Expanding the Liberty Canon: Rome and Carthage in the Histories of Polybius

Notes On Liberty

This historically based exploration of writing on liberty now reaches the point where the Greek world has fallen under the domination of Rome, but even at this point we can see that the Greek language and heritage will continue to be important in a Roman dominated Mediterranean, particularly in the eastern parts, leaving the legacy of the Christian Gospels in Greek, the fifth and sixth century CE transformation of the eastern Roman Empire into a Greek Empire , still known to itself as Rome, but to us as Byzantium. In Polybius we see the beginning of a history of major writing in Greek within the Roman world, which continued through many areas of thought, producing major classics at least up until the philosophy of Plotinus in the third century CE.  The founding figure of the Byzantine system, the Emperor Justinian took Christian teachings to the extreme of closing the Academy…

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Philosophy of the Novel: I Literary Aesthetics Before Hegel

Extract from a research proposal expanding on work in progress regarding the philosophy of the novel, lightly edited to make it suitable for posting on a blog

The aim is to set up the account of the novel in Vico and later thinkers about the novel, through a survey of literary aesthetics before Hegel. This will overlap with Vico’s time, though Vico will only be considered later in the project. This slight anomaly is necessary to give a full account of what Hegel was reacting to and is justified by the lack of obvious influence from Vico on literary aesthetics, or thought in general until the eighteenth century. Vico’s thought itself does not draw in any obvious way on literary aesthetics after Horace, and can therefore be treated with some detachment from work in that area after the age of Augustus. The survey will commence with Plato’s thoughts on the role of poetry particularly in the Republic, but also in dialogues such as Phaedrus and Ion where the theme also appears. The aim will be to look at how Plato defines the different parts of poetry, and the reasons he has for moral disapprobation of some parts. This will be followed by a discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics, agains drawing on other texts, such as the Rhetoric when it is appropriate. The focus will be on the account of epic, as the most obvious forerunner of the modern novel, but attention will be paid to all aspects of what he says, where it is relevant to the modern novel, which as will be discussed across chapters, tends to incorporate all aspects of poetics or literature.

The discussion will then move onto some discussion of Longinus On the Sublime and the Horace’s Art of Poetry to complete the understanding of antique perspectives on literary texts. Given the relative lack of influential texts on literary genres, and other material about the nature of literature, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the discussion will make a jump from antiquity to the Renaissance. The era of Rabelais and then the era of Cervantes appropriately overlap respectively with the earlier and later parts of the life of Montaigne, the greatest of the Renaissance essayists, and the nearest thing to an inventor of the essay as a major form of writing. It is in Montaigne that the form of the essay, and of the essay collection finds an extreme exemplar, where digression and shifting perspectives take place within essays and across a whole series of essays, which themselves have narrative and fictional aspects. They also mark the decomposition of antique assumptions about the comprehensibility of the world and the self, of a natural alliance of will and reason to control desire, which is part of the emergence of the novel, of the looseness of prose in narrative as opposed to the structure of classical poetic metres. The Renaissance and early modern essay is not only developed in the self-conscious self-referring thoughts of Montaigne but in apparently more strictly political and philosophical writing.

Machiavelli’s thoughts on the politics of princes and republics are an expression of the still relatively new power of prose writing in Italian, or the capture of antiquity in the modern languages, as well as of the importance of imagination, symbolism and narrative in constructing theories of power and of political forms. Like Don Quixote, The Prince and The Discourses expose illusions; like Rabelais and Montaigne, Machiavelli shows that a mixture of antique authority and sceptical imagination is the basis of writing, of any kind of writing which shows the cultural energy and tensions of the age, rather than the kind of formalised discourse, which tries to expel context.

Even the mathematically inclined philosopher Descartes, wrote sometimes in ways which bring narrative and imagination into the exposition of pure philosophical principles. Those are his most widely read writings Discourse on Method and Meditations on the First Principles of Philosophy. The cultural continuity with Cervantes is apparent in references of the Discourse on Method to a mind dominated by thoughts of knights, magic, and the like. Both are concerned with the description of the world both as a set of representations cleared of anomalous representations, which cannot be clearly said to represent real entities or clear thinking processes; and the extreme multiplicity of forms when the criteria of existence is representability, rather than any kind of intelligible and purposive substance. It is the openness and less hierarchical language of the novel compared with epic, which allows for both the rationality of existence and its inexhaustible pluralism.

These themes in Descartes are taken up broadly speaking in a rationalist continental traditions and an empiricist British tradition, which feed into aesthetic thought. The process continues during the seventeenth century into the eighteenth with the continuing exploration of the issues raised by Machiavelli, Montaigne and Descartes in political though, essays and philosophy as in Grotius, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Locke. The idea of a covenant or contract at the basis of state and law brings narrative and fiction into political thought, which forms part of the context of the novel, as it will exist in the eighteenth century.

Another focus here will be on the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, which set up a kind of store of perspectives on the passions and their conflicts for the use of novelists, in a form which is not novelistic, but is open to integration into the psychological intimacy and speculation, which is part of the nature of the novel. These moral aphorisms are also a major source for a philosophical ethics of scepticism and subjectivity, which is a challenge to the idea of a world and a human self structured by moral purposes.

The final part of the discussion will look at the aesthetic and literary aesthetic thought of the early modern period that draws on, or parallels, the material above. That will include the ways in Wolff’s aesthetics develop’s Leibniz’ metaphysics and Shaftesbury’s development of Lockean empiricism in ways that lean more towards Platonism than Locke himself, and which incorporates discussion of aesthetics. British ideas about aesthetics and literature will then be traced through Hutcheson, Hume, and Burke. Finally there will be a return to continental philosophy, with regard to the philosophical aesthetics of Kant, which aims to synthesise rationalist and empiricist approaches. For Kant there will be a concentrate on the nature of poetry and the place of ‘common sense’ in aesthetic judgement. The exploration of a diverse range of material over a long period will be unified by a concern for the ways in which various aspects of previous aesthetic thinking, philosophical reflection on literature, literary style in philosophy, and connected themes in philosophy and literature, are taken up within the novel as a form and reflection on the novel from Vico onwards. It can be thought of as a discussion of the deep history or preparation for the philosophy of the novel.

Ethics and the Novel: Nietzsche’s Twist

My latest post at the group blog New APPS


The slow emergence of the novel as a major literary genre is an ethical event. The novel as a form of literary writing goes back to Greek antiquity, and one novel from antiquity is still widely read,  The Metamorphoses of Apulieus (or The Golden Ass by Apulieus). One of the great writers on the form of the novel, Mikhail Bakhtin, even claimed it went back to the Menippean Satire of antiquity. This is probably  not one of his most shared ideas. In any case, the idea of a unique moment of origin is not a good basis. There are a series of beginning, which include antique epics, behind the novel as it developed from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, when it did become accepted as a literary genre on a level with epic, drama, and lyric poetry.

The modern origin is again ambiguous. Rabelais provides a strong candidate, with major attention coming from Eric Auerbach as well as Bakthin, but Don Quixote is the more widespread object of discussion. Nietzsche refers to it (Genealogy, II.6) as with regard to a change in ideas of humour, so explicitly ethical ideas about where we can find humour. The original readers of Cervantes could laugh without restraint at the suffering of Quixote, and the suffering caused by the ‘ingenious hidalgo’, but Nietzsche suggests that by his time, readers feel unease and even pain themselves at the suffering and humiliation.


For the rest read on here.

A Letter from Bonnie Honig to Phyllis Wise

I mostly disagree with Corey Robin, but he is absolutely correct on this issue as is Phyllis Wise, concerning the withdrawal of a job offer to the Palestinian-American academic Steven Salaita

Corey Robin

In the midst of a conflict like the Salaita affair, it’s easy for individual voices to get lost. The persons involved, and their fates, get forgotten. Particulars are submerged into principles, the din in the head crowds out the distinctive sights and sounds of the case. That’s why, when I read this letter from political theorist Bonnie Honig to Chancellor Wise and the UIUC community, I knew I was hearing and seeing something different. No one that I know of has written a letter like this, which insists on remembering the specificity of not only Steven Salaita but also Phyllis Wise. Professor Honig has kindly allowed me to reprint it here.

• • • • • 

August 24, 2014

Dear Chancellor Wise, (and Members of the Board of Trustees, and the UIUC community of faculty, staff, and students),

I wrote to you when I heard about the Steven Salaita case a couple…

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Expanding the Liberty Canon: Euripides’ Tragedy Ion

Notes On Liberty

Euripides lived from about 480 BCE to 406 BCE. Though he is one of the three great figures of Athenian tragedy, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, who have already been discussed, he may have been born outside Athens and died outside Athens.  This relatively mobile life is itself an issue at a time when identity with the city of one’s both and ancestors was  taken very seriously, and it was very difficult for anyone not born of parents of that city on both sides to become a citizen and participate in politics. It is an issue considered in the play considered here.

Euripides’ way of writing is distinct from that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in that it is more discursive, with long prologues and characters speaking in short essays sometimes. There is less of the feeling than in Aeschylus and Sophocles of writing that is purely poetic and arises…

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Kierkegaard, Irony, Narrative, and the Ethics of Literature

My latest post at the group blog NewAPPS

This is in part a followup to a post from two weeks ago on irony. Irony is the object of Kierkegaard’s first major work, The Concept of Irony, and then disappears from view as a direct object of discussion in Kierkegaard’s writings. That is not to say that irony disappears from Kierkegaard, but the criticisms of Romantic Irony in The Concept of Irony give an indication of why Kierkegaard did not want to take irony as a maor theme, which is that the Romantic understanding (referring to the Jena Romantics in the last few years of the 18th century)

of irony leads towards a self-destructive subjectivity. The irony cannot be understood as just belonging in literary texts, including Socratic dialogues, but must be thought of as the way in which the subject communicates itself. As a matter of the history of ideas, this is to some degree a reference to the way that the Romantic Ironists were drawing on Fichte’s ideas of subjectivity in the first two editions of the Wissenschaftslehre (often, but misleadingly, known in English as The Science of Knowledge).

Click here for the rest. 

Israel-Palestine: Is a reasonable debate possible?

Notes On Liberty

The question in the title is to be taken very seriously and not just as a prelude to a comforting ‘of course there is’ answer and a few helpful hints to how to engage in respectful debate. This is a debate which stretches at the  limits of debate, at all attempts at civility and respect for other points of view in debate. I am trying to find a way to discuss the issues in a way that is equally considerate of the rights and interests of all parties to the debate, while also finding that debates about Arab Palestinian and Jewish Israeli positions may at some point just not be open to rational debate, and can only be settled by pragmatic compromise at best, and violent imposition  in the less happy scenarios.

This started with a social media post on my part condemning George Galloway, a vey left socialist British…

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Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Notes On Liberty

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays…

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The Enlightenment and Barbaric Republics

My latest post at the group blog New APPS

I’ve recently encountered a suggestion (in personal communication) that it might be difficult for an Enlightenment thinker to envisage republicanism in barbarian or even more savage peoples. While that makes sense with regard to the civility and legal institutions that Enlightenment thinkers are looking for in a desirable state, and saw in the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, there are some other sides to this. I cannot look into properly right now, but it is sometimes held that the founders of the American republic took some inspiration from the Native Americans with regard to the institutional arrangements they were designing, particularly the federal nature of the republic (preceded by a  period of confederation), which may have had some reference to the groupings and alliances of small native communities into nations. In any case, the dressing up in native garb during the Boston Tea Party certainly made some reference to the idea of a natural freedom.

Read on here.

Vico on Homer, Philology and Law

Early draft version extract of work in progress for a project on philosophy of the novel, beginning with the importance of Vico even if he does not address the novel. He does address Homer and the approach of his New Science is a highly suggestive in relation to the genre of the novel. Limited references. All references to Vico’s New Science  give paragraph section followed by page number in the Cornell University Press (Ithaca NY) 1975 edition translated by Thomas Goddard Berhin and Max Harold Fisch.  A pdf of the first, 1948, edition of that translation can be found here.

A rather long post, and I can’t even say it has the strictest unity, however, there are some aspects of reading, and interpreting, Vico I want to bring together, and that means a longer post than usual.

‘the heroic fables were true stories of the heroes and their heroic customs, which are found to have flourished in the barbarous period of all nations; so that the two poems of Homer are found to be two great treasure houses of discoveries of the natural law of the gentes among the still barbarous Greeks’ (NS 7; Vico 1975, 7); Axiom twenty: ‘If the poems of Homer are civll histories of ancient Greek customs, they will be two great treasure houses of natural law of the Gentes of Greece’. (NS 156; Vico 1975, 65).

Vico refers to that institutions mentioned in Homer that could have existed without writing. These include customary laws, the agora (citizens’ assembly), and the ‘boule’ (a secretive meeting of the nobles) (NS 521; Vico 1975, 160-161). Laws were discussed in secret in the boule and then publicised in the agora. The secret discussion in the boule is part of the aristocratic-heroic approach in which the  nobles exclude the animal like plebeians from their sacred order, and its correspondingly sacred discussions, so that only what they want to be revealed is revealed at the agora. The boule and agora were institutions of Athens centuries after Homer, and and many centuries after the events Homer described, so Vico himself may be seeing something in Homer which was only properly institutionalised later.

Vico argues in New Science 338 (Vico 1975, 100), the opening of the section on Method that concludes Book I, that the study of Homer as the source of knowledge of barbarism must be accompanied by the study of ancient mythology and philosophy (highlighting Epicurus), along with the seventeenth century political and legal thought of Hugo Grotius,Thomas Hobbes, and Samuel Pufendorf. In this latter emphasis he is drawing attention to the three earliest figures in what we know know as the social contract or contractarian tradition in political and legal thought. There is a issue about the relation of contract theory to natural law theory, that is to say the relation between deriving the legitimacy of laws from a voluntary contract that founds society under laws and political institutions on one side and deriving the legitimacy of laws from the principles which reason shows all humans when thinking correctly and which may come from God. The natural law theory precedes contract theory, going back as it does to a definition given by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics].

The generally accepted view of contract theory is that it has roots in Grotius’ account of the origins of law in agreement as in ‘The Preliminary Discourse’ of The Rights of War and Peace (Grotius, 2005, vol. I, 75-132), which also emphasises natural right. Accounts by Hobbes in Leviathan and Pufendorf in The Whole Duty of Man, According to the Law of Nature (2003) build a more explicit theory of laws and institutions that rest on a moment of contract that establishes the basic conditions of law and institutions to enforce law, which also make decisions about how they can best maintain themselves, that is exist as political institutions as well as legal institutions, so establishing the sphere of politics. The idea is continued in Locke and Rousseau, and then in Kant where it becomes more of a general condition than a historical moment. This way of thinking was revived in the late twentieth century by John Rawls and Robert Nozick, if in a rather formalised way compared with the figures mentioned by Vico.

Vico’s account suggests a strong liaison between the emergence of contract theory and the development of a philological-historical-philosophical approach to Homer and literature, though not only contract theory since Niccoló Machiavelli is also invoked, though very briefly (New Science 1003, 1109). Vico would surely have said more if Machiavellianism had not become a synonym for evil or if he had been writing in circumstances less constrained by Catholic conservatism. There are other early modern political theorists, not associated with contract theory, who feature in the New Science: John Selden, the British jurist and Hebrew scholar; Jean Bodin.

So in general, Vico sees political thought of the seventeenth century, with regard to all theories of law and the state, as establishing a model of thinking concerned with a historical understanding based on philology, laws, and the form of the state. During the eighteenth century there were there two major political thinkers who also wrote novels, Rousseau (Julie or the New Eloise, Émile) and Montesquieu (Persian Letters), with the trend persisting into the early nineteenth century in Benjamin Constant (Adolphe).

These novels arise, because in that time they were an inviting way to deal with the passions and sympathies within civil society, that are necessary to the functioning of civil society, but are not very readily captured by theories of law and the state. So these novels, at least in part, share the role of  theories of ethical sentiment in the late eighteenth century (Adam Smith, David Hume), which provide psychological mechanisms and moral theory of a kind which explains how there can be civil society and co-operative associations between people in a world where natural law seems less plausible as a unifying explanation of institutions of justice and individual virtues.

Vico’s thought in the New Science anticipates these developments, because it puts narrative fiction at the heart of the understanding of society, with regard to its institutions, laws, religion, customs, and ethics. The philological investigation of the institutions of the past means investigating literature and its also means treating law as literature, as can be seen in the discussion of the origin of ‘persona’ in Roman law (New Science 1033-1036) in the ‘Final Proofs’ of Book IV.

In conformity with such natures, ancient jurisprudence was throughout poetic. By its fictions what had happened was taken as not having happened, and what had not happened as having happened; those not yet born as already born; the living as dead; and the dead as still living in their estates pending acceptance. It introduced so many empty masks without subjects, jura imaginaria, rights invented by imagination. It rested its entire reputation on inventing such fables as might preserve the gravity of the laws and do justice to the facts. Thus all the fictions of ancient jurisprudence were truths under masks, and the formulae in which the laws were expressed, because of their strict measures of such and so many words—admitting neither addition, subtraction, nor alteration—were called carmina, or songs […].

(NS 1036/Vico 1975, 390)

The Roman laws were fictions and the products of imagination in their references to future and hypothetical circumstances, the fables used to justify the property owning structure as its existed. These were stories that both preserved the laws and were true to the facts, so carrying out the function of reconciling general principles with particular circumstances, sanctification and realism. The duality of law between fiction and fact extended to the emptiness of masks, as in the legal persona that exists for the purposes of legal decisions, and the truths underneath in which existing social relations are recognised. Law has a Homeric foundation for Vico in the violence with which the barbaric heroes enforce their rights, and in the sacred secrecy observed with regard to the laws, known only to the  aristocrats-priests, though that latter point comes more from Roman history than Homer. Vico emphases that the heroic-aristocratic period emphases obsession with the literal meaning of laws, and the extreme enforcement of what they are taken to mean. The idea of contextuality and variability of interpretation of the law emerges in the human-democratic era and is perfected in the democratic monarchy that judges every case with regard to its own context, interpreting the law anew at every instance.

The emphasis on the democratic sympathy and contextuality with which laws are interpreted bring us again to the modern novel as the place where egalitarian moral sentiments and humane interpretation of law typically enter into a struggle with older forms, which are more suited to the epic world of remorseless warrior nobles.

More on the philosophy and literature theme coming soon