Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.

Odysseus and Individuality

The Iliad is the story of Achilles moving from rage with an ally to sympathy with an enemy. Many other characters appear and the extremism of Achilles’ character, which leads him to remove himself from battle and therefore the narrative, lends itself to allowing other characters to present other possibilities of human personality.

The Trojan characters, particularly Hector, provide on obvious source of alternatives, but so do the other Greek hero warriors, and one of those who emerges most distinctly is Odysseus. Though Odysseus is a fierce remorseless warrior, inclined towards killing the enemy, particularly when the enemy can be seen as socially inferior, he is also characterised by his intellectual resources. It is highly indicative that one of the major appearances of Odysseus in The Iliad is on a spying trip into the Trojan camp. This early appreciation of the role of intelligence of in warfare is part of what makes the Homeric epics a classic of the theory of war, as well as a class of many other kinds.

Odysseus we see in The Iliad is the best adapted of the Greek kings to moderating disagreements, speaking with a constructive purpose in assemblies and councils, and thinking about the conduct of the war. This does not always make him sympathetic, but it does show that the human individual can exist in a very vivid and alive way through speech and thought as well as through anger and violence.

It is fitting then that Odysseus get his own epic, The Odyssey, which contrasts the very communal, even hyper communal, world of men at war, with the growing isolation of a man separated both from the brothers in arms community of Troy and from his family community back in Ithaca. The journey from Troy to Ithaca takes him right across the Greek world of the time, conveniently for symbolising other kinds of distance between the world of war and the world of human community. That is in part the distance between a world of plunder and slave girls on one side, and a world of productive labour and marriage on the other side. The Homeric poems does not make the contrast as favourable to the home community, as that might suggest.

Clearly the Heroes at Troy in some way feel most alive at war, straining their human faculties most in that endeavour. The Iliad also suggests other ways in which individuals can heighten the sense of life, the athletic competition at the funeral of the Patroclus and the desire to be remembered in poetry are the most obvious. These are not separate activities from war in Homer. Odysseus participates in games and weeps at poetic performance about himself in the land of the Phaeacians. In both cases war is very close. The games nearly turn in to violence between Odysseus and a Phaeacian who ‘accuses’ him of being a merchant and the poetry refers to the Trojan War.

With all due qualifications, we can still say that The Odyssey shows the value for an individual of getting back to the peaceful world of productive labours and familial affections. It also shows an individual losing all of the normal social bonds that define the self and finding other aspects of the self, which are not obviously present in the community of war and plunder or the community of family and labour. These are the aspects of the self which are part of ‘individualism’, of the idea as an individual as having an existence behind and, to some extent, separable from the most deeply entrenched social roles and connections. The appreciation of such aspects of the individual is the ethical foundation of political ideas of liberty, and Homeric poetry, though apparently the product of very communal communities, does much to establish that ethic (in some ways more than later philosophers in the antique world).

Odysseus confronts the possibility of a lonely death at sea after losing all his men in the long journey from Troy. The fault is partly his and partly his men. The vital passage for many of these issues is the adventure in the land of the Cyclops. Odysseus is thoughtless of danger when he takes some of his men to a cave whose occupant is absent, where they feast on the available food. Odysseus is taking assumptions about the applicability of laws of hospitality to an imprudent extreme here, and even tips over in plunder when it seems he plans to return to the ships with much of what is in the cave before the occupant returns.

The occupant, Polyphemus, returns too soon for that and is inherently more inclined to consume his guests than give them presents. Odysseus evades death through cunning, partly by telling Polyphemus that his name is ‘No man’. This idea of Odysseus that he might be taken as anyone and therefore no one, is itself a comment on how being some thing depends on being recognised as someone. It is also a resourceful individual thinking of how to use these abstractions to evade danger. Odysseus, however, guarantees ten more years of danger by boasting of his name and demanding it be known when he is sailing away from the island, incurring the enmity of Polyphemus’ father the god Poseidon.

The danger of the name and the desire for a name is emphasised later in the Sirens episode where malevolent demigoddesses try to lure Odysseus to his death with songs of the glory of Odysseus. To only want to live by your name as warrior heroics is dangerous. Odysseus has to resist this to live and again be thrown back on a very individualised kind of individuality.

The Homeric role in the origins of liberty is then partly bound up with the sense that even an individual very tied to the basic forms of community in his society can only fully thrive and live, if wiling to experience and play with, or suffer, separation from social bonds, and that the strength of those bonds itself rests most strongly on characters who can confront and live from encounters with extreme and even traumatic loss of communal bonds, and without becoming addicted to such situations and there dangers either.

Some more thoughts on what to do with conspiracy theorists and other libertarian sympathizers

Just a quick note on a perennial topic…

Years ago I met my (now) ex-girlfriends crazy uncle. For whatever reason we ended up talking about how some policy or other was a bad idea. “Oh cool,” I thought, a fellow traveler. And then he started talking about how 9-11 was an inside job. “Okay, sure, whatever, but there’s so much else. We could actually convince people that, for example, a better regulatory system could improve the world.” To which he replied that yes indeed 9-11 sure was extra inside-job-y.

Now, this guy was a legitimately crazy uncle, so whatever. But this exchange wasn’t about his being a crazy uncle, because I’ve met plenty of non-crazy, non-uncles who have been similarly zombie-like. Whether they’re of the “Obama is a secret gay Muslim” variety, or any other variety of conspiracy theorist, they are just completely uninterested in attacking the Democratic party for any sensible reason. And this is true of anti-Republicans too. There the conversation is something like “war sure is bad, huh?” “Yeah, and Bush’s puppet masters set the whole thing up.” “Okay, let’s just assume that’s true, how do we reduce the amount of war?” “By getting hung up on evidence that only convinces people who don’t need any more convincing!” “I’m going to go get another drink.”

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of good arguments for opposing whoever it is you want to oppose. Yes, it feels good to talk about how the bums in charge are pawns for the cartoon-mustache-twirlingly-evil powers that be. But if you want to be taken seriously, keep it to yourself.

I see two things going on here. First, these conspiracy zombies are simply bad at thinking like economists. The first rule of being a good economist is that you have to recognize opportunity cost. By perseverating on the big, exciting, good-vs-evil struggle amongst competing factions of the Illuminati (I guess?) you attach all your attention to something you’re unlikely to have any real influence on at the expense of minor but achievable goals like marginal improvement of the immigration system, or school choice, or any number of other things the other side is willing to discuss with you (yeah, yeah, they aren’t willing to discuss that stuff because they’re convinced that your side is in a deal with the devil too…).

Second, and this is more troubling, people have a natural predilection to these sorts of things. People would rather get excited about conspiracies than actually make the world a better place. Is there anything we can do about that? I don’t know. Maybe we need to convince rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats that aliens are conspiring to pit humans against one another by making us argue unproductively rather than simply reform immigration policy. Maybe Krugerz was right?

What is a nation?

This is a reply to Brandon’s latest post. I offer similar thoughts to the below post in my post about ethnicity.

I agree with Brandon that in discussing things we should not limit ourselves to thinking in terms of states. We must consider, as Brandon puts it, both supra and sub states. We must also recall that states are much more fluid than we usually consider them.

When discussing international relations I attempt to get my conversation partners to agree that:

(1) National borders are not stable and,

(2) National identity is more fiction than reality.

The first is easily confirmed by looking at historical maps. Here is a map of the Levant/Greater Middle East in 14th century BC, 830 BC634 AD, 1135 AD, and 1900 AD. Egypt and Persia are the only two entities that are present in some form or another throughout this time span and even then their respective borders have fluctuated with only a few core regions being stable. I have yet to find someone who disagrees with the first point.

The second point is harder to get people to concede. We often think ourselves as a given national identity and find it difficult to imagine that our nation did not exist since the beginning, or at least as far back as imaginable. Most nations have a foundation epic that makes little sense when seriously scrutinized.

Take for example American national identity. Three hundred million plus souls imagine themselves as ‘American’, but what exactly does that mean?

American identity cannot be equated with a specific phenotype; i.e. Americans are not all blue eyed blond people of English descent. In colonial days blacks outnumbered whites in several regions. Today whites in the Mid-Atlantic states are bronze skinned due to the dominance of Mediterranean descent there. The southwest is filled with “Hispanics” who over whelming self identify as white but are not considered really white, hence the curious demographic term “non-Hispanic white”. Even in the cradle of the American revolution, Massachusetts, the largest ancestry group is the Irish not English. The only state that is predominantly of English descent is Utah.

Among whites there is constant tension over who was really white and who is a “white negro“. Germans, who are today the largest ancestry group in the US, were the first ‘white’ subgroup to have to fight to prove that they were really white. The Irish, Italians, and others of European descent all had to fight for inclusion into the ‘white’ group. Today Hispanics and Asians are both vying for inclusion.

The revolutionary war serves as the US’ de facto national epic and the leaders of the rebellion are treated (and on occasion sculpted) as demi-gods. Yet the popular image of the revolution is more fiction than reality. Americans paid very little in tax relative to residents of the British isles. George Washington was a horrible military strategist. The founding fathers were not fighting to ensure liberty for the common man – they were fighting to shift control of government from elites in London to elites in Philadelphia. To be sure there were a few true revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine, who were involved in the hope of genuinely reforming government. For every Paine though there were a dozen Hamiltons who wanted to preserve the British Empire. just without the British.

American, in so far as it is an ethnic label, is non-stationary and continually evolving. I would not be amazed if the American label went extinct and was replaced with other labels in the future. Perhaps the Pacific northwest will become inhabited by Cascadians in the future?

None of this is unique to the American moniker. It is easy to pick on the United States since it is a young nation, but most nations are just as fluid and nonsensical.

What does it mean to be British? Turkish? Austrian? Spanish?

Were the inhabitants of the British isles prior to the Norman invasion British?

The Byzantine Empire was only recently destroyed and many of its inhabitants inter married with Turkic migrants. The Ottomans gave themselves the title of Roman Emperor, “Kayser-i Rum”. A friend of mine jokingly calls Turks Anatolian Greeks.

‘Austrian’ as a national identity is arguably younger than the American moniker. Prior to the disestablishment of the Hapsburg Empire in WW1 there was no independent Austrian geopolitical entity. Austria was a constituent member of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg crown lands, the Austrian Empire, and Austria-Hungary before finally becoming simply Austria following WW1. Austrians are as culturally distinct from other Germans as Bavarians or Swabians are. Why then are Austrians a national group, but the latter two aren’t?

The Iberian peninsula has been under Muslim control (700s~1600s) longer than it has been under a united Spain. Spaniards continue to have significant traces of Arab/Berber genetic material. Despite the actions of Franco, Spanish (or “Castilian”) is not the sole language used in the country. Several million in the country’s northeast wish to cease being Spanish altogether in order to form an independent Catalan.

What is a nation? I argue that it is a group label that is invented and sustained in so far as it serves to further the goals of elites. Within an individual’s lifetime they appear unchanging, but from a historical perspective they are fluid and are frequently created, killed, or reborn as needed. When conversing about geopolitics we cannot ignore national identity, but we must keep in mind that in the long run nationality can be, and is, molded to suit political goals.

Barbarian Liberty and Civilisation in Homer

Following from my last two posts, this will explore the sort of ‘barbarian’ liberty that Tacitus recognised in his time, that is of the early Roman empire, and was further explored by Montesquieu and Humboldt in the eighteenth century in relation to the poetry of Homer. ‘Homer’ here refers to two Greek epic poems attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which had a very large presence not only in Greek culture, but in Roman culture which produced a kind of sequel in Latin, The Aeneid of Virgil, a very major work in its own right deserving of separate consideration.

As already indicated Homer shows us warriors of extreme destructive ferocity, who consider it normal and admirable to destroy enemy cities, taking slaves, and collecting loot as well as killing without mercy. A reasonable immediate reaction to that from a liberty supporting point of view is that this is the opposite of what liberty is about, that liberty oriented thought treats  unprovoked violence as the prime evil. Without denying any of that, the kind of violence that the Homeric Heroes engage in is part of a social bond within which voluntary co-operation of some sorts. Here I am referring to heroes not just in the sense of the main protagonists of a story, but the semi-divine status they are accorded in Homer, and by implication which is accorded to them in Mycenaean (late Bronze Age) Greece, where these stories originate.

The Homeric world is one in which there is trade and commerce, but it is regarded as less ‘honourable’ than Heroic violence, including piracy and physical destruction of cites. What this refers to, in fictionalised and poetic ways, is a world of weak enforcement of rules about property and individual security from violence outside small compact communities. Trade is clearly hazardous, running risks of the piracy referred to and maybe trading valuables of a kind acquired by violence, including slaves. Wealth is to a very large degree understood to consist of what can be seized or occupied through violence, including land, livestock and metal objects, rather than the less tangible and physically identifiable wealth of commercial life.

The value of ‘Heroic’ violence is then understandable in a world where there is very limited understanding of forms of wealth and security arising from relations of mutual advantage and respect for rules that apply to more than a small community and maybe its intimate contacts in other communities. Individual achievement and excellence is then understood in very large part as striving for excellence in war, and maybe in associated activities such as competitive sports which may suit strong aggressive warriors, and in which valuables looted in war or even originating with the gods (presumably a metaphoric poetic way of referring to the skilled workers in metal, leather, and precious stones that only the ‘Hero’ class could employ) may be awarded as prizes.

What this picture is building up is the importance of excellence and competition in the Homeric warrior society, and which continues into later stages of ancient Greek society, certainly up to the great cultural achievements and experiments with political liberty and democracy in Athens of the fifth century BCE. Of course the Homeric poetry maybe to a large degree reflects the growth of that culture of individual excellence and competition between whatever tales of Bronze Age wars are the starting point of the oral poetic tradition that leads to Homer and the writing down of the poems as we know them.

The Iliad begins with a story of extreme personal anger at an insult to honour in which the greatest Greek hero, Achilles, withdraws from the war. This is one aspect of the individualistic competitive nature of the warrior culture in Homer and while it is a classic case of uncontrolled temper which threatens social bonds, it is  also a classic case of the growth of individuality. Achilles’ rage is the product of self-awareness of individuality and demands for respect of that individuality, which Achilles directs at someone with some claim to authority over him, Agamemnon the most powerful of the many kings ruling different parts of Greece, and the leader of the Greek league against Troy.

Achilles’ rage does not easily decline and is even increased when the Trojan hero Hector kills his best friend Patroclus. Achilles shows ‘barbaric’ cruelty in not only killing Hector himself, an inevitable response in this world, but in denying Hector’s body a funeral, even throwing it in the dust to decay and be eaten by wild animals. The greatest horror of the Homeric Heroes is to suffer such indignities in death, which are also an attack on the honour and welfare of family and of the community of that dead Hero. In the end, however, Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy, is able to persuade Achilles to return Hectors body and reflect on their shared experience of mourning for loved ones.

What we have in The Iliad is a kind of brutal but real individuality, which at least elevates warriors as individuals above a mass of identical individuals in a collective killing machine. The fierce kind of individuality which leads Achilles to rage at insults to his honour and the death of his friend also shows a capacity to judge wisely in disputes as in Achilles’ way of handling the games which are part of the funeral of Patroclus, and a capacity for empathy with the extreme emotions of others. That is Achilles shows a barbaric strength of warrior individualism and a growth of understanding of impartially administered justice and empathy with the sufferings of others, including his enemies. So we see that ‘barbarian liberty’ encompasses justice within the community and respect of some kind for the individual suffering of others, basic prerequisites for the development of a society in which individual liberty can flourish.

Next week the development of heroic individualism in the character of Odysseus and in The Odyssey.

Gracias, Carlitos

Me refiero a Carlos Bianchi, y el agradecimiento es por habernos enseñado cómo jugar la Libertadores; a los otros dos Carlos que lo merecen ya les corresponderá su post de agradecimiento.

Desde 2000, el record de Boca en la Copa es asombroso. Boca participó en 11 de 15 ediciones, llegando a la final en 6 ocasiones (55%); siempre pasó la primera fase, y sólo una vez se quedó en octavos de final (en 2009, contra Defensor Sporting). En otras palabras, Boca jugó los cuartos de final de dos de cada tres copas disputadas entre 2000 y 2014, y pasó en 6 de 7 semifinales (86%). Para poner esos números en contexto, de los otros 10 equipos que participaron en 9 o más ediciones,* únicamente Peñarol llegó a la final, en 2011 (perdió con Santos). Además de Boca, sólo Inter de Porto Alegre (ganó 2 de 2), Sao Paulo, Santos y Olimpia (1 de 2) llegaron a la final más de una vez.

Una forma de examinar esos números con un poco más de rigor es estimar la probabilidad de que un equipo llegue a una determinada instancia (Final, Semi, Cuartos, etc) dadas ciertas variables, como su desempeño en la primera fase o su país de origen. Para ver si ése es el caso, estimé una serie de modelos probit ordenados donde la variable dependiente es la posición en que cada equipo terminó en cada Copa (Campeón, Subcampeón, Semifinal, Cuartos u Octavos). La muestra comprende todos aquellos equipos que llegaron a octavos de final.

Los modelos 1-3 muestran que los equipos a los que les va bien en la primera fase generalmente llegan más lejos, y que el total de puntos obtenidos es más importante que ganar el grupo. Por supuesto, ambas variables están correlacionadas–en promedio, el primero del grupo le saca tres puntos al segundo–, pero a los mejores primeros (y, presumiblemente, a los mejores segundos) les suele ir mejor. El modelo 4 muestra que incluso controlando por la cantidad de puntos obtenidos en la primera fase, los equipos argentinos y brasileños son más fuertes que el resto–lo que es de esperar si consideramos que casi 3 de cada 4 finalistas (22 de 30, ó 73%) vienen de Argentina o Brasil. Sin embargo, el último modelo revela que más que un “efecto Argentina”, lo que hay es un “efecto Boca”: cuando incluimos un dummy para Boca, los equipos argentinos ya no son tan buenos en comparación al resto, pero Boca sí lo es.


El gráfico de abajo ilustra la magnitude de ese efecto. Las barras indican la probabilidad de que distintos equipos lleguen a una determinada instancia de la Libertadores, dependiendo de su país de origen y el número de puntos obtenidos en la primera fase. Podemos apreciar cómo los equipos que no son argentinos ni brasileños (y los argentinos que pasan con sólo 10 puntos) tienen muchas probabilidades de quedarse afuera en Octavos; asimismo, la diferencia entre un equipo brasileño y uno argentino que no sea Boca es de alrededor de 3 puntos. Pero nada se compara con el Boca post-Bianchi, cuya probabilidad de ganar la final es la misma que la de un equipo brasileño de llegar a semifinales–y ni hablemos de pasar las primeras dos fases.


(*) Los otros equipos que participaron en 9 ó más ediciones son Nacional de Montevideo (15), Cerro Porteño y Libertad de Paraguay (11), Bolívar, Emelec, River, Vélez (10), Caracas, Peñarol y The Strongest (9).

(Publicado originalmente en https://elpaisgeneroso.wordpress.com/)

More on Liberty and Homer: Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Humboldt

As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.

The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.

The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.

Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.

However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.

The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.

At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.

He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.

It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.

One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.

Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.

What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.

The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.

In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.