Choose one of these prompts and write a 4-page essay in response
(more instructions and tips below):
I. The Times of Political Thought
Plato sees time passing as a nuisance to the just city. Callipolis will inevitably decay and morph into various regimes, one more unjust than the other. Rousseau presents a teleological declentionist account of history, which ultimately will come to justify insurrection – once the second state of nature emerges. Kant looks at history as driven by a teleology characterized by progress. All three authors also propose a programmatic moment (which, in all three cases, could be called “utopian”). Machiavelli stresses contingency, unpredictability, and though he also desires stability, his account of the relation between time and politics differs strikingly from all three other authors.
Discuss the question of time, contingency, decay and progress in two of these four authors’ works. In their view, is history moving toward progress or decay? Does time bring more injustice, more inequality, or more progress? Engage two of these four authors in a conversation with one another, focusing on their respective treatment of time. Especially highlight their differences/disagreements, and be as precise as you can.
You may defend one position against the other, or you can reject both positions you discuss. Without proposing your own program or vision of time and history, critique (positively and negatively) each author.
II. The People, Inequalities, Wealth
Machiavelli grants a lot of importance to “the people” in his book of advice to the Prince. What role does the people play in politics and what influence should it have on rule and the ruler according to him? Rousseau situates the poorest populations very specifically with respect to the state of nature (in its pure form). He also spends the whole book denouncing inequalities erupting in civil society. Plato, has a very different account of class inequality, and in this matter his ideal city differs greatly from both Machiavelli’s political analysis and Rousseau’s vision of history. Rousseau and Plato especially discuss the question of wealth in depth, and take different stances on this. In Plato’s ideal city, the ruling class is the least wealthy, whereas Rousseau implies that in civil society (which he denounces) the ruling class is also the wealthiest.
Discuss the question of inequality and class, the place of the least wealthy and upper classes, in two of these authors’ texts.
Engage two authors in a conversation with one another. Your analysis must contrast their views and stage their disagreements on these matters. Critique their positions, either by defending one more than another (though doing so in a nuanced manner), or by rejecting both, but refraining from proposing an alternative view.
III. Property, needs and abundance
Rousseau and Plato both praise frugality, simplicity in their own specific ways. Plato exhorts his readers to care about their soul and justice rather than about wealth and reputation. The first city founded in the Republic ends up as a “city of pig,” a decadently abundant city. The decay described in book VIII as generating increasingly unjust regimes is also associated with excesses in wealth. Though it is important to note that economic inequalities aren’t a problem to Plato in the same way as to Rousseau, in both cases restriction of wealth is seen as virtuous and just. Rousseau grounds his declentionist account of an increasingly inegalitarian (to him, inequality is coterminous with injustice). He denounces the invention of property and successive revolutions in human needs brought about by increased interaction. “Amour propre” would not arise to supplant “amour de soi,” if it wasn’t for wealth and competition. These two accounts are very different, yet both may pertain to today’s world.
Weaving in a close analysis of graffiti artist Blu’s fresco to illustrate your critique, engage the two authors and this fresco in a conversation on wealth, property, and decadence. Be creative, enjoy yourself, but also be very careful to ground your discussion in the texts and in a precise description of the fresco.
You can choose to defend one author’s or certain aspect of one author’s position, against the other. Or, you can decide to reject both, offering rigorous critique. Do not propose your own understanding of wealth, property and decadence, but rather demonstrate that you understand these concepts as Rousseau and Plato mobilize them. Use the fresco as illustration for this demonstration.
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