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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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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