Meditation IV, Politicus – The Limitations Political Power

David Plays the Harp for Saul by Rembrandt

~ When the Israelites ask for a king, Samuel reminds them that God is king. Yet the people insist and they get a king. However, the people soon realize that a king, whoever he is, may not give them happiness.

A utopian state is a lie. It has never existed and may never come into existence. Even if it did, such a state of never ending happiness and bliss is unsustainable. After failing to build heaven on earth, humanity then decided on trying as hard as they can to create as close as they can the image of utopia. Thus, the various forms of political systems came into existence as we can see in the world today. From the third meditation, we know that a perfect state is an illusion. Therefore, a perfect political system is also an illusion. Yet, is it possible that a particular political system be relatively better than another?

The first political systems after the dawn of civilizations were predominantly authoritarian. There are two forms of authoritarian systems, namely, an autocracy whereby a single head rules the state and an oligarchy in which the state is ruled by an elite group. Most of the early civilizations were ruled by monarchs, pharaohs, caliphs, sultans, and emperors and thus can be categorize as a form of authoritarian states. Although many aspects may differ, most early civilizations were ruled by a single head with absolute power (usually because of being an offspring of God or by heaven’s mandate)

There were however exceptions to this commonality in Greece. In Ancient Greece, all city states (each city was a state by itself) were autonomous to a certain degree even though they may have shared a common culture and geographical location. The Greek city states were an extreme form of democracy which resulted in the each city state fighting amongst one another as much as they fought any external force which threatened their independence.

After the great experiment of the Ancient Greeks, authoritarian political systems would continue to dominate history until the emergence of totalitarian political systems. Totalitarian forms of government have existed in the past (though very rarely) and are an extreme form of nondemocratic ways of governance. Examples of totalitarian states can be found in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and China under Chairman Mao.

The leadership of a totalitarian state is normally an indispensible dictator whose ideology drives the entire state’s economic, social, and political policies. Totalitarian leaders usually promise the people a state of utopia should their policies succeed and is normally the justification of their absolute power. Indeed, all three totalitarian states in history as mentioned above promised their citizens utopia through the adoption of certain eugenic policies. All three states however, have failed in history to achieve utopia.

Modern democracy on the other hand has no fixed form and is a misnomer. All previous civilizations at the time of their height would have thought themselves as the most ‘modern’ civilization and thus the pinnacle of human achievement. For the purpose of this discussion, our current form of democracy is not one but many. Elections and representatives of the people, by the people, and for the people is the common feature of a democracy. Yet in reality, the presidential system of the United States and the parliamentary system of Great Britain is vastly different in the manner of electing the people’s representative, judiciary system, and administrative structure.

Similarly, the democracies of France, Germany, and Japan are different in many aspects. This difference in the various democracies may, of course, be inevitable as the demographics, agenda, and economic factors from each country differ from one another. While the Americans may be more concerned about their national debt, the British may put more emphasis on the acts of terrorism by Northern Ireland’s IRA (though both countries are currently mainly concerned with the economy) and so both political systems would and should adapt to their respective needs.

Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.’ Lincoln was right but only in a utopian sense of thinking for no form of government and political system is of ‘all’ the people, by ‘all’ the people, and for ‘all’ the people. Just put two individuals in the room and it is likely that they both differ in their wants or need! How then is utopia possible? Therefore, all forms of governments and political systems are flawed as an authoritarian state faces the tyranny of a dictator while a democratic state faces the tyranny of the majority.

This imperfection brought the philosopher Voltaire to say that if we were to ask the rich, they would choose aristocracy, while the people would choose democracy, and the monarchs would choose monarchy. Therefore, in reality each of the above would protect the interest of a certain group at the expense of another group (though this may not be a zero sum game). Thus, we have come to a crossroad and must now answer the question of whether one political system is better than the other.

Yet, the question above is flawed as we already know that each political system is better only for a certain party or individual. Taking this into consideration, the right question should be whether a political system is better at a particular period of time to face a particular form of challenge from the external environment. Here, the answer is not so simple, for one form of government may be replaced by a different form of government which is equally imperfect. However, in a utilitarian sense (the greatest good for the greatest number of people), a perfect form of government can be determined after one fixes the boundary, parameter, conditions and the specific length of time.

The School of Athens by Raphael

Athens versus Sparta, Democracy versus Authoritarian

Both Athens and Sparta were Greek cities that were similar in race, culture, and common language. In reality, we can seldom find cities that are so distinctively different! For Athens was the capital of knowledge of the Ancient world and stood high and proud in the plains bordering the sea and the wind. Sparta on the other hand, is located at the bottom of a deep valley, and detested all forms of foreign knowledge. Athens was a city, a port, and an academy which was always busy with trade and maritime activities while her brother Sparta toiled and trained under the sun and under the rain to churn out the mightiest soldiers the world has ever seen.

In Sparta, people were soldiers for the sake of being soldiers. In Athens, people were philosophers for the sake of being philosophers. Politically, Athens was like the sun, full with passion, and forever changing while Sparta was the moon, consistent, rigid, and resisted change. For Athens was a democracy and all political decisions were made through the vote of majority (ecclesia), while Sparta was an oligarchic authoritarian state in which power rested in a council of old men, five magistrates (ephors), and two hereditary kings with special military power.

The history of Athens and Sparta unfolds akin to two siblings fighting for the attention of their parents (not literally, but who is greater). For a period of time, Athens had the best form of government for it was the light of the world (arts and science) and the might of the sea (its navy). Furthermore, Athens churned out more philosophers, scientists, doctors, and anything else but soldiers than Sparta. However, at the time of crisis when natural disasters and economic instability wrecked havoc on Athens, the votes of the majority (democracy) chose the wrong leader at the wrong time and the city state was doomed to fall.

And fall it did! For during times of prosperity and bliss, democracy is the best form of government. But in times of crisis, the Spartan authoritarian political system reacted faster, stronger, and more united than the Athenian democracy. And so it came to pass that Athens, whose people were fighting internally among themselves as much as they were fighting their common enemy, fell into the hands of Sparta and fell into ruin and decadence.

In history, the story never ends until there are no longer any living human beings. But the apocalypse, the end times, and the Ragnarok did not happen when Athens fell and so we have the privilege to continue the story to a point whereby the strength of arms and the might of shield (Spartan shields in reality were unique with the Greek sign of lambda) of Sparta was no substitute to the freedom and the will of the majority demanded by the people. Sparta fell, and its fall was so great that its form of governance did not reemerge until the 19th century (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union of Stalin).

In the knowledge that no form of political system is perfect for all times, we still can find a truth to which we can base our meditations on. For if A does not equal to B and B equals to C, A does not equal to C. Using deductive reasoning, the first meditation shows us that we cannot understand fully and absolutely the will of God due to the limitations of pure reason and the senses. However, even if we do not understand God, ethics is necessary for social order. Ethics on the other hand, is relative to the individual and although necessary for civilization must rely on power to enforce it.

Power then comes through the people’s acceptance of a form of government and political system which, as proven in the third meditation, can never be perfect. So man, unable to create heaven on earth (utopia), must now settle for an imperfect political system. So, which then is the best form of government? The answer depends on the situation and challenges the system is subjected to. For a democracy is the best form of government when times are good and food is plenty but is found lacking when desperate measures are required urgently. Here, we can pose another question as  to how a government enforces the power given to it by the people. In other words, in what form is power found in a state?

This concludes the fourth meditation and opens a path to the fifth meditation.


Please Proceed to the Next Meditation: Meditation V, Armata The Limitations of Military Might

Or Go Back to the Meditation Page

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  1. […] Pure Bliss Vocals wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptFor during times of prosperity and bliss, democracy is the best form of government. But in times of crisis, the Spartan authoritarian political system reacted faster, stronger, and more united than the Athenian democracy … […]

  2. […] Posted by jamesesz on March 26, 2009 The Fourth Meditation, Politicus – The Limitations of Political Power […]

  3. […] The Fourth Meditation, Politicus – The Limitations of Political Power […]

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