Plato and Hobbes: Two bad metaphors for society—and a better one

Understanding society as an ever-changing archipelago, rather than as a fixed, closed structure.

CHANDRAN KUKATHAS: Looking over the history of thinking about metaphors to describe a good society I felt there were two metaphors that dominated with which I was unhappy. One is a very old metaphor which you'll find in Plato's Republic and this is the metaphor of the ship of state. The way to think about a society Plato suggests is to think of it as a ship. It's on the ocean. It's got to navigate difficult waters. It's got to find a destination. But on the open sea people don't really have much choice but to put their lives into the hands of those who know how to navigate, to know how to run a ship. It means putting their lives in the hands of a captain or a commander. Now this particular metaphor for a society, the ship of state, suggests that what we have in the real world in every society is a kind of a closed society with a purpose or a direction to go. Everybody there is somehow there without any possibility of escape or any possibility of joining that society and they're in precarious circumstances so they need somehow a system of authority.

So this metaphor really depends upon there being a closed society before we can start thinking about how to manage it. And diversity has no place in this other than the fact that people have different skills which all have to be coordinated to a single end. The other prominent metaphor in history of thought is a slightly different one and this is found in Hobbes' "Leviathan" which conceives of political society on the analogy of a body. The Leviathan is a term Hobbes uses to describe the state and the state is made up of all of the parts which go to form the single hull. That single hull is made up of all the different persons who live essentially as a collective to authorize the exercise of power by this single entity. Once again the conception of the society here is of a kind of unitary structure. And what I wanted to do was think about how we understand society without assuming a closed structure or a closed society. Because in the real world people come and go not only because they're born, there are succeeding generations but also because people move from one jurisdiction to another, but also jurisdictional boundaries change.

I mean if you look at the borders of the world over its history or even over the last century you see how dramatically these borders have changed. Very, very few countries have not had their borders changed. I mean think about Europe for example. In 1900 there were 20 states in Europe. Now there are I think 55 and in between there were so many variations. But if you go back 500 years you'll see that there are about 700 different principalities. So the boundaries are always changing and there's always movement across boundaries. So if you're theorizing about how one should live to assume a closed society seems to be a very limiting assumption. What I wanted to suggest was that a good society is one in which what you see is a diversity of peoples living across jurisdictions that change all the time and those moving across the boundaries themselves will be people with different ethical commitments as well as the capacity to change those commitments. And so what you needed was a metaphor that describes this kind of society. So my thought was that what we see really is a kind of archipelago which is a collection of islands that are in some sort of proximity to one another across the seas of which people move all the time.

And the Archipelago itself as I understand it is one that's made up of islands which themselves come into existence and go out of existence depending on a whole range of things from tides to climate change. So this is I think a way of understanding the world which is quite different from that I think of much of classical philosophy. And I think even within the liberal tradition the norm has been to think about society by trying to theorize it as a kind of closed and fixed entity. And I wanted to say no, it's really something quite different. And this I think is something that strengthens our reasons for thinking about it in terms of norms of toleration rather than norms of justice. Because norms of justice basically say we figure out what is right and then we enforce it. Whereas norms of toleration says we disagree about what's right. Let's continue to debate this. Maybe from time to time we'll have to settle the question but let's not think in terms of finding the one right answer. So that I think is the reason for my thinking about things according to the model of the archipelago. And there reason for calling it The Liberal Archipelago is partly because when I imagine its opposite I think of Solzhenitsyn's idea of the gulag archipelago.

Maybe it's something that people aren't so familiar with nowadays but in the 1970s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote his great masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago to describe the system of labor camps to which political prisoners were sent across the Soviet Union. And in these special camps people had no freedom to leave. They were simply constrained or confined into these camps and they were ruled from above. This was very much the model of a kind of closed society. And what I wanted to say was that the opposite of this is still an archipelago of different communities but it's a liberal one because people are free to move across from one to another to find the place which most suits them, which most accommodates their own way of living.

  • Chandran Kukathas, Lee Kong Chian Chair in Political Science, considers Plato and Hobbes' metaphors of society as a ship and a body, respectively.
  • The metaphors for society from classical philosophy frame it as a closed structure. Kukathas argues that because boundaries are fluid and ever changing, and because people move in and out of them, the metaphor should be one of an archipelago.
  • The islands that form an archipelago come into and go out of existence according to various factors and natural circumstances. For Kukathas, this model of society favors "norms of toleration" over "norms of justice" and leaves room for debate and disagreements about what's right or wrong.

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