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To what extent is knowledge of historical context important when interpreting political philosophy texts?

| November 9, 2016

Introduction

This essay will demonstrate that an understanding of the historical context surrounding a political philosophy text is an essential part of interpreting the assertions it makes. The essay will discuss two philosophers, one whose work is believed to demonstrate this necessity, and another whose composition allows us to observe the dangers that inevitably arise when we attempt to extrapolate meaning from a text, without respecting or engaging with the context that framed its creation.

The intellectuals chosen for this discussion are Karl Marx (specifically on his quintessential collaboration with Friedrich Engels: The Communist Manifesto) and Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 text Leviathan contains some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought.

Before turning to either Marx or Hobbes, however, we must first consider the importance of interpreting political philosophy so that we may understand just how vital knowledge of historical context is to the process. T. Carver once entertained the notion that ’an examination of thoughts from the past is a bad habit, and we should keep our minds on current affairs‘ (Carver, 1991, p.1). He elaborated on this by posing the question ’Why read Marx at all? Why take any notice of his biographical circumstances? Why read his works in historical context?’ before concluding that ’there is no knowledge of the present that is not constructed from ideas that were generated in the past‘ (Carver, 1991, p.1). It is for this reason, amonge others, that the interpretation of political philosophies that far precede our current affairs is worth looking into, and upon identifying the value of ideas generated in the past, it is only logical to consider the past from which the idea in question emerged from.

The Communist Manifesto

Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto makes the observation that the history of all existing society has been marred by a struggle between the classes, namely between ’freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman‘ and that this rivalry between the ’oppressor and oppressed‘ has reached a terrible climax in the emergence of the polarisation between the ’proletarian‘ and ’bourgeoisie‘ (Engels & Marx, 1848, p.219). The bourgeoisie are characterised by owning the means of production; while the proletarians have only their labour to sell (Engels & Marx, 1848). According to Marx, the ’epoch of the bourgeoisie‘ had ’simplified the class antagonisms‘ by replacing the feudal system of industry that could no longer meet the growing wants of markets (Engles &  Marx, 1848, p.222). Whereas this system had been founded on the idea of men being subservient to their natural superiors, Marx believed the bourgeoisie to have replaced this with an obvious self- interest (Engles& Marx, 1848). The consequences of this change were the distinctions between classes, which had never been more dramatic (Engels & Marx, 1848, p.222).

As outlined previously, the proletarian had only his labour to sell, and as innovations in means of production became ever more revolutionary, specialised skills were devalued and the working man, whose existence depended on the securing of work, faced defeat (Engels & Marx, 1848). The Communist Manifesto called for working men of all nations to unite against the bourgeoisie (Engels & Marx, 1848). Marx posited that the bourgeousie’s fall was inevitable, owing to the fact thattheir existence was dependent on the formation of capital, which itself was dependent on wage-labour (Engles & Marx, 1848). Wage-labour relied on competition between the labourers themselves (Engels & Marx, 1848). Marx purported that the bourgeoisie’s inevitable promotion of Modern Industry would result in the advance of industry replacing the isolation of the labourers (Engels & Marx, 1848).

Marxist political theory expresses a desire to do away with private property on the grounds that its existence is solely dependent on its non-existence for 90% of the population and also to deprive the bourgeoisie from subjugating the labour of any individual by means of appropriating the products of society (Engels & Marx, 1848). Marx looks to a world in which class distinctions disappear and the proletariats, in becoming the ruling class, sweep away the ’old conditions of production‘and with it ’the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally‘ (Engels & Marx, 1848, p.244). In short, in place of a bourgeois society would exist a society in which the ’free development of each is the condition for the free development of all‘ (Engels & Marx, 1848, p.244).

Certain specifics within and surrounding this text must be appreciated in the appropriate context in order to fully comprehend their relevance and true meaning. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx makes known the fact that the proletariat have only their labour, as this is all they can sell and their only means of survival (Engels & Marx, 1848), presumably this meant that the necessity of obtaining a wage helped to keep the working class under the control of and dependent on bourgeois industry. The true nature of this assertion simply cannot be comprehended without empathising with the working man of Marx’s age, especially in the context of an Englishman living in a democratic society boasting a National Health Service and a Welfare system. Without engaging with the historical context and thinking outside the confines of a modern Western civilisation, we fail to identify the significance and vitality of Marx’s political philosophy. In not acknowledging the desperation of the proletariat, our interpretation of his work lies in jeopardy.

Let us, for a moment, do away with context completely: Let us take out of consideration the facts that Marx was expelled from France and Belgium for his political activism(Singer, 1980) and that the polarisation between proletariats and the bourgeoisie was so stark. Let us forget that this was a desperate period in history, characterised by violent revolutions in a Paris and Berlin, juxtaposed with the actions of an authoritarian Prussian Monarchy who enforced undemocratic restrictions on political expression (Singer, 1980). The resulting perception is surely that Marx’s work is gratuitously tenacious, vitriolic and paranoid. A reading such as this should surely result in a dismissal of his work on behalf of any serious modern political thinker. In short, to dismiss historical context, is to dismiss Marx.

Hobbes and the Leviathan

When turning to the work of Thomas Hobbes, widely considered as one of the founders of political philosophy in Europe, we are confronted with what is believed to be one of the most compelling cases for the importance of a working knowledge of the historical context of a political text. Here, too, we are granted the opportunity to consider even more so the detrimental effect to the interpretation of a political philosophy that a lack of consideration for historical context can lead.

Hobbes is best known for his 1651 work, Leviathan, which was an attempt to provide a complete explanation of ’the matter, form and power of a commonwealth‘ as the document’s subtitle explicates (Hobbes, 1651). He dissented against the Aristotelian view that man tended towards the good and instead believed that humans in their natural state are barbaric and condemned to a short existence (Ryan, 1996). He further disagreed with Aristotle’s assertion that society and politics came naturally to man and that the hierarchies created by man could too be observed in nature. Rather, he asserted that man created society and politics as an artificial means of ensuring universal peace motivated by a fear of death (Ryan, 1996).

Hobbes believed that, rather than being forced in our natural state into contact with one another without an authority to keep us in check, we enter into a social contract in which we covenant with one another to give up our natural rights in the Sovereign’s favour (Ryan, 1996). Hobbes asserted that an absolute authority should be imposed on the society for its own good, preferably a Monarch, to keep humans in awe (Hoelzl & Ward, 2006). The Sovereign’s complete authority over us was, for Hobbes, beneficial to mankind as it was the only alternative to a short and brutish existence, hence man’s willingness to be subservient to such an authority (Hoelzl & Ward, 2006).

In Leviathan, Hobbes established his political philosophy explicitly and clearly, yet the conclusions a modern day reader is likely to draw from a shallow, non-contextualised reading of the work, are deceptively conflicting. For example, Hobbes champions the notion of equality by espousing that every man has an equal right to self-preservation, while simultaneously endorsing the absolute authority of the Sovereign (Hobbes, 1651). Having barely given a moment to address the apparent paradox which has arisen, one be further perplexed to learn that Hobbes, while preaching absolutism, stated that in some circumstances rebellion against this absolute authority could well be desirable (Hobbes, 1651). In the event of simply identifying the sentiments laid bare within Leviathan and taking them at face-value with no effort to apply a knowledge of Hobbes’ historical context, we may be forced to conclude that his political philosophy is problematic at best and at worst, incoherent.

However, if we proceed by applying a little historical context to the text, we are able to discern the information essential to understanding Hobbes’ political philosophy. Hobbes formed his political philosophy at a time of great unrest – during the English Civil War (Oakeshott, 2001). This accounts for his bleak view of human behaviour and his conclusion that humans tend towards warfare and barbarianism. He believed that what he had witnessed was a taste of the ’war of every one against every one’ that would surely ensue if the artificial institution of society was notmaintained, and the social contract of which he spoke not honoured (Hobbes, 1651). He felt that the only way to avoid this barbarianism was in the installation of a Monarch and so chose to endorse this system as opposed to one of violence and barbarianism (Ryan, 1996). In our time, we have infinitely more options in terms of political parties and systems from which to choose but for Hobbes’ era, it was a matter of chaos or the Monarchy.

What, though, of the oxymoronic notion of the right to rebel against absolute authority to which we must surely succumb? Respecting this, our conclusion must be that Hobbes encouraged a kind of temporary adherence to absolutism as long as the Monarch was behaving in a manner beneficial to its people and was representing them in the correct, Hobbesian fashion by ensuring political and societal peace. Should the Monarch fail, rebellion may be desirable (Hoelzl & Ward, 2006). We should think of this ’absolutism‘that which Hobbes speaks as a kind of temporary doctrine and functional adjective. In Hobbes’ point of view, it is useful for citizens to behave as if living under an absolute authority, as long as that authority is representative of the people’s needs. This cannot, of course, be considered true absolutism, but rather more of an authoritative tool, and so the contradiction disappears. The doing away with this contradiction, however, is only possible when the historical context is considered. In fact, the only two options as far as Hobbes’ experiences were concerned consisted of absolutism and wanton destruction (Ryan, 1996). Were Hobbes forming his political philosophy today, he may be presented with, or may find conviction in other viable and demonstrable political alternatives such as Capitalism, Socialism or Fascism. However, he lived within the confines of a time in which order had been equated with the Monarchy and chaos had been equated with its opponents (Ryan, 1996).

Conclusion

We have observed, then, two instances in which knowledge of historical context is essential. In the first instance, as evidenced by Marx and Engel’s readings, it was established that knowledge about the work’s historical context is key to the comprehension of a political philosophy. And in the second example, looking at Hobbes’ work show how a lack of contextualisation can cause severe damage to interpretation and mislead the reader into finding discrepancy where there is none – which may result in total misinterpretation of the text. Therefore, it can be concluded that knowledge of historical context is nothing short of essential when attempting to interpret political philosophy in a proper manner.

References:

Carver, T., 1991.Reading Marx: Life and Works. In: T.Carver, ed. 1991. The Cambridge Companion To Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ch.1.

Engels, F. and Marx, K., 1848.The Communist Manifesto.Translated by S. Moore., 1888. 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books.

Hobbes, T., 1651.Leviathan.3rd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hoelzl, M. and Ward, G., 2006.Religion and Political Thought.London: Continuum.

Oakenshott, M., 2000.Hobbes on Civil Association.Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Ryan, A., 1996. Hobbes’s Political Philosophy. In: T. Sorell, ed. 1996. The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ch.9.

Singer, P., 1980. Marx. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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