There are many common themes available for a comparison essay of The Republic by Plato and Leviathan by Hobbes but one of the most salient points to be made is that they share ideological similarities. Although there is some consensus on matters of the essential need for some kind of government and the basic driving (and often destructive) forces human beings fall victim to, there are several differences behind political theories in “The Republic” by Plato and Leviathan. Many of these differences are the result of how each writer perceives human beings and their role within the state and society, and both have radically opposing views on human nature in general.
Consequently, because of the fundamental disagreements on matters of human nature and how it influences politics, culture, and society these thinkers have little in common. While Plato and Hobbes may agree that the state is essential, the manner (and reasons for) its setup as well as issues of equality within such a state are quite different. In sum, if a general thesis statement could be proposed about “Leviathan” and “The Republic”, it would be that Plato’s more positive outlook on human nature versus Hobbes’s more pessimistic viewpoint creates a gulf between the two that cannot be resolved. In the end, these stand as two entirely opposing political theories with only cursory commonalities.
One of the most notable ways in which the political theories are similar (as based on the conception of the individual) in both Leviathan and The Republic concerns the essential need for some kind of government. Both Plato and Hobbes recognized that without a hierarchy of some kind, society would crumble and citizens would give into their appetites, aversions, and desires. For Plato, a governing body is essential because it takes the very best people society has to offer and puts them in power to act as the moral and political guidance system for the other “classes” of citizens. These philosopher kings would be responsible for determining true justice and law and because of their unique training and designated function within politics, they would be the sovereign or the quasi-Leviathan of the state.
To Plato, as stated in “The Republic” each individual in society served a function and possessed a distinct qualification that made him more suited to a particular duty or task. Those at the top of society, the guardians, would be possessed of certain traits that made them morally (thus politically) superior to others. In the view of Plato in “The Republic” a guardian is strong, swift, high-spirited, and a lover of wisdom” (Plato 376c) and would be the supreme conveyor of truth and justice. This was something required because without it, human beings would fall prey to their desires. In other words, the state acts as a check for the passions of individuals. For Hobbes, on the other hand, there is no supreme truth since so much of our understanding of it comes from individual perceptions.
In addition, there is no elite class in society that can claim to have complete possession of truth either. As a result, the political system is different. Still, where it is fundamentally like that proposed by Plato in “The Republic” is in the sense that despite the role of the state, it is a necessary entity. Without a governing body to rule society, human beings would have no way of regulating the covenants they formed with one another and chaos would ensue. In his typically pessimistic view of mankind, Hobbes thinks that human beings live in, as expressed in one of the important quotes from “Leviathan” a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 123). In order to offer each individual the essential right to avoid harm to one’s self, the state is necessary. The two thinkers are very much like in their belief in the need for the state and although they envision different ways of creating and maintaining such a state, they see human nature as in need of guidance by some overarching sovereign body.
When comparing Leviathan and The Republic, Plato and Hobbes differ significantly in their view of the ultimate nature of human beings, even without viewing them within the context of the state. In Plato’sRepublic, human beings want what is intrinsically good, “even if the person does not realize the true nature of what is good” (Plato 505d). While they are capable of committing horrible actions, this is general because of appetites and desires rather than some fundamental flaw. Although Hobbes is similar in Leviathan in the sense that he believes in the strong power of human appetites and aversions, he does not agree that humans want was is good necessarily, but rather than they desire what best protects them. For Hobbes, man in the state of nature (without the formal institutions that govern over covenants) is living in a perpetual state of chaos because of his appetites. To him, either, as he suggests in one of the important quotes from “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, “through vanity, or comparison, or appetite” (Hobbes 64) humans will “provoke the rest” into war and aggression. These two ways of viewing human beings within society influence the political theories each presents and as a result, also defines the kind of ideal society they imagine. In “The Republic” Plato sees human beings as representing a natural order in which the philosopher kings are on top and everyone else is below and taking guidance from their wisdom.
To Plato in “The Republic”, these elite few are necessary because they are the sole possessors of ultimate truth. Without them, the average person would not know how to act in society and thus would fall prey to passions and selfishness. Unlike Hobbes, Plato thinks that human beings would want what was best and would endeavor to listen to the higher calling toward good. Hobbes, on the other hand, does not believe that anyone can have possession of the truth and thus does not see the state as being an entity that is qualified to pass down moral or spiritual understanding. In fact, he does not seem to believe that morality (especially in the more structured religious sense) has any place in governance. The role of the state is simply to reinforce the rights of every citizen to avoid bodily harm and thus keep society at peace. The sum of his political theory can be defined in the statement, “If two want the same thing and they both cannot have it, they become enemies and endeavor to destroy one another (Hobbes 141). In other words, unlike in Plato’s view, man is constantly at battle with is fellow man because he is never satisfied with what he has. This is the driving difference in perception of humankind that separates these two thinkers.
The difference in the way each writer considers human nature within the realm of politics is also reflected in their opposing views on equality. Since Plato expresses in “The Republic” that he believes that men are divided into categories with the strongest and most wise and powerful on top of society, he therefore is stating that there is some inherent line that marks the good from the bad. According to Plato in “The Republic”, “the best guardians we must choose will be those most skilled in guarding the city” (Plato 412c) as this is what they have been trained for. The political system, as a result, exists to support this hierarchy and its main function is to pass down ideas about justice and keep the lower classes in line. Hobbes feels quite differently about this and at one point states that no man is intrinsically better than another. He claims in one of the important quotes from “Leviathan”, “Nature hath make man so equal in the faculties of body and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable” (Hobbes 183). In his belief that there is no one body that can know the ultimate truth and no true division between the strongest and the weakest, his political system is quite different. It is based more on principles of law enforcement rather than moral enforcement. Along with their views about humankind’s nature as a whole, these differences in concepts of equality form one of the other most crucial differences between the two.
It is impossible to separate one thinker’s understanding of humanity from his espoused political theory. It seems to follow, at least in this case, that a more positive view of human nature allows for a government that guides moral actions so that the best intentions (which are always present in people) are brought forth. On the other hand, if like Hobbes, one has a pessimistic understanding of human beings, the government that results will be based on more regulatory principles. In other words, it will seek to enforce rather than instruct. Because of their two differing notions about human nature, both Plato and Hobbes offer governments that serve entirely different functions, even if the reasons for wishing to have a government are the same.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Themes Summary of “The Republic” by Plato • A Rewrite of “The Apology” by Plato in the Voice of Socrates • The Definition of Virtue in Plato’s Meno • Explanation of the Theory of Moral Virtue by Aristotle
Plato. Republic. New York; Oxford World Classics. 1999.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Penguin Classics. 1988.