The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7


Show Summary

Political Philosophers

As the Greek Philosophers, while searching for the true ground behind the changes of nature, came to ask "What is the true—the ideal—state?" so again modern thought, while searching for the basis of all knowledge, came to examine, also, the basis of all government.

It will be remembered that the Greek systems considered the individual entirely subordinate to the state. Plato’s ideal state was to embody a thorough-going socialism, and with the exception of Plato’s plan for the community of goods and wives, Aristotle’s ideal government was to be almost as paternal. We have seen, also, that Polybius’s and Cicero’s model states did not differ far from the Roman republic. But when the Roman empire was established, the emperors came to be worshiped as gods, first after death, then even during life. Christianity could not admit the divinity of the emperor, but, after the empire became Christian, helped to spread the doctrine that the ruler reigns by divine right, appointed by God, as were the old Hebrew kings. From the early middle ages to the seventeenth century the theory of divine right was as commonly accepted as had been the supremacy of the pope.

Out of the loose feudalism of the middle ages there grew, in the thirteenth century and later, kingdoms governed by a king, subordinate to whom stood many more or less equal nobles. From this equality among the nobles and their equal right to a voice in the nation’s affairs, came the council of the state, and because the king had to have money for war, and had to get it to some extent from the self-governing cities, the council came to include representatives of the people. This was in general the origin of representative government. The idea has beenone of the most important in history. It has made the existence of a large free government possible. Yet until the time of Charles I. of England, the representative idea did not necessarily imply the supremacy of the people, and it grew side by side with the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

In economics the Middle Ages acted upon what might be called the mercantile theory. This believed in the superiority of money to produce, and hence in keeping a balance of exports over imports by restrictions on trade, many of which were annoying and directly opposed to personal freedom.

But a new movement for individual liberty was arising that overthrew alike paternalism in government, the divinity of the king, and artificial restrictions on trade. As far back as 1577 Jean Bodin in his De la Republic, had maintained that all power came originally from the people, but he admitted that practically it had been perpetually alienated to the king. The English parliament beheaded Charles I., but a reaction set in that recalled his son. Hobbes took the side of the Stuarts, and argued that the people, to secure peace and protection, had irrevocably surrendered their right of governing to the king, under what he called a social contract.

Locke admitted that society is formed practically on such a contract, but made the great distinction that such rights as liberty, property, labor, are natural and can never be alienated. The king is only the representative of the people and can be overthrown. Property is property because earned by labor. Taxes must be voted by those that are taxed. This was the Whig justification for the election of William of Orange, the Bill of Rights, and the lasting supremacy of parliament.

Montesquieu, in his Esprit des Lois, added his authority to the principle of popular liberty. His idea of the preservation of a people’s freedom by the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, as he saw them in the working of the English government, is one of the great principles of our constitution.

Jean Jacques Rousseau elaborated on the idea of the social contract, and the supremacy of the people. To him the king became merely an administrative head. All were to be equal.

Such principles, together with the English theory of taxation only with the consent of the taxed, brought on the American Revolution, and the same ideas, reinforced by the American example, overthrew the French king and the special privileges of the nobles and priests.

At the same time as the American Revolution, Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, attacked the medival theory of the importance of the balance of trade and the consequent supposed necessity of trade restrictions. His arguments for free trade eventually brought about a revolution in the English economic policy and in the entire British colonial system. If he had written a few years earlier the American Revolution might well have been unnecessary.

The great watchwords at the close of the century were liberty, equality, fraternity, free thought, free speech, free trade.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "Political Philosophers," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 18–19. Original Sources, accessed May 20, 2024,

MLA: . "Political Philosophers." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 18–19. Original Sources. 20 May. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Political Philosophers' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.18–19. Original Sources, retrieved 20 May 2024, from