Home Back

A Basic Lexicon of Political Philosophy

Daniel J. Castellano (2008, 2011)

In modern political discourse, basic terms and concepts of political philosophy are frequently bandied about with unclear, overly narrow, or even contradictory definitions. Some of this incoherence is due to the artificially limited scope of contemporary political discussion, where everyone assumes that a democratic republic is the only possible legitimate government, that sovereignty comes from popular consent, and that men possess certain rights, such as life and liberty, as personal entitlements. It is often difficult to evaluate modern political judgments in the light of classical political philosophy (from Aristotle to Rousseau) because we have effectively redefined classical terminology in a way that makes comparisons with classical texts awkward or inapt. To rectify this situation, I offer some definitions and discussions of classical political terms and concepts, and attempt to show how their meaning has been altered in modern discourse.

This is by no means a comprehensive work, either in the number of terms discussed or in the range of definitions these terms have held. I have selected these terms and definitions because they give us the best chance of making a broad analysis across eras, without making any culturally or temporally specific assumptions. This general analysis is no substitute for the close examination of particular theories of political philosophy, with all their nuanced meanings. Still, if we are to attempt such a detailed analysis and then make comparisons among political theories, we will need to begin with a basic toolkit of concepts and terms that may serve as reference points. I do not deny that terms may be defined arbitrarily, but when similar concepts are repeatedly used throughout the history of political philosophy, it is useful to define each concept with a particular term for the sake of coherence and consistency. These fixed terms may then serve as points of comparison across political theories from antiquity to the present, so we may again inhabit an intellectual world much wider than that which the dogmas of contemporary liberal democracy permit.

List of Terms

Fairness or Equity
Judges and Judgment
Decree or Rule
Absolute Government
Equality, Egalitarianism


Man, in the gender-inclusive sense (Lat. homo, Gk. anthropos), is by classical definition a rational animal. This definition does not restrict us to the biological species Homo sapiens with all its peculiar physical characteristics, but encompasses any corporeal organism with rational faculties. As an animal, man must deal with physical reality and its limitations. As a rational being, he has a mastery over his own actions that are of a different order from that of brute beasts, since he fully and clearly understands what he is doing, and may freely accept or reject what is presented to his intellect. For this reason, we hold man responsible for his actions in a way that we would not impose on brute beasts. This is why even those who hold an exaggeratedly high opinion of the cognitive abilities of apes would not suggest that these other primates should be punished for violent acts as if they were criminals. In practice, then, everyone assents that on this world, only Homo sapiens is capable of the free exercise of reason. Lesser creatures may perform impressive acts of cognition as a sort of complex algorithm, but they lack the freedom and autonomy that makes man responsible for his actions.

Although man is an exceptional animal, he is nonetheless an animal, meaning a body that is animated by a "soul" (Lat. anima; Gk. psyche) or principle of life. Physically, the soul is not a distinct substance from the body, but body and soul are a unity, the soul being merely the act of the body. The powers of the soul are classically classified into vegetative, sensitive and rational, the last two comprising the faculties of the mind (Lat. mens; Gk. nous). These metaphysical distinctions, the reality of which are demonstrated by direct psychological experience, should not be mistaken for a biological theory requiring distinct organic structures for each function, nor does the enumeration of different faculties imply that each can be exercised independently of the others.

For our purposes, we are concerned with only two faculties, intellect and will, which distinguish man from all other earthly creatures, and identify him as a rational being with a moral end. The ability to distinguish categories of truth and falsehood, and to choose between right and wrong, are the essence or man's spiritual life, by which I mean the life of contemplating things that are beyond material reality. The life of the intellect is of itself immaterial, even when it deals with representations of material things. Truth and falsity have no length, breadth, depth, or weight; they are purely abstract evaluations we impose on things material or immaterial. Good and evil are also abstract evaluations, yet these are normative rather than informative. When we judge something good or evil, independently of its emotional desirability or its physical benefits, we act on an order unknown to animals lacking reason. Only man has a moral life, notwithstanding the sympathetic anthropomorphizing that makes some people inconsistently ascribe only virtue and not vice to other animals.

The two sexes of the human race - man (Lat. vir, Gk. andros) and woman (Lat. femina, Gk. gyne) - were not assumed to be equal in their intellectual and moral capabilities for most of history. Nonetheless, both sexes were usually considered sufficiently rational to have moral responsibility for their actions, so that what follows may be assumed to apply to both sexes to the extent that they are members of civil society or citizens in a political society.


A more or custom (Lat. mos, mores, Gk. ethos) is a behavioral norm generally accepted by a group of men, whereby a certain norm judged to be good or evil. When we say 'good' or 'evil' without qualification, we usually intend the moral sense of these terms, as opposed to their physical (pleasure, pain; wealth, poverty) and metaphysical (being, non-being; actualization, defectiveness) counterparts. The moral good is defined relative to some norm that specifies how a man ought to use his liberty. An act can only have a moral quality if it is performed freely. Moral norms are determined by positive knowledge of divine or natural law (as with the knowledge of human rights), or by more arbitrary and fallible determinations by practical reason and human custom. Even customs that are completely arbitrary may have merit, as they direct human activity toward a common good. As long as such arbitrary customs do not contradict whatever morality is positively known, it is usually prudent to retain them. Persons of sound morality are more likely to be law-abiding, as law is nothing other than the morality of a political society. Morality is essentially normative, so it acts as a restraint upon the conscience of the individual.


'Conscience' in English refers specifically to our moral awareness; the Latin conscientia refers indiscriminately to both moral and intellectual awareness. To the extent that we are aware of a moral norm and understand it to be true or good, we are duty-bound to observe that norm. Thus conscience is an individual psychological means whereby we internalize a moral principle, imposing it on ourselves as an extrinsic constraint. This may seem to be a contradiction, for how can we be extrinsically bound by that which is within ourselves? While the exact mechanism may remain a mystery, our psychological experience confirms the fact that conscience does act as an extrinsic check on our actions, as if the conscience were something other than or above ourselves. For this reason, Freud used the term 'superego' ("above the self") for his analogue of conscience. The individual conscience may seem external because its activity is the result of unconscious processes invisible to our awareness.

Psychological explanations aside, conscience is ethically and politically significant because it is the means by which we impose moral duty on ourselves. In modern speech, it is common to speak of something "being up to one's own conscience" in opposition to subjection to moral norms, but it would be wrong to suppose an essential antagonism between individual conscience and social norms. Quite the contrary, conscience is the means by which norms are imposed on society. Conscience does not excuse us of our moral duty to society, but in fact binds us to our duty by granting us awareness of it, leaving us without moral excuse.

Although conscience, in its spontaneous rebuke of the ego, may operate by unconscious processes, its formation involves the more or less conscious adoption of moral norms by discursive learning or by imitation of others. (The general assumption that social norms should be respected may be acquired unconsciously.) We will see that law is a particular kind of moral norm, and as such it must bind the conscience in order to obtain in society. Consequently, in order for a law to be binding it must be promulgated, so that it can be consciously learned and assimilated to the conscience.

Conscience may be seen as the individual analogue of what law is for political society, or morality is for societies in general. Since nearly all individuals exist as part of a society, usually a political society, their consciences are at least partly informed by moral norms and laws. Unless a polity or society is totalitarian (claiming jurisdiction over all aspects of human behavior), there will remain a part of the conscience that is formed by the individual or by some other group, such as his family or his peers. This individualized conscience does not abolish socially imposed obligations, but if anything adds additional constraints on behavior. This is why traditional Catholic moral thesis that it is impermissible to act against conscience was never interpreted as excusing a person from the demands of orthodoxy or as overriding these demands, but rather conscience imposes an even more rigorous standard. Those to whom more wisdom and understanding of virtue is entrusted are morally bound to honor their deeper appreciation of moral principles.


A law is a formal behavioral norm rigidly imposed with a general application over a group of people, with the expectation of full compliance. Some would make law radically distinct from morality, insisting that the latter cannot be legislated. No idea could be more false or more injurious to the public good. All laws are mores; in order for an edict to have the character of law, it must be binding on the consciences of its intended subjects. If people obeyed the law simply out of fear of reprisal, they would not be bound by law but by brute force. A people ruled by law respects the law for its own sake, not just for the sake of something else. From this comes the universal belief that, as a general rule, obeying the law is intrinsically virtuous, while defying it is intrinsically vicious, simply because the law is law. Of course, there can be cases when the law contradicts natural morality, in which case virtue requires that the law be defied. When there is no explicit contradiction, however, the law is to be given deference.

Laws can be written or unwritten principles. The Greeks actually held their unwritten laws or nomoi in the highest esteem, since these laws came from their remote ancestors and defined the basis of their society. In modern terms, we might consider such laws constitutional in nature, so that they should not be altered except after the most grave circumspection. Written law (Lat. lex) has the advantage of a fixed form that can be preserved accurately for a long period of time, giving stability to jurisprudence.

Since not all men are equally wise, in antiquity it was considered fitting that laws should be given by men known for their wisdom and justice. Such lawgivers did not necessarily seek to rule the people, but rather the law itself would be what bound the nation.

Law may be distinguished into natural and positive law. Natural law consists of universal moral precepts that should bind all men, since they are necessary to the fulfillment of man's rational nature. Belief in natural law assumes that there is purpose or goal-directedness in human nature, so that the proper realization of our nature requires us to act one way rather than another. This does not mean that we are all born knowing the natural law, but rather the proper exercise of reason may lead various men to independently arrive at the same moral precepts.

Law that comes from no higher authority than a human lawgiver is called positive law, and binds only those people who submit to that particular human authority. Unlike the natural law, positive law is alterable according to cultural circumstances.

Both natural law and positive law are traditionally grounded in divine law. The need for such grounding in the case of natural law is especially evident, since without God or Divinity there would be no basis for teleology in nature, hence no natural law. This is why atheistic ethics invariably deteriorates into a form of utilitarianism or Epicureanism, if not outright nihilism. In the case of positive law, divine authority is invoked indirectly, as the basis of the human authority that gives positive law. Without at least an implied divine sanction, some other basis would be needed for human authority.


Right (Lat. rectum) is man's duty to do what is morally correct. The notion of right may be grounded in morality or law, since both of these impose duties on the conscience.

There can be both positive and negative right. Positive right is what man is duty-bound to do, and negative right is what he is duty-bound not to do. When a right is prescribed by natural law, we may call it natural right; if it is prescribed by positive law, it is positive right. Examples of natural positive right include the duty to feed the poor or to give shelter to travelers. Examples of negative natural right include the duty not to commit murder, nor to imprison someone without cause.

Since the time of Locke, it has become customary to speak of certain natural rights as entitlements possessed by the subjects of right. Instead of saying, for example, that right requires us to feed the poor, we would now say that the poor "have a right" to be fed. Similarly, instead of saying that right forbids us to murder a person, we would say that a person "has a right" to life. This conceptualization, while harmless in some cases, can lead to a distorted analysis of morality and political right, and may cause us to assert entitlements that are impracticable or impossible to uphold.


A primary objective of law is justice, which is to give every man his due. Since justice is a moral virtue, it again follows that law has an essentially moral function. What is due to each man depends on moral judgments, so it is impossible for laws of justice to avoid having a nomological, moralizing role. The simplest form of justice is imposing penalties for crimes, in order to make reparation of damages, or to impose retribution on the offender. A retributive aspect of justice is unavoidable in cases where reparation is impossible, as in murder. Legally imposed justice is also necessary to preserve society's moral order and safety, for permitting crimes to go unpunished would only encourage criminals, and no one would be safe from offense.

Justice has negative and positive aspects. Negative justice is designed to prevent or provide remedy for offenses committed. Criminal justice is one kind of negative justice, involving the prosecution, detention and punishment of those who cause injury to others or behave in a way that is dangerous to public order. Civil suits imposing penalties for damages may also be considered negative justice.

Positive justice, on the other hand, is concerned not so much with the prevention and punishment of evil, but with promoting and rewarding the good. The law may prescribe positive action to impose behaviors and institutions that promote the common good, even when there is no particular person or group of persons threatening public safety. Under positive justice we may include the duty to help our countryman, as well as what is called social justice in modern political theory.

Fairness or Equity

By "fairness" or "equity", we mean a more generalized notion of justice that includes private matters. Fairness is simply the assignment of fortune according to merit. We may speak of fairness in an absolute sense, or relative to what is practical. In the absolute sense, fairness is impossible in this world, because natural calamities strike without regard for personal merit; in other words, ‘life is unfair’. Within the parameters of nature, however, man can take care that he does not contribute to unfairness, by distributing his goods and services equitably, or by compensating those who suffer the misfortunes of nature. A model of social distribution of goods consistent with fairness might be one where means of subsistence are distributed according to need, while luxury items and services are distributed according to merit.

Judges and Judgment

It is not always immediately evident what is just (ius) in a particular set of circumstances, even if everyone in a society agrees on what is just in principle. In order to apply received principles of justice, as expressed in customs or laws, to a determinate set of facts, it is necessary to appoint someone as an arbiter of a dispute. For private disputes, two parties may select an arbitrator or judge who they hold in esteem, and agree in advance to submit to his judgment. For disputes involving infractions of society's laws, it is more fitting to select a person who is well versed in the law and its application in previous similar cases. Such persons are what we call judges. When a legal system is highly formal and codified, being a judge requires a degree of professional expertise.

The authority of a judge derives from the decision of those who appoint him - be they government officials or the general public - that he is competent to interpret the law and apply it to determinate circumstances. In matters for which there is a definite legal prescription, the judge does not impose his own personal judgment, but that of the law. He only uses his own discretion for points not definitely settled by law.

As Aristotle states in the opening of his Rhetoric, it is desirable that laws should define as many points as possible, leaving as few as possible to the discretion of judges. This is because it is difficult enough to find a few men capable of legislating and administering justice, let alone a great number. It only takes a few legislators to draft a good set of laws, but since there are many disputes, we need many judges, so it is less likely that we will find enough with the good discretion to judge justly without the aid of established law.

The judge does not only apply the law to a determinate set of facts and resolve disputes lacking a clear legal prescription, but he may also try to decide what the facts are, since these are often also in dispute. Sometimes a jury of ordinary citizens is selected for this purpose, since it takes no special legal expertise to make judgments about whether witnesses are truthful or lying in their accounts of the facts.

Sometimes a judge may also have executive powers, in that he does not merely hear cases brought before him, but may actively seek out offenders through judicial inquiries and have powers of enforcing his judgments. Such judges are usually termed "magistrates," after the Roman magistratus.

In medieval jurisprudence, it was recognized that a strict application of the law did not always provide sufficient remedy or a fair outcome, due to the particular circumstances of a case. Courts of equity were established in order to provide equitable remedies. Equity jurisprudence may encompass what we call tort claims. A tort is an act or omission where one person causes damage to another (e.g., loss of income), even without breaking a law or private contract, by infringing a recognized right.


A nation or race (the terms were synonymous before the nineteenth century) is a group of people of common ancestry or birth (Lat. natus). This is why all the most ancient national histories are given in a genealogical form. In practice, of course, no nation was pure-blooded, but they accepted immigrants into their fold from time to time, especially as national borders were quite elastic in antiquity. In its most primitive form, a nation was a tribe or clan led by a patriarch, so it was effectively an extended family household, consisting of sons and servants. It is in this sense that the family is prior to the nation, and also to the state.

Larger nations could be formed by confederations of tribes, with distinct patriarchal households, yet united under a common rule to promote general security or prosperity. Such unions could be effected by mutual consent, in recognition of common ancestry or a common interest, or by conquest, assimilating other tribes into the conquering nation. These developments made the nation something more than a household, yet because these nations or races married primarily among themselves and developed their own customs, they still conceived themselves as being of a single stock.

A nation is held together by common interests similar to those of a family, clan, or tribe. It does not necessarily have a formally structured system of governance, which we call the state.


Our concept of the state comes from the Greek polis or city, which, in contrast to purely agrarian societies, constituted a more structured sort of community, with government, law, and citizenry functioning as an organism. The field of politics includes theories of what constitutes the state. A starting point for delineating the domain of politics is distinguishing the state from more primitive types of community. Communities prior to the state include the family, the clan or tribe, as well as religious societies, business partnerships, friendships, and other groups sharing common interest.

These prior communities are collectively known as civil society, and they can continue to subsist even in societies organized as a polis or state. All communities are formed by some common interest, but the state is distinguished as being a formal, rational organization aimed at achieving the temporal good of society. By rational, we simply mean that it is organized as a means to an end, informed by discursive law rather than intuitive sympathy or tacit agreement. Clearly, other communities may contain state-like aspects, but the state alone among temporal societies claims a supreme jurisdiction in temporal affairs.

One of the fundamental problems of politics is balancing the domains of the state and civil society. In modern political philosophy, it is practically assumed that the state has plenary jurisdiction over all human affairs, trumping civil society. This etatism may be circumscribed by a theory of human rights that are prior to the state, but individual rights without corresponding communal rights are impossible to enforce except by appeal to the state, so in fact the state becomes the arbiter of rights.

Among the communities prior to the state is the nation, which in the classical sense means people of a common birth or ancestry. Racial or ethnic identity may be seen as a sort of extended family, strengthened by cultural bonds such as language and religion. In the early modern period, European states expanded to encompass entire nationalities, so that the state's domain became coextensive with the nation. The modern nation-state is the fruit of nationalism, the idea that each nation ought to have its own state. As a result of the universal success of this program, we now tend to use the term 'nation' as synonymous with 'state', but this was not the case prior to the nineteenth century. Even now the distinction between nation and state remains useful, especially as immigration has made modern polities multiethnic or multinational.

In early modern treatises on political philosophy, it is sometimes said that the state is a perfect society. By this is meant not that the state is without flaw, but that it is a complete society, having full temporal power to impose its order on its constituents, without needing to appeal to some larger structure. A provincial or local authority, by contrast, is imperfect since there are matters in which it must appeal to some higher governing body. The idea that the state is a perfect or complete society is implicit in modern international law, where states are not considered to be subordinate to any international body, being presumed fully competent to manage their internal affairs without coercive external interference. The Catholic Church has also claimed to be a perfect society in this sense; again, not denying the existence of flaws in its members, but holding itself to be a complete and self-sufficient society, not subordinate to some greater whole. It differs from the state in that it is ordered to supernatural ends rather than temporal ends.


An essential feature of the state is its government, an organized body that imposes rational political structure on a society. It may do this by enforcing a set of laws or by executing the will of one entrusted with administering justice. In either capacity, the government's function is executive. This notion of government differs from modern usage, with often regards government as equivalent to the state. For example, the United States of America is said to have three branches of government, the legislative, executive, and judicial, but political philosophers as recent as Rousseau used the term 'government' to refer exclusively to the executive function. We will follow this earlier usage in order to make possible a useful distinction between government and the state.

The executive function of government is indicated by the Greek term arche, or rule. Governments may be identified according to who rules, whence we get terms such as 'monarchy' (rule of one) and 'oligarchy' (rule by a few).

Decree or Rule

Those wielding executive power or rule (Gk. arche) may find it necessary to issue a decree (Lat. decretum) or edict in order to enforce obedience to the law, or to provide for particular contingencies not expressly covered by law (e.g., military orders, appropriation of funds). A decree should not contradict the law, but may execute a power prescribed by law. In cases of absolutism, where the executive is also the legislator, a decree may contradict positive law, in which case it is understood to impose a new law until it is revoked. It is never consonant with morality for a decree to contradict divine or natural law, however. In modern parlance, decrees are typically called "executive orders".


At the deepest theoretical level, political philosophy examines the possible constitutions of a state. A state's constitution is its structure, generally consisting of several groups of men entrusted with the authority of government and lawmaking.

Aristotle famously classified the constitutions of states according to who rules. Monarchy or kingship is rule by one; aristocracy is rule by the best; and polity involves the participation of all citizens in government. Each of these constitutions has imperfect or defective forms, which are characterized as such because they direct the state only to the good of some rather than all citizens. A dictatorship is a defective form of monarchy where the ruler acts for his personal benefit at the expense of others. An oligarchy is rule for the benefit of a few, usually those who are rich (plutocracy). Democracy, or simple majoritarian rule, tends to favor the interests of the lower classes (demoi) against the elites (i.e., those who are exceptionally talented, virtuous or prosperous). These are not hard and fast distinctions, as even a good government can lapse into defective behavior.

The Greek city-states experimented with constitutions far more varied than those in existence today, so the Politics is able to provide a fairly comprehensive examination of the various possibilities. These possibilities include mixed constitutions, which may ascribe various powers or functions to the few, the many, or to one man.

Note that the constitution of a state is not a set of written or spoken words or statutes. The constitution is the structure of the state, defining how it is arranged and how authority is distributed within it. Modern states, most notably the United States of America, have found it advantageous to specify their constitution in writing, and these written documents are themselves called 'constitutions'. While written constitutions may eliminate some ambiguity in the powers delegated to each body within the state, there will still be problems of interpretation even of the most well-crafted documents. Determining who has the power to interpret the written constitution can be a tricky question, since it is possible that the interpreter may overstep his constitutionally prescribed boundaries in the act of interpretation. Another problem is that interpreting a written constitution as if it were a supreme law or statute may obscure its true character, which is not that of a law, but of the structure of the state.

Some modern states, most notably the United Kingdom, maintain an unwritten constitution, as was the norm for most nations throughout history. The unwritten constitution consists of generally received understandings about rules of succession and the traditional powers of the several bodies of the state. The unwritten constitution, much like the unwritten nomoi of the ancient Greeks, is considered to be anterior to the state and immutable. In practice, however, the constitution is whatever the sovereign says it means; and in modern Britain sovereignty is effectively held by Parliament.


Monarchy is rule by one man. Historically, most monarchies have been hereditary, but this is not essential to the concept. A monarch could be elected to a finite term, or he might be restricted to the role of enforcing existing laws, without the power of enacting new laws. Monarchy is ideally suited for executive function, as deliberative bodies are slow to act and often internally conflicted, which are poor traits for an executive. Rousseau argued that the complexity of large states (with more than a million inhabitants) made monarchy the only practicable form of government at the highest level. Indeed, his thesis has been borne out in practice, as every modern state has a monarchically constituted executive, as does every private enterprise of significant size.

The corrupt form of monarchy was called tyranny by Aristotle and later political philosophers. Aristotle identified corrupt governments of those which placed the private good of those who governed over the common good of the polis or state. A tyrant was a monarch who was concerned more with his personal glory or wealth than the common good, so he might impose taxes to amass riches or finance aggressive wars, without returning benefits to the governed. He might refuse to administer justice, or unfairly favor a few with the government's authority at the expense of others.

The question of tyranny does not directly bear on whether a monarchy is absolute or limited. An absolute monarch also wields legislative and judicial powers, but as long as he exercises these for the common good, he is no tyrant in the classical sense. During the eighteenth century, many philosophes even praised "enlightened" despotism. However, with the advent of the American and French revolutions, republican propaganda came to identify all absolute monarchy, and for some, even all monarchy, as tyranny. This equation between absolutism and tyranny is grounded in a belief that absolutism is inherently unjust, so that the absolute monarch opposes the common good in the mere exercise of his power.


Aristocracy means rule by the "best," meaning those men with the virtues best suited for governance. It may be taken as equivalent to government by the few, with the understanding that a rationally ordered society would take steps to ensure that those few are best suited to the task. From classical antiquity to the early modern era, aristocracies have usually been hereditary, grounded in the view that good breeding promotes virtue, though philosophers have long known this to be fallacious. Nonetheless, hereditary aristocracies ensure a certain cultural continuity, as well as a requisite level of education and training that most cannot afford.

Modern governments are aristocratic in the sense that only those in the upper strata of society have access to public office; this exclusivism is tempered by the fact that in an open capitalist system there are no absolute barriers to entering the upper class. We recognize that it is impractical to have Greek democracy, where the assembly of all citizens directly rules, or at least all citizens may take turns holding office. Our so-called representative democracy is really an elected aristocracy, as only the "best" (most intelligent, experienced, virtuous, wealthy, or handsome, depending on the electorate's judgment) can enter the class of government officials. At the national level, this is typically a small class of less than 1 in 10,000, which is close to monarchical by the standard of an ancient Greek polis.

The corrupt form of aristocracy is oligarchy, which is rule for the sake of the few. With the expansion of monarchical power in the early modern period, in France in particular, the rationale for aristocratic privileges disappeared. No longer did lords administer justice or provide for their peasants; now the aristocrat was merely a wealthy neighbor who was exempt from much taxation. Aristocratic privileges benefited only the few, with no return to the state as a whole, so the aristocracy effectively used their status for their private good at the expense of the common good. This oligarchy, coupled with the proliferation of republican political philosophy, promoted widespread distaste for all forms of aristocracy, so that today the word is used with contempt, notwithstanding the de facto aristocracy of most modern states.

A particular form of oligarchy is plutocracy, rule by the rich for their own sake. Most oligarchies become plutocratic, as self-interested officials use their privileges to enrich themselves, but we may more properly speak of plutocracy as government oriented toward the interest of those who are already rich. The Roman Empire was a notorious plutocracy, while today the United States government is heavily influenced by monied interests, and was practically subservient to them in the late nineteenth century. Arguably, the revolutions of the eighteenth century aimed to replace aristocracy and monarchy with bourgeois plutocracy, as the empowerment of the destitute was often ignored or granted only with great reluctance.

Republic or Polity

Last among the classical forms of government is the "polity" considered in a more specific sense, where all citizens participate in government on some level. In ancient Greece, this entailed the direct participation of citizens, who were the heads of every household with an interest in the state, either through an assembly vote or by rotation of office. So-called universal suffrage is not essential to a polity, as it is distinguished from aristocracy by virtue of enfranchising all citizens. The denial of suffrage to women, children, slaves and paupers was common in the ancient Greek democracies and the Roman Republic, for these people were not considered citizens. To the extent that such denial of suffrage is just, as is clearly the case with children, the government remains a true polity, but if a group subject to the government is unjustly disenfranchised, the polity is relatively oligarchic.

A republic is a similar form of government to the above-described polity, except it may be applied more broadly to any scale besides the city-state. Membership in the republic is called citizenship, which is to belong to a city, indicating the city-state origins of republican government. Most modern governments intend to be republican in design, following the Roman model. Yet the Roman Republic, in principle if rarely in practice, differed from its modern counterparts in that all citizens directly participated in governing decisions, a practice that was made feasible by restricting citizenship. In modern republics, these bodies of citizens are replaced by assemblies of representatives, while the great mass of citizens participate only by voting for representatives. The republic, in modern discourse, has become a synonym for so-called indirect democracy, whereas in its origin it was equivalent to the Greek polity.

The corrupt form of polity was called democracy by Aristotle, though this term was also widely used in a positive sense in antiquity. Etymologically, it refers to rule by the demoi, or common farmers. Demoi can either mean "commoners" or "people;" Aristotle took it in the proper, restrictive sense of "commoners," so his democracy was, by definition, rule by the lower classes for their own benefit at the expense of others. A common abuse of such democracy would be the confiscation of property from the wealthy.

In modern language, 'democracy' has become a synonym for polity, as we understand the demoi to include all people, regardless of social class. In actual practice, most modern governments are democratic only in the sense that government is expected to be accountable to the governed. Such an expectation is actually consistent with all three classical ideal forms of government. Modern states are not democratic in the ancient Greek sense, where all citizens take turns holding office. As a rule, only those with legal or political education - as in Aristotelian aristocracy - or with wealth - as in plutocracy - hold office in modern "democracies".


A member of society is a citizen to the extent that he plays an active role in political society. He may perform an active role to the extent that he directly or indirectly influences the formation and execution of laws. The constitution of a political society is in large part determined by its definition of who is a citizen and what powers citizens exercise. A citizen is not necessarily a part of the government; it is only flattering demagoguery when a government official professes that he is nothing more than an ordinary citizen. In societies with absolute government, there is effectively no citizenry at all outside the government. Nonetheless, in every society with some men of free birth, a modicum of political liberty guarantees that some minimal form of citizenship will exist, which can be manifested, if not by participation in political affairs, then at least in the act of resisting oppression, possibly with violence.


Man in society is a subject when he is considered in his passive political role, as one who obeys the laws and decrees of the government. This role is not inconsistent with his role as citizen, for as citizen he influences the laws and decrees to which he is subject. If all men refused to be subjects, they would be impotent as citizens. It is of course possible for some men to be subjects and not citizens, while ruled by others who possess political power. Strictly speaking, such an arrangement does not violate liberty, as long as no oppressive laws or decrees are issued, in which case even the basest subject enjoys the minimal citizenship expressed in the power of resisting oppression.


Our notion of sovereignty derives from what Aristotle called kyrion or lordship, which is the authority to command the obedience of men. Sovereignty is first and foremost vested in law, and we assent to the decrees of the government only to the extent that they are consonant with law. In absolute government, where the power of executive rule and the power of legislation are vested in the same person or persons, government decrees are always consonant with positive law, since the ruler and the legislator are one and the same. When executive and legislative powers are separated, we consider that sovereignty is most perfectly vested in the power of legislation, which is why Rousseau used the term Souverain to refer exclusively to the legislature.

In the imperial Roman period, the notion of sovereignty being primarily vested in law was supplanted by the idea of maiestas or majesty, which is a certain pre-eminence or superiority inherent in the princeps ("prince" or "first one"). In this conceptualization, law derives its authority from that of the sovereign emperor. In periods of monarchical absolutism, the monarch and the sovereign were considered identical. Yet even with a sovereign king a law remains different in character from a decree that executes the law. A law acts by binding the consciences of subjects. A king orders executive decrees to compensate for the law’s failure to act in some instances. If the law were perfect, and moreover, never failed to be internalized by all men at all times, government decrees would be unnecessary.

Some (e.g., Rousseau) have tried to suggest that the government must be subordinate to the sovereign. This is not an accurate characterization, for although the government is constrained in its action by the laws created by the sovereign, still the sovereign is not authorized to execute its laws by applying them in specific interests. Thus the sovereign is not competent to judge whether the government has acted illegally in a determinate circumstance, for this kind of judgment is a role belonging to executive government or judiciary authority. We are here considering "sovereign" and "government" according to their abstract definitions. Obviously, in many actual governments legislators also hold executive powers, but these authorities remain qualitatively distinct. Not only is a sovereign incapable of declaring a particular government action illegal, neither can it use force to coerce the government. As sovereign, it can only act through the law, which only binds consciences, but entails no enforcement powers nor the faculty of judging particular cases.

Although modern governments profess a love for the rule of law rather than men, our legal notion of national sovereignty is closer to the Roman maiestas than to Aristotle's kyrion. A nation's sovereignty over its internal affairs is treated as an absolute entitlement, not to be subordinated to any higher law. Although there has been an internationalist movement in recent decades attempting to circumscribe national sovereignty with precepts of natural law (i.e., "human rights") and positive international law, there remains a strong prejudice that nations have a "right of self-determination," which is nothing other than an inherent right of rule over one's own domain, akin to the Roman maiestas.

Indeed, the modern democratic notion that all sovereignty is grounded in the popular will is frequently formulated (most famously by Locke) in terms of a right of self-rule inherent in the human nature of each individual. In this view, we are all petty sovereigns who agree to form a confederation or union under a common set of laws, administered by officials elected from our number. By nature, each one of us is his own Caesar, with a natural right to rule himself. Even if such an assumption were conceded, however, it is not clear how any compact among these independent sovereigns could create an authoritative pre-eminence enabling some to rule over others.

Absolute Government

Some political societies are constituted in such a way that there is no effective citizenship except among those who hold government office. In such a situation, any legislative authority must be held by the government, and appointment to office is determined by those already within the government. Absolute governments are still bound by natural and divine law in the treatment of their subjects, who reserve the right to resist laws or decrees that are contrary to these, particularly those that are opposed to social justice.

Absolutism effectively characterizes most of the great empires of the ancient Middle East and the Far East, as well the Roman imperium. In the Middle Ages, the legislative and executive powers were usually vested in the same person, but government was not absolute, as monarchical authority was frequently circumscribed by feudal and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as well as immutable local customs.

It was only from the sixteenth century onward that the monarchs of Europe were able to make strenuous claims of absolute sovereignty, exemplified by Louis XIV's claim, "I am the state." Indeed, when all powers of legislation and government are in the same person or persons, no one else can be said to have any share in the state, and there is nothing to check the sovereign, as even the law is but the manifestation of his will.

Note that the opposite of absolute government is not democracy, but limited government, which denies the government certain state powers, which are to be held by other bodies of men or in a law that is not subject to the government. A democracy can be an absolute government if it is assumed that the people are subject to no higher law than their own will, and that legislative and executive authority are invested in the same group of people, be it the citizenry in assembly or some representative body.

When absolute government is monarchical, it is sometimes called tyranny. In ancient Greek polities, tyranny had a legitimate constitutional purpose, vesting all power in one leader during war or some other extremity requiring a rapid, efficient command structure. When tyrants overstayed their welcome, however, they were considered to be favoring their private benefit over that of the polity. This is why Aristotle characterized tyranny as monarchy without any restraint. Still, it is possible for a monarch to have absolute power yet not rule in his self-interest, in which case he ought not be considered a tyrant in the pejorative sense.

The republican revolutionaries in late eighteenth century America and France frequently depicted all monarchy as tyrannical. This was because, in their day, all monarchies were absolute, and they made no distinction between whether an absolute monarch ruled according to public or private interest.


In the medieval and early modern period, monarchs in France and England would appoint a parlement or parliament to give advice prior to making new laws. As the name suggests (from the French parler, to speak), the parlement or parliament existed only for purposes of discussion or deliberation. It had no power of legislation, for this was vested in the sovereign king.

In this deliberative function, parliaments functioned much like the Athenian assembly. Contrary to popular perception, the assembly in Athenian democracy was not a legislature, but a deliberative body. Fundamental laws or nomoi were unwritten and generally not subject to alteration. Sometimes, a council of judges would recommend a change in law to the assembly, which could deliberate and affirm the decision of the judges, who would thenceforth judge future cases accordingly. Still, the assembly had no sovereign power to draft laws as it pleased, nor did anything become law by its authority alone. The same is true of the early parliaments.

In France, the parlements also had a judiciary role, being judges not of particular facts, but of general laws, similar to U.S. appellate courts. The legal expertise of the parlements made them suitable judges of which statute should prevail when a conflict arose, as well as for advising the king on the likely consequences of enacting a new law.

It is not too difficult to see how the power to review and interpret laws, determining their proper construction, can elide into a sort of legislative power. As legal systems grew more complex, it became increasingly advisable to allow the experts to take a larger role in crafting legislation, though the king remained the ultimate authority in ratifying legislation.

After the English Civil War, the power of the monarch was seriously circumscribed, and from then on Parliament retained an unambiguously legislative role. Still, in deference to traditional monarchism, all new legislation was to be introduced by the king and then ratified by his sovereign authority, reserving the right to refuse such confirmation.

Modern republics from the late eighteenth century onward have given fuller legislative authority to parliaments or equivalent bodies, at the expense of kings or other chief executives. The constitution of the United States emphasizes a separation of legislative and executive powers, so the Congress may initiate legislation on its own. Still, a vestige of English monarchism remains in the presidential veto, though even this is checked by the provision of a two-thirds override.

European monarchs, as the result of reforms and revolutions, have mostly lost their power to dissolve the national parliament and to initiate legislation. The power to ratify legislation, if retained at all, is usually delegated to a "prime minister" who is quite independent of the monarch in whose name he acts, and is usually the leader of the party with a parliamentary majority.

With the evisceration of the power of traditional monarchs, modern parliamentary governments tend toward a new form of absolutism, as legislative and executive powers are again in a single body, since the chief executive (the prime minister) is usually also the majority leader of the legislative body. For this reason, the parliament's majority is called "the Government," since it controls the executive authority. When we further grant a parliament the power of determining constitutional questions, as well as an unlimited jurisdiction (i.e., the parliament can make laws about anything), we effectively have a non-monarchical absolutism, even totalitarianism.


Liberalism, in the classical sense, refers to the political philosophy that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which emphasized popular sovereignty, personal liberty and equality under the law. These noble-sounding ideals are today so universally accepted in the West that we might say nearly everyone is a liberal in the classical sense. In modern speech, the term 'liberal' is often reserved for whichever faction tends to oppose the status quo, while 'conservative' is a similarly relative term, applied to those who wish to conserve an earlier form of liberalism.

Liberal political philosophy, though varied in its particulars, adheres to several basic principles. Arguably foremost among these is the idea that political authority comes from the consent of the governed. While ancient and medieval philosophers had long acknowledged that a good ruler acts for the benefit of his subjects, they did not thereby infer that the ruler's authority was derived from those he ruled. Authority came from above, either from direct divine ordinance, or else from the rational order of nature, whereby the lesser is commanded by the greater. Liberal philosophers of the eighteenth century inverted this order, and sought to define political authority as emerging from the people below.

In order to justify the thesis that sovereignty comes from the people as a whole, it was necessary to identify a natural power or right of self-government inherent in every human being. Locke was the foremost exponent of the liberal theory of natural rights. He conceived of right not as a duty to do what is just, but as a possession or entitlement held by each individual. Thus each person, he claimed, had a natural right to govern himself, free from the coercion of others, and it is only when individually sovereign men give their assent to submit to a government that a legitimate authority may coerce them.

This conception of rights as individual entitlements was a relatively novel innovation which Locke borrowed from the absolutists Hobbes and Grotius. No discussion of rights is to be found even in Montesquieu. We will examine below some of the putative rights asserted by Locke, such as life, liberty and property.

We may also speak of a strictly economic liberalism, known as laissez faire, which emerged around the same time as its political counterpart. Its earliest advocates were the French physiocrats, so named because they held that prices and wages should be allowed to reach their "natural" levels, free of regulation. Ironically, the French monarchy's experimentation with the economic ideas of its liberal ministers led to bread riots, hastening the advent of political revolution. This is one reason why the French Revolution soon took a socialistic turn.


Life is an intrinsic dynamic principle found not only in humans, but in innumerable animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms. Whereas non-living things are merely pushed or pulled about by external forces or inertia, living beings have their own internal principle of motion or change. Life, being an activity, is coextensive with its operation; thus we identify life with the functions of nourishment, growth and generation. These functions are all goal-directed, so it is reasonable to discern purpose or direction in life. All living beings seek to preserve their life; this is certainly the case among healthy human beings. The ancients acknowledged that life is a good that is desirable for its own sake, but this universal desire did not imply that we are entitled to life.

In liberal thinking, life is considered a natural human right; i.e., an entitlement that we have by virtue of being human. Anyone who would kill his fellow man without cause is guilty of violating that man's right to life, in this view. It is a strange thing that only humans should have this right, since other animals seek no less to preserve their own lives, so we cannot deduce this right from the mere desire to live. While some liberals of today would indeed seek to ground right in mere desire, and therefore extend the right to life to all animals capable of sensitive desire, Locke realized that man's right to life, if it is to be grounded anywhere, is in the rational nature whereby he is his own sovereign. Thus the right to life is grounded in the right of personal liberty, and may even be conceived as a kind of property, for a man's life, it would seem, certainly belongs to him.

Clearly there are problems with this libertarian formulation, for it would make the most fundamental and universally recognized right, life, subordinate to liberty and even property, which exist only in some societies and tend to be less absolute. Indeed, by logical necessity, a right to life must exist if there is to be a right to liberty and right of property, for only the living can enjoy these things.


In ancient and medieval political philosophy, liberty means the freedom to pursue the goods of body and soul. It is not mere absence of restraint, which in English may be called 'license', or 'freedom' in a morally neutral sense. The idea that simple freedom from restraint is a basic moral good cannot be found in most pre-modern philosophy. People naturally sought to be free from evil, that is, from those extrinsic maladies imposed by nature or by other men. In Christianity, as in Stoicism before it, there was an emphasis on freedom from the evil that comes from within, namely vicious human desires. In this cultural environment, it was manifest that mere absence from restraint was not a morally desirable liberty. The man who does whatever he pleases becomes the slave of his worse nature.

Locke thought that man had a natural right to liberty, on the negative supposition that, in a theoretical state of nature abstracted from artificial social constraints, each man would be free to act as he saw fit. Here Locke confuses the psychological fact that man is naturally free in his volition with the normative judgment that man is free as a matter of right. He explicitly makes this inference from the supposition that our natural constitution is an expression of the divine will. However, he does not justify his abstraction of the individual from all social obligations, as if human nature could be separated from our social nature.

Even today, liberal thinkers frequently confuse the fact of free will or the natural desire not to be coerced with a moral right of liberty. Freedom, in the sense of absence of constraint, is intrinsically amoral, so it is problematic to make it a moral categorical imperative. All moral acts, good and evil, have psychological freedom as a necessary supposition, so freedom is not a moral good, but rather it is the mode of moral action.

Equality and Egalitarianism

In order to avoid the logical consequences of moral nihilism and social anarchy, Locke and other liberal philosophers found it necessary to assert an additional postulate, namely that all men are by nature equal to each other, without subordination. For this reason, in a state of nature, no man would seek to deprive another man of his natural liberty.

The thesis that all men are naturally equal is so contrary to apparent facts and logic that liberal thinkers have been forced to fall back on the philosopher's last resort: they declare it to be "self-evident." Now, in serious philosophy, a self-evident proposition is one which is necessarily known to be true in the same act in which it is made intelligible. Only logical tautologies and the simplest metaphysical and mathematical theses meet this criterion. The judgment that all men are naturally equal is certainly not self-evident, for I can perfectly understand such a statement without holding it to be true. Nor is it evident from the obvious facts of nature. By every objective measure, men are unequal physically and intellectually. Even if we include moral virtues, which have no objective measure, there would be few who deny that not all men are equally wise or just or prudent or temperate. It would be a most extraordinary thing, then, contrary to everything we observe, that men should all be considered perfectly equal as individuals. At any rate, even it were really true that men are all equal in some mysterious immeasurable attribute, this could not be made evident, since we have no way of knowing that two things are equal unless we can somehow measure them; otherwise the concept of equality is senseless.

It could be argued that everyone is equally human, and so we all partake equally of those rights that we enjoy by virtue of being human. However, in the absence of the thesis of equality, there would be no reason to suppose in the first place that people have rights by virtue of being human. Besides, whatever property we use to differentiate man from other animals, be it rationality or tool-making or speech, it is by no means evident that all humans are equal in any such defining characteristic.

Alternatively, we may take a pragmatic, legalistic approach to egalitarianism, where we simply declare men to be equal under the law as a peacekeeping measure. Even if we acknowledge it is unlikely that everyone is in fact equal, it might still be prudent to treat everyone legally as if they were equal. Different men have different strengths and weaknesses, and it is not always easy to discern which man deserves a higher rank, especially as the ambitious greatly outnumber the competent. To avoid undue conflict over envy regarding privileges, we may simply agree to a legal equality. This may offend the few who deserve to be exalted, but will be flattering to the masses, which is why egalitarianism is a central tenet in democratic societies.

From the late twentieth century onward, the more strident liberals have not been content with legal or political egalitarianism, but have sought to impose social equality using the power of the state. To the extent that they try to grant "equality" to people of inferior ability, considerable resources must be devoted to promoting this fictitious equality, including legal advantages to the supposedly oppressed or discriminated group. (Rather than acknowledge that any group of people could be inferior to another, our social egalitarians will insist that all observed inequality is the product of unfair discrimination.) Social egalitarianism, to the extent that is in tension with physical reality, requires a partial dismantling of legal equality. It also entails totalitarian tendencies, to the extent that the state is presumed to have the power to impose egalitarianism on all social institutions.


Liberal political philosophy tends to be skeptical of traditional sources of authority, instead grounding sovereignty in the popular will. Yet even a liberal government must use coercive means against citizens, if it is to be an effective government at all. Thus all questions of political authority must at some point address the legitimacy of the use of force.

In the absence of law and morality, human relations would be governed only by chance or by force. The use of force is not necessarily antithetical to liberty, but we must make a moral judgment to determine whether a particular use of force offends liberty.

Morality may forbid certain uses of force, and even enshrine such prohibitions into law. The law by itself, however, can exert no force other than to bind the conscience. In actual societies, there will be many men who resist the law. The executive role of government entails that those who resist the law are to be subjected to coercion or force. Thus the executive arm is said to enforce the law. If the laws of a polity were not enforced, we could not say that they were being executed, but merely promulgated.

To execute a law is to cause this general precept to have a real effect on specific acts. Where a law is received into an individual conscience, it has an effect, but the same cannot be said of those who do not respect the law. If the law were not enforced in their case, the law could not be said to have effect on their consciences nor on their acts. If the lawless members of society are still to be regarded as part of that society, they must be subjected to coercion. On the other hand, if refusal to internalize the law, or some part of the law, is regarded as evidence of non-participation in society, then lawless elements ought to be ostracized or cast out of society.

The legitimate use of force can exist only to the extent that a law fails to bind the conscience, that is, fails to actualize itself as law in the hearts of all members of a society. When the law is just, the deficiency is to be found in the men who fail to accept it, and force compensates for their imperfection. When the proposed law is unjust, the deficiency is in the law, which ought to be abolished or changed to conform to justice, from whence its authority partially derives.


A counterpart to force is violence. Force and violence were usefully distinguished by the socialist Georges Sorel, who described force as a structured coercion from the top down, while violence bubbled up from below among the revolutionary masses. Violence seeks to smash or dismantle the mechanisms of force, in order to replace it with a new society.

Sorel considered violence to be justified by the goal of socialism, but law-abiding liberals recoil at the thought of such brutish means. To the extent that one considers the existing political order to be legitimate and just, one will oppose the use of violence and uphold the use of force to suppress it. Thus the defenders of the state will express devout admiration for the police and the army. If the existing political order is considered illegitimate or unjust, people will advocate the use of violence against the regime, and condemn any use of police force by the government against protesters or revolutionaries.

In a world that has adopted an uncritically democratic ethos, it is assumed that "the people" decide whether a government is just or unjust, legitimate or illegitimate. Thus the determination of whether violence is to be condemned or extolled depends on the will of the masses. A popular government that suppresses rebellion is "maintaining law and order," while an unpopular government that does so is "killing its own people."


Modern political thought tends to be divided into classical liberal and socialistic tendencies, and where one stands on this spectrum is defined by one's attitude toward property. Although Locke and other classical liberals made property a fundamental natural right, there have been many societies that have no institution of property as we know it. In order to distinguish our notion of property from a more basic or primitive custom, we use the term "possession" to refer to a person's use of a thing, as opposed to "property" which is an absolute right of ownership.

It is expedient that men be allowed to possess commodities to consume or use for their benefit. His supposed rights to life and liberty would be dead letters if he were denied personal possessions which are necessary for the exercise of these rights. Even a slave needs possessions in order to sustain himself, such as food, clothing and a bed designated for his use. Possession, unlike property, is not absolute. It persists at most for the duration of a person’s life, and there is not necessarily a freedom to disuse or abuse a possession, especially when its proper use is necessary for the sustenance of others.

The most manifest injustice occurs when a man pretends to possess land he does not use, and prevents others from using. The same is true of those who hoard excessive amounts of food or other means of subsistence in times of need. The laws of supply and demand that govern the prices of consumer goods often fail to apply to subsistence goods and rents, for the consumer has no choice but to buy, enabling the owners to apply extortionary rates, knowing that the commoner will spend all of his surplus income on rent and food if he must. Thus social justice demands price controls on subsistence goods and public access to the means of producing subsistence goods, such as arable land, if these means are in a state of disuse.

Since possession exists in order to secure the life and well-being of men, any "right of possession" must be subordinate to a right to life or health, so the application of price controls on subsistence goods is consistent with and essential to the notion of possession as right. Those who would uphold the right of possession against the life and liberty of others ignores the origin and purpose of possession, instead making possession an end in itself. Possession is ordered to both the individual and social good, so it is false to uphold this right in opposition to the good of others. It favors the social good, because as an institution it preserves the incentive to labor, without the social maladies associated with property. Unlike life and liberty, possession as a right is manifestly alienable, being transferable by sale, gift, or inheritance.


Property, distinct from possession, is a supposed right of ownership in perpetuity to use, abuse or disuse that which one possesses. The condition of perpetuity appears unjust, since a man can only have finite merit, work a finite duration, or contribute finitely to production, yet somehow he comes into possession of something of infinite value. Most critiques of property (e.g. Babeuf, Proudhon) are concerned especially with land, since here the means of human sustenance resides. In a time when many did not have enough to eat, it was especially criminal that one man could own in perpetuity extensive tracts of land, without being compelled to allow those who were starving to plant on it, while he was free to let it go to waste if it pleased him. Neither he nor his ancestors could have performed an infinitely valuable service that would justify them to keep this land for all time. Clearly, in a just society, the right of property ownership cannot be absolute.

Unfortunately, for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the right of property was enshrined as something so sacred and inviolable that multitudes were denied their life and liberty. The history of social oppression is nothing other than the history of the propertied classes protecting their interests at the expense of the lives and liberty of others.

Property may be private or public. Private property includes all a household's possessions, acquired through labor or trade. These acquisitions effectively become perpetual to the extent that they can be passed on from one generation to the next as an inheritance. In the absence of some periodic equalizing measure, such as the ancient Hebrew jubilee year or modern progressive income tax or estate taxes, there is no obstacle to an indefinite accumulation of excessive wealth, particularly of finite resources such as land, at the expense of those in need. Unregulated property transactions ends up in the over-reward of a few in disproportion to their efforts. Social justice or equity does not demand outright economic egalitarianism, but only the obligation of the wealthy to return some of their excess to make possible the subsistence of their fellow countrymen.

Proudhon famously argued that property (as opposed to possession) is a form of theft, since it deprives others of possessions only so that one may amass unused goods. He made his case not by introducing new arguments, but showing how existing arguments for property, made by absolutists such as Grotius, effectively already acknowledged that property is theft. For example, the supposed "right of conquest" and "right of first occupation" are nothing but post hoc legitimizing of the forcible seizing of possessions.


Just as a man may make a gift of his possession while alive, he may also pass it posthumously to anyone he designates. If we were to prohibit this right of inheritance, such a statute could be easily circumvented by making a gift of one’s possessions before death. Rather than force such awkward maneuvering, it is simpler to allow a man to choose his heirs who will take over his possessions at the moment of his death. This does the citizen the kindness of sparing him concerns over material goods on his deathbed, when he should focus on loftier matters. It may seem unfair that those in a smaller family may each receive a larger inheritance than those with many co-heirs, but for that matter it might also be unfair that men with many friends receive more gifts than those who have few. Clearly, any such inequity caused by inheritance would be an issue of fairness, but not necessarily one of legal justice, as long as the means of acquiring and using possessions are in accordance with the common good. Applying principles of equity in the use of possessions (rather than imposing absolute property rights) should prevent the grosser disparities of fortune with which we are familiar from the outset, and the mechanism of inheritance will be powerless to restore that degree of inequity. Conversely, the abolition of inheritance would be useless if we did not constrain the institutions of absolute property which create gross inequity in the first place.


A right (in the Lockean sense of entitlement) is said to be alienable if it is transferable or renounceable. In the early modern period, some absolutists held that the rights of life and liberty were alienable, as if they were but pieces of property that could be contracted away. As we have noted, in the more ancient tradition, rights are not things people own, but directives to which men are ordered. Even the right of possession is not a thing, but the directive to use things for the benefit of life and liberty. If human rights - whether conceived in the classical or Lockean sense - are built into the definition of 'human', and are in our nature, so to speak, we cannot alienate these rights any more than we can decree that a dog is an ant. We may choose to limit the exercise of these rights, but are never obligated to do so.

This voluntary limitation is to be understood distinctly from the natural limits of each right which is built into its definition and purpose. Thus the exercise of liberty may never threaten life, since it is subordinate to life, and so forth. The inalienability of the right to life does not preclude the death penalty, since the right to life by definition respects not only one individual, but others in society whose lives may threatened. The inalienability of liberty makes slavery impossible; only imprisonment of dangerous criminals or madmen is a legitimate constraint on liberty. Though possessions themselves are alienable, the right of possession is inalienable. That is to say, I may give a shirt to my brother, but I may never alienate my right to possess a shirt.

Libertarianism, Economic and Social

What is today called libertarianism has existed for centuries; it is nothing but classical liberalism taken to its logical extreme. A strident assertion of unrestrained individual freedom in the economic sphere inevitably leads to plutocracy, rule by the rich. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, liberals justifiably appealed for an end to feudal privileges, in order to benefit their own propertied interests and increase their political liberties. In doing so, they opened a Pandora’s box in which even the lower classes demanded equality.

The institution of property made social equality an impossible dream; the liberals were so enamored of property, that they were slow to abolish slavery, much less strive for real social justice for the lower classes. There was a gradual devolution of political power to less propertied classes, but this was soon undermined by the control of government by moneyed interests. In the hierarchy of economic libertarianism, property is the most sacred of rights, liberty being necessary mainly to deal with one’s property as one sees fit, and life being necessary to the enjoyment of property. Social justice to the masses is a gift the libertarians might give once they are satisfied there will remain enough surplus property for themselves.

From the late twentieth century onward, it is has become common among the self-styled liberals of today to advocate a social libertarianism, where the individual is not to be constrained by civil society in any way. This ideology is manifested in a tendency toward normlessness in matters of the family, sexuality, drug use, as well as general social decorum. In this view, the right of liberty effectively becomes a right of licence or a right to be let alone. Social libertarianism is profoundly anti-social and nihilistic, if taken to its logical extreme, so it is usually applied inconsistently, according to the special interests of its advocates. Thus we might assert a right to same-sex marriage, but not polygamy, because one is a more organized interest group than the other.

Defenders of social libertarianism will frequently appeal to a putative right to privacy. Such a right, if it existed, would entail that I can commit murder or rape, or even sell narcotics, as long as it is in the privacy of my own home. Clearly, privacy as such is not sufficient grounds for preventing state intervention, since even private actions may violate public norms, especially those of natural law, which all men are bound to keep. Still, there is some validity in the notion that there are private spheres where state regulation should be kept to a minimum, either on the ground of personal liberty or on the ground that regulation of such an area is impracticable.

Another dubious right postulated as a basis of social libertarianism is a "right to choose" or "freedom of choice," which can be applied to consumer activity or to social transactions as diverse as marriage, abortion, religious affiliation, and joining a sporting club. If people had a "right to choose" as such, logically there could be no legislation that coerced individuals. Every law and statute in existence imposes a limit on this supposed "right to choose." If we were to acknowledge all these countless exceptions and constraints, we might preserve some limited "right to choose," but this would be practically useless in helping us determine which behaviors ought to be constrained and which should not. Like the "right to privacy," the "right to choose" is better suited to be a rhetorical slogan than a serious legal or political principle.

Social libertarianism is often coupled with an egalitarian ideology, which can lead to strange contradictions. A condition of perfect libertarianism would lead to gross inequalities, so it is up to the state to impose equal access for all citizens to various goods and services. If people have an equal right to physical mobility, the state will have to force businesses and other entities to make their facilities accessible to the handicapped. If people have an equal right to play sports, universities will have to offer a female equivalent for nearly every male sport. This involves heavy-handed coercion of private entities for the sake of individual freedoms. If we recognize that people are in fact not equal, it is evident that individuals of excellent qualities will find their action constrained by an artificially imposed egalitarianism, and that social libertarianism of this sort really favors the relative freedom of the many at the expense of the few.


The denial of human rights and opposition to their legitimate exercise is generally called oppression. Oppression often takes the form of upholding a lesser right of an elite against a more fundamental right of the majority. Oppression is intrinsically illegitimate, deriving solely from brute force. Even when the oppressor holds a state office, oppression is a criminal act, and it is the duty of every citizen to see that the oppression ends and the oppressor is duly punished. If the state is unwilling or unable to prevent oppression, citizens may take the law into their own hands as they are living in a state of de facto partial anarchy. This is the only situation in which vigilante activity or violence is legitimate, since the natural rights of man are knowable to all. While only a judge or magistrate with appropriate knowledge of facts is competent to adjudicate a particular instance of violating rights, the people in general are competent to judge when a state has institutionally or legislatively infringed on a natural right in general. Thus the people do not have the right to resist a judge’s decision to imprison a man they believe was innocent, but they may have the right and duty to resist an illegitimate law or decree authorizing arbitrary imprisonment.


The most extreme oppression becomes possible under a totalitarian government, which is completely unlimited in the scope of its power. A government can be absolute without being totalitarian, if it holds all political power unchecked, yet does not presume to be able to regulate absolutely all human behavior. A totalitarian government, by contrast, recognizes no limits to its domain, and it can make a law about anything. Positive and natural rights can be granted or revoked entirely at the state's pleasure.

Even governments that are benevolent in granting rights to citizen can be totalitarian, as long as the government is recognized as the sole authority capable of dispensing or revoking rights. The mark of totalitarianism is its claim to be able to regulate all aspects of society, regardless of how the state is constituted. It can regulate the internal affairs of religious organizations, businesses, private clubs and families. It can even determine questions of natural law, and re-define what is a human being, or what is a family, or what is a religion, as it pleases. Neither benevolence nor malice is the defining characteristic of totalitarianism, but rather the presumption that the state, either as an absolute government or with separation of powers, has plenary authority over all human affairs.


A revolution is a type of rebellion that is aimed not merely at the removal of particular leaders of a polity, but at changing the constitution of the state. While rebellion against lawful authority is justifiable only in cases of genuine oppression or tyranny, a revolution might be justified even in cases where the sovereign has not violated natural law or right.

The legitimacy of revolution depends on the extent to which people have the right to change their state's constitution by extra-constitutional means. Modern written constitutions allow for amendment through legal means, all but eliminating the need for violent revolution. When such a recourse is not possible, a revolutionary war or conflict is necessary. To answer the question of a revolution's legitimacy, we must consider, as with all wars, (1) what is a justifiable cause for changing the state's constitution, and (2) who is legitimately competent to make such a change.

In modern political thought, the doctrine of popular sovereignty is uncritically accepted, in which case "the people" have the right to make revolution. Many of those who retain this doctrine, however, are reluctant to assert that the people may exercise this right of revolution at any time. There would have to be something in the constitution contrary to popular sovereignty in order to legitimize such a rebellion.

Those of us who are not wedded to the concept of popular sovereignty must look for more fundamental reasons for revolutions. In practice, of course, revolutionary outcomes are decided by "might makes right", regardless of whether they are provoked by mass uprisings or cabalistic intrigues. The resulting government may eventually become legitimate through tacit public acceptance and through its own action for the public good in accordance with natural law. I would say that any government meeting these conditions should rightfully continue to rule, and any revolution against such a government is illegitimate. If, however, an illegitimate revolution succeeds, the resulting government may become legitimate in the same way, though the end does not justify the means.

Are there grounds when the nature of the state's constitution as such merits revolution? Only when the state is totalitarian or otherwise violative of natural law in the very structure of its constitution. Monarchies, aristocracies and polities as such, whether limited or absolute, are not intrinsically contrary to natural law, so there is no ground for violent revolution on the basis of constitution alone. Even corrupt forms of government, such as tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, should not be resisted unless the state's constitution is explicitly contrary to natural law, or if the evil wrought by government abuses far outweighs the necessary evils of revolutionary conflict.

Different constitutions entail different notions of who is sovereign, so it is not immediately obvious who should have the power to make revolution. The assumption that "the people" have this power presumes that the people are sovereign, which is a characteristic only of republican or democratic government. This belief that popularity makes revolutions legitimate presumes that only republican or democratic government is legitimate, so in the long run revolutions will tend toward these outcomes. A politically neutral thesis about revolution, which is a change of constitution, cannot uphold the assumptions of one particular kind of constitution.

Before the modern era, and even during it, it was assumed that the nobility or other men of excellence would take the lead in determining when a sovereign needs to be deposed. As they are most familiar with the workings of government and law, they were most suited to determine when a sovereign (usually the same as the head of government) had exceeded his legitimate authority. The decision to make revolution requires evaluations of natural law, the public good, and the legal limits of authority. For egregious violations of fundamental natural rights, the common citizenry or generally competent enough to make such judgments, and may call for revolution. For determinations of whether the government is acting in the public good, the sober judgment of men competent to that task is needed, while questions about the legality of government actions are best left to legal experts. This is why revolutions based on mass action usually occur only when people are denied basic necessities of subsistence, while revolutions grounded on more subtle principles of right are led by social or political elites.

Once revolution is made, it remains to be determined who will develop a new constitution. Since the constitution is in a sense the supreme law of a polity, an especially eminent kind of lawgiver is needed. The basic constitution of a state is difficult to alter, so it is important that it be drafted by men of sober and far-seeing judgment, not by the intemperate, transient whims of the masses. This is why even in democratic nations, constitutions are drafted and debated by men with expertise in law or political philosophy.

In addition to the political revolutions described above, we may also speak of social revolution, where the objective is not so much to reform the constitution of the state, but to alter the basic structure of civil society. Social revolutions may affect the structure of families, religious societies, businesses, guilds, as well as social and economic classes or castes. Often, a corresponding political revolution is needed to impose the desired social change with the power of the state. The legitimacy of a social revolution depends on whether existing social institutions are contrary to natural law, and the benefits of revolution must be weighed against the evil of throwing social norms into upheaval, potentially bringing the notion of social morality into general disrepute for a time. The promoters of social revolution ought to be competent to make the evaluations to determine if revolution is merited: clergy or religious in religious matters, businessmen in business matters, households in family matters, and so on.


Socialism is the belief that the means of production - principally industrial production - ought to be owned by the public. In effect, this means ownership by the state, nominally on behalf of the people in general. Socialism is economically egalitarian, using the power of the state to impose what is supposedly a more equitable set of outcomes.

While we have noted that an unregulated right of property over-rewards success, it does not follow that absolute equality would be any less unfair. Not all are of equal ability, nor are all equally diligent, nor are all equally productive. If it is conceded that any of these inequalities justifies an inequality of merit, there is no escaping the fact that some inequality in outcome is justified.

Socialist thinkers avoid this conclusion either by proposing a less absolute form of egalitarianism, or by denying the notion of individual merit. In this line of thought, they are joined by some non-socialist liberal thinkers, most notably the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls denied the notion of merit on the ground that a person's talents are given to him by nature, while his ability to exercise those talents are made possible by social infrastructure, to the extent that practically the entirety of his productivity is determined by extrinsic or social factors.

The idea that individual merit should play little or no role in the distribution of goods implies the need to revise our understanding of the classical virtue of liberality. In classical philosophical thought, one ought to be generous or liberal to a person in proportion to his merit. In this way, we give honor to virtue. If there is effectively no such thing as personal merit, then we make no distinction between virtue and vice, or among degrees of virtue, in our distribution of reward. Thus our economic system becomes amoral, as it deals only with physical necessity, and does not take care to honor virtue. Such as system might be appropriate for a subsistence economy, but in reality most of our economic activity creates goods and services far beyond the means of subsistence, so there is no longer a question of physical need. If in fact people are unequal in virtue, then the equal distribution of such excess goods could prove to be cancerous to a society's moral condition. This was arguably in fact the case in the Soviet Union and other societies that to tried to impose an amoral egalitarianism.

Contrary to popular belief, statist socialism does not abolish property, but in fact is predicated on it. Under socialism, all productive capital becomes public property, and the benefits of that capital are paid to the people in more or less equal wages, with which they can acquire private property. Just as modern democracy takes the absolutist notion of sovereignty from monarchs and gives it to the people, so does socialism take absolute property from private entities and give it to the state.

There are more radical forms of socialism, tending towards anarchism - Babeufism, for example - which would abolish property altogether - public and private - allowing only possession based on use. This logically would lead to an erosion of the state's economic power, like the "withering away" proposed by Marx.

Socialism may be parliamentary or revolutionary in nature. Parliamentary socialism participates in existing liberal government peacefully, hoping to enact gradual change toward socialism through legislation. Socialist political parties generally advocate a more equal distribution of wealth and income by imposing higher taxation on the wealthy and more government benefits for the poor. In this they are sometimes indistinguishable from many liberals. Their program is not truly socialist if it does not include nationalization of industry; however, parliamentary socialists may nonetheless seek socialist outcomes - such as equality of economic condition - through liberal means.

Revolutionary socialists recognize the limitations of parliamentary socialism, and argue that true socialism requires the abolition or radical reform of liberal constitutions. The guarantees of individual liberty and private property found in many liberal states are intrinsically incompatible with socialism, so revolution is necessary.

Revolutionary socialism generally aims at both political and social revolution. The reform of the state is necessary in order to impose changes in social and economic outcomes. Since socialism uses the power of the state to reform most or all aspects of civil society, it tends toward totalitarianism in practice, as its internal logic would demand. Ideally, once the social revolution is complete and internalized morally by the people in their collective conscience, it will no longer be necessary for the state to impose what everyone accepts. Thus the state can wither away and be replaced by classless anarchy, as Marx envisioned.

In reality, humans have proven extremely reluctant to accept radical social egalitarianism as a moral norm, so socialist governments have had to rely on force for indefinite periods of time. In practice, socialism has required a strengthening of the state, and has exhibited no tendencies toward classless anarchy. Quite the contrary, new hierarchies emerge within the state bureaucracy, replacing the old aristocracies or plutocracies.

'Communism' is just a term that Karl Marx used to distinguish his brand of revolutionary socialism, also called "scientific socialism". Communism is not distinct from other forms of revolutionary socialism except in its philosophical rationalizations. Marx adapted Hegelian dialectic to construct a deterministic, materialist notion of history and culture that would justify socialist objectives and means. Marxism, with its emphasis on philosophical materialism, is notable for its tacit admission that socialists share with laissez faire capitalists the assumption that economic production is the primary concern of society, to which all other concerns are subordinate.

© 2008-11 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

Back Top