The Purpose of Politics
[Originally written on 24 April 2007]
Politics exerts an enormous level of influence over the lives of a nation’s citizenry. This is its effect, but what is its purpose? What is its nature? These are vital questions, for the purpose of politics is inextricably related to the purpose of society. Throughout history, the purpose of politics has been pondered by intellectual giants, and the answers offered vary. Today the presentation of this question to Americans would likely provoke answers such as ‘to keep the peace,’ ‘to ensure the dispensing of justice,’ and ‘to protect the rights of the people.’ Indeed, the assurance of security, justice and equal rights comprise the most fundamental tenets of American society and its political system. Their importance is widely agreed upon. This was not always the case, however. The sharply contrasting philosophical works of Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant illustrate the difficulty of reaching a definitive conclusion on the purpose of politics and the ideal arrangements to fulfill this purpose.
Niccolo Machiavelli assumed a view of politics which likely would be regarded as quite controversial today. Politics need not, according to Machiavelli, concern itself with the rights of citizens, the dispensing of justice or the assurance of equality. According to Machiavelli, the only aim of politics is to preserve and enhance political power. Indeed, The Prince is not a work offering an ideal political arrangement assuring the greatest possible freedom, equality and justice for its people, but rather a blueprint for the maintaining of political rule regardless of what actions are required to achieve this. Indeed, Machiavelli explicitly warns of the dangers freedom presents to the prince: “whoever becomes the ruler of a free city and does not destroy it, can expect to be destroyed by it” (Machiavelli 18). The unlimited suppression of human freedom, a tactic generally frowned upon in contemporary times, is in Machiavelli’s view fully permissible if it is necessary to assure the preservation of political power. Contemptuous and manipulative tactics are endorsed by Machiavelli to ensure this end. It is unnecessary for a prince, according to Machiavelli, to possess ethical and moral principles, but only necessary to appear to possess them. A prince “ought to be both feared and loved,” but “it is much safer to be feared than loved” (Machiavelli 61). Politics then, to Machiavelli is not a means to an end but it is an end in itself; it exists to facilitate the advancement of the ruler rather than the ruled.
Hobbes, describing man’s existence in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” makes abundantly clear his conception of the purpose of politics: to help man escape his barbaric natural state and enjoy the benefit of civilized society (Hobbes 70). According to Hobbes, man’s natural state is a state of war, and in this state, “the notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place” (Hobbes 71). Hobbes notes that “where there is no common power, there is no law; where no Law; no injustice” (Hobbes 71). In a civilized society, these concepts exist, and not only do they exist, but they are of foremost concern. Politics, then, exists to counter the barbarity of nature. Men, fearing the consequences of the vulgar existence which the absence of law and order entails, enter into a social contract and relinquish their absolute rights to the Leviathan, the sovereign governing entity responsible for maintaining the peace.
Immanuel Kant concurs with Hobbes’s view of the depravity of human existence in the state of nature, noting that “if he lives among others of his own species, man is an animal who needs a master” (Kant 46). Kant’s view of the purpose of politics, however, is strikingly disparate from that of Hobbes. According to Kant, nature is the driving force of humanity, propelling mankind toward an intended end. This end, nature’s highest purpose, “can be fulfilled for mankind only in society; and nature intends that man should accomplish this, and indeed all his appointed ends, by his own efforts. This purpose can be fulfilled only in a society which has not only the greatest freedom… but also the most precise specification and preservation of the limits of this freedom in order that it can co-exist with the freedom of others” (Kant 45). Kant thus recommends a republican civil constitution based upon three fundamental principles: freedom, equality and independence. Politics serves the purpose of ensuring the eventual achievement of man’s natural end in a civilized society in which the people enjoy the highest possible level of freedom.
Kant argues in his piece What is Enlightenment? that enlightenment, defined as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” as the objective of humanity (Kant 54). Although we do not live in an enlightened age, Kant asserts, we do live in an age of enlightenment. Enlightenment is a slow, but inevitable process. Interestingly enough, the evolution of views on the purpose of politics through the ages embodies the nature of the process of enlightenment itself. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, there is a clear progression from political amorality to a just purpose for politics: the preservation of life. Kant, however, takes this a step further, assuming a far more enlightened position than that of his predecessors. The purpose of politics must never be to satisfy greed and the insatiable human lust for power, nor must it simply be escape of war. Hobbes’ view of the purpose of politics, while important, is in and of itself not enough. There is no mechanism for progress; all that society could hope for is the avoidance of conflict, and once this is achieved no other goals arise. Society is aimless and stagnant. There are no prospects for progress or enlightenment. Kant, however, was the first political philosopher to recognize the importance of enlightenment and to conceive of progress. Man should aspire for more than mere survival, and political institutions should afford citizens the freedom necessary to pursue their aspirations. This concept, while revolutionary in Kant’s time, is practically universally accepted in our time. Because enlightened positions about the purpose of politics were adopted by Kant and others, the fulfillment of the purpose of man, whatever that may be, is possible. Today, political institutions must, as Kant prescribed, afford citizens the highest amount of freedom and the greatest level of opportunity. The assurance of these rights will ensure steady progress toward an enlightened and progressive society and a better existence for all of humanity.