Title: "Poets and Prophets: Plato and Hobbes on the Immaterial Threats to Political Stability"
Avshalom M. Schwartz
In his Republic, Plato announces the banishment of poets from the ideal city and devises an elaborated scheme of state censorship. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes spends much of his Leviathan undermining the authority of the prophets and outlining a strict regime of censorship in matters of religion. At the same time, the two thinkers are infamous for constructing an absolute regime and advocating for a concentration of powers in the hands of the few, wise philosophers or a single, “mortal-god,” sovereign. In light of their absolute and all-powerful political regimes, Plato’s and Hobbes’s insistence on the threat posed by the poets and prophets is puzzling, and so is their radical response to such threats. How fragile must these absolute and all-powerful political regimes be for them to be threatened and undermined by such figures?
This paper argues that the answer to this question is found in the two thinkers’ understanding of human psychology and their similar concern with the ease in which the human mind—and especially the imagination—can be captured by ambitious individuals who seek to establish themselves as an alternative source of authority. Comparing Plato’s and Hobbes’s position on the problem of the poets and prophets, this paper argues, provides us with better and clearer insights into the problem they were trying to solve and the nature of their proposed solutions. Specifically, accounting for the richness of Plato’s psychology and his brilliant analysis of culture provides us with new insights regarding Hobbes’s concern with how the prophets may capture the subjects’ minds and undermine the sovereign’s authority. At the same time, accounting for Hobbes’s engagement with questions of authority and legitimacy sheds new light on Plato’s reasons for banishing the poets from the ideal city and his strict regime of state censorship.
Students of Hobbes have often focused on his relationship with two other prominent ancient figures, namely Thucydides and Aristotle. This is, of course, very well justified, as Hobbes translated both of these thinkers, and his direct engagement with their work is well documented. Much less attention, however, has been given to Hobbes’s relationship to Plato. This is surprising for many reasons, primary among them is Hobbes’s assertion that Plato is “the best philosopher of the Greeks” (Leviathan XLVI). This paper thus further seeks to establish this neglected aspect in Hobbes’s engagement with the ancients and argues for the benefit of considering Plato’s potential influence on Hobbes seriously.