Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV: Social Analysis - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3
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IV: Social Analysis - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The emergence of the concept of society as a distinct entity from that of the state was a slow and gradual achievement. This “depoliticization” of society had ancient roots and increased in tempo with the development of liberalism in the classical sense. Commenting on some essential features of classical liberalism, R.M. Hartwell observes in his introduction to The Politicization of Society (Edited by Kenneth S. Templeton, Jr. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979, p. 7):
The fundamental tenet of classical liberalism was the sufficiency of individual self-determination in belief and conduct as the proper basis of economic and political policy. The main principles of liberalism were: first, in the sociopolitical field, individual freedom and, where it was mutually beneficial, collaboration on a voluntary basis; second, in the juridical field, individual property rights, freedom of contract, and the rule of law; and third, in the economic field, freedom of enterprise, in the form of the self-regulating market, unrestrained by political intervention.
Such themes will be found in the following summaries dealing with social analysis. Equally important, however is the spirit that informs this liberal attitude to man and his world. The liberal temperament, properly so-called, arises in modern Europe, but it should not be narrowly identified with the field of political economy. In the following summaries, we can discern the embryonic forms of the liberal spirit (though we should be cautious of anachronistic misreadings) in ancient Greece and Rome. In other cases, social thinkers who were, by no stretch of the imagination classical liberals, provided influential analyses and concepts that led to both liberal and nonliberal insights (see the cases of Plato, Cicero, and Gaius, the Roman jurist).
In effect, several of these summaries provide a useful archeology of the history of ideas; these summaries concern the various concepts and attitudes that were quarried and transformed into the more articulate and self-conscious liberal spirit of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Thus, David Shaefer's study of Montaigne (“Montaigne's Political Scepticism”)—included in our summaries—opens up for further research the social and political implications of a sixteenth century “litterateur” whose circle included Estienne de la Boétie and Bodin. [Shaefer pursues a parallel analysis of Montaigne as a seminal thinker in modern liberal political philosophy in his article “The Good, the Beautiful, and the Useful: Montaigne's Transvaluation of Values.” The American Political Science Review 73 (March 1979): 139–154]. Of course many more scholarly researches are needed to critically analyze the background of the liberal tradition. These researches need to be sensitive to the confused tangle of overlapping political, economic, legal, social, ethical, linguistic, and psychological strands of thought.
The Depoliticization of Society
“Aristippus in and out of Athems.” The American Political Science Review 73 (March 1979): 113–128.
Central concepts of classical Greek political philosophy are today anachronistic and tyrannical because of structural transformations in Western social institutions. For example, the Greeks held that the political state is identical with total society, that the polity is a “whole” that subsumes subordinate “parts.” This whole/part scheme was plausible in the ancient Greek polis because politics so colored and dominated most social institutions. But this politicized scheme became illusory in modern Europe with the emergence of liberal bourgeois capitalism. The growing independence of such non-political and semi-autonomous social realms as commerce and religion increasingly claimed the now self-conscious individuals' allegiance. In effect, society and free individuals gradually emerged distinct from the state.
Accordingly, modern attempts to revive the now obsolete premises of Greek politicized thinking harbor false assumptions: (1) that the state can be “humanized” as a family or community with a socially unifying purpose; and (2) that individuals are completely “political animals” that realize themselves through political identification. In the modern pluralist and individualist societies, attempts to return to the old Greek politicized whole/part scheme would tend toward tyranny as Benjamin Constant argued in his De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation (1814). Constant's crucial insight is that the modern revival of the old res publica concept of politics: “only serves to overlegitimize a technically efficient bureaucratic agency with police powers. The idea that only politics provides a ‘public space’ for human self-realization … makes it nearly impossible to understand why citizens might want to resist the coercive encroachments of a hypertrophic state.”
Today in the West we enjoy:
plenty of nonpolitical avenues of social interchange, and we take advantage of them everyday. It is, in fact, the rather improbable evolutionary emergence of a pluralistic and ‘centerless’ communicative network which lends plausibility to the modern liberal notion of ‘negative freedom,’ and especially to the idea that human beings should be free not to participate in politics.
Today democratic centralism would interfere with the naturally harmonious and voluntary arteries of true social action such as nonpolitical science, law, art, family, education, press, and the economy. Also, the modern separation of state and society renders implausible such classical moral claims (in Plato and Aristotle) as the emphasis on duties instead of rights and the subordination of the individual (or his chosen social agencies) to the all-encompassing state.
Aristippus, the article's title character, was a North African voluptuary and pupil of Socrates. As founder of the pleasure-approving and earthy Cyrenaic school he rejected the necessity of submerging his personal individuality in the civic collective. Aristippus believed (says Xenophon) that freedom is incompatible with the politics of ruling or being ruled: “I do not shut myself up in the four corners of a politeia.” Today Aristippus has become a type of the modern depoliticized individual.
Is Philosophy Politically Subversive?
“The Offense of Socrates: A Rereading of Plato's Apology.” Interpretation 7 (May 1978): 1–21.
In 399 B.C. Socrates was found guilty by an Athenian court of the charges of corrupting the youth and religious irreverence through his practice of philosophy. Plato's Apology gives the indictment as follows: “Socrates does wrong corrupting the youth and not respecting the gods whom the city respects, but other, new half-divinities.” We need to appreciate the plausibility of the guilty verdict to appreciate the real threat posed perennially to politics and the “city” by philosophy. The nonliberal tradition of Burckhardt and Sorel perceived how politically subversive Socrates was as the prototype of the questioning philosopher. How would we today deal with an analogous court case involving the perennial Socratic issue of the freethinker in collision with various religious, moral, or patriotic beliefs that we may hold sacred and unexamined?
Was Socrates guilty as charged? Important issues of political philosophy lurk in this question. On the surface Socrates rebuts the specific charges of corrupting the youth and religious impiety; but he turns his defense into an offensive and defiant provocation. His counterindictment of the Athenians—that they lack philosophic self-examination—exposes the political subversion always latent in philosophy.
In a disturbing sense Socrates is “guilty,” at least from the perspective of the political city. The Athenian jurors were infuriated by Socrates' tone and style of defense that invited conviction. On the charge that Socrates had novel notions about the city's gods, the jurors might naturally suspect Socrates' very personal and unorthodox inner voice, his daimonion, which pitted private conscience against public law and authority. On the other charge of corrupting the youth, the jury understood that Socrates communicated a “corrupting” esoteric teaching to his inner circle. Socrates' negative teaching, his exposing politicians, poets, and craftsmen to embarrasing crossexamination became an object lesson in skeptical attack for the young.
Decent, nonphilosophic jurors might well be suspicious of how Socrates' damonion made him refrain from participating in politics (31d). “This is Socrates' negative politics: to deny that the public realm is the truly political realm and to assert his inner logos intransigently in the service of the city.” What public good could result from the Socratic questioning that ended in perplexity and undermined the old orthodoxies? In effect, Socrates' court defense recapitulates his offenses as a philosopher against the city. The Apology implies: “When philosophy comes upon the city it comes as a threat.” Plato no doubt sensed this danger but also felt that “The side resisting enlightenment also has something vital to defend and should be addressed.”
Plato's Republic as a Political Dystopia
“Comedy in Callipolis: Animal Imagery in the Republic.” The American Political Science Review 72 (September 1978): 668–901.
Plato's dialogue, the Republic has often been taken as presenting Plato's vision of his own ideal state. The Greek name by which the state is called in the dialogue, Callipolis (“the Beautiful City”), at first sight supports this view. In fact, however, Plato's intention in the dialogue was to minimize the role of politics: he presented Callipolis as a city fit only for animals. In this way the customary portrayal of Plato as an enemy of freedom can be reversed: he was in fact a proponent of growth through an inward process involving the social rather than through external action.
Much of the Republic is organized in the form of a comedy, which in the Greek usage implies that the weakness of human nature is stressed. Men are presented in ridiculous fashion, and their pretensions are unmasked. This is particularly evident in the work of Aristophanes, whose comedies strongly influenced the Republic. For example, Aristophanes' The Birds depicts a utopian political society founded, as one might expect from the title, by birds.
Laughter is a frequent theme in the Republic: as Socrates presents the main features of Callipolis, he often laughs or evokes laughter in his audience. In contrast, in the ideal city itself, almost all laughter is banned.
Even more important is the frequent use of animal imagery in Plato's dialogue. The guardian class's breeding policies are compared to animal breeding, and the politician is likened to a shepherd whose concern for his sheep's welfare ends in butchering or exploiting them for his own ends. These references strongly support viewing the Callipolis as something to be avoided.
Plato's actual views on politics may be best discerned in other dialogues, such as the Gorgias. He believed in the inner cultivation of the soul. He contrasted self-development with political action in the city, to the detriment of politics.
Cicero and Modern Political Philosophy
“Cicero and the Rebirth of Political Philosophy.” The Political Science Reviewer 8 (Fall 1978): 63–101.
A tradition of hostile criticism—including Plutarch, Petrarch, and most of the nineteenth century, particularly the antiliberal historian Mommsen—has erroneously denigrated and underestimated the Cicero's achievement as a political thinker. This “fabric of criticism” has created the problem of the “two Ciceros”: Cicero the politician, the living man who was pragmatic, vainglorious, and overly attached to Roman power politics; and Cicero the author and moral philosopher, whose philosophic wisdom criticized unjust power and transcended the political and cultural limits of imperial Rome. Even after we dispose of the canard that Cicero was a “mindless eclectic,” we are left to resolve how he tried to reconcile power and philosophy, the city and man, in his political philosophy.
Though only partly successful, Cicero sought to encourage the birth and growth of moral and political philosophy in Rome. His significance as a principled defender of republican liberty and a mediator of the Socratic tradition of moral political philosophy was responsible for a more favorable estimate toward Cicero that was shared by early Christianity, the Renaissance humanists, and the liberal republican tradition in England and revolutionary America. Key works which trace how the classical republicanism associated with Cicero influenced later republicans, particularly the eighteenth century liberal Whigs are: Zera Fink, The Classical Republicans (1945), Robert Cummings, Human Nature and History (1968); Caroline Robbins, The English Common-wealthman (1959); and J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (1975). Yet despite the ferment of recent American scholarship concerning classical republicanism, political philosophers have shown little interest in examining the political thought of Cicero, one of the central thinkers in that tradition because of such works as his fragmentary De Re Publica and his De Legibus.
Two of the chief names associated with the revival of American political philosophy during the past generation have, however, studied Cicero more intensely: Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. It would illuminate the central issues of politics, to see how these two modern mediators of the tradition of political philosophy deal with the ancient Roman mediator of that tradition. Both Strauss and Voegelin regard Cicero as of secondary interest; their deemphasis of Cicero derives from their underlying principles of political philosophy. Whereas Zera Fink and Robert Cummings stress the continuities of Cicero's political thought with the modern liberal tradition, Strauss and Voegelin stress the discontinuities between the ancients and moderns. Strauss views the moderns as too democratic and not concerned enough with the
moral qualities of a good citizen. Voegelin sees Cicero as “more implicated in the development of Gnosticism and disorder” in an “Ecumenic Age” than in grasping the Platonic insight into being. Yet Cicero, as a bridge between practical policies and philosophy, should have more to offer these two modern political philosophers.
Strauss sees Cicero as a spokesman for the ancient philosophical understanding of politics. Between politics (the city) and philosophy (man) there is a tension. The philosopher, as a defender of the autonomous claims of philosophy before the city, is a potential political subversive. Accordingly, Strauss's analysis of Cicero's De Re Publica stresses the difficulty of reconciling justice and natural law or right with the legitimacy of the Roman Empire. Strauss sees a “radical gap between the philosophic life and the civil or moral life, between philosophy and the city.”
Voegelin finds Cicero difficient as a penetrating philosopher and too Rome-centered a patriot. Indicting Cicero of “Gnostic immanentization,” he believes the De Re Publica chauvinistically favors Roman politics over the philosophically ideal city. Cicero, too much a man of his pragmatic “Ecumenic Age,” was not in touch with “the order of reality through the revelation of one divine ground of all being as the Nous.”
The Roman Jurist Gaius and Social Thought
“Gaius Noster: Substructures of Western Social Thought.” American Historical Review 84 (June 1979): 619–648.
The second-century A.D. Roman jurist Gaius has exercised continuous, if often subterranean, influence in the development of the social sciences and of social concepts that transcend legal terminology. Although until the nineteenth century Gaius' Institutes of Civil Law was available only in the sixth-century summary provided in the Institutes of the Emperor Justinian, his method of analysis and approach to law nevertheless was followed by many important figures of medieval and modern history. This situation is in a way paradoxical, since Gaius himself is a neglected figure who has not been studied directly very much. “Gaianism” became a dominant archetype of social analysis. “Though by intent a method of teaching law, his book suggested an epistemology,” a paradigm to scientifically study society and culture.
In his attempt to codify Roman law, Gaius proceeded according to a threefold method. First, he considered persons (including degree of “liberty,” kinship, citizenship, and other social status); next objects; and, finally, the relations between persons and objects, i.e., actions. This tripartite classificatory scheme of persons, things, and actions to some extent reflects the influence of Greek philosophy, particularly the systematizing tendencies of Aristotle. In his stress upon beginning with the human world, however, Gaius displays the Roman tendency to avoid metaphysical abstractions divorced from practical considerations. The various uses to which Gaianism was put form “a historical and conceptual sort of palimpsest.”
Justinian's summary of Gaius' work altered its emphasis somewhat. (A similar transformation of Gaianism is apparent in each later epoch). Justinian placed greater importance on the power of the state than did Gaius, as one might expect from a Byzantine emperor. Justinian preserved the tripartite system of organization, however, and it is through his Institutes that the medieval jurists became acquainted with Gaius.
Both the twelfth-century commentators on Roman law at the University of Bologna and the thirteenth-century Glassators adhered to the methodological essentials of the Gaian tripartite scheme. Some of them, such as Baldus, the noted pupil of Bartolus, pointed out that the precepts of Roman law were not always true to historical reality.
In the sixteenth century, a revolution took place in legal studies. Some jurists favored a rationalizing method, proceeding in an almost geometric fashion. Others, influenced by the dialectic of Ramus and by humanism, wished to substitute rhetorical for logical principles of organization. Another school favored a more historical approach, wishing to supplement Roman law by feudal and other historical materials. Among the most important in the latter category were the jurists François Connan and Hugues Doneau. The attack upon the universal validity of Roman law was even more marked in the work of Jean Bodin, who argued that the sovereign was not bound by Roman precedent. Nevertheless, all of these writers display Gaian ways of thinking in their work.
The split between rationalist and historically descriptive methods in the study of law widened in the eighteenth century. Leibniz was perhaps the most ardent rationalist of the period, but the work of the great reviver of natural law, Hugo Grotius, shows that the Gaian tradition was still strong during this period.
The rise of the German Historical School of Law, whose greatest figure was Karl Marx's teacher, Friedrich von Savigny, represented a return to the humanistic preoccupations of Gaianism. Its stress upon particular legal institutions and historical detail as opposed to abstract generalizations did not at all mean that Gaius' tripartite scheme of classification was abandoned. On the contrary, it remained extremely influential, principally through the dominant position of legal studies in nineteenth-century education. Gaian categories played an important role in the rise of sociology, since the founders of the discipline were indebted to Savigny, who used the Gaian plan in his studies of Roman law.
The Myth of Social Hierarchy
“The Myth of Natural Hierarchy.” In The Politics of Social Knowledge. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978, pp. 1–22.
One of the major obstacles to progress in the social sciences has been the adoption of the assumption that social hierarchy is inevitable. Supporters of this view usually combine with it the claim that human nature is basically evil and irrational. The proponents of these anti-libertarian approaches are usually social reformers, regarding society as an object to be manipulated. A more productive attitude toward progress in the social sciences involves questioning the heroic assumption that social scientists can remake society. All such plans imply restrictive rules limiting social experimentation, which in their irrationality and self-defeating character are analogous to the thought processes characteristic of schizophrenia. One of the pioneers of a sounder analysis in the social sciences has been the psychologist Trigant Burrow, who believed that social neuroses should be studied from a biological standpoint.
The defenders of social hierarchy support their view by four types of arguments: psychological, contractual, metaphysical, and empirical. The first type assumed that command and obedience are intrinsic to human nature. Since, however, some people command while others must obey, the postulates of human nature suggested by this model are violated in hierarchical organizations. Similarly, in the contractual model, only those in power have freedom; the social contract makes the allegedly free contractors into slaves of the government. Metaphysical arguments about the necessity of order are arbitrary, and the empirical argument that non-hierarchical organizations cannot function ignores contrary evidence.
All of the arguments in favor of hierarchy rest on moves designed to make the position they defend infallibly true. For example, power will be defined in such a way that any claim that a non-coercive relationship exists will simply be defined away as a covert exercise of power. Such a procedure of making one's arguments true by definition should be replaced by a more open epistemology. As Paul Feyerband has pointed out, science has progressed through an “anything goes” policy of free experiment.
The same policy is needed in social affairs. Instead of a rigid hierarchy, freely experimenting social institutions should be encouraged.
Contract and Political Thought
“The history of Contract as a Motif in Political Thought.” The American Historical Review 4 (October 1979): 919–944.
The idea of contract has of course been crucial in the development of theories concerning liberty. The history of contract has been impeded, however, by a false paradigm elaborated by Otto von Gierke, which has dominated scholarly inquiry on this topic. Gierke's model should be replaced by one which emphasizes the linguistic and historical context of the various contractarian authors. We need to devote special care in determining what actually constitutes social contract.
Gierke, in his great work Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht, which appeared between 1868 and 1913, judged writers on contract by the extent to which they approximated an ideal model. The model contained two contracts: (1) a social contract establishing a government, founded upon the natural rights of individuals; and (2) a contract of lordship, in which the already constituted society determined its form of government.
Although the social contract was logically prior to the contract of lordship, it in fact succeeded it historically. Many medieval writers, Gierke claimed, accepted the notion of a contract of lordship and it had become by the early modern period a commonplace of discussion. What was new was the contention that society itself rested upon contract, a theory which Gierke found most elaborately developed by Althusius.
Gierke's overemphasis upon the dual contract ideal as an ideal model misleads him into downplaying authors such as Hobbes and Rousseau who do not adhere to it, even though they are major figures in the history of the idea of contract. Gierke often anachronisticaly judges (and misreads) writers by how they conform to a model which had not been formulated at all at the time they wrote. His misuse of evidence is especially apparent in his treatment of the sixteenth-century Spanish scholastics such as Suarez. Also, although Gierke regards Althusius' work as the culmination of the idea of contract, he is forced to admit that later writers did not accept the allegedly essential points of the ideal model of contract which Althusius had developed.
If Gierke's paradigm is abandoned, one can see that the view of contract held, for example, by the French Huguenots in the sixteenth century was not a contract theory as that term is understood today. Mornay, the probable author of the Vindiciae contra tyrranos (1579), postulated two contracts: (1) one between the king, the people, and God; and (2) the other between the king and people by themselves. He did not, however, believe that the institution of monarchy had been established on a contractual basis.
Similarly, the Calvinist theologians such as Theodore de Bèze who wrote on the issue of resistance emphasized the role of the fundamental laws of the kingdom, which were non-contractual. Even Gierke's great exemplar Althusius, although he did indeed found social institutions on contract, did not maintain that it was individuals who made the contracts. On the contrary, families and associations were the proper parties in a contract.
The connection between contracts and individual rights was first made by the English Levellers of the seventeenth century, such as Richard Overton. They did not have a notion of the state of nature, however; this was an innovation of Thomas Hobbes. The Hobbesian doctrine did not supplant the earlier ideas of a constitutional contract, in which some fundamental laws and institutions were held to lack a contractual basis. Both doctrines may be found, for example, in the work of John Locke.
Private vs. Public: the Domain of Freedom
“Public and Private.” Social Research 46 (Summer 1979): 255–271.
Political observers have noted a curious similarity in the political positions of right- and left-wing radicals. In recent years, this convergence has even led to joint conferences between the two groups. A common hatred of political bureaucracy and a call for decentralization comprise two important elements of this new concensus.
A second issue also unites both new-left radicals and neoconservatives: i.e. where does a just society draw the line between the public and private sectors? They differ sharply, however, as to where each party would draw that line. Nonetheless, the distinction between public and private pervades both ideologies. Prof. Van Gunsteren traces the roots and logic of the public/private dichotomy and next discusses the problematical nature of the modern corporation, an entity which defies classification in this traditional Western framework.
What are the contrasting elements which constitute our conception of what is public and private? Obviously, settings vary for each sphere, for example, homes vs. law courts. Activities take on different meanings depending on whether they occur in public or private settings. (It makes a big difference whether President Carter kisses Jacqueline Kennedy in public or alone in private.) Furthermore, the standards of the public sphere are objective (embodied in a constitution or corpus of law), and they allow for public access to all those considered members of the public. On the other hand, access to an area in the private sphere (a home or club) is under the subjective decision of the owner. In addition, each sphere utilizes differing forms of control over the actions of others: authority backed up by power and force in the public domain; self-interest, love, hate, and expertise in the private domain.
Throughout Western history, the distinction between public and private space has been essential to freedom and to the idea of the individual person. The existence of free individuals rests upon the act of self-awareness. Self-awareness occurs because human beings are able to view themselves from an excentric position. They can assume a “metastandpoint” from which they critically evaluate the relationship that exists between themselves and the environment. This objective metaspace belongs, by its very nature, to the private realm. Modern political thinking, thus, postulates the maintenance of the public/private boundary as basic to the possibility of freedom.
To many, this distinction has become, in its deepest sense, sacred. Violating it (doing private things in public) is viewed as a moral pollution. As a result, the separation between the two realms should not be tampered with lightly.
The modern corporation does seem to blur the distinction, which makes it an incompletely assimilated element in modern life. Defined as a legal person, enjoying many of the freedoms and protections intended for individual persons, the corporation also possesses enormous capital reserves and makes decisions which may deeply affect the structure of society and the lives of individuals.
Government cannot effectively control corporations, since business traditionally may not be forced to produce. Unpopular government measures merely result in reduced investment with, at times, seriously negative social consequences, such as a depression. What is more, no recourse exists against a private decision which produces widespread public repercussions.
Finally, the modern corporation possesses a force in both the private and public domains which few, if any, individuals can match. The status of the corporation, thus, makes a mockery of the “equality” of persons under the law, since few individuals can exert influence with their freedoms when such powerful competitors crowd the field.
Montaigne and the Value of Tolerance
“Montaigne's Political Skepticism” Polity: The Journal of the Northeastern Political Science Association 11 (Summer 1979): 512–541.
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) and his philosophic successors urged the value of earthly well-being over the life-denying pretension of glory and otherworldly virtues. These attitudes are largely responsible for the prosperity and liberty we today enjoy as members of a liberal commercial society. In particular, Montaigne's genial skepticism and tolerance, as expounded in his longest essay, “Apology for Raymond Sebond” (II, 12) make him an early seminal architect of modern liberal political theory.
On the surface, Montaigne's “Apology” professes to be a defense of the rationalist Natural Theology of the fifteenth century writer Raymond Sebond. In reality, Montaigne uses his apparent subject as a cover to inculcate the spirit of tolerant and liberal skepticism. The “Apology” provides a theoretical justification for such central tenets of liberal politics as toleration and a “technologically oriented natural science.” It also critiques both conventional philosophy and religion. Man should see himself in continuity with animals in order to confirm the desirability of such tangible and earthly goods as peace, comfort, and health. But man can transcend mere beastiality through skeptical reason. In fact, nondogmatic reason is politically desirable. Traditional restraints on human barbarism (e.g. religions, moral precepts, fear of punishment) have failed; moderation, skepticism, and science will be humane substitutes for dogmatic extremism. Montaigne's epistemology—a form of moderate falsifiable empiricism—keeps human minds open and tolerant of future innovation. Such a tolerant skepticism will lead to scientific free inquiry and political tolerance.
Montaigne's tolerance for acquisitiveness, self-indulgence, and scientific progress leads to earthly peace. “Thus, each individual will be tolerant of the liberty of others … because his goals do not require that others be subordinate to him.” “The public principle of society ought to be: let each go his own way, so long as he respects the equal liberty of others.” Thus Montaigne's skeptical materialism aimed at a liberal commercial society. Montaigne and his successors—Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke—sought to place earthly happiness ahead of such self- and other-denying “virtues” as glory and salvation. Yet one problem remains and has inspired the criticism of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger: Does Montaigne's relativism and tolerance for the free play of commercial bourgeois individuals tend toward the stability of civil liberty?
Commerce, Utility, Character, and Republicanism
“Commerce and Character: The Anglo-American as New-Model Man.” The William and Mary Quarterly 36 (January 1979): 3–25.
The political theory which lies at the basis of the American Revolution rests upon a view of human nature which challenges the assumptions of classical political philosophy. The supporters of “commercial republicanism” such as Montesquieu, Hume, and Tocqueville elaborated a new model of political virtue.
The commercial republicans challenged the pursuit of glory praised by classical political theory. While not denying the achievements of Sparta, for example, writers such as Hume claimed that the attempt to achieve heroic virtue contradicted the requirements of human nature. Montesquieu pointed out also that the other worldly values taught by Christianity went counter to the imperatives of the human condition. Classical political philosophy assumed that truth and virtue were ideals attainable only by an elite. In contrast, the commercial republicans believed that one ought to accept human nature as it actually is in practice.
This more realistic policy led to an emphasis on utility. If society were founded upon each person's pursuit of his own interests, no unrealistically high standard of behavior would be needed for a society's continued existence.
Furthermore, the commercial republicans argued that emphasis on utility would tend to civilize men and, by downplaying glory, de-emphasize militarism and encourage peace. Writers in this tradition such as John Adams assumed that the actual business of government would be the task of a small group. The rest of society would be confined to commercial occupation; but, since utility was the paramount virtue, the majority's sense of self-esteem would be strengthened.
Some of the commercial republicans recognized that the form of society they favored had weaknesses. Adam Smith thought that preoccupation with economic matters might tend to narrow human nature, and Tocqueville feared that the dissolution of social ties not founded upon self-interest might result in collectivism and dictatorship. In spite of these dangers, the commercial republicans believed that the benefits of the new type of society out-weighed its costs. “And oddly enough, a system that frees men to try to satisfy their physical wants is more apt than any likely alternative to lead them to see their need for liberty.”
Quintin Skinner and Western Political Thought
Review article of Quintin Skinner's The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. In Journal of the History of Ideas 40 (Oct.-Dec. 1979): 663–673.
Quintin Skinner's recent two-volume work on the development of political theory in early modern Europe is likely to achieve the status of a classic. Its stress upon resistance to the state in this period provides an important background for modern concepts of liberty, revolution, constitutionalism, and republicanism.
Skinner shows that republicanism was not the product of Renaissance humanism, as Hans Baron and others have argued, but had already emerged among the Italian city states during the Middle Ages. Also, the defense of the de facto sovereignty of the city republic by the jurist Bartolus was especially influential.
Skinner's first volume culminates in an analysis of Machiavelli, whose stress upon the role of the prince Skinner shows to be in the tradition of Italian humanism. One of the strongest features of Skinner's method is his careful presentation of the secondary writers in a given period. Instead of concentrating on a few great theorists, as many historians of political and social philosophy do, he develops the complete intellectual and cultural context in which the major theorists wrote. For example, one is in a position after reading Skinner to understand Machiavelli's true originality, by seeing how he modified the existing paradigm of political writing.
Skinner gives an elaborate treatment of resistance to the state during the sixteenth century. He shows that the Calvinist opponents of royal authority in France often relied on scholastic writers in the work; he maintains that there was no distinctively Calvinist political theory as such. Similarly, as Lutheranism developed, its devotees met the increasing opposition of the Emperor by advocating resistance by the Protestant princes to the mandates of the Imperial Diet.
Besides the tradition of constitutional resistance to authority, the sixteenth century was also characterized by the rise of absolutism. Skinner views Jean Bodin as the leading absolutist theorist, although he is careful to present the remnants of constitutionalism present in his work. Skinner regards George Buchanan as exemplifying the opposite tradition, that of resistance to political authority, to its highest degree, because of Buchanan's secular approach. It is questionable, however, whether Skinner is correct, since the Calvinist writers of the sixteenth century seem more radical.
Skinner should be commended for his use of a variety of historical sources. He at times perhaps fails to distinguish adequately between legal materials used to make a case and works of political theory.