- Globalization: a breakthrough in ancient Greek thought Andrey Kortunov, RIAC
- Was 2020 a bad year? Bryan Caplan, EconLog
- Was 2020 a good year? Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
- 2020 was a good year Charli Carpenter, Duck of Minerva
- What really happened at Troy? Daisy Dunn, Spectator
- How Britain disrespected its WWI soldiers from Africa David Lammy, Guardian
- Here’s why we can’t have nice things Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- On being edited by Barack Obama Adam Frankel, Literary Hub
Is civil disobedience justified when it invokes a moral objection to target a law that has been enacted through a legitimate process? The reason societies seek to establish a legitimate process in law making is because they want to set up common rules and norms which people who disagree with them will still have to abide by. However, history shows us many instances in which, even in a democratic system, civil disobedience both triggered and animated a debate on legitimately enacted rules and, often, led to their revision as well as the reform of the procedural rules that allowed their enactment in the first place.
Rawls’ position on civil disobedience struggles with this question. His position is that, once society has set up principles of justice in an institutional setting, acts of civil disobedience are just insofar as they appeal to the sense of justice of the majority and should be willing to bear the consequences of their actions. We may read the Rawlsian perspective as follows: these acts are still of value because they re-launch a process of public reasoning regarding the law itself.
However, the implications from this statement are broader and baffling. First, we don’t know how far this revision can go. Will it be allowed to cast doubt on the basic principles of justice which society previously agreed to observe? Can it challenge the procedural source of legitimacy for the contested norms?
Second, civic disobedience cannot be reduced to appeals to a sense of justice demanding the revision of law through the same process. Instead, the rationale behind civil disobedience reminds us that there will always be competing conceptions of justice that go as far as challenging the source of legitimacy – what some have come to accept as the just process may no longer seen as just by others. A society’s prior decision at a single historical moment that this is a just process for law making does not end the debate over different perceptions of justice concerning both norms and processes.
Moreover, acts of civil disobedience appear in moments in which different moral norms clash and judgment should be passed regarding which one takes precedence over the other. Episodes in the US history, particularly regarding the civil rights of African Americans, epitomize the important role of acts of disobedience in invoking a higher moral ground against norms approved by the majority through the institutions of a democratic system. We have learnt from history that these moments spawned animosities and brought about new episodes of conflict. They were emotionally disturbing episodes.
This implies that social contract theories tend to adopt an a-historical approach to norm-building and a, strangely- a-social view of public reasoning. Norm-building is seen as cleansed of emotions and often dismissive of the idea that there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences. A reduced historical and social conception of justice is what acts of civil disobedience reminds us of. The process of defining justice as norms and as process remains an open turf for never-ending, reflective social interactions that no constitutional moment can capture, crystallise and entrench indefinitely.
These three elements – the historicity and sociability of norms, normative contradiction, and the emotional dimension in the conflict over norms – is manifested in Sophocles’ masterpiece, Antigone. Sophocles’ theatrical play on civil disobedience was written around 441 BC, about 2,400 years before Rawls’s work. It conveys a nuanced message on norms, normative debates, public deliberation and reasoning, and sees the social nature of all as a human tragedy.
The play is set in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes and the final battle which Thebes survives the attack of seven exiled Theban generals. One of the generals, Polynices, son of King Oedipus, fights his own brother, Eteocles, a defender of the city. In that fight, the two brothers kill each other.
Creon, the legitimate King of Thebes and uncle of the two brothers, issues a public order for Eteocles to be buried with honours and for Polynices to be left outside the walls to rot unburied as punishment for his betrayal. Creon also orders that whoever tries to bury Polynices’s body shall be arrested and executed.
Polynices’s sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s order and secretly buries her brother in accordance with the religious tradition that demands that the dead must be buried. Soon after, Antigone gets arrested and is brought by guards before Creon and the city. She chooses not to apologize for her actions or claim ignorance of law. Instead, she confronts Creon by invoking that the law of the gods is superior to the law of men.
Creon sentences her to death, publicly stating that everyone should be treated equally before the law. He would make no exception for her niece. Creon presents himself as a just leader who firmly adheres to ‘equality before the law’ even if that means he would sentence to death one of closest family members. The law, he stresses, is above everyone.
Antigone’s public act with an emotional appeal to the law of gods initially fails to trigger sympathy from the people of Thebes and Creon insists on his sentence. Antigone is taken off stage to be buried alive in a cave.
Creon’s own son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, rushes to defend Antigone but he too fails to convince his father to change his decision. Even against his son, Creon reiterates his conviction that the law takes precedence over personal relations. But gradually the people of Thebes, the chorus of the play, changes its stance and starts showing more sympathy to Antigone’s drama.
In the next scene, a respected prophet named Tiresias makes a public interference. He tells Creon and the city that their neglect of the moral law will displease the gods and will bring more sorrow and pain to Creon’s family and the city of Thebes. The leader of the chorus changes his mind and asks Creon to reconsider his decision and set Antigone free. We are witnessing here that public is changing its views following a morally charged debate triggered by an act of civil disobedience. Antigone disobeyed the law guided by her love for her brother, but she was also honouring the law of the gods. Creon decides to spare Antigone. Emotions and fears have a drastic effect on public perceptions political decision making.
But Creon’s decision came too late. Antigone committed suicide. So did Haemon and, following the news of his death, her mother and Creon’s wife, Eurydice. The play ends with Creon devastated, isolated, discredited and vulnerable, and the city of Thebes descending back into chaos.
Rather than a clear clash between a hero and a villain, the two protagonists are tragic figures and so is the city itself. Creon wants to demonstrate that he is a prudent ruler who obeys the law that he rightfully sets. But he has to listen to the people he commands. His confrontation with Antigone is his own public act in which he defends his decision. The chorus, representing the people, initially sides with Creon but turns against him after observing a human drama unfolding and after hearing the menacing words of a prophet about the incoming doom. Perceptions of justice are drastically reshaped through an interplay of feelings, reasons and fears. Deliberation is emotionally charged.
Unlike Rawls, Sophocles’ theatrical play presents us with a richer blend of public reasoning, emotions, emotive responses, and unforeseen and unintended consequences in a debate over clashing norms and perceptions of justice. Creon – the personification of equal rules for everyone including his own relatives – is the legitimate political authority but his decision creates a personal and civic catastrophe. Thebes descends into a spiral of death and civil unrest. A just act of disobedience triggers a spiral of turmoil and tragedy. Emotions and personal affections guide decisions that produce unforeseen dramatic developments for the protagonists and the city as a whole.
The Greek drama is purposefully presented as a morally inconclusive story. Antigone had no initial intentions to make her actions a public statement and did not wish to bring down the entire political system. But after her arrest she did make a dramatic public defence of her stance invoking the moral law. Creon was surprised and angered, torn between his adherence to the rule of law and his duty towards his family. The Theban public watches all this astounded, emotional and anxious. This is far from a society that can be equilibrated into an orderly state. It cannot even rest secure about its own convictions.
Sophocles grasped much of what political theory tends to shy away from: the complexity and ambiguity surrounding normative thinking in human societies that tends to bring about tragic or fatal results for every system of norms shaken by its own contradictions. In short, Sophocles lyrically presents us the tragic irony of norms creation. Rather than taking a nomothetic stance, his play helps us reflect on the tragedy of human interactions from a nearly anthropological viewpoint.
Sophocles allows the audience to pass their own judgment through both logical and emotional engagement. The audience is baffled by the merits of each of the opposing viewpoints – Creon’s defence of formal equality before the law and Antigone’s defence of a higher moral ground. But it is also touched and distraught by how tragic the protagonists are, trapped in the consequences of their own moral standing and reasoning. In Sophocles’ play, society is watching and reflecting on behaviors and norms through pathos, ethos and logos. After each performance, the verdict is a flow of tears rather than a canonical judgment.
- Intellectuals and a century of political hero worship William Anthony Hay, Modern Age
- John Stuart Mill: a not so secular saint James Smith, Los Angeles Review of Books
- Irving Babbitt’s history of ideas Simon Brown, JHIBlog
- Classical knowledge, lost & found: a history in seven cities David Abulafia, Literary Review
- Khalistan’s Deadly Shadow Terry Milewski, Quillette
- Yes to Europe: The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain Daniel Hannan, Spectator
- Will there always be an England? Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer
- Translating the classics is harder than it sounds Colin Burrow, London Review of Books
- Between property and liability Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- National Health Service S.O.S. James Meek, London Review of Books
- Life lessons from reading Thucydides and hiking at night Miguel Monjardino, City Journal
- Blowing stuff up John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
Post Malone has been at the heart of some manufactured controversy recently. Complex and other hipster millennial outlets (x, y) have criticized his appropriation of braids, grills and slang (AAVE), as a white man who has recently made a name in hip hop.
I’m a college student in the Californian city with the highest rate of binge drinking (and a lot of partying). Just like rock n roll replaced jazz, hip hop has replaced rock as the club genre. And Post Malone is popular. I have never once heard someone complain about Post Malone in real life. The first time I heard his genre-fusing cooing was in a Mustang with my Mexican roommate and his girlfriend. I thought it was shit. He found “White Iverson” good enough to turn up the volume whenever it came on, and radio stations are notoriously abusive with new rap singles.
Last year you would see Latina and black classmates dancing to Post Malone at any of Chico’s backyard parties. No one thought he was culturally appropriating, or if they did, they didn’t care. His music sounds good to them. That’s what matters.
Post Malone has said some things in interviews and online that pissed off journalists and maybe a handful of other people with the time to be bothered. One of those things was the n-word, used once on Snapchat long ago. More recently, he stated that the modern hip hop landscape is sort of deficient in conscious rappers, rappers who will talk about “real shit,” and that “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop.” Some easily offended artists, particularly those who are listened to almost exclusively by white people — Lil B, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples — responded angrily.
In Complex‘s piece, the author was upset with Post Malone for dumbing down the music scene. Funny. XXL, one of the largest hip hop news outlets, which runs (and endorses) a group of up-n-comers every year, had the most lyrically-inept roster in recent history for their 2017 edition: Ugly God, Madeintyo, A Boogie With A Hoodie, Playboi Carti, Kap G, then a few alrights, and a single prodigy who’s now off to prison. (Playboi Carti can’t even rap. He really can’t.) I’m sorry to inform Complex, but the focus of hip hop is about hedonism right now. That’s how it is. No one gives a damn about J. Cole after 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and Kendrick Lamar sold out on his last album.
Since gaining fame, Post Malone has worked with Quavo (of Migos) and 21 Savage. Why didn’t these artists call him out for stealing black culture? And if Post Malone is destroying the often-intelligent culture of hip hop by exclusively sampling stereotypes and gangster imagery… why does no one care that Migos and 21 Savage are doing the exact same thing? Post Malone has also worked with Kanye West, who, again, didn’t care that he is white and immersing himself in the culture. Kanye has a lot of rap clout. So if Post Malone gets Kanye’s approval, what sort of validity do the rest of us have?
Granted: racial slurs are a reasonable line to draw for white artists. But Post Malone apologized and he’s clearly not a racist. What more is there to say?
There is no standpoint epistemology that can be non-arbitrarily applied here. Many people would like to say that white fans are ruining hip hop or that hip hop has always been about criticizing white power structures or some other ahistorical, revisionist narrative. No.
Hip hop is not just a personal liberator. Hip hop is for everyone. Hip hip is a product of black culture but black culture is no monolith. The standards for hip hop change. The style changes. The message is not singular. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? Kendrick’s own personal viewpoints on the struggle for black liberation align much closer with Tupac Shakur’s — the perspective that real change must start in black communities, and any problems with the police and white authorities are secondary or tertiary. Have the organizers at BLM listened to Kendrick’s work before good kid, m.A.A.d city? Did they loop “Alright” so much from To Pimp a Butterfly that they skipped “The Blacker the Berry”?
Do these people want to pretend that all old school hip hop flowed from the mouth of Gil Scott-Heron? Have they listened to “Rapper’s Delight”? What about 2 Live Crew? “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop”: Post Malone was being provocative, clearly. But hip hop is no special fountain of consciousness and enlightenment. It’s got even more sex and drugs than does rock n roll. Travi$ Scott came on the scene just to rap about partying — and he’s still a fantastic, infinitely creative artist. We will see more and more of this, just like we always have.
To all of this, it might be replied that white people are stealing hip hop like they stole rock n roll before. But music is not zero-sum. One artist’s creation does not prevent another artist’s creation, and especially now, there is always billboard room for more. Action Bronson is, stylistically, a carbon copy of Ghostface Killah (I mean, the off-brand version). But Wu Tang’s spotlight is long gone. A new artist for a new generation is no loss for the old artist, no disrespect to Ghostface. And now, if we look to anticipate the emerging future for hip hop (à la Soundcloud etc.), the new (black-led) wave is directly sampling from historically white inputs: radio rock, nu metal, grunge. Or even East Asian anime influences.
The attacks on Post Malone and the like are part of a larger guerilla ideology. They are one aspect of the cleansing of hip hop (an outrageously politically incorrect discipline) in general. I was in a recent dispute with a female friend over the outro from a song I like, as it came on shuffle:
Well with a pimp we gotta keep pimpin to have a b–h and that’s what she yearns for. She yearns for the pimpin. And once you keep f–king with pimpin, that square is a trick. It turns it from a square to a trick. Why she gone lay with a trick? It’s the nastiest lowest form of a motherf–ker. Pimps do what they wanna do. Hoes do what they’re told. And squares does what they can. They just do what they can. You see what I’m sayin?
She thought it was misogynistic. Sure, yeah, it is. But it’s a sample from a movie and that movie is about life on the streets. And that’s what’s going on. Hip hop tells stories.
I haven’t seen “American Pimp,” from which the sample is cut. But most of us would recognize that the quote is referencing, knowingly or not, the Melian dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War from twenty four hundred years ago. It is 5th century B.C.E. and the Athenians are preparing for war against the Spartans. The Athenian army, under the direction of Cleomedes and Tisias, sends an expedition to the island Melos for conscription. The Melians, a small Spartan colony, would prefer to stay out of the conflict. In a classic statement of realist political philosophy, the Athenian representatives disregard abstract moral claims and tell the Melians, straight up: join the empire and fight for us, or be enslaved and massacred. There is only a question of morality between equals, and all that truly matters in politics is power:
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The Melians decide not to give up their freedom, and bet on the odds that they will be aided by the Lacedaemonians, asking only to be left alone. The Athenians withdraw from the conference. The next winter, they siege the Melians into surrender then slaughter all the men and sell the women and children into slavery.
The point is: hip hop can rhyme about snorting cocaine off of a stripper and then reference classical Greek literature in the same song. We don’t really get that sort of postmodern syncretism in other genres. Hip hop is a bastion of creativity and subtlety as well as vulgarity and cruelty. Let’s hope it continues to surprise and offend us.
So let Amber Rose organize Slut Walks promoting sex positivity and feminism while her boyfriend 21 Savage raps about gang bangs and punching women in the face. Rap is for everyone and thus also the scumbags. Hip hop is a free speech fest, an untouched final frontier not yet contorted into submission by the thought police. What the people want is a good 808 and an album every couple months, not another stern voice to lecture them into moral and cultural conformity.
Hip hop has always exhibited the brute political realism of Thucydides’ History. More can be learned about the realities of American government from listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony than sitting in a political science class. Its willingness to stay down and dirty is its signature trademark. So cultural appeasement and cleanliness can have everything else: it can have our vocabulary, it can have our media, it can even be enforced by government for all I care. Just keep its indelicate hands off hip hop.
A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).
(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)
‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.
The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.
The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. The Areopagus was itself an aristocratic institution preceding democracy in Athens and as such can be seen as what balanced the changeable majorities of the citizens’ assembly with enduring standards of justice, which have meaning in all ways of constituting political institutions.
What Milton looks for in this great institution of early experiments in constituting liberty is a standard for freedom of publication and finds that it offered a very tolerant standard, at least in the context of the seventeenth century. Milton suggests that the only restrictions the Areopagus placed on books of the time (all handwritten manuscripts of course) was with regard to atheism and libel. We are not going to look back at Milton or the Areopagus now as the most advanced instances of liberty when they prohibit expressions of atheism, but these are times when the idea that a good and rational person could not be an atheist were all pervasive and the assumption can still be found later in the seventeenth century in John Locke, one of the general heroes of modern thinking about liberty.
The restraint on libel applies in all societies and all political thinking I am aware of, but one should never discount the possibility of an interesting exception. Leaving aside possible interesting radical alternatives, there is nothing repressive by the standards of general thinking about liberty in restraining libel. Milton’s interest in the standards of pagan Greece is itself a tribute to a spirit of pluralism and open mindedness in someone generally inclined to take moral and political guidance from the religious traditions of Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, along with the writings of early Christians, and the Protestant thinkers of the sixteenth century Reformation.
The Reformation, as Milton himself emphasises, relied on the printed word, and it is no coincidence that Protestantism emerged soon after Europe discovered printing (after the Chinese of course), as a weapon against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The structure of the Catholic Church was not just a matter of church offering a choice to people seeking a faith-based life, it was connected with state power and pushed onto societies as the only allowable life philosophy. The politics of religion comes up in Milton’s essay, including the issue of the relation of the state to the church hierarchy.
While England had a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (England including Wales, but excluding Scotland which had its own distinct Reformation before union with England), it had retained a state church, the Church of England, with Bishops. Milton, like many on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, was against Bishops, referred to as prelates, as part of the old Catholic hierarchy in which the ‘truth’ was given from above to the mass of believers.
Inspired by the pamphlets of and books of Protestant reformers, Milton argues that truth can have many forms and that while Christianity may require acceptance of central truths, they can be expressed in more ways than the Catholic hierarchical state-backed tradition allows. State backing, of course, included the imprisonment, torture, and burning to death of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition.
Milton refers to the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian ‘the Apostate’ (reigned 361-363) with regard to his policy of banning Christians from pagan education. Milton argues that this was the biggest possible blow to Christianity, because it deprived believers of the intellectual capacity and credibility to influence pagan inhabitants of the Empire. Christian truth could only be convincingly understood, communicated, and taught if it drew on all areas of learning including what had been produced by pagans.
Truth benefits from being tested in argument and contestation, something undermined by state-enforced church power as well as by the monarchical institution of courts full of sycophants and yes-sayers. Political liberty requires republican representative institutions and truth, including the truths of religion, require testing in conditions of liberty.
Unfortunately, Milton supported legal discrimination against Catholics, but as with prohibitions on expressions of atheism, this was part of the general understanding of a just state at the time, and Milton was more tolerant than many on the Protestant as well as Catholic sides. His arguments make up a part of the general movement to tolerance and freedom of speech, making very powerful points on behalf of liberty, enabling us to take them beyond the limits within which he constrained them.
Next post, Milton on political institutions
The Iliad is the story of Achilles moving from rage with an ally to sympathy with an enemy. Many other characters appear and the extremism of Achilles’ character, which leads him to remove himself from battle and therefore the narrative, lends itself to allowing other characters to present other possibilities of human personality.
The Trojan characters, particularly Hector, provide on obvious source of alternatives, but so do the other Greek hero warriors, and one of those who emerges most distinctly is Odysseus. Though Odysseus is a fierce remorseless warrior, inclined towards killing the enemy, particularly when the enemy can be seen as socially inferior, he is also characterised by his intellectual resources. It is highly indicative that one of the major appearances of Odysseus in The Iliad is on a spying trip into the Trojan camp. This early appreciation of the role of intelligence of in warfare is part of what makes the Homeric epics a classic of the theory of war, as well as a class of many other kinds.
Odysseus we see in The Iliad is the best adapted of the Greek kings to moderating disagreements, speaking with a constructive purpose in assemblies and councils, and thinking about the conduct of the war. This does not always make him sympathetic, but it does show that the human individual can exist in a very vivid and alive way through speech and thought as well as through anger and violence.
It is fitting then that Odysseus get his own epic, The Odyssey, which contrasts the very communal, even hyper communal, world of men at war, with the growing isolation of a man separated both from the brothers in arms community of Troy and from his family community back in Ithaca. The journey from Troy to Ithaca takes him right across the Greek world of the time, conveniently for symbolising other kinds of distance between the world of war and the world of human community. That is in part the distance between a world of plunder and slave girls on one side, and a world of productive labour and marriage on the other side. The Homeric poems does not make the contrast as favourable to the home community, as that might suggest.
Clearly the Heroes at Troy in some way feel most alive at war, straining their human faculties most in that endeavour. The Iliad also suggests other ways in which individuals can heighten the sense of life, the athletic competition at the funeral of the Patroclus and the desire to be remembered in poetry are the most obvious. These are not separate activities from war in Homer. Odysseus participates in games and weeps at poetic performance about himself in the land of the Phaeacians. In both cases war is very close. The games nearly turn in to violence between Odysseus and a Phaeacian who ‘accuses’ him of being a merchant and the poetry refers to the Trojan War.
With all due qualifications, we can still say that The Odyssey shows the value for an individual of getting back to the peaceful world of productive labours and familial affections. It also shows an individual losing all of the normal social bonds that define the self and finding other aspects of the self, which are not obviously present in the community of war and plunder or the community of family and labour. These are the aspects of the self which are part of ‘individualism’, of the idea as an individual as having an existence behind and, to some extent, separable from the most deeply entrenched social roles and connections. The appreciation of such aspects of the individual is the ethical foundation of political ideas of liberty, and Homeric poetry, though apparently the product of very communal communities, does much to establish that ethic (in some ways more than later philosophers in the antique world).
Odysseus confronts the possibility of a lonely death at sea after losing all his men in the long journey from Troy. The fault is partly his and partly his men. The vital passage for many of these issues is the adventure in the land of the Cyclops. Odysseus is thoughtless of danger when he takes some of his men to a cave whose occupant is absent, where they feast on the available food. Odysseus is taking assumptions about the applicability of laws of hospitality to an imprudent extreme here, and even tips over in plunder when it seems he plans to return to the ships with much of what is in the cave before the occupant returns.
The occupant, Polyphemus, returns too soon for that and is inherently more inclined to consume his guests than give them presents. Odysseus evades death through cunning, partly by telling Polyphemus that his name is ‘No man’. This idea of Odysseus that he might be taken as anyone and therefore no one, is itself a comment on how being some thing depends on being recognised as someone. It is also a resourceful individual thinking of how to use these abstractions to evade danger. Odysseus, however, guarantees ten more years of danger by boasting of his name and demanding it be known when he is sailing away from the island, incurring the enmity of Polyphemus’ father the god Poseidon.
The danger of the name and the desire for a name is emphasised later in the Sirens episode where malevolent demigoddesses try to lure Odysseus to his death with songs of the glory of Odysseus. To only want to live by your name as warrior heroics is dangerous. Odysseus has to resist this to live and again be thrown back on a very individualised kind of individuality.
The Homeric role in the origins of liberty is then partly bound up with the sense that even an individual very tied to the basic forms of community in his society can only fully thrive and live, if wiling to experience and play with, or suffer, separation from social bonds, and that the strength of those bonds itself rests most strongly on characters who can confront and live from encounters with extreme and even traumatic loss of communal bonds, and without becoming addicted to such situations and there dangers either.
Following from my last two posts, this will explore the sort of ‘barbarian’ liberty that Tacitus recognised in his time, that is of the early Roman empire, and was further explored by Montesquieu and Humboldt in the eighteenth century in relation to the poetry of Homer. ‘Homer’ here refers to two Greek epic poems attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which had a very large presence not only in Greek culture, but in Roman culture which produced a kind of sequel in Latin, The Aeneid of Virgil, a very major work in its own right deserving of separate consideration.
As already indicated Homer shows us warriors of extreme destructive ferocity, who consider it normal and admirable to destroy enemy cities, taking slaves, and collecting loot as well as killing without mercy. A reasonable immediate reaction to that from a liberty supporting point of view is that this is the opposite of what liberty is about, that liberty oriented thought treats unprovoked violence as the prime evil. Without denying any of that, the kind of violence that the Homeric Heroes engage in is part of a social bond within which voluntary co-operation of some sorts. Here I am referring to heroes not just in the sense of the main protagonists of a story, but the semi-divine status they are accorded in Homer, and by implication which is accorded to them in Mycenaean (late Bronze Age) Greece, where these stories originate.
The Homeric world is one in which there is trade and commerce, but it is regarded as less ‘honourable’ than Heroic violence, including piracy and physical destruction of cites. What this refers to, in fictionalised and poetic ways, is a world of weak enforcement of rules about property and individual security from violence outside small compact communities. Trade is clearly hazardous, running risks of the piracy referred to and maybe trading valuables of a kind acquired by violence, including slaves. Wealth is to a very large degree understood to consist of what can be seized or occupied through violence, including land, livestock and metal objects, rather than the less tangible and physically identifiable wealth of commercial life.
The value of ‘Heroic’ violence is then understandable in a world where there is very limited understanding of forms of wealth and security arising from relations of mutual advantage and respect for rules that apply to more than a small community and maybe its intimate contacts in other communities. Individual achievement and excellence is then understood in very large part as striving for excellence in war, and maybe in associated activities such as competitive sports which may suit strong aggressive warriors, and in which valuables looted in war or even originating with the gods (presumably a metaphoric poetic way of referring to the skilled workers in metal, leather, and precious stones that only the ‘Hero’ class could employ) may be awarded as prizes.
What this picture is building up is the importance of excellence and competition in the Homeric warrior society, and which continues into later stages of ancient Greek society, certainly up to the great cultural achievements and experiments with political liberty and democracy in Athens of the fifth century BCE. Of course the Homeric poetry maybe to a large degree reflects the growth of that culture of individual excellence and competition between whatever tales of Bronze Age wars are the starting point of the oral poetic tradition that leads to Homer and the writing down of the poems as we know them.
The Iliad begins with a story of extreme personal anger at an insult to honour in which the greatest Greek hero, Achilles, withdraws from the war. This is one aspect of the individualistic competitive nature of the warrior culture in Homer and while it is a classic case of uncontrolled temper which threatens social bonds, it is also a classic case of the growth of individuality. Achilles’ rage is the product of self-awareness of individuality and demands for respect of that individuality, which Achilles directs at someone with some claim to authority over him, Agamemnon the most powerful of the many kings ruling different parts of Greece, and the leader of the Greek league against Troy.
Achilles’ rage does not easily decline and is even increased when the Trojan hero Hector kills his best friend Patroclus. Achilles shows ‘barbaric’ cruelty in not only killing Hector himself, an inevitable response in this world, but in denying Hector’s body a funeral, even throwing it in the dust to decay and be eaten by wild animals. The greatest horror of the Homeric Heroes is to suffer such indignities in death, which are also an attack on the honour and welfare of family and of the community of that dead Hero. In the end, however, Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy, is able to persuade Achilles to return Hectors body and reflect on their shared experience of mourning for loved ones.
What we have in The Iliad is a kind of brutal but real individuality, which at least elevates warriors as individuals above a mass of identical individuals in a collective killing machine. The fierce kind of individuality which leads Achilles to rage at insults to his honour and the death of his friend also shows a capacity to judge wisely in disputes as in Achilles’ way of handling the games which are part of the funeral of Patroclus, and a capacity for empathy with the extreme emotions of others. That is Achilles shows a barbaric strength of warrior individualism and a growth of understanding of impartially administered justice and empathy with the sufferings of others, including his enemies. So we see that ‘barbarian liberty’ encompasses justice within the community and respect of some kind for the individual suffering of others, basic prerequisites for the development of a society in which individual liberty can flourish.
Next week the development of heroic individualism in the character of Odysseus and in The Odyssey.
As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.
The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.
The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.
Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.
However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.
The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.
At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.
He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.
It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.
One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.
Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.
What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.
The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.
In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.
The ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ label is not adequate for some texts that ought to be discussed with regard to liberty, since they have something important to say about liberty, but even on an expanded inclusive definition cannot be said to put forward a case for liberty, certainly not from the perspectives of classical liberalism, libertarianism, the liberty movement, or any other label for thinking which favours liberty understood as individual rights, markets, voluntary association, and rule of law over communalism, collectively directed distribution, state domination of society, and administrative rules.
I have plenty of further texts to discuss under the ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ heading, but here is a beginning to the ‘Liberty and…’ sequence. It is an appropriate starting point in that the epic poems associated with the name of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey are at the very beginning of European literature, culture, and knowledge. This is not say that there is pure beginning to Europe’s cultural and intellectual heritage with no precursors and no outside influence. It is to say that these are the first big texts in the history of anything that can be labelled European history. The name ‘Homer’ conceals considerable uncertainty about whether these poems have a single author and if so who. What can be safely said is that these are long poems written down in approximately 800 BCE, drawing on a long oral tradition of sung poetry, referring to a world of Mycenaean late Bronze Age Greeks, who traded with and fought with the peoples of Anatolia, in a civilisation that disappears from the archaeological record in about 1 100 BCE.
On the side of Homer not being a hero of liberty is the apparent endorsement of a world where war and piracy have greater respect than trade and manufacture, the greatest role for a man is to defeat enemy armies and sack their cities, women’s role is to stay at home, do a lot of weaving, and obey their husband. Political authority is patriarchal-monarchical, based on the claim that kings are warrior-hero aristocrats are close to the gods. Ordinary people are deprived of choices and influence, subordinated to the hero-aristocrat class and may even be slaves. In The Iliad, a league of Greek kings lays siege to Troy for ten years, purely for reasons of honour connected with a Trojan Prince taking a Greek queen from her husband back to Troy. The violent destruction on enemy cities, the enslavement and murder of civilians, the organised theft of property are all part of the value system of Greeks and Trojans. In The Odyssey after various adventures on the way back from Troy, Odysseus massacres a group of aristocrats who have been trying to marry his wife during the twenty years of his absence, living in his palace using up the wealth, and follows this up with a massacre of those servant women who were too friendly with the massacred men.
So where does liberty come into this world of violence and traditionalist authority? One part of the answer to this question is that maybe the Homeric epics are critical of this world, at least in some part. The exploration of where there might be a critical distance in the Homeric poetry from the most disturbing aspects of the world it depicts gets into much detailed and questions of ambiguity to pursue here, but is something to bear in mind when reading Homer. Leaving that aside, there is the underlying issue of the formation of a world of poetic creation, which in some degree must be distant from and reflect on a world, so raising the possibility of individual critical perspectives.
Anyway, even staying at the level of the more direct and literal meaning, it portrays different possibilities of individual character and ways of being. In The Iliad we are see Achilles the proud angry warrior who lives to become the hero of song, even if that means dying young. His devotion to violence co-exists with a belief that he has rights as an individual against his overlord, a passionate devotion to his best friend, a capacity to overcome his angry nature when he allows the father of the Trojan hero, Hector, who killed his friend to take the body for honourable burial.
Hector himself has a near Achilles level of ‘heroic’ violence combined with a deep and self-effacing attachment to his wife and child. Many other possibilities of human individuality are explored including that of the most intelligent and cunning of the Greek leaders, Odysseus, who understands that war is won by stratagems as well as devotion to violence. This man of reflection, forethought and an early form of the life of the mind, becomes the centre of the second Homeric epic, The Odyssey, which recounts the ten years of his journey back from Troy to his homeland of Ithaca.
Odysseus starts back with his own fleet of ships carrying an army of Ithaca, by the time he gets back to Ithaca all of this is lost, and he is alone, in disguise playing the part of a vagabond when he arrives on his home island. Early in his adventures he described himself as No-man to trick his way out of danger from the giant Polyphemus and then proudly shouts his real name at the giant on his escape. This is at the base of his ten year journey since the god Poseidon is the father of Polyphemus and takes revenge on Odysseus when Polyphemus can tell his father how Odysseus harmed him. Again and again Odysseus has to struggle with his own impulses and with the need to play a part, stretching his identity, in order to return to his island kingdom. So he is growing as an individual, exploring all the possibilities of individuality, including self-concealment, self-invention, and self-transformation.
The extreme violence of the return of Odysseus is followed by the brief description of a new beginning in Ithaca, an order of social peace in which a possible cycle of revenge is pre-empted through oaths and the prospect of justice settling differences rather than violence. This reconciling ending of The Odyssey itself builds on the sombre peace at the end of The Iliad, when a truce is agreed so that the city of Troy can bury and mourn its hero Hector, so that the values of peace and acknowledgement of individual suffering can stand up against the cycle of destructive violence.
In these and many other ways, Homeric epic offers much to stimulate thought about the nature of individuality and the kinds of social form which might allow individuals to flourish together, even in its depiction of the most destructive outcomes of human passions.