New Castle News

March 4, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: Political lessons from distant past hold value today

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — If you want to gain an appreciation for great thinkers, read some of history’s major political philosophies.

Here you will find the works of Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, St. Augustine and many others. They explored difficult social issues and offered serious insight.

But if you analyze these political works, inevitably a question arises: How could these brilliant minds come to so many different conclusions about individuals and government structure?

Various explanations for this can be found. But it’s mainly because these philosophers were products of their times. The events they observed and encountered helped to forge their outlooks on life and their views on politics.

Yet times and perceptions evolve. That raises problems for those looking for help from great ideas in the past. Maybe those ideas derived from events that are no longer pertinent.

With this observation in mind, it’s easier to dismiss Plato’s embrace of the state and its dominance over the individual. Plato believed in a vibrant political culture, full of debate and exchange of ideas. Yet at the end of the day, he accepted adherence to the dictates of the state. This, Plato determined, was essential for civilization to survive.

It’s a notion that clashes with the concept of a free society, where individual action and innovation is something to celebrate and promote. Americans might take Plato’s conclusions and decide he was a fool.

But this ignores the times Plato lived in. He appreciated government and the rule of law, because he was well aware of the chaos and brutality that could exist outside of its protection.

Today, plenty of people complain about government. Much of it is typical human grumbling about things that don’t go right. However, some of it stems from a view that government is the cause of our problems, not a potential for solution.

When you look at today’s gridlock in Washington, and the utter inability of politicians to hammer out practical agreements on matters pertaining to budgets and taxes, you can understand how people can give up on government. This level of incompetence — and it is incompetence, not principled partisanship — fuels individuals who think it’s best to privatize all aspects of government, buy some guns and embrace self-sufficiency.

Yet a fundamental mistake is made today by many people who criticize government. They overlook the fact they are criticizing themselves. Even for Plato, politics and government weren’t some far-off system of arbitrary authority. They derived from the active participation of citizens who shaped government to fit their needs.

And despite the passage of millennia, this hasn’t changed. Government is a tool we control. When it fails to do our bidding — and we refuse to demand better — who’s to blame?