The Political Thought of Confucius, Plato, John Locke & Adam Smith Introduced in Animations Narrated by Aidan Turner

Here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, now that we’ve deter­mined the ide­al form of human soci­ety and imple­ment­ed it sta­bly all across the world — and of course, you’re already laugh­ing. Well over 5,000 years into the his­to­ry of civ­i­liza­tion, we some­how find our­selves less sure of the answers to some of the most basic ques­tions about how to orga­nize our­selves. It could­n’t hurt, then, to take six or so min­utes to reflect on some of his­to­ry’s most endur­ing ideas about how we should live togeth­er, the sub­ject of this quar­tet of ani­mat­ed videos from BBC Radio 4 and The Open Uni­ver­si­ty’s His­to­ry of Ideas series.

The first two seg­ments illus­trate the ideas of two ancient thinkers whose names still come up often today: Con­fu­cius from Chi­na and Pla­to from Greece. “The heart of Con­fu­cian phi­los­o­phy is that you under­stand your place in the uni­verse,” says nar­ra­tor Aidan Turn­er, best known as Kíli the dwarf in The Hob­bit films.

“Ide­al­ly, it is with­in the fam­i­ly that indi­vid­u­als learn how to live well and become good mem­bers of the wider com­mu­ni­ty.” A series of respect-inten­sive, oblig­a­tion-dri­ven, fam­i­ly-like hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion­ships struc­ture every­thing in the Con­fu­cian con­cep­tion of soci­ety, quite unlike the one pro­posed by Pla­to and explained just above. The author of the Repub­lic, who like Con­fu­cius did­n’t endorse democ­ra­cy as we think of it today, thought that vot­ers “don’t real­ize that rul­ing is a skill, just like nav­i­ga­tion.

Pla­to envi­sioned at the helm of the ship of state “spe­cial­ly trained philoso­phers: philoso­pher-kings or philoso­pher-queens cho­sen because they were incor­rupt­ible and had a deep­er knowl­edge of real­i­ty than oth­er peo­ple, an idea that only a philoso­pher could have come up with.” But what would a dif­fer­ent kind of philoso­pher — an Enlight­en­ment philoso­pher such as John Locke, for instance — come up with? Locke, who lived in 17th-cen­tu­ry Eng­land, pro­posed a con­cept called tol­er­a­tion, espe­cial­ly in the reli­gious sense: “He point­ed out that those who forced oth­ers to recant their beliefs by threat­en­ing them with red pok­ers and thumb­screws could hard­ly be said to be act­ing out of Chris­t­ian char­i­ty.” And even if the major­i­ty suc­ceeds in forc­ing a mem­ber of the minor­i­ty to change their beliefs, how would they know that indi­vid­u­al’s beliefs have actu­al­ly changed?

To the invis­i­ble deities of any and all faiths, the Scot­tish econ­o­mist-philoso­pher Adam Smith much pre­ferred what he metaphor­i­cal­ly termed the “invis­i­ble hand,” the mech­a­nism by which “indi­vid­u­als mak­ing self-inter­est­ed deci­sions can col­lec­tive­ly and unwit­ting­ly engi­neer an effec­tive eco­nom­ic sys­tem that is in the pub­lic inter­est.” Though his and all these pre­vi­ous ideas for the orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety work per­fect­ly in the­o­ry, they work rather less per­fect­ly in prac­tice. Real soci­eties through­out his­to­ry have mud­dled through using these and oth­er con­cep­tions of the ide­al state in vary­ing com­bi­na­tions, just as our real soci­eties con­tin­ue to do today. But that does­n’t mean we all can’t mud­dle a lit­tle bet­ter togeth­er into the future by attain­ing a clear­er under­stand­ing of the polit­i­cal philoso­phers of the past.

For a deep­er look at these ques­tions, we’d rec­om­mend watch­ing the 24 lec­tures in Yale’s free course, Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy. It’s part of our larg­er list, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

48 Ani­mat­ed Videos Explain the His­to­ry of Ideas: From Aris­to­tle to Sartre

What Makes Us Human?: Chom­sky, Locke & Marx Intro­duced by New Ani­mat­ed Videos from the BBC

An Intro­duc­tion to Great Econ­o­mists — Adam Smith, the Phys­iocrats & More — Pre­sent­ed in New MOOC

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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