Category Archives: Western Civilization

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Seneca on Mercy and on Anger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4-65 CE) was born in the Roman Spanish city of Cordoba. Southern Spain was one of the most Romanised parts of the Roman Empire outside Italy , so it is not surprising that Seneca made his way to Rome where he became a writer and it seems a money lender. He was also tutor to and then adviser to the Emperor Nero. He had previously been in conflict with the Emperor Claudius, for own known reasons, and was exiled to Corsica for a while as a consequence.

Seneca’s writing career covered philosophical essays, tragedies, and letters which amounted to an exploration of his philosophical interests. He followed the Stoic school of philosophy, which goes back to the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334-226BCE), and was influential on the Roman upper classes. So much so that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180CE) wrote his Meditations with regard to Stoic thinking on character and ways of living. It was written in Greek, indicating how far Roman thought on ethics, politics, and other topics was continuous with, or at least engaged with, ancient Greek thought.

Seneca’s relations with Nero turned out to be even more destructive than those with Claudius. Seneca tried to educate and advise Nero to be honest, just, and restrained in the use of power. However, Nero turned out to be one of the most infamously cruel, paranoiac, and violent Emperors. These negative tendencies were turned on Seneca, so that even after Seneca had retired to the countryside to avoid the bad atmosphere round Nero, he was forced to commit suicide on suspicion of complicity with a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. Nero himself was overthrown and pressured to commit suicide thee years later. Suicide was a relatively honourable form of death for Romans, and it was a privilege to allowed to commit suicide rather than face execution, nevertheless Seneca and Nero can be said to have both met sorry ends as a result of political turmoil initiated by Nero.

Nero’s behaviour was really the direct opposite of that recommended to rulers by Seneca  the essays on anger and on mercy, and was a painful failure for Seneca who had tried to educate him from childhood for a moderate self-restrained use of power. Seneca’s approach to politics is to advise an absolute ruler in the use of power, so he might seem a bit paradoxical as part of a series on liberty. However, Seneca was considered as a major supporter of republics, of government based on individual liberty in the early modern period, so that Thomas Hobbes, the authoritarian minded philosopher and political thinker, considered his thought a danger to sovereign state power.

Seneca’s thought certainly did mark the death of the Roman Republic, which was essentially abolished in substance (after a historical phase of hollowing out) by Julius Caesar in his period of absolute power from 49BCE until his assassination in 44BCE. The failure of the assassins to restore the republic led to the absolute power of Augustus and the inauguration of the autocratic  emperor system.

Seneca refers unfavourably to those who use the Greek idea of ‘parrhesia’, that is free and critical public speaking, to excess, going against what had been taken as central to the liberty of citizens. The reason Seneca can be placed in the liberty tradition is that even when criticising excess in free speech, he praises a Macedonian-Greek king on the receiving end for the restraint of his reaction. Living in an age of absolute rulers, Seneca’s main concern is that they rule as the foundation of individual rights rather than as a source of arbitrary power over citizens.

The essays on mercy and anger bring together the fields of person virtue and the best ways of governing. Virtue for Seneca, as was normal for ancient thinkers, was deeply embedded in ideas of self-restraint and moderation. From this point of view anger damages the angry person, as an example of self-harming extreme behaviour. Anger is a negative painful state of mind and to act under its influence leads to great harm.

Seneca is not simply saying that a ruler should follow general moral virtue in the manner of ruling. He places a particular responsibility on the ruler to resist anger and show mercy. The individual may harbour resentment against some enemy who caused harm, but the ruler must avoid such resentment. The ruler who publishes and executes all those regarded with suspicion as present or future enemies harms the state and the public good. Harsh treatment of individuals by rulers leads to those individuals becoming angry with the ruler so conspiring against that person. Executions will only stimulate further rebellion by those who were closest to the executed and leads to an increasingly violent period of rule. All the violence and revenge has negative consequences for the public good as well as for those persecuted.

The ruler should regard all individuals as part of the state, which he should be trying to manage responsibly. The state is harmed if any individual within the state is harmed, as the state exists to promote the public good. The ruler who cannot restrain desires for cruelty and who ignores the rights of individuals is suffering from a self-harming weakness of character and is likely to suffer violent revenge. Seneca mentions the third Roman Emperor, Caligula, in this context,  who was assassinated in 41CE, four years after succeeding Tiberius.

The best thing the ruler can do is show mercy. Those who receive mercy, even after plotting assassination, are likely to start supporting the ruler, and even work for the ruler. It is better to forgive and try to integrate a conspirator than kill the conspirator so that others will wish to avenge that murder. The ruler should obey laws as much as ordinary citizens, and should be mild in applying laws. Everyone is guilty of some fault, of some minor breach of law, at some time, so that punishing all wrong-doers will lead to the destruction of a society, as nearly all inhabitants of the territory of the state disappear.

While Seneca assumes that political power rests with one person, he argues that the continuing exercise of the power rests both on reliable justice with regard to the execution of laws and restraint from the most extreme or obsessive punishment. The powers of the state are understood as different from those of an individual, and as what must be much more limited in use than the power of citizens. The rights and welfare of citizens depends on a ruler who follows law and assumes less power than individuals, which makes a worthy contribution to thought about liberty.

Scotland, Nation, and Liberty

As I start writing voting is coming to an end in Scotland with regard to a referendum on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There are those in Cornwall, a peninsula on the extreme south-west of England who argue that is should be represented as an entity on  level with those four components of the UK, as it was regarded as distinct from England into the sixteenth century, never having being properly incorporated into Roman Britannia or Anglo-Saxon Wessex (the Old English kingdom in the south west, which became the nucleus of the Medieval English state).

From the 10th century onwards Anglo-Saxon kings asserted supremacy over Scotland with varying degrees of success in obtaining some recognition of overlordship from Scottish kings. Wars between Scotland and England led to victory for Scotland in the fourteenth century when the English monarchy ended attempts to use force to demand Scottish subordination, or even incorporation of Scotland, and European states accepted Scotland as a sovereign entity. In the early seventeenth century, Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless so that the heir to the English crown was King James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. He moved his court from Edinburgh to London, and pushed for the union of two kingdoms in his person to become a state union of England and Scotland as Great Britain. (At this time, Wales was treated as a part of England.)

The English Parliament resisted the creation of Great Britain, but by the early eighteenth century there was mutual interest in the trade and economic advantages of state union with accompany reductions on trade barriers, particularly after the failure of a brief attempt at Scottish empire building in Central America.  An Act of Union was passed by the English Parliament in 1707 and then by the Scottish Parliament in 1708, which abolished the Scottish Parliament. It also left in place major differences in laws, the legal system, education, and the state church, which have lasted until the present day.

Before the personal union of Scotland and England under James VI/I, Scotland itself went through a process of internal integration, or colonisation of the peripheral regions by the centre, as all nations have. This included the 1493  abolition of the Lord of the Isles, which indicated sovereignty over an area covering the highland and island areas of Scotland, and which has a complex history in relation to all the neighbouring powers. The incorporation  of that region, what could easily have been a separate sovereign nation if history had gone a bit differently, was not completed until 1745, that is after the Act of Union, when a British army destroyed an attempted restoration of the Stuart family of James VI/I. The attempted restoration is known as the Jacobite Rebellion. Jacobite refers to the latinised form of James, in honour of James II, who was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 due to his Catholic religion, fears that he was attempting to enforce that religion as a state church instead of the existing Protestant established church, and fears that he was creating an absolute monarchy with a decorative role only for Parliament.

The Jacobite  Rebellion itself divided Scotland between the traditional semi-feudal highland chiefs and the commercial world of the Lowlands. As a consequence of the failure of the Rebellion, British law was enforced fully for the first time beyond the Highland line, while restrictions were placed of Highland customs, clothing, and language. The language of the Highlands was Gaelic (a Celtic language relate to Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton).   This was the triumph of the Scots (a dialect of English, or a language which is very close to English depending on point of view) and English speaking Lowlanders and the end of the process initiated by the early Stuart overthrow of the Lords of the Isles.

The United Kingdom was formed by the 1800 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish parliament. Most of Ireland left to form what is now the Republic of Ireland in the early 1920s, but Northern Ireland remained, now with its own parliament, which is why there is still a UK, not just Great Britain.

All this history is to indicate the long historical nature and the complexity of the  relations between England and Scotland, with regard to sovereignty, identity, and so on. Scotland like England was itself a work in progress before union, and the integration of Scotland into what might be taken as a single nation, was completed over one hundred years after the Act of Union, over two hundred years after the union of crowns, under the leadership of the British crown, which at that time was unified with the German princedom of Hanover.

Scotland was never assimilated into England, even when there was no parliament, and Scotland has always been distinct from England than Wales in at least two respects:

  1. there is a higher proportion of trade within Scotland than with England, than of internal Welsh trading activity compared with trade with England;
  2. Wales’s contact with urban centres is just as much with the nearby English cities of Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool as with its own cities (principally Swansea and Cardiff) while Scotland is very focused on its own cities (principally Edinburgh and Glasgow).

However, Wales is more distinct from England in language since twenty per cent  speak Welsh fluently, everyone studies Welsh at school, and Wales is officially bilingual, even gesturing towards Welsh language priority. Gaelic speakers are about one per cent of the Scottish population.

The Welsh-Scottish comparison serves to show that ways of assessing national identity and distinctness vary and that there is no one way of evaluating this, so there can be no one institutional and political strategy for accommodating national differences within a state. The level and intensity of Scottish distinctness and identity has amounted to a nation now divided almost exactly down the middle about whether it wishes to separate from the UK.

This is not just an issue of identity though, as a large part of the Scottish independence vote is based on a belief that Scotland is egalitarian, welfarist, communal, social democratic, or even socialist, in comparison with England and that the countries are polar opposites on these issues. Another part of support for independence is the hope that North Sea oil will bring more benefit to Scotland if a Scottish government is collecting the tax revenue, accompanied by the belief that taxation at the UK level is some kind of resource theft.

Building on the historical, political, and institutional account above, what conclusions am I drawing? The first thing to state is of course that Scotland has every right to leave the UK if it so wishes, that it is a good thing that a referendum is being held to test what Scots want, and that if independence is what is wanted, then the government of the residual UK use must take a positive and co-operative approach to the departure of Scotland.

However, I certainly don’t believe that Scotland should separate. Part of that is the emotional patriotism of an Englishman, call it nationalism no problem, based on centuries of shared enterprise and struggle, good (the defeat of National Socialist Germany) and bad (imperialism). The Scots took a disproportionately large part in the trading, colonising, and military aspects of that joint history, and during that history many Scots went to England and became part of English society, John Stuart Mill’s father is a notable example. One of the great flourishing moments of that history was the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume, Adam Smith, and others, which always involved education, travel, and interaction in England as well as Scotland.

Why peace behind centuries of joint enterprise in which despite centralising processes, differences of identity and in institutions proved to be compatible with the growth of commercial society, civil society, liberty under law, parliamentary government, science and culture, and the twentieth century struggle against totalitarianism.

There’s  a lot for liberty advocates to admire there, without denying that a lot of worse things happened as well, and surely we should be disposed to favour building on that rather than destroying it. Many liberty advocates have a preference for small nations where maybe there is more chance of intelligent laws and policies, less remote from everyday reality and individual understanding of particular realities.

I can only agree with the provision that such a result can be achieved through forms of federalism which are decentralising rather than centralising so that the federal centre is largely responsible for trade, foreign and defence policy, and the lower region and national levels do everything else in an innovative, flexible, diverse, and competitive way.

There is still some benefit in the UK remaining as a unified power for defence and military purposes. It is would not be good from a liberty point of view for a country that in its military budget and capacities, its diplomatic and transnational weight, is still a match for nearly all the major powers. The UK whatever its faults is one of the more liberty  oriented parts of the world, and no good would come from lessening its strategic and diplomatic weight. Of course those liberty advocates who prefer very neutralist and almost pacifist attitudes to international relations will not be impressed, but we live in a world where states with low levels of inner liberty and little respect for the rights of others exist, and should be at least matched by powers that are more liberty oriented at home and more respectful of the rights in the international sphere. The role of liberal democracies has not always been admirable in this sphere, but better those errors than unchecked aggression from authoritarian states.

The institutions of liberty are more likely to flourish in democratic states, where a multiplicity of national and regional identities flourish, than in attempts to break away based on some inclination, of some degree of intensity, that singular national identity is better than multiplicity and that national identity needs unrestrained state sovereignty. In the particular case of Scotland, the Scottish National Party, and others for independence, are relying on the dream of a more socialist country where ‘Scottish’ oil is protected from the English to fund an expanding state, without having a plausible explanation for the currency to be used on independence, or any sense of reality about how international markets testing the prudence of a new state are likely to drive it towards high interest rates and displays of deficit reduction.

The political consequences of a subsequent disillusion with social democratic dreams mingled with existing  assumptions of a morally superior Scottish community, and related anti-English feeling, in economically disruptive circumstances could be most severe and disturbing. Even on a more optimistic assumption about the future in which Scotland moves smoothly into a more social democratic future, nothing is gained from a pro-liberty point of view. Pro-liberty commentators who think that because Hume and Smith were Scots that an independent Scotland will be guided by Enlightenment classical liberalism have completely lost the plot.

A few remarks on interventions in Syria and Iraq

After a few busy days at the office I finally have the time to take up Brandon’s challenge and write a few lines about interventions in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as Brandon writes in some of the comments the basic classical liberal and liberal position is that interventions are a bad idea. They are a breach of the sovereignty of other states, and rarely achieve their goals. Military interventions upset the international order and the international and regional balances of power, and open the door to all kinds of counter-interventions. They are especially prone to failure when their goals are extensive, such as a desire to construct democracy in countries without democratic traditions. This is an act of rationalist constructivism, long associated with communism and socialism rather than liberalism.

Whether all interventions also weaken and possibly destabilize the intervening power, as some libertarians (and Brandon) claim is another matter. This surely depends on so many other variables that it is hard to take as a general rule. Indeed, to welcome a Chinese intervention to fight ISIS/ISIL in the expectation this would seriously weaken authoritarian China (again see Brandon’s thought provoking blog a few days ago) seems a few bridges too far.

Still, it is too simple to rule out all interventions, in all circumstances. While a duty to intervene cannot easily be defended, the right to intervention is a different matter altogether. For example, while generally opposed to military interventions for humanitarian purposes, David Hume and Adam Smith did allow prudent political leaders to intervene. Hardly ever for humanitarian reasons, but for reasons of state. Important principles they embraced, for example found in the work of Hugo Grotius, were the rights to punishment, retaliation, preventive action, the protection of property rights and the protection of subjects against other countries.

Applying the wisdom of the Scots to our current world does open the door for some military action by the West against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. For the US and Britain, the beheadings of their subjects are clear reasons for action. Also, ISIL clearly upsets the fragile regional balance of power, where the West has a clear stake given the recent intervention in Iraq (regardless what one thinks of that intervention, but that is all water under the bridge). Also, ISIL’s state formation is not a case of regular secession which libertarians may sympathize with. While it has its supporters, this is mainly a  case of state formation at gun point, against the will of most people inhabiting the land controlled by ISIL.

Of course, this does not mean President Obama’s plan is going to succeed. While military action may kill many of the ISIL leaders and perhaps ultimately minimize its military capacity, it seems highly unlikely that foreign intervention is able to eradicate ISIL. After all, interventions do not change the mindsets of people. Surely, this ideology will remain with us, in one form or the other. That is no reason to abstain from intervention, yet it is a reason to set clear and limited goals, and to be honest and modest about its inevitably limited long term effects.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Cicero’s On the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a prominent lawyer, politician, and thinker in the last years of the Roman Republic. His death was a murder in revenge for his attacks on Marcus Antonius (known in English as Mark Anthony), in the form of a speech in the Senate against tyranny known as the First Philippic. It is known as the Philippic in tribute to the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC), which attacked the tyranny of Philipp II of Macedon over Athens and the other Greek city states.

The background to this is that the Roman Republic had been falling into the hands of military strong men for some time, who stretched the institutions and  laws of the republic in order to exercise supreme power.  Gaius Julius Caesar was  the last in this sequence. After his conquest of Gaul (France) he taken supreme power in Rome out of a mixture extreme drive for power and as a protective measure against enemies after the lost the immunity associated with the governor’s post he had during his war of expansion.

After winning a way against his most important rival, Caesar offered mercy to previous opponents allowing them to be influential in Rome. However, Caesar was increasingly looking like a new king, a  hated office in Rome, and the political system was designed to prevent any one person having complete power except for a short period in exceptional circumstnces. Caesar used this office of dictator, originally designed to offer emergency powers to a general during a time of military crisis for no more than six months, to become the permanent absolute ruler of Rome. He publicly rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Anthony, but was suspected of waiting for the right moment to proclaim himself king.

A conspiracy developed against Caesar amongst aristocrats who wished to preserve republican practices in which no one man could dominate Rome, so that power was shared between the aristocracy, with some influence granted to the common people. Cicero was a not a member of the conspiracy, but approved of its action against Caesar, which was led by Cicero’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus. It is highly pertinent  to Cicero’s vision of the republic that Brutus was, or appeared to be, the descendent of the Marcus Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last King of Rome in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

The conspiracy against Caesar resulted in his assassination by a group of senators in 44 BCE. However, the assassins were not able to take over Rome and moved to eastern Mediterranean parts of the Roman lands to raise forces and organise for a war against Caesar’s followers. After the assassination Caesar’s friend and colleague, mark Anthony allied with an 18 year old nephew of Caesar, who was his legal heir. The boy became the Emperor Augustus. The rest of the story would go beyond the limits of this post, so it will enough for now just to mention that Mark Anthony took power in the city of Rome, leading to the murder of Cicero, while the future Augustus built up a position which enabled him to become the political successor to Caesar, not Mark Anthony.

Mark Anthony is reported to have ordered Cicero’s hands to be removed during the assassination and nailed to the door of the Senate house, in a tribute of a kind to the power of an eloquent speaker arguing for liberty and demonstrating liberty in the act of speaking, using his hands as ancients did in a rhetorically guided way as a major part of emphasising points. Though after the First Philippic the likelihood of violent retribution from Mark Anthony led Cicero to confine himself to writing further Philippics that were not read out in the Senate.

Cicero had previously served as consul (one of two officers of the Republic who shared the powers of a king for one year), the governor of Cilicia (modern day Adana in Turkey), and other offices. His political career included some  very rough measures to defend the republic against what he thought of as existential danger and we should not turn Cicero into defender of pure constitutionalism and law in life, as well as in his writings. His writings do suggest a strong wish to live under laws rigorously enforced, and it has to be conceded that it was practically impossible to participate in politics at that time without being party to some very rough actions.

Cicero’s writings are not merely an important moment in antique thinking about liberty, but a major event in the  linguistic and conceptual translation of Greek philosophy into Latin. Cicero’s Latin became the model for educated Latin style and usage under the Empire. His influence as a Latin stylist, thinker, and republican, was important on many generations of the more educated members of the aristocracy and the upper classes in Europe into the 19th century, because of the centrality of Latin  to elite education.

Cicero wrote a number of texts concerned with liberty apart from On the Republic, including On the Laws, On Duties as well as various texts about oratory, letters and speeches. Online versions of On the Republic can be found here and here. The book connects with the issue of the apparent lineage of Brutus the assassin of Caesar going back to Brutus overthrower of   monarchy, because it emphasises tradition. Laws are understood to be good if coming from venerable custom and that reinforced the arguments for a Senate connected with the Roman past through the ancestry emphasised by the aristocracy. Cicero was himself from a provincial family that had recently became rich, but felt that the connections of many other Senators with the deep Roman past was very valuable.

The aristocracy, organised politically in the Senate, provides the real heart of Cicero’s ideal republic as it provides a means of government midway between the disorder of democracy and the tyranny of one man rule. The people should have a share in the political system, but one constrained to prevent imbalances arising. Monarchy existed in the Roman republic, in the form the consuls who shared power for two years. Democracy existed in the role of citizen assemblies and tribunes who had veto powers and were elected by the lower classes as a guarantee of their rights.

Cicero saw the benefits of aristocratic power as a so great that except where the people had become unusually virtuous it is a good thing for the aristocracy to be able the how the lower classes voted, so that patrons could influence the votes of those who depended on them financially. This could be seen as very self-interested on the part of Cicero since he was a member of the aristocracy, but also fits in with his argument about the importance of avoiding the bad government of individuals with absolute power and of disorderly democratic assemblies. Both extremes are bad for a republic.

Cicero was certainly very horrified by the idea of a tyrant, suggesting that such people were vicious beasts and enemies of humanity. Unfortunately, like the other ancient thinkers, it just seemed obvious to him that Romans were a free people not worthy of slavery, while other peoples were worthy only of slavery. Roman readiness for liberty was based on customs and traditions that endured over the centuries.  Cicero’s vision of law was as the outcome of  virtue cultivated over over centuries.  Laws were based on what could be found in customs so reducing the chances of laws appearing that impinged on the rights of any citizen.

Cicero’s understanding of law, custom, rights, and virtue was rooted in Roman history, in which he thought the early Roman kings Romulus and Numa, had built the institutions needed  by a republic concerned with respect for a divine sanction underlying laws.  Cicero probably did not believe in the standard Roman paganism, but evidently thought it suitable for making the laws as respected as possible. Cicero’s view of virtue also led him to favour a republic not too open to trade and other forms of connection with the outside world. He thought that Rome’s position  on a river rather than the sea was ideal for keeping foreign influences down to an acceptable level. Carthage, Rome’s old enemy in what is now Tunisia, was less blessed in that it was a city on the sea and had been dominated by trade.

Cicero’s suspicions of trade and cosmopolitan interaction  was regrettable, but was part of the antique way of thinking in which individual liberty in a city rested on virtue, state enforcement of public behaviour, as was the responsibility of Roman ‘censors’, and  detachment from money making activities. Liberty could only fully existed where an aristocracy accustomed to self restraint dominated institutions in which the recklessness of the lower classes and the greed of those trying to rise up could be held down.

It was difficult for Cicero to imagine strong laws and institutions, as able to guarantee liberty, except in a society where the rapid innovations and changes of trade and commerce were sufficiently dampened to allow the old to remain in place. There are modern problems in integrating effective laws and institutions with change and variety, and no one had an obviously better idea of how find a balance than Cicero did in antiquity.

Human Nature, War and Armed Conflict

The list of ongoing armed conflicts in the worlds is long ( see for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_armed_conflicts) and has been long for centuries. There are many websites and research institutes that keep track of their number, the parties involved, the main issues, et cetera. There are many different definitions of war and armed conflict. Here, wars are simply defined as armed conflicts with participation of one or more states whose sovereignty is internationally recognized, whereas armed conflicts do not require state involvement.  Armed conflicts have always been around in great numbers, often state-sponsored, for example the numerous and seemingly never ending conflicts in the Middle East, or recently in Northern Africa following the so-called Arab Spring. The recent collapse of Libya into civil war may serve as evidence.     

The number of interstate wars dramatically decreased after the end of the Cold war, giving stimulus to loads of academic papers about democratic or liberal peace. Yet this era might well be over, given the situation in the Ukraine, but also many explosive situations in North-East Asia and South-East Asia. 

Academic research resulted in a long and varied list of possible causes for wars and armed conflicts.  Think for example of geopolitical factors (land, borders), natural resources (oil, gas, mines), population related issues (minorities of other countries living in a particular area, people demanding  their own country), religious conflicts, the protection of one’s own people abroad, global political reasons (participation is war as a consequence of an alliance, or to preserve the balance of power), humanitarian reasons (genocide), et cetera. In contrast to popular belief, wars and conflicts are often multicausal, so there is not just a single but a number of reasons for their initiation and continuation.  

 War and conflict are the result of human action. Despite all the peace talks and agreements, treaties, other forms of international law, arbitration, the work of international organizations, and the pre-emptive actions by great powers in world politics, war and armed conflicts have never been eradicated. So it seems fair to assume this has something to do with human nature as well. Here the literature is much smaller, perhaps as a consequence of the dominant belief (at least in the Western world) in rational human beings capable to overcome war and armed conflict. As a matter of fact international relations as an academic discipline owes much of its origin to this idea. After the First World War many academic positions and departments were established, with the explicit aim to search for ways to prevent such disasters from happening again. Unsurprisingly, without much result.    

 The ‘human are guided by rationality thesis’ has been defended by many liberals in the American tradition (also known as social liberals or high liberals) and some libertarians as well. In fact most liberal IR theories are based on this idea. However, the idea that that human beings and conflict cannot be separated has been prominent in the writings of classical liberals such as Hume, Smith, Hayek and Mises, but also by Ayn Rand.  Interestingly, for this latter position there is now increasing evidence from other academic disciplines, such as psychology and neurosciences. For example the famous book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, or more specifically War and Human Nature by Stephen Peter Rosen, Thayer’s Darwin and International Relations, or Donelan’s Honor in Foreign Policy.

 While much more work needs to be done in this field, it is safe to conclude that liberals should not think about how to abolish war. Instead, the relevant question is how to deal and limit the inevitable occurrence and continuance of war and armed conflicts.

More on the inherent conservatism of the Left

I’ve blogged about the reactionary nature of the Left before, and in 2012 I went so far as to write, in response to a Marxist historian’s essay on capitalism and gay identity, that:

Capitalism has brought about the [gay rights] movement’s flourishing, and the government is holding it back. This fact is true not just in the realm of gay identity, but in the realm of all other social, political, and economic aspects of as well. Leftists would also do well to remember that their movement, as it stands now, as it stood three decades ago, is, for all intents and purposes, one of conservatism, obstinate ignorance, and embarrassing causality.

Many others have noticed the reactionary nature of the hard Left as well (and don’t forget to read Rick’s thoughtful musings on the Left-Right divide), but it is always nice to come across writings that bolster one’s own argument. James Peron has more on “The Lament of the Conservative Left” in the Huffington Post. Riffing off of an article by the prominent socialist David Selbourne, Peron writes:

Note the disdain for individual social freedom as being “without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole.” Doesn’t that sound just like a religious conservative?

[...]

Socialism was not a “revolutionary” alternative to liberalism. It was a conservative reaction against it. Ludwig Mises said: “It was Liberalism that undermined the power of the classes that had for centuries been closely bound up with the Church. It transformed the world more than Christianity had ever done. It restored humanity to the world and to life. It awakened forces which shook the foundations of the inert traditionalism on which Church and creed rested.”

[...]

Socialism [...] grabbed the methods of conservatism, embracing state power as the means of planning permissable changes and preventing others. It embraced change to a limited degree, unlike conservatives, but wanted to direct it. Liberalism, to the socialist, meant unplanned change. It was this concept of an “invisible hand” that disturbed them. The socialist, in his heart, is a conservative, just one who wants some of what liberalism has to offer.

Indeed. Read the rest, and remember: “Liberalism” in much of the world means “classical liberalism” rather than the ideology of the Democrat Party in the United States.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Rome and Carthage in the Histories of Polybius

This historically based exploration of writing on liberty now reaches the point where the Greek world has fallen under the domination of Rome, but even at this point we can see that the Greek language and heritage will continue to be important in a Roman dominated Mediterranean, particularly in the eastern parts, leaving the legacy of the Christian Gospels in Greek, the fifth and sixth century CE transformation of the eastern Roman Empire into a Greek Empire , still known to itself as Rome, but to us as Byzantium. In Polybius we see the beginning of a history of major writing in Greek within the Roman world, which continued through many areas of thought, producing major classics at least up until the philosophy of Plotinus in the third century CE.  The founding figure of the Byzantine system, the Emperor Justinian took Christian teachings to the extreme of closing the Academy of Athens in the sixth century,  and that is a convenient marker of the end of the greatness of ancient Greek writing and thought. Of course all such markers are arbitrary and the antique Greek tradition did not abruptly vanish at that moment, and the writing of the last Athenian philosophers had a very different context from that of original Athenian classicism and even more so from earlier Greek thought.

Polybius’ Histories may contain the last important work of political thought in ancient Greek, though such claims are always up for debate.  He was born in about 200  BCE in Megalopolis in the central part of the Peloponnesus, that is the southern land mass of mainland Greece. The Greek city states had previously lost full independence to the hegemony of Macedonia. Roman expansion provided both an alternative to Macedonian rule and subordination to a new hegemonic power. The Achaean League had allied Megalopolis and other southern Greek states at a time of renewed independence from  Macedonia.  However, the complications of continuing competition between the Greek city states, along with trying to play Macedonia and Rome off against each other, ended with absorption  into the Roman state system expanding outside of Italy.

These political complexities led to Polybius becoming one of the hostages taken to Rome to ensure the adherence of the Achaean League to an alliance. Polybius was an aristocratic politician and general who served the Roman need for hostages who would tie the elite to Rome.  Polybius could have left Rome long before his death, but became a friend of leading citizens and an admirer of the Republic, so stayed in Italy though maybe dying in southern France in 118 BCE.  He wrote various books, though all we have left is the Histories, and that is not complete. It is mainly concerned with the Punic Wars, that is the wars between Rome and Carthage, and is one of the main sources for that major event in antique history, which is more than just  a war. It was the triumph of one form of republic over another for hegemony in the Mediterranean world. In the end, the Carthaginian Republic was completely destroyed including the city of Carthage itself and Rome changed in nature from a  major power in Italy to the dominant power from Anatolia (the major landmass of what is now Turkey) to Spain, from central Europe to north Africa.

The transformation attracted the attention of later writers on liberty, who will appear in later posts. In particular, two great Enlightenment figures Giambattista Vico and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et Montesquieu were centrally concerned with the story as that of a triumph of republican liberty, that of Rome, mingled with a subsequent decline of liberty, and the loss of another model of republican liberty,  that of Carthage. The story and the political interpretations were well known over centuries to writers on liberty.

Polybius studied the Punic Wars in depth, using his friendship with the Roman general Scipio and a journey through the Alps where the great Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed into Italy.  Within that historical account, in Book VI Polybius embeds an account of the Roman constitutions, itself mingled with a discussion of the Roman military system.

Polybius concluded that Rome had the greatest of all constitutions known to him. His comparisons were with the Greek city states and with Carthage. He admired the Spartan constitution most out of the Greek constitutions, which may surprise many now. However, as a recent post on Aristotle points out, many Greek thinkers were suspicious of Athenian democracy as allowing a kind of mob rule over law and traditional restraints on power. The way Polybius supports that positions is to refer to the limited endurance of Athenian democracy, (defended by Pericles reported in Thucydides) compared with the more oligarchic, or aristocratic, Spartan republic.  Republic is a Latin originated word, which is very close in meaning to the Greek term for a city based on laws, which in modern English becomes polity, so when discussing Rome and Greece together, republic is a useful term.

The idea that Sparta was a better model for a modern republic than Athens, goes up to the Constitution of the United States. The Framers were conscious of the idea that the Athenian republic had failed, because it was too democratic, maybe too much based on the rule of the propertyless majority to be a republic. The United States did not have a citizen assembly like those of ancient Greece, but the Framers thought of the House of Representatives as an equivalent body, to be restrained by an aristocratic-oligarchic body, that is the Senate, along with a monarchical body, that is the President. Senators were nominated by state governments at that time, and the Electoral College to appoint the President was understood much more at that time as a vote for electors who would make up their own mind than as a embellishment in the direct election of the President.

It seems to me that this attempt to replicate ancient Sparta had broken down by the 1830s, or that is certainly what is suggested by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (to be discussed in later post), who suggests that  America was already both  republic and a democracy on a modern rather than an ancient model. The continuing claim of some in the United States that the country is ‘a republic not a democracy’, therefore seems highly unsatisfactory to me, and I doubt that many  who use this slogan have thought about the Sparta above Athens message implied.

Anyway, Polybius’ arguments did influence the deliberations of the Framers, and even though I doubt those deliberations completely captured what a republic must be in a modern commercial society, his arguments are worthy of continuing consideration as thought about laws and institutions can work for liberty.

Polybius admired the way that Sparta balanced powers between different forces, so that though there was a citizen assembly, it largely deferred to a senatorial body, the Gerousia composed of aristocrats along with two other institutions: a monarchy made up of two kings from different royal families, who sat in the Gerousia; five ephors selected for one year, with the power to protect laws, customs, and institutions. This was underpinned by the famously extreme training of male citizens as soldiers, who maintained Spartan citizens as an aristocracy by force in relation to groups that were completely unfree, or who had legal rights, but no citizenship.

The Roman model seems to Polybius to be significantly similar to Sparta, and the differences are to the advantage of Rome, since not only has the Roman system already lasted centuries, but it has supported a far greater spread of military and political power than Sparta, which never extended its territory beyond the Peloponnesus. He sees the Roman system as embedded in the military system, and to a large degree sees military and political systems as embedded. Given the constant war and mobilisation of adult male citizens in the ancient world, this is unsurprising, particularly as citizenship rights and political systems were associated with what kind of military there was and which groups provided the most part. The Spartan system reflected the role of Hoplite infantry from the landowner-farmer class, while the Athenian system reflected the role of labourers employed to row naval ships. The Roman republic was a land military power, with different kinds of unit selected from all classes above slave, which fits with Polybius’ vision of republic as a mixed political system.

The Roman mix was a monarchical element of two consuls appointed for a year. The aristocratic-oligarchic element was the senate where the major landowners and state officials sat for life. The democratic element was the city assembly along with the tribunes appointed by that assembly.  As with the earlier Greek writers, Polybius associates democracy with the political participation of the propertyless, or nearly propertyless classes of labourers, small traders, and craftsmen.

We may now sympathise with the idea of a system that prevents anyone institution  or social groups dominating everything else, turning laws and administration into means of economic plunder. However, liberty advocates now may be less happy with Polybius’ advocacy of a vision of the virtue of citizens, in which military self-sacrifice is at the centre and commercial spirit is dismissed as corrupting. Polybius shares an attitude to be found in Aristotle and most antique writers (there may not be any clear exceptions at all) according to which wealth based on inherited landownership and state service is honourable, while wealth based on production and services for other peoples needs and wants is somehow disgraceful and immoral. This was part of antique suspicion of Athenian democracy which existed in a relatively commercial society, something else to be remembered by those inclined to oppose ‘republic’ to ‘democracy’. The suspicion of democracy and commerce extended to a suspicion of navies as a military instrument compared with land armies. The Romans were not as good sailors as the Carthaginians, because they were less active in trade and commerce. They built a navy against the Carthaginians as a duty and necessity, not by inclination.

Anyway, Polybius compensates for his faults with regard to his limited appreciation of virtue, and therefore of how liberty is exercised, does supply us with an alternative model to Rome, thoıugh it is  sadly lacking in detail. Polybius concedes the Carthage had a great republican constitution worthy of comparisons with Rome and Sparta, along with the other Greek cities. For Polybius, the Carthaginian constitution must be inferior to those of Rome and Sparta, because it was a society of commerce, sea trade, and a navy to protect those activities. We may think something different and look to Carthage as an important model, where the commercial capacity was so great Rome feared to allow the Carthaginian city and republic to exist even after victory in two major wars. There is less we can say about Carthage than Rome, but we know that is balanced a citizen assembly with a political and military aristocracy, and that the people prospered from a spirit of commercial liberty as well as political liberty.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Euripides’ Tragedy Ion

Euripides lived from about 480 BCE to 406 BCE. Though he is one of the three great figures of Athenian tragedy, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, who have already been discussed, he may have been born outside Athens and died outside Athens.  This relatively mobile life is itself an issue at a time when identity with the city of one’s both and ancestors was  taken very seriously, and it was very difficult for anyone not born of parents of that city on both sides to become a citizen and participate in politics. It is an issue considered in the play considered here.

Euripides’ way of writing is distinct from that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in that it is more discursive, with long prologues and characters speaking in short essays sometimes. There is less of the feeling than in Aeschylus and Sophocles of writing that is purely poetic and arises unreflectively from a world of myth, gods, and heroes. We should not think of Aeschylus and Sophocles as spontaneous poets of a mythical world view, there is a reflective designed element. Anyway, in Euripides we are likely to feel more part of a world of conscious reflection and debate on the limits of the customs and laws of the time. The mythical is not absent, but is more open to question. The writing style is more like an assembly of short essays joined by dramatic action, which is a slightly harsh way of distinguishing Euripides from the more continuous intense poetry of the other two great Attic tragedians.

More plays survive by Euripides than the other two writers of tragedies, and I hope to turn to some of those later in this series. For an entry in the Euripidean world, Ion is ideal form the point of view of questioning of the politics and religion of the time. The background to the play is that the God Apollo, also referred to as Phoebus, made the young woman Creusa pregnant.  She abandoned the resulting baby boy and believes him to have died. Apollo arranges for the boy to be raised as a servant at his temple in Delphi. The temple is connected with the Delphic Oracle, one of the major institutions of the ancient Greek world and one of the few things giving some unity to the great number of Greek states, along with the Olympic games. The oracles was a woman speaking in a riddling manner, whose words were interpreted  by priests. People came from all over the greek world to hear the prophecies and use them as advise. This include state representatives considering issues like war, so the Oracle has a political function, and may have been manipulated to serve political purposes.

Euripides does not engage directly with the political role of the  Oracle, but the story of Ion revolves around the mythical history of Athens and the early Greek states. Ion is the name of the boy abandoned by Creusa. Creausa comes to the temple with her husband Xuthus when Ion is a young man, with no idea of what has happened to him. Xuthus is a powerful man in Athens, who came from outside the city, but became an important citizen after helping the city to victory in war.

When Xuthus sees Ion at the temple, he is misled by a prophecy of Apollo into believing that Ion is his son, by a brief liaison at a festivity. He makes this belief clear to Ion and invites him to come to Athens as his son and heir, since he has had no children with Creusa. Ion has doubts about going to Athens because of the issue f excluding foreigners from public life, but is assured that that he will be able to speak in public debates. So we see an indication of how citizenship was seen in Athens in the time of the great tragedies, which is to say as participating in public affairs on the basis of a right and duty to speak one’s mind as far as it is directed to issues of the public good.

Creusa does not realise that Ion is her son and when he realises that Xuthus will take him up as his son and heir is angered that a stranger is taking over her family.  She plots to kill Ion with poison. This looming crime and its motives refers both to an ancient Greek tendency to see women as driven by uncontrolled dangerous passions, and to an expectation that the woman has some rights in the marriage and the family that should not be violated. When Ion discovers her murderous intentions, she flees to an alter where she cannot be killed without sacrilege, indicating the role that ideas of divine force and protection had in the  Greek understanding of law. Apollo sends Athena, the goddess associated with Athens, to prevent the sacrilegious murder by explaining that Ion is the son of Creusa and not Xuthus. Ion and Creusa are reconciled, but Xuthus is not informed of the truth. He is allowed to continue to believe that Ion is his biological son. The lie is excused with the suggestion that Ion is his son  by a gift of Apollo.

The play suggests that the interventions of the gods are full of deception and force, so casts some doubt on the perfection of the gods, and on divine justice. That is practice means casting doubt on the foundation of customs and laws, suggesting that they can be debated according to the rights of citizens in Athens that concern Ion. The idea of a city unified by common ancestry rather than residence and citizenship is questioned.

It is the mother who links Ion to Athens through descent and though she is portrayed as murderous, her son’s anger is no less demented and dangerous, so at least suggesting some sense that both men and women need to restrain their most destructive impulse.  she is allowed to known the truth and bears the burden of Apollo’s seduction, or even rape, and subsequent abandonment. It is the priestess of the temple who starts to lead Creusa towards the truth, which is fully explained by Athena.

Euripides expresses the need to question the grip of myth, archaic law, and ancestral custom if there is to be public truth and political justice. He shows some awareness that a community rests on the participation of women not just their subordination to men, even if he does not erectly challenge that subordination. He suggests that violent revenge must be constrained not just by the divine order, which also sets up cycles of revenge, but more by recognition of truth, rational discussion, and debate about the public good, with the possibility of integration of outsiders into a community of free debate about laws and the good of the city.

From the Comments: On the Impossibility of Secession Within the European Union

Dr Stocker brings my musings on secession and the European Union back to reality:

Some good historical analysis here, but I’m not so sure about the conclusion. I certainly support a right for regions to secede, but not all EU member states recognise such a right. Spain is the obvious example, since while it gives a high degree of autonomy to regions, including enhanced autonomy for Catalonia and the Basque country, it does not recognise any right to secede except through a law passed by the Cortes (parliament of Spain), which is extremely adverse to allowing any procedure for secession.

Greece has been extremely adverse to secession by Kosovo from Serbia, and does not recognise Kosovo, on the basis that a majority vote within a region-aspirant nation is not enough to justify secession under international law, if opposed by the nation from which the secession is taking place. I suspect there are some other countries with similar barriers to secession.

They’d do well to recognise that right, but the EU can’t force this kind of change on existing member states since unanimous consent would be required for the necessary treaty changes, and even without that barrier, the idea of the EU forcing countries to accept a right to secede and then define when and how that right to secede, which could create conflict with counties like the UK which do recognise the possibility of secession by referendum within the relevant region-aspirant nation, as in the current Scottish vote.

The time might come in the future when all EU countries might recognise a right to secede and then recognising that right could be a requirement for membership. However, it is not Putin’s Russia that would be concerned. Recent events in Ukraine show Putin’s agents fomenting violent secessionism in Crimea etc and a rigged referendum in Crimea. Of course Putin’s meddling is not the same a secessionism exercised peacefully and through fair voting, but such differences are likely to be overlooked by many in light of the still unfinished Ukraine crisis.

My response can be found here. Longtime reader A. Herkenhoff chimes in as well.

An Excellent Analysis of Karl Marx and His System by Leszek Kolakowski

Many Western Marxists used to repeat that socialism such as it existed in the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Marxist theory and that, deplorable as it might be, it was best explained by some specific conditions in Russia. If this is the case, how could it have happened that so many people in the nineteenth century, especially the anarchists, predicted fairly exactly what socialism based on Marxist principles would turn out to be namely, state slavery? Proudhon argued that Marx’s ideal is to make human beings state property. According to Bakunin, Marxian socialism would consist in the rule of the renegades of the ruling class, and it would be based on exploitation and oppression worse than anything previously known. According to the Polish anarcho-syndicalist Edward Abramowski, if communism were by some miracle to win in the moral conditions of contemporary society, it would result in class division and exploitation worse than what existed at the time (because institutional changes do not alter human motivations and moral behavior). Benjamin Tucker said that Marxism knows only one cure for monopolies, and that is a single monopoly.

These predictions were made in the nineteenth century, decades before the Russian Revolution. Were these people clairvoyant? No. Rather, one could make such predictions rationally, and infer from Marxian anticipations the system of socialized serfdom.

Read the whole thing. It’s relatively short and has a lot of good insights. The part about Marx cheating on the wages of European workers, and his views on the non-European world, are alone worth the price of admission. Kolakowski was a Polish philosopher and Cold War dissident.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays refer to the royal family of Thebes, round King Oedipus, who provides the title of the first play. The title strictly speaking is Oedipus Tyrannos. That ‘tyrannous’ is normally translated as ‘king’ rather than ‘tyrant’ is an interesting comment in itself on ancient Greek politics and ideas about politics.

The philosopers writing in Athens, at the same time as the great tragedies were staged, developed the idea of a ‘tyrant’ as a negative form of political authority, even a monstrous form of authority in which one man rules according to personal desires, unrestrained by custom, law, morality, and institutions.

However, one of those philosophers Plato accepted tyrants into his school, and made a notoriously failed attempt to bring the tyrant of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Greece round to the idea of ruing with Platonic wisdom and justice. It is not just the view of anti-democrats like Plato that tyrants might have some element of legitimacy in some contexts.

The sixth century Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had some respect as a strong ruler with just intentions who reformed Athenian institution.  ın the ancient Greek world a tyrant might still accept a citizens’ assembly and other well established institutions, so that the tyranny was focused on one person control of government rather than the complete subordination of every aspect of that city-state to arbitrary individual will.

The Theban plays are: Oedipus the KingOedipus at Colonus. The story of Oedipus has become very famous, even for those who have never read or watched an ancient Greek tragedy. It also exists in varying forms going back to a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey. The version in Sophocles is that a a king and queen of Thebes faced with a prophecy that their son will kill the father arrange for him to be exposed and die in the mountains.

The royal servant assigned to the task passes the infant Oedipus onto to a shepherd instead and Oedipus in the end becomes the adoptive son of the king and queen of Corinth. Discovering a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus unaware that the royal couple who raised him are not his biological parents flees and ends up in Thebes where he kills man outside the city, who he later realises is his father King Laius. He then frees the city of a monster, the Sphinx.

Unaware that Oedipus killed their king, or that he is the son of that king, the people of Thebes offer him the vacant throne and marriage to the king’s widow Jocasta. So Oedipus unwittingly marries his mother after killing his father. The play Oedipus the King opens with a plague in Thebes and Oedipus’ search for the reason. The prophet Tireseas is forced to reveal his knowledge, which is that the gods are punishing Thebes for the stain of association with Oedipus, the stain of his unwitting crimes.

Oedipus suspects Jocasta’s brother, Creon, of a arranging the story as part of a conspiracy to take power. In this respect the play deals with the danger of a ruler who is given great power for good reasons, but becomes abusive and paranoiac in his use of that power. Oedipus’ further investigations lead to the confirmation of the story from Tireseas that he had rejected. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus goes into exile after blinding himself. In this way, the play suggests that tyranny is self-destructive as well as destructive of the state over which it is exercised. It also suggests the need to expel a ruler who threatens both the welfare of the city and restraints on his power. 

Oedipus at Colonus deals with the exile of Oedipus, in which he is protected by the king of Athens from persecution by Creon who has now taken power. As with Aeschylus, we see that Attic tragedy defends the role of Athens as ‘educator of Greece’ (a saying attributed to Pericles as explained in the post before the last one), even while having a critique of power.

Oedipus dies in a way that suggests he is close to the gods, and we can see another layer in the story of the tyrant. As a monster of some kind, Oedipus belongs outside the city state and when he is outside the city, he is in touch with a justice superior to that of the city, which belongs to human communities before state imposed laws. The divine power associated with such laws is, however, dangerous when associated with individual power using the organised violence of the state.

It is Antigone that is usually most associated with ideas of liberty, but I hope that remarks on the two other plays show how they have many ideas about the nature of law and liberty, and the dangers posed by political power. Antigone is the story of Oedipus’ daughter of that name and her resistance to the tyrannical tendencies of Creon.

Her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had struggled for control of Thebes, ending in the death of both as Poyneices attacks the city, when it is held by Eteocles. Creon decrees that Polyneices cannot be buried with proper ritual and his body should be left outside the city for the wild animals to eat. This was an appalling prospect for ancient Greeks, and the desire for soldiers to avoid such a fate is a major theme of Homer’s Iliad.

Antigone insists on mourning her brother and attending to his corpse in the normal manner. Her defiance of Creon leads to Creon imprisoning  her in a tomb, where she commits suicide. The violence with which he imposes his will leads to the suicide of Antigone’s fiancé who is the son of Creon and then the suicide of Creon’s wife.

In the end Creon learns to accept the advice of Tireseas, the prophet persecuted by Oedipus, and to moderate his insistence on pushing his powers to the extreme. Antigone is the heroine of the customary, and even divine, law of Greece which precedes the edicts of tyrants like Creon, so can be seen as the defender of justice against laws based on political power rather than on the basic principles of human justice, what is often referred to since Aristotle as natural law.

There are questions about how far the original audience would have seen Antigone as a character to be admired though. The society was intensely patriarchal and women defying the authority of men was a horrifying prospect. Perhaps the dramatic context provided an opportunity to push at the limits of the ideas normal to audience, maybe it just allowed them to think that one of the dangers of bad government is that it produces mad dangerous woman, and the play does portray Antigone as unhealthily obsessed with death.

She can be seen as a heroine of justice, and is often taken as a symbol of justice above the state, by those of classical liberal and libertarian persuasion, but others as well. She might also be taken as a symbol of conflicts over justice taken to a dangerous and self-destructive extreme, so that she is guilty as well as Creon, before he learns measure and moderation in the use of power. In any case, there is much to think about with regard to law and liberty in these plays, and it is important to recognise the ‘thinking about’ and not just impose simple interpretations inattentive to the details of the plays. Judgements of liberty and justice require respect for context and particularity. 

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aeschylus, Tragedy and the Oresteia

Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.

The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine.  Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens and other places where remains of ancient Greek cities can be found. The festivals were dedicated to the god Dionysus, associated with intoxication, ecstasy, death, and rebirth. Actors wore masks with stereotypical expressions so that audiences were looking at a depersonalised performance, not a recognisable  individual actor giving a personal interpretation of a role.

The amphitheatre was large enough to contain the citizens of the city state (women and slaves excluded of course) and were a form of common city life in which a very large part those allowed to participate did participate, as they did in political assemblies and religious festivals. Plays were generally only performed once as part of a competition and the day was divided between groups of plays by one author.  Some tragedians emerged as particularly distinguished, so there plays were performed again and their texts survived. That is the authors discussed in these posts.

So we can see that ancient Greek theatre was very far from how we normally experience theatre,  and performances of Attic tragedies now are inevitably far removed from the ancient experience, even if some original aspects are sometimes emphasised. We cannot now have a completely ‘authentic’ experience of ancient performance, but we can at least keep in mind the ancient context.

It is one of many fascinating aspects of ancient Athens, and other ancient Greek city states, that some kind of aesthetic performance was a regular feature of common life. The idea of art as a very distinct part of life did not really exist in the way it does now, but the idea of a particular sphere of art, ‘poetics’, did grow in the philosophy of the time, as can be seen in Plato and Aristotle.

One reason I find it difficult to place Plato in a liberty canon, even if for a long time he was seen as an exponent of government free of lawless immoral tyranny, is that he had a very negative view of tragedy, though he appears to have respect for the tragedian Sophocles, at least, as a personality. My decision to take Aristotle as the starting point of this series was connected with his appreciation of tragedy, which is at the centre of his work on the arts, the Poetics. 

It is also one reason why despite Aristotle’s own undoubtedly strong aristocratic tendencies, I see some connection with democratic ideas in his thought. He emphasised the value of a literary form  that gathered together all free males, and where they indulged in the most mobbish low life behaviour of excessive drinking and festivity.

Of course there are many things to appreciate about Attic tragedy other than its political concerns, but it is form of literature and performance very tied up with the political debates of ancient Athens. It shows politics to be deep in the lives of human communities and to be part of choices we have to make about laws and justice, providing great dangers where the wrong choices are made and to allow human flourishing where better choices are made.  These choices are given enormous individual and communal resonance.

This post will concentrate on the Oresteia, a trilogy Aeschylus originally wrote for festival performance. When this long historical sequence of posts reaches a conclusion of some sort, it should be possible to come back to some of the other plays. The three plays within the Oresteia are Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides (Kindly Ones).

Like many other tragedies, these plays pick up on stories in the epics attributed to Homer, and which appeared a few centuries before the time of the Attic tragedies. They refer themselves to the Mycenaean-Bronze Age Greek world of the previous century, focused around a story of a league of Greek kings laying siege to a city in western Anatolia, and then the long journey home of the most cunning of those kings.

The Homeric story at the root of the Oresteia is the return home of King Agamemnon, in which he is murdered by his wife and her lover. Such an act was even  more horrifying for the original audience than it is for us, since it was a transgression of sacralised bonds of  obedience and fidelity applied to married women in relation to their husbands. Even the horror of that original audience at Clytemnestra’s act must have been in some way made ambiguous though, by the knowledge that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, ten years earlier, so that a wind would come to take the Greek boats to Troy.

The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra,  Orestes takes revenge and kills both murderous wife and lover, as he was bound to do according to the expectations of the time.  There are various versions of the story, but the distinct aspect of the version of Aeschylus is that horror of a cycle of acts of violence in which each act can seek justification in revenge, and the demands of divine justice. Even the patriarchal Athenians must have thought of Clytemnestra’s act or murder as having some measure of justification in Agamemnon’s violence against their daughter, though perhaps seeing her more as an instrument for the anger of divine forces than as an individual justified in her choices.

The focus will now be on Aeschylus’ trilogy rather than the general story behind it appearing in many different texts. In Aeschylus, the divine forces communing a justice of violent retribution outside any legal process, are the furies, monstrous female creatures independent even of the gods, enforcing justice that exists outside any laws created by human institutions. In this case, the furies are more tied to the rights of the mother than to the revenge rights on her of the son.  They wish to destroy Orestes, and he can only avoid this by fleeing from Argos (in the Peloponnesus) northwards towards Athens, where he can seek more measured justice.

In Athens, the court that judges Orestes is balanced between citizens of Athens and the furies. The casting vote belongs to Pallas Athena, the celibate goddess associated with Athens, with wisdom and with war, though she is not the chief deity of war. The citizens take the side of Orestes while the furies continued their demands for his blood. Athena’s casting vote rescues Orestes, whose reasons for killing his mother are deemed adequate, by Athena though she admits to  a bias because she was born from Zeus without a mother. This follows on from the earlier comments of Orestes’ protector, the god Apollo, that a mother is a nurse of a child rather than a parent equal with the father .

However, the trial is not just a defeat for the furies and the rights of women, since Athena turns them into the ‘kindly ones’, protectors and enforcers of the laws of Athens. They present themselves during the trial as protectors of old laws against new, but accept the idea of a new role upholding law and piety in Athens. Orestes swears to never harm Athens, the city of Athena, so in some sense accepts a female authority, even if one who places herself on the side of the father against the mother.

The role given to Athens and Athena is a an expression of the view of Pericles, discussed in the last post, as reported by Thucydides, that Athens was the teacher of Greece, and the relation between Athens and its allies in which they subsidised the building of the Parthenon temple in honour of Athena, and accepted Athens as the final judge of legal disputes.

Aeschylus provides a mythical foundation for the main law court in Athens, the Areopagus, since during the trial, Athena proclaims that the court assembled will continue indefinitely as an institution of the city. The court was regarded as aristocratic because judges came from the educated upper class and had previously served in some high public office. One of the reasons Plato, Aristotle and others criticised Athenian democracy was that it was suspicious of Areopagus, transferring some of its functions to the city assembly and large citizen juries .

The most obvious thrust of the Oresteia with regard to ideas of liberty is the deep ‘divine’ significance of legal institutions within the community, in preference to individual execution of archaic codes of revenge. Though the case excuses Orestes for killing his mother, the case along with the founding of a sacralised court, also undermines the basis of his individual act of revenge and Agamemnon’s belief that he could decide to ignore the sanctity of life and his bond to his daughter, because of a wish to assuage divine forces.

Though the trilogy presents a world view which is patriarchal in an extreme way, it does allow female voices with distinct views to speak  and though we should be very careful indeed about importing modern feminist and egalitarian views into the play, it is hard to believe that Aeschylus and his audiences were not at least a little troubled by male violence, and interested in the idea of a an elevated role for women in developing a law governed community, beyond the role of priestesses, which was the obvious first association. Not that they were interested in doing so outside the play, but that the trilogy enabled them to explore, a little bit, ideas at odds with their deeply held customs.

The Oresteia does definitely offer the idea that legal and institution innovation can be necessary at times to satisfy the deepest requirements of justice, while also emphasising respect and reverence for the laws of Athens in Aeschylus’ own time. There is a something of a duality of attitude to law, that is law divided between what is above debate and change and what is a product of debate and change  That is the necessary frame of any liberty oriented debate about law and legal institutions.

Another Liberty Canon: Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French writer on various but related topics of power, knowledge, discourse, history of thought, ethics, politics, and so on. His name to some summons negative associations of French intellectual fashion, incomprehensibility, and refinements of Marxist anti-liberty positions.

However, his influence in various fields has become too lasting, and too much taken up by people who do not fit into the categories just mentioned, for such reactions to be considered adequate. Foucault himself resisted and mocked labels, which was a serious issue for him because in his work he tried to question the absolute authority of any one system of knowledge and the  authority of isolated great thinkers.

He said that once he had written something it was no longer what he thought, which is in part a playful attempt to resist labelling, but also a rather serious point deeply embedded in his thought, about the nature of subjectivity, how it is always more than what we say or more than the identity that power relations impose on us.

It seems to me that any ethics of subjectivity has pro-liberty implications, and despite the image some might have of Foucault as morally irresponsible or indifferent, he increasing developed the idea of  self-invented subjectivity, based on care of the self, the art of existence, and related terms.

The self-invention does not mean that Foucault thought we can arbitrarily will our self to be anything, it does mean that he thought we have possibilities to cultivate ourselves to live in a way that relates to, and challenges our existing strengths and goals.

Despite the image for some of intellectual fashion round Foucault, these ideas were partly developed through study of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about ethics and style of living, which included interaction with scholars in the field.

Another theme he developed through his interests in antique knowledge and culture was that of ‘parrhesia’, Greek word that refers to free speaking, which in the context of ancient city states, particularly the Athenian democracy, had strong overtones of courage in truth telling before the city assembly, a prince of any other source of power.

The ethic of truth telling relates to Foucault’s own work on the language of knowledge and the history of science, as well his political ideas. He did not believe in absolute final systems of knowledge, autonomous of context, but he did believe that trying to find truths within whatever perspectives was an ethical enterprise connected with the kind of self cultivation he advocated.

Foucault’s own father had been a doctor and on at least one occasion Foucault suggested his own work was a continuation of the doctors work that evidently combines ethical and scientific aspects. It must also be said that Foucault was a great critic of the authority of experts, including doctors, so he might also be seen as struggling with the memory of his father.

The ambiguity and the personal involvement in ideas suggested there is very much at work throughout Foucault’s writing, in its tension and energy. It is part of his ‘difficulty’, which also comes from the philosophical and literary interests he had, which relate to the creative possibilities of linguistic disruption. We can see that in the most obvious way when he quotes literary texts of Borges, Beckett and so on.

The existential commitments in Foucault’s work is clear if we think about the book that made him famous History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation ) and his personal experience of mental ill health and psychiatric treatment, particularly in his student years.

We can also think about his constant critique of power and his individual  willingness to physically confront power, as in the beatings he received from the police at demonstrations for rights in both France and in Tunisia (where he taught for a few years just after becoming a celebrity public intellectual in France).

Returning to the topic of experts and power, one of Foucault’s most pervasive ideas now is of ‘biopolitics’, that is the way that power expresses itself through prolongation of life.  As the state has moved from a basis in the power of death over criminals and other supposed enemies, to a promotion of population, public health and prolongation of life, it has demanded corresponding powers of intervention and control.

At the extreme this means the ‘racial hygiene’ ideas that German National Socialists used to justify the Holocaust, and in a more routine way means expanding state activity justified by public health goals. We can readily see the contemporary significance of Foucault ideas here in relation to ever expanding state and ‘expert’ attempts to limit smoking, drinking alcohol and supersized fizzy drinks, eating sugary and fatty foods , and so on.

The ideas about biopolitics builds on the discussion of modern power in maybe his most widely read book, Discipline and Punish, which deals with the way that the prison becomes the central means of punishment after the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and suggests the dangers of Enlightenment becoming a controlling form of rationalism.

The way the prison works, around observation, or surveillance, of prisoners to ensure adherence to prison routine was the model of modern power for Foucault including factories, schools, and armies, in a model of ‘disciplinarily’. Again Foucault’s intellectual interests correspond with life commitments, as he was a prominent campaigner for prisoner rights, under the inspiration of the man with whom he shared his life, the academic sociologist Daniel Defert.

Foucault’s analyses in Discipline and Punish, and related material, draw on the ‘classical sociology’ of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber with regard to norms and authority, as his views on the emergence of the modern state draw heavily on the ‘pre-sociology’ to be found in the historical and social work of the classical liberal thinkers Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.

There is some drawing on Marx, but one should be wary of those left socialist inclined advocates of Foucault who emphasise this strongly, since they don’t mention the other points of orientation so much. The same applies to remarks Foucault made about the importance of the twentieth century Marxist theory of the Frankfurt School, as those who emphasise such remarks ignore accompanying remarks about the importance of Max Weber and ‘Neoliberalism’ (i.e. classical liberal and libertarian thought since the Austrian Liberal school of Menger, Hayek, Mises etc).

Strange as it might seem, Foucault suggests we take Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism together as attempts to explore liberty and power. Maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange, however awful the consequences of Marxist ideas coming in power have been, that does not mean we should ignore Marx and Marxism, which starts by drawing heavily on classical liberalism and does have some noteworthy things to say about constraints on liberty in a capitalist society, even if offering bad solutions.

Certainly Foucault is not your man if you think a pro-liberty position means uncritical embrace of the links between private enterprise and state power, but since the liberty tradition has in a very significant way been concerned with criticism of rent seeking and crony capitalism, of the drives within capitalism to betray itself, then I don’t think we need to reject Foucault in this area. Indeed it is even a part of the liberty tradition to reject ‘capitalism’ as tied to the state and concentrations of power and argue for markets, property, and association rights liberated from state alliances with economic power.

This is the core of left-libertarianism, and even Foucault’s most Marxist leaning fans would find it hard to deny that left-libertarian is an appropriate label for Foucault. Clearly he was a natural maverick and critic of all power, including state socialist power. I suggest his life, his activism, and his writing, can be taken as an inspiration for all liberty inclined people. Even on the more conservative side, Foucault’s thoughts about self-cultivation are a version of virtue theory, of an emphasis on cultivating virtue, so Foucault has a lot to offer to all streams of liberty thought.

Those Foucault texts most relevant to political thought about liberty

Monographs 

History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)

Discipline and Punish

History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of PleasureThe Care of the Self)

Collected lectures

(Foucault’s rather early death means that much of his work was in lectures that would have been later revised into published material. The task of bringing those lectures into print is still underway).

Fearless Speech

The Government of Self and Others

The Birth of Biopolitics 

Security, Territory, Population 

Hermeneutics of the Subject 

Society Must be Defended 

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged. Chapter 1: The Calendar Hung Itself.

50th Anniversary Edition pages 11-20*

*Note: The actual chapter ends on page 33 but I am splitting these up based on POV changes for easier digestibility.

Chapter Summary: White-collar worker Eddie Willars runs into a peculiar homeless man, reflects on a decaying city, and attempts to convince his boss of an urgent matter in Colorado.

My initial impressions are all pretty positive. The opening line: “Who is John Galt?” accomplishes everything an opening should and most importantly sets up a mystery to pique the reader’s interest.

Even with my limited knowledge of small parts of this book I was still immediately hooked by the questions presented on the first page: “Who is John Galt?”, “Why does it [the above question] bother you?”, and without missing a beat (or answering those questions) Rand describes the world that frames these questions quite beautifully with several potent, if a bit obvious, metaphors.

The bum as the faceless masses, intelligent but wearied and cynical without the energy to change their station but able to if inspired. “The face was wind-browned, cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation; the eyes were intelligent.”

It also seems to be relevant that the bum is our introduction to the character of John Galt. The nameless, faceless masses knowing about the coming change almost instinctively and long before the more comfortable and well off middle class.

The city, in my estimation, represents society as a whole. Once beautiful but now decaying and, like the old tree on the Taggart estate, hollow and rotting from within. “…the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece.” The seed of beauty and triumph is there but it has rotted from within.

Eddie is who really intrigued me though; he reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. A middle man in society who knows something is wrong but doesn’t have the skills to do anything about it. While he cannot identify the sinking feeling that permeates every fiber of his being he does have a stable foundation to latch onto.

“When he was asked what he wanted to do [in life], he answered at once, “whatever is right”…”twenty two years ago. He had kept that statement unchallenged ever since; the other questions had faded in his mind…[B]ut he still thought it self evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise.”

As a natural-rights libertarian I believe that there are absolute moral and ethical truths and Eddie’s commitment to a similar personal philosophy deepened my ability to relate to the character. It also stands in stark contrast to more modern interpretations of ethics such as “rule utilitarianism” which will always decay to subjective act-utilitarianism.

“David Lyons argued that collapse occurs because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the ‘rules’ will have as many ‘sub-rules’ as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes an agent seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility.”

In short, any attempt to prevent the “ends justify the means” outcome of utilitarian ethics, without some sort of higher moral authority, inevitably fails and the system is reduced to one of pure utilitarianism. I was actually under the impression that Rand was a bit of a utilitarian herself so I will be interested to see if this commitment to the universal “right” turns out to be a character flaw in Eddie or whether it remains an ideal to be upheld.

Eddie’s confrontation with James Taggart was also quite inspiring. A man who knows he is stepping out of line but is willing to do so for the sake of his personal convictions is an ideal that many of us could due to imitate. I will save my examination of James until the next installment but the important thing I took from this interaction between James and Eddie was how uncomfortable James grew when Eddie looked into his eyes.

“What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willars was this habit of looking straight into people’s eyes. Eddie’s eyes were blue, wide and questioning; he had blond hair and a square face, unremarkable except for that look of scrupulous attentiveness and open, puzzled wonder.”

If, as I suspect, Eddie is the everyman (or reader avatar) in this story and James is an (the?) antagonist then what I am supposed to take from this is that the villains in this world, and in ours, cannot stand up to scrutiny. They are filled with uneasiness when we examine their actions and question their motivations. If Eddie is an ideal, then his attentiveness is an ideal as well.

Eddie’s relationship with the Taggarts as a whole is something I hope is explored more. It is obvious he admires and respects Dagny since they grew up together and the fact that he still has some sort of respect for James leads me to believe that the latter wasn’t always so insufferable. What made Eddie so devoted to this family? Was it simply their entrepreneurial spirit or was there something more?

I had a few small criticisms but I am going to have to wait to see how they play out. As I mentioned briefly at the start of this entry Rand’s metaphors were really straight forward which isn’t bad in and of itself but simply something I am taking note of and will look for as the chapters go by.

I cringed a bit when Eddie admitted that he was simply a serf pledged to the Taggart lands. The whole feudalism angle is one that I am going to keep an eye on since one of the most common attacks on libertarianism is that it would descend into a neo-feudal corporatist society.

Of course I may be taking the line a bit too seriously since Eddie was simply trying to get James to agree to his requests to support the Rio Norte line. In fact it could very well turn out to be a rebuke of that attack once all is said and done.

Finally I have no idea what the giant calendar is supposed to represent or foreshadow. Perhaps it is simply a literal translation of the city’s days being numbered which would both be very clever and kind of groan-worthy at the same time. Hopefully Eddie shows up again soon to let us know but I have a sneaking suspicion that our protagonist isn’t Mr. Willars despite my initial preoccupation with his character.

Check in next time for first impressions of Dagny, a word of support for monopolies, and our first real look at James Taggart. I wish this was a George R.R. Martin novel so maybe he would be dead before the book was over. Hey, I never said I would be impartial.

Part 2

Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn’t dream…

We must sing, We must sing,We must sing…

 

 

There is no libertarian art.

Well, that is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. Art is a vital part to any social movement and it is one area where libertarians suffer immensely. Sure there are libertarian leaning authors such as Robert Heinlein and modern Austrian economic art like the guys over at www.econstories.tv but for the most part there are few non-academic ways to inspire potential libertarians.

This is a problem I lament when I am feeling negative about the prospects for a free society which, to be fair, is usually the case. Sometimes reading an article about Intellectual Property just isn’t enough to get the passion flowing.

“But Wait!” You say, “you failed to mention the author who brought tens of thousands of people into the libertarian fold. The late, the great, the Ayn Rand!”

 

….yea about that.

 

I don’t like Ayn Rand. There, I said it. Bring out the pitchforks and tie me to a Rearden Steel railroad track if you must but I stand by my statement. Now I know what you are all thinking: “But her works exemplify the individual freedoms that a libertarian society should strive for!” or “Dagny is a strong independent woman who don’t need no government!”

Yes, I am aware, but it isn’t Ayn Rand the author I dislike. Actually it isn’t even Ayn Rand the person that I dislike. I don’t like the idea of Ayn Rand. The metaphysical zeitgeist that surrounds and worships her throughout every circle of the libertarian movement from Walter Block to Milton Friedman to every other subscriber on www.reddit.com/r/libertarian.

All too often I have had to argue about libertarianism through the lens of someone whose only exposure to the philosophy is Ayn Rand and the objectivist selfishness that nearly everyone associates with capitalism. In short, I think she is bad for libertarianism and provides no end of ammunition that can be used against those of us with a more nuanced moral/ethical position.

Here is the kicker though. I have not read a single Ayn Rand novel. Not Anthem, not the Fountainhead, and especially not her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. My knowledge of her works (outside of objectivist philosophy) comes mostly through a bit of osmosis during many diatribes in my conversion to libertarian thought and the first few chapters of Anthem I read in high school before being bored to tears.

I feel that my lack of personal experience with the work of Ayn Rand is a great injustice to someone so influential to many (but certainly not all) of the ideals that I hold so dear and maybe, just maybe, I can siphon off some of the passion that so many others feel when reading her novels.

So it is my objective to spend the next several weeks (months perhaps) reading Atlas Shrugged along with you, the faithful readers here at www.notesonliberty.com, and recording chapter based summaries of my thoughts, opinions, and analysis from a literary, ethical, and philosophical standpoint. These will be full of personal anecdotes and armchair analysis so be prepared for a tumultuous ride through one of the “great?” works of the 20th century.

Part one of many comes tomorrow morning.