Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne I: de La Boetie (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

my latest post at the group blog Notes On Liberty

Notes On Liberty

Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563) was from Sarlat in the southwest of France. He developed strong interests in poetry, classics, and politics as a youth and was rather precocious. It has even been suggested that he wrote his great political essay ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ (also known as ‘One against All’) at the age of sixteen, though there is no universally accepted date for its composition. He started a career as a judge in Bourdeaux at an unusual age, followed up by diplomatic work. He was also a translator of Greek classics and a poet who associated with a distinguished group that included the greatest French Renaissance poet Pierre Ronsard.

De La Boétie died at a sadly young age, but before that he wrote the great political essay under discussion here, and made friends with the Bordeaux judge and author of the Essays, one of the great works of…

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The Death of Stoicism and the Birth of Aesthetics

My latest post at the group blog New APPS

There is some exaggeration in referring to the death of Stoicism, of course its ethics (which is what concerns us here) is still of interest and has even had a revival, popular and academic in recent years. Nevertheless there really was a death of Stoicism in that the influence  it had from its Hellenistic and Roman beginnings to the eighteenth century in defining ethics has gone. The influence was not quite dominance, since Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was a major text in the field for much of that period, and many people’s idea of ethics was shaped by Cicero’s On Ends.

However, the Stoic ethical texts of Seneca and Epictetus set the tone for the understanding of other ethical texts, in the emphasis on reason over desire, and independence from external circumstances. Seneca as a character was a philosophical martyr to tyranny on a level close to that of Socrates in a manner that is no longer with us. His forced suicide resulting from the persecutions of Nero served as a widely understood contrast of ethical mastery of desire with the triumph of desire over reason in the tyrannical personality.

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Florentine Liberty II: Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Notes On Liberty

Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all…

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Florentine Liberty I: Machiavelli, The Prince (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Notes On Liberty

I have already addressed Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy here and I may well come back to them later. However, in the present post I will discuss the famous Machiavelli text, which is concerned with states headed by princes rather than republics, the subject matter of the Discourses. This will itself be the the first half of a two part discussion of liberty in Florence, with a second half on Guicciardini.

The city state of Florence had a history self-government, often republican rather than princely, going back to the eleventh century, when it broke away from the control of German emperors. Its role in republican political thought goes back to the thirteenth century as does its role as an early centre of capitalism, suggesting a connection between the economic development and the movement of political thought.

The first notable republican writer was Dante’s guardian…

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Republicanism and Nostalgia

My latest post at the group blog New APPS

The idea of a republic has been very tied up from the beginning with the idea of loss, even when linked with the hope for a new beginning. The first great political text of republican political theory may be the Funeral Oration of Pericles as reported (invented?) by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War, where the defence of the Athenian form of self-government as tolerant and cultured, as well as heroic in war, is articulated in a speech of mourning. It is the loss of the lives of the citizen soldiers of Athens that provides an opportunity for putting foward the general greatness of Athens. So a rather immediate sense of loss is the moment for an imformal pit of republican theory. The speech itself is a model for later commentary on republics and democracy, including Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which echoes some phrases from Thucydides and is again a celebration of a republic driven in its rhetoric of passion but the immediacy of loss.

The model that Pericles, Thucydides, and other writers of Classical Greece, have for courage in war as a civic virtue, does not come from a republic though. It comes from the Homeric epics of the Mycenaean monarchs at war, kings and heroes from societies where those who rule states and command armies are close to the gods, and those commanded are from some lower order of life. Nevertheless Homer permeates the culture of classical Greece. Pottery surviving from Athens of that era suggests a fascination with the martial courage of Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus, though many of Odysseus’ fights are wit mythical dangers rather than war in the most organised and politically defined sense. The broader nature of Odysseus’ struggles maybe give us an idea of a culture in which war seems to be part of a constant struggle with divine and natural dangers including fate and chance, along with the inevitability of death.

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European Identities and Histories

My latest post at the group blog New APPS

Discussions of European identity, and the history mostly revolve round two points of reference. One goes back to the origin of modern usage of Europe and European in the eight century around the struggle between Christian Franks and Muslim Moors, and then round the Frankish king Charlemagne who received the title of Emperor of the Romans, an event which questions the claim of the eastern and Greek Roman Empire, Byzantium, to continue the legacy of Rome there is an obvious religious focus here, which is Catholic Roman Christians as against Orthodox Greek Christians, and a Christian struggle against Islam. In Charlemagne’s reign the struggle to Christianise pagans is still very much an issue in northern Europe. So this is the Europe which is Catholic Christian, Frankish, and western Roman.

The other point of reference, one thousand years later, is the Enlightenment, so an origin in cosmopolitanism, rationalism, ethical universalism, secularism, and science is suggested. The Enlightenment does have a historical and geographical location in Europe, and particular concentrations within Europe. The most important focus for the cosmopolitan rationalist understanding of Europe is Königsberg, though purely Königsberg as the city of Kant. Kant is generally understood through his links to the west, to Scottish Enlightenment, the Enlightened despotism of Frederick the Great in Berlin, the Swiss-French Rousseau, and so on. Frederick II, King of Prussia was ruing over Kant’s location in East Prussia, but from Brandenburg and within the boundaries of the new Rome (in practice the German Empire) of Charlemagne.

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Expanding the Liberty Canon: Icelandic Sagas of the Middle Ages

My latest contribution at group blog Notes On Liberty

Notes On Liberty

A first in this series, a discussion of literary texts rather than a text covering political ideas through philosophical, historical, legal, or social science writing . One good reason for the new departure is simply that the sagas of Iceland have become a focus of debate about the possibility of a society with effective laws and courts, but no state. It has become  celebrated case in some pro-liberty circles largely because of an article by the anarchy-capitalist/individualist anarchist libertarian thinker David Friedman (son of Milton) in ‘Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case’, though it has also been widely studied   and sometimes at full book length by scholars not known for pro-liberty leanings. I somewhat doubt that Iceland of that era could b said to have purely private law, but I will let the reader judge from the descriptions that follow.

Other important things also come…

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