In my opinion ‘the western political thought’ is diverse in nature. Variety of differences is found in different school of thoughts. It’ll be convenient if we divide Western Political thought into three phases, i.e. Classical Political Theory, Modern Political Theory and Contemporary Political views.
Classical Political Theory:
Western political thought originates from Socrates. Most of the political teachers of the day were Sophists, and were of the belief that happiness was the ultimate purpose of life. For them happiness was best achieved by the acquisition of materialistic things that make people happy. Socrates argued that happiness was the ethical knowledge of how people are supposed to live. He also argued that governments are powerful organizational entities, so they should formulate ethical principles, which should be for the common good of all citizens rather than the triumph of the individual over society’s rules.
Socrates was followed by his student Plato, who is considered to be the first real political philosopher of the western world. He developed ‘Academy’ which was a university of Political Science. Plato’s endeavour was to teach political principles to the rulers, so that they can bring a change in human condition. In his book “The Republic” Plato argued in favour of ‘Philosopher-Kings’. For Plato, like Socrates, ‘justice’ was the base which can only be achieved by balancing wisdom, courage and temperance. These attributes of balance can be possessed only by philosophers, but the paradox (of The Republic) is that philosophers are not interested in ruling; they are only interested in acquisition of more and more knowledge. He proposed ‘education’ as a tool to make philosophers interested in ruling without the desire of acquisition of any materialistic thing. The term ‘democracy’ is found in Plato’s doctrine in a different way. Plato argues that even an ideal society can be self-destruct, because of inevitable human condition. And this decline is a result of passions and emphasize on equality rather than the hierarchy of classes. He called this class of people democratic and the government they create is ‘democracy’.
After Plato the western political thought was continued by his brilliant student ‘Aristotle’. For Aristotle ‘politics’ is the highest form of human expression. He proposed six forms of government, i.e. Monarchy (Ruled by only one), Aristocracy (Ruled by few), Polity (Ruled by many), Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. He considered former three types as good and later three as bad forms of government. For him the distinction between good and bad was closely connected economics and class struggle. Aristotle argued that tyranny, oligarchy and democracy will always act for the good of their own class, rather than the interest of the whole society. Aristotle didn’t ignore those realities of human life which Plato did. (For Plato ‘ideal’ was the only reality.)
After that, Cicero (100 B.C) was another Greek philosopher, his writings greatly influenced the American Founders who likewise believed in a ruling elite rather than a popular democracy. Cicero developed the idea of a Senate composed of life-tenured ex-magistrates who ostensibly had the training and experience to govern. His work is very similar to Plato; He emphasized the written law which for him was the mechanism that guides the statesman in the pursuit of truth and justice.
And then, St Augustine ( A.D. 354) is there with a remarkable contribution to political thought. He argued that man’s sin nature predisposes him to do evil and that only through devotion to God can man hope to have victory over his base nature. He furthered that the political process must find common ground upon which everyone may exist. And that common ground is the context of civil peace.
After Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274 A. D.) Political thought is of great deal. Like Aristotle, St. Thomas believed that the state authority was rooted in natural law and that the written law should be the embodiment of justice. The happiness of the people could be achieved through the actualization of their communal existence.
Modern Political Thought:
Modern political thought of west is comprised of the ideas of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke. Machiavelli demands for a strong Monarchy, but at the same time he’s against the use of excessive power, which can cause hatred and can result as lack of control. Machiavelli further argues that religion is indispensable to good social order, as it lends credibility to the law.
Next is Hobbes, who transformed the logic of power into science. He attempted to make political behaviour based on scientific principles. For him, man is a rational creature; he collectively assents to the creation of a political machine for the accomplishment of his desires. This assent is in the form of a legal contract that moves the parties from a state of nature (conflict) to a state of relative social balance (peace.)
In modern political thought John Locke is considered to be the ‘father of liberalism’ in politics. Locke is of belief that creation of strong government doesn’t guarantee the conflicts, and moreover, a strong state is perfectly capable of a tyranny. The political system proposed by Locke advocates maximum participation of people in political process, in order to lessen the conflicts.
Contemporary Political Thought:
Contemporary political ideas of the western world include conservatism, Classic Liberalism, Modern Liberalism, Socialism and Marxism.
According to Conservatism, when a form of government has worked over a long period of time, and has been generally accepted by those governed thereby, it is folly to attempt to change it for some “purely theoretical” notion, no matter how “reasonable” that notion might be [words of Edmund Burke ]. But Burke is also of the opinion that sometimes it is better to make changes slowly and with the great weight of public opinion behind them, than to move suddenly and radically.
Classic liberalism advocates the political participation of citizens at a broader level. According to this political theory this political participation at masses can bring a political stability. This theory makes the role of government limited and advocates for the freedom for individuals in order to enjoy at maximum level so that, economic and social stability can be attained.
Modern Liberalism is the enhancement in the structure of classic liberalism. This theory advocates for the more open expression of ideas. Tocqueville (1805-1859), holds that too much emphasis on democracy created a (mistaken) belief in the political equality of the masses. He argues that equality of political participation will destroy a nation because it will ultimately result in individuals seeing themselves as isolated from other individuals and thus dependant upon the central bureaucracy for their continued support.
Another modern liberalist, James Stuart Mills suggests provision of education at masses. He’s of the opinion that this is the only way which can raise the moral and intellectual status of the society.
Socialism grew with the fall of liberalism. In this type of system state is the responsible authority for the well being of people. As liberalism advocated strongly for the free-market Capitalism, the labour class became the slave of ‘capitalists’. Regarding this failure of Liberalism, Socialism attempted to keep the ownership of assets by state, which in return has to ensure the well-being of its people. Well, in practice, Socialism has faced a dismal failure. The most important factor of failure has been the conflict between private interests and the interests of the state.
Finally Marxism, which is more complex theory. The ideology of Marxism advocates the militant actions, violent actions etc if necessary to bring a social change. According to Marx, every thing that happens or doesn’t happen is because of class conflict. He argued that artificial forces keep the conflict from getting resolved. He mentioned religion one of such artificial force.
To conclude the western political thought, it is very difficult to generalize all the aspects of different thinkers. As I mentioned in the beginning that western political thought is diverse in nature. By keeping the political thought of west at a broader level, I’m of the opinion that the form of government doesn’t only depend on a particular theory, there are some more factors which support the government, and the main factor of all is the choice of political system in accordance with the need of prevailing circumstances. Secondly one thing that I’ve found common in most of the political thoughts is ‘education’. Education should not be limited to a particular group, but it should be for all. And in this context it is very necessary to educate the rulers, so that they can be best at their position. Special training programs should be designed for the rulers, and the evaluation (of rulers) process should be clear, and they should be accountable to general public for their deeds.