I had a most enjoyable time at Mercer University in Macon, GA. A highlight was leading a discussion of the Odyssey with a number of students and faculty in their Great Books Program.
In the evening I delivered a lecture entitled "The Sustainable Republic and the Alternative Tradition in America." The lecture was part of a series on the theme of "Republics, Ancient and Modern." I took the title as a point of departure, and - as my introduction below argues - rejected the notion that there is any such thing as "modern republicanism."
I will begin my talk tonight on a most ungracious note – namely, by disputing the title of this lecture series, "Republics, Ancient and Modern." I take issue with the title of the series because, I want to suggest, there is – strictly speaking – no modern theory of republicanism. What is commonly regarded as modern republicanism is an outright contradiction of ancient republicanism which – in my view – is the only republicanism that is deserving of the name. What goes by the name “republicanism” in modernity is a form of extremely clever and cagey sleight of hand, by which modern theorists co-opted the deeply positive connotations of the ancient term “republic” in order to lend legitimizing force to the arguments of a radically different position. Modern theory is anti-republican; the only legitimate form of republican theory that has ever existed in a fully articulated form is the ancient theory of republicanism, or modern variants of those same arguments. We are, as ever, engaged in an argument between ancients and moderns, but the moderns have decisively confused this debate by laying claim to a political term that intentionally obfuscates the true nature of their theory.
Republicanism – as the name suggests – is a political theory with an abiding and fundamental concern for public things. It is a theory that begins, in the first instance, by seeking to chasten private claims. The claims of the body tend to be the most immediate and instinctive forms of private claim, and, according to ancient theory, it is the role of the polity to ensure that these immediate individual demands are chastened and governed. The public sphere is conceived as an embracing form of civic and ethical education in which we come to understand that the public weal has priority over our individual desires.
According to ancient theory, only through the governance of desires can we actually achieve a true form of liberty. After all, ancient theory understood that desire is infinite in nature: in attempting to fulfill the infinity of our desires, we in fact put ourselves into a condition of servitude to them. By inculcating our innate but not instinctive capacity to govern our desires, we achieve the highest form of liberty, the liberty of self-governance that is otherwise compromised by the pursuit of, and enslavement to, our infinite desires.
This form of governance occurs through an habituation in continuous self-government, a foremost task of the architectonic science of politics. A well-ordered political community aims to foster self-governance in and among its citizens, not only through encouragements in the realms that might be thought of as “private,” but perhaps above all through the practice of citizenship itself. Citizenship, as famously described by Aristotle, consists in “ruling and being ruled in turn.” The self-governance of the individuals of the polity is both mimicked and exemplified in the actions of citizens, who share in the activity of governance with a view to putting themselves under laws that are collectively self-imposed. Laws are thus not imposed from outside or even from elected representatives – producing a likely recalcitrance and opposition from subjects who might perceive such laws as impositions upon their freedom – but rather are generated by citizens for citizens – the self-imposition of limits over our own actions.
Among those areas subject to governance by the commonweal are economic activities. As Aristotle wrote, there are two kinds of economies – one based upon the view that acquisition is without limits; and one that exists within due measure of both human nature and the natural world. Aristotle wrote that some believe in the priority of “business,” that is, the idea that economics involves the accumulation of goods “without limit” and is therefore ungoverned by law that enjoins constraint. However, Aristotle contended, such a belief is concerned only with “living,” not “living well.” To live well, he argued, one must strive to understand the distinction between goods that are necessary for “living well” and those that are superfluous, and which thereby contribute to our enslavement to our desires and appetites. To “live well” one must subordinate the imperatives that drive economic logic of accumulation without limit to the governance of political life and a conception of human flourishing within limits and common good. As such, the “market” occupies space in the city, not vice-versa.
Still, the ancients recognized the reality of our human condition. We are born and die as individuals, and the demands of our bodies and our limited loves should not, nor finally cannot, be eliminated. Governance of our appetites is, if not wholly contrived, nevertheless a challenging achievement of art, persuasion and habit, the fulfillment of our natural capacity for self-governance. As embodied creatures we are not infinitely capable of extending the governance of personal appetite in the name of res publica; once appeals to the common weal go much beyond our immediate senses, any such commitment becomes theoretical and is subject to hypocrisy or disillusionment. For this reason ancient republican theories insisted upon polities of small scale, comprehensible within the range of our senses and thus more capable of persuading us that our personal interests might more fully align with the common weal. Small republics were likely to be more modest and less ambitious; the very limits for the expansion of power had the salutary effect of limiting the temptation toward expansive forms of luxury, pride and ambition. Only on such small scale was the prospect of an inculcation in virtue – that is, a condition of self-governance within limits in accordance with our nature as humans and within the context of the natural world – realistic and attainable. Republicanism was an active and organized effort of a kind of comprehensive civic education in limits and self-governance, one which rested upon the strong existence of public spiritedness which in turn perpetuated itself from one generation to the next in the form of gratitude to the past and obligation toward the future. The city was prior to the individual, which is to say, according to ancient theory, the whole “preceded” in priority the parts. The good of individuals could only be conceived and achieved in the context of a well-ordered, self-governing polity. Only through such an understanding could a commitment to public things – res publica – be achieved.
The modern view of liberty rejects this ancient theory. On almost every count, modern theory – though it called itself “republican” – rejected these ancient prescriptions for the achievement of res publica, the inculcation of “public things.”
Whereas liberty according to ancient theory was the achievement of self-government, liberty according to the modern teaching was understood to be the condition in which ever greater opportunities for the satiation of desires is made possible. Of course, modern thinkers such as Machiavelli and Montesquieu shared the view of the ancients that human appetite was limitless. Machiavelli had noted that “desire is always greater than the power of acquisition,” an insight that Montesquieu further developed by observing the human propensity not to find satisfaction in any objective measurement of accomplishment, but only by comparative measurement to others, which ceaselessly gives rise to “more desires, more needs, more fantasies.” Both anticipated the fruition of this notion in the phrase that promised “the pursuit of happiness” without its likely attainment. However, this observation, rather than being an argument against efforts for the governance of appetite, was in fact a recommendation for its embrace, the redirection of activities that had formerly sought to achieve an education in self-restraint for one that sought the unleashing of frenetic activity aimed at an always imperfect fulfillment. Accompanying this unleashing of appetite were modern theories of the state that were expansionist, not only in the physical space that they occupied, but further, in their devotion to the ever-greater increase of human power directed at the control over nature.
The great innovation of modern theory was to argue against self-restraint and self-governance in recognition of the limits of nature – human and worldly – and instead to assert that the aim of life and politics should become the active effort to increase human dominion. Obstacles to the satiation of desires were to fall before the expansion of human power over nature – and while it was recognized that this would, in turn, only generate further desires, it was believed that the possibility of the human expansion of power was potentially limitless. As John Milton was to write in his early essay “Prolusions,” “when the cycle of universal knowledge has been completed, still the spirit will be restless in our dark imprisonment here, and it will rove about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest…. Truly [man] will seem to have the stars under his control and dominion, land and sea at his command, and the winds and storms submissive to his will. Mother Nature herself will have surrendered to him. It is as if some god had abdicated the government of the world, and committed its justice, laws, and administration to him as ruler.” The logic of the modern project was not the liberty achieved by self-government, but the final liberty that would be achieved by displacing God as governor of the universe and installing Man in His place, as supreme ruler – or despot.
For the ancients, since human desire was insatiable but our capacity to fulfill it was limited, the theory of republicanism was the result – a difficult apprenticeship in liberty as self-government. Modern theory argued, by contrast, that public power should serve the fulfillment of private interest. Public power, in particular, should be put in the service of those techniques that would expand our practical ability to exert dominion over the natural world. What is called modern “republicanism” is, in fact, a reversal of the basic premise of ancient theory. It does not aim at the primacy of “public things,” but in fact subordinates the public realm to the demands of private interest. Liberty came to be understood not as the achievement of the hard discipline of self-government, but as the overcoming of obstacles that were presented in the natural world. The modern state, the modern economy, and perhaps above all, modern science were its results.
We are today reaping what modern theory has sown. All around us are the accumulating signs of the devastation wrought by a theory whose fundamental premise was the elimination of natural obstacles in the fulfillment and expansion of human desire. Today we increasingly see with eyes no longer capable of self-deceit the consequences of the subordination of res publica to a theory that held out the promise of endless satiation and endless growth – and yet, so defined are we by these modern theories that we have largely lost the capacity to adequately judge our current situation with frank cognizance and acknowledgment of its sources. Indeed, our dominant political standpoints today are simply iterations of this modern theory, more likely to deepen the wounds than to redeem our course.