Great Books, Bad Arguments

Great Books, Bad Arguments: "Republic, Leviathan", and "The Communist Manifesto"

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 138
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  • Book Info
    Great Books, Bad Arguments
    Book Description:

    Plato'sRepublic, Hobbes'sLeviathan, and Marx'sCommunist Manifestoare universally acknowledged classics of Western political thought. But how strong are the core arguments on which they base their visions of the good society that they want to bring into being? In this lively and provocative book, W. G. Runciman shows where and why they fail, even after due allowance has been made for the different historical contexts in which they wrote. Plato, Hobbes, and Marx were all passionately convinced that justice, peace, and order could be established if only their teachings were implemented and the right people put into power. But Runciman makes a powerful case to the effect that all three were irredeemably naive in their assumptions about how human societies function and evolve and how human behavior could be changed. Yet despite this, Runciman insists thatRepublic,Leviathan, andThe Communist Manifestoremain great books. Born of righteous anger and frustration, they are masterfully eloquent pleas for better worlds--worlds that Plato, Hobbes, and Marx cannot bring themselves to admit to be unattainable.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3458-7
    Subjects: Philosophy, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Chapter One INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-16)

    Some years ago, I had a conversation with the philosopher Myles Burnyeat in which I asked him how a book like Plato’sRepubliccan continue to be admired as it is although so many of the arguments on which it rests are such bad ones. His answer was that I was missing the point: Plato’s influence is due to his deliberately not pretending to offer definitive solutions to the questions of enduring interest about which he wishes his readers to reflect. As he subsequently put it in a “Master-Mind” lecture on Plato given at the British Academy, the one thing...

  5. Chapter Two REPUBLIC
    (pp. 17-53)

    Gilbert Ryle, in the review that he published in 1947 of Karl Popper’sThe Open Society and Its Enemies, stated the prosecution case against the arguments ofRepublicas forcibly as anyone, including Popper himself: “No tutor would accept from a pupil the reasons given by Plato for the following quite important doctrines: that the Soul is tri-partite; that if the Soul is tri-partite, the ideal society would be a three-class state; that whatever exists, exists to perform one and only one function; that reason is one such function; that one and only one of the classes should be taught...

  6. Chapter Three LEVIATHAN
    (pp. 54-86)

    No less than Plato, Hobbes sees the right education of the ruled by their rulers as critical to the maintenance of harmony and order. The people who are to do it are the “Publique Ministers” who have from the Sovereign “authority to teach, or to enable others to teach the people their duty to the Soveraign Power, and instruct them in the knowledge of what is just and unjust, thereby to render them more apt to live in godlinesse, and in peace amongst themselves” (p. 167). Unlike Plato, however, Hobbes believes that all of the Sovereign’s subjects have the capacity...

    (pp. 87-110)

    Marx’s idea of the just society is no less distinctive than Plato’s or Hobbes’s. His definition of justice is a matter of dispute among the commentators, since his view that ideas are always relative to historical circumstance implies that bourgeois justice is peculiar to bourgeois society, and communist justice to communist society. But there is no doubt that the society which he wants to see is one in which private property has been abolished and resources are distributed from each according to ability to each according to need. That formulation of what was by then a cliché of French socialist...

  8. Chapter Five CONCLUSION
    (pp. 111-127)

    Although there is no universal standard against which the merits (or otherwise) of the conclusions advanced in these three famous books can be measured, nothing can turn an argument which fails on its own terms into a success. The arguments of Plato inRepublic, Hobbes inLeviathan, and Marx and Engels inThe Communist Manifestowhich have been discussed in the previous chapters are strongly felt, artfully presented, and buttressed by carefully selected evidence. But they cannot be rescued from the objections which they invite. How is it, therefore, that all three books can continue, as they do, to be...