As the pro-life revival of the American Republic is the goal, I promised those who came to the first session of the pro-life social doctrine certificate program that I would read this book while teaching the course: 1200 tasty pages of very fine political analysis—Paul Rahe’s Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution.
This is the first dispatch, as I climb up the mountain.
Rahe begins by arguing for openness to the ancient/classical science of politics (exemplified by Aristotle) rooted in a lifeworld and a sentiment of existence profoundly different from our own. This would require a great exertion of moral imagination, given our tendency to judge and find wanting while perched in the rafters of history, a tendency alive in the modern style of political science:
“To the extent that [contemporary ethnography and political science] succumb to the reductionist project that animates the various social science disciplines, their history [of the ancient world] will be little more than a pack of tricks played on the dead. The method systematically applied by all but a few modern students of these subjects deconstructs and reduces the phenomena in a fashion that disarms the past and obscures its true character. ...what poses as a rejection of all ethnocentricity is, in fact, an ethnocentricity fully victorious: the one thing that contemporary researchers are taught to take for granted and never to question is that the men and women whom they study were wrong, and deeply wrong, above all else because these individuals were unaware of their own ethnocentricity—unaware, that is, that the beliefs for which they claimed to live and for which they were sometimes willing to die were arbitrary and nonsensical, if not self-serving. Almost never are well-trained modern researchers open to the possibility that the moral and political visions guiding the communities they study are, in fact, superior to those which inspire their own research.”
The theologian Johann Baptist Metz calls this ideological tendency “evolutionism”: the assumption that our time (and we) are simply superior to what came before. Such an ideology makes self-knowledge impossible. And without self-transcendence, there is no hope of rescuing the American Republic. Our political science, our social analysis, cannot be self-critical unless we risk surrendering our position of superiority, humbly engaging in the grand conversation about the proper order of social life that has been going on for centuries.
The modern world is characterized by a massive expansion of technological power. This has tended to give economics (rather than politics understood to include common endeavor, deliberation, and aspiration) the upper hand in our lives. The most powerful vectors of modern life tend to slice and dice common life. I have no nostalgia for pre-modern times. At all. But we must understand what’s going on in our world, if we’re going to have any shot at reviving society and republicanism. And that means recognizing things that the ancient political science recognizes.
Rahe quotes Benjamin Constant: “We are no longer able to enjoy the liberty of the ancients, which consisted in an active and constant participation in the collective power. Our liberty, for us, consists in the peaceful enjoyment of private independence. The share which, in antiquity, each had in the national sovereignty was not, as with us, an abstract supposition. The will of each had real influence: the exercise of that will was a pleasure intense and often repeated. ...This compensation no longer exists today for us. Lost in the multitude, the individual hardly ever perceives the influence he exercises. Never does his will leave any impression on the whole; nothing establishes in his own eyes his cooperation. The exercise of political rights, then, offers us no more than a part of the enjoyment which the ancients found there; and, at the same time, the progress of civilization, the commercial tendency of the epoch, and the communication of the various peoples among themselves have multiplied and have given an infinite variety to the means of personal happiness. ...The purpose of the ancients was the sharing of the social power among all the citizens of the same fatherland. It is this to which they gave the name liberty. The purpose of the moderns is security in private enjoyment; and they give the name liberty to the guarantees accorded by the institutions to that enjoyment.”
Constant sees what change comes with bourgeoisified subjectivity: a privatization of desire, when there was a time our desires circulated through the larger social body. And yet there is great good involved in this modern development, good that comes with increasing recognition of the singularity and dignity of each person.
The whole question is precisely this: how do we balance the rise of the person with a robust common life?
The hope for an answer lies in the kind of profound social/regime analysis Constant displays, which depends on a non-modern way of doing political science, one that asks different questions. Every society has its characteristic loves. Modern political science tends to ignore this fact. Ancient political science put it front and center.
As Rahe describes it: “…what really matters most with regard to political understanding is this: to decide who is to rule or what sorts of human beings are to share in rule and function as a community’s politeuma [ruling class] is to determine which of the various and competing titles to rule is to be authoritative; in turn, this is to decide what qualities are to be admired and honored in the city, what is to be considered advantageous and just, and how happiness is to be pursued; and this decision—more than any other—determines the paideia which constitutes ‘the one way of life of a whole polis.’”
Paideia/the formation of the person and his or her desires/the education of our fundamental loves: this is the most basic element of the politeia, the regime, the whole fabric of common life (what we praise and blame, our customs, our sense of propriety, our pieties, what we are grateful for, our laws, what counts as justification for a given action). We must ask ourselves: in what way are our desires being trained? Towards what?
One may hold that the ancient political science is better at social analysis than its modern counterpart without holding that the ancient way of being political was simply superior to the modern way. It is precisely my commitment to modern republicanism that requires my acknowledgment of the superiority of the ancient political science, in recognizing the urgent need for dialectics (treating every interlocutor as having something worthwhile to say, every opinion as reflecting some truth) and in illuminating social life by the fundamental shared loves of the society.
These questions have been placed before us, starkly, by the last presidential election. Trying to find intelligibility in populist opinion, for instance, is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We must understand what moves the elites and what moves the lower classes. We must love the American creed again, together, and be moved by it as the wellspring of our common action: every single human being equal in dignity, endowed by the Creator with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we can’t get there without a preferential love for the poorest and most powerless. We need to find the romance in solidarity.