Not entirely satisfactory

Posted by Helen Thursday, May 13, 2010 ,

One can get a great deal of enjoyment from that slim volume, Great Books, Bad Arguments by W. G. Runciman. How can one not enjoy a book that is dedicated entirely to the destruction of arguments by Plato, Hobbes and Marx? Of course, few of the counter-arguments are new and most of the evidence for the arguments in The Republic, Leviathan and The Communist Manifesto being unacceptable in first-year undergraduate essays many of us have read, heard and thought before. It is fun to see it all proven again, this time with sociological methodology as underpinning.

However, when the question of why these books remain so important in Western thinking (even The Communist Manifesto) arises, the answers leave something to be desired.

This, however, is interesting:

If there is a single genre to which the three texts can all be assigned, it is that of optative sociology. Their illocutionary mode is neither that of “This is what going to come about” nor that of “This is what ought to come about but that of “If only this were to come about, how much better a place the world would be!” They are masterpieces of anger transmuted into hope. Plato longs for a world in which wise and good rulers have educated the ruled to be wise and good too. Hobbes longs for a world in which strong and sensible rulers have deterred the ruled from turbulence and treason. Marx longs for a world in which the oppression of the ruled by their rulers has been done away with by the abolition of the institution that caused it. Surely, all three want to say to their readers, things don’t have to go on being as bad as they are – do they?
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper, to quote that great anti-utopian writer, Evelyn Waugh. Plato and Hobbes may have been writing optiative sociology; Marx was firmly predicting on the basis of more than dubious so-called scientific analysis that his ideas will come to pass and will create a free, just and equal society. Not might but will. And it is that will that has caused the many millions of deaths and much human misery in the last century. However unpleasant one might find Plato’s and Hobbes’s ideal society, nobody has actually tried to put those ideas into practice.

1 Responses to Not entirely satisfactory

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