The late eighteenth century was a transitional era: a time when feudal dominance was coming to an end in Europe and when thirteen North American colonies began to feel the oppressive hand of imperialist Great Britain. History was made in 1776 when the thirteen colonies united in defiance of their mother country and penned the Declaration of Independence. Only a few short years later the French masses revolted in a similar fashion under the Declaration of the Rights of man. Both documents were inspired by living under an oppressive rule, but the methods each used to inspire a following we’re different. Because of their geographic locations, the Declaration of Independence is an aggressive list of complaints meant to unify the colonies, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man contains more possible solutions meant to incite action.
By the late eighteenth century, America and France had developed a politically and socially symbiotic relationship. It was the tail end of the enlightenment, and France’s famous Encyclopédie had been published and read by thousands European and American citizens. This massive set of books contained subtextual political jabs and criticisms hidden in works from many famous philosophers. Their revolutionary ideas, such as Voltaire’s separation of church and state and Montesquieu’s separation of powers had heavy influences on their own country, as well as on the American colonists, who were becoming increasingly unwilling to cooperate with their mother country, Britain. Although each country’s revolutionary documents (America’s Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) were written in retaliation against oppressive governments, they were written to achieve different goals. The former was written to highlight mankind’s right to institute a new government when its current one is corrupt, whereas the latter was written to highlight and stress the importance of inalienable and universal human rights.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence to unify the colonies and persuade Britain to renounce its sovereignty over America. The piece declares that it is the sole job of a government to protect the basic rights of man—including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness— and if it fails, it is the people’s right to institute a new government. It then lists the most prominent ways in which the British King is governing his colonies tyrannically, and urges the people of the thirteen American states to unify and forcefully emancipate themselves from Great Britain completely, thus beginning the American Revolution.
France’s National Assembly wrote its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in a similar context: a time in which over ninety percent of French citizens were being underrepresented and mistreated by their government. Also a precursor to a revolution, this document stressed the basic rights of every man, which should be unanimously recognized and respected. It lists seventeen human rights, such as liberty, security, and resistance of oppression.
Although they have more similarities than differences, each document was written to inspire social and political change. Each group felt that its rights were being infringed upon, and the respective declarations of France and America illustrate their ideas of what they, as nations and as people, deserve.
Though the American and French documents we studied were written with the idea of change in mind and were somewhat inspired by each other, they had different views on property and the function of such. Property was a very important aspect to take into account because these documents were not only directed towards the public, but towards the higher power (ie. the government) that would end up reading them.
The American Declaration of Independence put a distinct focus on property. The majority of the document listed the negative actions that the King inflicted on the people, and in doing so the reader can see that instead of the citizens being treated like citizens, they were essentially the property of the King. An example of this is how he “[cut] off our Trade with all parts of the world,” which was obviously a huge decision, but not one that the citizens had any say in. The action reminds me of a parent scolding a child; having the right to trade taken away and the isolation that comes with such is almost like being grounded. Property is also addressed in a more typical manner- in the context of owning something- when it is mentioned that “[he imposed] Taxes on us without our Consent.” By being so dominating and overbearing, the King makes it clear that he had total control over his governed people.
On the other hand, the French documents of independence put a slightly different twist on the concept of property. While the American document mentioned taxes being imposed without any warning, the French government actually gave the citizens a say in such (through a vote), though they only did so because they knew the odds would never be in the favor of the citizens. This led the writer to call property an “an inviolable and sacred right” and mention that it should only ever be taken away if it was legally determined to do so. With some historical context we know that the French rulers oppressed their citizens just as much as the English ones did, but such was not implicitly state as it was in the American Declaration of Independence. Personally I think this lack of specificity strengthens the French document; saying less rather than more is often powerful.
In The Declaration of Independence the King not only abused his power through raising taxes, but through treating his people like property, while The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen focused less on listing complaints, and more on introducing solutions.
The idea of natural rights, or the universal unalienable privileges given to any citizen, gained popularity after the Enlightenment era. John Locke argued that it is the government’s role to help protect its peoples’ rights to life, liberty, and property. The French and American governments both chose to include their own versions of Locke’s ideas in their declarations; France with The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and America in The Declaration of Independence. Although both countries included similar natural rights, the specific dictation is very important in learning what ideals each country held above all else.
The writers of The Declaration of the Rights of Man stated, “The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man; and these rights are Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression.” Both countries neglect to include one of Locke’s original natural rights. It seems neglecting life as one of the universal rights foreshadows the Reign of Terror which began as an extension of the French Revolution after all the Third Estate’s requests were not met. The French included security and resistance to oppression in their natural rights. After such a large percentage of the population was abused, and subjected to poverty for such a lengthy period-of-time it seems obvious that they would be more focused on these ideas than the American people. Furthermore in The Declaration of the Rights of Man they describe natural rights as being imprescriptable, meaning immune from the prescription of law or rule. This coincides their proposal that the government and law should only hinder actions that are harmful to society.
Thomas Jefferson is most famous for writing the section of The Declaration of Independence which said, “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In the American version property is not included. It could be argued, that the meaning is the same if you view wealth as the highest happiness, because at the time property equalled wealth. Instead of arguing that these values should not be interfered with by law Jefferson chooses to connect natural rights with religion, and chooses the word, self-evident, or without requiring proof. Of course as a country formed on the ideals of religious freedom, with most of it’s citizens practicing Christianity it is logical that they believed this would be the most inspirational wording.
Since the French were subjected to oppression from their own people they were even more weary of government than Americans who no longer considered themselves part of the English people. Both countries viewed natural rights differently based on the specific circumstances of their abuse. This lead them to modify Locke’s ideas in ways that better suited the goals of their revolution. Both countries were seeking equality, but the French’s attempt was more of a revision, whereas the American’s were striving to create a whole new nation.
While reflecting on the revolutions of the past it has been seen that they have brought upon suffering and at times more chaos. Even after there has been a reform, the public’s misery has not been eased. However, at times the natural rights of the people become violated enough and the desire for happiness necessitates retribution which is similarly displayed by the French and American revolutionary documents. They also put doubt on the “perfect State” (The Republic) proposed by Plato.
Although the two documents draw many parallelisms; they occur in different social contexts. While Americans were being oppressed by a King on the other side of the shore, French were being oppressed in their homeland. This probably led to the French having a more aggressive approach in their declaration as the control by the monarchy was a much stronger one. Whereas the Americans living on another land probably had much more freedom than their French did counterparts did.
Both the French and American societies bring to light the tyranny of their respective rulers: one by the dictatorship of the British King; the other, the hierarchal social structure. Being on a common stage brought upon by violation of rights, they plead for equal standing regardless of place of birth in society. Born under the same sun, they believe every man deserves, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”(Blaisedell 64). They reveal that the majority is ruled by a minor group in society and their desires fulfilled at the cost of the majority. In America’s case a British monarch far overseas enforces dictatorship and the French, by the First and Second estate which consists of less than 2% of society but has the most say in the State. They infringe the rights of man which are considered “sacred” and “inviolable”(Paine 94). The documents also display parallel rhetoric in their arguments. They display a common use of pathos by describing the incompetency of the King and Second estate as the rulers have defiled their right to rule by giving in to personal desires of power, ignoring the public good. Such use of pathos was important, as it would rally up the people to rise for a change in governance. The use of emotion was needed to unite them under one banner.
These two documents signify how intellectuals brought up an issue to the people and allowed them to strive for what was rightfully theirs. While proving that the desire for freedom can instigate change, they also display the long term results of ‘perfect’ compulsive societies put forward by Plato and that perhaps a utopia is one with everyone’s happiness considered.
Plato’s “The Republic” and More’s “Utopia explore the possibilities of creating an ideal state. In an idea state however, there must be some sort of regulation among the masses, and this comes from a relationship between a ruler and those that are ruled. Although they each concede that it is necessary for their state to have a ruler and those who are ruled, it is Plato’s search for the perfect soul that compels him to create a rigid system of leadership under the philosopher kings and it is More’s desire to create a superior nation that drives him to construct a fluid class system allowing the rise of a ruler. These differences in motivation cause the different relationships between ruler and ruled in “Utopia” and “The Republic”.
Plato’s “perfect” state must also have a ruler that is equally as ideal. The philosopher king he describes through the voice of Socrates comes from a separate category from ordinary citizens. The philosopher king is an elite individual, trained from birth in mathematics, war, and the didactic method. This creates a distinct and rigid separation between the ruling class and the rest of the general population. Plato’s initiative is his search for the perfect soul, and through his belief that humans are inherently flawed, he concludes that it is in the best interest of the masses to be ruled under strict power. In this view the perfect soul is one which is just and happy, so in the analogy of the state, Plato believes that it is the duty of the ruler to rule and the duty of the citizens to carry out the tasks they are most capable of. This strict societal structure between the ruling class and the ruled stems from Plato’s belief that the soul is most happy when it is carrying out the task that supports the greater good.
Similarly, More seeks to create a society at peace with itself, but his ideology rests upon the idea that Utopian citizens will feel a collective sense of cooperation and justice. This more optimistic view of human nature relies on a general good natured attitude of his citizens in creating a less rigid relationship between the ruling class and the ruled. In Utopian society, there is no separation between the general public and future rulers. This allows for greater social mobility and the possibility of a capable ruler rising from the public, though Utopian leaders carry less power than those of “The Republic”. This is derived from More’s desire for equality and to create a superior nation, viewing humans as malleable and interchangeable therefore creating a more fluid relationship between ruler and ruled.
The societies of “Utopia” and “The Republic” both necessitate the presence of a ruler and those that must be ruled, it is the motivation behind the ideologies however, that shapes the relationships of each society.
Both More and Plato have very specific views about the relationship between a ruler and their subjects. Plato’s philosopher-kings are harder on his subjects, giving them less free will because he feels that they are not well educated enough to know what is in their best interests. More takes a different view of his subjects, allowing them more freedoms because he trusts that people are good at heart and don’t need to be told how to live their lives by a totalitarian ruler. These two rather different styles of ruling are a based on the authors’ levels of trust in their subjects.
Plato’s philosopher kings are educated from birth so that they can be trusted to make decisions for the good of the state. It is through this training that he feels they are qualified to handle their power. Plato does not allow his subjects very many liberties at all. He would even withhold parts of classic stories about their gods and heroes, which portrayed them as having flaws. (Plato, 58) Plato also believes that his subjects should not be allowed to choose their own profession. He expects them to do what they are best at, regardless of if they enjoy it. He even goes so far as to say that they should take pleasure from contributing to the good of the state. This control of his subjects suggests that Plato does not think them worthy of such freedoms.
In More’s Utopia citizens are apprenticed to their fathers unless they are naturally talented in some other field or find enjoyment elsewhere (More, 34). This freedom to choose their profession shows that More feels that people are worthy of at least some semblance of equality. He also gives them some freedom to choose their own religion, a freedom that, in the context of More’s day, was unheard of. Another equality in Utopia was that everyone worked six-hour shifts (More, 34). This made sure that no citizens were overworked and everyone was paid what they were owed. Not even the rulers were paid unevenly.
The main difference between Plato and More is in their trust of their subjects. Thomas More is much more trusting of his subjects, and, as such, gives them much more freedom than Plato. Plato gives the rulers much more power because he does not trust his subjects. This difference of opinion is the cause of the opposing views on the power of rulers over subjects.
The word perfect or ideal signifies something that has no flaws and is not prone to objection. Therefore, we can reason that something so intricate probably has no substitute either. However, learning about the ideal society in More’s Utopia and Plato’s The Republicmakes my previous statement void of any substance. Although the two philosophers are aiming for the same objective, the structure between the ruler and ruled in their respective worlds could not be more different, which puts us in doubt as to what is ‘real’ justice.
However, there are some parallelisms that we can draw from the texts. They strongly believe that it is important to understand the meaning of justice, in Plato’s case by the philosopher king and in More’s case the general public. They also agree that the perfect society must be modeled in either absolutes: either everyone is good natured or they are morally incompetent. They both want to avoid the abuse of power by either providing an all-knowing central figure or by disregarding personal benefits and desires.
In The Republic, Plato brings forward the idea that it is necessary for someone who is of a higher standing i.e. more learned, to guide the perfect State. He reasons that people are misguided by personal desires and the wrong motives therefore, a savior or “philosopher king” is needed to teach them the right from wrong. Although this constitutes a form of dictatorship he believes the philosopher king will know better than to abuse such power. Plato’s State is built on the centralized figure whose sole responsibility is the functioning of the state.
Contrary to Plato’s belief, More in Utopia reasons that society cannot work solely on the ideology of one person. It has to be the collaboration of people that would help it rise to success. His Utopian people work together disregarding social status, which implies equality and reliance on each other rather than individual work. More shows that his Utopia’s abundant resources are due to everyone sharing the burden. More’s government is more democratically minded because it takes into account the opinion of the people and chooses leaders among them. Even the leaders are no exception to extreme laws and are not in any higher financial standing than the rest. More’s basis is that the good will and their peaceful forward moving attitude will enable them to work towards an Utopia.
Even though the texts are polar opposites of each other, they bring to light that a society needs either a leader or willed people to function well. May be, rather it is a combination of the two that will provide us an answer to the “real” justice.