A Comparison of Hobbes' and Plato's Philosophical Views
Trying to understand how a philosopher arrives at the reasoned opinions they put on paper is essential to also understanding what they wrote. The how is often a matter of the people they have borrowed from, but that can be an unreliable method of determining the origins of their philosophy also. Two in particular are difficult to judge using the influences they had because some of their ideas were relatively radical for the times in which they made them. Plato and Thomas Hobbes embraced philosophical stances that were different from others around them, and different from those who had come before. Both wrote extensively on human nature, which led to their ideas regarding justice and government, but they did so with an understanding of that was different from contemporaries. It is interesting to note then that some of their ideas meshed (to an extent) while, more believable, many of their positions clashed deeply. This paper is an exploration of two very different philosophies, with emphasis on the two philosophers views of human nature, and where those philosophies coincide and deviate, and why this is so.
Hobbes and Plato had very different means by which they acquired the knowledge they had, but they both studied knowledge acquisition very scientifically. Plato and Socrates are seen as two of the very first thinkers who used scientific inquiry to arrive at their conclusions (Plato, 1930, 3). In an introduction to The Republic released in 1930, the translator, Benjamin Jowett, said "The sciences of logic and psychology…the principles of definition, the law of contradiction, the fallacy of arguing in a circle, the distinction between the essence and the accidents of a thing or notion, between means and ends, between causes and conditions; also the division of the mind into rational, concupiscent, and irascible elements" are all things that Plato had a hand in determining. Although his study of knowledge was greatly tinged with his belief in divine beings (Annas, 1981), Plato was able to develop systems by which his thought could be translated into logical conclusions.
Hobbes had more of a foundation when he began his investigations. First of all, he had the writings of Plato to assist him in his search for the basis of true knowledge. Hobbes stated that there are actually two divisions of knowledge. In The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, he states that "there be two sorts of knowledge, whereof the one is nothing else but sense, or knowledge original and remembrance of the same; the other is called science or knowledge of the truth of propositions, or how things are called, and is derived from understanding" (Hobbes, 2010, 19). What he was saying was that a person has an innate ability to make sense of the world that surrounds them; however, that individual does not necessarily have the ability and/or the inclination to understand that natural world. Hobbes makes the case that this is what he is engaged in. He attempts to use investigation and empirical methods to conduct logical studies into the nature of people, and so arrive at conclusions regarding the nature of people. From that study he then moves, logically into studies of justice and how governments are formed.
However, there is a great contrast here. Plato may have been one of the progenitors of much of what has become scientific inquiry, but he did not hold to the principles derived from that form of inquiry as sound. In Timaeus, Plato said about scientific knowledge (which he called reason) "when the circle of the diverse also moving truly imparts the intimations of sense to the whole soul, then arise opinions and beliefs…" (Plato, 2008c, 22). What he was saying here is that scientific reason (which he calls the "circle of the diverse"), the epistemology that Hobbes used and espoused, is used it produces "opinions and beliefs." In that same discourse, Plato went on to say "But when reason is concerned with the rational, and the circle of the same moving smoothly declares it, then intelligence and knowledge are necessarily perfected" (Plato, 2008c, 20). Plato is saying, as he does in many of his books, that the world is ever changing, or diverse. The knowledge that a person gains from experience in the world, or through empiricism, is imperfect and only their own opinion because the world is imperfect. However, if someone gains knowledge through something that is unchanging, such as from a metaphysical source, then that knowledge is perfect. From this investigation it is easy to see that Plato and Hobbes were at distinct odds as to how they reached conclusions.
Plato Idealism vs. Hobbes' Empiricism
The differences in how the two arrived at their differing views of knowledge acquisition leads directly into their philosophical stances. Plato was an idealist which means that he thought that there were ideals which people constructed around which knowledge was based. Hobbes, an empiricist, believed in the sanctity of experiencing the physical world.
Idealism can be explained by using a quote from The Last days of Socrates. In this book, during a conversation with Socrates, he says "(S): And did we not acquire our other senses as soon as we were born? (P): Certainly. (S): Then we must have acquired the knowledge of the ideal equal at some time previous to this. (P): Yes. (S): That is to say, before we were born, I suppose. (P): True" (Plato, 1967, 90). In this discourse, Plato reveals to Socrates his belief that the ideal was acquired for every person prior to their being born. It can be inferred from this that there was some divine agent who gave that ideal to humans. Thus, perfected knowledge comes from this ideal, rather than the imperfect representations of the ideal which exist in the skewed world.
Hobbes would counter this by saying that both of these types of knowledge work together. Hobbes also believed in the two types of knowledge (he called them the knowledge of fact and the knowledge of consequence). In Leviathan, he states "as for the knowledge of fact, it is originally, sense; and ever after, memory. And for the knowledge of consequence, which I have said before is science, it is not absolute, but conditional" (Hobbes, 1904, 39). It can be seen from this passage that Hobbes believed in the same two types of knowledge that Plato did. Sense is that innate knowledge that one has already because they have senses with which to interact with the world. Science is that knowledge which is gained through empirical means. Thus, the two work together to form the whole. Hobbes was one of the first who believed that a person was born with the ability to interact with the world around themselves, but there was no prior knowledge other than the fact that humans have sensory organs. He says, "There is no other act of man's mind, that I can remember, naturally planted in him, so, as to need no other thing, to the exercise of it, but to be born a man, and live with the use of his five senses" (Hobbes, 1904, 12). Thus, it can be seen that there was a great divide between the epistemologies and philosophies of the two men.
Understanding how the two men thought is important in studying what they believed about human nature. Since Plato believed that pure knowledge came from a divine source, it would stand to reason that he would also believe that nature would also come from there. Hobbes has a very dim view of human nature. The beliefs of both men are interesting in that they determine what many believe in the present world.
Plato demonstrated his views regarding human nature while discussing a subject that he is famous for. The philosopher is known to have believed that there had been a race of people who lived on an island called Atlantis. He says of these people;
"For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them" (Plato, 2008a, 18).
In this passage Plato demonstrates what he believes is the perfect human nature. The gods delivered the Atlantians to the island and they had the same perfect nature that the gods had (although this is counter to many of the Greek myths which showed gods who had human traits). These people exemplified all the best that was human nature because they had the nature of the gods. However they did not remain that way because they were corrupted by the imperfect world that they…