Notes on a Lecture of Susan D. Collins – “E Pluribus Unum: Citizens, Friends, and Free Thinkers in the Ancient City”

These are my notes; feedback appreciated, I did what I could to be clear. You can watch the original lecture here. Susan Collins teaches at the University of Houston and is the co-author of a translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. If you’re interested, an interview with her.

Can ancient thought guide current political practice? There are several complications at the start of the inquiry. For example, illiberal aspects of the past: slavery was commonplace in Classical Greece and Rome. Further, our world is so, so different that it is hard to see how two thousand year old theories could be applicable. The use of an iphone can invalidate a restaurant review made 5 minutes earlier. Doesn’t politics require some sense of stability? A continual flux of information and opinion seems overwhelming for concepts made for a world where people would lose all hope in the midst of battle because of an eclipse.

So why not leave the ancient city behind? Well, it emphasizes aspects of political life we tend to neglect. Unity is one of those. Modern democracy nowadays tends to place greater emphasis on a libertine freedom centered around the individual. There are good reasons for this, of course, but older thought may prove useful for finding a way to unity and pride in that unity which involves respect for the rights of all. Aristotle talks about a city working together for an end, for the sake of the good. Our political life doesn’t really allow for reflection on what it means to live well. Rather, it seems to emphasize simply living.

The contrast brings us to the more specific concerns of the ancient city. Family looms large in the Republic, though it is treated somewhat ironically there. Laws are a more fundamental concern for ancient thought generally, as they point to the development of virtues which shape citizens a particular way. The city has a “wholeness and rootedness” that takes man’s sociability seriously; not all law points to mechanism or artifice, creating incentives or disincentives for behavior. However, an overemphasis on law or family can make conventionality in the guise of tradition seem like it only speaks to the higher aspects of humanity. It might become hard to guard against a certain nostalgia for generations past.

Still, there are more “realistic” dimensions of the ancient city, ones that remind of modern concerns such as security. The prime example: the ancient city takes conflict seriously. Conflict is not just one city going to war with different cities, but the problem of many seeking the good within the city itself. Various associations form within the city, i.e. families, where people seek the good for themselves and their allies. Aristotle speaks of an “equal exchange of evils” where various associations and communities composing the city continually demonstrate the harshness of civic life. Hierarchy, force exerted from the more authoritative part of the city, is not just a basic necessity but perhaps even integral to whatever freedom is enjoyed in everyday life.

These more realistic dimensions, when considered in the context of what seem to be idealistic notions, raise fundamental questions. What does it mean to live in common? To have a shared life? What could any of this have to do with force?

It helps to treat ancient political philosophy as somewhat practical, as continuous with problems raised in ancient history that Plato and Aristotle were very familiar with. Herodotus gives us story after story about different peoples with different customs. His “inquiry” – the word we translate as history – focuses on them as they are all about to be conquered by the Persians. It seems some notion of Greek freedom and prudence is opposed to this imperialism. Thucydides, however, starts from the problem of Greek empire. People are far less important in his account than the destruction of war and fatal acts.

Thus, we can see flux and conflict as an “intellectual frame” for the ancient city. For example, consider the first book of the Republic: religion, foreigners, sophists, tyranny and force are all brought up to open a book that will give us an ideal city of sorts. The dialogue Charmides has Socrates back from service at the siege at Potidea, dealing with half-baked notions of philosophy from Critias and Charmides, who are associates of his and wannabe tyrants. Aristotle tells us in the Politics that without law and justice, man becomes the worst of the animals. He must have virtue.

Now Aristotle gives us a distinctively political basis for virtue. He lays heavy emphasis on reciprocity, as evidenced by the discussion of “the equal exchange of evils” above and the famous “ruling and being ruled in turn” of the opening of the Politics. But he also talks about the need to exchange goods for community, the fullness and full implications of “a common way of life.”

This brings us to an “ancient realism,” where themes of flux and force and also community reside. One has to wonder about what true community could be in the face of so much conflict. The “architectonic power” of ancient community sees freedom as stemming from authority. The “closed” society, local and strictly moral as opposed to universal and tolerant, is where law shapes mores and gives a way of life. Law requires reverence and piety.

But the establishment of a pious authority obviously does not make anyone free on its own. Ancient realism wonders how the city encompasses community, family, friends; the question of nature, however, emerges as one moves back to the individual and asks about the ends of the city. A diversity of political communities are comprehended by law. In the city, more natural communities are united by law; friendship matters at least as much as having an armed camp. Aristotle at times speaks of philosophy in the same breath as gambling and exercise. It seems like as one gets a friendlier, better city united by law, philosophy is more susceptible to being attacked by it. Why does anyone need knowledge?

Philosophy doesn’t despair. The activity of philosophy is what enabled the more natural basis for the city to be brought forth. The freedom that is philosophy stays somewhat hidden, but is ever present. As long as people can see conflict and disagreement as natural and work with it politically, they can see the higher possibility philosophy represents – that something positive or meaningful about our nature might be understood.

Leave a Comment