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How Politics Are Haunted by the Past

What do we need to know about Bartolus of Sassoferrato? Most of us have never heard of him, but in his time—he was born in 1313 in the Marche region of Italy—Bartolus was famous as a political thinker.

Though he roamed between Italian cities like Bologna, Pisa, and Perugia, Bartolus confronted a world still haunted by the idea—in fact, two ideas—of universal empire: the empire of Western Christendom, under the God-given authority of the pope, and the Holy Roman Empire, under the authority of someone who was supposedly the successor of Constantine and Justinian. Relations between the two ideas were complicated beyond belief. The papacy had temporal authority over certain territories in the Empire and its authority extended to spiritual matters in the imperial jurisdiction as well. The Empire was, in theory at least, every bit as committed to upholding the Catholic faith and appointing bishops as the papacy was. In matters where their authority overlapped, no one could quite agree who was subordinate to whom: Was the temporal authority of the pope (such as it was) a donation from the emperor or was the emperor’s authority legitimized by the church?

Sometimes these questions would flare up in deadly conflict. But often they seemed irrelevant to daily life. Christ had told his followers to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, as though a concession to empire were enough to account for all political obligations. But in the real world, most people’s obligations were owed to self-governing cities or to the rulers of independent kingdoms like England and France. And this posed a problem. We might be comfortable reading “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” as though it included state taxes and municipal regulations. But it was by no means obvious to Bartolus or his contemporaries that “Render unto Caesar” could be read in this way. The whole edifice of Roman law, which was the basis of jurisprudence everywhere, was erected on the assumption that only the emperor had lawmaking power. So there was an enormous gap between jurisprudence and political reality. It was as though little Californian communities fifty years hence in the postapocalyptic world of Cormac McCarthy or Justin Cronin were to approach the issue of lawmaking on the basis of Article I of the US Constitution.

The distinctive thing about Bartolus was that he was sometimes willing to adapt the theory of Roman law to fourteenth-century reality rather than insisting that fourteenth-century reality always had to be redescribed to fit traditional jurisprudence. It was important, he said, to stop regarding France as a province of a notional Roman Empire or Florence as just one of its municipalities. Bartolus didn’t want to deny the Holy Roman Emperor’s title, but its holder (when there was a holder) was usually to be found in Germany and he had only a passing interest in the Italian city-states or the kingdoms of the West.

So, if we accepted that law could be made only by the emperor, then, said Bartolus, we would have to acknowledge that the kings of England and France were emperors in their own territories—emperors wearing imperial crowns long before they had overseas empires. If law could be made only by a monarch, then republican lawmaking in an Italian city would have to be interpreted as meaning that the city was an emperor or a prince unto itself (civitas sui princeps). Without exactly repudiating the premises of the civil law tradition, Bartolus tried to adapt a unitary jurisprudence with its theory of one omnipotent world-state to a world of separate states and distinct jurisdictions. Some of us might associate this with the Peace of Westphalia, which set up a new system of sovereign states in Central Europe; but Bartolus was three hundred years earlier and centuries before the Reformation.

This is all very interesting. But why is it something that modern readers need to know about? How exactly might we profit from reading what Bartolus wrote or from reading what has been written about him—for example, the eight pages devoted to his writings in On Politics, Alan Ryan’s new two-volume history of political thought? We can always use some help thinking about law and politics. But reading Ryan’s account, we quickly become aware of how different Bartolus’s questions are from our own and how little we can learn from his answers, at least so far as direct normativity is concerned. (I use Bartolus just as an example: one might say the same about Herodotus or Philip Sidney or Pico della Mirandola.)

Like Bartolus, we are interested in issues of church and state, but his account of the fraught relation between pope and emperor is not going to help much with the predicament of Christian cheerleaders in a public school in Texas. Like him, we want to know about the relation between lawmaking at a local level and lawmaking at a global level. Ryan says that countries under Roman law were indebted to Bartolus’s solution for centuries. But for us, seven hundred years later, it is not national lawmaking but global governance that is the problem. And it is not clear how Bartolus is going to help us with that.

The eight pages on Bartolus of Sassoferrato in On Politics are located in a chapter devoted to political theory in the fourteenth century. It also includes segments on the work of Dante Alighieri and Marsilius of Padua. It follows a chapter devoted to Aquinas and it precedes chapters on Machiavelli and Hobbes. The whole book is a procession, a goodly fellowship that begins with Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, and follows Machiavelli and Hobbes with chapters on John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Karl Marx. There is also a handful of thematic chapters, punctuating the procession here and there with banners representing imperialism, mass democracy, fascist dictatorship, the American founding, the French Revolution, the Reformation, sixteenth-century humanism, the Christian world before Aquinas, and the political thinkers of ancient Rome.

There have been such histories before, like George Sabine’s History of Political Theory.1 Sheldon Wolin’s book Politics and Vision continues to command a good general readership.2 But Ryan’s book is a magnificent piece of work, clear (even when the ideas he’s exploring are obscure) and engaging (even when the theory in the original is forbidding). Inevitably there may be scholars with a specialty in one of these thinkers who will find Ryan’s account rather brisk. But that’s not the lasting impression. The book gives itself space to explain complex views in detail and there is no denying the prodigious learning that is set before us.

Alan Ryan has taught political theory at Oxford and at Princeton for the past forty-five years; he was until recently warden of New College, Oxford; and he is the author of books on John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and John Stuart Mill. But this volume goes back to Herodotus, and Ryan’s engagement with his subjects is as vivid at the beginning—when he reports a Greek exile telling the king of Persia that the Athenians will continue to fight against him not because they are afraid of their rulers, but because they are ruled by law—as it is in his account at the end of why Bertrand Russell’s “pacificism” in the late 1940s was consistent with his contemplation of nuclear war against Russia.

On Politics has been published at more or less the same time as a collection of Ryan’s essays on political theory, The Making of Modern Liberalism. That too is a magisterial volume. More scholarly in approach, it will appeal to specialists on particular thinkers and topics or to those interested in the trajectory of the liberal tradition inaugurated by Hobbes and Locke more than three hundred years after the death of Bartolus of Sassoferrato. On Politics has no footnotes—just half a page of endnotes for each chapter and another half a page on primary editions and secondary sources. Perhaps that’s one reason why it is the greater book: the reader is wonderfully caught up in an uninterrupted trajectory of thought. It sounds blurb-like to say this, but anyone remotely interested in political theory will profit from reading or dipping into Ryan’s On Politics, whether this is their first acquaintance with the canon of political theory or whether they have been “Hobbing and Locking” for decades.

On Politics works also because of its steadfast focus on government and institutional arrangements for government. This is unusual. In recent years, political philosophy has tended to become just applied moral philosophy—the abstract study of justice or other ethical ideals. Isaiah Berlin once defined political philosophy as an examination of the ends of life.3 Ryan was close to Berlin but he shows no sympathy for this way of thinking. In the chapters devoted to the twentieth century there is precious little about John Rawls (just a brief discussion of his views on global governance) or about the discussions of justice that have dominated political philosophy since 1971. There is an admirable essay in The Making of Modern Liberalism that tries to explain the immense influence of Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice outside the narrow philosophical circles where it originated.

On Politics, however, is not a book about social justice; it is about democracy and its justifications; about the difference between polity and empire; about kingship and political leadership in a republic; about church and state, and constitutions and the rule of law. It is Ryan’s meditation on the fragility of political institutions and the doggedness of our commitment to a popular role in government. It is political political theory.

So it is a wonderful achievement—if the history of political thought is worth studying. Why exactly is it worth studying? What are we learning when we find that Bartolus assimilated popular legislation to the formation of customs, or that Bentham came late to the idea of democracy, or that Erasmus thought monarchy the best form of government? Are these anything but historical curiosities, studied and known for their own sake?

Ryan talks in his introduction about “productive, if sometimes frustrating conversations across the centuries.” But to what end do we converse? Pleasure? Niccolò Machiavelli, in his bitter exile from Florentine affairs, would come into his house in the evening, dust off his garments, and “enter the ancient courts of ancient men”—in his library—

where, received by them with affection,…I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time…I forget every trouble,…I entirely give myself over to them.4

Or is it a kind of intellectual resentment? “Great Books” courses are sometimes associated with nostalgia for a lost past, lament for values and civilities that have been discarded on the road to modern society. I press these questions, though I have to say there is not an ounce of resentment or nostalgia in Ryan’s book.

Not everyone takes their political theory historically. I have colleagues who are happy to eschew the historical approach altogether, who grapple theoretically with the problems we face—democracy, constitutionalism, nation-building, terrorism, and global law—without benefit of the heritage that Ryan parades before us. This treatment works pretty well for some. (And there are historical thinkers who thought this too: Hobbes said that a leading cause of political instability was excessive reading of the Greeks and Romans.5) So what are the rest of us doing when we insist on standing our current thinking about law and politics at the head of a procession that includes Sir James Harrington, Sir Thomas More, Sir John Fortescue, and a whole noble army of knights, monks, and martyrs stretching back for millennia?

One possibility is that we should regard the study of the canon of political thought as a branch of history, a way to understand the spirit of ages other than our own. The history of ideas is certainly a respectable branch of historical study, and there is no doubt that some of these thinkers cannot be understood at all except in their historical setting. Ryan usefully and carefully provides historical and biographical background for each of the philosophers he introduces us to. Yet, as he says, political thought “is not exactly history.” The point of such history as he gives us is not necessarily to distance the thinking of past ages from our own. “We should neither exaggerate the closeness of such thinkers to ourselves,” says Ryan, “nor treat them as though they were so distant in space and time that their ideas need decoding as if they were Mayan hieroglyphs concerned with a wholly inscrutable way of life.”

Indeed, sometimes Ryan helps us shake loose from our preconceptions about how different past thinking must have been from our own. He tells us about fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spanish thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas, who denounced the cruelty of Spanish conquest and Christian conversion in the Americas in roughly the same terms as we do. But are we then just sorting through the history to find friendly faces in a crowd? We find ourselves agreeing with James Surowiecki on the wisdom of crowds,6 and so we cite Aristotle’s saying in Book III of The Politics on a multitude of citizens being smarter than the smartest individual among them. Opponents of democracy might as easily quote the saying of James Madison to the effect that “had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”7 This is decoration, not argument, and I think Ryan accepts that we should not simply ransack the canon for gobbets to make our own essays sound a little more learned.

I raise these questions not out of any criticism of the book, but precisely because it stirs the reader to reflect upon the importance of the history of political thought. Here is one answer that Ryan offers. “Human beings are historical animals,” not because we are all antiquarians but because we associate longevity with legitimacy:

We have a strong sense of the pedigree of our institutions, and of the moral and intellectual commitments they embody. For every person who knows what the contents of Magna Carta actually were, there are hundreds who think that the civil liberties of today descend somehow from that document. For every person who knows how Athenians voted in the Assembly, there are hundreds who are aware that it was they who gave a name to what we pride ourselves on as a uniquely legitimate form of government.

We construct and enact our politics—not just our political theory—in ways that are haunted by the past. Why is the Supreme Court building in Washington shaped like a Greek temple? Why, as Karl Marx asked, did the participants in the French Revolution perform “the task of their time in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases”?8 Why are some among us so sure that reference back to the original intentions of the framers of our Constitution—men who lived in circumstances staggeringly different from our own—is a better source of wisdom than modern jurists who are fully acquainted with the distinctive conditions of polity and administration in 2012?

The answer is that we are self-consciously nervous—and rightly so—about structures and practices that we have constructed, about their ability to hold their own in the vicissitudes of political life without an anchor of some sort in a respectable and enduring past. As Ryan puts it, “we share the ancient and medieval world’s sense of the fragility of political order”; we want precedents for what we have invented to assure us it can last. “Societies run on memory,” he writes. We want institutions that endure, political practices that can settle in and hold their own not just for weeks but for centuries. We want robust political procedures to discipline the impulsiveness, the greed, the soaring and rival ambitions, the denunciations, the slogans, and the blinkered self-righteousness that are endemic in any system that tries to unite the anger and the fantasies of millions of opinionated “loudmouths.” And so we make a history for ourselves—not through invention, but by bringing to our politics the acknowledged theorizing of other history-makers—what Edmund Burke called “the bank and capital of ages”—to shelter the contingency of our constitutional arrangements from this awful sense of “thinking alone.”

That’s one reason for our interest in historical political thought. There are others. Even when we innovate, even when we build a new polity for ourselves or for others, we inevitably reinvent old forms and familiar practices. And this time, whether we like it or not, each institution comes trailing its own history, which is often quite different from the way we want to present it to the world. (We think a president is quite a different thing from an elected king; but then we find John Adams suggesting that George Washington should be addressed as “His Majesty, the President.”) An institution, whether a parliament, a court, or a prison system, has a genealogy—layers of significance that represent what it or something like it has meant to a hundred generations before our own. And those meanings continue to resonate or, to change the metaphor, they are continually unearthed in the archaeology of our thinking.

If I have any criticism of On Politics it is that Ryan makes nothing more than a cursory reference to Friedrich Nietzsche and his account of the prehistory of punishment in his book The Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche wrote: “The past…history of punishment, the history of its employment for the most diverse ends, crystallizes eventually into a kind of unity, which is difficult to analyze into its parts, and which…absolutely defies definition.”9 We wrestle with this protean and frustrating practice in the politics of modern incarceration and crime control, and we find it riddled with multiple conflicting purposes that echo from long ago. This might be particularly true of capital punishment (the subject of another excellent essay in The Making of Modern Liberalism), where elements of sacrifice, spectacle, vengeance, and biblical retribution all jostle together in the sentiments that support the death penalty in the United States. None of this is easily exorcised. And sometimes the only grip we have on this accumulation of ideas and practices is to read how punishment made sense in Plato’s theory, then in Aquinas’s, then in Locke’s, then in Kant’s, before we even get to relatively modern reformers like Beccaria and Bentham.

And if this is true of punishment, it is certainly true of things like elections. We think we know what we were doing when we voted for Obama or Romney in the recent presidential race. But there are more influences from the past on an election than meet the modern eye. Elections have been many things in many different ages: surrogates for battle, festivals of acclamation, ritualistic searches for truth (like a criminal trial), mechanisms for holding leaders accountable, or simply the least bad mechanism for switching from one set of rulers to another. Ryan’s account of the election of a pope (as the identification of vox dei), the institution of elective aristocracy, and the emphasis on indirect elections in the American constitutional schemes—these are all ways of teaching us to see depths and resonances of other times and places in the institutions we regard as familiar.

There are other ways, too, in which a historical succession of political theories can make our institutions and their problems seem strange to us. We profit sometimes from being roused and startled, Ryan observes, just when we are looking to some comfortable form of words for support. We speak of the rule of laws, not men, and we wonder how this can be a real distinction when legislation is made in Congress by a bunch of squabbling partisans who are not even on speaking terms. So we read back into Ryan’s history of political thought to get a sense of the myriad ways in which law and lawmaking were treated as something utterly distinctive in their content, character, and ceremonial provenance—enacted in processes that could be special and solemn and incantatory, as in the Athenian practice of putting old laws on trial before a kind of jury before they could be amended, set quite apart from the measures that emerged in day-to-day politics.

Take another example: as we wrestle with questions of church and state, it is worth knowing that the issue of separation was alive to thinkers like Bartolus long before states were confronted with religious diversity. We think we know what it is for a people to be ruled by religious law and we look with dismay on the prospect of an Islamic state. But our own experience of what a full union of spiritual and temporal affairs would look like is really quite limited: a few stories about Taliban extremism in Afghanistan and whatever knowledge of Puritan communities we have managed to glean from sources like The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible. The early part of Ryan’s book helps us reimagine the hundred different forms in which such united rule was rationalized in Christian polities from 325 to 1648.

A third example: we are still not sure, exactly, what political systems are for. Security, certainly, public goods, and the legal frame for a common life. But do polities also exist as vehicles for culture, language, and the embodiment of ethnicity? Is it the state’s job to foster a particular national identity? These are not just academic questions: there are hard issues of self-determination to be figured out, in Scotland, in Catalonia, in Kurdistan, not to mention in the ten thousand square miles that lie between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Again, the history of political thought can help free us from the grip of any one particular picture of the relation between states and nations by articulating and making vivid to us a dozen different conceptions of the mission of the state.

I don’t mean that every citizen or politician involved in these issues has to trudge off now and try to translate the notoriously bad Latin of Bartolus, so as to enliven their political imaginations. But it is an important service to put into accessible English what is startling and disconcerting in Plato’s work or Cicero’s or Montesquieu’s or Marx’s. There’s a division of labor and there are plenty of scholars willing to answer that challenge, for one thinker or another. The amazing thing about Alan Ryan is that he has assembled so much of this in a single place, so accessible in this two-volume reservoir of historical and political knowledge.

Toward the end of On Politics, Ryan departs from the chronological format to introduce a series of more thematic chapters, taking us into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The account I have given of the importance of a historical dimension in our political thinking is very abstract and philosophical. But if you want a vivid illustration of the value of theory from the past, just read the last 180 pages of this book: for there you get a lively sense of what it is to explore the particular problems of our time—from climate change to the perils and paradoxes of democratization—in the company of someone who has been our guide through three thousand preceding years of thinking about government. It’s a remarkable experience.

  1. 1

    Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1937. 

  2. 2

    Princeton University Press, 2004. 

  3. 3

    Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (1991; second edition, Halban, 2007). 

  4. 4

    Niccolò Machiavelli’s “Letter to Francesco Vettori,” December 10, 1513, in Machiavelli’s The Prince: Interdisciplinary Essays, edited by Martin Coyle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995). 

  5. 5

    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 150 and 225. 

  6. 6

    James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (Doubleday, 2004). 

  7. 7

    The Federalist Papers, edited by Clinton Rossiter (Penguin-Signet Classic, 1991), No. 55, p. 340. 

  8. 8

    Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by David McLellan (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 301. 

  9. 9

    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Horace B. Samuels, Essay 2, section 13 (Modern Library, 1923), p. 70. 

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