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On Politics: Rousseau

[This is a summary of our discussion of chapter 15 in Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Ulla S. Koch]

We discussed J.-J. Rousseau for half an hour and came to the conclusion that nobody understood him, least of all he himself. He led what seems to have been a miserable personal life, loosing his mother before he even got to know her, abandoning all his five children in his turn. He had had knack for making enemies and his books were burned in his home town of Geneva. Eventually he went mad. However, he was a gifted writer and composer and many of his ideas are today so engrained in our common consciousness that we take them for granted (p. 533).

In the Social Contract (1762) he outlined his idea of a perfect society, which was not the product of a revolution but was modelled on the Roman Republic and ancient Sparta. Despite being a reactionary politcal thinker, he became the inspiration for radicals. He was part of the French enlightenment subscribing to it’s ideals of rationality and the impartiality of laws, but was at the same time its prime contemporary critic, since he emphasized the importance of human irrational feelings and antisocial urges in the creation of society. In Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) he claims that contemporary man was overeducated and in all respects inferior to his noble, unlettered, forebears.
Like Plato, R. was an idealist who took his starting point in his belief that man by nature is good. Mankind is characterized by two fundamental qualities, a “love of self”, or urge for selfpreservation, and empathy (pitié) for his fellows (i.e. not innately bad as Hobbes surmised, or burdened with original sin). This means that if uncorrupted by life in modern society our natural tendency would be to help, or at least avoid harming, any other sentient being. This was a radical break with earlier especially Christian theorists, paving the way for the discussions of nature vs. nuture in modern psychology and sociology. The source of all the miseries of modern society is, according to his work Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755), private property rights (p. 547). The reason why a state exists at all is to prevent civil war, which is latent in society – not because of the instincts of natural man but because of socialized man and his yearning for property and the concomitant estrangement from his fellow man. States originally emerged when populations increased and makind accordingly was driven to coordinate and develop language and other means of social interaction and organization (p. 544).

Again like Plato, Rousseau sees education as the means to enabling man to preserve his innate goodness even in the face of the detrimental forces of society. In Emile ou de l’education he describes how to develop a boy into a man by allowing him to live as close as possible to his original innocent state of nature. A tutor can gently guide and mould a young man by setting the scene for him to make his own discoveries and deductions. But the best solution remains to adopt the life of a hermit, free from competition, envy fear and admiration (he could also try attending the mindfulness seminars at Oxford).
With his break with the concept of original sin led him towards theories that approch the theory of evolution (p. 540), mankind was somewhere on the continuum along with the great apes. He builds on the ancient idea that mankind has developed through a series of stages (p. 545). What is interesting is that he sees technological advances, like farming and metal working as the drivers for change (and hence corruption) – as a modern day archaeologist I concur.

His ideas on the evolution of human society, on pedagogical principles (children should be treated as children) the importance of external factors on personality formation are at least part of his legacy.

On Politics: Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu

[This is a summary of our discussion of chapters 12-14 in Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Ulla S. Koch]

The three chapters were interesting and contained a lot of information – this is just notes on what I found interesting.

Hobbes (1588-1679) sets out with a thought experiment – what would a nation without government be like? Undoubtedly his answer was inspired by the current circumstances in England which was ravaged by civil war. He assumes that man is driven by a relentless desire for his own good and for the means of achieving it, i.e. power. Even though men are born with different degress of physical strength other abilities, such as skill and cleverness, can be gained by everybody and even out the playing field. This equality is not good, since it in turn leads to uncertainty. In the state of nature everybody fights everybody else, as he famously put it, life would be nasty, brutish and short.
In this state of nature, a basic right is to fight and do everything in your power to preserve life and limb. But it is not a right in any moral sense, it is more like an instinct. Natural laws are what serves to preserve life, and they are hypothetical not based on observation. A sense of right and wrong only exists in an ordered society. Evil and good are only meaningful in relation to laws. Hobbes’ concept of natural law is thus totally different from those we have read about earlier (e.g. the stoics) since it is not the expression man’s innate rational and moral character. However, man only has the right to what he needs to preserve his life, not violence against others. This smacks of a morality outside society, so he is not entirely consistent. Society springs from a (rational) longing for peace as a freedom from fear according to his Elements of Law. In Leviathan the driver is fear alone. In Leviathan, fear and rationality allows man to formulate laws and release some of his independence. Laws are dictates from a law-giver and are a restriction of rights. The given laws can not be measured as “just” or “unjust” – that would be meaningless since “just” and “unjust” are defined by the laws.
Hobbes thinks that language is a necessary prerequisite for any kind of society – and also for the existence of natural laws – because natural laws are rational and ratio demands language. He assumes that language is a means to understanding what goes on in the mind of another, which is impossible but a nice thought. The dependance of thought upon language is still a hot topic.
To Hobbes man is a-social, and only becomes social by reasoning (unlike Aristotle’s concept of man as a social animal). Even reason and fear is not enough to drive man to cooperate, only force can curb his appetite for power. The only way ahead is to transfer all power to a sovereign, who imposes law on his subjects who must submit – with the exeption of accepting the death penalty. If the state seeks to kill a citizen it has reverted to being a part in the state of nature. Absolute power can be divided between all (democracy), few (aristocracy) and one (monarchy) – the most efficient is monarchy, because the monarch’s and societies interests are one and the same (no competition between equals). Fear of death makes man want government rather than the state of nature. People have no right to rebellion under any circumstances.

Locke (1632-1704) Two Treatises (1679-80 published anon. 1690). According to Locke natural law dictates that man look after his own interests but not to the detriment of others. Man is born in the state of nature – in the state of nature everybody is equal and free – and reasonable. This rhymes more with the Stoics – natural law as an inate moral codex. Locke is more positive when it comes to human nature. In nature man posses things and has a right to defend them. Locke does not believe that god gave the earth to Adam but to mankind. Personal ownership rights are based on his labour, which he alone owns. If he adds his labour to a thing in a natural state, he adds considerable value and it is only reasonable that he owns it (foreshadows of Marx and Ricardo). Surplus can be stored as money.
He critizes Filmer saying that political power does not stem from the patriarchy of Adam, it is not a right but a duty to take care of your off-spring. However, the moral obligation to honour your parents is not a political obligation – it is absurd to suppose that the Bible can prove a moral obligation to obey the powers that be. To obey is a free choice, the state is created by man to serve man’s purposes.
The state has three kinds of power: the right to pass laws and sentences, the right to enforce the laws, and the right to defend society (foederal). Man seeks society and a state in order to protect his life and goods. He gives up certain rights in order to do so. This he can do silently merely by availing himself of the services society and the laws provide, e.g. the roads and other infrastructure. The powers that be have no right to take anything that is not willingly given – that is a breach of the social contract. Overtaxation for instance may lead to rebellion since it is not in the interest of society. e

Montesquieu (1689-1755) Spirit of the Laws builds on Locke’s division of power and changes them to: lawgiving, judging, and law enforcing, dividing Locke’s first group in two since this ensures impartiality better (executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government) which in turn stabilizes the state.
Harrington Glorified Cromwell in the utopia Oceana (1656). A balance between political and economic power is necessary otherwise civil war or revolution ensue. Those who own the most should also have the most power – anything else creates an imbalance.
Filmer was a proponent of absolute monarchy (Patriarchia). He argues against Hobbes’ man-made society (based on fear) and claims that society derives from Adam, whom god gave the earth and everything on it as a gift. All societies are based on that first family. As a father has universal power over his children (because he has produced them himself, hmpf) a sovereign has power over his subjects. Man is never born free but always into a society (he has a valid point there). According to the Bible, Adam owned everything, nothing was ever held in common. Only absolute monarchy serves god’s purpose and man is not free by nature. Filmer was “politically correct” at the time but was critizesed nonetheless.

We plan to meet again January 18th and do Rousseau, Founding of American & French Revolution.

On Politics: Humanism, Reformation, and Machiavelli

[This is a summary of our discussion of chaptes 9-11 in Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Jotun Hein]

For some reason it was easier to get an overview over today’s 3 chapters.

Again OP shies away from definitions/concepts and there is much biographical and historical description. Readable, but I get lost in Florentine intrigues which seems key to both Dante’s and Machiavelli’s life.

All three chapters are variants on a common theme: A shift from the God/Church governed universe towards having the individual as key player. At the personal level, at the relationship of the individuals relation to God and in politics. We had a lot of discussions of how this transition came about. Explanations invoking the Black Death [150 years before], which created labour shortage and greater internal mobility, the rise of cities and artisan trade, the appearance of printing and more general ability to read as a result of secular education.

Over time, I have read a lot on these topics, but I regret that I haven’t read the primary literature like THE PRINCE, UTOPIA, PRAISE OF FOLLY…. They seem like fun little readable books.

I should like to read more about the Münster rebellion. We will meet again December 14th and discuss Hobbes-Locke-Republicanism.

On Politics: Augustine, Aquinas and their synthesis

[This is a summary of our discussion of chaptes 7 and 8 of Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Jotun Hein]

I read the chapter on 14th century [7] and we had an intense discussion about this and the Aquinas chapter. The discussion was very motivating and people really had a lot of expertises and thus comments that highly supplemented the book.

The main questions were: “Why Aristotle returned with such force in 11-13th century”, “What was the consequences of the Platonism of St. Augustin and the Aristoleanism of Acquinas”, and why did these two thinkers become so dominant after their own life time and what were their ideological purpose.

Chapter 8 covered Dante, Marselius of Padua, Barrolus and Ockham. I only knew Dante’s Divine Comedy and “the new life” about his love for Beatrice, but in this chapter “De Monarchia” was discussed where he argued for a strong king.

I decided to browse Summa Theologica but was deterred when I discovered it was 4000 pages.

In the discussion managed consistently to refer to “The 10 Commandments” as the “The 10 Amendments”. I apologise (to whom?? Maybe Richard Dawkins…)

I wonder what I will think of “On Politics” when I get to the end.

We will meet again close to November 30th and discuss chapters 9-10-11

On Politics: Aristotle, Cicero and Polybius

[This is a summary of our discussion of chapters 3 and 4 of Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Jotun Hein]

Aristotle: Politics is not Philosophy [40 pages]

I still find the book a bit hard to discuss as much of it is a narrative so one has to extract concepts. But it was fun to talk about Aristotle more emperical approach, his invocation of what was natural in explanation of who should be a slave, the role women. He hand many considerations on how to avoid Stasis/Gridlock.
Aristotle clearly loves to classify – constututions, animals and causes. From modern perspective some can see naïve but 2 millenea ago, this empiricial curiousity was radical. Bertrand Russell (that Alan Ryan calls one of his role models) called Aristotle overrated, but said it wasn’t Aristotles fault.

Cicero and Polybius [30 Pages]

Again interesting with interesting observations on what was the casue of the success of Rome, the nature of a good constitution, an optimal wealth distribution, checks and balances, the advantages of a mixed constutution. Cicero’ emphasis that an unjust law is not a law.
Given the amount of turmoil/coups/executions in Roman history, I would have had little inclination to study the principles garanteeing an ideal state had I lived then.
Since these two are early in Rome, the could only comment on the first 1/3 or Romes history.

I didn’t know Cicero had hands and head cut off and placed outside the Senate.

Although the book is long, several thinkers are not mentioned: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Plotinus. It would also have been interesting to know more about non-western views to politics. But the book is already a 1000 pages.

The amount of texts that have been lost and where we only have fragmentary knowledge is truly frustrating. Most of Polybius large history of Rome [Rise of the Roman Empire] has been lost. At least 3 works related to politics – On Duties, On the Republic, On the Laws – have survived. If somebody knows a book on the genealogies of such manuscripts it would be fun to read.

On Politics: Initial reflections, Herodotus, and Plato

[This is a summary of our discussion of chapters 1 and 2 in Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Jotun Hein]

I will not try to summarise the chapters, but rather focus on what still puzzled me after reading/discussing them.

I look much forward to read this book. And from dipping into it, I think it is highly readable. Thus 11 months from now I will know much more on the History of Political Thought than I do now. It looks as a narrative and thus easy to read, potentially at the cost of technicalities. I am interested in how political thoughts actually is observable in political institutions and processes, thus the empirical aspects of Politics, and suspect the book is weak on that.
Although a 1000 pages, this book is clearly short compared to some of its precursors.

Chapter 1 – Herodotus [30 pages] 

has very little description of political concepts, but is mainly about Greek [especially Athen’s] war history from about 480-312 and almost as much about Thycudis. The main wars were the Persian and Peloponesian Wars and Athen’s misguided imperial adventure in Syracuse. It would have been nice to hear more about the actual electoral process, the number of elections and the issues. Not that there aren’t interesting issues here.
Describes the sized of Athenian population and who could vote; about 12-15 percent. This clearly was a radically large fraction, but there must have been voting assemblies before.

Chapter 2 – Plato and Antipolitics [40 pages]

Focused on the concept of justice and; explored through the two writings of Gorgias and the Republic. I find the technique of dialogues interesting and puzzling. It is clearly fun and readable, like when when Socrates is told that he shouldn’t be allowed to go out without his nanny. But dialogues seems limited in what it can present or rather longwinded since it does not present facts or tenets, but the establishment of the truth or falsehood of a single proposition. Since there has been so much linguistic analysis of single sentences, I asked Ian Holmes recently for references on the analysis of dialogues, which he posted somewhere on my facebook page. Many concepts here that doesn’t go down well with a modern reader. It is harder to be a wrong-doer, than to be done wrong against and Plato is clearly anti-democratic.