The late nineteenth and early twentieth century discipline of philosophy demanded a second-nature familiarity with the classic works of Western antiquity. Leo Strauss was a scholar in the discipline of political philosophy during the tail end of the era, and he tends to signal a crescendo before the decline of this tradition in Western philosophy. In his essay ‘The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy’ Strauss demonstrates his expansive knowledge of the Western canon, and is skeptical of any rock-solid continuity between ancient and modern liberalism.
“Positivism rejects classical political philosophy with a view to its mode as unscientific and with a view to its substance as undemocratic. There is a tension between these grounds, for, according to positivism, science is incapable of validating any value judgment, and therefore science can never reject a doctrine because it is undemocratic. But ‘the heart has its reasons which reason does not know,’ and not indeed positivism but many positivists possess a heart.
“The characteristic assertion of liberalism seems to be that man and hence also morality is not ‘a fixed quantity’; that man’s nature and therewith morality are essentially changing; that this change constitutes History; and that through History man has developed from most imperfect beginnings into a civilized or human being.
“When Plato adopted Hesiod’s scheme in the Republic, he gave a reason why or intimated in what respect the fourth race, or rather the fourth regime, is almost equal to the first regime: the first regime is the rule of the philosophers, and the fourth regime is democracy, that is, the only regime apart from the first in which philosophers can live or live freely.
“In other words, man fashions ‘a state within a state’: the manmade ‘worlds’ have a fundamentally different status from ‘the world’ and its parts. The liberal view originally emerged through the combination of determinism with the assumption that the laws always correspond to genuine, not merely imagined, needs or that in principle all laws are sensible.
“True liberals today have no more pressing duty than to counteract the perverted liberalism which contends ‘that just to live, securely and happily, and protected but otherwise unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal’ and which forgets quality, excellence, or virtue.
*All excerpts have been taken from Liberalism Ancient & Modern, The University of Chicago Press.
Exiled to St. Helena, and dying of stomach cancer, Napoleon Bonaparte dictated his ideas on the wars of Julius Caesar for posterity. The work is mired in technical details comparing modern and ancient armies, as well as endless reflection on how Napoleonic era artillery would be applied to the ancient Roman battlefield. However, Napoleon’s views on the conduct of the civil war, and its aftermath for Roman society are captivating. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon believed Caesar’s dictatorship was justified, and his assassination was unjustified. He also concludes Caesar’s Parthian campaign would have been successful – had he lived – thereby extending the Roman Empire to the Indus River.
“Nothing is more opposed to a national spirit, to general ideas of liberty, than the private spirit of family or village. Because of this fragmentation, it also followed that the Gauls had no trained standing army, therefore no knowledge of military science. If Caesar’s glory depended solely on his conquest of Gaul, it would be in doubt… Any nation which lost sight of the importance of a standing army ever-ready for action, and which relied on mass levies of militias, would suffer the same fate as Gaul, although without even the glory of putting up a resistance as strong as theirs, which could be attributed to the barbarism of the time and to the nature of the terrain, covered with forests, marshes and quagmires and without roads: which made it difficult to conquer and easy to defend.
“One can only despise Caesar’s treatment of the Senate of Vannes. This people had not revolted; they had provided hostages and promised to live quietly, but they were in possession of all their rights and liberties. They had indeed given Caesar grounds to make war against them, but not to violate the law of nations in their case and to misuse his victory in so atrocious a way. This conduct was not just; still less was it politic. Such means never achieve their aim; they anger and disgust the nations. The punishment of a few chief people is all that justice and policy permit; it is an important rule to treat prisoners well.
“The conduct of Cato was applauded by his contemporaries and has been admired by history; but who benefited from his death? Caesar. Who was pleased by it? Caesar. And to who was it a tragedy? To Rome and to his party. But, it is argued, he preferred to kill himself rather than bow down before Caesar. But who was forcing him to bow down? Why did he not follow the cavalry, or those members of his party who embarked at the port of Utica and rallied the party in Spain? What influence his name, his advice and his presence must surely have had among the ten legions which in the following year were to vie for the destinies of the world on the battlefield of Munda!… If the book of destiny had been presented to Cato, and he had read there that in just two years’ time, Caesar, pierced by twenty-three dagger wounds, would fall dead in the Senate at the foot of Pompey’s statue, that Cicero would take the floor and angrily denounce Antony in his Philippics, would Cato still have transfixed himself? No, he killed himself out of spleen and despair. His death was the weakness of a great soul, the error of a stoic, a blot on his life.
“Among nations and during revolutions, there is always an aristocracy. If you destroy it in the form of the nobility, it will immediately be recreated among the rich and powerful families of the Third Estate. If you destroy it among these, it will resurface among successful artisans and the people. A prince gains nothing by such a displacement of the aristocracy. On the contrary, he restores order by letting it continue in its natural state, by reconstituting the ancient families on new principles.
“Caesar did not wish to be king because he could not have wished it; he could not have wished it because, after him, for 600 years, none of his successors wished it. It would have been a strange policy to replace the curule chair of the conquerors of the world with the despised and rotten throne of the vanquished.
*All excerpts have been taken from Napoleon’s Commentaries on the Wars of Julius Caesar, Pen and Sword.
In letter #41, Seneca observes the vitality of the Holy Spirit within the human soul. He considers human excellence, and virtue to be demonstrations of continuity with the Holy Spirit. Living in accordance with nature for Seneca is the soul in union with the Holy Spirit. A union made discordant by vice.
“We do not need to lift our hands to heaven or beg the sexton for nearer access to the idol’s ear, as if he could hear us more clearly; god is near you, with you, inside you. Yes, Lucilius, there is a holy spirit abiding within us who observes our good deeds and bad and watches over us. He treats us according as we treat him. No man is good without god. Could any man rise above Fortune without his help? It is he that imparts grand and upstanding counsel.
“If you see a man undaunted in danger, untouched by passion, happy in adversity, calm in the raging storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, will you not be moved by veneration? Will you not say: ‘This is too grand and lofty to be of a quality with the little body that contains it; the power that has informed that man is divine?
“A soul which is of superior stature and well governed, which deflates the imposing by passing it by and laughs at all our fears and prayers, is impelled by a celestial force. So great a thing cannot stand without a buttress of divinity. Its larger portion therefore abides at its source. Just as the rays of the sun do indeed warm the earth but remain at the source of their radiation, so a great and holy soul is lowered to earth to give us a nearer knowledge of the divine; but though it is in intercourse with us, it cleaves to its source; it is tied to it, it looks toward it, it seeks to rejoin it, and its concern with our affairs is superior and detached.
“In a vine the peculiar virtue is fertility, and in a man, too, we should praise what is peculiarly his own. He has a handsome troop of slaves, a fine house, broad acres, large investments; but none of these things is in him, they are around him. Praise what cannot be given or taken away, what is peculiarly the man’s. What is this, you ask? It is soul, and reason perfected in the soul.
“Man is a rational animal, and his good is realized if he implements the potentiality for which nature gave him being. And what does reason demand of him? A very easy thing: to live according to his nature. But general derangement makes this difficult; we shove one another into vice. And how can people be recalled to safety when there is a crowd pushing them and nobody to hold them back?
*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.
Perilous Glory chronicles the ascendancy of Western military power in world history. Military historian, John France dedicates a chapter of his book to a comparison of the competing styles of warfare of the ancient Greeks and Persians. Both styles of warfare were well adapted to distinct geographical settings, and both were notably hamstrung operating outside of those settings. The Persian military relied on cavalry mobility whereas their Greek counterparts utilized heavy infantry hoplites.
“Like almost all who wrote about war, Greek writers, Herodotus amongst them, liked to emphasise its noble aspect: the valour of the hoplite, fighting honourably face to face and breast to breast against his enemies. They preferred to forget the sneaking around to surprise and destroy villages and cities, the bullying of peasants and the squalid destruction of their crops.
“Bloody though hoplite confrontations were, it has been suggested that the citizens perceived them as a rapid and efficient way of settling quarrels between states, and certainly better than drawn-out struggles in which severe long-term harm to the countryside and city might get out of hand. Moreover, the brutal violence of this clash of arms with its rigid subordination of the individual to the collective mass was possible because the citizens had agreed to this style of war and thus were bound to it by public commitment.
“For the Delian League became an Athenian empire. Athens meddled in the politics of the Delian cities to favour democratic regimes, and planted colonies of Athenians in their lands where they formed military bases. The tributes from the League and the taxes upon foreigners trading with Athens created enormous incomes which could be used to pay towers for the fleet and to support strong armies. Here was the Athenian culture of leisure and greed at work.
“The Persian wars and then the long quarrels of the Greek city-states created a kind of military laboratory in Greece, stimulating ideas and new developments. The most obvious effect of this was the development of the hoplite phalanx. It became the very embodiment of close-order, a tight mass of men working together, able to resist enemies with their hedgehog of spears and to threaten them by sheer weight and momentum. However, this was only really achieved as the citizen-soldier was superseded by the professional soldier.
“The Greek front was not all that vital to the Persian Empire, and it managed to regain Anatolia by an adroit diplomacy which exploited the quarrels of the Greeks. The priority for the Persian Empire was speed of movement and the ability to fight in other places, especially on the long Asian frontiers where cavalry was the most useful arm. No power can be strong everywhere and in every aspect of war, and the Persian army was no exception to this general rule. And when they wanted heavy infantry, they could always hire them at need from the quarrelsome city-states of Greece whose mercenaries were perfectly willing to serve for money.
*All excerpts have been taken from Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power, Yale University Press.
The Roman political posturing between the Second and Third Punic Wars magnified the existential fate of the Carthaginian state. Historian Adrian Goldsworthy devotes a chapter of his book on the Punic Wars to the political and military history of this interwar period, and its calamitous outcome.
“The Carthaginians had proved consistently loyal allies of Rome since 201. They had supplied Roman armies with grain and in 191 sent half of their tiny navy to join the fleet operating against Antiochus III. Aided by Hannibal’s reform of the State’s finances, the annual indemnity had been paid regularly until its completion in 151. In the series of boundary disputes with Masinissa’s Numidia, Carthage had submitted to Roman arbitration, even though this had always openly or tacitly favoured the king.
“It is unclear whether or not the renewed prosperity of the city resulted in some rearmament, since although our literary sources claim that this was not so, the excavations in the naval harbour suggest otherwise. What is certain is that in the middle of the century the Carthaginians were in no position to launch a serious offensive against Rome, even if they had wanted to. Even so, it is clear that the Romans were increasingly afraid of their ally at this very period.
“The traditions of Punic warfare did not expect a defeated state, especially one which had not been conquered and absorbed, to remain forever subject to the victor. Only the Romans thought in this way. No longer were the Carthaginians unambiguously dependent allies of Rome. That a former enemy, and one who had pushed Rome to the brink of utter defeat, was once again strong and independent immediately turned her back into a threat. This was the root of the Romans’ rising fear of Carthage.
“The defeats suffered in Spain highlighted the inexperience of most Roman armies. The annual replacement of provincial governors and the rarity of pro-magistracies encouraged commanders to seek glory before they were replaced, and denied them the time necessary to turn their soldiers into an effective army. This mattered far less in the early part of the century when the quality of Rome’s manpower had been higher.
“Another prominent senator, Scipio Nasica, matched Cato by ending his own speeches with the view that Carthage should be preserved. It is claimed that he believed the presence of a strong rival would preserve the Romans’ virtue intact, an argument which became a continual lament in the next century when Rome was plunged into a series of civil wars. At the time few Romans seem to have agreed with him.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Fall of Carthage, Orion Books Ltd.
In his treatise on Rhetoric, Aristotle considers the requisite building blocks of rhetoric as well as its existent contemporaneous forms. He also examines the subjects of politics, virtue, happiness, and morality in his customary common-sense way.
“Victory is pleasant, not only to those who love to conquer, but to all; for there is produced an idea of superiority, which all with more or less eagerness desire.
“Therefore our recollections are pleasant, not only when they recall things which when present were agreeable, but also some things which were not, if their consequence subsequently proves honorable or good; whence the saying: ‘Truly it is pleasant to remember toil after one has escaped it,’ and, ‘When a man has suffered much and accomplished much, he afterwards takes pleasure even in his sorrows when he recalls them.’ The reason of this is that even to be free from evil is pleasant.
“Since, then, all men are selfish, it follows that all find pleasure in what is their own, such as their works and words. That is why men as a rule are fond of those who flatter and love them, of honor, and of children; for the last are their own work.
*All excerpts have been taken from Aristotle: Rhetoric, Chios Classics.
In his essay on ‘the image of God’ the Roman Christian theologian Origen brings forth his thoughts on the image of God in Man. Utilizing Neoplatonist dynamics Origen reasons that the image of God exists in Man as the vital spirit.
“Consequently that first heaven, which we have called spiritual, is our mind, which is itself spirit; it is our spiritual human being who sees and gazes upon God. But this corporeal heaven, which is called firmament, is our external human being, which sees corporeally.
“Not therefore from works does the root of justice grow, but from the root of justice grows the fruit of works.
“…the one who was made ‘in the image of God’ is our internal human, invisible and incorporeal and incorrupt and immortal.
“We are not commanded to tear out and destroy the natural impulses of the soul, but to purify them, that is, to purge and drive out the dirty and impure things which have come to them by our negligence so that the natural vitality of its own innate power might shine forth.
“We shall be like him’ (cf. Jn 3:2), this likeness is not due to nature but to grace. For example if we say that a portrait is like the one whose image is seen expressed in the portrait, the similarity is due to the quality of the expression – grace -, while in substance the two remain quite different.
*All excerpts have been taken from Origen: Spirit & Fire, The Catholic University of America Press.