Is society made for man or is man made for society? Is the state a divine creation which man must not question, or is it a result of a “social contract” among men and subject to change when it no longer serves men? How do the rulers get their authority? Is revolution justifiable? Is totalitarianism or democracy correct?
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Man is a gregarious being. By nature he lives with his fellows and likes it. Indeed, no more cruel punishment can be inflicted upon an individual than to isolate him from other men for a long period of time.
Whether this love of being with other men is due to man’s basic and original nature, no one can say. However, it is clear that the earliest men of whom we know anything lived together. It may have been in a cave, or it may have been in rude shelters constructed of branches and leaves, or it may have been squatting beneath a tree or in the protection of some overhanging cliff; but wherever it was, the most primitive of men wanted to be near those of their kind.
The reason may have been the inherent desire for security and the realization that one man alone is dangerously exposed to his enemies, while two or more men together are better able to protect themselves.
But, whatever the reason and whatever the location, wherever we find evidence of man we find evidence of a number of men and women all living in a group. And, since all living together, whether it be of man or of beast, brings conflicts of purpose and desire, it is almost certain that the earliest of men organized some form of society, established some rules which were accepted by each one.
Probably the first rules were not consciously determined or set down so that all might learn. They were possibly accepted as right and necessary without much if any thought on the matter. It was out of these simple provisions for living together that the first social requirements grew.
Gradually an accepted body of customs and procedures evolved. These became tribal laws or rules of the social group. Those procedures which were found to preserve the group and protect it against enemies without and within were held to tenaciously, while those which did not serve this purpose were abandoned.
By this process tribal or group organizations developed with their ways of living which were handed on from the older generation to the younger. Some of these rules were learned by the young as they lived day by day among their fellows.
They saw others act in certain ways and accepted these ways as right Other rules were transmitted to the young in solemn ceremonies conducted by the members of the group on special occasions, the chief of which was that conducted when the young man was admitted into full membership in the tribe at puberty.
These unwritten customs and laws held the group together solidly, and anyone who dared to disobey even in the least was severely punished. Often death was the penalty for failure to follow the tradition. Here was a closely knit society, with laws, customs, and penalties, a society which passed on its traditions to each generation by example, word of mouth, and ceremonial rites.
Then came the time when these laws and customs were written down and a code of laws resulted, laws which were binding because they had proved themselves to be necessary for the preservation of the life of the social group. These were the beginnings of society and the state.
It was many centuries later that the philosophers turned their attention to this social organization and asked how it came into being and what was its nature and meaning. “Is it,” they asked, “a natural result of man’s living together, or does it have divine origin? Is it a mere convenience which is to be changed and revised as times change, or does it have a permanent status such that man changes it at his peril? Where is the power of the state, in the people or in the rulers who receive it from God? What is the best form of the state, and how shall man attain this?”
These questions and many others have occupied the attention of many of the great philosophers. Not only have they been the cause of much philosophic speculation, but they have served to stir men to wars and threats of war. Revolutions have arisen because men have differed in their answers to these questions and have been willing to die to prove that they were right In our own time men have fought world-engulfing wars because they were unable to agree as regards the answers to some of these questions.
The ancients believed that their gods were the ultimate rulers of the state, and that those of their fellows who held power over them had received their authority directly from the gods. Further, they accepted without question the belief that all the laws by which they lived were given to their ancestors by the gods and therefore could not be changed even in the least.
The early Greeks did not have their laws written on tablets of stone but rather in the minds of their leaders. The customs of their forefathers, customs developed through generations of tribal and group experience, were passed on to the group and interpreted and enforced by the old men. In time these customs were brought together and written down by Lycurgus. Here the rules for living together in a group or state were presented clearly so that everyone would know what they were and could obey them.
Among all these early peoples the group or the state was more important than any member or citizen. These ancient people recognized that the individual man could not live long and could not enjoy many advantages unless he lived in a group. Further, they realized that the greatest good for the greatest number depended upon the preservation of the group as a unit.
Consequently, anyone who by his acts threatened the safety of the group committed a crime deserving of the most severe punishment. It was necessary, they saw, to preserve the group even at the expense of the individual. When the individual and the group came into conflict, it was the individual who had to yield or be destroyed. It would be fatal to all if the group was destroyed.
The State as Viewed by the Early Greek Philosophers:-
The Pythagoreans, representative of this early point of view among the Greeks, taught that the individual should subordinate himself to the whole and should act at all times for the good of the state. Thus they taught their members respect for authority, the laws and civic virtues of the times, and the ideal of sacrifice for the good of the whole.
This same general position was taken by DEMOCRITUS. He held that each one should devote himself wholly to the good of the state because “a well-administered state is our greatest safeguard.” In another place he wrote, •”When the state is in a healthy condition, all things prosper; when it is corrupt, all things go to ruin” Since, he argued, the ultimate welfare of everyone depended upon the state, it was but reasonable to hold that the welfare of the state was man’s first concern.
After the Persian Wars (500 to 449 B.C.) Athens became the center of ancient Greek culture. The events leading up to these wars and the developments during the wars developed in the Athenians, among other peoples of the times, an interest in the problems of government and an interest in the democratic form of human living.
This led naturally to a growth of independent thinking which eventually resulted in a growing concern for theories of government. Men began to question the older blind loyalty to the powers of the state, and many began to assert their own independence and their right to a life more or less free from the dominance of the established government. Individualism was in the air. Some suggested that man should divorce himself from the authority of the group and hold himself free to challenge the group and criticize freely the older traditions.
The Sophists, led this advance into individualism. They centered attention not on the group, but upon the individual member of the group. They asserted his ultimate worth and independence. They proposed to teach the individual how to succeed, how to gain his own ends, under the law, and even to dodge the law by skillful argument.
Indeed, there were Sophists who argued that the laws were mere inventions of the weaker members of the group, of society, to enslave and hold down the stronger.
In Plato’s dialogue entitled Gorgias, a well-known Sophist argues that – The makers of the laws are the majority who are weak; and they make laws and distribute praises and censures with a view to themselves and their own interests; and they terrify the stronger sort of men, and those who are able to get the better of them, in order that they may not get the better of them.*
He goes on to assert that the great men of history have been those who refused to obey the laws of the weak majority who have organized to hold them down.
If there were a man who had sufficient force, he would shake off and break through, and escape from all this; he would trample underfoot all our formulas and spells and charms and all our laws which are against nature.This was a challenge to the spirit of independence which was abroad in the land to assert itself and refuse longer to be repressed by the weak, the ignorant, and the fools.
It is obvious that this position might easily be interpreted as a call to anarchy, an incentive to rebellion against all authority. And many individuals took it for just that.Thus, much of the Sophist influence led to unreasoned refusal to be subject to the dictates of the group and thus threatened the solidarity of the Athenian state. But, there were many Sophists who did not intend that this should happen. They were not satisfied with the older traditional idea that man should be subject to the state wholly and unconditionally, and against this they rebelled.
But they did not want to go to the other extreme of complete anarchy (that is, lack of any form of government). The tragedy of their thinking was that although they saw the problem and the danger in the traditional philosophy of the state, they were unable to counter this tradition with something better. They were not able to offer a solution to the problem of society which would make for social unity and at the same time avoid blind subservience to the state.
However, in their efforts to solve this problem they etched clearly on the minds of their age the issues involved, and challenged better minds than theirs to attempt a solution. They made it impossible for those philosophers who followed them to dodge the problem of developing an adequate philosophy of the state. And the great minds who worked during the next two hundred years made many significant contributions to a solution of the problem