Monday, 21 December 2009

Foucault, Virtue, Second Nature, Scepticism

John McDowell suggests that Aristotle’s ethics are a forerunner of second nature in German Idealism, the nature that comes from social existence( Mind and World, Lecture IV, which should be compared with Part I of Mind, Value, and Reality). There is some parallel with what Foucault argues in relation to a style which is not defined by nature, which is not in conformity with every other aspect of the subject’s life. Foucault goes a step further than McDowell in suggesting that the second nature fragments between different styles, and a step further again in arguing the individual second nature self fragments between different parts of existence. There is no unified style for humans and not even a unified style for the individual. There are differences in virtues between individuals and differences between different aspects of the life of an individual. If we think about the famous discussions about the unity of the virtues in Plato, Meno, Euthrypo and so on, we should not take Foucault as a simply reversing Plato’s elevation of the one over the many. In Plato’s account, that would still mean a distinct virtue for every type of individual. There is no such stable list of virtues for individuals or even situations in Foucault; there is always self-invention and choice.

Foucault’s arguments should not be taken as just the affirmation of indeterminacy of choice. There is a point of reference for choice, and that is the truth of the inner agon. The truth is not a pre-given virtue, or character, it is a more living changeable thing. That does not deny any naturalistic, or psychological, discussion of the origins of character, we could put all of this in the strongest neo-Humean naturalistic-psychological deterministic terms. If we do that, we still need to describe what is happening in the style of the self, we would still need to respect the difference between internal causation and external physical compulsion, as Hobbes and Hume did. Not that an argument is being offered here for such strong determinism (the author is inclined towards indeterminist argument for free will), but the question of whether we prefer strong determinism over all the positions allowing some role for freedom of will is not what is at stake here. In naturalistic terms, the styles of the self are the outcome of different natures in different selves, including natures which are changeable. The real issue here is that even if second nature is the deterministic outcome of first nature, that nature still divides between different possibilities in different agents and different possibilities within those agents. There is something exemplary about the agent who contains possibilities and moves between them. That would be the highest virtue, the nearest thing to a cardinal or unifying virtue. That highest virtue would also contain self-mastery in the existence of a sovereign self which creates its own styles of existence. A self which speaks freely from its inner agonistic truth. There are some traces of the right to make promises and the creation of a sovereign agent that Nietzsche deals with in Genealogy of Morality II; as with Nietzsche there is the ambivalence about whether we are offered an ethical ideal or the over socialised product of historical-cultural violence. In Foucault’s case, we should not forget that care of the self ends with Augustinian asceticism.

What Foucault offers is an ethic of inner struggle and social contestation, which tends to come up in the political context explaining why it has not been dealt with here. An ethic of the plurality of life styles, between and within individuals. An ethic of natural humanity opening up every possible way of life in the nature of the social. Foucault’s analysis of the ‘classical age’ (the early modern era) suggests that every possibility has to be realised, as can be seen in Leibniz’ concern with compossibility or de Sade’s wish to enact every desire (The Order of Things). Some of that spirit can be found in Foucault’s ethics, though not in sense of the absolute mastery possessed by God or nature, in the time of the Classical Age.

One thing that Foucault may have omitted from his account of ancient care of the self is the sceptical tradition in the New Academy and the Pyrrhonists through Aenesidemus to Sextus Empiricus. This has its own concern with the care of the self, in seeking a balance between conflicting beliefs. The conflicting sides should both be treated with scepticism, releasing the self from their conflict and from one sided ways of thinking and living. Foucault has often been awarded the label of sceptic or relativist, but does not pick up on the Ancient arguments, in the Sophists, the New Academy, or the Pyrrhonists. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both gave respect to Ancient scepticism above Cartesian scepticism on the grounds that the ancient sceptics lived out their scepticism, it was a philosophy of life. There could be a productive approach to Foucault in working through the relevance of the antique sceptics, together with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Agonism and Virtue in Foucault’s Ethics

I’m looking at Foucault’s work on antique ethics in History of Sexuality, as an agonistic virtue ethics. It is virtue ethics, because it is an ethics of flourishing, in which human excellence is taken as the source of value. It is agonistic, because Foucault himself uses that word to refer to the role of struggle within the self, to command oneself. That struggle is also a struggle with others to have the right to command in a state, but that kind of agonism is only considered in passing, as a political struggle. There is an ethics of egalitarianism in Foucault, which emerges from his consideration of erotic pleasure and the ways that antique thought places erotic pleasure within a care of the self. That care of the self emerges in Plato and is deeply ambivalent. In one part it leads to Christian asceticism, in another part it leads to a sense that pleasure is good but must be regulated from the point of view of reason and health. The kind of virtue ethics in Foucault is also agonistic because it is pluralistic. It is more pluralistic than Swanton’ pluralistic view of virtue ethics. Foucault does does not root virtue in a single human nature, he regards care for self as best expressed in an aesthetics of life, a style of existence which is invented by the individual and is more than what universal categories suggest.

Foucault’s turn to overtly ethical writing in his last years offers a distinct form of virtue ethics. This does not emerge abruptly in his later writings, it is rooted in the earlier fascination with the plurality of forms of knowledge and power. Christine Swanton wrote on a pluralistic view of virtue ethics (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, 2005), and brought in Nietzsche. However, that approach cannot properly capture what is in Nietzsche or Foucault. It is just Foucault who is considered her, the discussion of Nietzsche will take place elsewhere, but it is appropriate to acknowledge here that Nietzsche is both part of the background to Foucault and a different case to Foucault. What Foucault offers is something very distinct for virtue ethics, and the discussion of this contribution has hardly begun yet.

The idea of agon, of struggle, is fundamental to Foucault’s ethics and to his politics. His two most obvious predecessors on this issue are Nietzsche and Machiavelli. Unfortunately he is inclined to take Machiavelli as ‘Machiavellian’ in the familiar sense. He does not seem to notice Machiavelli the Republican idealist behind the cynical rhetoric of The Prince; and Machiavelli the admirer of conflict within a political community, as a strengthening of republican self-government. Foucault does not say a great deal directly about Nietzsche, and does not need to since the connection is well known. His account of ethics and politics in his texts on the Ancient world (History of Sexuality Volumes II & III, Hermeneutics of the Subject, The Government of Self and Others, Fearless Speech), can be taken as formed partly through an implicit transformation of Nietzsche’s view of the master-slave relation in antiquity, as established in the Genealogy of Morality.

The political aspects of Foucault’s writings on antiquity, including his ways of understanding of republican thought is a matter for another place. What is developed here is an approach to the explicit discussion of ethics in Foucault’s thought about antiquity, and the ethical implications of his discussion. In Foucault’s account we can see traces of Nietzsche’s evaluation of master morality as more affirmative than slave morality, but what Foucault is looking at is not Homeric heroes versus Christian saints. It is the ambiguous development of ethical, political, medical and erotic thought from the Athens of Socrates and Aeschylus to the Rome of Augustine. The ambiguity can be found within Plato, which is something that Nietzsche had already implied. Foucault does not use the language of mastery and slave, but amongst other things he refers to self-government and the government of other. The external relation of master and slave is thought of as entwined with an internal relation of self-mastery, again something that can already be found in Nietzsche. The self-mastery is entwined both with government of others and a refusal of government. The Nietzschean elements are certainly not to be taken as a revelation of what Nietzsche really meant, or as a revelation of what he should have said, though Foucault’s implicit use of Nietzsche can certainly be taken as relevant to those questions about Nietzsche.

Here the focus is on ethics in the narrowest possible sense. Foucault does not approach ethics in an isolated way, that is not the way he writes. He is always concerned with a historical phenomenology, or history of discourses, in which political and ethical ideas, along with methodological and epistemological positions emerge rather than appear in fully articulated form; though there are times when he is relatively explicit. Even in the latter cases, the approach is to show rather than say, where discourse has a phenomenological aspect.

That’s a summary of some of what is distinctive in Foucault’s approach. In a less Foucauldian style, there is the question of where Foucault belongs in broad categories of ethical theorising. It’s not the kind of question Foucault asked, but it is the kind of question that needs to be asked about Foucault. As has been noted by Neil Levy

(Levy 2004), but by remarkably few commentators as a whole, Foucault belongs in virtue theory. That is he is concerned with the cultivation of the kind of self which is ethically desirable, rather than with consequences of actions and rules, or the following of rules, or the grasp of moral intuitions. Virtue theory is something largely defined with regard to the antique authors Foucault is discussing: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics. His approach has some distance, but accepts essential aspects of virtue theory. In a general definition, Foucault belongs to virtue ethics in the same way that Nietzsche does, as noted by Christine Swanton for example. There are ways in which Nietzsche deviates from antique virtue ethics, and so does Foucault. Nietzsche’s deviation can be explored elsewhere, though it does provide a precedent for the agonism in Foucault’s virtue theory.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Foucault: Genealogy, Hermeneutics, Ethics, Sexuality

Looking at History of Sexuality II (The Use of Pleasure) and III (The Care of the Self), as I have been over the last few weeks, I need to modify something I posted on 10th December about Foucault’s use of the term ‘hermeneutic’. I said that it is not really correct to label the ’82 to ’83 lectures at the Collège de France, as ‘hermeneutics of the subject, because those lectures deal with the Ancient world, its ethics and sexuality, as does History of Sexuality II & III. The hermeneutics of the self properly speaking belongs to the 19th Century and belongs to the movement from a medicalised-moralised account of sexuality in ‘deviant’ forms to psychoanalysis.

I’m not abandoning that suggestion, but it is also true that in the discussion of the Ancients, Foucault does occasionally refer to hermeneutics, along with ‘subjectivisation’. Both are associated with post-Enlightenment conceptions, but seem to be emerging in the Ancient world, particularly in association with Neo-Stoicism and the Roman Empire. That brings up questions about how Foucault uses ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘subjectivisation’ which I am not ready to address right now, but which I need to at some point.

The ambiguity in the use of the term ‘hermeneutic’ comes from the way that Enpire-Neo-Stoicism are the time of moralised medicalised attitudes to sexuality, foreshadowing the 19th century. At the same time, that era is the time of care of the self, a style of the self which are largely positive terms of Foucault. Though the Empire-Neo Stoicism puts an emphasis on observing monogamy that does not enthuse Foucault, he is positive with regard to an attitude of equality and mutual obligation. This can be traced back to Aristotle as style and care in relation to the self can be traced back to Plato. Ambiguities about distinct periods, what we have is repetition with difference. There may be an attempt to avoid teleology here, but there is teleology inevitably. Foucault cannot avoid a forward looking narrative, but he does disrupt it. This could be part of what he means by genealogy. Of course I could refer to some other Foucault texts on this, but I have not been looking at them recently, and I prefer to leave this post as it is, a reaction at one moment.

Questions remain to be addressed on what genealogy is and what hermeneutics is in Foucault, along with archaeology, the term he put at the centre in the late 60s in Archaeology of Knowledge and Order of Things, and which is still briefly invoked in History of Sexuality.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Me on Mises’ Liberalism at LiberalVision and some supplementary comments

Click here to see my introduction to Ludwig von Mises and summary of Liberalism.

The account of Mises largely avoids what I find most dubious in Mises, apart from a suggestion that he is too harsh on John Stuart Mill’s contribution to liberalism by emphasising his leanings towards socialism over time. As far as I am concerned, Mises makes mistakes just as big. I certainly think anyone with an interest in classical liberal and libertarian ideas should read Mises.

I have not read as much as I need to so far, I would like to tackle his masterpiece on economics, Human Action. It’s rather large and I feel I should accompany with some other reading in the less mathematical parts of economics, which is where Human Action belongs. John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is an obvious point of comparison. Also given that Mises sees sociology and economics belonging together, and quite rightly I believe, I would like to also make a contextual reading of Max Weber’s Economy and Society. Weber and Mises had good personal relations, and there is certainly some interesting looking material around comparing them. However, these three texts individually are all big reading challenges; reading them together is clearly an extreme challenge, and it is very difficult to read so much material in a focused continuous way excluding other research projects.

Returning to Liberalism, some concerns I have which I did not bring up in the LberalVision piece, for reasons of space and because I want to get people who visit that site to read Mises for themselves and make up their own mind. My own blog has different more self-involved purposes than my LV contributions. However, since someone left a comment about how Mises was better than Mill, I did leave a comment about Mises supporting Italian Fascism in the book. Mises argues that Italian Fascism saved civilisation without going into much detail. What I presume he means is that Mussolini’s regime was better than a Communist regime, and that in 1922 when the Fascists first came to power, there was a real chance of a Communist Party take over. Mises was certainly right to argue that the Fascism of 20s Italy was a more mild kind of authoritarianism than the USSR at that time. Nevertheless I find his position perverse. The greatest risk of Bolshevik style revolution in Europe outside Russia was in 1920. The 1922 entry of the Fascists into government with strong support from parts of the traditional elites was certainly partly a result of the destabilisation of liberal democracy by the 1920 turmoil, but the issue was collapse of faith in liberal democracy not an imminent danger of Red terror.

In general Mises had an alarming tendency to support conservative authoritarianism, as can be seen in his close association with Engelbert Dolfuss who abolished parliamentary democracy in Austria.

Before Dollfuss was murdered for his politics, Mises was one of his closest advisers.’

as Hans-Hermann Hoppe wrote for the Mises Institute in 1997.

Hoppe mentions Dollfuss as an opponent of Naziism and omits reference to his destruction of parliamentary democracy and all political opposition in a country which been a democratic republic since 1919. Hoppe represents a side of ‘libertarianism’ I don’t care for at all, an Anarcho-Conservative who prefers monarchy (and it would seem other forms of conservative dictatorship) to democracy. I should emphasise some more liberal democratically minded people who follow Misian economics, Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson, two economic commentators who are very interesting for non-economists, and I strong recommend them. Still there is a side of Mises which leads to Hoppe.

It is certainly to Mises’ credit that he supports equality between the races, open immigration (unlike Hoppe), liberal democracy in politics (unlike Hoppe), and an end to colonialism in Liberalism. Even so, there is quite a lot of chauvinism, mostly directed at Russia. Bolshevism is apparently a consequence of barbarism in Russia, a barbarism lacking in central and western Europe, apparently. Though in that case, one might think it odd that such countries need Mussolini (Mises published Liberalism in 1927, so we’ll put aside events of the 1930s). According to Mises, the great Russian literary figures who preceded Bolshevism were part of this savagery, and were ‘neurotics’ . Mises believed that anyone who was a socialist of any kind was a neurotic, which does not strike me as a high level of argument. And I hardly think that all pre-1917 Russian writers can be dismissed in this way. It’s of course very sad that the two greatest, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were not advocates of liberalism, but to dismiss them as agents of savagery is itself uncultured and unintelligent. There is much to learn about the depth and value of the individual from reading them, something any liberal should appreciate. In any case, at least one great literary figure from that time in Russia had liberal sympathies, Ivan Turgenev.

Mises, someone who is a highly important part of the continuation of the original liberal tradition after what he quite rightly describes as the tendency for liberals to become moderate socialists, an original thinker in economics, and a man of great moral courage; but also highly flawed with regard to reasoned argument, consistency of liberal democratic principles, and nationalistic stereotyping.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Style, Hermeneutics, Speech; Ethics & Politics in Foucault

Some intermediate thoughts on working I’m doing on ethics and politics in Foucault.


Something really obvious struck me earlier today, which is that The Hermeneutics of the Subjects , the book based on the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France in the academic session of 1981-82 (edited after Foucault’s death) is misnamed. It’s a book about what precedes the ‘hermeneutics of the self’, the ‘subject of sexuality’ which we are used to in the modern world. As Foucault says in History of Sexuality:

Putting it schematically, we could say that classical antiquity’s moral reflection concerning the pleasures was not directed toward a codification of acts, nor towards a hermeneutics of the subject, but towards a stylization of attitudes, and an aesthetics of existence.

The History of Sexuality II The Use of Pleasure (92)

On pourrait dire schématiquement que la réflexion morale de l’Antiquité à propos des plaisirs ne s’oriente ni vers une codification des actes ni vers une hérmeneutique du sujet, mais vers une stylisation de l’attitude et une estétique de l’existence.

Histoires de la sexualité II L’usage des plaisirs (125)

In some ways Foucault is advocating a return to the morality of style and aesthetics.

Two mistakes should definitely be avoided here: that Foucault is advocating a nostalgic recreation; that Foucault s obliterating ethics in an aesthetics or stylisation without moral aspects. So

No recreation of ancient society

No stylisation or aesthetics without moral aspects.

There is ‘emergent’ morality as there is in Aristotle’s accounts of ‘action’, ‘habit’ and ‘virtue’/’excellence’. There is not categorial shift from aesthetic to ethical, and ethical to political.

Foucault uses the idea of style against hermeneutics, so that we can learn from the liberty of the Ancients in thinking about the liberty of the moderns. Anyone familiar with liberal thought from the 1740s to the 1790s (Montesquieu, Smith, Constant, Humboldt) might think I am making reference here to the ways that for a few decades these thinkers wrote about ancient republican liberty and modern individualistic liberty, and they would be right That is something I will have to deal with more fully on another occasion, however. But I think that is a useful clue about how the return to the Ancient in Foucault is not a desire for recreation.

In his texts on antiquity, Foucault is concerned with three processes which emerge simultaneously: moralisation of sexuality, the care of the self (tied up with knowledge of the self), the emergence of ‘free speaking’ (parrhesia). The free speaking emerges in tension with speech as rhetoric, in a rather Socratic-Platonic triumph of truth over power, but also a rather anti-Platonist general disruption of language and categories. Foucault partly explains this as the disruption of the ‘performative’ (J.L. Austin referrred to the way in a linguistic act can be an act with consequences in the non-linguistic sphere, with this term) ‘Free speaking’ is the speech that is not defined by predictable consequences, that opens up to chance and defies necessity.


How does Foucault separate the ethical and the political in these categories? There is a way in which that is the wrong question, a bad question. The ethical and the political and entwined in Foucault’s discussion. ‘Free speaking’ and ‘care of the self’ both refer to ethical and political realms, through the issues of what kind of self-relation is good for the individual and good for the individual’s place in politics.

There is also a way in which we have to make the distinction. There must be some way in which Foucault makes some distinction, however provisional and variable, between individual life and life in politics. It is his account of pleasure which is most ethical in the sense that it is concerned with individual life, which is of course modified by communal customs, norms and laws. The care of the self has a strong element of preparing the self for political power, and free speaking enters strongly into politics. Free speaking also enters into the individual/religious realm of tragedy (particularly Oedipus Basileos and Ion), but then that is a very political form in Ancient Athens.

Not wishing to make an absolute distinction at all, but I think that pleasure, and the questions of the aesthetic and style are the most ethical rather than political aspects of Foucault’s discussion. These feed into care of the self and free-speaking, and there is feedback. Something similar applies to Plato and Aristotle.

What I am trying to do at present is focus the ethical and the political in Foucault in that way, with all due regard to the way in which they feed into each other, interweave, and influence each other.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Me on Montesquieu at LiberalVision

My summary of The Spirit of the Laws (1748), by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1748). Liberal Vision, 3rd December.

Main points:

The impossible ideal of democratic republicanism based on equality of poverty and law which comes from custom, and is obeyed without coercion.

The possible ideal of a republicanism which may influence modern monarchies or be present in confederations of city-states.

The role of commerce and trade in this kind of realistic liberty, which brings different peoples into peaceful communication.

The principle of honour in monarchy, which incorporates the ideas of a harmonious competitive individualism with regard to wealth and status, fusing aristocratic and bourgeois competition.

Any state should be a moderate state limited by law.

Law should apply punishments in the mildest way possible, as harsh punishments are intrinsically undesirable and are part of despotism.

The value of a division between government and legislation, and decentralisation of government.

Enlightenment values present throughout, including opposition to slavery and oppression of minorities.

A social-historical method unifying the study of geography, history, law and political institutions.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Academic Peer Review: the Reality Exposed

Another Downfall parody on YouTube, but a great one. Hitler has to deal with a third reviewer of the paper he submitted to an academic journal, and goes nuts in the bunker.

Hat tip, Michael Munger’s Kids Prefer Cheese blog.

Go there now, a great blog for politics, economics and humour, I check in everyday.

No Democratic Perfection in the Birth of the USA

‘A Constitutional Counterfactual’, FreedomDemocrats, 1st December, 2009.
I’ve linked with this item from the FreedomDemocrats, a free market libertarian group within the US Democratic Party, because though it does not mention the Lisbon Treaty which amends the core treaties of the European Union, it is very relevant. I’ve got quite a lot of detailed argument coming, so here is the big point up front. The United States was founded through a process which makes the process of ratifying European Union treaties look like text book democratic fastidiousness, despite which the right-leaning element amongst opponents of European integration, which is the dominant element in the UK, tend to be hyper-enthusiasts for the United States as an example of liberty, constitutionalism and limited governments (things I’m rather supportive of myself). That would be a model of federalism, instituted through considerably less fastidious means than those used by the EU political elite.

In addition it should be noted that the United States fought a Civil War to prevent the secession of the Confederate (southern) States of America. I am sure a few Confederate enthusiasts can be found amongst the Eurosceptics, but not many. No one can deny that the American Union was created by abrogating the Articles of Confederation in favour of the more centralising Constitution of the United State of America; and no can deny that this federal Union was re-founded, and strengthened by President Lincoln and the Republican Party of the time, in the blood and iron of a war fought to coerce the Confederacy to stay in the Union.

The methods employed in that war included a deliberate policy of the destruction of the property of southern whites, suspension of habeas corpus in the Union, and covertly sanctioned illegal violence against the anti-war press. One could argue about how much of this was justifiable, but I would say the price was worth paying to the recreate the Union as a unified democracy freed of slavery, showing as Lincoln argued in the Gettysburg address that the government by the people, of the people, for the people, could succeed and endure. That’s not an unusual argument, and its one shared by most Eurosceptics as well as Euro-federalists who give any thought to American history.

What is the ‘Eurosceptic ‘ criticism of the Lisbon Treaty? In part, that it is the rape of democracy, because only one country held a referendum to ratify it, Ireland, and that country held the referendum a second time, after a no vote on the first occasion. In the language of the Eurosceptics, this was like a rapist who never accepts ‘no’ for an answer from a woman, and a form of totalitarian oppression equivalent to that prevailed in the USSR and its satellite states. I’m not making this up, or exaggerating, this is the standard discourse. Rapists do not request a second answer which might be the same as the first, they use violence. Totalitarian regimes do not hold a referendum a second time, they rig elections in the first place through falsifying results in an atmosphere of terror against opposition.

Even if we take the Eurosceptic language in its (rather rare) calmer moments, it makes accusations of lack of democracy which cannot be sustained. It is the Eurofederalists who are arguing for more direct accountability of EU institutions to a European electorate, through increasing the power of the Parliament, and maybe considering a directly elected head, and certainly a head selected through an open and competitive process in the Parliament. The Eurosceptics oppose such ideas, fiercely, so reducing the EU more and more to a venue for intrinsically unaccountable diplomatic manoeuvres between states lacking a common democratic decision making body.

The second vote in Ireland was held in the context of assurances from the European Union and the Irish government that the claims made by treaty opponents about restricting Irish sovereignty, particularly with regard to military neutrality and the constitutional ban on abortion. were not at all true. No one of any honesty and integrity whatsoever can deny the truth of those assurances and the misguided nature of contrary claims made by anti-Treaty campaigners. Of course politics is a rough nasty business, and everyone tells lies, directly or implicitly. Nevertheless, those who directly use obvious lies, or at least rely on their widespread circulation, cannot reasonably complain when a referendum is held a second time, to test whether the electorate will still vote No after some of the more blatant lies have been countered by official assurances, based on clear law. The Irish people were very free to say no a second time, they did not. The Irish government was very free to block the Treaty of Lisbon, it did not. The Treaty was ratified in other countries through votes in freely elected parliaments in 27 of the world’s more solid democracies. Each of these 27 parliaments was very free to derail the Treaty, none did.

All of these countries have experienced moments of change in national political and constitutional arrangements without a referendum, no one denies that these countries are democratic. Of course a referendum can be appropriate in deciding on constitutional issues, but most established democracies in the world allow constitutional change without referendums. A referendum is a tool of democracy, not the only aspect of democracy; and while a few Eurosceptics may be advocates of government by direct democracy, most are not, and no one has tried to argue that established democracies are not democracies, because at least part of their constitutional development took place without legitimation through referendum.

It must also be noted that while the Eurosceptics shriek about undemocratic repression, the Lisbon Treaty increases the power of the European Parliament in relation to the non-elected decision making elements of the European Union (Council of Ministers and the Commission). That would be the kind of ‘totalitarianism’ that keeps transferring more and more powers to freely elected, multi-party bodies then. A variety I had previously overlooked, and which Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and George Orwell carelessly ignored.

So back to the FreedomDemocrats. Like many of the UK Eurosceptics, the FreedomDemocrats identify themselves as libertarians of a kind who advocate free markets. There are other Eurosceptics, but the dominant tendency, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party and Daniel Hannan, a well known Conservative Member of the European Parliament (!), the current Big Man in Conservative Eurosceptic circles. UKIP Libertarianism is the kind which favours reducing immigration, that would be the kind of libertarianism that reduces individual liberties to cross borders freely. I would like to say that this kind of nonsense is unusual, but unfortunately it is all too normal for militant social conservatives to adopt the ‘libertarian’ label to mean freedom to be oppose rights for people they don’t like. The point of the item I’ve linked to, is that the (federal)Constitution of the United States of America was adopted without a popular vote, and that it is clear that a popular vote would have failed. The only consultative vote that would have had any chance of succeeding would have been one restricted to the biggest property owners. The FreedomDemocats like the idea of a history in which the Constitution was not ratified, which they think would have meant a number of regional confederacies lacking the power to violently expropriate Native Americans or create a militaristic interventionist superpower.

That brings up the whole question of the ‘libertarian’ (in the sense of individualist property owning and limited government principles) basis of the United States Constitution. The idea that the Constitution is either a perfect libertarian document, or at least that the adoption of the Constitution was the nearest the United States has ever come to libertarian perfection and that is has been in constant decline since some later point at which it apparently started to move away from the Constitution, is rather prevalent amongst US libertarians, though particularly those who could best be described as conservative-libertarian fusionist, and who tend to think conservative and libertarian mean the same thing.

The FreedomDemocrats in this item, and others posted on their website, correctly insist that the US Constitution was designed by large property owners who wished to use political power to preserve an existing pattern of property distribution, including ownership of slaves, and the freedom to increase property by violating the rights of Native Americans, along with various trade, tax and monetary rules designed to give their property a privileged status. The FreedomDemocrats lean towards minarchism (a state that does nothing but uphold the right to life and property rights in a purely neutral way), and even outright anarchism. I cannot go along with them on that, partly because I think what they say in a critical way about the US Constitution is really inevitable, in some form, to stabilise and legitimise the state body that is necessary to uphold law. A feasible libertarianism can only try to make the trades of self-interests around the constitution and around state policy, as balanced and as genuinely beneficial to the common good as is possible.

The other tendency in libertarian thought, to make the Constitution a quasi-religious document is just bad for liberty, bad for legal thinking, and bad for critical rational thought, for reasons I cannot explain in this already long post. But returning to the right-wing UK Eurosceptics, they cannot both: commend a US Constitution adopted with no referendum and designed to be very difficult to amend; and condemn the European Union for a process of progressive integration through Treaties, all ratified by representative assemblies elected by popular vote. The Treaties have been ratified by the unanimous agreement of all parliamentary bodies in all member states. It is difficult to reverse these treaties, but that is because the requirement of unanimity goes both ways. It would be good to see easier means of amending treaties, or even rejecting them at a later date. but that would only be possible if the ratification became easier in the first place.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Michel Foucault, Care of the Self, and the Classicists

I was present at a talk recently from a classicist visiting Istanbul. I don’t want to give details of the talk or the name of the speaker. I have a critical point to make, but I don’t want to appear to be targetting someone who gave a good talk, was very friendly, and as far as I can tell is a classicist of a very high level. The talk tell with Roman Stoicism and very briefly referred to Foucault. I brought up Foucault (amongst other things) in my questions in the discussion after the talk, and the discussion continued.

The point that prompted one of my question was the claim that Foucault’s notion of the ‘care of the self’ is something he associates with two things

Narrow self-interest

The rise of Neo-Stoicism in the early Empire, that is the period of Roman history from 27 BCE when the honorific name Augustus, used by all the subsequent Emperors, was given to Gaius Julius Caesar, more generally known as Octavius (he was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus).


Foucault certainly does not think ‘care of the self’ is just a matter of self interest, though it is true that he thinks of ‘care of the self’ reducing to mere concern with privacy in the time of Octavius Augustus. As I have pointed out before Foucault does not define ‘care of the self’ as mere selfishness but as a threefold which include privacy. Privacy on its own is maybe close to just being self-interested in a very narrow way, but Foucault does not go so far as that in his explicit discussion.

As I’ve already pointed out, care of the self has the following three aspects







On the second point from the Classicist speaker

Foucault clearly situated the emergence of the ‘care of the self’ in Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Plato was alive 429-347 BCE, so he died 320 years, more than three centuries before the beginning of the Augustan era. So there is clearly something wrong with saying that Foucault thought ‘care of the self’ emerged in the early Empire, and that would still be the case if we went back to the Stoic leanings of Cicero who died as the Republic was dying, in 43 BCE.


In the discussion I had with the Classicist, he said that the Classicists had been big fans of Foucault, and then turned against him for being too schematic and inaccurate in his approach to history. It’s peculiar that they turned against him on those grounds, as they were the best situated people to notice those problems in the first place. In general, Foucault is open to those criticisms in relation to everything he wrote. That sort of criticism could miss the point. It’s a good thing to discuss the accuracy of Foucault’s historical details, but overall we have to judge him as someone who develops a series of general theses about different ways in which knowledge and power appear over history in which historical scholarship provides the starting point for necessarily reductive, but powerful and creative generalisations which are subtle and complex in their own terms.

Judging from what the Classicist said about Foucault, and which I have criticised above, the Classicists themselves are inclined to schematic claims about Foucault, lacking accuracy in the detail. What the Classicist said about the Classicist culture gave a reason for this, a tendency to legitimise themselves by adopting thinkers popular with literary theorists but only after the literary people have moved onto a new theorist. I hope the Classicists no longer feel the need to justify themselves in this way, particularly since as far as I can see the literary theory field has not had any major new developments for some years.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Foucault on the Self and Individualism

A few thoughts inspired by my current reading of The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, volumes II and III of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. History of Sexuality is concerned with movements in the knowledge and ethics of the self, with a focus on the erotic.

Foucault defines three aspects of individualism: the value of individuality, private life, the relation of the self with itself. The movement of the argument is to suggest that privacy has been given too much emphasis, and the other two aspects not enough. This overemphasis on privacy is linked with the 19th Century bourgeoisie and with the Rome of Augustus. That is Ancient Rome under its first Emperor Augustus. Foucault puts the well known edicts of Augustus to control sexuality as being about pushing ‘deviant’ sexuality into the private sphere, and links this with the movement in Antique ethics towards the rationalism and asceticism of Stoicism.

What Foucault sees in pre-Augustus antiquity, and even in the careful reading of the Roman and Hellenstic Neo-Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), is a richness of understanding of the self and care for the self. It is care for the self, which establishes someone as a citizen with political rights, That provides a breach of private/public barrier in a link between self-government and the right to political self-government and the government of others. Evidently Foucault finds the self-government the most interesting aspect.

Within that affirmation of the self as political self, Foucault introduces an important distinction. That is the distinction between following external laws and style of activity. ‘Style of activity’ arises where the individual goes beyond natural order and positive law. It arises in the interpretation of dreams, where the actor in the dream goes beyond the ‘natural’ in sexual activity.

Style of activity is one way in which individuality and the relation of self with itself can be enhanced. The activity of self-creation and presentation is the most liberatory experience. The Antique culture struggles with this, even it most open moments. Ancient Athens tolerated open homosexuality, but gives it a low value because it is seen as an older man as penetrating a younger man of lower status. Homosexuality is low because it means connections with lowness, and the same is true for relations with woman. Virility, sexual capacity, is given value in Ancient culture where it is linked with citizenship. The citizen should govern, and impregnate, a woman who gives him a child. Since the woman has low status with no political rights, sexual relations with her must be disgraceful, undermining the social-moral status given to a man with a woman he governs.

Style of activity seems to be Foucault’s alternative to a degradation of the self in asceticism. The invention of the self as outside the ‘truth’ of nature or the prescription of laws, proves a way of valuing individuality and the relation of the self with itself. This in itself contains further distinctions. Truth is valued where it comes from the self and is not an external imposition. There is a truth of being someone different, of new inventions of selfhood, which expresses some resistance to metaphysical and legal ‘truths’. In this way, Foucault suggest forms of individualism, beyond mere privacy, for the contemporary world.

Spinoza and the Twilight of Stoic Rationalism

This post is prompted most immediately by teaching, though it also fits in with other things I am contemplating. Spinoza’s Ethics is a continuation of the kind of Stoic virtue theory I referred to in my last post. The Stoics turned the earlier virtue theory in a direction which gave maximum emphasis to the idea of the domination of desires by the will, which was already in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics. It was that understanding which dominated Early Modern ethics, and cultural assumptions about ethics well into the 18th Century, and certainly influenced Kant at the end of the century.

So the influence of Stocism continued well after Spinoza who died in 1677. Nevertheless there was a twilight in which Spinoza looks like the last stand of Neo-Stoic Rationalism. What is emerging, at that time or soon after, will not fit in the Neo-Stoic Rationalist paradigm. The discussion of the origin of moral ideas in the sensations that we find in Hobbes, Locke and Hume does not belong in the older ethics. If we turn away from theoretical philosophical ethics to the broader cultural context, we can think about the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld in the 17th century. They had a power to shock in the 18th century, as can be seen in the reactions of David Hume and Adam Smith, even if they were themselves investigating non-moral psychological sources of morality.

What La Rochefoucal emphasises in his aphorisms is the non-moral, and egocentric, motivations behinds apparently moral actions and phrases. He emphasises the passionate aspect of human nature, its desire for passionate love, and the difficulties of achieving the kind of communication desired by love. He does a lot to set up the concerns and style of French literature from Laclos to Proust. We can go back earlier than that to two literary works where he may have had and influence, and certainly connections with their authors, The Princess de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette and The Letters of Madame de Sévigné. Of course this is an extremely abrupt way of summing of literary history, but it is as good as such an abrupt summary can be, and this is not the place for more complexity.

My point here is the contrast and congruence, between Spiniza’s Rationalist Neo-Stoic ethics and the new emphasis on the labyrinth of the passions in literature and thought. The contrast is between La Rochefoucauld and Spinoza’s denigration of emotions in relation to reason. The congruence is the labyrinth Spiniza himself recognises in which the least bad emotions have to be used against the worst emotions in order to lead individuals towards reason. There is a far far greater sense in Sponoza than in his predecessors of the complexity and interaction of the emotions, and of irrational motives. This also reflects the complex interactions of nature, even on a mechanical model, in Early Modern science and the very noticeable rise of commercial society in the 17th Century Dutch Republic, already producing treatises that anticipate aspects of Smith’s economic treatise.

Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons and Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations compared with Spinoza: Spinoza looks like the last Rationalist Neo-Stoic. An oversimplification, but not a terrible one.

Virtue, Economy and the Self: 5 Links

My thoughts for this post came about in the most immediate sense from Will Wilkinson: a post at his blog Will Wilkinson, entitled Now Let us Praise Results-Facilitating Virtue, dated 20th November 2009. Wilkinson is an economics and public policy commentator, with a background in philosophy. He is responding to an blog post where the George Mason economist Tyler Cowen praises one of his colleagues, Robin Hanson, who responds in his own blog by arguing for the importance of praising consequences of individual actions, rather than the individual concerned. Links to all of that in Wilkinson’s post. What Wilkinson gives in reaction to all that is a beautiful little essay on character, virtue, and advantages to the economy. As he explains, ‘virtue’ as an idea in ethical though refers to the character traits which the good individual forms and which benefit society. What Wilkinson emphasises is the collective economic benefits of individuals in the society with virtue.

Since for non-philosophers ‘virtue’ amy seem like something to do with abstract moralising, it is worth explaining that ‘virtue ethics’ refer mores to a cultivation of individual excellence which serves the ‘virtuous’ individuals and society as a whole. Virtue on this account is really more to do with strength and constancy of character, rather than giving priority to the demands of external moral obligations. The Antique tradition of virtue was taken up in Medieval Christian philosophy, most notably in the thought of Thomas Aquinas; and at that point it maybe acquires a sense of moral imposition, though that is something of a brutal generalisation. That antique sense of virtue has been increasingly discussed in philosophy since the 1950s, along with an increasing recognition that it was still very present in 18th and 19th Century philosophy.

For a very handy summary of Aristotle’s ethics by a leading commentator, Roger Crisp, go this podcast posted at the Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University. For an equally admirable summary of some later developments in Antique ethics, around Seneca and Stoicism, click here for a link to a recent podcast of am interview of Rick Benitez conducted by Alan Saunders for his PhilosophyZone radio show.

The virtue ethics tradition, as mediated by the Antique Stoics, was a major influence on Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as well as in his ethical treatise, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. For a great discussion of this click here for a pdf of Deirdre McCloskey’s paper ‘Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists’. McCloskey is a professor of economics, history, English and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago, which gives an idea of the way that she integrates different areas of the humanities and social sciences. McCloskey points out that Smith’s philosophy and economic thought are shaped by Stoicism and theories of the virtues, and not just the virtue of prudence. She also has a very good sketch of how economists, and the culture in general, lost sight of this kind of integration until philosophers revived Antique virtue theory.

One possible fault with McCloskey’s analysis is in the title, in its suggestion that Smith was the last of the virtue theorists. This has some justification if we think of how Smith’s thought is distinguished from what was then the emergent moral school of Utilitarianism which very definitely looks at ethics from the point of view of the consequences of actions, and not quality of character. However, there is at least one major candidate amongst late 19th Century philosophers for the label of virtue ethicist, Friedrich Nietzsche. We can see his philosophy as a return from theories of external moral excellence to a theories of individual excellence. That’s a rather large question I can’t deal with here, but an excellent brief summary of why Nietzsche might be considered a virtue theorist can be found in Lester Hunt’s paper ‘The Eternal Recurrence and Nietzsche’s Theory of Virtue’, click for the pdf.

I expect to return to these issues very soon in relation to Benedict de Spinoza and Michel Foucault.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Me on Joseph Schumpeter at LiberalVision

Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. LiberalVision November 19th 2009

I look at the following points in Schumpter’s book.

The possibility and maybe inevitability of socialism

Socialism depends on a mixture if economic stasis and concessions to market mechanisms to work.

Capitalism as better than its predecessors, or any possible socialist society, for delivering improving living standards for everyone including the poorest.

Capitalisms rests on the individual initiative of entrepreneurs, which is important in economic theory. It is also important for liberty, in a culture of individual rights and respect for law.

The tendency of capitalism to create its own opponents in a disaffected intelligentsia and to protect their rights, and even to elevate them to high cultural status.

The tendency of capitalism to create big businesses and share holders who are detached from day to day economic profits and losses, and tend to lose the entrepreneurial spirit.

Socialism cannot work as intended by its most idealistic supports, partly because of he inevitability of at least some inequality and some price mechanism; and partly because of the impossibility of forming a pure will of the people.

The problems of forming a pure will exist in democracy in general, as there are always different interests and factions within the People, and different ways of constructing that will. In general democracy becomes a way in which electors seek economic advantage and political groups try to get majority support through offering such advantages.

Schumpeter offers a paradoxical classic of liberalism, in showing the strength of anti-liberal tendencies in liberal capitalist society. It’s a classic of liberal thought in showing the decline of freedom and economic dynamism involved, so showing what needs to be resisted.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Joseph Schumpeter and Paul Feyerabend on Galileo

In Against Method (Verso, London, 1975, 1988, 1993), Paul Feyerabend argues that Galileo’s theories of astronomy an physics were not intellectually or empirically superior to the theories they were contesting. In this influential work on the philosophy of science, Feyerabend argues that Galileo’s theories won out because of social and political forces inclined to strengthening the secular sphere against the church; they supported Galileo regardless of scientific criteria in a struggle against the church. Feyerabend extends this into a general theory of the irrational bases to developments in science.

In 1942, the economist Jospeph Schumpeter (like Feyerabend an Austrian who made his life and career in the English speaking world) published Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. This suggested the inevitability of socialism, though probably of a limited kind, and explained why this would not be an advance for human civilisation. In discussing bourgeois civilisation, Schumpeter refers to the support of the early bourgeoisie (page 124), arguing that they found Galileo to be an individualist like themselves. While Schumpeter is arguing that bourgeois civilisation is the best civilisation, he does not claim that the bourgeoisie supported Galileo for reasons of scientific truth; they simply thought his personal style resembled their own superior ethical values of individual effort and rational risk taking.

I’ve quickly checked the scholarly literature through GoogleScholar. I found some articles linking Schumpeter to Thomas Kuhn, as well as Feyerabend, but not with reference to that sociological explanation of the success of Galileo’s theories. What I found compares Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction in a capitalist economy, with Kuhn’s idea of paradogm shifts and scientific revolution, along with Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchy. So what has been considered is a parallel between change in science and change in the economy.

As far as I can see this clear connection around the sociology of early modern science has been overlooked. Is the connection just coincidence, or did Feyerabend read Schumpeter?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Peter Heather on the End of the Roman Empire

I’m no expert on Ancient history, and I never read much about the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Nevertheless, Peter Heather’s book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (PanMacmillan, Basingstoke, 2005) does look like a reasonable summary of where the historical understanding of that period is. It’s very readable and has plenty if supporting sources and interesting arguments. I recommend it, though clearly not as an expert.

Anyway, he’s clearly an academic expert in the field who got the chance to write a relatively commercial book. with a slightly populist cover. So even if this is not the best perspective, it certainly represents a highly scholarly perspective. There seem to be a few relatively popular recent books by academic experts around, so I hope to read a bit more and post on those perspectives in time. There is the interesting question of why these books are appearing. Does it reflect some general sense that the ‘West’ is declining in relation to the rising countries of Asia? Or is there another reason? I can’t really think this through right now, but maybe I’ll come back to this.

What is Heather’s perspective?

The Roman Empire was not in long term decline after the last of the ‘Golden Emperors’, Marcus Aurelius (d. 180). It remained in very robust shape, as reformed by Diocletian (reigned 283-305), with regard to borders, political cohesion and military strength until the very last years of the Fourth Century.

The Empire did change, particularly under Diocletian who introduced a tetrarchy to control the Empire more effectively (the tetrarchy was two senior emperors and two junior emperors, one of each in the west and the east). This responded to a very real need to diffuse power from Rome, but in a limited way. There were often conflicts between western and eastern emperors, but these did not threaten the administrative structure of the economic substance of the empire.

Power was diffused, to some degree to secondary centres: Milan, Ravenna and Trier in the west; Salonika in the east. This slowed down some forms of communication between the emperor and administrators, but not so as to cause serious problems.

The Empire continued to ‘Romanise’ until very late. That is, more and more members of local elites emerged who were educated in Latin language and literature to the same level as the most educated Romans. ‘Barbarians’ entering the Empire were Romanised, partly through military service.

Parts of Germany which were not in the Empire were very Romanised and were effectively satellite states. There was no proto-German nation, but shifting tribes with shifting coalitions and geographical locations. The Germanic areas were mostly very poor until late in the Empire.

The Germans who extended into what is now Romania became more economically sophisticated in the late Fourth century, which allowed them to pose more of a military threat.

The movement of Huns into Roman territory and other parts of Europe, created new movements of people and new incursions into Roman territory with very destabilising effects on the Empire.

Defeat by Parthians in Persia put some strain on the Empire at a very bad moment, because the unprecedented movement of tribes began soon afterwards.

There was some decline of tax revenue, and of spending from the centre in the late Fourth Century. This made local elites more autonomous but did not have a major effect on the Empire, Local elites stayed loyal until barbarian incursions tested loyalty to the Empire too much.

The weakening to the Empire set in during the last decade of the Fourth century, producing an accelerating disintegration with some variations until the overthrow of the last Emperor in the west in 476. So there was less than 100 years of the kind of decline often attributed to the Empire after 180, which create 300 years of decline.

Diocletian’s changes killed of the Republican residues still lingering earlier in the Empire, and the later emperors were God-Kings never challenged in the Senate, or any other political arena. This did not harm the cohesion of the Empire. Local elites and the bureaucracy had good reasons to be loyal to the Emperor who financed them, gave them jobs and enforced the strong property rights of Roman law.

The Roman Empire continued in the Byzantine Empire of the east, but only until the Seventh century Muslim conquests deprived Constantinople of large amounts of land, and most of its revenues, The Byzantines continued to identify themselves as Romans, but after this point, their state had become a Hellenic fragment of the Empire, rather than a continuation.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Foucault on Truth and Ethics; Nussbaum’s Error

Recently I read Michel Foucault’s Fearless Speech (edited by Jospheph Pearson, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles CA, 2001), based on lectures he gave in California about parrhesia in Ancient Greek philosophy, literature and politics. Parrhesia is translated in my abridged Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1891) as ‘free speaking’. It does not appear in Georg Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary (translated by Robert Keep, Duckworth, London, 1984), which is only to be expected, because as Foucault points out it’s a word that comes into use in Golden Age Athens. It does appear in Alexander Souter’s Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1916) as ‘boldness, freedom, liberty, shown especially in speech’. All of this, and more is incorporated into Foucault’s discussion of the negative and positive uses of the term in Euripides’ tragedies, commentary on Athenian democracy, Cynic philosophy, and so on. In a rather indirect way Foucault himself develops a position on ethics, communication and liberty. More of that on another occasion I hope.

Recently I was also listening to a podcast of Martha Nussbaum being interviewed on Australian radio about Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, on the reissue of her recent classic The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (original edition: Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994) with a new introduction. Click here to go directly to the podcast. Click here to go to the relevant link at the podcast aggregator site earideas.

A great summary of her work in that area, and it is a great body of work. Nussbaum has some grudging respect for Foucault, in contrast to her attacks on anyone else who might be regarded as influenced by, or adjacent to, Foucault’s approach. Her somewhat prejudiced mindset gets the better of her in the podcast, when she shows some regard for Foucault’s work on antique ethics. Nussbaum claims that Foucault ignores truth in his discussion of self-formation through ethics in the ancient world.

The lectures in Fearless Speech focus in the importance of truth, the right fort he lower classes to speak truth in a vulgar manner in Athenian democracy, the value and danger Euripides sees in unrestrained truth telling. There are ways in which Foucault would say that these truths are subjective not absolute, but that is not the same as devaluing truth.

In an approach reminiscent of Mill in On Liberty, Foucault emphasises the value of struggle for truth, the great agon. No one condemns Mill as a dangerous sceptic, subjectivist etc, for emphasising the value of a permanent conflict over truth in which no one ever has a complete victory, so maybe there’s no need to condemn Foucault on the basis of such accusations.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Me on Tocqueville at LiberalVision

‘Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America’, LiberalVision 5th November 2009.

I look at Tocqueville, as a liberal thinker, with regard to the following points

Danger of the tyranny of the majority

Influence on Mill, particularly with regard to the above

Political centalisation, administrative decentralisation

Desirability of the passion for equality of rights, and the dangers of universal conformity

The democratic state as standing above local ‘tyranny of the majority’ but also a possible source of despotism

The dangers of the loss of aristocratic spirit of individual honour and excellence in the democratic world

The role of courts and law in providing a democratic equivalent to the aristocratic spirit of conservation of valuable institutions and awareness of long term and broad interests of a society

Advantages of private property and self-interest where it includes generosity; the dangers of a narrow individualism

Exploration of a new world of republicanism and democracy in the mid-Nineteenth century.

Economic freedom, participation in politics, participation in civil associations (voluntary bodies) as mutually reinforcing aspects of liberty.

For social assistance to the poorest, against economic equality and state intervention in the distribution of property.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Aristotle Against Orientalism: Carthaginian Perspective

Aristotle is turning up as a major party to a supposed ‘Orientalist’ tradition in political theory. ‘Orientalism’ in general refers to the perspective in which western culture has considered other cultures to be both opposite and inferior to itself. This approach has had some productive results but also its own blind spots.

One suggestion in that approach is that western accounts of democracy, republicanism and any political way of thinking rooted in ideas of freedom, have been exclusively rooted in Greek origins. Aristotle’s political ideas keep turning up as something rooted in a Greek centred view, in which non-Greeks have despotism and Greeks have freedom. In this context it is sometimes pointed out that earlier people in the Near East had On the barbarians to the north of the Greek world, Aristotle recognised some freedom in electing kings, though not much freedom under that king.

Most significantly, in The Politics, Aristotle does refer positively to a semitic people related to the semitic peoples of ancient Sumeria and Babylon, and sharing a common ancestry with modern Arabs and Jews, that is the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians who spread commerce and the first alphabet around the Mediterranean. Aristotle refers approvingly to the Carthaginian constitution as like that of Crete and Sparta. These were not Aristotle’s most favoured constitutions, but the main point here is that he recognised that Carthage belonged to the group of good constitutions, which are not dominated by tyranny, oligarchy or democracy (in the sense of rule through popular assemblies).

He describes Carthage as a ‘polity’, his most favoured state form, also referred to in English as a republic, a mixed constitution, or a political state. That is the kind of state where democracy, aristocracy (rule of the virtuous) and oligarchy (rule of the rich) are mixed, a situation which offers the best possible protection against forms of government which deny freedom: tyranny (lawless rule of one person), oligarchy (lawless rule of a rich minority), democracy (lawless rule of the majority). The polity leans towards democracy, but possible acts against freedom and reason are mitigated by rule of the rich minority and rule of the virtuous minority (educated aristocrats).

He refers to Carthage as a polity which leans towards democracy in the power of a popular assembly, and leans towards oligarchy in that the ruling council contains wealthy people and people with multiple positions. A couple of passages at the bottom of this post, confirm that.

There is a tendency around to think that the ‘west’ is anticipated in ancient times by Rome and by the Greek city states. Rome had an epic struggle against Carthage, most famously when Carthaginian armies where led by Hannibal. After defeat of Carthage, which was an obsession for some Roman leaders, the city was destroyed, though later rebuilt. This leads to the background assumption that the Greeks regarded Persia as the enemy and called it despotic, therefore the same view of Carthage must have been held by Greeks and Romans, so that we have an element in ‘western’ history of denial of the ‘Oriental other’. We could add to that the appearance of Phoenicians as ‘Philistines’, an enemy people of the Israelites, in the Old Testament.

Aristotle did not deny the Phoenician-Carthaginian ‘other’ in a move of Orientalist violence. he assumed that the Carthaginians had a polity, like the Greek polities, and that it deserved to be placed alongside them. ‘Orientalist’ approaches have emphasised what needed to be emphasised about the ‘non-western’ cultures, but has also under-emphasised the ways in which the classical writers may not have been pure examples of `Orientalism’.

Quotations from Aristotle’s Politics (translated by H. Rackham, Loen/Harvard University Press).

1272b Book II VIII

Carthage also appears to have a good constitution, with many outstanding features as compared with those of other nations, but most nearly resembling the Spartan in some points. For these three constitutions are in a way near to one another and are widely different from the others–the Cretan, the Spartan and thirdly, that of Carthage. Many regulations of Carthage are good; and a proof that its constitution is well regulated is that the populace willingly remain faithful to the constitutional system, and that neither civil strife has risen in any degree worth mentioning, nor yet a tyrant. Cathage is


Now most of the points in which the Carthaginian system that would be criticised on the ground of their defects happen to be common to all the constitutions of which we have spoken; but the features open to criticism as judged by the principles of an aristocracy or republic are some of them departures in the direction of democracy and others in the direction of oligarchy.