The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy – Leo Strauss

Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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.

God in Man – Seneca

Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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.

Rhetoric – Aristotle (Part III)

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Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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.

Empires of Trust – Thomas F. Madden

Synopsis:

Empires of Trust was published in 2008 during the low-point of the United States war in Iraq, and perhaps because of that war it sought to examine the evolution of American power in comparison with the Roman Empire. Ancient and medieval historian Thomas F. Madden goes into considerable detail propounding the complexities of Roman culture, and explaining how that empire emerged. Although Madden identifies many similarities between American and Roman civilizations he unexpectedly unmasks many more differences.

Excerpts:

“The U.S. military is larger than the militaries of all other NATO allies combined. American military bases are planted in many NATO countries, while no allied bases are in the United States at all. Yet, Americans will still insist that NATO is an alliance of equals, not a structure of an empire.

“Doubt among allies regarding the trustworthiness of the Empire of Trust is toxic. Americans cannot allow it and neither could the Romans. Hannibal understood that very well. As a result of the failure to defend Saguntum, Rome’s word already meant nothing in Spain – something that Roman envoys learned when they arrived to seek allies in the war against Hannibal.

“We believe that the normal human condition is peace, periodically disrupted by war. That illusion is the product of a large and historically rare superstructure built to keep lasting peace in existence. Without the perfect functioning of that superstructure, peace disappears.

“If it was truly the UN that was responsible for the growing peace, then the continued warfare in Africa makes little sense. UN missions to Africa are numerous. In truth, it is American apathy for the region that allows it to continue to remain violent, provided that the warfare does not affect American assets or security. Just as the Romans had only a passing interest in Germans or Celts outside of their empire, so Americans tend to ignore a sub-Saharan Africa that, while frequently in a state of crisis, poses no security threat to the United States or its allies.

“For some years the military strategy of the United States has included the ability to project significant power anywhere in the world. For the most part it has achieved that goal. These facts, in and of themselves, represent an extraordinary disparity in power. That is not to say that the United States has the power to fight the world and win. It does not. Nor does it need it. An Empire of trust only requires sufficient power to defend its allies and deter or punish aggression. In short, it must have ‘military strengths beyond challenge.’

*All excerpts have been taken from Empires of Trust: How Rome Built – and America is Building – a New World, Plume.

Solon of Athens – Plutarch

Synopsis:

Solon the lawgiver of ancient Athens was one of the two most venerated lawgivers of Greek antiquity – the other was Lycurgus of Sparta. Invariably the moralist, Plutarch recounts a biography of Solon which reinforces the moderation, and moral virtues of Solon. Plutarch also chronicles the development of the balanced constitution which Solon bestowed to Athens.

Excerpts:

“Then the wisest of the Athenians, perceiving Solon was of all men the only one not implicated in the troubles, that he had not joined in the exactions of the rich, and was not involved in the necessities of the poor, pressed him to succor the common wealth and compose the differences.

“Soon, however, becoming sensible of the good that was done, they laid by their grudges, made a public sacrifice, calling it Seisacthea, and chose Solon to new-model and make laws for the commonwealth, giving him the entire power over everything, their magistracies, their assemblies, courts, and councils; that he should appoint the number, times of meeting, and what estate they must have that could be capable of these, and dissolve or continue any of the present constitutions, according to his pleasure.

“It is said that he was obscure and ambiguous in the wording of his laws, on purpose to increase the honor of his courts; for since their differences could not be adjusted by the letter, they would have to bring all their causes to the judges, who thus were in a manner masters of the laws.

“Asked what city was best modelled, ‘that,’ said he, ‘where those that are not injured try and punish the unjust as much as those that are.’

“The law concerning naturalizing strangers is of doubtful character; he permitted only those to be made free of Athens who were in perpetual exile from their own country, or came with their whole family to trade there; this he did, not to discourage strangers, but rather to invite them to a permanent participation in the privileges of the government; and, besides, he thought those would prove the more faithful citizens who had been forced from their own country, or voluntarily forsook it.

*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.

On the Nature of the Universe – Cicero

Synopsis:

In On the Nature of the Gods Cicero explains his own metaphysical interpretation of the universe. The soul of the interpretation is pantheistic, and he notably relies on many keen syllogisms about the universe to support his explanation.

Excerpts:

“How is it that the tides of the open sea and the narrow straits move to the waxing and waning of the moon, while the unequal orbits of the stars stay constant with each full turning of the heavens? This harmony of all parts of the universe is impossible unless they are held together by a single, divine, all-pervading spirit.

“It’s all but impossible to pollute a flowing stream, easy enough to poison a cistern. So, too, a rush of eloquence washes away objections, while a thin trickle of reasoning has a hard time protecting itself.

“Everything that lives, whether animal or product of the earth, lives thanks to the heat within it – from which we should understand that elemental heat contains a vital power that permeates the entire universe.

“It will be possible to infer, as well, that the universe possesses intelligence, for it is surely superior to any one element. Just as every individual part of our body is inferior to ourselves, so the universe must be greater than any part of the universe. But if that’s the case, then the universe must be wise, for if it weren’t, then man, who is part of the universe, would, in that he has a share of reason, be greater than the whole universe.

“Nothing can move to such a patterned rhythm without design. The orderliness of the constellations and their steadfast movement through eternity are not simply automatic…nor the work of fortune, which loves variety and rejects consistency. It follows therefore that they move of their own volition, thanks to their own judgement and divine power.

*All excerpts have been taken from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics.

Two Causes which Destroyed Rome – Baron de Montesquieu

Synopsis:

The eighteenth century political philosopher Montesquieu examines the constituent features of Roman culture which contributed to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Montesquieu argues that the increasing territorial, as well as material grandeur of the Roman Republic magnified already existing constitutional schisms, and that the primal bellicosity of the Roman people lingered as a tinderbox for civil strife long after external conflicts had ended.

Excerpts:

“The reason why free states are not so permanent as other forms of government, is, because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty; whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people.

“Authors enlarge very copiously on the divisions which proved the destruction of Rome; but their readers seldom discover those divisions to have been always necessary and inevitable. The grandeur of the republic was the only source of that calamity, and exasperated popular tumults into civil wars. Dissensions were not to be prevented, and those martial spirits, which were so fierce and formidable abroad, could not be habituated to any considerable moderation at home.

“Those who expect in a free state, to see the people undaunted in war and pusillanimous in peace, are certainly desirous of impossibilities; and it may be advanced as a general rule, that whenever a perfect calm is visible, in a state that calls itself a republic, the spirit of liberty no longer subsists.

“It must be acknowledged that the Roman laws were too weak to govern the republic: but experience has proved it to be an invariable fact, that good laws, which raise the reputation and power of a small republic, become incommodious to it, when once its grandeur is established, because it was their natural effect to make a great people, but not to govern them.

“Rome was founded for grandeur, and its laws had an admirable tendency to bestow it; for which reason, in all the variations of her government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or popular, she constantly engaged in enterprises which required conduct to accomplish them, and always succeeded. The experience of a day did not furnish her with more wisdom than all other nations, but she obtained it by a long succession of events. She sustained a small, a moderate, and an immense fortune with the same superiority, derived true welfare from the whole train of her prosperity, and refined every instance of calamity into beneficial instructions… She lost her liberty, because she completed her work too soon.

*All excerpts have been taken from Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire, Public Domain.