Postmodern Conservative

Rome and the Dynamic of Freedom and Virtue

This is for any readers who might welcome the opportunity to step back from more contemporary political and educational discussions for just a moment to help me consider some basic questions in the history of political philosophy.  These questions might actually matter for getting a handle on our present ideological problems, but I leave the contemporary implications aside for now to try to get clear on the philosophical possibilities that have played out in Western history.  (I will be sharing some excerpts  – hopefully the kind some of you will find juicy from a manuscript of mine: Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Philosophy and its History. This is not from the beginning — there are chapters on the Greeks, on Plato, on Aristotle, etc., but from a part I have found the most difficult to teach and to write about.  But with Pierre Manent’s help — see his brilliant and intriguing The Metamorphoses of the City – I have come up with a take on Rome that seems to me to connect some dots.  This is just the first of a series of excerpts.)


The dynamism of Rome can be understood in relation to the classical equilibrium we presented earlier (in idealized form, of course).  As we have seen, the classical polis at its best, as articulated especially in Aristotle’s political philosophy, in some way held together (1) the proud possession of virtue, virtue as the secure self-possession of the best man, the man most worthy of his city’s honors, with (2) the aspiration towards some pure and beautiful goodness beyond the grasp of the city or the citizen, the idea of some pure activity that connected the human mind with a reality beyond all political conditioning, something proper to what is best in humanity, something therefore divine.  The whole effort, one might say, of classical political philosophy was to articulate the human quest for a divine reality in such a way as to sustain the proud ambition and idealism of the polis: political philosophy was to refine and to elevate the pride of the city but not to promise any purer, truer or more universal community.  Only the rare philosopher could transcend the city, and even this transcendence had to be expressed as an extension of the city’s proud claim of self-sufficiency.   This classical view was inherently aristocratic: the common human aspiration to freedom (the claims of democracy) had to be subordinated to aristocratic claims of virtue (which were in turn subordinated to the idea of a serene philosophic self-satisfaction).   

The limitations of the classical view are most apparent, perhaps, in Aristotle’s treatment of the virtue of courage.  Courage, for Aristotle, is in a way the first virtue, because the most necessary, but it is also the most defective from the classical standpoint – that is, the hardest to maintain within the classical equilibrium between the good of the soul and that of the city.  Aristotle does his best to display courage as an intrinsically satisfying good of the soul, but he has to notice that the whole point of courage is often to sacrifice the individual’s good to the city’s necessary self-preservation.  It is this aspect of sacrifice, which in fact colors all the virtues, that Aristotle cannot account for within the classical framework.  There is nothing more beautiful and greater than a human being’s nobly sacrifice his or her very life for something greater, something larger, something beyond his mortal existence.  For Aristotle, this sacrifice, which cannot be explained in terms of the pleasant activity of the natural soul, can only be consigned to dumb necessity.

In a word, the enterprise of classical political philosophy was to channel the human longing for freedom from all merely human powers, the open-ended or in-finite and restless quest for a way of being unlimited by mere human conventions and a willingness to sacrifice all known goods for some elusive beyond – all this had to be channeled into a deference towards aristocratic virtue, which itself was to be informed and chastened by the idea of the philosopher as the aristocrat of aristocrats. 

Such a marvelous equilibrium could not be expected to be stable.  … [to be continued]

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