Too many public intellectuals, and especially teachers of political science, continue to present ancient Greek political thought as providing a kind of model for contemporary conduct and regime analysis. This statement may seem odd coming from a self-identified conservative. After all, do not conservatives persist in repeating Santayana’s comment that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? But my concern is not that the past is being held up as relevant. It is, rather, that a decontextualizing, ahistorical appropriation of certain ideals from ancient Greece has resulted in dangerous confusions regarding how and why the Greeks remain relevant today.
It is good that, in our era of willful historical ignorance, some teachers continue to point to ancient Greece for examples of political wisdom. Followers of Leo Strauss in particular have striven mightily to show the relevance of Plato, Aristotle, and their near contemporaries to political life today. Moreover, I am not claiming that the Greeks should be ignored, let alone that political philosophy should be considered irrelevant to debates over contemporary political issues and structures. I have taught political philosophy (including the ancient Greeks) and still consider the subject not only my first and greatest intellectual love but also the foundation of any proper understanding of the manner in which our common lives can be made decent or deadly. But a certain fixation on the Greeks has helped maintain an anachronistic approach to public virtue and constitutional government. I note especially the myth that the ancient Greeks had special access to the essential problems of public life (“man and the city”) to which we must recur if we are to understand the interactions of individual virtue and social structures. This mistaken view diverts our attention from the real lessons we can glean from the Greeks. These lessons have to do with the permanent goods of virtue and order in the soul, as well as the natural origins of public and political life in the family.
Too many commentators downplay the abiding wisdom of the Greeks regarding permanent goods. They focus instead on misapplying conceptions of political life appropriate for rather primitive, small-scale conditions and circumstances to a nation and world set out on a larger, looser scale more susceptible to the fevers of mass politics and less susceptible to calls for a deep and thick public virtue. Either misunderstanding or ignoring the historical context that helped shape Platonic and Aristotelian arguments concerning the role of politics in achieving the public good, they promote actions that undermine the real virtues of public life. Recognizing only one public square in which virtue may flourish, they promote a vision of statesmanship further centralizing power within what already has become a vast, imperial nation-state.
Aristotle himself drew the critical distinction between Athens and Babylon which we should consider today. According to Aristotle, the Greeks alone had “real” polities, whereas the Babylonians, living in a vastly larger empire, where the people were too numerous to really know and live with one another, inhabited mere alliances of more fundamental groups. Aristotle looked down on the Babylonians as less than fully human because of their looser communities. There is much worthy of discussion in this regard, and which modern liberalism renders more complicated with its fixation on individual autonomy. But the distinction fundamentally is one of scale. The stark choice Aristotle posited between small, thick, virtuous communities and mere alliances is one the Framers of the American Constitution sought to avoid through their extended republic and, in particular, the structures of federalism. We are not Babylonians in that our government is rooted in consent. More fundamentally, however, we are not like the Babylonians in that, at least until recent decades, the more fundamental associations and communities in which we lived the bulk of our lives had their own rights and protections built into the constitutional structure. It is this recognition of the rights of associations smaller but more fundamental than the state that made our compound republic, ordered liberty, and the means of leading virtuous lives possible.
It is the understanding of the state as a community of communities (to use a phrase from Catholic social teaching perhaps best utilized by Heinrich Rommen in his masterpiece, The State in Catholic Thought) that characterizes the best work on contemporary politics. Burke, Tocqueville, and such recent thinkers as Jouvenel, Kirk, and Nisbet understood that to serve the public good political structures and officers must serve rather than command the more fundamental associations of social life. Within this understanding statesmanship is today something fundamentally different from what it was within tiny, essentially tribal communities, in which famine and military annihilation both were constant threats requiring unity above all else. In this understanding the state—which the Greeks really did not have in any differentiated, institutionalized sense—properly serves as a protector of and mediator between the thicker, closer-knit, more personality-shaping institutions of family, church, and local association. In this understanding the question of whether Plato “meant it” when he offered his city in speech as a model for potential action is less relevant than is his clear recognition of the consequences of the emotive corruption to which democratic peoples are liable and which is so rampant in America today.
The Greek problem originates on the left; its current iteration goes back at least to publication of Karl Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies in the aftermath of Hitler’s regime. In that book Popper castigates Plato as a would-be totalitarian seeking to prevent the development of liberal democracy and an “open society” in his native Athens. He also blames Aristotle (through the medium of Hegel and Marx) for the actual rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Thus, the modern understanding of Plato tends to be that he was a “bad guy” who would oppress us all if given the chance. Those who would save Plato from such anachronistic charges generally respond that he was a mere utopian, painting in words a republic literally nowhere to be found or created but useful for the principles it sets forth for thought (and perhaps action). As to Aristotle, while he generally has been seen as the most practical of the ancient Greeks, his belief in “natural” slavery burdens his status on the left, leaving nonetheless a critical conception highly influential today, namely that of politics as the architectonic, the highest science, by nature ordering society and the individual. Again, this may be read as totalitarian in nature, but for many years it has fostered visions of politics and constitutionalism in particular as the opportunity for ideologues to reshape society to make it more just.
Strauss responded to these leftist appropriations or dismissals of the Greeks by setting out an intricate theory of esoteric teachings according to which Plato’s Republic actually was a commentary on the impossibility of utopia and the dangers of its pursuit. But what Strauss emphasized, and what his followers continue to emphasize in dealing with contemporary politics, is the permanent nature of the tensions between individual and civic virtue and the requirements of statesmanship to bring the two together into a harmonious whole that will serve the public good. The nature of this good is a topic of some controversy even within Straussian circles, with some taking more seriously and/or pronouncing more publicly than others Strauss’s claim that the purpose of politics today is to maintain a low level of virtue and above all peace so that philosophers may be free to pursue their high calling.
Commentaries on the works themselves are phrased and conceptualized in the abstract—they relate to “the city and man” or “the virtue of the citizen” rather than the virtue of an Athenian as distinct from that of a Babylonian. This is natural in that Babylonians were not seen as having much in the way of the higher virtues. But the danger is that the commentary will be taken as a starting off point for addressing contemporary political issues, ignoring the vast differences in context as well as the tradition of constitutional governance that has grown up over the intervening centuries. Particularly among Straussians, who spend little time studying the Middle Ages and reject historical context as destructive to the forms of virtue, the result can be a flattening and thinning of contemporary public life.
My main concern with this approach is its assumption of a unitary political community. This assumption comes out most often in discussions of political reforms and foreign policy. It may be best to keep the masses quiet, and this may mean a kind of democratic governance open to social welfare programs limited by the ultimate goal of peace (something student uprisings by nature violate) but for Strauss and his followers there is essentially one mass to be concerned about, one state, and one statesman at any one time attempting to fix the world and make it safe for philosophy.
Followers of Strauss rightly fear democratic masses manipulated by demagogues to bring chaos. West and East Coast followers differ on whether it is best to combat such tendencies by relying on the mechanisms of consent and programs of moderate redistribution or add to this myths of individual rights and honors to counter demands for radicalized group rights. But both follow Strauss in assuming an essentially unitary national public square in which the drama of architectonic politics is to unfold. Calls for national greatness merely extend the unitary public sphere, asserting the nation’s will to reshape the world to fit its vision and needs.
Particularly during a time such as ours of national humiliation abroad and demagogic chaos at home, it is time to reconsider the (essentially Progressive) focus on “the” public square. For those who seek to understand nations, their constitutions, and the permutations of their public lives, this requires in part that we reexamine the past with greater attention to the traditions and circumstances that helped produce the constitutional republic now in such danger and disarray. We are not Greeks. While we can learn much from the ancient Greeks regarding virtue, we must not forget the lessons taught by the Framers of our own Constitution. Publius explicitly rejected the Greek political example as too liable to produce unrest and a constant vacillation between the excesses of tyranny and chaos. The solution Publius set forth in The Federalist, which he saw embodied in our Constitution, was one rooted at least as much in Rome and the medieval synthesis as in enlightenment philosophizing—and that philosophizing itself built on concrete practices within the philosophers’ own traditions.
A compound republic cannot do its job of protecting ordered liberty if the people treat it as a mere unity. We must recognize the permanent truth that human nature does not allow us to act virtuously in the same way when we are in a nation of 330 million as when we are in a tribal community of a few thousand. Only then can we renew the fundamental associations in which our real virtues are fostered and may flourish.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.