- Did Cicero Devise Modern Constitutional Thought on His Own? David Potter, Law & Liberty
- Russia’s Pacific history is little known, perhaps even in Russia Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
- The Opium War and the Humiliation of China Ian Morris, New York Times
- The Puzzle of Russian Behavior in Deir al-Zour Kimberly Marten, War on the Rocks
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.
(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)
There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.
For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.
Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).
Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.
All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.
There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.
The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.
Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.
It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.
Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.
The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.
Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.
(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)
We can confirm Arendt’s sense that ancient Athenian democracy was not concerned with collective confiscation of private economic goods, by looking at the most famous political speech of ancient Greece. That is the funeral oration delivered by Pericles in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between democratic Athens and oligarchic-militaristic Sparta. Pericles states that in Athens there is no shame in poverty, only in not struggling with poverty (clearly referring to an individual struggle), and that poverty is no barrier to a place in political life. Pericles also refers to the greater tolerance of the different characteristics of other citizens in Athens compared with Sparta, and that bravery of the Athenian soldiers he mourns, so though the Athenian society does not put the military life as much at the centre as Sparta, it can show just as much courage in war.
As we can see, republicanism is the most historically situated form of political theory, aiming for continue a way of thinking about political community that goes back to Aristotle in fourth century BCE Athens. It was the tradition that runs through Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero in antiquity which informed the understanding of liberty in the classical liberals, in Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Constant, de Stael, J.S. Mill, and so on.
Their understanding also included the idea that there were differences between ancient and modern societies, particularly the greater emphasis on commerce in modern societies, which modified the understanding of liberty so that the liberty pursed by the moderns would be and should be different from the liberty pursued by the ancients, as summarised by Benjamin Constant in his speech ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’ (1816).
However, Constant did not argue for a complete opposition between the two. He noted the commercial life of ancient Athens and its greater cultural openness than many ancient states. So that though Athens still shared in the tendency of ancient states to impose conformity to officially defined religion and manners, it was less extreme than many. The republic of Carthage, defeated by Rome in the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE, has also been mentioned by some as an ancient republic in which sea trade was at the centre of life, and since ships were the best means of trade in antiquity, that meant it was one of the commercial republics of antiquity. Montesquieu in particular noted that Carthage shared republican political forms with Rome, in which a citizen assembly governed the city in co-operation with an oligarchic-aristocratic council (the Senate in the case of Rome), but had a different attitude to trade and commercial life.
So though the classical liberals emphasised the differences between ancient and modern liberty, they did not simply reject ancient liberty, and did not reject the republican tradition. They found the centrality of war to ancient life, the relatively static political economy and commercial life, and the attempts of the state to enforce virtue to be different from what they hoped for from modern liberty. The classical liberals also saw liberty growing in ancient republics and thought there was some link between the conditions of liberty and a public culture of shared concerns between citizens.
The laws and institutions necessary to liberty require some support from a feeling of citizenship and joint political enterprise. The need to replicate the solidarity of ancient societies based on preparedness for war is one of the reasons that Smith gives for advocating some public role in promoting education, though with a preference for most education to be provided by private institutions rather than the state.
It is useful to look at the views of the apparent greatest classical liberal defender of monarchy, Montesquieu, to see the importance of the ancient republican tradition for modern liberalism. Montesquieu suggests that a monarchy of the kind that existed in France in the eighteenth century is good for commerce and liberty where it rests on institutions that have some independence of the monarchy such as law courts and a land owning aristocracy.
However, the legal tradition he though guaranteed such liberty in France, is something he traced back to the German invaders of ancient Gaul during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. They brought the customary laws of tribes in the German forests which where essentially republics as kings existed to lead in war and relied on popular support. Montesquieu is a bit more ambiguous than this in his description of the ancient Germans, as he is generally an ambiguous thinker with regard to his views on monarchies and republics, and which are the best for liberty.
He recognised both a law governed ‘moderate’ forms of government opposed to despotism. He recognises the commercial capacities of the Athenian and Carthaginian republics. For his own time, he recognises England as a disguised republic (in the eighteenth century, Great Britain was essentially an oligarchic-aristocratic republic with a very constrained monarchy) which has a leading role in the era with regard to liberty and commerce. Montesquieu’s main criticisms of England relate to missing some aspects of a culture or honour and aristocratic courtesy, rather than any criticism of substance.
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 about 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 the first 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 explained at the end of this post.
Tacitus’ general position on Roman politics was that of an aristocrat and 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 a 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 the 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 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 they 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 terribly 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 any case Tacitus gives an important example of some deep ambiguities in Roman thinking about liberty and their own civilisation.
Calgacus 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 on 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 Britons 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 far 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 of this piece, 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, and 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-republican contempt for those supposed unworthy of liberty and feared that modern republics might engage in the same polarisation between full citizens and the excluded.
There is a leap of more than a millenium from my last post on Seneca to Marsilius (originally Marsiglio) of Padua (c. 1275 to c. 1342). I am not saying that no one wrote any texts advancing liberty during that time, but the major texts of late antiquity and the Middle Ages up to the thirteenth century concerning political ideas lean towards the desirability, or at least unavoidability, of law making and governmental powers centralised in a monarchical figure, rather than constraints on power, or a positive vision of individual autonomy.
One might argue that the spread of Christian monotheism enhanced the value placed on individuality, and that the codification of Roman law in Constantinople in the sixth century CE (commanded by the Emperor Justinian) advanced the idea of liberty under law. Even if we take a very positive view of those developments, and they are certainly deeply important, they can be no more than elements in the creation of laws and institutions that promote liberty.
There must be more to social and political liberty than a belief in an inner soul and the institutionalisation of the law outside the individual. The importance of the individual and the rule of law at least require some further articulation in how to form a political community that recognises the merits of individual liberty in every sense.
There were great thinkers who addressed political questions during the time between the early Roman Empire (Seneca) and the late Middle Ages (Marsilius of Padua), most obviously Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Al-Farabi (872-950), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but in my judgement they lean too far towards emphasising the sovereign power, assumed to be be ideally a monarch, who can enforce law and religiously inflected notions of virtue, to be regarded as promoters of liberty, even if much of what they wrote is of value from a liberty advocating point of view.
Others may disagree, Murray Rothbard for example thought of Aquinas as very close to his own individualist anarchist point of view, which however does not strike me as the strongest point in his writings. My argument is that Marsilius made a decisive step in turning a rich tradition of writing on virtue, civil law, natural law, and sovereignty, towards a concern with individual diversity and the right for everyone to play some part in determining the laws that one is obliged to obey.
In this, he was maybe anticipated by Florentine humanist and republican thinking, but not by any great historical distance, and there is lack of readily obtained in print or online texts in English from that time in Florentine history, though I hope to return to this in a future post.
The historical background to Marsilius’ thought includes the political life of medieval north Italian city states, little republics often known as communes. Conflict between the Papacy and German Emperors gave them the opportunity to maintain independence through playing off the great medieval political powers against each other.
Their independence, like that of the ancient Greek city states, ,involved a good deal of conflict with each other about boundaries and alliances, and internally with regard to governmental power. This of course was a violent process, but there was violence elsewhere with less productive results for liberty.
Some background on the Papacy and the Empire is necessary here, as general background, and with regard to the life of Marsilius, who was very much part of the struggle between the two. The Roman Empire was revived, in name anyway, in 800 for Charlemagne, the ruler of what is now France, Germany, Austria and neighbouring territories, including northern Italy.
Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in Rome in a move the emphasised separation from the continuing eastern Empire in Constantinople and a strong ally for the power of a Roman centred Catholic church in the west. By the time of Marsilius, the title of Emperor had disappeared, revised, and evolved in its meaning.
The stage reached was the Emperor was elected by major German princes and was known as the Emperor of Germany, though also as Holy Roman Emperor, or Emperor of the Romans, in recognition of his preeminence in Catholic Europe, and apparent role of providing secular partnership to the divinely ordained role of the Papacy.
The Emperor’s power over most of Germany, outside the hereditary lands of the prince elected, was very limited, so that Germany was essentially a patchwork of a very large number of very varied kinds of sovereign entity (city republics, bishoprics, monasteries, domains of a margrave, duke, knight, etc) under a grand but weak monarch, who had some claim to universal monarchy within the Catholic world but only at the level of symbolism .
The Emperors had continuing claims in northern Italy, which brought them into conflict with the political ambitions of Popes to dominate the region, and generally the supposed partnership of throne and alter led to violent conflict about how to share the power.
It was also a time of growing commercial life in Europe, with northern Italy as part of the vanguard. The erosion of traditional forms of authority and loyalty which accompanied increasing commerce, combined with an intensification of conflicts between Emperor and Pope, along with competing candidates to be Emperor or Pope.
Marsilius was in the middle of this, born in northern Italy, in the city of Padua as his name indicates. He trained as a doctor, after a period as an Imperial solider and became Rector of the University of Paris, then engaging in work on theology and politics which led to conflict with the Papacy. He was sheltered by the German Emperor at his base in Munich.
The major result of this was the large book, The Defender of the Peace, often known by its Latin title of Defensor Pacis. It contains three discourses, the first of which is less than half the book, but contains his thought on the nature of politics, civil law, and the state. This might be seen as a defence of the role of the Emperor as defender of the peace, who the right to autonomy from the Pope with regard to worldly matters.
However, there is much about the First Discourse, which challenges the role of princes. That Marsilius was able to do so while relying on the Emperor for protection from accusations of heresy, is suggestive of the value of the papacy-empire and church-state splits in medieval Europe along with competition between states and the contestation of Church doctrine by ‘heretical’ groups, in fostering liberty in a Europe, which lacked any absolute overarching political or religious power centre.
As is normal with medieval philosophy, Marsilius writes with regard to the text of the Bible and even more with regard to the writings of Aristotle, which in this case means mostly the Politics and the politically oriented parts of the Nicomachean Ethics. As normal, there is also reference to the Commentator, that is Ibn Rushd, known in Latin as Averroes (1126-1198), a Muslim philosopher who like Seneca was born in Cordoba, Spain. His commentaries on Aristotle transformed Medieval philosophy, Christian and Jewish, as well as Muslim.
Marsilius builds up his political ideas taking Aristotle as the major philosophical source, which raises questions about the correctness of his view of Aristotle. I won’t go into that issue any further and will just note that since Marsilius, one way of taking Aristotle has been as a proponent of republicanism with a democratic emphasis. The ‘republican’ thinking is not about abolishing monarchs, and strictly speaking republican political thought has always been about how to share power between all citizens, or some significant part of the citizen body, rather than the abolition of all monarchical titles. This is why Marsilius can be both a republican and support the power of the Emperor, at least in relation to the Pope.
The argument is built up through reading of Aristotle, which emphasises the merits of elective monarchy, so turning the monarch into an elected for life president. If that life time tenure rests on the will of citizens, then at least some possibility is raised on ending that tenure early should the monarch prove unsatisfactory.
Of course the German Emperor was elected by a few princes, but Marsilius is very clear that he is referring to a broader electorate of all citizens. He contests readings of Aristotle, according to which Aristotle only allows for the election of a king by a small aristocracy of those citizens supposed to be very best. Marsilius both denies this is what Aristotle supports and makes his own arguments for saying that the wisdom of all citizens collectively is greater than that of a few privileged citizens taken to be particularly wise.
The wisdom of a few, however intellectually accomplished, cannot match the wisdom of all citizens as that collective wisdom contains all the knowledge there is of the society concerned. Social knowledge comes from the many thousands and even millions of individual perspectives on experienced reality, not the distanced theoretical wisdom of a few. Therefore the wisdom to elected the best candidate as monarch must come from all citizens, and they must all have the right to participate in the vote.
A decision resting on such a multitude also creates a strength and endurance in the state, with regard to external enemies, but more importantly with reference to the capacity of the state to sustain itself and allow a ‘sufficient’ life for citizens. That is a sufficient life of fully developed human faculties, not just pure physical survival which might take place without laws, but only in conditions of insecurity and with little hope of a ‘sufficient’ life.
The laws which allow sufficient life are more a matter of codifying the wisdom and experience of history, in forms which are acceptable to all citizens, than the kind of innovations in state power we have come to associated with new law in more recent times. The citizen body which participates in electing the head of the government must also participate in making laws since the same arguments invoked for electing a leader must apply to the laws. Laws, which Marsilius understands as what has the consent of all, or close enough, rather than the imposition of the views of a narrow temporary majority on everyone.
He does not make explicit barriers to majoritarian abuse of power, but does not need to since law clearly means to him what is acceptable to the community as a whole with regard to its collective wisdom and the historical experience of laws. The ‘monarch’ or ‘prince’ is clearly expected to apply those laws and to exercise no further powers beyond what defends the existence of the community from lawlessness and external aggression.
Marsilius emphasises the viability and sustainability of the community as a community of sufficient life rather than as a deduction of law making sovereignty from individual rights. His approach, grounded in antique political and legal thought, might sound less respectful of individual liberty than the deduction from individual rights, but the modern tradition of such deductions, these days forming the major part of ‘normative’ political theory/analytic political philosophy, have not proved at all immune to statist ideas, while individual rights to pursue ‘sufficiency’ are so deeply embedded in Marsilius’ assumptions as what is natural to an individual and to a sustainable community, that it does not need articulation in the form of pure abstract rights detached from the necessary conditions of lived communities.
How democratic Marsilius is, by our standards, can be debated on at least two counts. One count is that at this time, and right into the nineteenth century, ‘democratic’ politics might might still exclude ‘dependent’ individuals from political rights, that is those who were thought to be lacking in the economic independence and self-dependence, which would supposedly allow for free and considered judgement.
Those excluded included those making a living from employment by someone else rather than through property, self-employment as a skilled worker, or membership of some legally recognised corporation of individuals with equal rights (like a university or a trade guild). Farm labourers, employees of urban enterprises, vagrants, and domestic servants were likely to be excluded along with women, religious minorities, and those still carrying the vestiges of medieval serfdom in their legal status.
The second count is that Marsilius offers little indication of how his democratic ideas could be applied in practice, though he was presumably relying on memories of Italian communed, still leaving a huge gap on how to apply such principles to a political community as large as the German Empire, leaving the suspicion that he was mainly arguing for the power of the Emperor on the basis of pretended democracy, and a supposed rule by laws rather by any individual.
There is nevertheless more than enough in Defensor Pacis overall to stimulate considerable creative thinking about what it is to create the laws and government best suited to liberty. His criticisms of the supposed wisdom of few at the top, are very powerful and necessary now with regard to the pretences of state planning and regulation. His understanding of how wisdom arises from the multiple experiences of the multitude, with regard to the limited goals of government and legislation, have great application to the role of markets and voluntary co-operation in a society of free individuals.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4-65 CE) was born in the Roman Spanish city of Cordoba. Southern Spain was one of the most Romanised parts of the Roman Empire outside of Italy, so it is not surprising that Seneca made his way to Rome where he became a writer and, it seems, a money lender. He was also tutor to and then adviser to the Emperor Nero. He had previously been in conflict with the Emperor Claudius, for unknown reasons, and was exiled to Corsica for a while as a consequence.
Seneca’s writing career covered philosophical essays, tragedies, and letters which amounted to an exploration of his philosophical interests. He followed the Stoic school of philosophy, which goes back to the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334-226BCE), and was influential on the Roman upper classes. So much so that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180CE) wrote his Meditations with regard to Stoic thinking on character and ways of living. It was written in Greek, indicating how far Roman thought on ethics, politics, and other topics was continuous with, or at least engaged with, ancient Greek thought.
Seneca’s relations with Nero turned out to be even more destructive than those with Claudius. Seneca tried to educate and advise Nero to be honest, just, and restrained in the use of power. However, Nero turned out to be one of the most infamously cruel, paranoiac, and violent Emperors. These negative tendencies were turned on Seneca, so that even after Seneca had retired to the countryside to avoid the bad atmosphere around Nero, he was forced to commit suicide on suspicion of complicity with a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. (Nero himself was overthrown and pressured to commit suicide three years later.) Suicide was a relatively honourable form of death for Romans, and it was a privilege to be allowed to commit suicide rather than face execution, nevertheless Seneca and Nero can be said to have both met sorry ends as a result of political turmoil initiated by Nero.
Nero’s behaviour was really the direct opposite of that recommended to rulers by Seneca’s essays on anger and on mercy, and was a painful failure for Seneca who had tried to educate him from childhood for a moderate self-restrained use of power. Seneca’s approach to politics is to advise an absolute ruler in the use of power, so he might seem a bit paradoxical as part of a series on liberty. However, Seneca was considered as a major supporter of republics, of government based on individual liberty in the early modern period, so that Thomas Hobbes, the authoritarian-minded philosopher and political thinker, considered his thought a danger to sovereign state power.
Seneca’s thought certainly did mark the death of the Roman Republic, which was essentially abolished in substance (after a historical phase of hollowing out) by Julius Caesar in his period of absolute power from 49BCE until his assassination in 44BCE. The failure of the assassins to restore the republic led to the absolute power of Augustus and the inauguration of the autocratic emperor system.
Seneca refers unfavourably to those who use the Greek idea of ‘parrhesia’, that is free and critical public speaking, to excess, going against what had been taken as central to the liberty of citizens. The reason Seneca can be placed in the liberty tradition is that even when criticising excess in free speech, he praises a Macedonian-Greek king on the receiving end for the restraint of his reaction. Living in an age of absolute rulers, Seneca’s main concern is that they rule as the foundation of individual rights rather than as a source of arbitrary power over citizens.
The essays on mercy and anger bring together the fields of personal virtue and the best ways of governing. Virtue for Seneca, as was normal for ancient thinkers, was deeply embedded in ideas of self-restraint and moderation. From this point of view anger damages the angry person, as an example of self-harming extreme behaviour. Anger is a negative painful state of mind and to act under its influence leads to great harm.
Seneca is not simply saying that a ruler should follow general moral virtue in the manner of ruling. He places a particular responsibility on the ruler to resist anger and show mercy. The individual may harbour resentment against some enemy who caused harm, but the ruler must avoid such resentment. The ruler who publishes and executes all those regarded with suspicion as present or future enemies harms the state and the public good. Harsh treatment of individuals by rulers leads to those individuals becoming angry with the ruler so conspiring against that person. Executions will only stimulate further rebellion by those who were closest to the executed and leads to an increasingly violent period of rule. All the violence and revenge has negative consequences for the public good as well as for those persecuted.
The ruler should regard all individuals as part of the state, which he should be trying to manage responsibly. The state is harmed if any individual within the state is harmed, as the state exists to promote the public good. The ruler who cannot restrain desires for cruelty and who ignores the rights of individuals is suffering from a self-harming weakness of character and is likely to suffer violent revenge. Seneca mentions the third Roman Emperor, Caligula, in this context, who was assassinated in 41CE, four years after succeeding Tiberius.
The best thing the ruler can do is show mercy. Those who receive mercy, even after plotting assassination, are likely to start supporting the ruler, and even work for the ruler. It is better to forgive and try to integrate a conspirator than kill the conspirator so that others will wish to avenge that murder. The ruler should obey laws as much as ordinary citizens, and should be mild in applying laws. Everyone is guilty of some fault, of some minor breach of law, at some time, so that punishing all wrong-doers will lead to the destruction of a society, as nearly all inhabitants of the territory of the state disappear.
While Seneca assumes that political power rests with one person, he argues that the continuing exercise of the power rests both on reliable justice with regard to the execution of laws and restraint from the most extreme or obsessive punishment. The powers of the state are understood as different from those of an individual, and as such must be much more limited in use than the power of citizens. The rights and welfare of citizens depend on a ruler who follows law and assumes less power than individuals, which makes a worthy contribution to thought about liberty.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a prominent lawyer, politician, and thinker in the last years of the Roman Republic. His death was a murder in revenge for his attacks on Marcus Antonius (known in English as Mark Anthony), in the form of a speech in the Senate against tyranny known as the First Philippic. It is known as the Philippic in tribute to the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC), which attacked the tyranny of Philipp II of Macedon over Athens and the other Greek city states.
The background to this is that the Roman Republic had been falling into the hands of military strong men for some time, who stretched the institutions and laws of the republic in order to exercise supreme power. Gaius Julius Caesar was the last in this sequence. After his conquest of Gaul (France) he taken supreme power in Rome out of a mixture extreme drive for power and as a protective measure against enemies after the lost the immunity associated with the governor’s post he had during his war of expansion.
After winning a way against his most important rival, Caesar offered mercy to previous opponents allowing them to be influential in Rome. However, Caesar was increasingly looking like a new king, a hated office in Rome, and the political system was designed to prevent any one person having complete power except for a short period in exceptional circumstnces. Caesar used this office of dictator, originally designed to offer emergency powers to a general during a time of military crisis for no more than six months, to become the permanent absolute ruler of Rome. He publicly rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Anthony, but was suspected of waiting for the right moment to proclaim himself king.
A conspiracy developed against Caesar amongst aristocrats who wished to preserve republican practices in which no one man could dominate Rome, so that power was shared between the aristocracy, with some influence granted to the common people. Cicero was a not a member of the conspiracy, but approved of its action against Caesar, which was led by Cicero’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus. It is highly pertinent to Cicero’s vision of the republic that Brutus was, or appeared to be, the descendent of the Marcus Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last King of Rome in the early years of the sixth century BCE.
The conspiracy against Caesar resulted in his assassination by a group of senators in 44 BCE. However, the assassins were not able to take over Rome and moved to eastern Mediterranean parts of the Roman lands to raise forces and organise for a war against Caesar’s followers. After the assassination Caesar’s friend and colleague, mark Anthony allied with an 18 year old nephew of Caesar, who was his legal heir. The boy became the Emperor Augustus. The rest of the story would go beyond the limits of this post, so it will enough for now just to mention that Mark Anthony took power in the city of Rome, leading to the murder of Cicero, while the future Augustus built up a position which enabled him to become the political successor to Caesar, not Mark Anthony.
Mark Anthony is reported to have ordered Cicero’s hands to be removed during the assassination and nailed to the door of the Senate house, in a tribute of a kind to the power of an eloquent speaker arguing for liberty and demonstrating liberty in the act of speaking, using his hands as ancients did in a rhetorically guided way as a major part of emphasising points. Though after the First Philippic the likelihood of violent retribution from Mark Anthony led Cicero to confine himself to writing further Philippics that were not read out in the Senate.
Cicero had previously served as consul (one of two officers of the Republic who shared the powers of a king for one year), the governor of Cilicia (modern day Adana in Turkey), and other offices. His political career included some very rough measures to defend the republic against what he thought of as existential danger and we should not turn Cicero into defender of pure constitutionalism and law in life, as well as in his writings. His writings do suggest a strong wish to live under laws rigorously enforced, and it has to be conceded that it was practically impossible to participate in politics at that time without being party to some very rough actions.
Cicero’s writings are not merely an important moment in antique thinking about liberty, but a major event in the linguistic and conceptual translation of Greek philosophy into Latin. Cicero’s Latin became the model for educated Latin style and usage under the Empire. His influence as a Latin stylist, thinker, and republican, was important on many generations of the more educated members of the aristocracy and the upper classes in Europe into the 19th century, because of the centrality of Latin to elite education.
Cicero wrote a number of texts concerned with liberty apart from On the Republic, including On the Laws, On Duties as well as various texts about oratory, letters and speeches. Online versions of On the Republic can be found here and here. The book connects with the issue of the apparent lineage of Brutus the assassin of Caesar going back to Brutus overthrower of monarchy, because it emphasises tradition. Laws are understood to be good if coming from venerable custom and that reinforced the arguments for a Senate connected with the Roman past through the ancestry emphasised by the aristocracy. Cicero was himself from a provincial family that had recently became rich, but felt that the connections of many other Senators with the deep Roman past was very valuable.
The aristocracy, organised politically in the Senate, provides the real heart of Cicero’s ideal republic as it provides a means of government midway between the disorder of democracy and the tyranny of one man rule. The people should have a share in the political system, but one constrained to prevent imbalances arising. Monarchy existed in the Roman republic, in the form the consuls who shared power for two years. Democracy existed in the role of citizen assemblies and tribunes who had veto powers and were elected by the lower classes as a guarantee of their rights.
Cicero saw the benefits of aristocratic power as a so great that except where the people had become unusually virtuous it is a good thing for the aristocracy to be able the how the lower classes voted, so that patrons could influence the votes of those who depended on them financially. This could be seen as very self-interested on the part of Cicero since he was a member of the aristocracy, but also fits in with his argument about the importance of avoiding the bad government of individuals with absolute power and of disorderly democratic assemblies. Both extremes are bad for a republic.
Cicero was certainly very horrified by the idea of a tyrant, suggesting that such people were vicious beasts and enemies of humanity. Unfortunately, like the other ancient thinkers, it just seemed obvious to him that Romans were a free people not worthy of slavery, while other peoples were worthy only of slavery. Roman readiness for liberty was based on customs and traditions that endured over the centuries. Cicero’s vision of law was as the outcome of virtue cultivated over over centuries. Laws were based on what could be found in customs so reducing the chances of laws appearing that impinged on the rights of any citizen.
Cicero’s understanding of law, custom, rights, and virtue was rooted in Roman history, in which he thought the early Roman kings Romulus and Numa, had built the institutions needed by a republic concerned with respect for a divine sanction underlying laws. Cicero probably did not believe in the standard Roman paganism, but evidently thought it suitable for making the laws as respected as possible. Cicero’s view of virtue also led him to favour a republic not too open to trade and other forms of connection with the outside world. He thought that Rome’s position on a river rather than the sea was ideal for keeping foreign influences down to an acceptable level. Carthage, Rome’s old enemy in what is now Tunisia, was less blessed in that it was a city on the sea and had been dominated by trade.
Cicero’s suspicions of trade and cosmopolitan interaction was regrettable, but was part of the antique way of thinking in which individual liberty in a city rested on virtue, state enforcement of public behaviour, as was the responsibility of Roman ‘censors’, and detachment from money making activities. Liberty could only fully existed where an aristocracy accustomed to self restraint dominated institutions in which the recklessness of the lower classes and the greed of those trying to rise up could be held down.
It was difficult for Cicero to imagine strong laws and institutions, as able to guarantee liberty, except in a society where the rapid innovations and changes of trade and commerce were sufficiently dampened to allow the old to remain in place. There are modern problems in integrating effective laws and institutions with change and variety, and no one had an obviously better idea of how find a balance than Cicero did in antiquity.
This historically-based exploration of writing on liberty now reaches the point where the Greek world has fallen under the domination of Rome, but even at this point we can see that the Greek language and heritage will continue to be important in a Roman dominated Mediterranean, particularly in the eastern parts, leaving the legacy of the Christian Gospels in Greek, the fifth and sixth century CE transformation of the eastern Roman Empire into a Greek Empire, still known to itself as Rome, but to us as Byzantium. In Polybius we see the beginning of a history of major writing in Greek within the Roman world, which continued through many areas of thought, producing major classics at least up until the philosophy of Plotinus in the third century CE. The founding figure of the Byzantine system, the Emperor Justinian took Christian teachings to the extreme of closing the Academy of Athens in the sixth century, and that is a convenient marker of the end of the greatness of ancient Greek writing and thought. Of course all such markers are arbitrary and the antique Greek tradition did not abruptly vanish at that moment, and the writing of the last Athenian philosophers had a very different context from that of original Athenian classicism and even more so from earlier Greek thought.
Polybius’ Histories may contain the last important work of political thought in ancient Greek, though such claims are always up for debate. He was born in about 200 BCE in Megalopolis in the central part of the Peloponnesus, that is the southern land mass of mainland Greece. The Greek city states had previously lost full independence to the hegemony of Macedonia. Roman expansion provided both an alternative to Macedonian rule and subordination to a new hegemonic power. The Achaean League had allied Megalopolis and other southern Greek states at a time of renewed independence from Macedonia. However, the complications of continuing competition between the Greek city states, along with trying to play Macedonia and Rome off against each other, ended with absorption into the Roman state system expanding outside of Italy.
These political complexities led to Polybius becoming one of the hostages taken to Rome to ensure the adherence of the Achaean League to an alliance. Polybius was an aristocratic politician and general who served the Roman need for hostages who would tie the elite to Rome. Polybius could have left Rome long before his death, but became a friend of leading citizens and an admirer of the Republic, so stayed in Italy though maybe dying in southern France in 118 BCE. He wrote various books, though all we have left is the Histories, and that is not complete. It is mainly concerned with the Punic Wars, that is the wars between Rome and Carthage, and is one of the main sources for that major event in antique history, which is more than just a war. It was the triumph of one form of republic over another for hegemony in the Mediterranean world. In the end, the Carthaginian Republic was completely destroyed including the city of Carthage itself and Rome changed in nature from a major power in Italy to the dominant power from Anatolia (the major landmass of what is now Turkey) to Spain, from central Europe to north Africa.
The transformation attracted the attention of later writers on liberty, who will appear in later posts. In particular, two great Enlightenment figures Giambattista Vico and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et Montesquieu were centrally concerned with the story as that of a triumph of republican liberty, that of Rome, mingled with a subsequent decline of liberty, and the loss of another model of republican liberty, that of Carthage. The story and the political interpretations were well known over centuries to writers on liberty.
Polybius studied the Punic Wars in depth, using his friendship with the Roman general Scipio and a journey through the Alps where the great Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed into Italy. Within that historical account, in Book VI Polybius embeds an account of the Roman constitutions, itself mingled with a discussion of the Roman military system.
Polybius concluded that Rome had the greatest of all constitutions known to him. His comparisons were with the Greek city states and with Carthage. He admired the Spartan constitution most out of the Greek constitutions, which may surprise many now. However, as a recent post on Aristotle points out, many Greek thinkers were suspicious of Athenian democracy as allowing a kind of mob rule over law and traditional restraints on power. The way Polybius supports that positions is to refer to the limited endurance of Athenian democracy, (defended by Pericles as reported by Thucydides) compared with the more oligarchic, or aristocratic, Spartan republic. Republic is a Latin originated word, which is very close in meaning to the Greek term for a city based on laws, which in modern English becomes polity, so when discussing Rome and Greece together, republic is a useful term.
The idea that Sparta was a better model for a modern republic than Athens, goes up to the Constitution of the United States. The Framers were conscious of the idea that the Athenian republic had failed, because it was too democratic, maybe too much based on the rule of the propertyless majority to be a republic. The United States did not have a citizen assembly like those of ancient Greece, but the Framers thought of the House of Representatives as an equivalent body, to be restrained by an aristocratic-oligarchic body, that is the Senate, along with a monarchical body, that is the President. Senators were nominated by state governments at that time, and the Electoral College to appoint the President was understood much more at that time as a vote for electors who would make up their own mind than as a embellishment in the direct election of the President.
It seems to me that this attempt to replicate ancient Sparta had broken down by the 1830s, or that is certainly what is suggested by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (to be discussed in later post), who suggests that America was already both republic and a democracy on a modern rather than an ancient model. The continuing claim of some in the United States that the country is ‘a republic not a democracy’, therefore seems highly unsatisfactory to me, and I doubt that many who use this slogan have thought about the Sparta above Athens message implied.
Anyway, Polybius’ arguments did influence the deliberations of the Framers, and even though I doubt those deliberations completely captured what a republic must be in a modern commercial society, his arguments are worthy of continuing consideration as thought about laws and institutions can work for liberty.
Polybius admired the way that Sparta balanced powers between different forces, so that though there was a citizen assembly, it largely deferred to a senatorial body, the Gerousia composed of aristocrats along with two other institutions: a monarchy made up of two kings from different royal families, who sat in the Gerousia; five ephors selected for one year, with the power to protect laws, customs, and institutions. This was underpinned by the famously extreme training of male citizens as soldiers, who maintained Spartan citizens as an aristocracy by force in relation to groups that were completely unfree, or who had legal rights, but no citizenship.
The Roman model seems to Polybius to be significantly similar to Sparta, and the differences are to the advantage of Rome, since not only has the Roman system already lasted centuries, but it has supported a far greater spread of military and political power than Sparta, which never extended its territory beyond the Peloponnesus. He sees the Roman system as embedded in the military system, and to a large degree sees military and political systems as embedded. Given the constant war and mobilisation of adult male citizens in the ancient world, this is unsurprising, particularly as citizenship rights and political systems were associated with what kind of military there was and which groups provided the most part. The Spartan system reflected the role of Hoplite infantry from the landowner-farmer class, while the Athenian system reflected the role of labourers employed to row naval ships. The Roman republic was a land military power, with different kinds of unit selected from all classes above slave, which fits with Polybius’ vision of republic as a mixed political system.
The Roman mix was a monarchical element of two consuls appointed for a year. The aristocratic-oligarchic element was the senate where the major landowners and state officials sat for life. The democratic element was the city assembly along with the tribunes appointed by that assembly. As with the earlier Greek writers, Polybius associates democracy with the political participation of the propertyless, or nearly propertyless classes of labourers, small traders, and craftsmen.
We may now sympathise with the idea of a system that prevents anyone institution or social groups dominating everything else, turning laws and administration into means of economic plunder. However, liberty advocates now may be less happy with Polybius’ advocacy of a vision of the virtue of citizens, in which military self-sacrifice is at the centre and commercial spirit is dismissed as corrupting. Polybius shares an attitude to be found in Aristotle and most antique writers (there may not be any clear exceptions at all) according to which wealth based on inherited landownership and state service is honourable, while wealth based on production and services for other peoples needs and wants is somehow disgraceful and immoral. This was part of antique suspicion of Athenian democracy which existed in a relatively commercial society, something else to be remembered by those inclined to oppose ‘republic’ to ‘democracy’. The suspicion of democracy and commerce extended to a suspicion of navies as a military instrument compared with land armies. The Romans were not as good sailors as the Carthaginians, because they were less active in trade and commerce. They built a navy against the Carthaginians as a duty and necessity, not by inclination.
Anyway, Polybius compensates for his faults with regard to his limited appreciation of virtue, and therefore of how liberty is exercised, does supply us with an alternative model to Rome, though it is sadly lacking in detail. Polybius concedes that Carthage had a great republican constitution worthy of comparisons with Rome and Sparta, along with the other Greek cities. For Polybius, the Carthaginian constitution must be inferior to those of Rome and Sparta, because it was a society of commerce, sea trade, and a navy to protect those activities. We may think something different and look to Carthage as an important model, where the commercial capacity was so great Rome feared to allow the Carthaginian city and republic to exist even after victory in two major wars. There is less we can say about Carthage than Rome, but we know that it balanced a citizen assembly with a political and military aristocracy, and that the people prospered from a spirit of commercial liberty as well as political liberty.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French writer on various but related topics of power, knowledge, discourse, history of thought, ethics, politics, and so on. His name to some summons negative associations of French intellectual fashion, incomprehensibility, and refinements of Marxist anti-liberty positions.
However, his influence in various fields has become too lasting, and too much taken up by people who do not fit into the categories just mentioned, for such reactions to be considered adequate. Foucault himself resisted and mocked labels, which was a serious issue for him because in his work he tried to question the absolute authority of any one system of knowledge and the authority of isolated great thinkers.
He said that once he had written something it was no longer what he thought, which is in part a playful attempt to resist labelling, but also a rather serious point deeply embedded in his thought, about the nature of subjectivity, how it is always more than what we say or more than the identity that power relations impose on us.
It seems to me that any ethics of subjectivity has pro-liberty implications, and despite the image some might have of Foucault as morally irresponsible or indifferent, he increasing developed the idea of self-invented subjectivity, based on care of the self, the art of existence, and related terms.
The self-invention does not mean that Foucault thought we can arbitrarily will our self to be anything, it does mean that he thought we have possibilities to cultivate ourselves to live in a way that relates to, and challenges our existing strengths and goals.
Despite the image for some of intellectual fashion round Foucault, these ideas were partly developed through study of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about ethics and style of living, which included interaction with scholars in the field.
Another theme he developed through his interests in antique knowledge and culture was that of ‘parrhesia’, Greek word that refers to free speaking, which in the context of ancient city states, particularly the Athenian democracy, had strong overtones of courage in truth telling before the city assembly, a prince of any other source of power.
The ethic of truth telling relates to Foucault’s own work on the language of knowledge and the history of science, as well his political ideas. He did not believe in absolute final systems of knowledge, autonomous of context, but he did believe that trying to find truths within whatever perspectives was an ethical enterprise connected with the kind of self cultivation he advocated.
Foucault’s own father had been a doctor and on at least one occasion Foucault suggested his own work was a continuation of the doctors work that evidently combines ethical and scientific aspects. It must also be said that Foucault was a great critic of the authority of experts, including doctors, so he might also be seen as struggling with the memory of his father.
The ambiguity and the personal involvement in ideas suggested there is very much at work throughout Foucault’s writing, in its tension and energy. It is part of his ‘difficulty’, which also comes from the philosophical and literary interests he had, which relate to the creative possibilities of linguistic disruption. We can see that in the most obvious way when he quotes literary texts of Borges, Beckett and so on.
The existential commitments in Foucault’s work is clear if we think about the book that made him famous, History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), and his personal experience of mental ill health and psychiatric treatment, particularly in his student years.
We can also think about his constant critique of power and his individual willingness to physically confront power, as in the beatings he received from the police at demonstrations for rights in both France and in Tunisia (where he taught for a few years just after becoming a celebrity public intellectual in France).
Returning to the topic of experts and power, one of Foucault’s most pervasive ideas now is of ‘biopolitics’, that is the way that power expresses itself through prolongation of life. As the state has moved from a basis in the power of death over criminals and other supposed enemies, to a promotion of population, public health, and prolongation of life, it has demanded corresponding powers of intervention and control.
At the extreme this means the ‘racial hygiene’ ideas that German National Socialists used to justify the Holocaust, and in a more routine way means expanding state activity justified by public health goals. We can readily see the contemporary significance of Foucault’s ideas here in relation to ever expanding state and ‘expert’ attempts to limit smoking, drinking alcohol and supersized fizzy drinks, eating sugary and fatty foods, and so on.
The ideas about biopolitics builds on the discussion of modern power in maybe his most widely read book, Discipline and Punish, which deals with the way that the prison becomes the central means of punishment after the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and suggests the dangers of Enlightenment becoming a controlling form of rationalism.
The way the prison works, around observation, or surveillance, of prisoners to ensure adherence to prison routine was the model of modern power for Foucault including factories, schools, and armies, in a model of ‘disciplinarily’. Again Foucault’s intellectual interests correspond with life commitments, as he was a prominent campaigner for prisoner rights, under the inspiration of the man with whom he shared his life, the academic sociologist Daniel Defert.
Foucault’s analyses in Discipline and Punish, and related material, draw on the ‘classical sociology’ of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber with regard to norms and authority, as his views on the emergence of the modern state draw heavily on the ‘pre-sociology’ to be found in the historical and social work of the classical liberal thinkers Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.
There is some drawing on Marx, but one should be wary of those left socialist inclined advocates of Foucault who emphasise this strongly, since they don’t mention the other points of orientation so much. The same applies to remarks Foucault made about the importance of the twentieth century Marxist theory of the Frankfurt School, as those who emphasise such remarks ignore accompanying remarks about the importance of Max Weber and ‘Neoliberalism’ (i.e. classical liberal and libertarian thought since the Austrian Liberal school of Menger, Hayek, Mises etc).
Strange as it might seem, Foucault suggests we take Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism together as attempts to explore liberty and power. Maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange, however awful the consequences of Marxist ideas coming in power have been, that does not mean we should ignore Marx and Marxism, which starts by drawing heavily on classical liberalism and does have some noteworthy things to say about constraints on liberty in a capitalist society, even if offering bad solutions.
Certainly Foucault is not your man if you think a pro-liberty position means uncritical embrace of the links between private enterprise and state power, but since the liberty tradition has in a very significant way been concerned with criticism of rent seeking and crony capitalism, of the drives within capitalism to betray itself, then I don’t think we need to reject Foucault in this area. Indeed it is even a part of the liberty tradition to reject ‘capitalism’ as tied to the state and concentrations of power and argue for markets, property, and association rights liberated from state alliances with economic power.
This is the core of left-libertarianism, and even Foucault’s most Marxist leaning fans would find it hard to deny that left-libertarian is an appropriate label for Foucault. Clearly he was a natural maverick and critic of all power, including state socialist power. I suggest his life, his activism, and his writing, can be taken as an inspiration for all liberty-inclined people. Even on the more conservative side, Foucault’s thoughts about self-cultivation are a version of virtue theory, of an emphasis on cultivating virtue, so Foucault has a lot to offer to all streams of liberty thought.
Those Foucault texts most relevant to political thought about liberty
History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)
Discipline and Punish
History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of Pleasure, The Care of the Self)
(Foucault’s rather early death means that much of his work was in lectures that would have been later revised into published material. The task of bringing those lectures into print is still underway).
The Government of Self and Others
The Birth of Biopolitics
Security, Territory, Population
Hermeneutics of the Subject
Society Must be Defended
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the more influential writers on political thought during the twentieth century. Born in Germany, her political views and Jewish origins (she was also Jewish in identity though not in religion) meant not only that she had to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover, but that she had to escape from Gestapo interrogation. A period in Paris was ended by the 1940 German invasion, which led to another escape from detention, and her final destination of the United States. She was able draw on this direct experience of totalitarianism and antisemitism to write The Origins of Totalitarianism, one of the classic works on this topic, which also considers the role of political anti-Semitism, as distinct from older religious prejudice, in the formation of the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism.
Arendt reached beyond an academic and scholarly audience in her most widely ready book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on her journalistic reporting on the trial of one of the major administrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Though the book did much to draw attention to the extreme horror of Holocaust, and and its history, which strange as it might seem now was not the object of a great deal of public or scholarly discussion in the immediate postwar period, also led Arendt into a morass of angry criticism and even hatred, in part for supposedly trivialising Eichmann’s criminality. However, the point of referring to the ‘banality of evil’ was not to say that the Holocaust was trivial, or to deny Eichmann’s criminality, but to suggest that as a person he was more of a small minded conformist than a grandiose anti-hero of apocalyptic evil.
From the point of view of Arendt’s work in political theory, her writing on the Holocaust and totalitarianism, contributed to her understanding of modern politics in its darkest possibilities, which were distinct from older forms of tyranny. That understanding itself drew on the breadth of her historical approach, including literary and cultural interest, which went back to the Ancient Greek beginnings of western political thought. Her understanding also included the ethical and religious thought of late antiquity, as can be seen in her doctoral dissertation, Love and Saint Augustine. She had a general appreciation of the whole of human life, with regard to consciousness and action, which is behind The Life of the Mind and can be found in some of her political theory, most obviously The Human Condition.
Arendt’s interest and appreciation of ancient politics, particularly the democracy of city state Athens, sometimes leads to her being labelled a nostalgic and a believer in anti-individiualistic integrated communities. This can only be a parody though, Arendt thought that there might be some things to learn about modern politics through comparison with antiquity, but she did not advocate a return, and her interest in antiquity was in those communities like Athens and the Roman Republic, where we can see individualism growing and a decline in community based on adherence to tradition and to communal assumptions.
Arendt thought that the Athenians had achieved liberty of a significant kind for the aristocracy, and to some degree for the lower classes, on a real but limited basis in which some had the leisure to think and argue about the rules and laws of the city state. That form of library rested on ‘heroic’ and patriarchal values according to which the home and family are the place of economic production and therefore the place of necessity.
Liberty was understood with reference to the tradition of heroes going to war or to a more recently evolved habit of widespread public free speech about public affairs. Arendt did not argue for this as the all time ideal, but as a moment with some ideal aspects, which was bound to fail. Partly it failed because law was understood as custom and communal obligation, rather than as concerned with contracts between free individuals. In her historical analysis, the Romans made progress on the legal front, because they saw that law can and should evolve with regard to the best ways of grounding freely chosen contracts, while also failing to maintain political liberty as the republic gave way to Imperial autocracy
Arendt emphasised that the Roman model inspired modern movements for liberty, particularly the French and American Revolutions (the comparison is made in On Revolution). Though she wrote about the motives and early actions of French revolutionaries with great sympathy, she pointed out that it had all ended in revolutionary terror and then country-revolutionary autocracy, so that the American Revolution had created a better model, as shown in the long lasting nature of the Constitution. She both respected that achievement and pointed out that it rested on assumptions about the dominance of a land owning class, so that it could not in itself provide all the answers for modern liberty, even it established an enduring framework, which survived major shifts in the location of economic wealth and the sources of political power.
For Arendt, the modern capitalist world undermined the idea of a strict separation between a private realm of economic production, based on family ownership and use of land, as economic activity became what happened in factories and other enterprises, with regard to national and world markets. The social-cultural result was an undermining of the antique assumption that intellectual life is superior to, and dominant over, physical activity and economic life. It also resulted in states that seemed more remote from traditional forms of allegiance and everyday customs, because the state became increasingly something concerned with legislative and administrative activity that aimed to enable production and trade, so for the first time establishing the state as something that aims to constantly elevate material wealth and ‘national welfare’. Arendt, in this way, argues that commercial society tends to create its own statist reaction.
Arendt equivocated to some degree about whether capitalism was to be preferred to socialism, but in political writing emphasised enhancing individuality and a spirit of competition and that can only be seen as directed against the expanding administrative state, particularly as she argued for more separation between political questions and social welfare questions. She looked for ways in which modern political participation could focus on the best parts of the antique legacy: public speech focused on the conditions of liberty rather than on expanding state activity, contests for esteem in the public sphere rather than levelling down egalitarianism. Perhaps her equivocation about socialism can be seen as leaving the way open for ‘socialism’ as defined by left libertarians, markets without a state that promotes politically inspired concentrations of wealth and power. She was certainly a prominent critic of Soviet style state socialism.
Arendt had a grasp based in rather classically oriented political theory, of how capitalism tends to produce statist reactions to itself, which parallels the more political economy and economics oriented work of Austrian economics and Virginia Public Choice theory on the rise of the administrative state and rent seeking. Together with her interests in how to avoid antique tyranny and modern totalitarianism, this makes her a great twentieth century pro-liberty voice, particularly for those interested in the historical, psychological, moral, and literary aspects of political thinking.
All of Arendt’s major contributions to political thought are mentioned above. A good starting point for those new to Arendt might be the essays collected in Between Past and Future or The Promise of Politics.
For my first post, I’ll pick up on the bio under ‘About the Notewriters’ and start to address the issue of what kind of texts I find most valuable with regard to thinking about liberty, though there are other reasons for selecting those texts, in particular I favour the kind of texts which are deeply embedded in literature, culture, and history. It is not an either/or situation with regard to whether one prefers the alternative canon here or more standard canons in introductions to liberty, and the like, but I think there are good reasons for paying more attention to the suggested texts, which apply to individual toms of engagement, and more institutional ways in which groups promote liberty.
My own personal ‘canon’, apart from my favourites among the more obvious liberty oriented thinkers, includes Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), and Michel Foucault (1926-1984). If anyone is disturbed by the inclusion of any of these figures, I hope they will be less so by the end of the series of posts I am now starting on these figures.
I suppose that Montaigne is the least controversial inclusion, but nevertheless I have not seen a great deal of liberty oriented writing devoted to him. The word ‘canon’ is itself necessary when talking about what texts and writers count the most, but let us beware of any idea that there is a self-evident canon, rather than a variable canon, or canons, constructed from the shifting aggregations and interactions of the preferences of many individuals concerned with liberty.
Let us start at the beginning of the list in this post with Machiavelli, traditionally condemned to the extent of being identified with the devil, and often seen as the arch-apologist for the cynical use and abuse of power, so as to promote state authority without regard to individual rights. A more favourable variation on this is to see the exposure of cynicism in politics as a justification for an anti-political streak of liberty oriented political thought.
On this last point, the anti-political position is really the opposite of the truth about Machiavelli, since he was very rooted in an antique republicanism for which human flourishing includes politically active citizenship, or at least living in a community where many are pursuing their rights through politics. Machiavelli was very attached in particular to the ancient Roman Republic, which he discusses in some detail in The Discourse on the First Ten Books of Livy, usually just known as The Discourses.
Livy was the Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus, living at the beginning of the period in which one man rule by Emperors had taken over from shared republican government. His massive History of Rome only survives in part, including those books discussed by Machiavelli, which cover the foundation of Rome, the rule of the early kings, the overthrow on monarchy, and the early republic, including its struggles between aristocratic and democratic political forces.
In his commentary, Machiavelli certainly has ‘Machiavellian’ moments in which he welcomes ruthless use of force or manipulation of religious symbols for state purposes. However, these moments are very much concerned with state foundation, changes in political regime particularly to a more liberty based regime, and wars. The reading of ‘auspices’ (pagan interpretation of avian behaviour and the innards of sacrificed birds) is manipulated only when necessary to rouse soldiers in battle.
War is a deeply unpleasant and destructive business and we should all hope we are moving to a world without it, but we do not live in a world free of bad governments, or proto-governments, willing to use force to extinguish liberty in other states as well as within their own. Machiavelli certainly did not and nether did Livy. The use of some psychological manipulation to raise military morale in the heat of battle is not the last word in tyranny. The foundation of states, including those most inclined to liberty, law and peace, and the overthrow of tyrannical regimes has largely happened by force. This certainly applies to the foundation of the United States.
Machiavelli’s view of republics is that they are strongest, and most resistant to the return of tyranny, where the citizen body are motivated to defend their rights in the public political sphere, and that an unruly rambunctious democracy is the antidote to feudal oligarchy as well as one person tyranny. This is surely a powerful argument against anti-politics, which risks leaving liberty advocates unable to participate in the political process in order to resist tyranny. We can certainly find that argument in the conventional heroes of thought about liberty like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Locke. Despite his willingness to excuse extremes of force and deception in certain situations of necessity for survival, Machiavelli is overall and overwhelmingly an advocate of the rule of law, and recommends republican government, partly on the basis that it is more favourable to the universal enforcement of law than the more personalised and arbitrary attitude to law arising from monarchy.
Sometime Machiavelli’s Discourses are divided from his most famous work, The Prince on the grounds that the latter text just is a cynical manifesto to obtain favour from the Medici rulers of Florence. However, careful reading will show many ways in which Machiavelli argues for the limitation of the power of a prince, and of the state in general. Again law is regarded with the utmost favour and respect, so that, for example, France is praised at least a couple of times for the many laws and legal institutions built up during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, in implicit contrast with Italian princely states.
Again force and deception are advocated where necessary, but only where necessary and in strictly limited terms. It is said that the prince should use force like a lion and deception like a fox, and that to be feared is better to be loved. However, the force, deception, and ‘fear’ is oriented towards the stabilisation of institutions of law, followed by the regular enforcement of laws, and Machiavelli places limits on how far the force, deception, and fear can go . The unloved prince is unloved, because he does not attempt to bribe the people with money raised through taxes on them, and does not bankrupt the state with unfunded ‘generosity’. We can surely all agree that liberty would be better preserved if contemporary governments followed such maxims.
Machiavelli recommends that a prince should avoid contempt through showing respect for the property of subjects and the honour of women, that is the prince should not use state power to seize property, or sexually abuse women. In general the prince should be mostly concerned with the art of war, which is really a way of trying to nudge princes into accepting the de facto republics that will arise if monarchs if they limit their powers and activities to defence of national sovereignty.
In his views on the proper limits of state power and the consequences of over extension, Machiavelli is a forerunner of public choice theory, one of the major aspects of recent liberty oriented social science, and like James Buchanan he had a strong belief in democracy, where it is concerned with laws that apply equally to all, and is to opposed the extension of state activity beyond strictly defined public goods.
I would say that Machiavelli is a great lover of liberty and though there is an increasing amount of good scholarship and commentary on his thought, the lingering associations around his name still create problems in the proper appreciation of his thought. There is a streak in the liberty community of suspicion of politics and of suspicion of any state action even in emergency situations, outside the strictest legal supervision. There are some good impulses behind those suspicions, which I welcome, but taken to the extreme they would have prevented the formation of the United States or the Swiss Confederation, the Glorious Revolution in Britain, or any of the historical republics which explored the possibilities of liberty. Leaving aside such purism, I don’t see anything disturbing in Machiavelli beyond a taste for presenting brutal realities for what they are. Even the most pure and fastidious of min-archists, and individualist anarchists, should at least find some value in Machiavelli’s analyses and his impulses towards liberty under law.