Our societies in a way are a contract among us and acceptance of unwritten and written laws; a truce that benefits us all!

So it is obvious that we need laws to create a successful and functioning society. But do we need an establishment; do we need a state to constantly overseer our behavior and tell us what to do? Why can’t us people decide and agree on these laws, compose them and then have only a policing body to make sure everybody abides by these laws?

Is it perhaps that we need to be ruled, we need somebody to lead us, make some certain decisions for us and take the responsibility for our destiny? If every state is being governed by a few “rulers,” while others just spend their whole lives as “auxiliaries” or “workers,” as Plato has described in his work “The Republic” the ideal consistence of a society, then that means that the fate of this society is in the hands of these few.

But Aristotle stated that “Man is by nature a political animal,” because what each one of us wants is a happy life. What will give us this he thinks, is the fullest development and exercise of our capacities that us compatible with living in a society. Unbridled self-indulgence and self-assertion will bring us into perpetual conflict with other people. (1) Thus no society and no happy life for anyone.

The above conclusion should be enough to make us obey the rules of the society we live in, as it would be for our own benefit, without necessarily the existence of and state authority. It would also mean that people would participate in the “commons” and help form the laws of the society they are living in, as it would be for their own interests to have a say in the laws that they will have to abide. If all humans are “political animals,” surely they can participate and practice politics.

So if people are able to put aside their selfish nature and compromise in a life in a community, but also participate in the formation of the rules, then democracy should be an adequate system to keep a society together.

But Plato’s ideas come against of what we perceive today of “democracy.” For him democracy means the rule of the “demos”. But in classical Greek demos can be understood both as the people or the “mob.” So, on the later understanding then democracy is a mob rule. His basic argument to support his idea is described as “craft analogy.” (2)

And it is very simple. If you were ill and wanted advice on your health, you should go to an expert.-the doctor. You should consult someone who had been specially trained to do the job. The last thing you would do is assemble a crowd and ask them to vote on the correct remedy. (3)

For Plato the best political system would be a monarchy, but to be a just system and not end up in becoming a tyranny, “the kings should be philosophers or the philosophers should become kings.” Philosophical training is a necessary qualification to rule. (3) In today’s capitalist world though, with a far more globalized and free market based economies, how many monarchs do we have with philosophical training?

The city states of ancient Greece were abolished by the Alexander the Great and his empire and then they were incorporated into the Roman Empire. The teachings of Plato and Aristotle could not fulfill the needs of this new reality and so many Roman philosophers had to update them to match their modern reality; in an empire, people from many different ethnic backgrounds, of different languages, culture and way of thinking had to be governed.

Similar changes continued to be happening when another large scale change took place in Europe, the rise of Christianity. Safeguarding Christian values or doctrine, while promoting a functioning political system was something that the Christian political philosophers like Thomas Aquinas had to deal with.

Since then Europe will see so many wars, uprisings and change of regimes and all that just to find this special “formula” of the most appropriate form of governance. Or perhaps to satisfy the megalomania, blind ideology or interests of those who were appointed with the task to lead?

How can we provide the citizens with a just system that protects them from any injustice caused by the ruling elite or other citizens? Some will claim that a form of communism or the other extreme, anarchy would be the solution.

But we witnessed that even in communism certain people are more “equal” than others and the personal happiness that Aristotle was talking about is not allowed to exist. As for anarchy, who is going to safeguard the interests of the people and in what way? Can we trust the mob for a fair and just judgement? So that answers the question of self policing; who will overseer if fair punishment is applied by an angry mob?

According to the Stoic movement of antiquity and especially Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman philosopher that followed the Platonic ideas, there are three pure types of states: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. These rules are characterized by the love of subjects and reason, wisdom or freedom respectively. (4) But if monarchy can turn to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy and democracy to a rule of the mob, then how is best to protect our political system from failing?

One of Cicero’s characters in his “The Commonwealth” work was called Scipio. He states that although a monarchy is the best of the pure forms of government, he prefers one that mixes all three of the forms. (5)

And that is because inevitably all three governments eventually tend to degenerate into corrupt forms according to Scipio.

So by adopting a mixed government we could perhaps prevent this corruption. And of course by having a mixed state we could achieve a balance between the values of a monarchy and those of an aristocracy. Democracy for him was also unattainable as humans are not all equal.

Then if the best solution for a fair state would be a mixed government with the best values of monarchy and aristocracy combined with freedom, what impact would such a hybrid political system would have in our modern societies? How could the ordinary citizens be able to control or resist the institutionalized inequality that would favor the rich elites?

In fact if we examine the problems most countries are facing at the moment, this fact is exactly the root of their difficulties. There is no functioning democracy and in most cases it has been transformed into an aristocracy, with the business, economic, political and social rich elites in every country influencing the state’s policies for their own benefit.

Our societies are democracies only but in name, with very few exceptions. After centuries of debating, envisioning the best political system that would help us create a long lasting civilization, we have reached the point that the former remedies do not work anymore.

Today’s societies are ruled by economics, not enlightened visionary kings. The solution would be a new kind of political system, inspired by Stoicism but taking it to a new dimension. Starting from Europe, I believe that the future belongs to a federal multinational government. Have a new type of hybrid political system that establishes multiple levels of governance both on national and international level.

Europe and in extension the world, should be governed in local, national and European (or international) level. With two parliaments, one national and one European, together with the local authorities, cooperating, opposing, controlling each other and designing a more stable, equal Europe. We should form a democratic political system that does not rely solely on nations or classes.

So we can avoid populism and the dominance of a single political elite in each country. In that way, the qualities of the ancient Stoic philosophy will be best served; promoting cosmopolitanism with commitment to human equality and membership to a community that is transcending any political boundaries and borders.


1). Aristotle. The History of Philosophy. Bryan Magee. Dorling Kindersley Limited. 1998. Page 38.

2).Who should rule? An introduction to Political Philosophy. Jonathan Wolff. OpusGeneral Editors. 1996. Page 73.

3). Who should rule? An introduction to Political Philosophy. Jonathan Wolff. OpusGeneral Editors. 1996. Page 74.

4). Cicero, “On the Commonwealth.” 131, 140.

5). Cicero, “On the Commonwealth.” 140, 190.

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