Monday, May 24, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 3: Not-So-Political Philosophy in the Age of Empire
Let us return to Sheldon Wolin. In this entry, I want to briefly discuss the third chapter of Wolin's Politics and Vision*. His key point is that political philosophy takes a sharp turn after the classic Greek city-states succumb to the Macedonian Empire. This philosophical shift continues and intensifies as the Roman Republic turns into the Roman Empire.
The nature of the change is directly related to the change of the dominant political unit. Gone is the time of a relatively compact and homogeneous polis; it is replaced by a sprawling, heterogeneous empire. Unlike the polis, an empire is marked by complexity, class and regional interests, and a massive enlargement of political space. Also unlike the polis, where citizens are engaged in direct and meaningful dialogue regarding the affairs of their city, in an empire the average citizen is subordinated to an autocratic ruler and his bureaucracy. In other words, where "loyalty had earlier come from a sense of common involvement, it [is] now to be centered in a common reverence for power personified" (p. 69).
This has two effects on the analysis of politics. First, political philosophy retreats from its political obligations, and ultimately becomes a form of "vapid moralism" (p. 85). Though some Greek thinkers of the Macedonian period, like Isocrates, are explicitly political (and urge a form of federalism to transcend Greek particularism), the philosophers after Plato and Aristotle are by and large those who reject an "intensive participation in a life of common concerns" (p. 69). This turn away from active citizenship is a natural effect of a distant, imperial hierarchy, and the Good is now defined - contrary to Pericles, Plato and Aristotle - as "political disengagement" (p. 71). Both the Cynics and the Epicureans are dominated by "strong elements of despair and withdrawal" that are "nourished by an anti-political impulse" (ibid) similar to modern libertarianism. The dominant philosophy of the Roman era, Stoicism, is well-known for its appeal to a universal rationality that binds nature and rational beings into a brotherhood of equality and freedom. So far, so good. But for Wolin, Stoicism shares the disillusionment of imperial politics with the Cynics and Epicureans: "its philosophic outlook [is] not derived from a positive view concerning the nature of a truly political order, but from a conclusion about its insufficiency" (p. 73). The Stoics are committed to moral development that lies outside politics since the "bureaucratized and highly impersonal public life of the Empire [has] only the slenderest ties with man's potentiality for moral development" (p. 75). Moreover, the naturalism of Stoicism displaces any notion of social conflict with a "quasi-religious" (p. 84) desire for harmony, and men are "exhorted to extend their allegiance to the cosmos as though it were a true society" (p. 74). The best that can be said for Stoicism is that it becomes, under the Roman Empire, a useful "code of conduct for public magistrates and administrators" (ibid).
The second major effect of Empire on political analysis is that it's soon dominated by historians and politicians (e.g. Polybius and Cicero). Their analyses are a study of technique, compromise and pragmatism. They also focus on the role of institutions, largely because institutions and their procedures help rulers wrestle with complexity. No longer do philosophers venerate a participatory politics that uplifts the soul; in the Roman era, students of politics seek - as we might say in Canada - peace, order and good governance. Interestingly, Wolin seems somewhat sympathetic to this trend. While Polybius and Cicero might be overly optimistic when they view politics as a balance of power, they are "basically correct in drawing attention to the fundamental importance of institutions in legitimizing conflict among diverse forces and interests" (p. 76).
Some interesting themes emerge from Wolin's analysis. His concern for the unsettled world of every-day politics persists. However, he is not content with the simple interest-based politics of Cicero. Wolin is fearful of those periods "when politics is reduced to nothing but the pursuits of interests, when no controlling standards of obligation are recognized" (p. 81). And indeed, in the Roman experience, mistrust of principle as merely the lexiconic mask of naked interest helps lead to the collapse of the Republic. From this Wolin concludes that society "cannot long endure uncontrolled political conflict, and the inevitable reaction is to demand peace at any price" (p. 82). Somewhere, amid the rancour of factional struggle, we must find values and principles that we can all agree to, and which we obey even when our "particular interests or ambitions are not always being served" (p. 80).
The struggle between unity and difference rears its head again.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision,
Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.