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.

, , , ,

10 Responses to Justice to Antiquity

  1. Irfan Khawaja March 31, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    The points about Cicero really clinch the case all by themselves. On another note, I’d never thought of De Officiis as essentially a treatise on business ethics (and never heard it described that way before).

    Incidentally, I’ve always thought “atomism” an exceptionally poor metaphor for the thought it’s supposed to describe. An atomistic theory of human nature is one in which a person’s connections with others are inessential to her nature or good, but how many atoms fit that description? It’s essential to most atoms to bond with other atoms. Imagine that we began to conceive of human relations by analogy with polar covalent bonds. Would it really make sense to infer that humans so conceived were insufficiently connected with others? If A relates to B as a sodium ion to a chloride ion, arguably the properties of the salt compound they form are reducible to the properties of the two ions, but it would be absurd to say that the bond between the two ions was somehow weak, contingent, and easily dissolved. If the bond between polar covalent ions was so weak, salt should lack stability. But then how is hypertension such a problem?

    For that matter (so to speak), take any hard solid. It’s bound to be made of atoms. How is it that merely “atomistic” atoms manage to constitute substances like granite, quartz, or diamonds? According to the “atomism” analogy, atoms are so individualistic that they just fly around in the void without order or direction. But no solid is like that. Why aren’t solids “atomistic”?

  2. djr April 1, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

    I more or less expect nonsense any time I read something about “individualism.” The expectation is occasionally disappointed, but infrequently. I haven’t read Siedentop’s book either, but unless McKinney missed something crucial then it doesn’t look like the book offers a very precise account of what individualism is supposed to be. Some authors use the term in a way that I think pretty clearly does describe something that is at least very rare in antiquity; others use it in a way that is hard to imagine very many people in antiquity rejecting. Most of all, though, lofty historical claims about Greek and Roman antiquity by people who haven’t studied it very closely are usually just abysmal. I’m hardly surprised that you manage to refute these ones in a simple blog post.

    It does, though, seem worthwhile to articulate an account of what individualism is or isn’t. The distinction between atomistic and social individualism does nice work, and I don’t find Irfan’s objections to the atomistic metaphor compelling. It is not essential to the identity of an atom that it forms bonds with other atoms; the atom is what it is whether it is bonded or not, and regardless of what it is bonded to, and it does not depend on bonding with other atoms in order to develop and express its nature as an atom. The point of the atomistic metaphor, as I understand it from Taylor, is not to deny that individual human beings come together to form larger social groups; it is to deny that individual human beings are essentially oriented toward social interaction such that the very expression, let alone development, of our nature requires a social framework. Most philosophers haven’t explicitly affirmed an atomistic individualism, but the label was invented as a kind of short-hand for a reductio ad absurdum; Hobbes, for example, doesn’t explicitly articulate an atomistic view, but the view he does articulate fails to account for the ways in which human beings are not atomistic individuals. So too Lucretius, perhaps in this respect accurately representing Epicurean thought, writes about human beings in the period before the rise of culture and civilization as about as social as female cheetahs — they get together to reproduce and spend some time taking care of their offspring, but otherwise go it alone. Lucretius thinks that humans are in some ways better off forming societies, but it isn’t clear that he thinks we manage to develop or exercise any crucial dimensions of our nature that our ancestors didn’t. That’s a far cry from the Aristotelian view, where it isn’t just society, but specifically political society that enables us to develop and express our humanity. Yet I’d agree with Roderick that Aristotle is still aptly described as an individualist. Maybe there’s a better metaphor than atomism for the sort of individualist that Aristotle isn’t. But there’s certainly a difference.

    A vaguely related note that I can’t resist: the claim that “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” is remarkably difficult to square with the prominence Livy gives to stories of Roman political figures sacrificing their familial interests for the sake of the res publica: he celebrates L. Junius Brutus, one of the first two consuls of the Republic, for executing his own sons when they were found guilty of conspiring to reinstate the monarchy. Livy’s history would be virtually inconceivable if McKinney / Siedentop’s claim were true.

  3. Irfan Khawaja April 1, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

    It is essential to the identity of some atoms that they form bonds with others. It depends on the atom. The oxidation state of an atom is essential to its nature, and the oxidation state is inherently a potentiality for bonding with another element (even if it’s another ion of the same element). Elemental oxygen always exists in an O2 state, and allotropic oxygen cannot exist on Earth for long in an O1 state; it has to bond. The “have to bond” feature of oxygen is precisely an expression of its nature.

    So I’m not disputing the fact that an Aristotelian view takes human beings to be essentially social; I’m disputing the claim that an atom’s potentiality for bonding isn’t an essential expression of its identity as an atom. If an atom is what it is whether it’s bonded or not, then what feature of oxygen explains why it always takes a bonded form on Earth?

    To make the atomism metaphor work in a social context, you’d have to imagine a form of atomistic individualism according to which people were necessitated by their very nature–but in a manner compatible with moral responsibility–to interact with one another, and in the absence of which they would lose an identity-constituting property. But if you granted that, there would be no coherent distinction to be drawn between atomism and its contrary.

  4. djr April 2, 2015 at 7:34 pm #

    I think the atomism metaphor was coined with early modern corpuscularianism rather than later modern chemistry in mind. Given the centrality of Hobbes, Locke, et al. to the story of where this conception of individualism finds its most influential expression, that seems appropriate. But even so, the basic idea is that the oxygen in water doesn’t depend on its bond with hydrogen in order to be oxygen, nor does the hydrogen depend on its bond with oxygen to be hydrogen. The metaphor isn’t supposed to rely on detailed scientific theories of atoms, so to appeal to those details to object to it seems beside the point. Hence your example doesn’t seem to me to count against the metaphor. But even so, the sense in which allotropic oxygen “has to bond” is not the sense relevant to showing that bonding is intrinsic to its nature. If it doesn’t bond, it won’t continue to exist for long on our planet, sure; but it doesn’t have to bond in order to possess or exercise the features that make it oxygen — and the fact that its dependence on bonding holds only in some conditions makes that especially clear. The standard examples of ‘atomistic’ individualists all agree, after all, that human beings won’t survive for long if they just live by themselves. This is, of course, explained by the nature of human individuals, just as allotropic oxygen’s dependence on bonding in certain conditions is explained by its nature. But the relationship between the individual nature and its participation in larger networks is purely instrumental and causal; co-operation for individuals and bonding for allotropic oxygen just give them what they need to survive. Critics of atomistic individualism conceive of social relations as partially constitutive of the exercise of some of our natural capacities: the relationship is not something external that merely protects or supports the activity, but something that enters into the very identity of the activity. I take it as fairly obvious that there are such activities (promising, say, or lying, or basketball, or negotiating); the dispute would be whether any of our essential human capacities can be exercised only via such intrinsically social activities.

    I don’t fully understand your final paragraph. Necessitation need not enter into it on either account; the question is whether we think of individuals as in principle complete and able to express their nature prior to social relations or as depending on social relations for the expression of their nature. Maybe atoms, corpuscles, or whatever are necessitated, but metaphors don’t need to be perfect in order to be illuminating. So it seems beside the point to object to the metaphor on the grounds that atoms in modern science are understood to have behavioral features that human beings don’t. If the criticism of a metaphor boils down to its being a metaphor, then unless you’ve got a better metaphor to offer, it’s not much of a criticism at all.

    I guess that’s the challenge I’d put to you: either show that there is no important difference between the conception of individual human beings in thinkers like Epicurus/Lucretius, Hobbes, and Locke on the one hand and Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas on the other, or offer a better way than the atomism metaphor of conceiving of and describing that difference.

  5. Irfan Khawaja April 6, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    I think your last paragraph’s challenge just involves a non-sequitur. I haven’t been denying that there are important differences between the first group and second group of thinkers you’ve mentioned. I’ve been agreeing that there is such a distinction, but denying that the atomism metaphor captures the difference between them.

    I also don’t see why criticizing the atomism metaphor requires me to produce a better metaphor. I could criticize a metaphor as misleading and then say (as i would here) that we shouldn’t discuss the topic metaphorically–that it isn’t amenable to discussion by metaphors. It doesn’t follow from the failure to produce a better metaphor that the misleading metaphor is misleading.

    Suppose that we confine ourselves to oxygen-on-earth. If so, the sense in which allotropic oxygen has to bond with other oxygen molecules does show that bonding is intrinsic to its nature. The oxidation state is intrinsic to the atom, and given existing environmental conditions, there is no way to have oxygen’s oxidation state and not bond.

    Granted, it’s a weakness of my criticism of the metaphor that in other non-terrestrial conditions, oxygen can exist and fail to bond. But just as analogies are imperfect, so are criticisms of analogies. My point was simply that construed in the most natural way, the analogy is misleading. When you focus on oxygen-on-earth, there is no real distinction to be drawn between what the atom is necessitated to do and what expresses its nature. It’s nature just is: what it’s necessitated to do under all background conditions. Focusing on the terrestrial case, it’s necessitated to bond because bonding expresses its natural identity. If we focus on the terrestrial case, the claim “oxygen doesn’t have to bond to be oxygen” makes no sense. Put it this way: terrestrial oxygen has to bond to remain terrestrial oxygen.

    I think you’re misconstruing my rejection of the metaphor to be a rejection of the distinction between “individuals being in principle complete and able to express their nature prior to social relations” vs “depending on social relations for the expression of their nature.” I would endorse the latter disjunct. But contrary to what you say, it’s unavoidable to think about the “atomism” metaphor by trying to figure out how humans are like atoms, and where you see an illuminating metaphor, I see confusion. Humans can’t express their nature unless connected with other humans, but terrestrial elements like oxygen express their nature only when bonded to other elements. Part of what the “atomism” metaphor is supposed to express is the contingency of social relations, the sense in which atomistic social relations can be entered into and dissolved at will. But the oxidation state of an atom not only pushes one atom to bond with another, but specifies which atoms it can bond with and how. You don’t need a better metaphor to see that this one is working at cross purposes with the idea it’s supposed to convey.

  6. MBH April 7, 2015 at 10:31 pm #

    Good read, Professor.

  7. Sergio Méndez April 8, 2015 at 5:15 pm #

    Interesting discusion. Although I will go with far more caution when speaking of “individualism” or the meanning the concept of “individual” holds for societies as distant as ancient Greece or moderl liberal western democracies, I think it is interesting to see what a guy like Foucault has to say about such matters. Specially in how judaism and christianity and the greeks constructed ideas of individuals (the first subjected to what he called the “pastoral power”, or as sheeps to be counted in the flock) and the others, greeks, as someone autonomous with an ethic of “self care” ( I don´t know the exact expresion in english…in spanish is “La ética del cuidado de si”).

  8. djr April 8, 2015 at 8:56 pm #

    I don’t think there’s a non-sequitur, but one reason you likely think there is one is that I didn’t express myself carefully enough. First of all, I didn’t mean to imply that you do deny that there’s an important difference; I meant simply that if you don’t deny it, you should offer up a better way of talking about it. Second, while I agree that your criticism of the metaphor doesn’t commit you to producing a better metaphor, I didn’t intend to suggest that it does; rather, I meant to say — and did say, now that I look back — that you should produce a better way of conceiving and describing the difference; I don’t think it much matters whether it’s metaphorical or not. Third, while I’d of course agree that criticizing a position doesn’t generally commit one to producing a better alternative, I take it that in this case the demand is justified because your criticism doesn’t show that the metaphor is fundamentally flawed, but only that it’s imperfect. Even if I grant you the point about allotropic oxygen on earth — I’m not really inclined to, but I don’t think it matters — I take my initial point in the last post to be the really decisive one: the atomism metaphor was formulated with ancient atomism / early modern corpuscularianism in mind, and atoms / corpuscles as conceived in those theories do not depend for their nature or identity on bonding with other atoms. I suppose one might object that the metaphor is thereby misleading, since we still recognize atoms in our scientific theories but conceive of them differently; but I don’t think it’s very fair to criticize a metaphor when it’s torn out of the context that gives it its sense (and the philological quibbler in me can’t help but observe that the metaphor works by a comparison to atomism, not simply to atoms — it’s “atomistic individualism,” not “atomic individualism”). I recognize, of course, that the metaphor can lose its context just as well when people bandy around the term in isolation as though its meaning were transparent. But if the problem is just that the metaphor might be misleading when isolated from the context that gives it its sense — and not that the metaphor is inherently flawed — then an alternative way of describing the view in question is precisely what’s needed.

    I’m convinced, however, that whatever one says about the metaphor, everyone would be better served by a clearer way of describing the view in question. I don’t think contingency is quite what is at issue; as I said, Hobbes, Locke, and (possibly) Epicurus/Lucretius recognize that human survival and flourishing are contingent on some kind of interaction with others. In fact, my own dissatisfaction with the atomism metaphor is that it fails to reflect that point; the atoms of atomism are what they are regardless of how they interact with others, whereas every serious philosopher I can think of has recognized that human beings depend on one another in some way. It seems to me that the deeper disagreement is about whether the necessary social relations are merely instrumental to or partially constitutive of the activities in which human beings express their natures and achieve their well-being. I think the atomism metaphor is an imperfect, but convenient, way of labeling views that see social relations as strictly instrumental to individual survival and well-being. Since it’s imperfect, I’d welcome a replacement; but since it’s not, in my view, fundamentally flawed, I don’t see any reason to abandon it until we’re given a better alternative. Use it as though it were self-explanatory? No. Use it as a convenient short-hand? Why not?

  9. djr April 8, 2015 at 9:08 pm #

    Sergio: I haven’t found Foucault very illuminating on these topics. I admit I haven’t read much of him, but that’s in part because I’ve failed to find what I have read very illuminating (or well articulated, or well argued, or plausible…). For what it’s worth, classicists have generally found much to criticize in his claims about the development of the “self” in antiquity. While he has been enormously influential in the field, at least half his influence lies in the impetus he gave to a generation of classicists to correct his errors while preserving his insights. Meanwhile, some of the best classical scholars have more or less rejected his views about the self and individualism wholesale. If you’re especially interested, you might find the recent collection of essays on Seneca and the Self worth at least skimming through. It contains essays by scholars highly sympathetic to and highly critical of Foucault, though it also has a whole lot of interesting things to say about a whole lot of other things as well. A good review is here: https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/24390-seneca-and-the-self/

    • Sergio Méndez April 10, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

      Thanks djr 🙂

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes