In My Eyes Only

For a long time I’ve vaguely assumed that Elektra Natchios, a character introduced by Frank Miller during his run on the comic book Daredevil, was inspired by Melina Havelock, a character in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (played by Carole Bouquet).

I mean, they’re both Greek, they’re both assassins, they both use retro weapons, and they’re both avenging their parents’ murder. Each’s commitment to revenge puts her at odds with her nominally anti-revenge but kinda-hypocritical-on-the-subject male love interest and story protagonist. They look something alike (frankly more than comic-book Elektra and later movie-Elektra Jennifer Garner do). And Melina even compares herself explicitly to the original Greek mythological figure Elektra, an avenger-of-a-slain-father after whom Miller’s Elektra is evidently named.

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Alas for my theory, Miller’s Elektra made her first appearance six months before the Bond film was released. So Melina couldn’t have influenced Elektra; and given the timing, influence in the other direction isn’t feasible either. So it’s just a coincidence type thing deal. Drat!

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And Tell It Strong and Clear If He Has Not

Two Arthurian knights you never read about in grade school:

The African one, “black as pitch” but “naught unsightly,” and graced with “all that men would praise in a knight,” who fights Lancelot to a standstill, from the medieval Romance of Morien.

The female one, a “beautiful creature … raise[d] as a boy,” “conducting [her]self like a man,” and “of all the knights … most skillful with shield and lance,” who manages to outsmart Merlin, from the medieval Romance of Silence.

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Justice to Antiquity

In a book review of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual (which I confess I haven’t read), Roger McKinney – evidently following Siedentop – trots out the hackneyed claim that individualism is a product solely of the West, and specifically of the post-pagan West.

In response to the first claim, I’ll simply point to the many anticipations of libertarian ideas that are to be found in ancient China, particularly among the early Confucians. Ideas of liberty, equality, universal justice, and the value of commercial activity – all of which McKinney rightly associates with individualism – can also be found in ancient India and the medieval Islamic world.

But for present purposes I want to focus on what McKinney says about ancient Greece and Rome. To deny the Greeks and Romans a conception of individualism seems startling, since many of the most individualistic features of modern law have their roots in Greco-Roman traditions, and because most Greek and Roman philosophers made the pursuit of one’s own happiness and self-realisation the core of their ethical outlook. (Of course Greco-Roman individualism was not atomistic or antisocial; but that’s surely a feature, not a bug.) So what does McKinney have in mind?

To start with, he writes:

[In Morocco] cheating others is not considered unethical at all but a sign of an astute businessman. … Moroccan business ethics might be appalling to westerners, but ancient Greeks and Romans would have understood and applauded them ….

CiceroI’m not sure how appalling such conduct is to my business ethics students, many of whom readily agree with Albert Carr’s defense of relaxed ethical standards for business life as opposed to family life. In any case, the applause from ancient Greeks and Romans would hardly have been universal. One of Rome’s leading thinkers, Marcus Tullius Cicero, wrote a whole book, De Officiis (usually translated either as On Offices or as On Duties), which is essentially a treatise on business ethics. In it he records some of the leading debates among Greek and Roman thinkers as to what sort of conduct is and is not permissible in commercial transactions. While a variety of views are canvassed, none of them fits McKinney’s description; and Cicero himself insists firmly that justice and fair dealing are owed to all human beings. (Cicero also argues in the same work that each of us has a responsibility to fulfill the demands not just of universal human nature but of our individualised nature, which certainly seems like a kind of individualism.)

Like Moroccans, ancient Greeks and Romans cared little for non-family members. Those “… outside the family circle were not deemed to share any attributes with those within. No common humanity was acknowledged, an attitude confirmed by the practice of enslavement.”

The attitude described here certainly existed (and continues to exist today; indeed it fairly describes u.s. foreign policy), but the suggestion that this view was all-pervasive and unchallenged in Greco-Roman antiquity is a mistake. The Cynics and Stoics defended a vision of all humanity as a single community, a cosmopolis; and even the less cosmopolitan Aristotle, who defended slavery on the basis of bullshit theories of racial inferiority, insisted that foreign races that were not inferior (and he granted that there were some) could not justly be conquered or enslaved. On this basis Aristotle condemned societies with aggressive foreign policies. Aristotle also insisted (NE 1108a9-28, 1126b19-1127a2, 1155a16-31) that we have duties of friendship toward strangers and foreigners. The legitimacy of slavery was also challenged by thinkers from Alkidamas to Zeno of Citium.

For the ancient Romans and Greeks society consisted of a collection of extended families. The heads of the families, including family-based clans and tribes, held all the power and made all of the decisions. Only the heads of families could become citizens in the polis.

Sure, for the most part – though again hardly confined to antiquity, since even the supposedly egalitarian John Rawls in the first version of his 1971 Theory of Justice had “heads of families” as the contracting parties behind the Veil of Ignorance. But likewise again, this perspective was not exactly unchallenged; Plato famously advocated an independent political role for women in his Republic, as well as the abolition of the family; and similar views were defended by the Cynics and early Stoics (and arguably Xenophon to some extent).

Antiquity had no notion of the powers of the government being limited by the rights of individuals, even for family heads.

The entire Athenian legal system was a vast contrivance to limit governmental power. Ancient constitutional thought focused heavily on the idea of structuring the balance of power between different classes so as to prevent any one class from being in a position to impose injustice unchecked on another. And the idea that individuals have claims of justice that states are bound to respect was defended by nearly every ancient political theorist, including Aristotle and Cicero. (For Aristotle, see Fred Miller’s book Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics; for Cicero, see his discussion of natural law in De Republica and De Legibus.)

Consider also Pericles’ funeral oration, as recorded or invented (or some of each) by Thucydides, in which tolerance and respect for individual choice are lauded: “in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes.” Of course Athens did not live up consistently to this ideal (nor do modern so-called liberal societies live up to it today), but the ideal was clearly recognised and formulated.

The ancients had no concept of the equality of man, either. Even for Plato and Aristotle, a natural hierarchy of humanity existed, much like the caste system of India. Some were born to rule, others to serve or fight.

Certainly Plato and Aristotle believed in political hierarchies based on allegedly natural inequalities. But they were not the only political thinkers of Greco-Roman antiquity. The Cynics and early Stoics (such as Zeno of Citium) defended a vision of society in which all hierarchical distinctions of rulers and subjects, masters and slaves, males and females would be abolished. Some Epicureans (like Diogenes of Oenoanda) held similar views. (And turning our gaze momentarily eastward: the caste system in India had its early critics as well, notably among Buddhists.)

Politics and war became the noblest occupations while commerce was held in contempt.

Held in contempt by whom? Successful merchants enjoyed enormous social prestige in Greece and Rome; and Hesiod’s praise of industry and commercial competition is justly famous. As for the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle did disparage commerce (though Aristotle disparaged warfare as well – as did the Epicureans), but again, they were not the only philosophers in classical antiquity. The Stoics in particular were vigorous defenders of commerce, as was Xenophon; and then of course there’s Cicero, whose book on business ethics I’ve previously mentioned. I challenge anyone to read Cicero and come away with an impression of a thinker who is valorising warfare and downgrading commerce. Individualism may not have reigned supreme in antiquity (nor does it today), but its basic concepts were formulated and defended by a good many influential thinkers.

For more on classical Greek and Roman individualism, see my various discussions here.

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Call for Abstracts on Police and Anarchism

[cross-posted at C4SS, BHL, and Public Reason]

Call for Abstracts

for the Molinari Society’s next Eastern Symposium, to be held in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division meeting, January 6-9, 2016, in Washington DC. (Note that this meeting is the week after New Year’s, rather than, as in past years, just before New Year’s. This later time is expected to be the new normal for the Eastern APA henceforth.)

Symposium Topic:
Police Abuse: Solutions Beyond the State

Submission Deadline:
18 May 2015

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Abuses of power by police officers, especially abuses motivated by racial bias, are at last beginning to receive increased public scrutiny. Anarchists have long regarded police misconduct as a deep-rooted and systemic problem, one requiring radical rather than reformist solutions, but have not always agreed about what a radical solution should look like. Some anarchists have advocated a system of private security firms held in check by market competition; others have looked to volunteer and mutual-aid watch groups responsible to the communities they patrol; still others have rejected both models as insufficiently different from the government police system they’re supposed to replace.

Would/should there be police, or something like police, in an anarchist society? If so, how might they be restrained from abuses? If not, what institutions or practices might secure protection from invasive behaviour instead?

Abstracts should be submitted for the 2016 Eastern Symposium by 18 May, 2015. Submissions from any point of view (anarchist or otherwise) are welcome. Please submit an abstract only if you expect to be able to present the paper in person at the Symposium. (Final papers should be of appropriate scope and length to be presented within 15-30 minutes.) Submitting authors will be notified of the acceptance or rejection of their papers by 31 May, 2015.

Submit abstracts as e-mail attachments, in Word .doc or .docx format, PDF, or ODT, to longrob@auburn.edu.

For any questions or information, contact Roderick T. Long at the above email address.


(In other news, the Molinari Symposium originally scheduled for this year’s Pacific APA in Vancouver has been postponed to next year in San Francisco; details to follow in due course.)

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Godkin’s Law

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The Nation turns 150 this year. (Specifically in July, but they’re celebrating it this week; see also Jesse Walker’s piece on the topic.)

In the 19th century, The Nation was, broadly, a classical liberal magazine, and a successor to anarchist William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper The Liberator. Its founder and editor, E. L. Godkin, was a mixed bag; here he is in Jekyll mode and here he is in Hyde mode.

Godkin’s hysterical condemnation of anarchists in the second piece is rather ironic, given both his magazine’s anarchist origins and his praise, in the first piece, for France’s “select group of orthodox economists that still reverence the principles of Turgot and Say” – a group whose leader at that time was Molinari.

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