A Funny Thing about French and British Classicists

I explain here how I came to find that a 1973 work of British classicism is available in a cheaper and more recent edition in France than in Britain, and decided for the first time that I need to read a French translation of an English text.

It all comes from exploring the classicist background, in the 19th and 20th centuries, to Michel Foucault’s work on antique ethics and political thought.

This little story starts in London last Summer when I was looking round the second hand section, of Waterstone’s bookshop in Bloomsbury , for an interesting possibly out of print book presenting some major work of classical scholarship to compare with Foucault.  What I stumbled upon was The Greek City and its Institutions by Gustave Glotz (Routledge 1965).  I read it with increasing interest as a text that seems broadly in line with Foucault’s understanding.

What I noticed then was that Glotz belongs to a great stream of French classicism which is part of Foucault’s context,  Glotz published La cité grecque in 1928; and it can be taken as a ‘democratic’ reading of antiquity in reaction to the work Fustel de Coulange’s Ancient City of 1864, which has a traditionalist, pietist, conformist view of antiquity.  Coulange’s book has a reputation outside classicism as a work of sociology and political thought which drew me to reading it.  Glotz’s book is in print in French, a 1988 edition (Albin Michel).

On looking at Claude Mossé’s preface to that edition, I noticed the importance of Moses Finley for French classicists, particularly his book Democracy Ancient and Modern (a title which refers to Benjamin Constant’s early 19th century essay, ‘On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of Moderns’ which has its own considerable interest).  So I checked Amazon UK, and thenAmazon France, because it might be a good idea to get the French edition to understand how Finley was taken up in the classicist tradition preceding Foucault.

What do I find>

English language edition, Princeton University Press, 1985, one year before Finley died.  No edition since with added scholarly apparatus. Price £ 19.90

French language edition. Payot 2003.  Preface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, himself a great name in classical studies. Price € 8.08 (the pound sterling is worth about 1.15 Euros).

So the French edition is more than half as cheap, is more recent, and has some additional thoughts from a great classical scholar.  I certainly would not have predicted that, I will try to work out what is behind this little but intriguing oddity.

From Foucault to a Straussian on Athenian Democracy

Reading I’ve been doing on Ancient democracy, in large part (though very certainly not exclusively) because of work on what Foucault says about antique politics, has led me to both some classic works on the antique polis, and to some more recent work.  I was surprised to find that I had unawares picked up a book by a Straussian with the innocuous title Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens, Arlene W. Saxonhouse  (Cambridge University Press, 2006).  For those not already the know, Straussians are followers of Leo Strauss, a political philosopher of German origin who did most of his best known work in the United States.  This isn’t the place to discuss Strauss properly, my best summary right now is that he was a Platonist who saw democracy as threatened by nihilism unless grounded in Platonic natural law and virtue, though he may have seen those more as ways of masking nihilism rather than overcoming it.  He famously influenced some Neo-Conservatives in America, but also influenced some left leaning American political thinkers like William Galston.  In general, he appeals to those who tend to fear moral, political, and cultural decline.

Saxonhouse’s book seems like a scholarly and well written wrok to my non-specialist eyes, nevertheless of intrusion of Straussian orthodoxy is wearying.  Machiavelli ‘s arguments in favour of tension between classes as an incitement of political engagement, and the strength of a republic, are apparently not ‘really’ arguments in favour of democracy, but a form of psychological manipulation by the state.  The argument makes no sense to me as a reading of Machiavelli, and Saxonhouse does nothing to convince me that it makes any sense.  This is typical of Stauss who regarded Machiavelli, along with Nietzsche, as the preacher of moral nihilism.  A tiresomely one sided view resting on cliches which have long interrupted the proper understanding of both.

That was the worse moment for me, there’s a lots of interesting commentary on the role of parrhesia (free speaking) and isegoria (equality of status) in Athenian democracy.  It’s all very reminiscent of Foucault in its points of reference, though if she took inspiration from Foucault she keeps quiet about it.  As far as I can see Foucault’s work is well known amongst classicists and classicists did not refer as much to parrhesia and isegoria before Foucault wrote about them, as they did afterwards.  Maybe Foucault is too ‘nihilistic’ for the Struassians.  He features exactly twice in Saxonhouse’s index, which is even more strange we consider how much attention Saxanhouse pays to tragedy, particularly Euripides, in her discussion of parrhesia.  Foucault had done the same.

Saxonhouse does have some interesting things to say about shame and democratic discourse.  She argues that Socrates was put on trial because he took the element of shamelessness in democratic discourse to the extreme.  She also claims that this element in Plato’s dialogues links him with democracy as well.  The discussion is a good one, but is somewhat conditioned by the Straussian belief that democracy is the regime with which philosophers can best live in practice, engaging in a kind of coded discourse to avoid upsetting popular morality and religiosity.  Strauss comes pretty close to saying that the negative nihilism he attributes to Machiavelli and Nietzsche is true, but philosophers should not say so openly.   The Straussian assumptions are not acknowledged of examined by Saxonhouse, which is a deficiency, but an apparently inevitable one if Straussians.  They like to pronounce rather than explain, examine and defend their assumptions.

>Reading about Liberty and Democracy in Ancient Greece

>I’ve been reading about ancient history to put philosophical ideas, about liberty and democracy, of the time into context.  I’ve read some 19th century work which itself has become part of the history of thought about liberty (Jakob Burckhardt and Numa-Denis Fustel de Coulanges); and now I’m onto some recent scholarship.  Recently I’ve read through the edited volume Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, by Kurt A. Raaflaub, Josiah Ober and Robert W. Wallace with contributions from Paul Cartledge and Cynthia Farrar (University of California Press).

I don’t have a very systematic view of the book, I read it more to get views informed by recent scholarship influencing my thinking at a basic level.  Anyway, it was very interesting reading and here are some of the points I picked up as relevant to my interests.

1.  Role of the military in the development of democracy.  Something I was aware of already, but the volume deepened my understanding of debates about how hoplites and sailors influenced Athenian democracy.  The rise of the hoplites, heavy infantry armed with spears in a large rigid and deep formation, as central to Greek war, has often been linked with a political move from the aristocracy who were cavalry to the lower classes.  However, as hoplites were heavy infantry with armour, they were not the poorest at all.  Sailors, and oarsmen, on naval boats represented a lower class.  This would explain why Athens became the famous example of democracy, it was the trading city with the most important navy in the Greek world.
2.  Comparisons of Athens and Rome in the evolution of democracy, including the military history.  This reinforces the Athens versus Rome element of republican political theory in the present century, and in the last.  Hannah Arendt’s republicanism was ‘Athenian’ and Philip Pettit’s is Roman.
3.  The uncertainty of the stages in which Athens reached its most democratic stage.  Athenians read democracy back into the legendary law maker Solon, and even the legendary Theseus, when democrac may have largely arisen recently from Cleisthenes.
4.  The democracy of Cleisthenes presumed the erosion of the power of the Aeropagus, the law court linked withe the aristocracy.  The aeopagus survived for centuries more, but it was deprived of a large part of its power in the democratic period, in comparison with bodies selected by lottery or by rotation.  That might be one reason Athenian democracy seemed demagogic and irresponsible to some of the best minds of the time (e.g. Plato and Xenophon).
5.  Aeschylus tragedy the Eumenides ( Kindly Ones), the last part of the Oresteia, which gives a mythical origin to the Aeropagus, should be seen in the context of the transformation mentioned in point 4 above.
6.  Differing points of view about the relation between social struggles and emergence of democracy.  How far can we see the emergence of democracy as coming from the struggles of the poorer classes for power and economic benefits?
7.  How far can we see Sparta as a democracy for that small part of the population who were full citizens?  Probably less of a democracy than the laws in themselves suggest.
8.  When does oligarchy or a mixed constitution become a democracy?  The ambiguity comes from the defining the point at which it can be said that enough of the people have political rights, for there to be a democracy.
9.  How far can see democracy as present, in some way, in the voice sometimes given the soldier-peasants in Homer?  If we can, then in some way democracy was always present in the Ancient Greek world, or at least as far as we have written culture.  This links with issues of how far democratic institutions later on emerge from already existing equality of political rights and liberties.

>Me on Polybius at LiberalVision

>I’ve just posted something at LiberalVision on Polybius, The Greek-Roman historian whose discussion of the Roman constitution was very influential on ideas about liberty.  He was for example referred to in discussions around the American constitution.  This connects with my last post here which deals with Athens, Rome, Sparta and modern democracy.  In general, I discuss the relation between ancient ideas of liberty and modern liberalism.  A major topic, which Benjamin Constant famously referred to as the comparison of the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  All topics of great general interest to me, and which I will discuss here in future.

>Ancient Greece and Rome: Civic Freedom or Unlimited Religious Government?

>I’ve just been reading Fustel de Coulange’s classic 1860s account of Ancient Greek ethics, religion, tradition, and politics in the city state (The Ancient City).  Click for the edition I’ve been reading.  Click here for free text in French in various formats.  Click here for free pdf in English. 

I’ve been reading a lot about ancient politics, and democracy, or probably a lot for a non-specialist, as background to some work on Michel Foucault, on ancient politics, and general interest in the political theory implications of what Benjamin Constant referred to as the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Constant referred to the unlimited authority of the social body in the ancient world, including the city republics of Rome and Greece.  He did also make some differentiation between different republics, and particularly picked out Athens as closer to modern liberty, which Constant considered to largely consisting of freedom from state interference, and freedom to pursue self-determined ideals and life projects .

Coulange takes the idea of unlimited authority of the social body as the essential aspect of ancient city states.  He sees them as born from communities of pietistic tradition, in which worshipping the same gods, absolute paternal authority, closeness to where ancestors lived, respect for ancestors, and suspicion of foreigners in relation to  natives were fundamental.

Coulanges emphasises the continuity of this situation from the earliest settled human communities, in India, as well as in Greece and Italy, right up to the Roman Empire.  Ancient emocracy he sees as just a variation on this emphasising that in democratic Rome and Athens a foreigner could not have political rights, because such a person could not have the same gods, and it would therefore be impious to allow them into political office.

Variations also appear, which maybe challenge the more monolithic aspects of Coulange’s account.  These include the rise of Sophism in Ancient Greece which led to challenges to the moral basis of city law, and in reaction to that a Platonic search for justice above law.  Christianity, which was part of the late Roman Empire is seen as undermining the old form of state piety, because of the transcendental nature of the Christian god.  Coulanges also notes the the Epicurean and Cynic schools advocated abstention from politics before Christianity challenged the absolute status of the ancient state.  Coulanges’ account of the Roman Empire, refers to it as a system which was uniquely able to integrate many religions into its religious-state system.  He traces this back to the mythical and pre-historical origins of Rome from Latins, Etruscans, Sabines, `Greeks and Trojans.  Coulanges sees this mixture, which appears in some form in the legends and myths of early Rome (the founders Romulus and Remus were descended from the Trojan Aeneas, in their early years the Romans abducted the Sabine women, and then allied with the Sabine people, some kings were Etruscan etc).

Roman history and mythology certainly puts an extraordinary emphasis on duality of various kinds.  (Trojans and Latins; Romulus and Remus, Romans and Sabines, the two consuls who took over the powers of the early kings in the republican period, a dictator always appointed a master of horse).  Quite how sound Coulange’s own claim is, I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth investigating.  His claim of the uniqueness of Rome is perhaps difficult to reconcile with his generalising arguments, but it is certainly an intriguing and productive tension.

A historical classic with many ideas in sociology, political theory, anthropology, and so on.  Well worth comparing with Nietzsche (particularly Nietzsche’s account of antiquity in Genealogy of Morals, Essay I. ), as well as with Weber, and with Foucault himself.