Liberty Matters

The Roman Senate in Perspective: Learning from Others

I reread Paulina Kewes’s original essay and I appreciate anew what she sought to do. The evidence of early modern views of the Roman Senate is equally well discussed in the responses by Michael Moses and Ioannis Evrigenis. Reading them all has been for me a humbling experience (I thought I knew this material, and the essays pointed to how much I still don’t know) and a reminder that the story of the Roman senate and how it was understood in early modern Europe are still worth retelling.
I didn’t know much about John Milton’s comparison, and I find the discussion by Moses quite a learning experience for me. Moses suggests why Milton turned to republican Rome and the idealized version of the Roman Senate as a way of preserving freedom in his own time.
I find Evrigenis’s “crucial lesson” quite enlightening. Again, the paper notes why the Roman Senate played a big role in appealing to later readers “trapped in far less impressive states.” The discussion of Bodin is equally important. The last paragraph of Evrigenis’s reflection is fitting and convincing. All in all, I find reading the essays a truly educational experience. Enriching.
I ask myself, what can I do with this learning? How can I pass it on to others, in class and beyond? And for what compelling reason?
More specifically, the large question remains: what slices of history are worth examining today? How would we go about it, methodologically? If we find an interpretation meaningful, is it worth sharing with others? And what happens if others don’t accept it? All this to say that we need to confront the challenge of cognition. Two points in this regard.
The first comes from the introductory chapter of a work that Mark Sproule Jones, Barbara Allen, and I edited on Vincent Ostrom’s quest to understand human affairs (2008). We wrote about normative and empirical inquiries into systems of governance, how human communities struggle to devise and sustain productive relationships internally among their members and externally with other communities. Somehow I think the discussion on the Roman Senate is part of that inquiry, as a way of understanding the origins of institutions.
The second point. Reading the essays I was reminded of a point that Schumpeter made long ago and it may be worth recalling. He wrote about the social imagination of the observer before he starts on a particular topic. What is it that leads some, like Milton and Moses here, to focus on limiting power and others, like Evrigenis, on other topics, no less important, to be sure? In his history of economic analysis (1954) Schumpeter calls this “a pre-analytic cognitive act.” He labels this pre-analytic act “vision.” Visions, in Schumpeter’s view, precede the emergence of analytical efforts. Schumpeter may no longer be a popular read but I wonder if his ideas about pre-analytic cognitive acts are worth considering for the intellectual context of what we have read about the Roman Senate in the initial essay and subsequent additions.