This is an essay I wrote for my political theory class this past year at the University of Toronto.

Plato's Glaucon vs. Thomas Hobbes:

On Justice and its Foundations

Glaucon’s speech in Book II of Plato’s Republic lays out a sort of ‘pre-political’ condition of humanity that begs to be compared with Hobbes’ 'state of nature' as described in Leviathan. These descriptions, as well as the descriptions of the solutions to the problems these situations present have noticeable similarities but also distinct differences. In the end, the differences out-weigh any perceived similarities. Particularly, there is a fundamental difference in the motivations and aims of Glaucon and Hobbes. Glaucon hopes to force Socrates to find real justice for him, while Hobbes denies its existence altogether, and tries to make political thought subject to completely naturalistic explanations.

There are some similarities between the ‘pre-political’ condition laid out by Glaucon in his speech in book II of the Republic and the one described by Hobbes in Leviathan, as well as their respective proposed solutions to these situations. Justice, Glaucon says, is held by the general public as something difficult which is only worth doing for the sake of the good reputation and other benefits that come with it, “but all by itself it should be fled from as something hard.” (Plato, 36) Injustice, on the other hand, if one can get away with it, provides all the benefits that a person seeks: riches, friends, power, without any of the drudgery. “This is what any nature naturally pursues as good, while it is law which by force perverts it to honor equality.” (Plato, 37) Hobbes agrees on this point. Men naturally compete for such things (Hobbes, 75) and in the course of that competition force and fraud are the only virtues, because self-preservation is the ultimate goal. (Hobbes, 78)

The extreme of injustice, says Glaucon, is to seem to be just when one is not. If at any point the unjust man fails to maintain this façade, he will be able to speak persuasively, or use force if necessary, to remedy the situation. He is, says Glaucon, courageous and strong, and has provided himself richly with money and friends by unjust means. (Plato, 38-39) Self-defense is just what any man should prepare himself to engage in, says Hobbes, and that through any means necessary. Men make ‘pre-emptive strikes’ to eliminate or subjugate those who threaten their goals, be they directed to self-preservation or simply pleasure. Not only this, but they should go further, and conquer those around them who aren’t threats, simply to enhance their power to make ready to defend against those who conquer merely for glory and sport. (Hobbes, 75)

Glaucon says that justice is not held by the general public to be a private virtue, at least not in practice, because it is not held to be good for men in their private affairs. “Indeed, all men suppose injustice is far more to their private profit than justice,” and why not? Any person who had the power to do injustice and get away with it, but refused to do so “would seem most wretched to those who were aware of it, and most foolish too, although they would praise him to each others’ faces, deceiving each other for fear of suffering injustice.”(Plato, 38) Hobbes agrees on this point as well, but takes it much further. There is no such thing as justice or injustice, Hobbes says, outside of the context of civil society. (Hobbes, 89) In the ‘state of nature’, which is competition, and ultimately war, ‘injustice’ is far, far more profitable. In fact it is necessary for survival.

Glaucon suggests that there is at least a partial solution to the undesirable situation he describes. People realize that they cannot do injustice and not expect to suffer it. Therefore to escape suffering injustice these people “set down a compact among themselves neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. And from there they began to set down their laws and compacts and to name what the law commands lawful and just.” Justice then is the middle ground between doing injustice without being punished and suffering injustice without the opportunity for revenge. (Plato, 37) Hobbes’ social contract, resulting in the Commonwealth, is just this sort of agreement. Every man has a right to preserve his own life through any means necessary. (Hobbes, 79) In the state of nature described by Hobbes however, there cannot be any real security for any man. So, to gain that security it is a law of nature, derivable from the right of self-preservation, that “every man ought to endeavour peace as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he seek and use all helps and advantages of war.” In interest of this, a man should be willing also to lay down his natural right to everything he can seize by cunning or force and be satisfied with as much freedom to act as would give other men, but only if others will do the same. (Hobbes, 80) In the state of nature, any covenant made by two people is voided by the slightest suspicion on the part of either. A common power over both people, however, that has the right and power to enforce the covenant, prevents it being voided. (Hobbes, 84-85)

Along with the similarities between Hobbes and Glaucon come many differences. Beginning with their accounts of ‘social contracts,’ we see that Glaucon’s account bears more resemblance to Hobbes’ idea that the weak can band together against the strong for mutual defense than Hobbes’ Commonwealth. (Hobbes, 74) In Glaucon’s argument for the utility of injustice, justice seems to be the refuge of the weak, those without license, or power, to do the injustices they would do if they had the ability. Glaucon suggests that the only reason to accept any kind of social contract to refrain from committing injustice is one’s own impotence. Someone who was able to get away with injustice and was “truly a man” would never agree to such a compact. (Plato, 37) Why should anyone who is strong bow to such an agreement? They should not, Glaucon says. It would be insane for them to do so. Hobbes disagrees. He has found the reason that the strong (given that they think clearly enough) should accept and become part of the social contract. Hobbes points out that it is not wise or reasonable to do anything that would tend to one’s own destruction, even if one did not believe it did. To remain in the state of nature would be such an action. One cannot hope to defend oneself adequately from death and destruction, no matter what one’s abilities may be, without the help of confederates. Anyone then who lives an unjust life cannot expect to be received into a peaceful society except by mistake. Even if such a mistake is made, he cannot expect to remain in that society without being detected as a threat and removed, one way or another. Therefore the man who insists on living an unjust life will either be left out or thrown out of society. If somehow he remains in society, it is only “by the errors of other men, which he could not foresee nor reckon upon, and consequently he has acted against the reason of his preservation, and so as all men that contribute not to his destruction forbear him only out of ignorance of what is good for themselves.” (Hobbes, 91-92)

Another difference lies between Glaucon and Hobbes’ ideas of humanity. Glaucon lives in a society where it is commonly held that some men have naturally greater worth and ability than others. These men rise to the top in whatever they do, and belong there. The powerful are not powerful because they are unjust, but should be unjust, as Glaucon says, because they are naturally powerful. Hobbes has the complete opposite view. The powerful become powerful because of the injustice they do. In laying out his pre-political condition, the ‘state of nature’ as he calls it, Hobbes begins with a radical equality among men. He says men are generally equally endowed with faculties of mind and body. In matters of intelligence (setting aside “the arts grounded upon words,” and science because neither are in-born, not attained through general experience) Hobbes thinks there is even greater equality among men than in strength. Prudence, Hobbes says, is experience, which “time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto.” (Hobbes, 75) So from this equality Hobbes tells us everyone has equal hope of attaining what he desires. It is when these desires collide or conflict that people become enemies. This is what creates competition. This competition, well navigated, produces power.

The fundamental difference between Glaucon and Hobbes is not one of detail, however. It is a difference of motivation and aim. Glaucon’s attempt to outline a pre-political condition isn’t an expression of his own thought, at least not directly. He has just witnessed Socrates’ encounter with Thrasymachus, who advocated the notion that “justice . . . is the advantage of the stronger.” (Plato, 16) Socrates seems to have defeated Thrasymachus, although points linger from Thrasymachus’ argument that nag at Glaucon. This nagging feeling provokes Glaucon to question Socrates, but Glaucon also has another, stronger motivation. Glaucon from the beginning of the narrative is portrayed as an erotic character, and it is his longing for a pure and real kind of justice that drives him to his argument. He says that he wants to know what justice is, not simply what it is not. He wants to know “what power it has all alone by itself when it is in the soul – dismissing its wages and consequences.” (Plato, 36) The opinion of the many, according to Glaucon, is that justice is a “form of drudgery,” practiced only for its benefits, and therefore:

. . . all those who practice {justice} do so unwillingly, as necessary but not good . . . it is fitting that they do so, for the life of the unjust man is, after all, far better than that of the just man, as they say. For, Socrates, though that’s not at all my own opinion, I am at a loss: I’ve been talked deaf by Thrasymachus and countless others, while the argument on behalf of justice – that it is better than injustice – I’ve yet to hear from anyone as I want it. I want to hear it extolled all by itself, and I suppose I would be most likely to learn that from you. That’s the reason why I’ll speak in vehement praise of the unjust life, and in speaking I’ll point out t you how I want to hear you, in your turn, blame injustice and praise justice. (Plato, 36)
So Glaucon proposes to ‘restore’ Thrasymachus’ argument, and give it more strength, and thereby, he hopes, force Socrates to give him what he is longing for, a real definition of justice as something good in itself.

Hobbes motivation is quite different from that of Glaucon. Hobbes categorically denies any such thing as a fundamental standard of justice that exists outside of the social contract. He denies it on the level of standards of conduct. There is no standard of morality or justice because there can be no such thing, according to Hobbes, without laws, and there can be no laws without a common power to enforce them. (Hobbes, 78) He also (more importantly) denies it on the level of the soul: “For there is no such Finis Ultimus (utmost aim) nor Summum Bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” (Hobbes, 57) All that Glaucon is longing for is for nothing, says Hobbes. Hobbes shifts all laws of morality and justice, good and evil, under the one banner of self-preservation. There are no ideals that exist outside of the need to keep oneself alive. From this need derives the need for peace, since no one can be secure without it. From the drive for peace arises the necessity and institution of the commonwealth by the mutual restriction of natural rights. (Hobbes, 109)

. . . the science of them {the laws of nature} is the true and only moral philosophy. For moral philosophy is nothing else but that science of what is good and evil in the conversation and society of mankind. Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men are different . . . so long as a man is in the condition of mere nature (which is a condition of war) as private appetite is the measure of good and evil; and consequently, all men agree on this, that peace is good; and therefore also the way or means of peace . . . are good and their contrary vices evil. (Hobbes, 100)
Hobbes rejects the classical views of justice and morality that Glaucon accepts. Hobbes’ view constitutes a fundamental shift away from the views of ancient Greek philosophy, and also from that of the Church. The philosophy and theology of the Church, steeped first in the thought of Plato, and later Aristotle, was committed to the kind of transcendent ideals of Justice and Good that Hobbes wishes to discard in favour of a naturalistic explanation. His state of nature may be seen as a new 'founding myth' to replace the Garden of Eden.

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