Wilhelm von Humboldt, Forgotten Titan of Political Theory

Wilhelm von Humboldt was a Berlin Prussian-German who lived from 1767 to 1835.  He is remembered for a few reasons.  The first university in Berlin, which now bears his name the Humboldt University (the name also refers to his brother Alexander) was founded by Humboldt in 1810, though it did not bear his name until 1949.  He led the reorganisation of school education in Prussia at the time he founded the university.  He wrote a book on language which made a major contribution towards the emergence of linguistics as a discipline, and which is mentioned favourably by figures as diverse as Martin Heidegger and Noam Chomsky.  

What else did he do?  A lot, including diplomacy, translation and constitutional projects.  And he wrote a great classic of political theory, one of the most deeply thought, passionate and stylish books ever written of that kind.  A book known as The Limits of State Action.  Its importance was noted by John Stuart Mill, and its inspirational role for him, in On Liberty (for many, the definitive book of liberal political thought).  The book is also referred to more indirectly later in the 19th century by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy, with regard to the tension between the position in that book and Humboldt’s activity as Prussian education minister.  Culture and Anarchy was one of the main expressions of Victorian consciousness with regard to culture, education and social principles  It is is one of the books which leads the way to cultural studies and related work across disciplines.  It is a major point of reference for James Joyce in Ulysses.  

What was the tension mention by Arnold in Humboldt’s thought?  The tension between the minarchism (minimum state theory) of Humboldt’s book and his rıole in expanding state activity in the sphere of education. In the book, Humboldt is a strict minarchist, or nightwatchman state theorist.  He argues that the state can only properly provide protection against crime and protection against invasion by proper enemies.  All other activities encroach on the capacities for humans to grown and interact which create much more than the state machine.  Humboldt’s arguments for minarchism are the best until Robert Nozick’s 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia.  The most important intervening expressions are in Herbert Spencer during the 19th century and Ayn Rand in the 20th century.  Spencer is not greatly read any more, fairly or not.  His contributions to the definition of sociology to the best of my knowledge are not influential on any current practitioners.  Rand’s works (particularly her novels)  have a huge audience but are not a great intellectual achievement except in the eyes of enthusiasts, very few of whom are to be found among the ranks of writers and academics.  

Humboldt’s arguments are rooted in a  deep appreciation of antique culture and history, combined with a strong awareness of the social and political developments of his time.  His ideas of negative and positive welfare are very important for debates about positive and negative liberty, which largely react to Isaiah Berlin’s treatment of that distinction in the 1950s, a distinction which is still widely discussed.  Berlin largely refers to Benjamin Constant’s discussion of the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Constant and Humboldt were friends, and Humboldt even exceeds the richness of his friends discussion by looking at the differences between positive and negative welfare as they worked in antiquity and in the modern world.

Humboldt provides a link between Constant’s position and Kant’s discussion of negative and positive freedom in ethics.  Humbolt was deeply interested in the German Idealist tradition and was a friend of Hegel’s.  In another direction, Humboldt links with Scottish Enlightenment writing in Hume, Smith and Ferguson, on relatively savage and relatively civilised stages in human history, the role of natural freedom and of law in the stages of European history.  There is an elitist element to his liberalism, in which monarchy is preferred to democracy.  This connects Humbodt with what is often known as aristocratic liberalism in Tocqueville, Mill, Hyppolite Taine and Jacob Burckhardt.  From this it should be clear that Humboldt is vital to any discussion of the relation between Nietzsche and aristocratic liberalism.  Nietzsche was a reader of Tocqueville, and was friendly with Taine and Burckhardt.  The extremism of Humboldt in the direction of admiration for ancient virtues, of martial spirit, the natural capacity to command, the preference for customary law over state law, make him closer to Nietzsche than those figure.  It also has to be said that an interest in the spirit of war, and restriction of political participation to an elite, is much more part of classical liberalism, which is mostly at least tinged with aristocratic liberalism, than is often realised.  

The Limits of State Action is in print, but only with one publisher in English, specialising in classical liberal texts, the Liberty Fund in Indiana.  It is not very well known in German either and has not attracted much commentary.  It deserves more attention, I’m trying to bring it some, but it needs others to illuminate it  beyond the tiny amount of attention I can draw to it.  Soon I hope, soon.  

Greek Tragedy, Excess and Virtue

One way of thinking about Ancient Greek tragedy is about the danger of excess, the danger of going beyond the ethics of moderation, staying within limits, following reason, which we find in various forms across antique ethics.  That is one way of understanding tragedy, the dangers of excess and the need to stay within limits.  Oedipus would not have accidentally killed his father and married his mother if he had not been excessively angry with the stranger at the crossroads, the  stranger who was his father and who he killed.  The cycle of killing in The Oresteia, during the trilogy and in the backstory could have been stopped if someone had restrained themselves from killing in passion.  If Phaedra had not told her servant woman, in a  moment of excessive conversational frankness, of her love for her step son, a lot of bloody excess would have been avoided.  

However, if Oedipus had not pushed the boundaries of curiosity, against the wishes of Tiresias, he would not have saved the city from the plague brought on by his polluted presence.  Tyranny would have ruled in Mycenae if Clytemnestra had not killed Agamemnon, and Orestes had not then killed Clytemnestra and her lover.  The emptiness of kingship would not have been exposed in Phaedra had not initiated a feud between Theseus and Hippolytus.  

Tragedy does not refer to the error of avoiding moderation, of avoiding good judgement itself.  It refers to those situations where excess is necessary to disrupt patterns where injustice is done and human flourishing is deeply weakened.  Tragedy looks forward to a world of civic virtues where disputes are mediated without violence, where rational speech dominates.  It also sees that the civic culture itself rests on the pushing of boundaries which brings us back to the extremes of pre-civic heroes.  Oedipus becomes a god, or so Oedipus at Colonus hints, because only extremes of action and passion which strain at human limits enabled Oedipus to destroy the Sphinx attacking Troy, to then discover the truth of his pollution, and then to remove himself to avoid that pollution. The power of kings could only be challenged by the fanaticism of Antigone.  The destructive behaviour of the gods is brought to light by the paranoid jealousy of Creusa which nearly leads her to kill her son Ion.  

Where is the virtue in moderation, in staying within boundaries?  Virtue must include the possibility of extremes of passion.  The legal civic solution to conflict which is offered in tragedies as desirable could never resolve all conflicts. Tragedy should not be taken to given a  moral basis for more and more redemptive violence.  It certainly does suggest though that the limit should sometimes be passed and that unwillingness to contemplate this displays lack if virtue, that is human flourishing, strength of character, if we thin about what virtue means for the ancients and can mean now.  

Greece: A Persistent Protectorate of Foreign Powers

The debt crisis in Greece, the possibility of exit from the Euro, the possibility of a crisis of confidence in Greece’s ability to pay its debts spreading to other Eurozone members have led to events which challenge Greek sovereignty.  That is in the efforts negotiated between Greece and the European Union, in practice largely negotiated with the government of Germany, for Greece to largely cancel its debt in return for fiscal and economic policies which will convince financial markets that it will not build up new unmanageable debt, and that it will be able to generate increasing prosperity for its citizens in a sustainable manner.  This means in practice that Greece surrenders some sovereignty to representatives of European Union, European Central Bank, IMF, the German government,  who check Greek polices and keep credit lines open in return.  There are some similarities in Italy and Ireland, but Greece is the most dramatic case, and we will keep the focus Hellenic in this post.

One reaction to this, is to refer to some destruction of Greek democracy at the hands of the European Union and the government of Germany, and to claim that there is some foreign dictatorship over Greece, as a novelty invented by the EU/Germany.  The main focus of this post is Greek history, as a history of foreign intervention, but a few words on the current dictatorship claims.

 Greece is a member of the  European Union by choice and it is a member of the Eurozone by choice.  Three EU countries negotiated opt outs from the Euro, the UK, Denmark and Sweden.  Greece made no effort to do so.  Greece’s fiscal and economic plight is of its own creation, arising from the lack of political will to fund public spending with effectively collected taxes.  While during the Euro period before the crisis, Greece made some economic reforms, cutting subsidies to the state railway is one which comes to mind, it was too little to make Greece the sort of competitive economy which could sustain being in the same currency zone as Germany, the Netherlands and Finland. The biggest criticisms that could be made of powerful EU countries is that they failed to apply the fiscal rigours (wit regard to limiting public deficits and debt) to themselves, and German export industries benefitted from a low effective exchange rate when selling goods to Greece.  The last point had a period of fashion which passed, presumably because in practice German exports have not boomed since the launch of the Euro, so the idea that Germany rigged the Eurozone to suit its export oriented industries lacks supporting evidence.  While a Greek decision to default on all its debt (and nearly of it has already been written off in practice under current arrangements) and leave the Eurozone would be highly unpopular with the EU and all member governments (even the more Eurosceptic governments would be concerned about the turmoil on international currency markets which would lead to pressure on other currencies), and there would be some Greek loss from the resulting harm to good will, Greece is free to leave and would do so if Greeks voted for a government devoted to such a policies.  Greeks have not voted for such a government.  Two general elections this year have not led in either case to a majority in the national assembly for default and leave.  The results of these elections mean that though the Greek public may not love current austerity polices negotiated with Brussels, Berlin etc, and are indeed in many cases suffering hardship, the Greek public in its majority, regard this as the less bad option.   Respect for democracy means respect for the Greek electorate’s decision rather than poorly reasoned ranting about dictatorship.

The above is all important, but my main concern is to point out that Greek loss of sovereignty and debt crises are not something new, and are not something invented by the EU.  Greece emerged under international tutelage, because it suited Russia, France and Britain to support Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.  Though there were certainly genuine sentiments in favour of Greek independence at the time, there are other reasons for great powers of the time supporting independence.  France wanted to colonise Ottoman lands in north Africa, a task greatly eased by destruction of the Ottoman fleet.  Britain wanted to increase its influence in the eastern Mediterranean, and reduce Ottoman influence, and Russia wanted a co-religonist state south-east Europe, weakening the Ottoman Empire, and even bringing near the prospect of a Russian controlled Constantinople.  

The outcome was that these three countries decided to assist Greek nationalists against the Ottomans and their Egyptian allies.  It is unlikely that Greece would have become independent when it did, 1830, without that intervention.  The early Greek state was chronically unstable, and after the assassination of the first ruler of independent Greece in 1831, a German prince was sent to be king, essentially by command of the three powers under the Treaty of London, which treated Greece as a protectorate.    Greek sovereignty was asserted by the 1862 deposal of King Otto, but his successor, King George from Denmark, was also chosen by the three powers.  

The attitude to Greece’s sovereignty at this time can be gauged by the Don Pacifico incident of 1850 when Britain sent a naval squadron to blockade the Piraeus (the port of Athens) to force the government to compensate a British citizen. Effective exercise of Greek sovereignty was further hampered by four debt defaults crises during the 19th century: 1826 (preceding official independence!, relating to the purchase of warships for the revolutionary navy), 1843, 1860 and 1893. There was another default in 1932.  The result of these defaults, which meant periods of years afterwards in which Greece was in default to creditors, meant that Greece was in default for 90 years of its post-Ottoman existence before the present crisis!

The defaults limited Greece’s sovereignty, which was further limited not only the wish to France, Britain and Russia to treat Greece as a protectorate, but also by extremes of internal political conflict which go back to the Independence War, and include the period of the 1919-1921 war with Turkey.  There were even rival governments in different Greek cities during World War One.  That kind of instability itself legitimised the intervention of outside powers. 

The most extreme loss of Greek sovereignty took place during the Nazi occupation of Greece from 1940 to 1945, though mostly ended in 194.  This is part of a well known terrible period in European history affecting many countries,i and we can treat it as an exception.  More significantly with regard to Greek history as a whole, there was a Civil war from 1946 to 1949 pitting a communist dominated left against an authoritarian leaning right.  That war reflects a long pattern of violent left-right cleavage, though previous conflicts were more between liberal republicanism and authoritarian royalism.  The Civil War had its roots in conflicts between different factions of the Greek Resistance to the Nazi occupation.  The left received help from the Communist led countries during the Civil War (though probably Stalin never meant that help to be sufficient to undermine a previous agreement with Britain and the US that Greece could stay outside of the Soviet bloc), while the right received help first primarily from Britain, and then America. The end of the Civil War was a victory of British-US backed forces, leading to a period of constitutional democracy, but with authoritarian characteristics.  

The hard right, the royal family and the military found even the limited democracy of the post-war period difficult to live with, but were themselves deeply split about the solution.  In 1967, a group of army colonels seized power and provided the solution.  The United States has acknowledged since that it played a role in the 1967 coup, and Bill Clinton expressed his regrets while President (I presume national security conservatives in America are still fuming about this betrayal and softness).  So the post-war political settlement in Greece decided by the United States, which further readjusted to abandon all pretence at democracy.  Fortunately the terrible anti-democratic history ended with the fall of the Colonels in 1974.  Greece joined the European Union in 1981 confirming the transition to democracy, in which centre right and centre left governments were able to hold office without fear of internal or external subversion.  

Looking at the current agreed consultation with external powers to overcome the Euro crisis, we see something much more moderate, consensual and democratic than previous Greek history.  Elected governments have tried to preserve Greece’s place in the Euro and its credit lines, through negotiation with governments in other democracies, and international organisations which work through consensus not gunships or imposing heads of state.  If we wish to be more dramatic about the crisis we could say that Greece has gone some way towards being an unstable protectorate of the EU, but compared with previous crises, its a very mild and benign form of agreed intervention.  

What does Foucault mean by Juridification?

No time to check references right now, but in his writings on antiquity Michel Foucault refers to ‘juridification’ in the Middle Ages.  The point is that he wants to avoid projection of modern assumptions of what law is into antiquity.  The implication is that what we understand by law now is really a Medieval invention, if greatly transformed since.  ‘Juridifcation’ is something Foucault suggested displaced self-government as understood through the techne, style or art of existence or living.  I can’t go to much into what Foucault means by that, but the general thrust is that law as a way of regulating individuals in society was subordinate to ideas of self-govenment  by individuals.  We can see how this works for slavery.  The distinction between free citizen and slave is legal, but doe snot rest on legality, but rather on who the capacity to exercise self-government.  The salve is not someone who just happens to lack some legal rights, the slave is weak in self-government, for reasons which are not just a matter of legal status.  Law tries to capture these relations rather than instituting them, which includes some measure of evasion, but does refer to some kind of reality as well.

Though on first encountering the idea of juridification in Foucault I had some general sense of what he meant, I could not really think of what the details and relevant examples would be.   Some thinking and reading since, just as much noticing details for the fist time of things I had read before, as reading new things, I have some idea of a constellation of references which come under ‘juridification’.  I list some points.

1.  The ‘rediscovery’ of Roman law in western Europe in the Middle Ages, referring to Justinian’s Institutes, a sixth century compilation of Roman law ordered by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

2. The ‘rediscovery’ was a major motivation for the formation of universities as independent institutes of learning, from the 11th century onward, though the 13th century seems particularly important in the crystallisation of the system, along with the wish to engage in the systematic study of theology.

3.  Some of the impetus came from the Catholic Church, which dominated universities in their early history, but also from the secular state as kings wanted advisors who knew law and who would formalise their claims authority.  Medieval kings often took a lot of interest in reforming and regularising law in their own short term interest, thereby creating a more defined and growing state apparatus to apply and interpret law, and to carry out the king’s will.  This leaves textual evidence as in John Fortescure’s work on the nature of English law in the 15th century.

4.  The relevant parts of Max Weber’s Economy and Society is a classic text in this area, Weber himself had been a lawyer before becoming what we now call a sociologist.  The discussion is part of Weber’s thinking about the movement of societies towards more centralised states, which control law and the legal use of violence.

5.  Early modern political theory exhibits a high level of consciousness around issues of law. Machiavelli refers to the tendency of his time for codify what the ancients had done in law, which is clearly what he is trying to do in politics, a project itself resting on the definitions of jurists.  The ancients had laws with little reflection, the moderns reflect on those laws, gather them and harmonise them.  A bit later Grotius was engaged in a very comprehensive project of the discussion of legal and state concepts, which feeds in the early modern debates, about sovereignty, consent, nature and society.  In Hobbes we see a legally sophisticated mind applied to political theory and giving us the first fully formulated contract theory (there are already gestures in this direction in Grotius), followed up by Pufendorf, Locke, Rousseau and Kant.

6.  The legalisation of the Medieval and Early Modern state had a political economy dimension noted by Adam Smith and David Hume in which national debt, centrally imposed taxes, wars and transport projects paid for by taxes and national debt, a growing number of privileged people round the court and the capital city, are all part of a growing state apparatus, which benefits from a centralised uniform legal apparatus and needs more state legal activity to protect its property.

7.  Essentially building on Hume, Smith and related thinkers in political economy, but with different emphases introduced, Marx noted the role of law the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period in pushing peasants off old properties and common land.  Customary agreements about use of land are superseded by state law, applied with state violence in ways which benefitted those with large amounts of property in land, and now had wealth spare to invest in the growing capitalist economy.  Marx goes much further in denouncing the evolution in land holdings and the imbalance between classes, but the concerns he brings up are in Hume, Smith and the like.

8.  Friedrich Hayek noted the growth of law in the Middle Ages which he regard with great favour, regarding it as largely the continuation of antique attitudes to state law as the written codified versions of communal intuitions about justice.  The growth of theories of law created by state will, particularly in Hobbes, is seen by Hayek as a move away from the authority of communally agreed justice to the state’s enforcement of its own laws.   Hayek feels some anxiety about the process of writing down and codifying communal rights, as he suggests that documents like the US Bill of Rights threaten to expand state power, because in trying to limit state power they name areas in which the state acts, giving precedents for expanding the role of the state in those areas.  This negative aspect of law, expresses itself as legislation.  Legislation is law created by the political sovereign, which goes beyond any communal consensus on justice, and is an ever large accumulation of ways in which the state intervenes in society, intruding on individual rights, and undermining the state’s proper role as the guardian of genuinely universal rights and welfare.

These are a diverse set of points, and they are not all obviously harmonious with each. I believe they are all aspects of what Foucault meant by ‘juridification’.

Nietzsche, Tragedy and German Sovereignty over Europe

Following on from yesterday’s post on ancient tragedy and Athenian claims to sovereignty over Greece, it’s appropriate to think where Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy might fit.  The book has two parts, sections 1 to 16 on Greek tragedy and the rest on Wagner.  The earlier sections attract a lot more attention and interest than the latter sections.  This is tied up with Nietzsche’s German nationalism of the time.  Then, as later, Nietzsche did not aim to be a political thinker (despite which I find him to be very important as a political thinker in an indirect fragmentary kind of way), but he was undoubtedly enthused by the new German state, the Hohenzollern Empire, instituted by Bismarck after the 1870 Prussian defeat of France.  What was really important to Nietzsche was the Wagnerian opera which he thought was a renewal of the tragic unity of the Apolline (representation) and the Dionysian (embodiment).    

The German Empire was the new strong state in Europe and Wagner promised a renewed cultural redemption for Europe based in Germany.  All this stuff is not why anyone is interested in Birth of Tragedy, but Nietzsche remains true to the cultural and loose political imperialism of Greek tragedy.  Just as there was no European state in 1870, but there was Germany with a claim to arbitrate for  a recognisable political space of the European powers, in Ancient Greece there was nı unifying state, but Athens could very reasonably claim to be the cultural centre of Greece, and could make claimed, if a flawed one, to being the political leader.  

Germany of the 1870s was not culturally dominant in the way Athens was but could make a better claim to political and military leadership.  Not so much domination as the essential factor for European stability.  Germany could not claim to be the centre of democracy in Europe as Athens was in Greece.  The fall of the Second Empire in France as a result of defeat by Prussia, meant that France had some claim to be the democratic centre, along with Britain as the liberal and commercial centre, while Germany grew as an industrial as well military land power centre.  

With Wagnerianism and German nationalism, there is a kind of repetition of the Athenian claim to cultural and political hegemony, though the politics is one of  constitutional semi-democratic traditionalist conservatism, and most would take France, particularly Paris as the cultural centre of 19th century Europe.  Athenian claims to political leadership ended with the Peloponnesian War, and were crushed by the Macedonians after that.  Germany’s ambitions went down in flames in the First World War, a defeat ending in an expansionist totalitarian regime which ended in a Wagnerian apocalypse.  The idea of a Wagnerian cultural politics dominating Europe were confirmed in a dismal way, evidently not wished for by Nietzsche in 1872.  

Nietzsche pushed pass the Wagnerian-German nationalist phase to a grand politics of Europe based on a cultural transformation, which is his rather than Wagner’s, which has Goethe as a cultural exemplar though in a rather less dominant role than that assigned to Wagner before.  Dostoevsky and Stendhal also come into the great culture of Europe of the time.  One way of thinking of Nietzsche’s development is the move away from a Neo-Athenian dream of German political and cultural dominance, as if Greece had become a cultural union in which the politics was grand.  We could see Greece under Alexander the Great in those terms, but this is really the end of Athenian dominance in culture, accompanied by a fragmentation of Alexander’s empire.  

Tragedy and Athenian Sovereignty over Greece

Tragedy is not just an exploration of the complexities, tensions and ambiguities of law and political power.  The great Greek tragedies were propaganda for Athens.  They defend the view that Athen was the centre of the Greek world, and uniquely able to bring justice to the Greek world.

 In Euripides’ The Suppliant Women, Theseus, legendary king of Athens, refers to Hellenic law, something which he evidently believes is known to Athens better than other Greek states, and justifies his intervention in Thebes.  He does indeed bring justice to the women of Argos, in their desire to bury the sons who died in an assault on Thebes.

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles makes the moment of the death, or disappearance, of Oedipus, the moment at which Theseus learns some sacred secrets which he will pass down to future ruler of Athens.  Again Thebes, Theseus protects its former king Oedipus against the cruelty of Creon, at this stage the strong man of Thebes before he becomes king.  

In the Oresteia, a cycle of vengeance in Argos which is destroying the state is settled by a divine court in Athens, where Orestes takes refuge, and which is the mythical origin of the historical Athenian court of Areopagus.  İt is there that the cycle of revenge is ended and the chthonic divine revenge violence of the Furies is turned into support for a court which decided on guilt and punishment, independently of supposedly aggrieved parties.  

The centre of divine judgement in Ancient Greece was Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. In Ion, Euripides makes Apollo associated with Athens, and makes the royal family of Athens the ancestors of all Greek communities through Ion. Ion is the son of Apollo, who was a temple servant at Delphi. The Oresteia sends Orestes from Delphi to Athens.  

Argos (Mycenae) was the centre of Homeric Greece, its king, Agamemnon commanded the Greek forces against Troy.  His brother, Menelaus King of Sparta, is at the centre of the story because it is his wife Helen who was taken by Paris to Troy.  The Athenian tragedies turn Athens into the place where Argos is protected from itself, and from enemies.  Argos led Greece, now Athens leads Argos, with Sparta somewhere at the margins, not even worth directly abusing as the enemy of Athens.  

The tragedies are deeply involved in the creation of the image of a state, and in the ideology which justifies its existence. The divine and customary laws of Greece, and the freedom of the citizens of Greek city-states, is so deeply centred on Athens, that Athens can judge the whole of Greece and bring its own forces against other states.  

The tragedies, before, during and after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, are full of the hubris which brought Athens to a fall in that war.  The tragedies are the cultural aspect of the Athenian belief in dominion over Greece, loose but real, going beyond all bounds of sustainable power.  


The Importance of Tragedy to Political Thought: The Case of Ancient Athens

The topic of the politics of tragedy is not an unknown or new one, but it is certainly one that should get more attention.  Even the classic works on that topic have some limitations.  Walter Benjamin’s book of the 1920s, The Origin of German Tragic Drama,despite the historical and political knowledge it incorporates, is not that political.  The focus is very much on the consciousness of the prince in the early modern era, who is aware of living in a world where religious, traditionalist and sacral traditions of all kinds have weakened, so that his position rests on force without much legitimising context.  Political struggles and the more concrete aspects of early modern politics are lacking.  Of course work has been done on this since, but more could be done to build a general historical-political account of tragedy, embedded in the history of political concepts, and the impact of historical event son political thought.

Going back to Ancient Athens, what do the tragedies tell us about politics?  The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, strongly suggest that politics, like life of a psychologically and socially functional kind, is one the verge of collapse.  A horror underlies human life that there is suffering with no purpose, that divine forces have no justice guiding them, that bad luck outside our control can pollute us and destroy us, that humans are always in danger of being driven by uncontrolled and destructive passions.  We can think of politics not in the rather optimistic sense of Plato and Aristotle, according to which reason can guide politics whether through the rule of guardians, or of citizens with the virtues of good rulers, but in the tragic sense in which institutions and rulers can fall prey to extremes of bad fortune, bad judgement and uncontrolled passion.  There is a limit to the rationality of politics and even the most rational of leaders.  Good institutions and a good methods of forming political elites certainly minimise damage from these factors, but they cannot eliminate the possibility of terrorism, state terror in reaction to terrorism.  The history of the United States was changed by one man who shot John F. Kennedy (as far as I can see only conspiracy obsessives believe there was a broader network behind Lee Harvey Oswald) , in ways we can never know.  

Going back to Ancient tragedy, there is no direct equivalent to modern terrorism, though Oedipus does kill King Laius at the cross roads in a fit of passion, which is not completely justified even by his own account of events, but does not stop him becoming King of Thebes and then polluting the city.  A series of act so justifiable vengeance comes close to destroying Argos in the Orestean Trilogy.  Politics is the attempt to resist power collapsing into such horrors.

Some famous brief remarks by Hegel concerning Antigone, established the idea that tragedy is concerned with conflict between different kinds of law, human and divine.  That establishes a way of thinking of tragedy as a model for value pluralism, which may lead to irreconcilable conflict.  Even beyond that we should think of the tragic way that politics must generate its own extreme opposition, which cannot tolerate the coercive powers of even the most legal and liberal state.  Even such a state is resting on the threat of force, and on the possibility that violence will exceed the laws which supposedly both legitimise and control it.  Police mistakenşy shoot people using poor judgement generating the desire for vengeful violence, and resistance to all institutions.  

Interests in power drive politics in ancient tragedy, always dressed up in sacral and legal forms of legitimacy, so that the two are in constant extreme tensions.  Even the gods who ultimately sanction the state, and state violence, become objects of hatred and anger in Ion, where a rape of a  human by Apollo sets up a series of traumas.  This pattern occurs in other forms in other dramas, and keeps confirming that even the most sacralised forms of power behind laws and governmental authority, becomes the object of extreme passions of hatred and violence.  That applies to the state that the tragedians took as the model of law and good government, as well as the natural centre and leader of the Greek world, Athens.  These matters should be at the heart of political thought, not its margins. 

Half of Ayn Rand Fans Should be Reading J.R.R. Tolkein

I’m partly inspired here by the following internet meme comparing the literary achievements of Ayn Rand, minimum state pro-capitalist evangelist, and J.R.R. Tolkein, literary critic and scholar of  Anglo-Saxon literature. 


There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.

I’m also partly inspired by the coverage of Paul Ryan’s selection as the Vice-Presidential part of Mitt Rpmney’s Presidential for the November election in the US.  This has given the meme above another lease of life, because Ryan has claimed that Rand’s novels were a great transformative inspiration for him.  He has moderated this claim in recent years, as he mentioned that he disagrees with Rand’s atheism and materialism.  Ryan is apparently a practising Catholic.  His proposals to cut public spending have made him bit of a hero with small government advocates, and something of a villain for active or big government enthusiasts.  He does have socially conservative impulses along with those of hawkish national security conservative who favour a very big military.  Ayn Rand herself disapproved  social conservatives in the Republican Party, leading her to oppose Ronald Reagan as has been frequently pointed out recently.

For small government conservatism, rather than secular libertarianism, J.R.R. Tolkein is a much more relevant writer, though he does not have the influence that Rand has had on conservative-libertarian synthesis people like Ron Paul, or like Dan Hannan in Britain, the arch-Euro sceptic Member of the European Parliament.  In a widely quoted passage to his son Christopher he defines himself as a kind of anarchy-conservative.

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word state (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!


I’ve had more success in reading Tolkein than Rand.  That is I have read all of Lord of the Rings, but failed to get past about the first hundred pages of Atlas Shrugged.  I have see the film version of The Fountainhead, based on Rand’s novel of that name, as I have also seen the film version of Lord of the Rings.  I can say that Tolkein’s anarcho-monarchism expresses itself there in his belief in traditional ways of life, natural communities and natural leaders who happen to be hereditary leaders of possessed of supernatural knowledge.  The good side in Middle Earth is that of individuals living lives free of state interference and where authority is so natural and so steeped in aged tradition they is is obeyed unconsciously.  What is lacking is much sense of change, or of trade, or of capitalism of any kind.  

Tolkein’s stereotypical fans are eco-socliasts with a belief in the merits of pre-industrial ways and small self-governing communities.  The above makes it clear why that should be the case, which sort of explains why pro-capitalist conservatives have largely not picked up on Tolkein.  Nevertheless, anyone who favours a mixture of conservatism and anarchism or minimal state thinking, is going to find some sympathetic elements in Tolkein, and Tılkein does not condemn capitalism, he simply prefers self-contained communities which are not very concerned with commercial interests, though they have some.  

Certainly Rand’s liking for large than life individual towering over everyone else with their energy and self-regard, is not necessarily a great fit with conservatism, which surely advocates humility before tradition .  Classical liberal and libertarian thinking does not really benefit from the Randian model of not very introspective money making heroes, who turn capitalism into a self-satisifed celebration of genius, rather than a way in which individuals of all personality types can live in freedom both as economic actors and as individual self-creating characters.  

In the end I would not put forward Rand or Tolkein as ideal writers,or ideal creators of literary versions of political positions.  Literature of the highest quality  does not really lend itself to strident advocacy of a clear political position, though literature always has a political aspect.  Rand’s literature reads like a parody of 19th century heroic individualism in literature.  Tolkein showed that is it not possible to create modern epics or romances of the same level as the great models from the past.  They are maybe the two most successful literary figures of the 20th centıry in the breadth, and continuing breadth of their audience.  Unless I am missing something, the limits of their literary talents means they are likely to decline in popularity some time this century.  It does seem like a remote prospect right now though. 



Second LSE Professor Associated with Saif Gaddafi has transferred to Durham

Saif Gaddafi, the son, and apparent political heir, of the late Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi, famoussy received a doctorate in philosophy from the London School of Economics and Political science for a thesis on civil society and global governance. Doubts exist about its originality and about whether Gaddafi wrote much of it himself, or the papers he wrote for graduate course.   Gaddafi is currently in prison awaiting trial for regime crimes.  The raising against his father sparked concern about the relations of father and son with LSE.  

A regime linked foundation donated money to LSE through its now extinct Global Governance centre.  Alia Brahimi (who was involved in spending the money), a long standing research fellow at LSE can be seen on YouTube holding  a sycophantic video interview with Muammar Gaddafi on LSE premises. David Held, who is well known for academic work on civil society and cosmopolitanism was the key figure, and had input into Saif Gaddafi’s thesis was the key man for the money raising and links with the Gaddafi family.  The thesis was supervised by Nancy Cartwright, a very well know figure in philosophy of science, whose interests extend to the use of evidence in public policy (presumably why she was supervising Gaddafi).  

The director of LSE at the time of the Gadaffi links, which lead to LSE being known as the Libyan School of Economics, was Howard Davies.  He did the honourable thing and resigned in March 2011, when the uprising against the Gaddafi regime, and Saif Gaddafi’s role in the attempted crushing of that uprising, focused attention of Saif Gadaffi’s time at LSE and the financier l links LSE had with the regime.  David Held transferred to the University of Durham in January of this year.  While no one from LSE is saying that they asked Held to find another post, it’s obvious that is what happened, whether through explicit request or through less direct signals.  

Today I’ve leaned that Nancy Cartwright is transferring to Durham.  I’ve no idea what attitude the LSE administration had to her role in the Gadaffi shenanigans, but could this be complete coincidence?  She will be the founding  head of a ‘Centre for Knowledge and the Public Good’.  Held himself is a College Master at Durham.  Durham is a very good university, one of the most difficult to get into, and with one of the best philosophy departments in Britain.  It’s a famous old cathedral city, with beautiful buildings and countryside.  There is certainly no disgrace for Held and Cartwright being there for them, or for Durham considering their many academic achievements.  Nevertheless, it looks like Cartwright might have paid a price for being swept along in the unwise enthusiasm to have Saif Gaddafi as a doctoral student at LSE, and to use his links with his father’s regime.  In that case, you might wander why Alia Brahimi is still at LSE, and maybe other people linked with the Global Governance centre, that was funded by the late despot of Libya.  


Liberty and the Tragedies of Aeschylus

The Ancient Greek progress in political philosophy, in the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle is in very clear.  These texts are even foundational for the study of political thought.  The tragedies of these time are often recognised to contribute to political thought about liberty, law, violence, state and individual.  There is a substantial body of literature out there on this topic, though not enough yet.   Anyway, I will gather some thoughts which set up the topic rather than consider the views of interpreters, for the moment.  This comes out of and feeds into undergraduate classes I’m preparing for next semester which will focus on political and ethical themes.  

In this post, I’ll look at Aeschylus’ trilogy Oresteia, that is plays about Orestes, though he does not appear in the first play Agamemnon.  That play describes the murder of Orestes’ father, King Agamemnon by Agamemnon’s wife and Orestes’ mother Clytemnestra.  The second play, Libation Bearers, shows the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes, who flees the kingdom of Argos at the end. The closing play, Kindly Ones largely takes place in Athens, where a trial presided over  by Athena, leads to three things: the acquittal of Orestes; the conversion of the demonic Furies who were pursuing him to forces of peaceful legal process; the mythical establishment of the historically real Aeropagus Court in Athens.  

These very brief summaries already suggest a major arc in the trilogy: the movement from violent revenge and underworld divine forces to legal trials and courts of law under the protection of Olympian gods.  That seems like a quite straightforwardly admirable move.  One problem though is that the movement is based on the denial of the importance of women.  Athena makes a casting vote to acquit Orestes, because the mother is not as tied to her children as the father.  Though we should also note that the cycle of violence goes back to Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, and before that Agamemnon’s father’ murder of the children of his brother.  So law is shown to end a cycle of violence inaugurated by an uncle killing his brother’s children, and a father killing his daughter.

The move to the create the Areopagus is not just about ending this self-destruction of the House of Atreus (Agamemnon’ father), which begins before the action of the Oresteia opens.  The first two plays emphasise the absoluteness of law and the need for a king to listen to his people.  The liberty in the trilogy is conceived of as respect for law, political power under law, and the consultation of power with the people as a whole.  There is also a strong awareness of conflict.  The final judgement requires a tie breaking vote by the goddess associated with Athens, which maybe brings into question the sense of the absoluteness of law invoked above.  If law is so absolute why  can’t we just fall back on it and deal with crimes quickly?  Contingency, fragility and uncertainty of law are all implicitly acknowledged.  

Power politics drives law in the Oresteia, since the play justifies Athenian hegemony over its allies by giving it divine sanction.  That is the situation of Aeschylus’ time when Athens was one of the two great powers in the highly fragmented Greek world, demanding the right to exert judicial powers over its allies.  Justice is driven by the dominance of one power, which might seem lie mere cynicism, but does raise a genuine issue.  Who decides what law is, which legal institutions make the final judgement, and who enforces those judgements?  

The Oresteia is full of the sense of the horror of human existence, of death looming, the uncontrollable nature of luck, the dangers created by the urges of other humans,  the inevitability of suffering, and the incomprehensibility of the world.  Human liberty is part of the horror, incomprehensibility and luck.  Liberty is about the effort of struggling with those forces.  Without those forces, what great choices would we have to make, and what be the point of liberty.  Since the law which protects liberty relies on the horrors of force and power, there is no escape.  Liberty is the horror of existence, its lack of given purpose, and the attempts of free individuals to limit horrors, through law, through limitations on rulers, through self-restraint.  The self-restraint which is important to subordinate horrifying urges to violence is necessary to liberty, and assumes the threatening horror, otherwise the self-limitation would lack a point.  

Tragedy shows why we need liberty and law, and how liberty and law are themselves driven by horror, by chaotic desire and the interests of power, the fear of the unknown.