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Why read political writings?

March 3, 2011

        There have been many times in my life where I have thought that many topics covered in political theory were a waste of time.  Writings or papers that supported monarchy would fall into this category.  When I read much of Hobbes, I wondered to myself, “why are we reading this, we know that monarchies don’t work and people don’t want one ruler with supreme power.”  I always thought that people had figured out that some form of democracy was the right way to go.  Why read Hobbes arguments if they are clearly wrong then?  I know to many of you reading this, you probably answered the previous question in a million different ways; but, I had never put much thought into this. 

            I was able to come up with one solid answer (I know there are many more and feel free to inform me of these in a comment) as to why we would be reading such things and putting so much emphasis into authors whose ideas, the U.S and much of the world clearly rejected.  I remember when reading Hobbes, the professor told us, to look at the argument and see for ourselves if we believed it.  If we didn’t believe it, he challenged us to ask ourselves why it was that we didn’t believe it.  In Hobbes’ argument he says that all the people need to have a contract with the ruler, giving him supreme authority; but the ruler does not need to have a contract with the people.  When reading this I though, “wow, there would be no checks and balances in this system, as long as a ruler thinks that he is protecting his people as a whole, he could seriously hurt people and no one could stop him”. 

            I realized that I had looked at one aspect of Hobbes’ argument and instead of just saying it was wrong, I had taken the time to think about what made it wrong.  That’s why we read these articles.  Future generations need to look at intelligent writings like this and be able to know why they disagree with the views.  If we didn’t do this there is a real possibility that people would just say it is wrong without ever wondering why.  As time passed on, people would forget why the idea was wrong.  Doubt would spring up whether the idea was really wrong, and this could lead to people saying the idea may not be so bad after all and then trying to implement the idea.

            Thus reading history and analyzing it, serves as a way to pass on knowledge of things that we would not like to see repeated in history and things we would like society to continue to do.  One of the reasons that we teach the Holocaust so extensively to all children, is so they can see the horror it caused and analyze why the things Hitler did were wrong.  Thus, all generations know how dangerous the idea of debasing a certain race can be, and are not likely to do it again.

4 Comments
  1. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    March 3, 2011 12:02 PM

    Although it would be so much easier and more desirable to just disregard the political theories and practices of the past, and focus on present situations only, that would not last. Much like in any subject, you have to go back to the beginning and learn the fundamentals, the origins, and mistakes. Yes, if we could skip all that because it is seemingly irrelevant to our present situation, that would be great. But, then we also nee to realize that these political theorists, although they may be have a big picture idea of something such as monarchy, they also have countless other points that are relevant to us now. Also, if there is a flaw, or something in their argument that causes it to fail, we can also learn from that to fix the future.

  2. kaycohen23 permalink
    March 6, 2011 9:21 PM

    You make a good point in your post, but I have to argue that not all people are opposed to a single ruler with ultimate power. To say that “…monarchies don’t work and that people don’t want one ruler with supreme power” as well as asserting that Hobbes is “wrong”, are too broad of statements to fully argue. However, I do agree with you that there are various ways to address these overarching positions. Some people find the concept of one ruler with ultimate power comforting because they believe that if one person is in the highest position of authority there is less room for controversy when making decisions. With that being said, this one ruler must rule with the best interest of their people in mind or else this scenario could be detrimental to that society. As you continued further with your analysis of Hobbes’ work, I, much like you yourself stated, started to question why I did not believe in Hobbes’ theories. With regard to why you do no believe him, you cited the following argument: “In Hobbes’ argument he says that all the people need to have a contract with the ruler, giving him supreme authority; but the ruler does not need to have a contract with the people.” When thinking about this specific argument I agree with you. In a government where there is no system of check and balances there is the risk that the ruler can get “out of control”. What I mean by this is that if the ruler is not in a social contract with their people, that ruler has no obligation to their citizens and therefore might take advantage of their power.

  3. snradin permalink
    March 8, 2011 8:42 PM

    I think it is important to note your biases and prior knowledge when deciding that you believe Hobbes is “wrong.” You stated in your post, “I always thought that people had figured out that some form of democracy was the right way to go,” but this is just representing your point of view. It is proven that different forms of government work better in different situations and countries. Yes, democracy has proven to work in the modern US, but back in Hobbes’ day maybe democracy wasn’t the way to go and a monarchy worked better because the people needed to look up to a single ruler. I agree it is important to read political writings to inspect what went wrong, but there are also a variety of reasons to read previous political writings. We also need to read them to see what went right. Not only that, but there is not one correct political theory and being knowledge on the variety of theories can only be beneficial when thinking about creating different forms of government. Although you might not agree with Hobbes’ take on the importance of a monarchy and the need for a social contract, other aspects of his argument that are not so obvious you may agree with and can even interpret in your own, personal way.

  4. emjaffe permalink
    March 9, 2011 8:50 AM

    I have to admit- I had the same thoughts running through my head throughout the first several readings for polisci theory. I would wonder WHY I had to read this stuff- especially when it was long and I would much rather be doing anything else besides trying to decode the various philosopher’s writing.
    However, after about a month into the class it hit me why I need to read the writings we have been assigned. To me- it is important to be educated about perspectives that vary from my own.
    I don’t agree with Hobbes on much. I don’t agree with many of the philosophers on their beliefs- especially their religious dedication. But I do want to KNOW about them so I can be AWARE.
    I want to be aware so I don’t, and help others don’t, make the same mistakes as have been made in the past (as you stated in your blog). But it’s also much more then this-

    I feel like today’s college students and young generations have become accustomed to being given quick and easy answers. Internet allows us to wikipedia or google an answer to a question. Grade schools use many basic, busy work exercises that do not challenge the thought process of their students. Calculators punch out numbers and avoid the complex thoughts needed to solve math problems.

    But polisci theory readings take WORK. We have to struggle over each paragraph to understand what the philosopher is saying. We have to take our daily, monotonous thoughts and flip them upside down to be open-minded to Hobbes’ arguments. And even though, at the end of the day, we still do not believe a word of his writings- it is still beneficial to our education as student’s and builds our ability to think and help solve the problems of our world.

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