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Political Theory: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary and Classic Terms
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A absolutes (universals, objective principles, moral realism) Absolutes are fundamental principles or values that are held to be true independently of cultural context, historical development, or human determination. An absolute value or principle is not a function of human will, judgment, or reason, nor is it true only within the context of a given time, situation, or social framework. Rather, an absolute is true in itself, whether it is held to be true or not, and whether it is applied within a given sociohis- toric framework or not. Absolutes are essential concepts and normative ideas that exist objec- tively and are not considered true or correct sit- uationally, but are discerned as true or correct because they are principles that exist beyond human enactment. In essence, to embrace absolutes amounts to a kind of ‘‘moral realism,’’ or the notion that moral values are objectively real and are right or true independent of subjec- tive judgment or exertion. For political theory, absolutes are particularly difficult to affirm or recognize. Mathematical absolutes, such as 7 + 5 = 12, are not easily discovered in the social and political world. Nonetheless, the tradition of political theory includes just such an effort throughout the balance of its development. Attempts at finding transcendent moral and political principles are as old as civilization itself, as evinced, for example, in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Egyptian principle of Ma’at, and the Hindu Law of Manu. The ancient Hebrew Scripture, or Tanakh (identical with the Old Testament of the Christian Bible), pro- vides a timeless moral code of conduct that applies to social and political action as well as serving the faithfulintheir quest fora relationship with the Divine this moral code is reaffirmed in its essence in the Christian New Testament. In Greek political philosophy—the conceptual foundation for Western political theory—we can see this same attempt at least as early as Antigone, part of the familiar Oedipus cycle of dramas composed by Sophocles (495 BC– 406 BC). Antigone’s appeal to a law that resides ‘‘even above Zeus’’ represents the pursuit of transcendent justice, a pursuit that reaches its philosophical apogee in Plato’s theory of the Forms (eidos consult his Republic, Parmenides, Phaedo, Phaedrus). For Plato (427 BC–347 BC) the Forms—including the Form of justice—are the eternal and essential reality behind all things, the things that are in contrast to the things that come to be and pass away. Thus, in Plato’s political theory, it is clear that there are objective absolute principles that hold true across time and culture, and that what is just for an Athenian in his day is equally just for us in ours. While skeptical of Plato’s theory of Forms, Aristotle (384 BC– 322 BC) in his Metaphysics nonetheless recognized the existence of ‘‘first principles and basic rea- sons,’’ which he describes as that which ‘‘is most intelligible’’ and ‘‘what is best in all nature’’ (Metaphysics Nicomachean Ethics). Discovery of the first principles as a form of inquiry is ‘‘the only one of the sciences that is free, since it alone is for its own sake.’’ First principles are expressed