Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne I: de La Boetie (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563) was from Sarlat in the southwest of France. He developed strong interests in poetry, classics, and politics as a youth and was rather precocious. It has even been suggested that he wrote his great political essay ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ (also known as ‘One against All’) at the age of sixteen, though there is no universally accepted date for its composition. He started a career as a judge in Bourdeaux at an unusual age, followed up by diplomatic work. He was also a translator of Greek classics and a poet who associated with a distinguished group that included the greatest French Renaissance poet Pierre Ronsard.

De La Boétie died at a sadly young age, but before that he wrote the great political essay under discussion here, and made friends with the Bordeaux judge and author of the Essays, one of the great works of French and European literature, philosophy, and self-examination. I have considered Montaigne as a thinker about liberty and though he did not directly express enthusiasm for liberty-oriented radicalism, he certainly had friends who did, including de La Boétie and an early feminist to be considered in the next post.

It has been claimed that Montaigne wrote ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ himself, which combined with the claim that de La Boétie wrote it at the age of sixteen suggests considerable uncertainty about the status of the text. I will just go with the more average assumptions, which are that de La Boétie was the author and wrote it later than the age of sixteen (or eighteen, as also been suggested).

Anyway, the friendship of Montaigne and de La Boétie was itself a major event in French and European culture, since de La Boétie’s death appears to have played a late part in Montaigne retiring from the judiciary and a melancholia, which led him to begin composing the Essays. One of the most famous essays, ‘On Friendship’, is in part a meditation on the friendship with de La Boétie and the sadness that Montaigne feels that his life is no longer shared with him.

The topic of friendship itself connects with ancient ideas of political liberty, so that the essay itself can be taken as part of the evidence that Montaigne sympathised with ancient republican liberty and wished for its revival. Montaigne’s essay is, as one would expect given Montaigne’s constant shifts in point of view and exploration of difficulties in ideas of some appeal, more open to difficult moments in the idea of friendship, such as the willingness of a friend to cooperate with the other friend’s lawless projects.

De La Boétie’s stye is to develop a thesis with great passion and rhetoric; skill, rather than obviously exploring all sides of a question, though he is certainly best understood with a critical approach to what he might mean and openness to different approaches. Attempts to fit de La Boétie too narrowly into any recent conception of liberty are unlikely to do him justice, as can be seen in the wide range of people who have sought inspiration from more individualistic and more collectivist understandings of both anarchism and republicanism.

‘The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ may be taken as anarchistic in that de La Boétie argues for resisting the authority of any individual or group over a nation, or group of people however defined. It may taken as republican in that de La Boétie uses the language and references of ancient republican tradition in Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, which gives all citizens some role on law-making and government actions through public assemblies. The theoretical work itself reflects on the experience of Ancient Greek city-states and Rome before the Emperor system.

What de La Boétie opposed to the unjust rule of one or a group is law and an idea of liberty, which he defines as natural, and in opposition to the unnatural tendency to those who rule without regard to law. His way of thinking looks connected to that of the tradition going back to Aristotle of ‘natural law’ as those laws shared by all communities and therefore to be seen as belonging to human communities by the nature of humans, or their communities, rather than those laws arising from specific localised customs and necessities. De La Boétie resists an exact account, suggesting he is concerned with the defence of liberty as natural against tyranny, defined as monstrous.

De La Boétie starts the Discourse with reference to Homer, making clear his classical points of reference. The idea comes from Odysseus (de La Boétie uses the`Latinate version of the name, Ulysses) in The Iliad that it is better to have one master than many. De La Boétie takes his starting point then the necessity of condemning one person rule, which must be tyranny whether that individual came to  power through inheritance, election, or usurpation (coup). In that respect, de La Boétie might be taken as an anarchist resisting all authority, as well as a pacifist, since he points to the power of one resisting on the obedience of many who could easily shake of the power of one, without force, if they ignored the claims if the one to sovereign power.

On the whole though, de La Boétie appears to be thinking of the antique republican tradition of sharing power between individuals and councils (and the human value of such participation), so that no one individual or council can have unchecked power. Both the Athenian and Spartan republics are mentioned favourably from this point of view, as is their armed resistance to the invasion of Greece by Persia, itself under the power of one. The ancient Greeks are associated with republican virtues in which liberty is more important than wealth or comfort. It is not so much anarchy, as sharing of political power that de La Boétie recommends, and war is accepted where necessary to resist domestic or foreign tyranny.

There is a justified anarchistic reading of de La Boétie, if we are willing to distinguish that from de La Boétie’s own view. He was an admirer of the sharing of power between citizens in ancient city-states, where there was close to no bureaucracy and administrative functions by modern standards, and what there was could be realistically managed by committees of citizens. This can come close to an anarchistic view of purely voluntary institutions substituting for the state, particularly if we accept a natural law view in which everyone is likely to favour the same basic laws as ‘natural’ or we have some other reason for thinking the same laws will be discerned and accepted as right by the whole body of citizens. I do not recommend such a view, but it is at least worth exploring.

The issue of friendship, which connects de La Boétie with Montaigne, comes into the republicanism of de La Boétie in that friendship is what a tyrant cannot have, while friendship between citizens is what unites them in struggle against tyranny. The tyrant can only have sycophants and enemies, no friends since they must be equals. A society based on friendship between citizens is not based on coercion and the privilege of one, or a few, who control the state. Friendship itself contains the idea of a good that benefits at least two people, so undermining the idea that we can only have a form of power seeking individualism unconcerned with the common good, and that it is possible to live as a human while ignoring common goods and rights.

Reading the Laws, Part 2

I am writing this in the shadow of Annapurna II, one of the five peaks of the great mountain, and the first that any trekker will see. Annapurna is roughly at the latitude of Florida, and so even in November, the weather is relatively mild at lower elevations. However, at 11,000 feet, the slightest wind leaves one bitterly cold. Coincidentally, this forced exile from the outside has enabled me to continue my writer’s diary. I apologize for the brevity.

To summarize the foregoing, the nameless Athenian has refuted Klitias the Kretan’s argument, that the firmest foundation of a family is in enmity. For if the Kretan accepts the idea that the role of the lawgiver is to legislate for the highest good of his people, the highest good could never be obtained in a state of enmity, because it would result in the dissolution of the family – the highest evil. The Athenian continues by extrapolating the analogy of the family outwards, to the group, the village, and the state.

628b: The Athenian then brings the argument in the opposite direction: if the nature of man is himself conflicted, in that one part is superior and another inferior, and one will worst the other in a battle over the soul, is not the same true of individuals, groups, and states? Klinias concurs, stating that, as a man is composed of better and lesser parts, so too is a state, namely the noble classes forming the better part, and the lower classes forming the lesser part. Because Klinias has fallen prey to a crass classism, the Athenian catches him in a trap. If it is indeed true that the lower classes are inferior, but nonetheless they win over the noble classes in an intrastate struggle, does this not mean that the victorious state is, in fact, inferior? And the worsted state superior? This contradicts the principle of superiority through victory, since the victors cannot both be inferior and superior at the same time, thereby showing Klinias’ doctrine as contradictory and bankrupt.

628c-628e: Transitioning from this, the Athenian asks, “ἆρα οὖν οὐ τοῦ ἀρίστου ἕνεκα πάντα ἂν τὰ νόμιμα τιθείη πᾶς;” or “So would he [the lawgiver] not in all his laws [notice, τὰ νόμιμα, those things according to custom] aim at the highest good [τοῦ ἀρίστου, the excellent, related to the words ἀρέτη or surpassing excellence, and aristocracy].” The Athenian’s position is eudaimonistic, in that it sees the highest good, whatever it may be, as the ultimate goal of all law, as Aristotle saw it as the ultimate goal of all life. It is worth considering what the highest good could be in this case. Because for “highest good” Plato has written τοῦ ἀρίστου, the genitive form of τό ἀριστόν, the excellent, the particular valence of this word is vitally important. Aristotle saw the exercise of virtue as the highest ἀρέτη, or goodness, leading to the state of ultimate human flourishing, εὐδαιμονία. Aristotle most certainly drew from Plato, but it must be noted, ἀρέτη is much narrower, much more connoting moral goodness, while ἄριστος or τὸ ἄριστον can be the best of anything: the best morality, the best athlete, the best lawgiver. Thus, the highest good of the lawgiver could be amoral, but the Athenians staves off this interpretation by the extrapolation of his family analogy.

For the family, the highest good is the peaceful cooperation of its members, and by extension, so too with the group, the village, the state, and even amongst states. Thus, so far, peace is the highest good, because peace is most conducive to the flourishing of personal and civic excellence. Of course, peace need not be born out of moral considerations. A good peace, speedily and well concluded, is often the pinnacle of good statecraft. A good example of this is Diocletian’s concord with the Persians, after he installed an Armenian upstart on his ancestral throne and routed the Persian forces all the way into Mesopotamia. This peace held for generations, and was a lasting memory of the Illyrian’s illustrious reign. His considerations were certainly not moral, but pragmatic; securing the borders of the empire allowed for the peaceable exercise of commerce, which in turn allowed for Diocletian’s oppressive taxes. Diocletian reflects the Athenian’s injunction, that “ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ πρὸς πόλεως εὐδαιμονίαν ἢ καὶ ἰδιώτου διανοούμενος οὕτω τις οὔτ’ ἄν ποτε πολιτικὸς γένοιτο ὀρθῶς, πρὸς τὰ ἔξωθεν πολεμικὰ ἀποβλέπων μόνον καὶ πρῶτον, οὔτ’ ἂν νομοθέτης ἀκριβής, εἰ μὴ χάριν εἰρήνης τὰ πολέμου νομοθετοῖ μᾶλλον ἢ τῶν πολεμικῶν ἕνεκα τὰ τῆς εἰρήνης.” or “Just as with regards to the flourishing [εὐδαιμονίαν, a good daimon, or human flourishing] of a city-state and of a private citizen, the man keeping in mind only what concerns war will not become a good statesman, nor a complete lawgiver [the usual translation of ἀκριβής is strict or precise, but I am loosely translating it in the sense of completeness], if he does not lay down laws concerning war with an eye to peace, rather than lay down his laws concerning peace with an eye to war.”

629a-630e: Here the Athenian begins an extended analysis of a poem by the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, which basically states that regardless of a man’s other virtues, if he is not proficient in war, he does not merit the attention of the poet. The Athenian, along with Klitias and Megillos, declares himself in accord with Tyrtaeus, and then begins his “gentle interrogation” of the poet’s ideas.

First, there are two kinds of wars, no? Civil and foreign. It is assumed that Tyrtaeus praises the warriors of foreign wars, which is probably not far off the mark. Civil wars require military prowess, but they never yield military glory: the famous and comical case of Crassus, throwing himself into the Third Servile War due to insecurity at the glory of his fellow triumvirs Caesar and Pompey, failing to garner even a modest triumph after putting down Spartacus. Civil wars carry no interest, and so it is foreign wars that the poet, and the Athenian, are interested in. Yet, even more than foreign wars, there are foreign wars of great importance: the war against the Persians holds greater weight in the poet’s mind than, say, a border skirmish with some Thracians.

Second, if foreign wars impart glory, but important foreign wars the greatest glory, does it not follow that there is a hierarchy of glory, that “the union of prudence, wisdom, and courage is greater than the presence of courage alone?” That, the unity of virtues is superior to a single virtue? The point of this extended discourse becomes immediately clear when the Athenian continues his point that war, of all things, is not the basis of the state – the virtue of war, courage, is only one of many virtues necessary for the proper functioning of the state. Indeed, even evil and mercenary types can gain glory in war, fighting only for the salary or plunder they will receive, and not for the civic virtue that the lawgiver has venerated. The lawgiver and the poet, in honoring the soldier, honor him as part of the state, but not the core of the state. Thus, we must speak of the lawgiver “ὥσπερ τό τε ἀληθὲς οἶμαι καὶ τὸ δίκαιον ὑπέρ γε θείας διαλεγομένους λέγειν, οὐχ ὡς πρὸς ἀρετῆς τι μόριον, καὶ ταῦτα τὸ φαυλότατον, ἐτίθει βλέπων, ἀλλὰ πρὸς πᾶσαν ἀρετήν, καὶ κατ’ εἴδη ζητεῖν αὐτῶν τοὺς νόμους οὐδ’ ἅπερ οἱ τῶν νῦν εἴδη προτιθέμενοι ζητοῦσιν. οὗ γὰρ ἂν ἕκαστος ἐν χρείᾳ γίγνηται, τοῦτο ζητεῖ νῦν παραθέμενος, ὁ μὲν τὰ περὶ τῶν κλήρων καὶ ἐπικλήρων, ὁ δὲ τῆς αἰκίας πέρι, ἄλλοι δὲ ἄλλ’ ἄττα μυρία τοιαῦτα ἡμεῖς δέ φαμεν εἶναι τὸ περὶ” or “In this way, as what is true and the honorable to say when discussing a divine hero: that he placed the laws not looking only to the welfare of a certain part, and that the most lazy of them, but to the whole excellence, and according to classes created the laws themselves, but not according to those classes which the current propounders created [the laws].” NB: I am unsure what Plato/the Athenian means by the “current propounders.” Perhaps the poets, or the lawgivers, which he had just mentioned, or perhaps it is in reference to some political factions current in his city-state at the time.

Florentine Liberty II: Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all, but Guicciardini seems more concerned with the danger of French domination.

The Florentine politics of the time goes through a series of shifts between secular republic, religious republic, and Medici dominated principality, which Machiavelli also participated in and commented on in writing. Indeed Guicciaridini and Machiavelli were friends, but their versions of republicanism were not identical. Machiavelli placed Rome first among the great republics of antiquity, with particular reference to the benefits of political competition, particularly between aristocracy and common people, for liberty and patriotic spirit.

Guicciardini also refers to Rome, but with less enthusiasm for the role of the common people and political conflict. He denies that the existence of two consuls sharing the supreme leadership role was evidence of a wish to stimulate political competition, but instead argues that it was a practical adoption to war time so that one consul could direct armies in the field while the other directed government business back in Rome. It was a not a scheme to limit individual power and any political competition between the two consuls was an unexpected and undesirable outcome, weakening rather than strengthening the republic. He applied a similar analysis to the double kings of ancient Sparta, who had a largely military role.

Guicciardini refers briefly but significantly to Plato indicating his preference for an ideal of order over an ideal of competition, for rational hierarchy over plebeian street politics. He does not follow anything like the strict enforcement of virtue and rule of the ‘wise’ advocated by Plato, but evidently finds that a preferable orientation to the liberty to challenge existing order. The detail Guicciardini provides of Florentine political history shows a drama of constant change and challenge, disorder and revolution, which might confirm Plato’s fears of democratic liberty, but also suggest the difficulties of applying Plato’s ideals to reality, particularly in a commercial world with a growing civil society.

Accordingly Guicciarini’s main source of inspiration was the Republic of Venice, which already had a history stretching back to the eighth century, and with claims to have its origins in Roman antiquity, in rather legendary stories of refugees from barbarian invasion seeking sanctuary in the marshes of that area. Venice was to survive as a  republic until 1797, when it was abolished by Napoleon. At its peak its territory stretched well down the Balkan coast of the Adriatic and was a major, if not the major naval and trading power in the eastern Mediterranean, so it did serve as a modern example of a powerful republic and the possibility of republican government in a largely monarchical world.

Another advantage of Venice from Guicciardini’s point of view was that it was a definitely aristocratic rather than democratic republic. There was an elective prince for life, the Doge, appointed by the aristocratic citizens of the city and ruling in cooperation with aristocratic councils. Fifteenth century scholars in Italy suggested that the constitution of Venice corresponded with Plato’s vision of a republic in the Laws, largely based on Sparta (where power was focused on the thirty man gerousia and five ephors rather than the citizens’ assembly itself based on a very restrictive definition of citizenship. This is Plato’s vision of a state that might exist in reality as opposed to the philosophical ideal proposed in the Republic. The great merchant and commercial wealth of Venice would have been disturbing for the Spartans and for Plato though, providing another example of the limits as well as real relevance of ancient republics for the modern world.

So Guicciardini is less ‘Florentine-Roman’ (democratic) and more Venetian-Spartan (aristocratic) than Machiavelli, but nevertheless he accepts that the poor have to be given some role in politics and that even if the poor are outside political citizenship at times, once a crisis brings them into politics it is very difficult to reverse that situation. The solution for Guicciardini is to allow the poor citizenship and some rights, in city assemblies, while excluding them from the highest offices of state. The high offices should be reserved to the aristocracy, with the highest offices to be held on a long-term, possibly even lifetime basis. The concern is to provide more stability and civic strength than Guicciardini believes is possible from the political activities of the poorly educated and unpropertied masses.

Guicciardini’s belief in liberty through the dominance of a responsible republic elite anticipates later ideas of thinking about liberty on the basis of conservative institutions for preserving order and property as preferable to democratic institutions and political contestation. Any thought about liberty is likely to have some element of this, some ideas about institutionalising property rights and legal stability, against the dangers of irresponsible temporary majorities. Whether a complete dominance of such institutions, with the risk of undermining them through overburdening them, is desirable or practicable is a matter of debate. Machiavelli and Guicciardini present a compelling classic Florentine compare and contrast on such issues.

Florentine Liberty I: Machiavelli, The Prince (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

I have already addressed Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy here and I may well come back to them later. However, in the present post I will discuss the famous Machiavelli text, which is concerned with states headed by princes rather than republics, the subject matter of the Discourses. This will itself be the the first half of a two part discussion of liberty in Florence, with a second half on Guicciardini.

The city state of Florence had a history self-government, often republican rather than princely, going back to the eleventh century, when it broke away from the control of German emperors. Its role in republican political thought goes back to the thirteenth century as does its role as an early centre of capitalism, suggesting a connection between the economic development and the movement of political thought.

The first notable republican writer was Dante’s guardian Brunetto Latini (1210-1294). That is Dante Alighieri, the author of the great epic poem The Divine Comedy, one of the very great figures in the history of European literature. So not only was Florence the focus of late Medieval republicanism and capitalism, it was a focus of the development of literature in modern European languages, and of literary Italian in general. Dante created a modern language text on a level with Homer and Virgil, so putting Italian on a level with Latin and Ancient Greek, and confirming the development of modern languages, other than the Latin of church scholars, as instruments of thought and artistic creation. Indeed Latini even has a small role in the Divine Comedy, though rather ungratefully he is placed in Hell. This seems to be based purely on his same sex activities rather than any bad character beyond breaking church positions on sexual conduct. After the secular scholar Latini, the next Florentine given a place in the history of republican political thought is Remigio dei Girolami (1235-1319), a Dominican scholar whose philosophy was influenced by Thomas Aquinas. After that the scholar and city Chancellor Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) keeps the republican tradition renewed. Detailed examination of these figures is perhaps a bit out of the scope of a historical survey series, but they certainly provide a rich tradition for Machiavelli and Guicciardini to examine and employ.

I have referred to this period in the history of Florence as late Medieval, but it can just as much be described as Renaissance. The great growth of classical learning and artistic creativity associated with the European fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had its beginnings in thirteenth century Florence and northern Italy, due to the commercial city states where there was patronage of the arts and there was contact with the Greek learning of the now highly weakened Byzantine Empire, which stemmed from Greek and Roman antiquity. Averroism, as in the legacy of the twelfth century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, Ibn Rushd known in the Latinate world as Averroes. A period of Muslim influence, or sometimes dominance in Sicily from the ninth to the thirteenth century meant that Muslim thought was part of the general Italian heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a product of Florentine republican tradition and the general Italian Renaissance. He lived through periods of secular republican, religious republican, and secular princely rule in Florence. The religious period should be given some attention, as though Machiavelli himself was highly secular (possibly a non-believer, but a variety of views exist on that issue), the events of the religious republican period made a deep impression on him. From 1494 to 1498, the politics of Florence were dominated by the Dominican friar (like Girolami mentioned above), Girolamo Savonarola, who pushed Florence towards religious purification in anticipation of apocalyptic events. The apparent craziness was accompanied by some intellectual and literary sophistication, and was not just a pure descent into fanaticism. In the end the Pope found Savonarola too troubling too ignore so that he took action that ended with the execution of Savonarola as a heretic. Despite his lack of religious enthusiasm, Machiavelli shared a belief in the special role of Florence, though his vision of the city was as the descendent and repetition of the Roman republic rather than as the starting point of a Christian apocalypse. He wanted purification of a kind, if through the placing of laws above individuals, rather than religious observance, and an end to a corrupt aristocratic domination.

The Prince both pays tribute of a kind to Savonarola as a prophet without arms and sets Machiavelli on a path of hoped for cooperation with the dominant family, the Medici who had replaced republican with princely rule, arresting and torturing Machiavelli in the process, as he was a civil servant and diplomat in the former republic. The part admiration for Savonarola comes from an antique tradition of revering founders of republics and great law givers to states of any kind. This reaches a peak in Cicero who described founders of republic as god like. However secular Machiavelli was, he was aware of ancient Jewish history as recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the law giving role of Moses, which is one model of state foundation for Machiavelli and therefore of possible conditions for liberty, since liberty requires law rather than personalised rule.

The Prince is the product of a man who though very talented at the life of a private scholar which he pursued after his political fall, wanted to be working on public affairs even under a prince rather than a republic. It is a lengthy job application to Lorenzo Piero de ‘Medici (not to be confused with his grandfather Lorenzo the Magnificent) and despite composing the longest and best covering letter in all history, Machiavelli did not become a counsellor to a prince. So, we should not regard Machiavelli as a successful ‘Machiavellian’ and perhaps think again about any preconception that The Prince is some key to all knowledge in the dark arts of power and a place of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the inner workings of the state.

Machiavelli does offer his potential employer (who may never have read this extraordinary application material) some ruthless sounding advice on how a prince should gain and maintain power, including the execution of those who create the most obstacles to power. This is not exactly shocking advice for the time. The death penalty was widely used and extra-legal killings for political reasons were normal if not in line with the sort of moral standards rulers publicly proclaimed. The whole outrage of the church and others at the suppose shocking immorality of The Prince is one rather absurd and lengthy exercise in hypocrisy. There was certainly little Machiavelli could have taught Popes of the time in the darkest arts of power. Condemnation of Machiavelli was due to his making public unpleasant realities so that anyone who could read would now be aware of how kings used their power. The book was not published in Machiavelli’s time, so the torrent of vilification came after his death.

The more brutal aspects of The Prince do not even begin to match the horrors of dynastic wars and religious persecution at the time, particularly if we take into account the behaviour of colonists of the time. Machiavelli recommends none of these things which political and religious leaders of the time were willing to have on their conscience. Some passages recommend complete colonisation of newly acquired territories as one means of maintain control, in preference to partial colonisation which is as close as Machiavelli gets to advocating generalised suffering for civilians. In any case he does not recommend the kind of massacre and rapine normal at the time, and the main thrust of the argument is not towards conquest, but a state which has some community with its citizens.

Machiavelli was sceptical of the military value of walls and fortresses compared with a citizen army willing to defend its own land. Opposition to royal fortresses was opposition to one of the main forms of state control at the time. The prince is expected to dispose of individuals dangerous to assuming power, but this is advice to princes who newly have power and need to consolidate it, not advice on long term methods of government. The long term approach is to respect law, respect the property of citizens, and leave women free from forced advances. The prince is advised to hunt a lot as a means to improved military abilities, in knowing the terrain of his own land in detail so knowing how to defend it. The martial interests are presented as the prince’s main area of interest, so that the prince is more of a commander in chief of the military than a man of political power. The idea of a monarch who is mostly a chief of the military was a republican idea at the time and anticipates liberal ideas about the limited scope of any state apparatus.

The relationship between morality and political principles is where Machiavelli departs from antique republican thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero who present politics as the extension of virtue and moral principles. Machiavelli even overturns some of their ethical limits on power. He does so through a sophisticated dialogue with Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, which largely does not mention them by name but is very recognisable to those who have studied them, which was a high proportion of likely readers of Machiavelli in his own time. Both Aristotle and Cicero refer to the tyrannical ruler as a wild beast or worse. This itself refers to an antique way of thinking about ethics as self-control, which puts us above the supposed level of animals. Machiavelli challenges this by advising the prince to be a mixture of human and beast, and as beast to combine the cunning of a fox with the fierceness of a lion. None of this is Machiavelli advocating tyranny, it is an appreciation of power and desire which ancient thought was not good at accommodating. The good ruler rules from a desire to pursue the good life and be a friend of citizens in ancient thinking. They could not think of power and self-referring desire except as negatives, even if their own actions went against their words. Cicero’s political career included a willingness to go to the limits of law and beyond where he saw it as necessary to defend the republic, he simply had no language to explain this in the moral terms he used. His main political work, The Republic includes the positive contribution of Scipio Africanus the Younger, the Roman general who physically destroyed the city of Cartage and slaughtered every last inhabitant.

Cicero, like other ancients, had difficulty in discussing politics as power and civilised individual action as based on desire, rather than a morality of self control, so they had little way of accommodating theories of power and desire. This is why there are no ancient writers praising commerce except maybe within very limited and constrained circumstances and then only in a very minimal way, even Seneca who was a major money lender of the whole empire. Machiavelli did have  vocabulary and understanding of power in politics and desire in human action. He was convinced that general application of moral principles about always being truthful, merciful, generous, and so on, were not adequate to understanding the possibilities of human creation in politics and in commerce. Moral outcomes mattered to him, and he is clear in The Prince that some acts are too immoral to accept for any reason, but he thought moral outcomes come from skill in political arts and in trade offs between different moral demands. If one can sincerely claim to be always purely moral and never accept a lesser evil for a greater good, then one maybe has the right to be shocked by Machiavelli, but who can claim such a thing?

The Prince conforms to the wish of a prince to have power and glory and use violence to seize power where the chance arises. However, as far as possible, it always pushes the prince to do so through through respecting the rights of citizens, working to gain their consent, respect peace and stability, and the regular application of law. The prince is urged to avoid the virtue of generosity, because the ‘generosity’ of princes comes from taxations and is therefor a burden on citizens undermining their economic welfare. So that is the wickedness of Machiavelli! Avoid so called virtues which harm those they are supposed to benefit. It is advice to the prince to work so much through law, public good, and concentrating on his military duties, that a republic is bound to emerge under the nominal rule of a prince. That is the goal of all the wickedness in service of dark power.

Reading the Laws

Correctly interpreting a Platonic dialogue is less a science than an art, one conditioned by many conditions obvious and abstruse. In reading Plato, we must keep in mind the time in which the dialogue was supposedly written, for such will help us determine whether Plato wrote in the mold of his teacher Socrates, or according to the dictates of his own ruling reason. We must keep in mind the structure of the dialogue, which unlike a treatise, is ended not by a logical summation of the foregoing argument, but by mundane occurrences such as the break of day, or the calling of a friend; which does not explicitly endorse a single opinion, but plays with multiple viewpoints; which may be written ironically or seriously; and which gains great meaning from its setting and its cast of characters, which are never unintentional but always carefully chosen. We must keep in mind that the Ancient Greek language, which had a literary life in excess of 1500 years, possesses far greater shades of meaning than does Modern English, and that the translation we have recourse to is invariably imperfect, and must always be corrected by frequent and prudent retreats to the original text.

With requisite humbleness, and bearing these thoughts in mind, I will attempt to elucidate some things as I read through Plato’s “Laws,” the more mature fruit of the great philosopher’s mind, but the less widely read in comparison to his magnum opus, “The Republic.” As I have not completely read the Laws as of this first writing, this will be more of a reader’s diary than a fully-fledged analysis. Unless otherwise noted, I have furnished all the translations myself. Perhaps at the end of my enquiry I will tie together my thoughts, but as of now, I will limit myself strictly to what I have read up to this point. Throughout, I will refer to portions of the text according to the accepted notation, as I have a digital rather than a print edition at my disposal.

***

624a-625b: In every literary work, the first and last words, or the opening and closing lines, are extremely important. They act as the brackets of a literary work, in which everything is contained, thereby crafting the tone of all therein. The greatest example of this is Homer’s Iliad, which begins with the accursed and divine wrath of Achilles, “μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά Πηληῑάδεω Ἀχιλλῆος οὐλομενήν,” and ends with that wrath’s natural result, the destruction of Troy’s greatest hero, Hektor: “ὣς οἵ γ’ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο,” or “and so was the funeral of Hektor, tamer of horses.”

In similar fashion, Plato frames the beginning of his dialogue with a most important but also peculiar question: “θεὸς ἤ τις ἀνθρώπων ὑμῖν, ὦ ξένοι, εἴληφε τὴν αἰτίαν τῆς τῶν νόμων διαθέσεως;” or “Was it a god, or some man, o strangers, to whom you ascribe the origin of the ordering of your laws?” Here, Plato does not concern himself with what the best laws are, or what they should be, but rather who has given them. The words he chooses have an interesting meaning. Αἰτία has the sense of responsibility or guilt, and thus a rather negative connotation, in its earliest Homeric usages, and this usage tends to predominate in all except philosophy, where it has the denotation of a cause or an originating point. Whether Plato is playing off both meanings, or whether he means only the later, is hard to say. Διαθέσις is a compound of the prefix διά meaning by or through, and the noun form of the verb τίθημι, to place, so it is literally a “placing through,” an ordering. Finally, νομός is generally translated as law, but has a much more expansive meaning than the English term, encompassing notions of custom, religious propriety, and overall civic life. When Socrates is arguing with his disciples about whether to flee, or to die in his cell, he invokes the specter of the Laws personified, reproaching him for abandoning his duty to protect and uphold them, as they have protected and upheld him: these are the νομοί. Laws are not something that merely govern a polity, they create, maintain, and nurture such a polity. Taken together, Plato is not just asking who has laid down a set of laws, but who was it, a singular human being or a force of nature, that created the entire basis for your civic life? Who was it that set in motion the entire apparatus of your society?

Here, the speaker is not identified except by the demonym Ἀθηναῖος, Athenian. He mimics the role of Socrates in many Platonic dialogues, and indeed engages in the same process of elenchos, but is here considered only as an avatar of Platonic thought. His two interlocutors, Klinias and Megillos, come from Crete and Lakedaimon respectively, and are treated as representatives of their constitutional arrangements. They find each other as strangers on the road to Knossos, where they are all heading to the temple of Zeus for some religious function. The Athenian suggests a discourse, befitting their age and mental alacrity, on the nature of law. Aping the pilgrimage of the mythic king Minos, who would travel every nine years to this very shrine for the purpose of receiving instruction from Zeus on the law, the other two heartily agree to the suggestion.

Plato’s first invocation, and the setting of his dialogue, readily complement each other. The first asks whether the law comes from man or from a god, while the second seemingly answers in favor of the gods, set as it is in direct apposition with Minos’ nine year journey to Zeus himself. Law, and all its attendant meanings, seems to spring from divine reason rather than human craftsmanship.

625c-627b: Of course, this is immediately overthrown when the Athenian asks Klinias to explain his Cretan customs. The warlike nation is so only because of the providence of the lawgiver, who saw “ἄνοιαν δή μοι δοκεῖ καταγνῶναι τῶν πολλῶν ὡς οὐ μανθανόντων ὅτι πόλεμος ἀεὶ πᾶσιν διὰ βίου συνεχής ἐστι πρὸς ἁπάσας τὰς πόλεις,” or “In my opinion, he [the lawgiver] condemned the lack of understanding amongst the masses, as not knowing that war against all states is always a lifelong vocation for all people.” Furthermore, “ἣν γὰρ καλοῦσιν οἱ πλεῖστοι τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰρήνην, τοῦτ’ εἶναι μόνον ὄνομα, τῷ δ’ ἔργῳ πάσαις πρὸς πάσας τὰς πόλεις ἀεὶ πόλεμον ἀκήρυκτον κατὰ φύσιν εἶναι,” or “For the multitude of men call peace, to be just that name, and every state is, according to nature, involved in a perpetual informal war with every other state.”

The Athenian interprets this philosophy as follows: the properly organized state is one in which the laws, civic practices, and religious ordinances are oriented to ensure victory through force of arms, “δοκεῖς μοι λέγειν οὕτω κεκοσμημένην οἰκεῖν δεῖν, ὥστε πολέμῳ νικᾶν τὰς ἄλλας πόλεις.” The Cretan agrees, whereby the Athenian shows him the folly of his ways through a reductio. If states are always at war with other states, then this implies that the constituents of states are always at war with the other constituents of that state, for it would be strange to say that the behavior of a large group is violent according to nature, but the behavior of smaller groups is not. The Cretan concedes, and the Athenian continues by saying that if state will fight state, and group group, then why not individual and individual? Or even further, an individual within himself? The Athenian then brings the argument in the opposite direction: if the nature of man is himself conflicted, in that one part is superior and another inferior, and one will worst the other in a battle over the soul, is not the same true of individuals, groups, and states? Klinias concurs, stating that, as a man is composed of better and lesser parts, so too is a state, namely the noble classes forming the better part, and the lower classes forming the lesser part. Because Klinias has fallen prey to a crass classism, the Athenian catches him in a trap. If it is indeed true that the lower classes are inferior, but nonetheless they win over the noble classes in an intrastate struggle, does this not mean that the victorious state is, in fact, inferior? And the worsted state superior? This contradicts the principle of superiority through victory, since the victors cannot both be inferior and superior at the same time, thereby showing Klinias’ doctrine as contradictory and bankrupt.

Plato through the mouthpiece of the Cretan articulates a Hobbesian picture of human nature, where all are stained red with the blood of their compatriots and enemies alike, and such is not an evil, but indeed the flower of a nation’s laws properly organized by a lawgiver, in this case, the Gods themselves. Anyone familiar with the Euthyphro might chuckle here, for in that dialogue Socrates skillfully showed how a conflicting pantheon of gods could never be true moral arbiters, for their laws are always sunk in a morass of contradiction. It is dangerous to ascribe to the early Plato and his Socratic mouthpiece the same opinions as the late Plato here, but the parallel seems striking nonetheless. It is also strengthened by the Athenian’s victory over Klinias in this contest of wits.

627c-628a: The Athenian brings home the thrust of his argument by reorienting the idea of a proper state introduced by Klinias earlier, viz. as a ragged collection of armed militants, constantly seeking to kill or usurp the other, instead asking his interlocutors to consider the state through the metaphor of the family. Here, the Athenian is implicitly asking us, the readers, to consider a proper state not as a collection of individuals, but as a corporate unit that should act in concert for the mutual benefit of all. If we think back to the earlier metaphor of the state, group, and individual red in tooth and claw, they were conceived not as unified groups, but as individuals looking solely to their own gain. This defies the very definition of νομοί, which depend on mutual civic engagement, and also was exposed by the Athenian as an absurdity of logic, as it was exposed later by Hobbes as an absurdity of reason.

With this new metaphor of a family of warring brothers, the Athenian presents us with a new situation: the members of a single group quarrel with each other, and because they will fall into the absurdities of individual conflict, they require an arbitrator who is above them, a judge. The Athenian presents three choices: “πότερος οὖν ἀμείνων, ὅστις τοὺς μὲν ἀπολέσειεν αὐτῶν ὅσοι κακοί, τοὺς δὲ βελτίους ἄρχειν αὐτοὺς αὑτῶν προστάξειεν, ἢ ὅδε ὃς ἂν τοὺς μὲν χρηστοὺς ἄρχειν, τοὺς χείρους δ’ ἐάσας ζῆν ἄρχεσθαι ἑκόντας ποιήσειεν; τρίτον δέ που δικαστὴν πρὸς ἀρετὴν εἴπωμεν, εἴ τις εἴη τοιοῦτος ὅστις παραλαβὼν συγγένειαν μίαν διαφερομένην, μήτε ἀπολέσειεν μηδένα, διαλλάξας δὲ εἰς τὸν ἐπίλοιπον χρόνον, νόμους αὐτοῖς θείς, πρὸς ἀλλήλους παραφυλάττειν δύναιτο ὥστε εἶναι φίλους,” or “So, which of the two is better, one who destroyed all the wicked of them [the brothers], and appointed the good ones to rule themselves, or one who would appoint the good to rule, and allowing the wicked to live, made them willingly submit? But there is a third we must mention, best according to excellence, if such a one could be found among them, who would not destroy anyone, but in dealing with a future time, would give them laws, and have the power to ensure that each of them is able to live in amity.”

Both Klitias and Megillos agree that the third judge is by far the best, for he is able through the use of his art to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and thus ensure a lasting peace. Thus, the goal of laws is not to inflame the martial passions of individuals, villages, groups, or states, but rather to cool them, and thereby create the basis for concord between moral actors. Plato does not deny that animosities exist between people, or even that the basis of Klitias’ philosophy is wrong. Rather, he argues that his conclusions are wrong: that the existence of a state according to nature is not a sanction for its continuance; that life by the sword is not the foundation of proper law, but rather the reason for law’s existence, and the object of its restrictions; that unbridled individualism is inferior to the moderation of a wise judge, or set of laws.

***

This is all the work I have energy for at the moment. After a harrowing three day journey on bone-rattling mountain roads, I made it to Pokhara, a backpacker’s Shangri La in the foothills of Annapurna. Tomorrow I will tackle the famed Annapurna Circuit, and hopefully will be able to blog more on this fascinating book from one of the tea houses there. Until then, χαίρετε!

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Icelandic Sagas of the Middle Ages

A first in this series, a discussion of literary texts rather than a text covering political ideas through philosophical, historical, legal, or social science writing. One good reason for the new departure is simply that the sagas of Iceland have become a focus of debate about the possibility of a society with effective laws and courts, but no state. It has become  celebrated case in some pro-liberty circles largely because of an article by the anarchy-capitalist/individualist anarchist libertarian thinker David Friedman (son of Milton) in ‘Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case’, though it has also been widely studied and sometimes at full book length by scholars not known for pro-liberty leanings. I somewhat doubt that Iceland of that era could be said to have purely private law, but I will let the reader judge from the descriptions that follow.

Other important things also come up in discussing the sagas. There is the issue of how much political ideas, political theory, or political philosophy, just reside in written texts devoted to the theories, institutions, and history, and how much they may reside in everyday culture, collective memory, and the literature of oral tradition. This becomes a particularly important issue when considering cultures lacking in written texts, but nevertheless has ethics, law, and juridical practice of some kind. The modern discipline of anthropology has provided ways of thinking about this, but rooted in older commentaries on non-literate societies, as in the Histories of Herodotus (484-425 BCE) and indeed the texts by Tacitus, considered here last week, on ancient Britons and Germans.

The Icelandic sagas present the ‘barbarians’ in their own words, though with the qualification that the sagas were largely from Pagan era Iceland and then were written down in Christian era Iceland. You would expect some changes of some kind in the sagas as they are transferred from memory and speech to writing, and the religious transformation may have led to some element of condemnation of the old Pagan world colouring the transcription. Nevertheless we have tales of Pagan warrior heroes in a society with very little in the way of a state, written down only a few centuries later (maybe three centuries), which is a lot closer in time than the absolute minimum of seven centuries between whatever events inspired the Homeric epics, the Illiad and the Odyssey, and the writing down of the oral tradition in the eight century BCE.

The comparison with Homer is worth making, because the Sagas present warriors heroes whose extreme commitment to the use of individual violence to maintain and increase status echoes that of the heroes in Homer. The all round enthusiasm for inflicting death and injury as a way of life, and a basis of status, may of course lead us to regard these as more action heroes than moral heroes. In the Homeric context, and discussions of other pre-urban societies dominated by a warrior aristocracy, the word ‘hero’ often has a descriptive political and social aspect, which is more relevant than any sense of moral approbation in the term hero. The classic discussions of warrior ‘hero’ societies since Homer and Tacitus are Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1744) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and these should be seen in the context of Enlightenment writing on ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ stages of history. Nietzsche’s contribution comes from the time in which anthropology is beginning to emerge as a distinct academic discipline, tending at that time anyway to concentrate on ‘primitive’ peoples.

The Sagas give a literary impression  of a society in which the state has not developed as an institution, which could be regarded as evidence of ‘primitiveness’. However, the Icelanders had originally left the monarchical state of Norway, which features heavily in the Sagas and were in touch with the monarchical state of England, in a sense which could include Viking raids, as well as warrior service to Anglo-Saxon kings. So it would not be correct to say that the Icelanders were at some early, simple stage where they did not know anything different, as they had chosen to reject monarchical institutions, or at least had never found it worth the trouble to go about creating a monarchy with a palace, an army, great lords, taxes, and law courts appointed from above.

What the Icelander had was a dispersed set of rural communities, in which there no towns. The centre of the ‘nation’ was not a capital city, but an assembly known as ‘althing’, which combined representative, law making, and judicial functions, with the judicial function predominating. There was not much in the way of political decision making since there was no state, and the laws were those that existed  by custom, not through deliberate law making. The judicial function was exercised through judgements, which were essentially mediations on disputes that could also be brought before lower level assemblies-courts. Th right to participate in the assembly with a vote was restricted to a class of local notables, though not a hereditary aristocratic class. Judging by the Sagas, the judgments of the Althing may have been influenced by the numbers present on either side, particularly if they were armed. Only one person was employed by the Althing, a ‘law speaker’, whose compensation was taken from a marriage fee. At least in the earlier years of the Icelandic community, from 870 to 1000 there seems to have been nothing else in the way of a state. Conversion to Christianity in about 1000 led to tithes (church taxes) and a good deal more institutional interest in what religion Icelanders might be practising. In the thirteenth century the tendency to more, if still very little, state was completed by incorporation into the domains of the King of Norway.

The Sagas do not give a complete institutional description, but are a large part of the evidence for what is known about pre-Christian Iceland. The stories of warrior-heroes and families often takes us into the judicial life of the community, as violent disputes arise. There is no police force of any kind, so disputes initially dealt with by force, including killing. Sagas which concentrate on warrior heroes suggest that considerable property and local influence could be built up through individual combats in which the winner kept the property of the loser, that is the person who died in the combat. The more family based sagas suggest that at last some of the time, combat might lead to the loser ceding some land rather than fight to the death. Presumably in some cases the warrior honour culture led to anyone challenged to combat agreeing to do so that particularly a-effective warriors had a chance to become major land owners through willingness to issue challenges. The warrior oriented sagas really suggest a society in which some part of the population were constantly using deadly violence to protect and advance their status, or simply in reaction to minor slights on honour, and the use of such violence could lead to the killing of a defenceless child.

The use of murderous violence against those unwilling, or unable, to fight back was deterred and punished to some degree by a system of justice which was in large part voluntary. There was no compulsion to attend the Althing, or lower assemblies, and no means to enforce attendance except the violence of those wishing to make a legal complaint, should they wish the accused to be present. The punishments, even for the most extreme violence, were never those of physical punishment, prison, or execution. Judgements required economic compensation, or at the most extreme outlawed the guilty party, who appears to have been largely given the time and opportunity to leave Iceland unmolested before the most severe consequences out outlaw status could be applied. Outlawing of course removes legal protection from the person punished who can therefore be murdered, or s subject to some other harm, without a right to legal complaint. Outlawing often seems to have been the result of non-payment of compensation demanded by the court.

The judicial system was essentially voluntary, and judging from the sagas a lot of disputes were settled by private violence, which could include murder of supposed witches and torture of prisoners. Victims of violence, or other harms, were only protected by law as far as they or their friends, neighbours, or families, were willing and able to go to court, demand an official judgement authorising punishment, and enforce it. Slavery was normal, but there was some legal protection of slaves, in so far as anyone in their community was interested in ensuring enforcement. Jealousy and competition between neighbouring families may have helped produce legal protectors for the socially weak, but this is may not the most reassuring form of protection.

For liberty community fans of the example of Iceland from 870-1000, it is a example of how anarchism can work, that is it is an example of how there can be law and a judicial system without a state beyond judicial assemblies and the one employee of the most important assembly. Medieval Iceland was a functioning society, which was perhaps not as sophisticated as England, France, the German Empire (Holy Roman Empire), the Byzantine Empire (which appears in the Sagas as the Greek Empire), or caliphate of Cordoba, just to name the most powerful European states of the time, but did leave a significant literary legacy in the Sagas, as even the most violent warrior-heroes wrote poetry some times. It was a rural seagoing trading community, in which violence was no more prevalent than other parts of Medieval Europe, and a tolerable existence was maintained in the face of a very harsh nature.

The arguments for a less enthused attitude to Iceland as a liberty loving model include the very simple nature of the society with no towns, the existence of slavery, and the lack of comprehensive enforcement of law. In general there is the oddity of taking as model of anything a situation in which there was no protection from violence, and no other harms, unless someone or some group with some capacity to exert force, brought a case to the attention of the court and was able to enforce any decision. It was a society in which violence was not always punished and where those inclined to use violence for self-enrichment could be live without consequences either through ignoring laws, or making use of laws and customs, which created opportunities to take property on an issue of ‘honour’. The courts and laws of Medieval Iceland were maybe adequate for creating some restraint on a community containing a significant proportion of Viking raiders regarding murderous violence on a systematic scale as legitimate and even as an honourable way to increase wealth.

On the whole I lean more in the second direction, I certainly see no reason to see near anarchist Iceland as better for liberty in its time than the self-governing merchant towns of the Baltic, the low countries and northern Italy. There is no evidence that Medieval Europeans were ever inspired to take Iceland as a great example of anything. The intermittently contained violence of slave owning landholders is not a great justification for the semi voluntary legal system, and near non-state. Having said that, the emphasis on justice as mediation, and on punishments limited to exile and compensatory payments, does have something to say to those who prefer to limit the power of the state over individuals, who wish to prevent the punishment of crime become the reason for an incarcerating state, trying to extend that model of power into every aspect of social life. The system of law without state compulsion did not succeed in sustaining itself beyond a few centuries, but that is enough to suggest that there are some possibilities of viable modern national communities existing with less of a centralised state and coercive judicial-penal-police apparatus than is now normal. The limitations of Sage Icelandic liberty apply to the antique slaveholding republics, and in some part to European states and the USA when some forms of liberty were increasing while plantation slavery was expanding. The Icelandic Medieval example is at the very least worth contemplation with regard to the possibilities of limiting the coercive state.

Note on texts. As with other classics, many editions are available and I usually leave readers of these posts to find one in the way that is most convenient for them. In this case though, I would like to point out the following extensive and scholarly edition, which includes some useful historical background as well as literary discussion.

The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection,  Viking [hah Viking!]-Penguin, New York NY, 2000.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Tacitus on Barbarian Liberty

Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian from the early Roman Empire. Some details of his life are oddly evasive given his high status in the Roman system and his fame as a writer. It is not known what his first name was (Romans had three names), but Gaius and Publius are the most widely accepted hypotheses. It is not clear where he was born except that it was some distance from the city of Rome. Southern France (or Gaul) or northern Italy are the most widely accepted hypotheses. His exact dates of birth and death are not known, but he lived from about 56 to 117CE.

Tacitus was one of the great antique historians and prose stylists. He deserves to be read by liberty enthusiasts for the record he provides of ideas of liberty in Rome, as well as for reasons of literary appreciation and general historical knowledge. His historical work includes the Annals and the Histories, which are a major source of information abut the history of the early Roman empire, as well as of the political attitudes of the traditional Roman ruling class at that time.

There is some overlap between the Histories and the Annals, and the texts under discussion in the present post, which are On Agricola and On Germany, but it the fist two texts will be covered in a later post. I have already had a lot to say about the republicanism of the Athenians and the Romans, so it is time to consider how the ancients conceived of liberty in the ‘barbarian’ nations, those nations lacking the cities, literary,  and unified legal-political systems known to Greek and Roman writers. Another topic to be considered later is how the ancient republicans understood good rule in a monarchy, the Cyropaedia of Xenophon from ancient Athens is the most obvious example, and deals with the education of the Persian king Cyrus. There is some overlap between the topics of wise monarchy and barbarian liberty, particularly if we look at how these ideas evolve over time, something that will be be explained at the end of this post.

Tacitus’ general position on Roman politics was that of an aristocrat enthusiast for the Republic, who despised many of the early emperors, but was at least willing to give credit to those emperors he believed were behaving with respect regarding the aristocracy and old republican values. In particular, Tacitus gives negative view of the personality and means of rule used by the second emperor Tiberius, a far more scathing impression of the following emperor Caligula, and a generally horrified impression of Roman leaders and the culture of Rome until the time of Nerva and Nerva’s successor Trajan. Nerva and Trajan are the first two of the Five Good Emperors, also including Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

That sequence is conventionally regarded as the highpoint of the Roman Empire before a decline which ends in the fifth century fall of the West and the formation of Hellenic despotism in the East. That is not exactly a view universally accepted by historians now, and I do not refer to it to endorse it, but to refer to a very powerful story influencing the understanding of history and the fate of states over the centuries. Anyway, Tactitus did much to form the earlier part of that time honoured if now much criticised historical understanding. It seems to me that it is as least correct to see some substantial, if very variable, respect for republican forms and manners until the death of Marcus Aurelius, though supreme power had been premised on control of th military since Julius Caesar’s time.  After Marcus Aurelius, maybe some republican legacy remains in that the Senate in Rome always has some influence, but that influence looks weak compared with that of the power of the military, which decided the name of the emperor in times of uncertainty or became the source of coups by would be emperors.

Tacitus’s republican inspired criticisms of emperors who humiliated or ignored the Senate were not a wish for popular government, this was a distinctly aristocratic wish for liberty for those who deserved to exercise liberty, combined with nostalgia for a stern public morality of self-restraint and courage associated with the memory of the early Republic. Tacitus’ objections to unrestrained emperor rule were partly of mild behaviour towards slaves and the promotion  of freedmen over free men. The freedman had a particular legal status in Rome, as a slave emancipated from slavery, but still bound to render services to the the master who freed him (I’m excluding women here as they do not enter into the politics of the time) and who could be taken back into slavery if he failed to recognise his obligations. So only the children of a freedman were truly free and thy were still of socially low status, at least according to the old aristocratic families in the Senate. Emperors were happy to give important jobs to freedmen who owed them particular loyalty, rather than aristocrats who might believe in their own rights independent of the emperor. So Tacitus, along with other senators, was very much in favour of a state, a kind of republic under an emperor, ruled by free men, on the understanding that only a very limited class of men deserved freedom, understood as the right to exercise political power as well as non-political legal rights.

One way in which Tacitus examines an alternative to the apparent decadence of Rome was with reference to the barbarian subjects or enemies of Rome. He was particularly concerned with two groups of barbarians, Britons and Germans. He discusses the Britons as part of his tribute to his father-in-law Agricola, the Roman governor of ‘Britannia’ (England, Wales and a very variable part of Scotland) who consolidated the conquest undertaken by the Emperor Claudius.

As Tacitus notes, Julius Caesar failed to conquer Britannia, so noting the limitation of the effective founder of the Emperor system, though its formal start is associated with the consolidation of powers and titles, new and old, by Caesar’s successor Augustus. Tacitus is also referring to the difficulties of conquering the Britons who had a fierceness lacking in the Roman legions, disciplined and brave in battle as they were. Tacitus’ praise for his father-in-law is enhanced by and feeds into recognition of the difficulties of subduing the fiercely independent people of this terrible cold, rainy, and foggy land at the edge of the Roman world. As Tacitus notes, resistance to Rome first came from a queen, Boudicca, occupying a role of political and military leadership closed to Roman women Tacitus has little else to say about this situation, but at least has acknowledged a form of struggle for liberty under a woman beyond any episode of Roman history.

The biggest voice for British love of liberty is given to Calgacus leading opposition to Rome in the highlands of Britannia. Tacitus attributes a speech to him, which is likely to have much more to do with Tacitus’ own imagination and political sensibility than anything the historical Calgacus ever said. We will never be sure about this, but in in any case Tacitus gives an important example of some deep ambiguities in Roman thinking about liberty and their own civilisation. Calculus condemns the greed for wealth of the Romans and portrays them as only exercising power through enslaved peoples rather than their own courage and merit. The reference to enslaved peoples is to people politically and militarily subdued by the Romans, with most remaining above slave status, rather than the enslavement in the strongest sense of every individual within a people. The liberty the Britons are depending comes from a simple moral struggle to defend family and immediate community from foreign domination, not from a wish to enslave others. Calgacus recognises the remoteness of Brittania from Rome and from Roman civilisation, making their struggle a struggle of wilderness, mountains and places by the sea against a gigantic continental force, fighting with nothing to lose except the liberty of simple peoples with simple lives.

Tacitus is giving voice to a mentality he admires though coming from a people who deserved to be slaves because they failed to throw off Roman mastery. That is partly a matter of war, which Tacitus implies through Calgacus, the Britons lacked talent for over time as opposed to a capacity for isolated surprise victories. Tacitus both admires the courage of the barbarians and despises their lack of discipline. The real source of their slavery though is the luxury that Roman rule brings to Britannia (in practice this can only apply to a minority of urban dwellers and larger to a minority Romanised upper class within that category), so that the Britons forget liberty as they enjoy the fine living of Roman civilisations. Tacitus himself enjoyed that fine living while continuing an idealisation of Romans as simple hardy brave people, which in early history even applied to aristocrats who were small property owners, farming their own land. Tacitus both wished to keep his privileged life and use the ideal of simple republican virtue against the emperors and those corrupted by emperors.

Tacitus wrote on the difficult to conquer but finally conquered Britons and also on the impossible to conquer Germans. The Germans again resisted Caesar, but unlike the Britons resisted a succession of Roman Emperors. Like the Britons, the Germans  are portrayed as living at the edge of the liveable world, in this case surrounded by forests and swamps with no gold or metal and little in the way of farming. The lack of gold and silver marks the Germans as mere barbarians, but also makes them free of the corruption the Romans had suffered. Tacitus discusses the political situation of the Germans as variable as they are divided between many tribes, but generally they have a strong monarchy or a monarch who appears to largely exist to lead in war rather than dominate the society. The latter kind of monarch tends to rule through freedmen according to Tacitus, so duplicating the tendency of Roman emperors to keep political power way from those who fit to exercise liberty and leave it to the slavish in nature.

The Germans are portrayed as brave but with reference to family and immediate community, who are all present in battle (including the women) rather than to the state, or ‘public thing’, ‘res publica’, which is how Romans understood their own state at any time, republican strictly speaking, or imperial in forms. Again Tacitus shows a mixture of contempt for the backwardness of it, and admiration for the so fat uncorrupted bravery on behalf of the little world of everyday life. The emotional passion of the Germans is also admired, but regarded as inferior overall to the discipline and self-control of a proper Roman aristocrat like Agricola. Significantly, Tacitus thinks the kind of Stoic self-control and extreme rationality, discussed from the political point of view in an earlier post on Seneca, is going too far. Despite the influence of Stoic thinking on the Roman upper class and Seneca’s association with resistance to evil emperors, Tacitus wants some passion leftover from the barbarian mentality, as part of the makeup of the Roman ruling class. Their liberty requires passion as well as self-restraint.

As indicated at the beginning, over time there is some convergence between Tacitus’ respect for barbarian liberty and Xenophon’s interest in good kingship in a ‘barbarian’ as in non-Greek, though not as in backward, state, that is the Persian Empire. This is the outcome of the Medieval dominance of monarchy as a political form in western and central Europe, combined with increasing knowledge of ancient republican ideals as knowledge of Latin increases in the Middle Ages, followed by increasing knowledge of Greek in the Renaissance. The social and political structure of Medieval states, in which there are still some city republics, where monarchies allow self-government to city merchants, and find it necessary to consult estates, or assemblies, of nobles, clergy and merchants, the cult of aristocratic-knightly prowess in war, independence of barons from kings, all suggest ways in which European monarchs, aristocrats, and intellectuals pick up on republican ideas and apply them to a monarchy.

Enlightenment ideas of liberty themselves dealt with the tension and combination of Roman order and barbarian spirit. The most sustained attempt to turn this into a philosophy of history, state, and law, can be found in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which emphasises that the Roman Empire in the west was overwhelmed by Germanic tribes and succeeded by Germanic kings, with particular emphasis on France. Early Frankish-German kings and aristocrats brought Germanic laws and customs to Roman Gaul, but some elements of Roman law survived particularly in the church. The Roman law was fully revived in the thirteenth century in a process strongly established with the growing power of the French monarchy and the emergence of a French nation. So for Montesquieu, the French monarchy of his time rested on a mix of Germanic liberty, which was primitive republican in origin, given the limited role of early German kings, under a monarchy and aristocracy that was Germanic and origin, and in which Roman law provided an ordered structure for liberty. The Roman component, like the Germanic component, was republican in origin. Montesquieu himself is taken in both republican and monarchist ways, and he was looking at how the two come together in complex interactions in European history to create liberty with increasing commerce and moral sensitivity, under law, as he knew it. Adam Smith was also very sensitive to this historical  complexity of law and liberty, looking back to both the Graeco-Roman and barbarian republics with various mixtures of admiration and concern. He was certainly aware of the Tacitus style of neo-repubican contempt for those supposed unworthy of liberty and feared that modern republics might engage in the same polarisation between full citizens and the excluded.