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The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought

The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought

by Quentin Skinner (Editor), Nelson Eric, Eric Nelson

Tracing the influence of ancient Greek sources on the development of republican theory in Europe and America, this book argues that an important tradition of republican thought, derived from the central texts of Greek moral and political philosophy, emerged in sixteenth century England. It contributed significantly to the ideological framework of the English Civil


Tracing the influence of ancient Greek sources on the development of republican theory in Europe and America, this book argues that an important tradition of republican thought, derived from the central texts of Greek moral and political philosophy, emerged in sixteenth century England. It contributed significantly to the ideological framework of the English Civil Wars and the American Revolution. Eric Nelson offers significant reinterpretations of several central texts of European political theory, as well as a radical reappraisal of ancient Roman historiography.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...interesting and provocative...Nelson argues that we need to be aware of the complexity of the republican tradition, and this book goes a long way toward satisfying that goal." J.L. Miller, SUNY College at New Paltz, Choice

Product Details

Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
Ideas in Context Series , #69
Product dimensions:
5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.71(d)

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The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought
Cambridge University Press
0521835453 - The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought - by Eric Nelson


When Cicero observed in De legibus that Plato, "the most learned of men and the greatest of all philosophers," had written a book "on the republic" (de republica), he was bearing witness to a quiet revolution.1 Aristotle had called his master's dialogue the "Politeia" (Πολιτɛία),2 employing a Greek term which could mean "citizenship," "constitution," "government," or, more generally, "way of life." Centuries later, Plato's editor Thrasyllus added the now customary subtitle, "On Justice" (πɛρὶ δικαίου).3 Cicero himself had called the dialogue "Politeia" earlier in his career, preferring simply to transliterate Plato's Greek into the Latin alphabet, rather than to search for a Latin analogue.4 But in this passage from De legibus Cicero takes a fateful step; his rendering of "politeia" as "respublica" is not so much translation as authorization. Plato's dialogue is no longer a mere entertainment for the Roman erudite, a treatise written in Greek by a Greek author about a uniquely Greek political arrangement. It emerges instead as a text about the respublica, the constituent unit of Roman political life, and accordingly invites careful scrutiny by theorists interested in discovering the optimus reipublicae status, the best state of a republic.5 With one innocuous gesture, Cicero brands Plato as a republican, ensuring that for the next two millennia important political theorists would derive their view of the "republic" from a Greek philosopher who had never even heard the term.

Plato's assimilation to the republican tradition will, however, only be regarded as a watershed event if Greek and Roman political theory are seen to offer substantially different perspectives on the nature of the commonwealth. If Plato says much the same thing as Cicero, then his designation as an authority on "republics" should make little practical difference in the history of political thought. While it may seem on the face of it implausible that two men separated from each other by language, culture, and the span of three centuries should emerge with basically identical political theories (even if, as in this case, one has influenced the other), the argument for the fundamental unity of Greek and Roman political thought has recently acquired substantial scholarly support. Straussian scholars have long contended that the central pivot of Western intellectual history is that between the "ancients" and the "moderns," and that, accordingly, the classical authors were in substantial agreement on all essential points.6 But scholars of "classical republicanism" too have increasingly found themselves committed to a similar conflation of Greece and Rome. After all, if republicanism is "classical" in any meaningful sense, then it must represent a coherent Graeco-Roman inheritance.

The argument that this is the case is chiefly associated with the work of Zera Fink and J. G. A. Pocock. Fink's study The Classical Republicans, first published in 1945, described the anti-monarchical authors of the English Civil War and Interregnum as heirs to a tradition of thought, stretching from Aristotle to Cicero, which advocated a "mixed constitution" as the only means of bringing permanence to otherwise transitory political arrangements.7 Yet Fink's analysis, while path-breaking, neglected to ask whether, within this tradition of thought, there was any unanimity as to the moral and philosophical reasons one might have for preferring a mixed regime. Pocock attempted to address this objection in The Machiavellian Moment (1975), his magisterial survey of Florentine and Anglo-American republicanism. While he followed Fink in locating the source of the republican tradition in a defense of mixed constitutions, he explicitly argued that this advocacy of mixed regimes should be regarded as an expression of Aristotelian moral and political philosophy. In his crucial third chapter Pocock defended this thesis by providing a reading of Aristotle's Politics: on this account, Aristotle's polis fulfills human nature by allowing the exercise of virtue, and is best ordered when each citizen is able to exercise his own particular virtue in its governance.8 Accordingly, Pocock continues, within Aristotle's sixfold classification of constitutions, "polity" is identified as the best, since, as a "mixture" of the two predominant regimes (i.e. the rule of the few and the rule of the many), it allows all political classes to participate in governance in a fashion commensurate with their natures.

It is at this point that Pocock, like Fink before him, turns to Polybius. A Greek writing for a Roman audience in the second century BCE, Polybius devoted the sixth book of his Histories to an analysis of the different possible constitutions and the causes of revolution. He accepts the six-fold classification found in Aristotle, and argues that each pure constitution first degenerates into its corrupt counterpart and then yields another pure constitution in an endless cycle of change and disruption (ἀνακύκλωσις).9 Although Polybius maintains that revolution is ultimately inevitable, he claims that it can be significantly delayed by the introduction of a mixed regime - one infused with "all the good and distinctive features of the best governments, so that none of the principles should grow unduly and be perverted into its allied evil."10 In Pocock's analysis, Aristotle's ethical case for the mixed constitution, when wedded to the Polybian proposition that only mixed constitutions protect states from the ravages of continual revolution, yielded the philosophical framework of republican discourse from Cicero to Milton, and from Machiavelli to Harrington.11

Although brilliant and daring, this account faces a number of difficulties. An argument in favor of a mixed constitution, for example, need not be Aristotelian; and Pocock's suggestion that cinquecento authors such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini were committed to Aristotle's political teleology is difficult to sustain.12 But perhaps The Machiavellian Moment's most serious shortcoming is its assumption that Roman political philosophy was a straightforward off-shoot of the Aristotelian-Polybian synthesis, and that, as a result, early-modern theorists who consulted Aristotle would emerge with an account of political life identical in all important respects to the one they would have found in Cicero or Livy. In other words, Pocock and his followers err in assuming that there is a "republicanism" which is "classical." The present study, in contrast, assumes that Greek and Roman political theory were substantially different from one another, making it highly unlikely that the induction of Plato and Aristotle into the "republican" canon should have yielded a single, synthetic Graeco-Roman political theory. But what essentially separates Plato from Sallust, Aristotle from Justinian? The hint of an intriguing answer is to be found in an improbable source: Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of world history.

Although admired for their philosophical grandeur, Hegel's lectures have notoriously failed to win the respect of historians. Indeed, it is a commonplace that historiography developed in its recognizably "modern" form, through the writings of Niebuhr and Ranke, largely as a reaction against the kind of historical idealism championed by Hegel (through which, as Nietzsche put it, he arrived at the notion that "the apex and culmination of the world process coincided with his own existence in Berlin").13 Much of this censure is justified, but nonetheless Hegel's analysis of the transition from the "Greek" to the "Roman World" in The Philosophy of History contains a remarkable insight. Hegel sets himself the task of studying "universal history," the process through which Freedom (Freiheit) ultimately realizes itself in the union of universal and particular, the subjective and the objective. This union, for Hegel, occurs finally in the modern state, where each particular individual is conscious both of his subjectivity and the fact that he wills the universal (i.e. the universal is then no longer seen as something "external"). The journey begins in the "Oriental World" (Die orientalische Welt), where the subjective ("disposition, Conscience, formal Freedom") is not yet recognized, and government exists as the arbitrary will of a single man whose persona is assimilated to an all-powerful, external, prescriptive force.14 In the "Greek World" (Die griechische Welt), however, subjectivity begins to make itself felt.

The Greeks are surrounded by a heterogeneous environment which gives them the consciousness of diversity and, as a result, "throws them back upon their inner spirit."15 They find their Geist awakened by natural stimuli, and they express their subjectivity by acting upon those stimuli (hence Hegel argues that their "Spirit" is not yet truly free, since it requires external stimulation to call it into action).16 The Greek spirit, then, is "artistic," in that, like the artist, it expresses its subjectivity in modifying the natural. The Greeks first exert their subjective agency on their bodies, producing what Hegel calls the "subjective work of art," and then create deities who are "objectively beautiful" (the "objective work of art"). The union of these is the "political work of art" (Das politische Kunstwerk), the state conceived of not as an abstract universal as opposed to concrete particulars, but rather as an objectively beautiful whole of which each individual is an organic part: it is "a living, universal Spirit, but which is at the same time the self-conscious Spirit of the individuals composing the community."17 The Greeks, for Hegel, were not conscious of an external universal, and, as a result, did not discover particularity (they are "unconscious of particular interests").18 It is, in short, in the Greek world "that the advancing Spirit makes itself the content of its volition and its knowledge; but in such a way that State, Family, Law, Religion, are at the same time objects aimed at by individuality, while the latter is individuality only in virtue of those aims."19

The transition from the Greek to the "Roman World" (Die römische Welt) results from the Greek discovery of reflection and particularity. Indeed, in The Philosophy of Right, Hegel interprets Plato's Republic as a response to this advent of individual interest. Plato, he writes, "could only cope with the principle of self-subsistent particularity, which in his day had forced its way into Greek ethical life, by setting up in opposition to it his purely substantial state."20 Indeed, Plato "absolutely excluded it [i.e. particularity] from his state, even in its very beginnings in private property and the family, as well as in its more mature form as the subjective will, the choice of a social position, and so forth." But Plato could not withstand the force of the advancing Spirit, and Greece duly gave way to Rome. In Rome, Hegel argues, the state was at last conceived of as an abstract universal to which individuals owed obedience: "In Rome, then, we find that free universality, that abstract Freedom, which on the one hand sets an abstract state, a political constitution and power, over concrete individuality; on the other side creates a personality in opposition to that universality."21 Once the universal is discovered, "personality" (its antithesis) comes along with it, "which gives itself reality in the existence of private property." Proprietas thus becomes the central Roman preoccupation. "The administration of government, and political privileges, receive the character of hallowed private property,"22 and marriage itself "bore quite the aspect of a mere contract" which made the wife "part of the husband's property."23

It is a matter of the utmost importance that one of Hegel's chief examples of the clash between the Greek and Roman spirits is the question of agrarian laws.24 He writes that in Rome "the plebeians were practically excluded from almost all the landed property, and the object of the Agrarian Laws was to provide lands for them."25 These measures "excited during every period very great commotions in Rome," which Hegel explains in a fascinating passage:

We must here call special attention to the distinction which exists between the Roman, the Greek, and our own circumstances. Our civil society rests on other principles, and in it such measures are not necessary. Spartans and Athenians, who had not arrived at such an abstract idea of the State as was so tenaciously held by the Romans, did not trouble themselves with abstract rights, but simply desired that the citizens should have the means of subsistence; and they required of the state that it should take care that such should be the case.26

For Hegel, in short, the issue of agrarian legislation highlights a basic incommensurability between Greek and Roman values: the Greeks tended to see the polis as an organic whole, not an abstract universal against which individual rights could be asserted (and they conceived of principles such as "justice" first and foremost as properties of the whole). The Romans, on the other hand, developed the idea of legal personality, and invested the concept of proprietas with immense ideological significance.27 As a result, on Hegel's account, opposition to agrarian laws must be regarded as a distinctively Roman phenomenon. In Greece, the charge of "injustice" brought against these laws simply would not arise.

As an attempt at social and economic history, this analysis is not terribly compelling. To state only its most obvious shortcoming, the Greeks were by no means generically incapable of articulating a case against redistributionism; such opposition was widespread throughout the Greek world in the classical period (Lycurgus, after all, had his eye put out by somebody).28 Nor are we likely to be consoled by Hegel's argument that "if we wish to know what Greece really was, we find the answer in Sophocles and Aristophanes, Thucydides and Plato" because it is in the philosophical counter-culture, rather than the culture itself that "we find the historical expression of what Greek life actually was."29 Yet, as a conceptual reflection on the character of the surviving ancient sources, Hegel's analysis is remarkably astute: the extant Roman historians do indeed bitterly attack the agrarian laws and their sponsors, while the ancient Greek historians of Rome almost uniformly praise them. And, as we shall see, this quarrel over proprietas emerges equally strongly from a comparison of the principal Greek and Roman texts of moral and political philosophy.

One of the benefits of taking Hegel's insight seriously is that it sheds a great deal of light on an interpretation of early-modern republicanism that has been gaining momentum in recent years. In 1955, Hans Baron published his controversial study The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, introducing the English-speaking world to the concept of "civic humanism" (Bürgerhumanismus). Although Baron's claim that "civic humanism" burst suddenly on to the scene around the year 1400 as a result of Florentine anxiety about the growing hegemony of the Visconti has been largely discredited, his argument that Italian republicanism rested on a particular interpretation of Roman history has aged more gracefully. Baron noticed that his "civic humanists" uniformly explained the death of Roman virtue as a consequence of the collapse of the Republic. He points out that, while Dante had consigned Brutus and Cassius "into the maws of Lucifer, side by side with Judas Iscariot"30 in the Inferno, the Florentine republicans of the quattrocento styled Caesar as a tyrant and drew strength from the recently rediscovered first book of Tacitus' Historiae, in which we read that, after Actium, virtue was replaced with fawning subservience.31 Accordingly, Florentine republicans were committed to arguing that Florence was founded by the Romans when Rome was still a republic. They could then interpret Florentine history as the direct outgrowth of Ciceronian virtue and civic spirit.32

Quentin Skinner took Baron's insight as the starting-point for a comprehensive critique of Pocock. The Italian republicans, he argued, did not look to Aristotle for their political principles, but rather to a series of Roman sources which had significantly un-Aristotelian things to say about the principles of political organization. Skinner proceeded to identify a neo-Roman ethical system synthesized out of the Codex of Justinian and the works of Cicero, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus, which provided the framework for the republicanism of the Italian city-states.33 This neo-Roman account defines liberty as a status of non-domination (to be contrasted with slavery), and exalts it as the source of virtue. It insists that virtue encourages justice (iustitia), a quality defined in the Roman Digest as the "constant and perpetual aim of giving each person ius suum"34 and interpreted as an imperative to respect private property.35 For neo-Roman theorists, dedication to justice thus understood allows the cultivation of the common good (commune bonum), which produces concord (concordia) and peace (pax), and enables the state to seek gloria.36 Implicit in all of this is that individuals should reject the contemplative life and embrace the life of civic engagement (vita activa), performing their officia to their friends and family, promoting the glory of their civitas or patria, and securing honor for themselves.37

Hegel's chief insight seems to have been that, at the center of the ideological apparatus Skinner describes, is the Roman concept of proprietas. A republican ideology without this notion would, he realized, look remarkably different. The present study identifies just such an ideology: a view of republican government, accessible from the principal sources of Greek moral philosophy (and quite distinct from Pocock's participatory brand of Aristotelianism), which provided a viable alternative to neo-Roman ideology throughout the early-modern period. Indeed, now that the ideological underpinnings of the neo-Roman account have been identified, we can see how deeply antagonistic they are to Greek ethics. Although Plato and Aristotle produced widely different accounts of political life, they agreed on several propositions which run directly counter to the neo-Roman view just set out. To begin with, neither Plato nor Aristotle particularly values freedom (ἐλɛυθɛρία) as "non-dependence."38 The freedom they value is the condition of living according to nature, and one of their cardinal assumptions is that most individuals cannot be said to be "free" in this sense unless they depend upon their intellectual and moral superiors (if a man ruled by his passions is left to rule himself, then he is enslaved).39 Both also take it as axiomatic that the purpose of civic life is not glory - the irrelevant approval of non-experts - but happiness (ɛὐδαιμονία).40 In Book V of the Republic, Plato states emphatically that "the object on which we fixed our eyes in the establishment of our state was . . . the greatest possible happiness [ɛὐδαιμονία] of the city as a whole,"41 and in Book IX of the Laws he reiterates that the goal of the state is to teach its citizens how to lead a "happy life."42 Aristotle agrees, establishing in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics that "happiness . . . is the End at which all actions aim,"43 and adding in Politics VII that it is "the best state [ἀρίστην], the one that does well, that is happy [ɛὐδαίμονα]."44

© Cambridge University Press

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"...interesting and provocative...Nelson argues that we need to be aware of the complexity of the republican tradition, and this book goes a long way toward satisfying that goal." J.L. Miller, SUNY College at New Paltz, Choice

Meet the Author

Eric Nelson has been a Research Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and is currently a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, Harvard University. This is his first book.

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