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Book Review: Republics Ancient & Modern, Vol. 1: The Ancien Régime in Classical Greece (Paul Rahe)

In a sense, this is an introductory work. Not a work for beginners, but a work introducing the reader to Rahe’s broader conception of modern political economy, as it relates to the Classical world. I haven’t yet read the two subsequent volumes, which continue the plan outlined in this book, of contrasting and comparing the American project to its progenitors. Rahe also writes to refute certain ideas of other scholars, his debates with whom are extensively footnoted (such as the Communist classicist M.I. Finley). But even though it’s part of a larger whole, this book stands on its own, and its points are fascinating contrasts to the facile and largely wrong view of Classical Greece that most people have.

This book is something of a commitment. It is not “Ancient Greece For Dummies.” Not only are the concepts dense and complex, and each point closely reasoned, but Rahe also uses parenthetical insertions of actual Greek words, both in translations and in his own thoughts, starting early in the book, in order to precisely delineate specific concepts across different areas of Greek life. This is a bit disconcerting for the undereducated reader like me. By the end of the book, some passages have almost more Greek words than English words, and the reader has to stop and remember what some of the words are and mean. But if you stay committed, you will be rewarded.

The aim of Rahe’s project is to “make the present discontents more comprehensible by making visible their roots.” By “present discontents” (as of 1994), he means the possibility that we in America may face an existential external challenge due to “an improvident stewardship” (quoting Churchill), or, if not that, an internal challenge resulting from Tocqueville’s soft despotism. Or both. Rahe wonders whether these problems are inherent in the republican political form. To answer, Rahe tells us, we must understand how our form is the same as, and how it differs, from the classical models, “so that the elements of continuity and discontinuity in the history of republicanism can become visible.”

This is not as easy as it seems. We know very little about Classical Greece, and much of what we think we know is biased. Rahe focuses on scholarly biases, but to the average modern non-scholar, just as bad is the tripe that passes for today’s “knowledge” about Classical Greece, from grossly ahistorical movies set in that time, to modern political actors eager to tell us, wrongly, that Classical Greece was a setting of sexual freedom, especially gay and lesbian freedom.

Moreover, the Greeks of that time simply did not think like us. They thought in totally different conceptual terms, in everything from the possibilities and desirability of technology to the possible forms of government, which makes it both hard to understand them and leads us to fall into the error of applying our own categories of thinking unthinkingly to them. Rahe particularly criticizes modern scholars for not being “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,” and berates them for perceiving their task as to “’explain’ the words and deeds of those whom he studies by tracing those words and deeds to crude passions and material interests familiar to one and all . . . to debunk the past and to legitimate the trends of the last two hundred years . . . depriv[ing] that past of anything but antiquarian interest.” Instead, Rahe would have us understand what the Greeks of the Classical world thought, on their own terms, and why.

Rahe begins by explaining that, unlike today, politics—the “quest for office, for power, and for glory”—was everything in Classical Greece. Family matters, money making, personal improvement—those things were a distant second to the Greek man. (Women were, in all of Classical Greece, sequestered and, other than their hard-to-determine private impact on the men of their own family, utterly unimportant to the polity.) Material interests, economic and social class, all modern touchstones, were subordinate to politics as an end in itself. Politics was not a smokescreen for material interests, as the Marxists and their fellow-travelers would have it. It was the point of life. The polis, the city-state in its public face, WAS the society.

Therefore, political freedom was an end in itself, not a mechanism (as Locke and the American Founders would have it) for maintaining one’s private ends. And the goal of political freedom, for the individual, was to shine—to acquire eminence—to achieve lasting renown (not just celebrity, but glory). This was a “struggle for excellence,” something sorely lacking in modern America. A man who did not seek and exercise political freedom was less than a man. Rahe cites Socrates in a debate with Aristippus, “The man who avoids participation in public life and sidesteps the burdens of politics and war has no opportunity to exercise the faculties which give him dignity and a sense of his own worth.”

The flip side of this was that private life was largely unimportant (at least in theory). The goal was public political solidarity and unity, in order to preserve the polis. The object was not to operate in the public sphere in order to preserve the private sphere. Public life was what mattered, so anything that made that public life possible was desirable. And the biggest thing making it possible for the Greek free man to devote his “time and effort to speech and action in public” was slavery. Therefore, for the Greek man (not just the Spartan), being reduced to slavery was worse than death—as, often, was poverty, since it also made a man dependent and not capable of participation in public life.

The Greeks believed that this devotion to public activity gave meaning to life. Socrates notes “the emptiness and the self-contradictory nature of a life devoted to material comfort and pleasure,” which does not lead to happiness, but rather “to an existence fraught with boredom and marked by an almost desperate search for diversion.” Rahe points to later thought by Montesquieu and, in particular, Tocqueville along these same lines—a bourgeois society tends to “soften the soul and without noise unbend its springs of action.” (Tocqueville’s solution, given that a large republic made it impossible for any large number of men to pursue public excellence in the political arena, was the encouragement of local participation in politics and public associations.)

This focus on politics and excellence was not without cost. As the American Founders noted, it ensured constant internal and external conflict. “As a result, Greek policy was, in practice, chiefly concerned with the preparation for armed conflict, with the actual conduct of war, and with the prevention of civil strife.” As they say, though, to the Greeks this was a feature, not a bug. These were warrior societies, and the warrior virtues were everything. The best way to achieve external victory and limit internal strife was not for factions to compete, creating a balance, but to achieve unity of internal thought and therefore unity of action, in a way we find difficult to comprehend.

Because of the need for unity, commerce was both peripheral and denigrated. The smallholder was the ideal, and the only honorable man. The frequently encountered modern idea that Athens, for example, was a merchant city is entirely wrong. Greeks disliked the market economy (and failed to see the modern benefits we see of efficiency, increased wealth and increased ability to fund a military) The market economy encouraged a pernicious differentiation of interests and “selfish individualism.” Those with portable wealth were less inclined to defend against the city’s enemies. Moreover, trade brought foreigners with their corrupting influences.

Yes, some men were richer than others in all Greek states. But the rich held their money in trust for the polis and were expected to spend lavishly both on patronage and to support and defend the polis. Individual economic rights, other than to land (and that usually strictly limited in scope) were nearly nonexistent. The bourgeois virtues, thrift, industry and so forth, that we value in the modern world (or did until recently), were not valued by the Greeks, because they are virtues of the individual in his individual sphere. The Greeks would be horrified at the modern tendency to allow trade with known enemies to achieve individual gain, whether British merchants in 1939 selling to Germany or American merchants in 2016 selling to Iran. Of course, some trade was necessary. But it, and improvements in technology, were denigrated and their participants deemed low in social status. Wealth as an end in itself “smack[ed] of dishonor; it arous[ed] contempt”.

After three chapters covering politics and political economy, Rahe turns to war. War, of course, was extremely common (although not between cities similar in customs, which in practice mostly ruled out war between colonies and their mother polis. “[P]atriotism went hand in hand with xenophobia.” In what is presumably a foreshadowing of his later volumes, Rahe notes that the need to avoid this Greek tendency toward constant clashing and “unceasing discord” was a major influence on the American Founders, especially Hamilton.

Religious belief, piety, was critical to maintaining unity in war—treason was betrayal both of the city and of the gods. (Rahe therefore rejects the Marxist-tinged historical belief that religion was irrelevant to politics in the Classical world.) We conceive of the Greeks as skeptics, which some philosophers were. But philosophy was not the lodestar of the Greek polis—war was, and there was, as Rahe notes, constant tension between men of action and men of philosophy. The average Greek was pious more than philosophical, and his piety made him participate more in public life, as well as fight more willingly and more bravely.

What drove bravery in war, by each man, was “reverence and shame.” For us, it is the same, of course, though reverence for the gods as a spur to bravery is gone, but shame remains. Rahe quotes S.L.A. Marshall’s modern “Men Against Fire”: “When a soldier is . . . known to the men who are around him, he . . . . has reason to fear losing the one thing he is likely to value more highly than life—his reputation as a man among men.” And Rahe concludes, “In the end, the role played by self-respect and by a man’s personal sense of honor is always decisive.” In the small world of the Greek polis (Athens at its height had less than 10,000 male citizens), where public honor was everything, and hiding in battle was impossible, this was even more true. (This is also one of many reasons why the modern idiocy of women in combat is idiocy—women are not nearly as subject to fear of loss of reputation for bravery as men are.)

Rahe also extensively treats the universal Classical Greek institution of male homosexuality, or rather pederasty. This, of course, had nothing to do with the modern concept that some people are born genetically homosexual. Greek men (citizens, all of whom by definition were also warriors) engaged in highly formalized homosexual relations during, and only during, a defined period of early life, prior to marriage and procreation. They were not gay, of course. Instead, in a society where women were regarded with contempt and the need to bind men to each other for success in battle was primary, the Greeks found that pederasty—the sexual domination of a puberty-age boy by an older man in his twenties—was a desirable social structure, as odd as it seems to us. Such a structure, subject to rigid formal rules, encouraged the homosexual couple to show their bravery to each other and the larger military unit (as in the Sacred Band of Thebes, which Rahe does not mention but fits precisely into the framework Rahe discusses). “Strange though it may seem, the Greeks regarded the homoerotic passion linking a man with a boy as the cornerstone of political liberty. . . . Throughout much of the archaic period and the entire classical age, pederasty was one of the means by which martial communities of ancient Hellas sought ‘to remove the causes of faction’ and to promote civil courage ‘by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.’”

In the final third of the book, Rahe picks one polis to examine in detail. He picks Sparta, not Athens. We know more about Athens, and it is “far more congenial to our tastes.” But Sparta was the Greek archetype, because “the men of Lacedaemon were no doubt very peculiar, but only because they had systematically sought and perhaps even in large measure achieved that which for their fellow Greeks so hungered.” Rahe therefore disagrees with those historians who believe that Sparta had such a unique system that it does not illuminate any other Greek state. The Spartan system may have been unique, but that in many ways makes it illuminate more, rather than less, about Greek states in general.

Rahe discusses “The Spartan Regimen,” whose outlines most people know, but with an emphasis on the Spartan desire for the political, social and moral structure Rahe has already identified as the Greek ideal. The Spartans just did it better—more desire for glory, more desire for public renown, less private life, less interest in commerce, less interest in foreigners (though, “of course, there was a gap between ideal and performance”). (Interestingly, Rousseau, who emphasized what we view correctly as the pernicious doctrine of the General Will, wrote on Sparta and, according to Rahe, saw the unity of will produced by the Spartan regimen as creating that General Will. Viewing it through this lens makes that doctrine easier to understand, and easier to see as bad, given its modern incarnations in multitudinous death camps.)

Rahe then discusses the unique political framework of Sparta, combining elements of democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. Permanent kings—but two of them, and they could be prosecuted. A council of five ephors—who could serve once, for a year only, but who possessed nearly unlimited power. And a council of thirty old men (including the two reigning kings), elected by popular vote for life, who set the agenda for (advisory) assemblies and acted as a court, including judging the kings, which was designed to counter-balance the unsettling instability and hastiness of young men. This Spartan system was very much admired by the American Founders. Still, this was not designed to create a balancing of factions on the American model—the goal was still total harmony of purpose and unity of action among the entire polis.

Finally, Rahe discusses “Athens’s Illiberal Democracy.” While “she provided her citizens with much greater individual liberty than Rome and Sparta . . . . other aspects of Athenian life—the size of the polity, the prevalence of slavery, the subjection of women, and the possession of an empire—served to make her illiberal not just in principle, but quite often in practice as well.” And here, like everywhere else, a warrior dominated focus on public life was everything. As Pericles said, “We do not think that a man who takes no part in politics is a man who minds his own business . . . we judge him utterly worthless.” For such a man would quickly be reduced to slavery, were it not for the deeds of “men of action.” In fact, the Athenians outdid the other poleis in their warlike ambition and lust for deathless glory, which of course, ultimately led to their ruin.

This is why the American Founders did not hold Classical Greece up as a model, but rather as an instructional example. And, as Rahe discusses in his “Epilogue,” the Founders, and we, view the world through the lens of Christian morality, through which much Greek behavior appears wrong. Or rather, they view it through that lens, as modified by the very un-Christian line of Enlightenment thought beginning with Machiavelli. I assume how Greek poleis influenced other republics, and ours, is the theme that Rahe continues in his subsequent two volumes, to which I will turn shortly.

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