It is a great achievement that civilizations have attained the civility we enjoy today. Indeed it has been touted violence is decreasing, war is decreasing, and this trend will continue. This optimistic statement is agreeable in that no rational individual would hope for the opposite. Although as civil as appearances are, as sanitized as behaviors appear, the organic and ruthless relations of power is what actually drives politics both nationally and internationally. This is as relevant today as it was in ancient.
It was originally quoted in the comic play Asinaria by Plautus and has been repeated since, “Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit.” In English it is roughly translated as, “One man to another is a wolf, not a man, when he doesn’t know what sort he is.” Aurelius, Hobbes, de Maistre, and others have quoted this in varying contexts. This is compatible with the Hobbesian perspective of the human condition, as well as Hobbes proposed solution. As Hobbes argues, in a state of nature there is brutish struggle for survival, man is indeed a wolf to man. It is only by the construction of the State does man find temporary peace and stability. It is only through a central authority such as religion or State does man find out ‘what sort he is’. Man is a beast in nature, but through a stable superstructure this is sublimated and allows man to become more than his basest drives. By forming such a central authority and societal order each individual can achieve security, as well as a mutual interdependence that allows individuals to pursue ambitions with as little conflict as possible. That being stated, despite the importance of civility in an orderly society, interactions are still rooted in power relations. Be it social dominance, ethnocentrism, resources, or conquest there is a sacrifice of civility in order to achieve a particular end. This is not to taint human action with pure self-interest, rather this is the actual nature of politics in action. Hobbes understood this bestial aspect of man, and forming a State for the sake of order and security was not an attempt to deny or transcend this nature, only sublimate it in a beneficial manner. The superstructure which we enjoy daily, that has allowed civilization’s greatest discoveries and accomplishments, that affords us safety and comfort, still rest upon these base drives which exploit and aspire.
The discussion of politics was near synonymous with the discussion of virtue up until Machiavelli and similar positions. The high minded and lofty conceptualization of politics was replaced with a mundane and quite ruthless perspective. Machiavelli describes the nature of man identical to Hobbes. Inversely Machiavelli argued for political positions which in the dialogues of Plato would have been considered ferocious. Indeed his teachings echo the argument put forth by Glaucon to Socrates in The Republic. That perhaps it is better to appear just to the public but freely act unjust in private matters, as long as the unjust actions are not found out. A primary teaching stressed by Machiavelli is that the prince should appear and act virtuously, but if the situation arises of which he needs to do wrong, he will know how and will not hesitate. Machiavelli accepts the unattractive brutish nature of man, and as such puts forth the best direction as to sublimate and utilize this reality in the most efficient manner, preserving both ones political position as well as protecting the state. It has been argued that he advocates that the ends always justify the means, no matter the means. This is partially true, though he emphasizes the necessity and prudence as well. Machiavelli does not argue for rash and wanton action, this would be antithetic to purpose. Hobbes provides a foundational understanding of organic relations and the vital role of the State. Machiavelli goes further, embracing the organic relations, embracing the exploitative drives, and presents to the best of his ability a method of sublimating these instinctive drives for the benefit of self and State. The virtue teachings of the past were not disregarded, only altered to show the complete picture of political relations. That deceit is as valuable as honesty, mercilessness as valuable as mercy, wrath as valuable as compassion, and so forth. It is the situational context that determines the necessary course of action. This approach is a radical embracement of the Hobbesian nature and the wisdom that results from such an embracement.
Society and politics is a rhizomatic network of power relations that are continuously struggling to fulfill ends and achieve dominance, in short, a will to power. This concept was first coined by Nietzsche, as a counter and alteration of Schopenhauer’s will to life. Be it considered metaphysical or organic, the essence of that which is alive is to thrive or attempt to thrive, no matter the resistance. Schopenhauer argued for an incredibly base definition of the will to live, that of directionless propagation for the sake of propagation. This perspective is passive and life negating as it suggests resignation rather than action. Nietzsche reversed this completely with his argued concept of will to power, in that the will to power is simply the expenditure of energy itself, not exclusively individual bodies attempting to gain more power. Of course this is only a briefing of their work, and particularly relevant regarding the above argument that each relation in politics is a will to power, although these relations may or may not have specific objectives. Energy or force in itself has no inherent direction, it simply is and expresses. In political relations or relations between two or more entities there is that force that is used actively to the fullest of its ability, and there is the force that is reactive, which attempts to prohibit and reduce the active. This struggle is seen throughout politics as entities attempt to express themselves fully or prohibit the next active entity. A system of checks and balances or hegemonic stability is similar in dynamic, though a severe simplification of the actual ongoing process. Nietzsche referred to and praised Machiavelli throughout his works. Indeed Machiavelli understood the constant multipolar conflicts of interest in politics. The following statement by Nietzsche not only defines the organic will to power, it also resonates with much of Machiavellian teachings…
“Exploitation does not belong to a depraved, or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the nature of the living being as a primary organic function; it is a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life.”
It is important to note that Nietzsche does not advocate a brutish ‘might is right’ philosophy, in fact he would argue such a conclusion is of a lesser or slavish mind. Nonetheless he does accept and affirm the tragic and often exploitative nature of reality. Nietzsche did not have a particular political stance, and many refer to him as antipolitical. Much of his work resonates with how politics work, but he aspired for higher than what he referred to as petty politics. One can question the relevancy of this in today’s overly sanitized and overly civil culture, though a quick look at the international realm of politics to see what was true to ancients and those philosophers after is just as true today. The forms and global context may change, but power still lies at the heart and expresses what it will. Nietzsche’s work on this was not entirely new, although it was packaged in a remarkable and unique way. This thesis, that politics is at its core the relations of organic power, can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy. Nietzsche certainly acknowledged this in his praise of Sophocles and the Greek tragedies, but aside from that there were sophists whom almost seem like prototypes of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche.
Thucydides is considered one of the first theorists of international relations, and one of the first to posit what is now considered a realist model of international politics. He along with Machiavelli and Hobbes are usually the first cited as fathers of realpolitik. There are four primary attributes to realism 1) the primacy of human nature, typically Hobbesian 2) the lack of a centralized authority or moral set in the international realm, thus anarchy 3) security is considered the foremost concern, again echoing Hobbes 4) skepticism regarding the role of morality in international politics, if morality has any influence at all in decision making. This model is controversial and there are competing models, but it can be confidently said it is the oldest model concerning the international realm. If there is a statement that succinctly defines realist politics, and the relations of power previously discussed, it is the famous quote by Thucydides,
“Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
At least in advanced nations we have protected human rights, legal equality, healthcare, and other first world privileges so this statement may not resonate at first. Although on the grand scale this still rings true for less developed nations, state failures, and even interaction of hegemonic forces with lesser forces. No matter our superstructure that is mindful of ethics and humanitarian ideals that which is beneath are the organic relations of power that Thucydides states. Another less noted figure was the Athenian philosopher Callicles which appeared in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias. One cannot read Callicles argument without immediately thinking of Nietzsche, though Callicles argument is less refined and crude by comparison. Callicles argues that the weak advocate virtues such as temperance and justice only to restrain the strong. The weak argue for laws of equality to prohibit the strong from fully expressing themselves to the utmost. This is akin to Nietzsche of reactive forces attempting to prohibit active forces. Likewise he defines what is good is to affirm ones desires, passions, and aspire to fulfill them completely,
“…the man who is to live rightly should let his appetites grow as large as possible and not restrain them, and when these are as large as possible, he must have the power to serve them, because of his bravery.”
This affirmation and aspiration to personal fulfillment is similar to Nietzsche’s will to power, though it is important to note Nietzsche strongly argued against being a slave to passions. Callicles is not clear on that in his conversation with Socrates. Callicles does openly state that might is right, and here is where he and Nietzsche greatly differ. Nietzsche would argue that position is vulgar and reductive, only the slavish would see it so fundamentally. Nonetheless, despite modern humanitarian attempts, this struggle of reactive forces and active forces permeate national and international politics. Heraclitus is yet another philosopher known in realpolitik as well as Nietzsche. He posited that the default state of existence was of fire, was a constant struggle and conflict, and this was a constant act of becoming,
“It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife.”
Existence, politics, culture; it is a constant struggle of relations, power continuously expending itself, expression and prohibition, entropy and convolution, a non-linear maelstrom of pulls and pushes. This is the truest definition of politics.
From ancient philosophy praising virtue in politics to the modern age that recognizes the strenuous and conflicting forces, the conceptualization of politics has shifted drastically. One can judge if this is a positive or negative development, although it is best to say it simply is and probably always was. There is no shortage of theorists and philosophers that have professed wisdom on the subject of realpolitik, relations of power. It is not popular nor attractive to most, but that does not negate the truth in it, particularly when it surrounds us and permeates global politics. It is better to affirm than to deny.