The Story So Far

In this story of political ideas we’ve reached the end of the medieval era. Before moving on to the modern era, I want to take a look back in this post over the near 2000 years that have been covered so far. I also want to take this opportunity to credit Alan Ryan again for his book ‘On Politics’, which this blog is based on.

In order to consider so much political history and so many political ideas together in any useful way, there must be some common themes running through them. One is the desire for political freedom, and what that has meant to different people through history. The ancient Greeks celebrated their victory over the Persians as a victory of a way of life based on freedom over one based on slavery. To the Athenians in particular, political freedom meant the ability to actively participate in politics on equal terms to other citizens – having a share in sovereign authority. To the Romans this was a recipe for chaos. While many citizens under the Roman Republic could vote, the power of the common man was carefully diluted. Roman freedom emphasized the ability to secure one’s rights in court, i.e. freedom from arbitrary abuse. This freedom also came with obligations to the state in terms of taxation and military service.

As the Roman Empire appeared in terminal decline in the 4th century, besieged by barbarians on all sides, it was easy for early Christians such as St. Augustine to believe that the world itself was coming to an end. What then is the point in political freedom, or in politics itself, if we are approaching judgment day? The repudiation of politics itself was not an entirely new thought. Plato had argued that benevolent philosopher-kings were the natural people to manage society. The common people were not capable of determining how we govern ourselves and would be happier if they were not involved in such questions. As the medieval world emerged from the Western Roman Empire it became clear that judgment day had been postponed. Nevertheless, God was all powerful, and the lot of the people was to obey the Church and their divinely ordained King. To question the political authorities was to question God himself.

From the renaissance to the present day, many political thinkers have tried to recreate the world of the classical citizen – dutiful, loyal, and engaged in tackling the political issues of the day. However, this desire clashes with what would replace Christianity as the dominate force in politics in the modern era – liberalism. To a liberal, political freedom means freedom of the individual, including freedom from the interference of the state. To most people today, the interference of and obligations to the classical states of Greece and Rome would be completely intolerable. The ancient Athenian desire for political egalitarianism also conflicts with liberal freedoms to pursue individual wealth and political power. While many of us consider the question of political equality to have been resolved by universal suffrage, the reality is more complicated. There are practical and morale concerns with re-creating classical political freedom in modern society. In practical terms, how can tens of millions of people be actively involved in the affairs of government? In moral terms, it must be remembered that the classical system relied on high numbers of slaves.

One of the great questions for the modern era was to what extent should people participate in politics? To put it another way, are we and should we be subjects or citizens? If asked whether modern western society is a descendant of the ancient Greeks or the Persian empire, most would find it a strange question to ask. However as the modern political state emerges, it can be argued that we owe more to the highly centralized and bureaucratically managed state of the Persian empire, than we do to the classical citizens shaping politics in the Athenian assembly.

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