Political Philosophy and the Republican Future
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Are we moving inevitably into an irreversible era of postnationalism and globalism? In Political Philosophy and the Republican Future, Gregory Bruce Smith asks, if participation in self-government is not central to citizens’ vision of the political good, is despotism inevitable? Smith's study evolves around reconciling the early republican tradition in Greece and Rome as set out by authors such as Aristotle and Cicero, and a more recent tradition shaped by thinkers such as Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Madison, and Rousseau. Gregory Smith adds a further layer of complexity by analyzing how the republican and the larger philosophical tradition have been called into question by the critiques of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and their various followers.

For Smith, the republican future rests on the future of the tradition of political philosophy. In this book he explores the nature of political philosophy and the assumptions under which that tradition can be an ongoing tradition rather than one that is finished. He concludes that political philosophy must recover its phenomenological roots and attempt to transcend the self-legislating constructivism of modern philosophy. Forgetting our past traditions, he asserts, will only lead to despotism, the true enemy of all permutations of republicanism. Cicero's thought is presented as a classic example of the phenomenological approach to political philosophy. A return to the architectonic understanding of political philosophy exemplified by Cicero is, Smith argues, the key to the republican future.



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Date de parution 25 juillet 2018
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EAN13 9780268103927
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Reconsidering Cicero
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
Copyright © 2018 by the University of Notre Dame
All Rights Reserved
Published in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Smith, Gregory B., 1949– author.
Title: Political philosophy and the Republican future : reconsidering Cicero / Gregory Bruce Smith.
Description: Notre Dame : University of Notre Dame Press, 2018. | Includes bibliographical references and index. |
Identifiers: LCCN 2018011955 (print) | LCCN 2018012123 (ebook) | ISBN 9780268103910 (pdf) | ISBN 9780268103927 (epub) | ISBN 9780268103897 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 0268103895 (hardcover : alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Cicero, Marcus Tullius. | Political science—Philosophy. | Republicanism.
Classification: LCC B553 (ebook) | LCC B553 .S65 2018 (print) | DDC 321.8/6—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018011955
∞ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper) .
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at ebooks@nd.edu
For my wife, Betty, once again and forever
ONE . Reflections on the Tradition of Republicanism
TWO . Initial Reflections on Political Philosophy
THREE . Who Was Cicero?
FOUR . Cicero on the Nature of Philosophy
FIVE . Cicero on Cosmology and Natural Philosophy
SIX . Cicero on Natural Theology
SEVEN . Cicero on Ethics
EIGHT . Cicero on Oratory and the Language Arts
NINE . Cicero on Politics
TEN . A Brief Reflection on Nietzsche
Conclusion: Political Philosophy and the Republican Future
Every age is determined by its past. It operates within a dispensation those in the present did not choose and cannot outrun. What has our dawning postmodern age bequeathed to us? For many it seems that we are moving inevitably into an irreversible era of postnationalism and a universal homogenous cosmopolitan state. But the tradition of republicanism has always assumed that republics have to be small enough that some element of participation and self-government could remain central in political life. In the thinking of the republican tradition, the larger a political entity becomes, the more despotic it becomes. Without the possibility of participation, citizens are inevitably transformed into subjects.
No matter how comfortably and softly administered a regime might be, if participation in self-government is not central to our vision of the good, does not a form of despotism become inevitable, especially on a global basis? Is that our irreversible fate? By becoming postnational cosmopolitans would we become postpolitical and postrepublican? Would we not simultaneously become posthuman?
The great modern republican Montesquieu helped republican thought find a path toward crafting republics larger than the premoderns thought possible with his notion of “confederated republics.” And he among other modern authors helped find a basis for republicanism in commerce rather than slavery and imperial conquest, as was true of premodern republics. That thinking found its way into the U.S. Constitution. The participants at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 built on the philosophical premises of modern republicanism, and more than a few classical and Christian ones also, and crafted an argument for a republic larger than any seen since Rome. 1
The large American “extended republic” was to be moderated by strong elements of decentralization and federalism, but as large and extended as the American republic was at the Founding, and is now, it is minuscule compared to the postnationalist state predicted and/or longed for by many. Will this leap to a new global scale of life be the final death knell of republicanism as a political possibility? What would now be required for the continuation of the republican tradition? In other words, what political, philosophical, and ethical commitments must remain central?
A second and related issue in this book is that from almost the beginnings of the republican tradition in Greece, that tradition has been intertwined with the tradition of political philosophy. This is true in various and competing ways from ancient authors like Aristotle and Cicero to modern authors like Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, and even Rousseau. But in our time, both the republican tradition and the larger philosophical tradition have been called into question by the philosophical assaults of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and their various epigones. Those assaults cannot be ignored; they are a part of the legacy of our age.
Therefore we must also consider what would be required for the continuation of the tradition of political philosophy as something more than a nostalgic picking and choosing from among past authors attempting to declare a winner. My thesis is that these two issues, the future of republicanism and the future of political philosophy, are inextricably connected.
The question becomes, where do we start? My suggestion is that we cannot start with the famous self-grounding, self-legislating modern Ego or with its ironic descendant postfoundationalism or postmodern ism with its philosophical midair tap dance that only works for cartoon characters. We must find a way to get a purchase on our present situation, a way of putting the central issues that cannot be transcended into a manageable perspective. My suggestion is that there is always only one place to start such reflections. We always start our questioning in a particular place, at a particular time, with a particular past we did not choose but cannot dismiss—especially if we hope to have a future.
This starting place is captured by Plato’s metaphor of the cave. Cicero designated the same notion as res publica , a shared “public space.” This is also, I will argue, the inevitable foundation of political philosophy, which, when correctly understood, is proto-philosophy itself. In short, the starting point for our discussion is the present political, moral, and philosophical situation, together with how it emerged.
To that starting point must be added our responsible reflections on plausible future possibilities that are consistent with our past and present. We always stand between past and future with the need to link the two. Philosophy is set in motion by this practical necessity it shares with the republican need for maintaining a tradition of self-government. We achieve our greatest insight and clarity when we have made both the past and future more present for us than the actual, given, inert, present moment. In short, we must link past and present in an ongoing tradition.
We do this by taking responsibility for the future, by extending the essential past into that future. I would suggest that this notion is surprisingly similar to what Leo Strauss once designated as “the loyal and loving reshaping or reinterpretation of the inherited.” 2 I would add one caveat: in doing so we must leave open the possibility of actual novelty, that something unique is always still possible. We need be neither at the end of history nor limited to an eternal return of finite past possibilities, and with it Nietzsche’s repeated return to a barbaric “retranslation of man back into nature.” 3 And for Nietzsche that retranslation was to be preceded by “innocence and forgetting.” 4 The loss of openness to the past and the closure of the future go hand in hand, and it is a spiritually deadening region to colonize.
I have already suggested that in our time various high-level attacks on the philosophic tradition, especially as those attacks descend from Heidegger and Nietzsche, stand as an impediment that cannot be ignored. 5 In their deconstructions of the entire tradition, Nietzsche and Heidegger would destroy not just the philosophic tradition but also the republican tradition. But in various ways, these authors open the door for us to go back and reappropriate both premodern and modern moments of our tradition in a new and revivified fashion. 6

No amount of intellectual gymnastics will ever find a way to admit the fathers of our nihilistic, deconstructive moment, Heidegger or Nietzsche, to the republican tradition. At the end of modernity, what we can do is recover the insights of the premodernity that modernity closed down, and thereby also understand our modernity more clearly. We do this with an eye to the recovery of the best of our tradition as something to be extended, and not simply to be rejected or repeated.
Despite having almost dropped out of discussions of the greats of the philosophic tradition, Marcus Tullius Cicero was once considered one of the philosophical greats throughout the Christian era and well into the modern era. And he was not only a republican theorist; he was a republican practitioner. I will argue that our late modern nihilists Nietzsche and Heidegger knew little that Cicero did not already know. Precisely on Heidegger’s own central issue, temporality, I am going to argue that Heidegger knew little that wasn’t already known by Cicero.
While remaining close to Cicero’s own arguments and texts, what follows will also remain ever mindful of a dialogue with the two great German antagonists of the philosophic tradition of our time. In our situation, they cannot be ignored, especially given that neither was anything resembling a proponent of self-government. This confrontation is obligatory because we cannot co-opt their principles, and fall into deconstructionist self-forgetting, without simultaneously advancing despotic political and moral outcomes.
When Cicero turned to the production of what has come down to us as his philosophical corpus, his Roman Republic was already doomed. Cicero hoped that through his philosophical reflections he might still bequeath a republican possibility for untold future generations. Our republican present is troubling for a myriad of reasons, including increasing rootlessness, runaway technological autonomy, moral relativism, philosophic irrationalism, bureaucratization, self-selecting elitism, just to name a few of the ills. Our late modern republican situation is not yet as dire as what Cicero confronted, but there are enough causes for concern to turn our thoughts to the first things and fundamental questions that we must self-consciously reconsider if we are to bequeath a republican future to our posterity.
Reflections on republicanism in our time have become divorced from a relation to and discussion of the first things and the fundamental questions that should ground all political philosophy if it is to be more than special pleading. And philosophically grounded discussion is what our public debates cry out for. Even in academic debate, it frequently seems that in our time skyscrapers are being built starting with the eighty-fifth floor—this is the only outcome predictable for postfoundationalism or postmodern ism .
But we are surrounded by other intellectual currents that also foster the abstractness and technical jargon and fragmentation of knowledge that create a disconnection between academic and public debates. This frustrating and problematic gap is to the disadvantage of both. Through Cicero we can thematically access the issue of a healthier relation between philosophy and public discourse.
Perhaps an abstract and technical theoretical building without a foundation allows one to speak in shorthand to those of the same ideological inclination, but it makes both fundamental philosophical and serious public debates ultimately impossible. It is one of the causes of the incivility of contemporary debate, both public and academic. One admits in advance that there is no real foundation for persuasion. When that happens, everything devolves into power politics, and this is true of both conventional understandings of political life and in contemporary philosophic and academic debate. Everything becomes an exercise in power politics more or less subtly disguised. The deliberative element that republican government demands, with its openness and toleration, is lost.
Cicero confronted a similar situation of an environment of abstract school philosophies. And he is the perfect author to help us see that all fundamental philosophical discourse always implies answers to fundamental questions in ethics, political science, psychology, cosmology, natural theology, and epistemology, whether those questions are openly discussed or not. 7 Seeing this is especially important in an age of the fragmentation of knowledge where there is seemingly no integrating vision. Fundamental political philosophy, as displayed in Cicero, represented his conscious, attempted return to the architectonic phenomenologist Plato, a return to a first philosophy that must address the first things and the fundamental questions directly and thematically and in a discourse that is unified and available for public discussion.
The great advantage of approaching the question regarding the future of republicanism through Cicero is that he still presented his thought in a holistic and architectonic fashion that was accessible to a public audience. This unity of fundamental thinking displayed in Cicero’s philosophical corpus was then seen throughout the tradition of political philosophy, but with a declining openness as modern political philosophy evolved, especially as it spun off independent disciplines. Cicero was at work at a moment when political philosophy still understood itself as architectonic and as addressed at least significantly to an intelligent public audience.
The philosophical present that Cicero confronted was one of fragmentation and isolated school philosophies and sects that seemed determined to talk only to fellow members and in a language that was increasingly divorced from the language of everyday life. Our own intellectual fragmentation is well documented, and is even celebrated in some circles as a moral and political good. In what follows I am going to suggest that we need something similar to the philosophical recovery and phenomenological regrounding that Cicero attempted if we are to offer future republican possibilities. We must again address the simple and primary questions of the good for man and the best regime for pursuing the good.
There is much that is similar in our age and Cicero’s age, but ours is nonetheless an unprecedented time. The rapid social and technological change we have seen in the last one hundred years will be as nothing compared to what is coming in the next one hundred years. This alone will have powerful transformative effects on political and moral life on this planet. Indeed, looking back from one hundred years in the future, readers will know many things about which we can now only speculate more or less blindly. It is this predictable rapid change that makes it imperative that we find access to the things that do not change.
I am going to argue that we late moderns find ourselves in one of history’s rare transitional moments. We must try to find our bearings in that transition so that we can bequeath to those who follow a satisfying and fully human existence. Let us hope those who are our heirs can still freely read thoughtful philosophical texts in some format, whatever that may be, and openly address the fundamental issues of human existence. It must be hoped that future individuals are still free to think and choose, that they are still responsible “human” beings and citizens—not subjects of some large and distant never-before-seen global postnational state that can only be despotic, no matter how softly and comfortably it may dole out its gifts. And we must hope that we have helped forestall that most appalling and chilling of euphemisms: “the posthuman condition.”

We must realize that there are forces other than technology and the social change it drives that are operating in the present and that will be transformative. At the philosophical peaks of our age we find the powerful assaults on modernity, and the Western tradition more generally, by Nietzsche and Heidegger and their various epigones, who in a variety of permutations now dominate contemporary discussion. The ramifications of the critiques of Nietzsche and Heidegger have been percolating down into our public life for decades; that discourse has more or less taken over the thinking of major portions of our intellectual elites. 8
That modernity has philosophically reached a moment of decision, and that we cannot go back to any concrete premodern or earlier modern moments in history, is not to say that the premodern thinkers, and even the best of the moderns, the greatest of whom were precisely “untimely,” did not see and understand some fundamental things more clearly than we do. Perhaps only now do we live in a concrete world where elements of the noblest parts of premodern understanding can have true efficacy. If nothing else, it is a thought experiment worth conducting on our way to the future. It is part of how we can fruitfully stand between past and future without the nihilistic determination to simply obliterate the past and blindly wander forward in mass self-forgetting.
In what follows I do not attempt to recover an understanding of Cicero merely to reenthrone him as the one author who got it right for all times. We turn to Cicero to see a mode of thinking that can be redeployed in any given present. Yet that thinking will still have to be ours and turned loose on our unique present.
We have one significant impediment to approaching Cicero. The Cicero who is offered up for present audiences is but a vague, and boring, facsimile of the original. To be of anything but antiquarian interest to us we have to gain access to this noble author who has fallen into eclipse. It can be hoped that this effort will reinspirit a sense of our responsibility to the future like the one shown by Cicero. We will need more than a little genuine remembrance of our past to do that. Tocqueville has unfortunately been proven correct when he predicted that the people of the modern world, especially as presented in that vanguard of modernity among Americans, would become among the most ahistorical peoples of all times. We are close to accomplishing the “innocence and forgetting” posited by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as the gateway to the future.

Past concrete political, social, and moral possibilities that have been available to human beings in their pursuit of the good, the noble, and the just are closing down; the spaces for future possibilities are not being opened. The present is fraught with the danger of losing what we have that is valuable, the majority of which was gained in the era of modern republics. Our present political environment, with all its aimless but blindingly passionate selfishness and partisanship, threatens to undermine republican government in any serious sense and with it genuine individualism and personal autonomy, personal responsibility, liberty, self-government, and openness to those things that transcend the mundane, everyday world.
These, and many other goods, will not be saved in the future that is coming if we cannot recur to the first things that help us see why they are good in the first place. For example, we must remember why republican goods such as liberty and self-government are ends in themselves and not just means to wealth and our private comfort. It is necessary to remember that modern commerce itself was not seen by many of its original champions as an end in itself but as a means to republican ends.
Modernity has given us the highest form of republicanism to date. It has offered a centuries-long object for aspiration, namely, to modernize, enlighten, and liberate. But what comes next? We late moderns are left to rethink the highest objects of our aspiration and attachment and rethink the fundamental questions in the same penetrating fashion as our proto-modern predecessors. Our world is different than theirs; undoubtedly our informed choices will be different too. It is precisely their successes that made our world what it is. We now stand in the same relation to the future that they stood to our present.
Among other things, modern republicanism gave us individual rights, self-government, individual personality development, and a ground for dignity for all, private property, and a free market with rewards for individual effort rather than those based on mere birth or false claims to “merit.” Modern republicanism also supplied the environment for the progress of modern technology—and modern science in its essence is technological, not ontological. All of these things are good but not inevitably sustainable in the changed environment of the future.
But simultaneously modernity has increasingly alienated us from the fundamental human experiences of core phenomena, such as civic dedication and social and familial attachment, to say nothing of the highest striving for excellence as an end in itself. Too infrequently do we experience the genuinely transforming virtues: a sense of the divine and the beautiful or a true encounter with honor, nobility, solidarity, shame, and awe. With this modern alienation from core phenomena of a genuinely human existence, we have fallen into a spiritual hollowness and the resultant reign of a utilitarian selfishness. Even Mandeville would have a hard time defending these things in our age as leading to public virtues. We must reclaim what is becoming a dispirited—if not increasingly nonexistent—public space from which individuals withdraw to a hollow private existence. This is a witches’ brew that, though at times intoxicating, can lead only to despotism.
Modern political philosophy is implicated in these questionable outcomes and in the good things modern republicanism and modern technology have wrought. Some wit once asserted that no good deed goes unpunished. Put slightly differently, eventually every good brings its correlate and unintended disadvantages trailing behind. At that point we must continually readjust, for we will never transcend the ultimate limitations of human existence. That is why history will never end, because we will never totally actualize the good, and we are beings who long for the good and have a vision of it, if only through a glass darkly.
What I will present as Cicero’s return to Plato and his “phenomenological” mode of doing political philosophy can be helpful in getting us back in touch with the fundamental issues we must recall before we can make informed choices about our future. Once again, we do not approach Cicero, or any other thinker of the first rank, with the hope of specific concrete recipes for adoption. We study the greatest thinkers the way artists study their greatest predecessors, as a prelude to painting their own distinctive canvas. I hope to show that Cicero offered a distinctive transformation of what earlier philosophers offered rather than a mere watered-down, textbook restatement in Latin that culminated in a thoroughgoing Academic skepticism, as is the general consensus at present.
Cicero consciously attempted to provide a transformative lens for viewing his philosophical predecessors—especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And Cicero consciously tried to soften the moral stance bequeathed to him by predecessors, including Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism. Cicero reacted against the moral teaching of his predecessors with its remaining pagan stress on pugnacious, self-centered, self-assertive “magnanimity.” In the process Cicero opened spaces that were occupied eventually by a nascent Christianity, which was forced to engage in efforts at moderating the magnanimous pugnacity of the German tribes within which it resided after the fall of Rome.
Christianity itself would have been a far different phenomenon than it became if not for Cicero, who in a certain irony, became the first Christian philosopher. In fact, it can be argued that Cicero remained the preeminent philosopher of Christianity until Aquinas—and not just through his influence on early Christian thinkers such as Ambrose and Augustine.
But Cicero was more than just a prism between pagan antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages. He was already opening spaces for a greater respect for commerce and labor than we see in the Greeks and for the creation of a distinctive republican soul better suited to philosophical statesmanship and public deliberation than war and imperial conquest. These things we will encounter in detail below.
By his mode of questioning, Cicero can show us what is always possible. When political deliberation is detached from serious philosophical grounding, the result is the victory of hyperbole and noise and the consequent loss of the very ability to civilly deliberate together because we have lost touch with the underlying fundamental issues that never go away.
This process of occlusion is further exacerbated by blind faith in “progress.” If progress is inevitable, recovering philosophical understanding and moral excellence are unnecessary; they are irrelevant to the good life. And there is nothing of real import to deliberate except the administrative means to an inevitable end. We are given an excuse to cease to deliberate upon the end, overcoming thereby the need for the civil deliberation that is perhaps the central trait any republic needs. And a shared public space for that deliberation is equally essential. We must rethink the prerequisites for that kind of shared, and philosophically serious, public deliberation to exist.
By way of introduction I will offer some brief reflections in chapter 1 on the history of republicanism, a history that, after Rome, is almost entirely carried in the tradition of political philosophy until late into the modern era. I will follow that with some brief reflections in chapter 2 on the nature of political philosophy. In the central chapters of the book I will work out the contours of Cicero’s philosophical understanding. For the sake of brevity and clarity of presentation, I will do something risky, and rather than deal with his works text by text, which is ultimately required for a full understanding of his mode of writing, I will break his teaching down into constituent parts: philosophy ( chapter 4 ); cosmology and natural philosophy ( chapter 5 ); natural theology ( chapter 6 ); ethics ( chapter 7 ); oratory ( chapter 8 ); and politics ( chapter 9 ). I do this even though what Cicero aims at is a teaching of philosophy that, at its peak, is an integrated, architectonic, unified political philosophy, one weaving these parts into a consistent whole.
In this vein, leading into concluding remarks on the future of republicanism in my conclusion, I will offer some explicit comparisons between Cicero and Nietzsche ( chapter 10 ). I make this seemingly iconoclastic comparison because like Cicero, Nietzsche tried to return philosophy to its architectonic status and tried to return to an integrated view in the face of the divestments, especially of modern philosophy, that spun off all manner of allegedly independent and autonomous “sciences” and forms of “scholarship.” But Nietzsche divorced these reflections from republican outcomes.
I will argue that Cicero’s understanding of the need to repeatedly “restore” philosophy to its unity and thereby its rightful architectonic place of leadership is more profound than Nietzsche’s—which in the end remains modern, all too modern. Of the two thinkers, Cicero offers the only understanding consistent with a republican future. And yet in a surprising number of ways Cicero and Nietzsche are walking a not altogether dissimilar path. One of the softest voices with the most reserve of almost any great author and the loudest and at times most shrill of authors share more than a few similar insights, except for the ultimate and necessary political and moral insights that seem to have escaped Nietzsche as he looked at life from 30,000 feet above the ground, where one can no longer experience the sinew and ligature of everyday existence.
Reflections on the Tradition of Republicanism
The story of republicanism is old and venerable, but it has very few concrete chapters until well into the modern era. Yet the term “republic” has achieved such cachet in the contemporary world that even clearly despotic regimes, such as the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the present People’s Republic of China, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, want to co-opt the term. This fact leaves us with questions: What is a genuine republic? How is it distinctive? How is it maintained?
There are underlying, fundamental premises that determine all genuine republics. But there is also a significant distinction between ancient and modern republics that cannot be ignored. We must at least briefly consider how ancient and modern republics compare to understand what is necessary for republicanism to prosper in the future.
The word for republic comes from the Latin res publica (literally, “public thing/affair/matter”), which for present purposes I will translate as “public space.” The term is closely related to the term res populi , which can be translated as “owned by the people.” As a first definition, a republic has a public space owned by the citizens, a space they share and from which they cannot be removed.
Before the Romans and their distinctive understanding of political life, with which we will deal in more detail in chapter 3 , there is a question of whether there was such a thing as a republic. Yet everyone begins the story of republicanism with the ancient Greeks. The first notes of the republican symphony are sounded in the Greek city-states, especially Sparta and Athens, the two great competitors in the thirty-year Peloponnesian War. But it was before that internecine conflagration, during the Greek confrontation with the Persian Empire, that our republican story begins.
The Greek city-states of that time were small, usually with, at most, ten thousand citizens. After the rustic age of kingship there emerged what we now sometimes call “participatory democracies,” but it would be fairer to call them participatory aristocracies. Everyone who was a citizen had a potential voice in public affairs. Every political outcome had to be publicly negotiated. Especially in the early experience of these city-states, there were no standing political offices or written constitutions. Everything was up for grabs on the basis of fluctuating majorities. There were no rights or defenses against those majorities. To refuse, or to fail for whatever reason, to engage in public life resulted in being cast aside and ignored, thereby suffering whatever outrageous fortune one’s fellows might impose. To decline one’s public responsibilities and to be a private person was to be idiotes , an idiot of a certain sort.
To be a citizen required constant participation in the shared public space and its assemblies. But the prerequisite for that participation was that one first be a warrior, for these were communities that were constantly threatened by other Greek city-states, and especially the larger political entities that surrounded them, such as the Persian Empire, which repeatedly tried to conquer the Greeks. On the basis of size, wealth, and strength, the repeated confrontations between the Greeks and the Persians were mismatches. Yet the Greeks eventually won. The penalty for losing was the destruction of one’s city and its buildings, death of the men, and, at best, slavery for the women and children. Being a noncombatant was not an option.
What the Greeks valued more than anything else was their freedom. But by freedom they meant their freedom to give themselves their own laws and not be subject to the despotically imposed laws of others. Freedom so understood required that one be both martially tough and civic-minded. The Greeks had no conception of freedom whereby individuals had rights they could assert against the state or their fellow citizens. Freedom was not something to be exercised in private or in individual pursuits. Freedom could only be exercised in the public arena. The opposite of being free men was to be ruled by a king ( basileus ), a tyrant ( tyrannos ), or a despot ( despotes ). No matter how decent those forms of rule might be in practice, such rule was seen by the republican Greeks as slavery.
It was in this fashion that the Greeks defined what was distinctive about their Greekness. Especially in opposition to the Persians to their east, the Greeks were free men. They were free men and citizens, not subjects. Here is the first manifestation of the distinction between East and West that determines the mind of Western civilization. The East was the realm of large despotisms where only one man was free. The West was the realm of citizens, freedom, and participation. The world was divided in half, Greeks (free men) and barbarians (everyone else on the planet, who were seen as slaves or subjects). The opposite of free was slave. For its maintenance, freedom so understood required cooperative public efforts and participation with others in a shared public space. But free citizens had to be warriors. One had to ensure one’s freedom from others.
The Greeks pursued political freedom as an end in itself. The state was not a means to the pursuit of individual wealth or private comfort. This was true even when the victors claimed the spoils, which largely went to public expenditures. The greatest good was to be a free citizen and gain the opportunity to distinguish oneself from others by deeds and speeches in the public arena. That was the basis of Greek individuality. Some wealth was necessary to provide the leisure for war and politics. It was not an end in itself.
Hence the Greeks looked down on commerce and labor and other “illiberal” activities that destroyed the leisure for participation. Greek citizens were not wealthy by today’s standards, or even by the standards of the later Roman Republic. They were absolutely impoverished in comparison to the opulence of the Persian court. The Greeks associated opulent living with slavery; this was especially true of the Spartans.
Only at a later date did superfluous wealth enter the Greek world, especially at Athens, which became an imperial empire and enslaved many of the other Greek city-states on the mainland and colonized the islands in the Aegean Sea, forcing most to pay tribute. Even then most of the wealth generated went to public buildings (e.g., the great architecture, such as the Parthenon we still venerate), and institutions like the theater were publicly supported (recall Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes), as were the Olympic Games. It is an open question whether this increased opulence led to the loss of Greek freedom. That is certainly what happened to the Roman Republic: first opulence, then despotism.
After conquest of Greece first by the Macedonians and then by the Romans, this Greek public world of participation dissolved. Both Macedon and Rome lowered the status of the political for the Greeks to local administration of mundane things having to do with self-preservation and the preservation of the species, that is, economics. The great world of political freedom and public participation was lost as a concrete reality only to become an ideal to be strived for throughout Western history.
In the classical Greek world the two activities that were honored were war and political participation. Thus labor and commerce were not honored because they offered no leisure to pursue martial and political excellence. Because women could not participate in war, they could not participate in politics. Thus a distinction was made between the polis , “city, political life,” and the oikos , “household.” The polis was the arena of men; the oikos was the arena of women.
Initially the oikos included primarily the function of reproduction and child-rearing alone, but as time passed the administration of the economic things moved into the arena of the oikos and hence into the purview of women. 1 Our word “economics” comes from combining the Greek words oikos and nomos (law). Economics is the law of the household, which provides the economic necessities for the polis .
They were not political beings, but women were not slaves either. The leisure needed for political participation was supported primarily on the basis of real slavery. At its peak, the Athenian polis probably had 20,000 male citizens. Added to that, by a factor of roughly three or four, were free women and children, and then another 400,000 slaves and “metics,” or resident aliens needed for commerce and trade. Freedom and inequality were seen as perfectly consistent in the Greek understanding. The idea of the universal equality of human beings as individuals entered the West from a different direction—the Christian belief that we are all the equal creatures of a universal Creator/God.

Because of the sheer necessity posed by external threat, the Greek polis strove for unity and solidarity. The necessary unity needed for survival required a common religion, common opinions, common tastes, and even enforced common dress and patterns of consumption. Ostentatious public displays of wealth were forbidden and opposed by sumptuary laws. A Greek wandering about with the equivalent of a Rolex could be banished from the polis , thereby losing any chance for political freedom.
One differentiated oneself from others not by conspicuous displays of consumption, but by great and memorable deeds and speeches. The Greeks were great lovers of public speaking and rhetoric. Before the arrival of philosophy, the teachers of oratory and rhetoric (Sophists, or “wise men”) were admired and respected because of the central political importance of what they taught. At a later date the same veneration became true by extension for poets and playwrights and eventually philosophers. This was a civilization of public speech in a way we can now hardly imagine.
Such a civilization was the prerequisite for the birth of philosophy. And thus Aristotle could codify the Greek understanding when he defined man as both the “political animal” ( zoon politikon ) and the “animal with speech” ( logos ). But these were not initially two separate things. They became separate things for Aristotle and thereafter. With Aristotle we get the doctrinal separation of theory and practice, politics and philosophy. This was a fateful move. 2 The true and pure logos increasingly became separated from the public space of the polis .
Politics for the prephilosophic Greeks was primarily speech and public decision-making about war, justice, and the rites of public religion, and not the interest-group politics we now know, which is primarily based on competing economic interests. In fact, the Greeks abhorred the notion of what we call interest groups, or what James Madison would call “factions.” Politics for them was categorically not the competition of different interests, as in economic interests.
Contrary to Marx, politics so understood could not be reduced to a mere epiphenomenon of economics. This is why the Greeks always saw commerce as corrupting; it always created competing interests, instead of the needed solidarity. If the marketplace was allowed into the public space, it would always bring with it the corrupting influence of competing interests, destroying the necessary solidarity needed for war and public deliberation. To put it mildly, Greek republics were homogeneous.

This helps explain the Greek, and until very recently the overall republican, preference for farming over commerce—not to mention that farmers cannot remove their assets from the nation. Farming does not foster anywhere near as many factions as does commerce. And it does not produce superfluous wealth, luxury, and opulence that can destroy participatory equality.
With the Greeks emerged a picture that retained vitality right down to the so called Anti-Federalists during the time of the American Founding. A permutation of this vision is given manifestation in the thinking and writing of Thomas Jefferson, despite the also evident Lockean language of the Declaration of Independence. In that understanding, the best republican citizen is a relatively equal and participating citizen farmer who is part of an armed militia. This understanding is codified in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with its “free state” language.
The alternative vision of a commercial republic with representation rather than actual participation was the one fostered by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Federalists, who ultimately won the day with their new constitution. Yet to this day, shadows of the older republican understanding remain. Notions of citizenship, participation, patriotism, and solidarity never go away. Even a commercial republic will not work without them.
The possibility of leisure as the basis of political participation is what the Greeks saw as distinctive about man. And the point of political participation was to pursue honor and recognition and thereby define oneself for oneself. Hence the political was necessarily linked with notions of excellence ( arête ). It is only excellence that truly calls attention to oneself in a genuine fashion and brings a desired personal honor and the immortal remembrance of one’s deeds.
One needed to display courage and fortitude in war. One needed to display eloquence and intellect in public discussion. And at all costs one had to display honor, for victories without it would gain no lasting acclaim. Victories won by deceit and chicanery were no victories at all in this mind-set. Even the “wily” Odysseus had his code of honor, albeit a more intellectual version than that displayed by the frequently pouting and more atavistic Achilles.
Therefore one of the primary functions of the state was education in virtue and excellence; the polis then provided a stage for that virtue to be exercised. Again, all of this presupposed leisure gained through wealth generated outside the polis, which was reduced to merely the prerequisite for that excellence and participation. Wealth was a means, not an end in itself.
One of the best ways to retain the necessary republican leisure was to show indifference to wealth and opulence. That is an ever-repeated core aristocratic mentality, if we understand the relation between aristocracy (from aristoi , “the best”) and virtue ( arête ). It manifests itself across time and across civilizations and shows itself to be an eternal longing of humanity—freedom through indifference to necessity together with personhood developed through manifest and necessarily public displays of excellence with honor.
Yet that pursuit of excellence, and eschewing the pursuit of wealth, was very demanding, hierarchical, and only capable of unequal manifestation. And this is something modern thinkers came to rebel against. They saw it as unfair. 3 The modern authors also found the warrior pugnacity that flowed over into ongoing bellicosity distasteful and wasteful. These concerns led in the direction of modern political philosophy and modern commercial republics, which tried, and still try, to substitute a new softer, “bourgeois” set of attitudes better adapted to commerce than war. Commerce could thereby be substituted for imperial conquest and slavery as the basis of necessary wealth.
But that softening was already under way in the moral teachings of Aristotle and especially Cicero, both of whom tried to substitute the picture of a citizen-gentleman for the prior manifestation of a citizen-warrior. Even in Locke’s discussions of education we still see a manifestation of a republican bourgeois gentilhomme . But that new gentleman was no longer primarily a citizen in the older sense. Participation was increasingly deflected into the far more individualistic pursuit of commerce in an arena outside the political—that arena came to be called civil society. “Civil society” is not identical to a republican “public space , ” an equivalence far too many of our contemporary authors are inclined to make. They are perhaps mutually supportive, and even mutually necessary, but they are not identical.
Eventually the Greek love of leisure embellished with intellect and the pursuit of distinction found a new object: philosophy. At first, philosophy seemed to lead away from the public space of the polis and into the private—it seemed to occupy the realm of the idiotes . It also appeared to undermine religion and solidarity. Hence the Greeks initially viewed philosophy with suspicion and skepticism. But the great political philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, in different ways, turned philosophy toward public political and moral reflection, and this eventually gained for philosophy a purchase in the Greek world. Cicero did the same thing at Rome. The same attempt to win public recognition for genuine philosophy needs to be accomplished again in our time. 4
When the independence of the polis was eventually lost, the Hellenistic world withdrew into a greater concern for philosophy and showed less and less concern for political participation. The same retreat from the res publica was occurring at the time of Cicero’s Rome. In our post-Hegelian and post-Nietzschean world, it has become a commonplace to attribute this withdrawal to the rise of Christianity, but it was already long prefigured in the ancient pagan world. Christianity arose in an environment where this withdrawal was already far advanced.
I will return to the Roman manifestation of republicanism and so will not pause to do so here other than to say that the Roman Republic, like its Greek predecessors, again emerges out of an antipathy to monarchy and despotism. There was a similar longing for freedom to make one’s own laws. There was a need for solidarity and shared opinions. There was also an antipathy to opulence, preference for agriculture, and attachment to an ethic based on the martial spirit. Participation reemerged as central, albeit eventually filtered through a representative body, the Roman Senate. In time a popular assembly was joined to the aristocratic Senate. Representation replaced the older all-inclusive participatory public assembly. Participation in the direct sense became the preserve of but a few of the citizens.
At present I simply note that increasingly the republican tradition came to be carried forward by the tradition of political philosophy—first by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, then by Cicero, it was kept alive during the Christian Middle Ages, which saved the philosophic tradition, and then was saved again in a transformed manifestation by modern political philosophy. Eventually, it was the tradition of political philosophy founded in Greece, and kept alive at Rome by Cicero, kept alive once again by the Church’s saving of the philosophic tradition, and finally modern political philosophy, that became the carrier of the republican legacy, and finally the basis of modern republicanism, which reopened the concrete republican story after more than a millennium of eclipse.

Modern republicanism has its origins in the history of modern political philosophy as it strives to come to self-consciously transform the world. 5 As was true at the origins in Greece and Rome, the tradition of republicanism and the tradition of political philosophy are again linked.
From the premoderns we gain a core of republican instincts. In antidespotism and the desire for the political freedom to make one’s own laws, we see a stress on citizen participation, a need for moral and intellectual solidarity, and the importance of virtue and excellence. There were no individual rights that could be asserted against the solidarity of the political whole and no valued arenas of privacy to which one could safely withdraw. From the moderns we add notions of natural nights, individualism, equality (borrowed from scripture and Christian thought, if not the monarchical practice, of the Christian Middle Ages), and transformed notions of representation. The instinct for self-government and opposition to despotism remains central. I will assert now that in the future republicanism will have to construct a new synthesis of these ancient and modern elements. But the elements of antidespotism, participation, striving for human excellence, and self-government must remain central.
But modernity itself is very complicated in its origins. It represents the coming together of a variety of different forces: philosophical, religious, political, scientific, and ethical. This complicates our story. I will shortly focus on the more straightforwardly modern republican element of the moral “lowering of the sights.” But first, we need to consider a few broader observations. 6
After the fall of Rome, the new monarchy and despotism that became dominant in Europe brought with it a new martial paganism. But that new paganism was far less informed by poetry, the theater, and philosophy, and hence was far less informed by elevated notions of excellence. The new European paganism was far more barbaric, bloodthirsty, and hedonistic than its Greek or Roman republican predecessors. The taming of this new barbaric warlike age fell to Christianity.
By the end of the Middle Ages, that taming had gained success, and simultaneously the philosophic tradition, against all odds, had been preserved. Even our dedicated contemporary secularists and atheists must acknowledge this debt to Christianity. This is especially true of modern egalitarians, because the principle of equality entered the West through Christianity. Again, it is worth emphasizing that only through the auspices of Christianity did the philosophic tradition survive. 7 For all those who have fallen far too easily under the sway of Nietzsche’s shrill hyperbole against Christianity, these debts must be remembered.
But several paradoxical things had occurred between the fall of Rome and the origins of modernity. First there came about an increasing interpenetration of throne and altar, a merging of the Church and the newly consolidating sovereign monarchical states. This ultimately destroyed the secular supremacy of ancient republicanism and of that found in prior European paganism. Second, through Thomas Aquinas there was an increasing interpenetration of Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy 8 —this represented a significant philosophical transformation of Christianity. It also led to the intensification of “Scholasticism.” And then by way of reaction, it led to the Protestant Reformation, which among other things opposed the intrusion of Aristotle into Christianity. 9
A conscious attempt arose to oppose these results of the loss of secular supremacy and the philosophical transformation of Christianity. The longing for the retrieval of secular supremacy and a philosophical/theological reformation came to be interwoven with the desire to recover republicanism. All of these converging vectors inform the origins of the new republicanism.
To complicate matters further, a new science arose that could actively conquer and master nature rather than passively contemplate it. And a longing for a comparable new political science arose that could be equally active in reestablishing the secular supremacy of the ancient world. And finally a new Reformation vision of Christianity arose that attempted to free itself from the influence of Aristotle and what it saw as the elitist, and unrepublican, hegemony of priests. From all of these elements was formed a dawning modernity that was an attempt both to go back in recovery (“renaissance”) and to go forward into a brave new world. In its origins, modernity saw itself consciously as existing between past and future. 10
Ancient republics were small, homogeneous, and particularistic, illiberal, pugnacious, imperialistic, almost constantly at war, with minimal popular sovereignty in the broader sense, built on slavery, rarely had the rule of law in any significant sense, were intemperately prone to prosecutions of fellow citizens and ostracism or death penalties, had no civil liberties, no privacy, fostered vanity but also demanded sumptuary laws, were rife with envy and resentment given full public access to the political stage, with overweening pride legitimized and ruling the day. One could go on. From this spectacle any serious reader should be appropriately weaned from any easygoing polis envy.
Modern republicanism desired a return to the secular political supremacy enjoyed by the ancients, but it also attempted to soften and transform the pugnacity of prior ancient republics and create far larger regimes more immune from the constant threat of invasion and war. That ultimately required that the participatory element of republicanism be to some degree deflected into representation, a concept already bequeathed by the Roman Republic.
Enter Machiavelli. Machiavelli wanted to found a radically new republic, this time without the need for civil theology (or natural theology), religion, or even poetry as a support for solidarity. Machiavelli, the great open spokesman for duplicity and pugnacity, led the moderns toward building a more commodious and pacific world, and that led modernity increasingly toward a redirection of life away from war and toward commerce. Contrary to some presentations of his corpus, the opening moves of commercial republicanism are already to be seen in Machiavelli. 11 This is especially true of the opening moral moves.
But we cannot forget the place of the new modern science and the modern technology that have always been seen as linked with the new republicanism. This too is an important part of the story of modern republicanism. As Francis Bacon openly shows, and Descartes more indirectly, modern republicanism was seen as the regime best suited to the growth of modern science and technology. On that level, and also on the economic, modern republicanism was increasingly seen as a means and no longer as an end in itself.
Not surprisingly, given the origins, we have arrived at a point where many assume that technical solutions to the problems endemic to the human condition, whether technological, pharmaceutical, therapeutic, or bureaucratic, can replace republicanism and its needed public space and at times messy citizen participation. That is an irony lurking at the very core of modern republicanism from the beginning. Within modern republicanism are the seeds for the eventual destruction of republicanism.
What was envisioned by most proto-modern authors was an eventual withering away of the political. Republicanism on the other hand has always required self-government in some form and hence political participation in some fashion and also a public stage for one’s deeds. The abolition of the political that lurks especially in the scientific and technological aspect of the modern project has antirepublican implications.
If it is perceived that the human situation can be dealt with technically rather than politically, it can be thought that there is no reason to put up with the annoyance of participation, competition, love of honor, the public pursuit of excellence, political freedom, and self-government. The political will be seen as a messy irrelevancy that gets in the way of higher goods, such as tranquility and the abolition of anxiety and, more generally, comfortable self-preservation as the central components of the highest human good. 12
But leaving aside modern science and technology for a moment, what was always intended by the new modern political science and its new republicanism was a softening of the imperial pugnacity of the ancient pagan republican vision and the pugnacity that eventually grew up in monarchical Europe with its own version of bloodletting. The attempt to transcend this pugnacity led to a modern either/or of war and pugnacity versus commerce and civility. With this increasingly came an ancients versus moderns either/or choice. 13
One thing is clear: modern republicanism was from the beginning, and in all of its variations, built on the famous moral “lowering of the sights.” To avoid the moral severity of both ancient republics and the Christian Middle Ages, modern republicanism tried to build on the low but firm basis that we share with animals, or the still low but nonetheless distinctively human consciousness of fear of death (Hobbes), or when that still bracing approach was softened, the predictable life of pursuing comfort and pleasure insulated from conscious fear of death. 14
There is no doubt that modernity was partially launched as a rebellion against what it saw as clerical supremacy and a dominant philosophical Scholasticism. But the same rebellion occurred within Christianity itself, and it led to the weaving together of Reformation Christianity and modern republicanism in ways that cannot be dismissed. 15 Here is where Cicero is exceptionally important because he was both a republican and the philosophical light in that pivotal period of early Christianity between the irrationalist Christianity of Tertullian and the rationalist Christianity of Augustine. 16

Let us assume that much of modern political philosophy aimed at an eventual withering away if not elimination of religion. And let us also assume that at least the scientific and technological parts of modernity aimed at the withering away of the political. At least Machiavelli still built on distinctly political phenomena, the “ambition” of the few to be “new princes,” the fear of the many, and perhaps an element of patriotism. But as modernity evolved, the Machiavellian “ambition” that remained as a vague republican facsimile of the pagan pursuit of immortal fame through public excellence was directed toward various forms of increasingly nonpolitical vanity and watered-down nonpublic versions of “recognition” in fairly short order. And in some variants, commerce itself was depicted as an attempt to redirect the pursuit of recognition into entirely nonpolitical economic activity.
The general shared premise of proto-modernity was that there was no need to deliver men from the tyranny of their subrational drives and passions. There was also no need to create an internal harmony of those passions and drives. This lined up well with the redirection of life into commercial activity and the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself. It became legitimate in fact to heighten some of the passions for the sake of increasing market activity. 17 Hence the pursuit of the passions had to be freed from moral opprobrium. Even the obvious disturbances of the soul that proceed from the cacophony of the passions were themselves seen as useful. The need for leisure, the pursuit of excellence, and the internal self-control traditionally needed for republican participation in self-government withdrew from the republican equation.
The austere virtues of either the ancient pagans or the Christians were to be driven out as almost vices. It was hoped that in the place of the virtues of the austere premoderns would eventuate a more easygoing, self-preoccupied, and “humane” individual. The new virtue was “humanity”; cruelty became the greatest vice. That view of “humanity” was, however, at odds with the still remaining cruel lust for mastery of the new science, which remained a form of pagan ambition if not the will to power to dominate all of being. Within modernity, this technological lust for mastery in fact eventually became the most powerful remaining acceptable form of ambition. But it was apolitical and amoral.
The eventual unrepublican convergence of a transformed easygoing humanity and ambitious technological mastery was always lurking in modernity. The danger was always that political science would eventually circle back to co-opt its own version of the domination lurking in the new natural science—for example, in bureaucratic domination and various forms of despotism masquerading as “democratic.” Either way, the implications were nonrepublican. Modern technological science has always been the potential enemy of republicanism lurking within. 18 The modern moral lowering of the sights plays into that technological danger.
In the modern view, reason ceased to be a unique form of erotic passion for knowledge and longing for immortality, as it was for the Greeks, or for salvation and a return to the Godhead, as with the Platonically informed Christians. Reason became merely the scout for the other drives, the lower, bodily passions we share with the animals. Reason was in the service of the body, and it was the body that formed the basis for the new individualism, that which one could not share with others because they could not share their bodies, which had their own needs. Hence the pursuit of individualism could be divorced from excellent deeds and a public space to display them. One could retreat entirely into a private world to be an individual.
All sense of hierarchy among human activities and aspirations was lost. There was even an attack on the notion that there was a hierarchy among the senses (sight was no higher than taste or touch—for Hobbes sight was a form of touch), a hierarchy among the needs (love of the truth versus love of food), or a hierarchy among the longings (immortal fame or salvation was no higher than the objects of hunger or lust).
From all of this would come at first a cautious but eventually an increasingly unlimited hedonism. That commitment to hedonism, it was hoped, would foster a further weakening of both martial and religious severity and austerity. Men would become lukewarm in their religious and political attachments, or in some versions drop them altogether. They would become too hedonistic to fight for either country or personal honor and glory or to care about their personal salvation. This would open the door to a cascading pursuit of commerce in the service of a hedonism, which would still further weaken political and religious attachments. Tranquility and comfort were the highest goods . Again, unfortunately, these goods can be achieved despotically, technologically, and even pharmaceutically. 19 At that point there would be no need for republicanism and its demanding public space. The freedom for self-government, to say nothing of personal self-government, would no longer be needed.

In the modern vision, we would become gentle, amiable, and cosmopolitan rather than committed, particularistic, pugnacious, pious, virtuous, patriotic, and so on. With docile, hedonistic “subjects” and expanding commerce providing the needed wealth, there would be no limits on the technological domination of nature. Again, this new mastery and despotism was always part of the modern story. In that version of the story, modern republicanism was just a transitional means to the full development of technological mastery.
Granted, the proto-modern optimism about the omnipotence of technology has, thankfully, begun to wane because of its attendant dangers. But if Heidegger, among others, is correct, it has gained too much momentum simply to be stopped. The new danger is that individuals made gentle and hedonistic by modern commercial republicanism will no longer give up their technological pleasures to reassume the demanding requirements of a more political, ethical, and spiritual existence—they will inevitably become what Nietzsche called “last men.” But as we will develop in our discussion of Cicero, without the political, and a distinct public space for its manifestation, there can be no republicanism in any serious sense.
One can trace the modern juggernaut of commercial republicanism, faith in science and technology, lukewarm and declining religious attachment, and transformation of citizens into humane subjects to a certain reading of the American Founding. 20 But in the American experience there always remained expectations of Christian virtue, especially humility (a humility modern technology lacks), and an ancient public-spiritedness together with gentlemanly canons of honor. It is just that these virtues were not directly fostered. Those virtues had to enter from “without.” What is least fostered fades most quickly. In that regard, modern republicanism has been all too successful in eliminating the external supports that it needs to prosper.
There is still another part of the story. Modern political philosophy is neither as simple nor as linear as some depict it. The same can be said for the entire Western tradition. Modern political philosophy represents an ongoing discussion, dialogue, and dialectic with internecine squabbles and open rebellions from beginning to end. For example, Rousseau tried at modernity’s midpoint to reinsert classical republican elements. He remained a modern, but was totally dissatisfied with commercial republicanism and the public, technological disseminations of modern science. Rousseau attempted to invent a different, while still modern, republicanism (more closed, smaller, particularist, and homogeneous, as with the “General Will” 21 ) from that of the various competing forms of commercial republicanism of everyone from Locke to Montesquieu, Smith, Hume, and Hamilton.
This is but one element of a deep-seated self-dissatisfaction that drives modern thought. This ongoing internal modern self-dissatisfaction leads to distinctive moments within modernity itself. But in the end—Rousseau and perhaps Nietzsche to the contrary—there seems to be a powerful convergence on the pursuit of an apolitical outcome. 22 And with that turn to the apolitical comes the increasingly open specter of a never-before-seen global, bureaucratic, atheistic, technological despotism. This must become the new bête noire of republicanism.
Despite the dangers lurking in the modern philosophical project, we must not forget the great yield of modern republicanism. The pugnacity of ancient republicanism has been softened. The economic and educational ground for what can potentially be expanded citizenship has been significant and parallels the abolition of slavery as a legitimate basis for generating necessary wealth. Modern technology and commerce have at least potentially increased the possible education and leisure for larger numbers to participate in self-government. The dignity and rights of individuals against evanescent and tyrannical majorities has been established, and elites have been at least theoretically delegitimized. And equality of opportunity beyond spurious claims of merit based on birth and mere tradition has taken hold. The only issue is this: Can the best of modern republicanism be maintained into the future, or are we destined to a new age of elitism and despotism, this time fueled by global technology and bureaucracy, and by various forms of fundamentalism and irrationalism, perhaps in the postscriptural religious form longed for by Nietzsche and Heidegger?
This leaves us to remark briefly on a contemporary body of literature that presents itself as republican. In the afterword to the 2003 edition of his Machiavellian Moment (1975), J. G. A. Pocock confides that his “research strategy” was to “empty our minds of Locke and his ‘importance.’” 23 Pocock then attempts to construct a republican “tradition” in the remaining space where there is no Locke. Locke, and modern commercial republicanism more generally, simply disappears. Also gone in Pocock is the place for religion. Ancient republics relied on civil religion, Ciceronian republicanism longed for a support in a rational religion (natural theology), and modern republicanism was intimately wound around the Protestant Reformation in ways that Pocock, and the rest of the “ironic republican” literature, ignores or dismisses. The association with Reformation Christianity is especially prominent in the American republican tradition. With the ironic republicans we are a long way from the sentiments of the American republican George Washington in his Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. . . . Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. 24
Pocock was joined in the effort to find a republicanism that was really neither ancient nor modern by any traditional understandings by Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit. 25 What this triumvirate attempts to do is set up an opposition between their alleged republican tradition and modern commercial republicanism without in any serious sense returning to any elements of classical republicanism and its love of virtue and immortality or to openness to Christianity, or to modern love of rights and individualism. In the process, what remains in their republicanism is neither the hatred of monarchy and despotism nor the desire to avoid the rule of a few self-selecting elites, but instead an anachronistic veneration of a “country” party, that is, a nonbaronial aristocracy. 26
To support their argument, each invents a “tradition.” These authors move across time and place and consider various texts, both ancient and modern, taking at most small shards and trying to synthesize them. The gaze of these ironic republicans is very selective. Once pasted together their longed for elements are then designated as a “tradition.” But it is a tradition that has little in common with any actual philosophical tradition or the traditions of any particular regime, especially the American regime. The appeal to “tradition” rests on self-conscious choices made by what can only be a modern, self-legislating theoretical self—which from the beginning has been the enemy of all tradition. The scissors-and-paste efforts of these ironic republicans represent the operation of a modern Cartesian self-legislating Ego, and with Pettit it eventuates in an altogether modern bureaucratic state with global, cosmopolitan longings.
Where Pocock sees in Aristotle and Machiavelli the antecedents to his “civic humanism,” which is the republican gateway to England and America, Skinner says the following:
I have sought to emphasise the remarkable extent to which the vocabulary of Renaissance moral and political thought was derived from Roman stoic sources. . . . I do not think it has been fully appreciated how pervasively the political theorists of Renaissance Italy, and of early modern Europe in general, were also influenced by stoic values and beliefs. Nor do I think it has been fully recognized how far an understanding of this fact tends, amongst other things, to alter our picture of Machiavelli’s relationship with his predecessors, and in consequence our sense of his aims and intentions as a political theorist. 27
Skinner gives more republican importance to Rome, its practice, and its authors. As to actual Romans, Skinner discusses Cicero in passing here and there but usually in the same breath as the decidedly Stoic Cato. Further, it is never clear just what Skinner means by “Stoicism.” But no matter how he understands Stoicism, if Skinner is insinuating that Cicero was a Stoic, he is clearly wrong. Be that as it may for the moment, Skinner seems to give pride of place in his republican tradition, especially as it operates in England, to the Roman historian Sallust (rather than Cicero) and, to a lesser extent, especially as it operates among the Florentines, to Livy. Skinner’s alleged Stoic link with Renaissance republicanism partly explains why his republican tradition is designated “neo-Roman.”

In one respect, Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government represents an extension of the Cambridge School’s version of ironic republicanism. In another respect, he strikes off in a unique direction. At most, he co-opts a few elements of the prior Cambridge narrative. Instead of the nostalgic longings of Pocock and Skinner for what can only be a small, aristocratic, inegalitarian, secular, largely agrarian, homogeneous, noncommercial, civic-minded, nonurban, militia-enriched, antireligion, and aristocratically participatory republicanism, we get the victory of what can only be a large, urban, demilitarized, bureaucratic, administrative, “postnationalist” state undoubtedly ruled by “new class” intellectuals who promise to give their subjects a life where they have no perception of domination lurking anywhere. But the bête noire remains the same: Locke, natural rights, and modern commercial republicanism.
The primary end of political life is now posited by Pettit as a distinctive kind of freedom, and it is not the freedom to makes one’s own laws or to assert rights against majorities or the modern state. Nor is it a freedom that preferences participation, as with actual ancient republics or virtù or personality development as stressed by Pocock; other ends ignored are virtue in any traditional sense, salvation of the soul, the pursuit of wealth, knowledge, glory or immortal fame, individual autonomy in a Kantian sense, and so on. In short, missing seem to be the ends that actual human beings have historically pursued. Freedom is now conceptualized in the abstract, nonphenomenological sense as “nondomination.” 28
Pettit’s view of freedom is defined initially as what it is not. It is absolutely not the Lockean, liberal notion of freedom now categorized as mere “noninterference.” 29 It is also not freedom understood as “autonomy” in the Kantian sense. On this level, Pettit is ruling out the Kantian and Continental understanding of freedom as leading to a form of “metaphysical freedom” as the perfection of our fundamental humanity where we find freedom in willing (universal) rules for ourselves and thereby become autonomous individuals. 30
Pettit does make the counterintuitive empirical claim that a state ordered to produce primarily nondomination will also facilitate Kantian, metaphysical autonomy, but not as its primary end. Freedom as nondomination, as the highest end of action, takes precedence over autonomy, wealth, personal responsibility, and independence, virtue in the classical or Christian senses, the salvation of the soul, personal glory, national glory, personality development, civic virtù , the longing to be left alone in noninterfered privacy, and every other conceivable concrete or theoretical end.
Pettit openly announces that his is a “consequentialist” position. The implication of Pettit’s consequentialism is that the state positively must engage actively to produce the intended consequence of eliminating perceived domination. 31 The state must in fact act in advance of an actual grievance being lodged or perceived.
The fact that no domination is actually being exercised in the present or predictable in the near future, or any future moment, is irrelevant. The issue is whether it is possible that such domination could be felt at some moment. The real problem is a psychological problem. So every possible future manifestation of any form of perception of domination must be cleared away in advance so that there is no possibility of anyone ever feeling its existence.
The standard here is possible perception by someone at some time. And it is clear that the contemporary modern bureaucratic state is never the principal dominating actor to be feared; no, rather, to be feared are nonstate actors against whom the state must proceed preemptively for the sake of the anxiety-free existence of everyone, freed at last from any possible thought of domination. The highest good is to lead a tranquil, anxiety-free existence.
The state that Pettit is discussing is designated as not only a republic but as an (allegedly) democratic republic. But Pettit will not accept that the basis of democracy is found in consent or the participatory equality of Pocock and Skinner, or in “populism,” which is summarily dismissed. In Pettit’s argument, the place of consent is taken instead by possible “contestability” after the fact. Not only is the “positive” freedom of participation, which is a part of past republicanism, something Pettit will not accept, or the “negative” freedom of modern liberal republicanism—which is something that is “ominous”—but populism in any form must be strangled before the fact. It is asserted that populism will always lead to domination. Hence privacy, consent, and participation must have their wings radically clipped lest the public be inclined to populist, democratic flights of dominating fancy. Only somewhere outside populism and the noninterference view of defending natural rights is there allegedly freedom as nondomination.
These commitments, we are told, and the “language of freedom” as nondomination shape a long tradition. 32 It is alleged to be an “older” republican tradition than that of which Locke is the exemplar. For Pettit this tradition supposedly consists of Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America, England, and France and their respective revolutions. Notable by its addition is the entirely antitraditionalist, idea-driven French Revolution, which aimed at a radical break with everything ancien , that is, any actual, concrete traditions.
Pettit specifically appeals to Pocock and Skinner to ground his alleged republican tradition. But both Pocock and Skinner show that it is the freedom of citizens to make their own particularistic laws that is the primary concern for their republicans—or, to a lesser extent as time passes, freedom from the Church. Unlike Skinner and Pocock, Pettit’s longed-for state is not by any means supposed to be heavy on any participation (“participation is not a bedrock value”). And although Pettit’s state will be large, it will have a minimal foreign policy and probably only the most minimal armed forces. For Pettit, freedom does not demand much in the way of defense against other states, as past republics did. This is due to a series of cosmopolitan, postnationalist assumptions that he works in along the way.
Pettit’s state is conceptualized as a trustee. The state must be trusted to dispense freedom as nondomination and create for individuals what is called a “nonarbitrary” life. Almost nothing is held back as an inviolable private realm for individuals free from any interference by this trustee state. Nor can acts of participation or consent by citizens be allowed to negate the actions on their behalf by their trustees, who take the place of Pocock’s and Skinner’s traditional aristocratic “few.” Pettit gives us government for the people—but not of or by the people. All of the great yields of modern republicanism are jettisoned without any attempt to retrieve the moral excellence, political participation, and antipathy to despotism that characterized classical republicanism. 33
Eventually, having based his argument on the existence of an alleged tradition, Pettit explicitly reveals that the historical and traditionalist parts of the argument are mere window dressing: “The historical aspect of the book is secondary. If historians of ideas find [Pettite’s tradition] misleading, then they should regard the more substantive historical suggestions as simplifications that are justified only by the colour that they give to my philosophical claims.” 34
We must constantly keep in mind that the “philosophical” claims are never specifically grounded other than on an appeal to a tradition, which is eventually cast aside. Pettit is at least straightforward—his “axioms need not represent a unique base of justification, as in a foundationalist scheme, but they do claim to be a good starting-point for organizing institutions.” 35
In different places, Pettit announces that he is a “postfoundationalist,” a quasi-“traditionalist,” and a “consequentialist.” But he appears unwilling to accept what really follows from his postfoundationalism. What follows is that there are no foundations for our arguments. If there is no basis or foundation for our arguments in tradition, nature, history, or God, then everything rests on the groundless will. This is the self-grounding Cartesian will that finds its reductio ad absurdum in Nietzsche’s doctrine of the groundless “will to power.”
For example, if there is no support for our arguments in unchanging human nature, as a true postfoundationalist must accept, it is hard to see how one presumes to make predictions regarding how one’s acts will play out in future consequences. One cannot be a consequentialist and postfoundationalist simultaneously. And if there are no discoverable foundations for our arguments, the most consistent move is to accept the trial and error of actual traditions. But Pettit’s argument is precisely intended as the basis for attacking actual traditions, like the reigning tradition of Lockean republicanism, to say nothing of the classical republican and Christian traditions.
Pettit is indicative at most of a very soft and inconsistent postfoundationalism that does not try to go any deeper than that “we”—a small group of like-minded intellectuals?—happen to already like the position in question and cannot philosophically ground it in any actual phenomena or fundamental and unchanging elements of human existence that repeat themselves. But this produces a discourse only for a self-selecting few that is primarily conducted outside anything that deserves to be called a res publica and in a language that is usually foreign to everyday speech, as in the variety of Pettit’s neologisms from “contestability” to “density.”
If pushed on why Pettit groundlessly wills his particular summum bonum , there is only one answer: “we” like it, or, using his terms, it is “attractive” and “plausible,” but that can only mean plausible to “us.” There is no attempt to prove that the “we” in question are everyday citizens of a republic that already exists and has its own concrete tradition, a tradition that is under assault in this discourse. At least Pocock and Skinner have some idea of what is implied in the idea of traditionalism.

That an assault on actual traditions is under way is clear. Freedom understood exclusively as nondomination requires “radical changes” in social life. 36 What we have operating here is but one of many modern constructivist forms of reason trying to operate in the vacuum caused by the collapse of tradition and also the postfoundationalist collapse of faith in reason, namely, in the age of postmodernism. Except in the artificial homogeneity of a few spaces in the academy, postfoundationalist principles can lead to nothing but a cacophony of voices talking simultaneously, but not to each other. 37
Freedom as understood by Pettit is perfectly consistent with both massive statist intrusions into privacy and an enforced Epicurean withdrawal from participation in the res publica for the majority of citizens, who in effect become subjects. No existence pursued entirely outside the res publica of the res populi —an existence that replaces public spaces with private and invisible venues of elitist and bureaucratic control—can by definition be called “republican” except by an act of theft. 38 This is nothing but an inconsistent postfoundationalist longing for the radical Enlightenment, rationalist longing for the abolition of the political.
We eventually see that what is being offered as the highest good for those who are not the elite trustees, who conduct the state in the name of its subjects, is a form of tranquility of mind that does not have to anxiously attend to its own freedom through active political participation, even as the nature of this nonanxious perception will itself also be determined by the state. It was this tranquility of mind that both Stoicism and Epicureanism aimed at in Cicero’s time as the greatest good. 39 Cicero opposed both schools, and especially on this subject.
Pettit’s republicanism implies a “conversational” and “deliberative” state. 40 But what is left to deliberate about when the highest end is already fixed in advance and in principle removed from discussion? And who is it that is intended to do the deliberating once the state manufactures an antiseptic and nonanxious situation of nondomination where populism is dismissed as evil? Actual “community” and “tradition” come out of free, spontaneous, and unprogrammed interchanges in a free public space. Such interactions are what keep a public space ( res publica ) open. If deliberation and conversation are truly ends in themselves, they must trump many things, even the tranquility of mind of nondomination.
Pettit’s position circles back to incorporate into his republicanism a good old modern and Continental cosmopolitanism of the variety of Kant, Hegel, and Marx. To foster his synthesis of elements of modern cosmopolitanism and modern statism, Pettit asserts that the liberal pluralist solution of “reciprocal power” is not the solution to nondomination domestically, and he asserts that the same premise that aims at balance of power politics internationally is to be avoided.
Having built up his domestic bureaucratic state to monolithic levels, he tries to emasculate that same state internationally. He wants to support off-loading international affairs onto what could only eventuate in a super United Nations. Hence individual nations are encouraged by Pettit to maintain a limited military for use only as a last resort. We have come a long way from seeing a republicanism of the sort whereby individual states maintain their own freedom to make their own laws, to the exclusion of outsiders, and maintain them through strong, armed, self-reliant citizen militias.
We even get the issue of freedom turned against First Amendment freedoms, such as free speech and free association. We get the argument that the news media is too conservatively biased in favor of big business and that the res publica is being eroded by the creeping libertarianism of free speech. The public space is allegedly being “closed down” by both business elites and populist majorities trying to exercise free speech in public. 41 For Pettit, the active use of the public space is destroying not only the public good but the public space itself. The solution is to deny access to the res publica by the res populi , and that outcome is then ironically designated republican.
Checks and balances are redefined as meaning “complicated government.” 42 “Democratic accountability” is divorced from consent or majority rule (populism, as in citizen participation, is bad) and instead shuffled off under the rubric of “contestability.” Popular consent itself is redefined as “owning the public decisions” (i.e., after the fact). “Owning public decisions” becomes the entirety of the issue of accountability—and, like freedom, accountability is psychologized into “can I accept or own an outcome?” By this means there need not be any actual concrete acts of consent; in fact, crucial matters need not be put to the public prior to acting on them at all.
The “bargain-based” and pluralist interest-group model of reaching accommodation is replaced by the new understanding where we will get a “debate-based model.” But the term “debate-based” goes through transformative definitions, which lead from “debate-based model” to “deliberative model” to “dialogical model.” 43 We have the disquieting sense that all the terms are being redefined from everyday meanings until what we will come out with will be entirely different than actual everyday expectations. This is what happens when debate is withdrawn from an actual public space owned by the people and puts aside everyday public speech—and that, I will argue, is central to any actual republican tradition.
In a similar vein, we are even told that we should move to a legislative situation where we have mandated seats for different groups. This comes under the rubric “mandated inclusiveness.” But this language sounds like “mandated exclusion” from the res publica . One need only ask the question, who does the mandating? We now have “deliberation” and “conversation” and “contestation” in an environment where Pettit is honest in saying that some “political voices have been gagged.” 44 It is explicitly the outcomes that are now defined as republican, not the processes of self-government or protections for the privacy of citizens, who have been transformed into subjects who need have no virtues whatsoever. “Republican forms” rest on the “sorts of outcomes that such [civic activities] must deliver.” 45 It is no longer clear why we need the messy unhygienic intrusion of citizens at all. We can completely transcend the political.
And what is the popular recourse when sovereignty lies not in electoral accountability or actual participation? Pettit places it in the “right of resistance.” 46 But who gets to resist and how? It is doubtful that this is some odd defense of the Second Amendment and its “free state” language. Who, in concrete, actual reality, will be able to resist Pettit’s massive, monolithic, elitist state?
From Pettit we should learn why in constructing a future form of republicanism that we must save the great yields of modern republicanism, including its defenses of rights and individualism, while defending against slippage toward amoral and apolitical hedonistic outcomes. Modern human beings must again become moral and political beings capable of self-government, both nationally and personally.
In his only reference to human nature, Pettit asserts that men are corruptible but not corrupt, perfectible if not perfect. 47 But what counts as unchanging human nature and its unchanging perfection for a postfoundationalist? On the subject of corruption and perfection, Pettit tells us that we in the contemporary world have institutions—Lockean—which force men to be knaves. Using Pettit’s terms, with a clever use of “sanctions” (selective taxes and punishments), “filters” (propaganda), and “screens” (screening out the participation of unacceptable understandings and individuals) we can avoid this knavery. We can put politics in the service of the re-creation of man. In the technological age, that is a frightening and intrinsically despotic prospect.
For Pettit, even if we cannot quite re-create man and human nature from scratch, we can forcibly de-Lockeanize man, to say nothing of depoliticize him. But none of this implies a return to classical republican education in human excellence as a means to self-government and personal government. We get limitations on modern republican freedom without any return to classical republican excellence and participation. We get the worst of all possible worlds—no excellence and no individual liberty. We get tranquility of mind at the price of being transformed into well-maintained, tranquilized pets.
Any real political competition and deliberation by excellent and self-controlled citizens within the res publica would undermine the prefigured outcomes that are alone allowed by Pettit to be called republican. Actual political interactions would assuredly undermine tranquility of mind, as would any true Socratic questioning. Pettit’s “republic,” which he tells us should substantially eschew punishment, would undoubtedly not kill Socrates, but he would be sedated or sent for “counseling” at a republican “retraining” camp. He would certainly be “screened” out of the discussion as assiduously as Locke.
Initial Reflections on Political Philosophy
What passes for political philosophy has in our time become largely a synthetic undertaking. We frequently study the tradition to scissors and paste together elements taken from various past authors. This inevitably produces internally inconsistent outcomes. Or we attempt to pick and choose among authors in attempting to crown a winner. Either approach seems to imply that the tradition is at an end and we cannot continue it into the future. 1
Beyond synthetic efforts and picking and choosing among past authors, we get the dominance of political “theory,” and that means a fragmented universe of competing ideological theories: liberal, conservative, feminist, libertarian, communitarian, participatory, queer, deconstructionist, multiculturalist, and on and on. Each theory limits itself to drawing out the ramifications of its specific premises. But rarely is there an attempt to discuss the foundations of those premises and the myriad of suppressed premises that are implied. Most theories now simply assume that we are in a postfoundationalist age and thus that no such more comprehensive reflections are possible. Consequently, each school of thought proceeds to construct a distinctive “narrative.” It is not surprising that it is next to impossible to construct a discussion between the competing narratives, because there is nothing deeper to which they have reference that could form the basis for discussion.
I want to differentiate political philosophy from what I see as “constructivist” political theory—which either starts in midair or constructs its own foundations ex nihilo —and from the equally constructivist attempts to proceed to pick and choose from elements drawn from the past tradition of political philosophy. Nietzsche was criticizing this late modern habit of constantly regurgitating and rechewing the cultural and philosophical cud when in Zarathustra he designated the modern city, and hence our contemporary situation, as a “Motley Cow.” This reduction of political philosophy to pastiche, collage, and montage, or a postfoundationalist cacophony of voices that can at best only talk simultaneously, can never generate a serious public discussion, for the discussants are of necessity forced to talk past each other and to engage only with those who agree.
Contemporary constructivism and postfoundationalism—and deconstructionism is just a sneaky form of constructivism—are increasingly based on self-grounding narratives or on synthetic scissors-and-paste efforts. We are left with the spectacle of competing theories that rest on nothing other than the groundless, self-legislating will of its author, or the ungrounded will of a like-minded cadre of authors determined to deconstruct whatever has come down to them. 2 This spectacle might initially be seen to be democratic by multiplying the number of voices in the discussion, but it can eventuate only in the din of cacophonous speech that publicly leads to the fragmentation of angry participants talking past each other. That in turn will give way to a manifestation of the Nietzschean will to power that is undemocratic and unrepublican, that is, to the imposition of a dominant voice to overcome the chaos. If political philosophy is to open a republican future, as past political philosophy has opened our republican present, it must have another foundation than this increasingly groundless, constructivist willing. 3
In some of the contemporary literature that calls itself republican, in our time even the appeal to tradition quickly merges into constructivism. But the late modern world is nothing if not a shredder of traditions. The full modern desire to construct the novel on the basis of an allegedly self-transparent, self-legislating ego has had its wings philosophically clipped in the aftermath of such seminal efforts as the Nietzschean and Heideggerian critiques of metaphysics. 4 The myth of pure, self-transparent selfhood cannot be reconstructed at this late date.
Yet many continue as if nothing has changed. At this point we cannot go back to modern constructivism with a good conscience: Nietzsche and Heidegger bar the door to any simple, naïve retreat. In the aftermath of Nietzsche and Heidegger and their various descendants, modern constructivism and its various permutations of the self-legislating ego cannot proceed as if nothing has changed; we can no longer proceed as if the critique of modern rationalism never occurred. In our time constructivists have, or at least should have if they are philosophically consistent, a bad conscience. Any simple return to a preferred moment of the past tradition is equally impossible. Modernity has been antitradition for six hundred years, and has been very successful at it.
My argument will be that there has always been only one place for any philosophical undertaking to stand, namely, on the phenomena that show themselves publicly to all who share a public space. Even the constructivists prove this when they sneak phenomenal elements back into their accounts. We are always forced to return from constructivism, and also any actual, merely closed traditionalism, to “phenomenology” to get in touch with what is a unique present that is always already given. Cicero’s political philosophy will give us a classic example of this phenomenological approach. It is the approach we need to relearn.
If we approach Cicero with the present, constructivist understanding of political theory, especially in its most consistent, Nietzschean permutation of the groundless will to will, we will never understand what he was attempting. Nor will we have an opportunity to grasp an alternative to our present situation. If everything dissolves into groundless willing, the tradition of political philosophy is over. And since that tradition of political philosophy has carried the tradition of republicanism since Greek antiquity, the tradition of republicanism is undoubtedly over too.
Without a genuine tradition of republicanism, we will be faced with the possibility of a never-before-seen global, technological despotism. That unlimited despotism will almost inevitably turn to the manipulation and domination of man in the same fashion we now manipulate and dominate the rest of nature. Modern political philosophy and constructivism grow out of the same instinct as does dominating, modern technology. As environmentalists we have become skeptical of this despotic attitude toward nature; now we must become skeptical of the same despotic attitude toward human nature and human political interaction.
If one simply looks around it is hard to miss the juggernaut of global technological and bureaucratic domination that voraciously consumes traditions and seems to replace them with nothing but competing willed narratives in a fast-paced swirl that is accelerating. Mere traditionalism can have no immediate purchase in this accelerating swirl. And constructivist theories merely accelerate the voracious destruction of genuine life-giving public spaces and traditions—“community” if one prefers—which must be allowed to grow from the bottom up where we nurture and appreciate outcomes that come from myriad daily spontaneous interactions. One cannot theoretically construct community but only destroy its possibility.
The growing political sense of inefficacy and despair, along with the philosophical sense of closure and being at an end, is widespread in our time. Lurking in these sentiments is an actual “phenomenon”; it is an underlying presentiment in our time of humanity’s old age and man’s loss of control and his potential impending cessation as human. 5 There is a sense that we have seen what there is to see; we are without options other than increasing manifestations of manipulative control. Yet the groundless desire for control is at the heart of the problem.
Let us step back from the groundless willing of contemporary political theory and its competing “narratives.” Let us step back to an actual phenomenon and consider the following situation. We have been left adrift off the east coast of the United States in the middle of the Gulf Stream, which is moving north at 5 knots. By moving north I mean the surface water is moving over the fixed bottom at a speed that translates to about 6.2 miles per hour. It is a cloudy night, no stars are visible, and we cannot see the bottom of the ocean or the shoreline. It is absolutely calm and windless. Under these circumstances, in relation to the bottom of the ocean or the nearby coastline, we are drifting north at 6.2 miles per hour.

But without electronic positioning instruments we would have no sense, unaided by any instruments, that we were moving at all. It would not appear to the eye that we were moving in relation to the surface water, and we would have no fixed point on shore, beneath us, or in the heavens above against which to calculate motion. We would feel no wind on our faces, hear no wind across the rigging or deck of our vessel. Our senses would tell us we are motionless.
Consider a slightly different scenario. We are sailing south against the same current into a 12-knot wind. We would be moving briskly through the surface water, hearing our bow wave, feeling the wind and spray on our faces. We would sense that we were moving rapidly when we were in fact more or less standing still in relation to a fixed point underneath us or on shore.
These examples offer a precise correlate to our situation as historical beings at any given moment. Without a fixed point, we would have no idea if we were moving through history in some interesting fashion or if our existence was static with only the appearance of motion. More often than not the swirl of surface events around us would make us sense that we were in great and constant motion. At rarer historical moments we might sense historical stasis when in reality great transformative motion was building.
As historical beings, to take our bearings intelligently, just as is true for sailors, we need a fixed point. We have to realize that whatever that point is, it is a point that will present itself to thought, not to any of our senses. In some fashion, thought has to abstract from the data of the senses to find its necessary fixed point. One may theoretically deny the existence of such a fixed point, but no one can live and choose intelligently according to that premise, and everyone must make evaluative choices to live, just as the sailor must avoid reefs and rocks near shore. Living life really does take priority over detached theoretical assertions, especially ones that are self-invalidating and nihilistic. And hence the phenomena of life itself must always be our philosophical point of departure.
Our needed point that does not move will be “seen” only with the mind’s eye, if at all. We are forced to search for it by the very necessities of life. 6 But what is it? We always come to this unavoidable question from a specific present moment, the present moment of our specific situation and time with its demands and needs that we did not choose. We must always choose and do so in an environment we did not choose. To choose intelligently, human beings are forced to look toward something that transcends the present. The phenomenon of transcendence presents itself in this fashion. Both our need and our natural erotic longing to grasp it are unavoidable. Phenomena do not need to be constructed. Some phenomena present themselves as a need or a longing, but that is still a phenomenon of human existence that cannot be made to go away.
What is needed is a point outside the present moment that is not the product of our groundless, and because groundless also pointless, choosing. We cannot deny that such a point exists and then presume to make all manner of observations that assume the existence of “change,” let alone “progress” or “decay.” Then we are just furtively sneaking our fixed point in the back door when no one is looking. That may at times be ideologically tempting, but it is always intellectually dishonest. Without access, even if only indistinctly, to some fixed point, we must abstain completely from any notion of historical change, any possibility of responsible action or consciously choosing our future. But in that case we will have simultaneously ceased to even interrogate the phenomena of human existence.
Modern philosophy, constructivist to the core, in its attempted emancipation from the late medieval Church, talked us into dismissing before the fact any experience of transcendence or of fixed points because such phenomenal longings were “essentialist.” More to the point, we could not construct our point of departure on the basis of a self-grounding Ego if one already existed. But this modern attitude did not lead to a higher and clearer realism; it led to a falsification of human experience and a stance of domination toward all that is. The hatred of essentialism, especially in its Scholastic manifestation, has led to the destruction of phenomenology. 7
The longing to grasp a fixed point “outside” or “above” the present moment, to which we gain access by something other than the senses, is a phenomenon of life. 8 The eros that longs for transcendence, to grasp something outside the mere present, is a phenomenon of life. The sense of something above or outside has traditionally been categorized as a longing for the eternal and unchangeable. This is what the philosophic tradition has meant by terms such as “nature” or “being.” 9
It is the phenomenon of need for and longing to grasp being or nature that is most important for our discussion at present. Is there something fixed outside the flow of present temporal moments that can be grasped by thought and thereby assist us in making judgments about what is being presented at any given moment by our senses? There are two possible ways of getting in touch with such a fixed point, one by slow, steady, dialectical, “mediated” steps, and the other by some direct leap to “immediate” apprehension. Both permutations have been pursued within the philosophical tradition. Both possibilities have generated various sub-permutations that need not detain us at present.
To assert, as so many of our contemporaries do, that there is no such thing as fixed nature or being is inconsistent on the part of anyone who then goes on to assert anything about the movement of time or about better and worse, or about “progressive” versus “reactionary”—that includes anyone who then goes on to have a notion of the good and must act and choose if they are to live. 10 The phenomena force us toward the search for such a fixed point; the longing is phenomenologically unavoidable. The phenomena of life itself force us to realize we always presuppose such a point or we would be as unable to act; as human beings we would be at the same disadvantage as a sailor without a fixed point to aid navigation.
To posit, as an act of groundless “postfoundationalist” will, the premise that there is no fixed “presence” to nature or being leaves us to sneak in premises to which we are not theoretically entitled. What eventuates is one self-invalidating assertion after another, which furtively presupposes precisely a fixed point from which to view the alleged motion or non-motion that is human historical existence and how it historically approaches or moves away from what is better or worse, that is, the good. My analogy to sailing makes this clear.
A real postfoundationalist would not have the slightest idea where he was or where he was going or where he should be going; he would not know if all was well or if imminent danger lurked. He would not know if history moved or if everything was really static. Real postfoundationalists should just throw up their hands, do nothing, and await the outcome of blind fate. 11
A traditional implication drawn by many from the correctly perceived need for a fixed, atemporal point has been that we can get to a fixed point called “nature” or “being” by autonomous theoretical activity, independent of the senses as they access the immediately present world of things that show themselves and the ways in which those phenomena are spoken of in a public space. 12 The senses can access only the present, and thereby only perceived or relative motion. We see the present as a form of movement only in light of some fixed, “transcendent” (of present temporality) point. Something must stand still, or something must exist outside the present, or we are rendered silent on all manner of issues regarding movement of any qualitative kind. The question is this: Do we access this point through some detached and autonomous form of theoretical “staring” or by something that is much closer to a phenomenological form of reason, the nature of which is yet to be determined?
The question is whether the mind in some mediated or dialectical fashion works “up” toward a needed and always presupposed transcendent point in stages or steps starting from phenomena in the present, or whether thought can jump to and grasp this point immediately in some form of pure theoretical “intuition” and pure theoretical “staring.” Philosophy can be conceptualized as either a form of pure, immediate theoretical “leaping/grasping/staring” at some trans-temporal thought “entity,” or as a staged, dialectical movement toward such a point in steady measured steps starting from the phenomena of the present, one of which is transcendence—and never completely leaving those phenomena behind.
The philosophical tradition will teach us that both conceptualizations, in all of their permutations, lead to problems, but the longing that calls them into being is unavoidable, as is the need to try to resolve the matter. Phenomenologically, as living and acting beings, we have to get our bearings and we have an erotic longing to do so. We cannot reject the fact of that longing. And to return to my sailing metaphor, no mere ungrounded language game or narrative will ensure that we avoid sinking or going aground. We really must assume, along with Socrates, that only the examined life is a life worth living.
The “immediate” move to somehow get in touch with or be one with what might be judged to be eternal and temporally transcendent verities presupposes some faculty of “intuition,” or whatever we want to call it, that can then “contemplate” this motionless, atemporal point in some form of theoretical “staring.” Political philosophy would thereby become some operation by which we deduced practical ramifications from the yield of this atemporal, theoretical “staring.” I am going to reject this understanding of political philosophy.
This understanding of political philosophy runs into the problem that the staring referenced here will undoubtedly be alogon , or prelinguistic. One still has to articulate the experience in speech—to oneself in inner dialogue and to others—and that is always by using a tool shared by a specific res publica . This difficulty is what led both the phenomenological Plato and the phenomenological Cicero to reject the Aristotelean radical split between theoretical and practical reason. 13 The practical always takes priority.
I am also going to reject the notion that political philosophy is no more than the public, rhetorical defense of some prior theoretical conception of philosophy. I will follow Cicero and Plato and argue that political philosophy is architectonic first philosophy that starts from a “cave” or a “public space” ( res publica ) and can never leave that point of departure completely behind, and hence never completely emancipates itself from its own tradition or the phenomena of life. Whether those phenomena are natural or conventional or some combination of both is something one cannot determine in advance: in the beginning we can say of nature and convention no more than that they simply “are.” 14
Beyond the approach to transcendence captured by the metaphor of theoretical staring, there is another way of searching for a point outside our sensually grasped present that can let us understand whether or not we are in some interesting sense moving through human temporality in a graspable fashion. We can project out of our present toward the past and future. This implies that we have a record of the past, or at least of “our” past, and can “see” that it is different in some essential fashion from our present. This in turn implies that in our phenomenological present we can articulate what is unique and compare that to the phenomena from other times, which are simultaneously similar and dissimilar. It also implies that human beings can take self-conscious cognizance of and responsibility for the future, publicly remember our self-conscious efforts, and compare our expectations with actual outcomes and continually adjust accordingly. The “self” that engages in this activity is not a contemplative theoretical ego, it is a practically engaged individual. Nor need this capacity reside in each and every member of humanity.
We start from the phenomena as shared by some group with a res publica , a group that shares a set of phenomena that show themselves publicly. A political philosophy that begins from interrogating those shared phenomena is phenomenological in my sense. If we have a record of the past—and that primarily means in speech, as even concrete allegedly “scientific” artifacts like bones or skulls have to be conceptualized in speech to have meaning—we can take cognizance of the way that past actions, especially as they are interpreted in speeches by the actors at the time, differ from the way we interpret and explain in speech our own deeds in the present.
However, contrary to what I think is a misunderstanding of the Platonic metaphor of the cave, we cannot begin by calling the shared phenomenal showings in the res publica the arena of untruth. 15 The phenomena that show themselves to us publicly must have some “truth” and simultaneously point beyond themselves toward possibilities of transcendence. 16
We can with proper dedication to our craft begin to get an intimation of how our past determined our present and how our present could determine a different future. I suspect this temporal capacity to hold together past and future in a distinctive present ultimately implies access to some manifestation of atemporality in my previous “staring” metaphor. But at present I am more interested in where we make our beginning.
The alternatives are (1) we have a faculty that allows us to make an intuitive leap out of the mere present altogether into some autonomous, atemporal theoretical activity, or (2) we must always start with a specific situated phenomenological relation to past, present, and future from within everyday temporality. The latter possibility is both dialectical and phenomenological and is what Cicero recovered from Plato on the far side of Aristotle’s attempt to ground autonomous “theory.” In the process, with Plato and Cicero the metaphor for philosophy becomes “caring”; for Aristotle the metaphor is “staring.” 17
Political philosophy as I am presenting it proceeds from a phenomenological opening that does not have to be constructed by an act of ungrounded will standing in midair—or by poetic creators of narratives. This also implies that there are always phenomena that present themselves, that those phenomena must be articulated in speech—in the mode of Socrates—and that we can compare speeches across time to gain access to the question of whether the phenomena remain identical, change somewhat, or change significantly. Otherwise we are adrift on a horizonless sea.
It is true that there was a past moment in human history that was not “historical” in the sense that there was no real sense of past and future and no real record of the past or expectation of a different future. The idea of the “end of history” would imply a return to the same prehistorical situation; man would become ahistorical again because he had no desire for or reason to expect a different future. The future would be an endless repetition of the same present moment or at least of the same present set of uniform aspirations. There might be wind in the face giving the impression of change, but there would be no substantive movement, and the clearest-eyed among us would see that, and it would be spiritually deadening.
In the course of time, we have become historical beings, and that is what is distinctive about human beings and differentiates us from every other sentient species. No ape or monkey will ever be a historical being any more than any other social species, from ants and bees to lions and beavers, will ever experience living in different caves, public spaces, or “worlds.” No one will ever write a book on the history of ants, bees, beavers, or lions, for perfectly good reasons. Nothing in their social existence will ever change—certainly not because of their philosophical efforts at understanding. We humans attempt to understand our existence, we preserve and disseminate those efforts, and those disseminations effect changes in our everyday existence.
Henceforth we will remain historical beings, always occupying a present that is suspended between past and future—or we will cease to be human. To remain human, we must in some fashion remain consciously and articulately suspended between past and future. This is the kind of transcendence of the present I will endorse as prior, fundamental, and intrinsically phenomenological, prior to the “theoretical” kind of transcendence outlined above that relies on theoretical staring with its assumed immediacy, faculty of direct “intuition,” and autonomous theoretical staring at atemporal entities. 18 Ultimately, I do not think that the staring metaphor is useful for explaining either philosophy or human existence.
Pure theoretical entities would have to be stared at in an alogon fashion, and even they would have to submit to the dialectical and phenomenological to come into concrete, historical speech. Any direct experience of atemporal entities, any immediacy of grasping, would still have to articulate itself in the temporal world, with everyday speech, in a public space. Even a pure theoretical knowing, if it existed, would have to start from and return to the phenomenological world to be more than a solipsistic experience. And this is even true of something like theoretical physics. 19

The phenomenological approach that we will see in Cicero is what is intrinsic to political philosophy as itself proto-philosophy, which I will argue is far more self-consciously and articulately aware of its nature and roots than any presumed autonomous, contemplative, “staring” qua autonomous theoretical activity. Proceeding from this beginning, I will designate political philosophy as both dialectical and phenomenological in ways still to be developed.
Modernity has presented us with another hybrid means of transcendence that it alleges will help us in getting our present bearings in relation to a presumed fixed point. The distinctively modern hybrid permutation of transcendence is designated by the term “history” in the strict sense. Much of classical antiquity saw temporal existence as an ultimately unchanging flux, with a great deal of historical wind on the face but no actual change across the bottom or in relation to the shore. A variant of that understanding in antiquity saw temporal history as cyclical, going through ever-recurring phases of rising and falling civilizations, including even the Stoic notion of the collapse and regrowth of the cosmos itself, which ultimately could never break out of the cycle of rising and falling, and thus in the end there was no real movement.
It was Christianity that first offered a “linear” conception of human history. Linear conceptions require two fixed termini. In the Christian case, the termini were the Creation at the beginning and the Second Coming at the end of human history. In a significant fashion, these two points stood outside of human temporal existence. Temporality itself transpired between those two points, but nothing of interest actually changed in fallen human existence, even if we follow Paul in the Letter to the Romans in concluding that we can be saved from our fallen nature by believing in Christ. Human history at its best is seen by Christianity as the ongoing repetition of the possibility of future atemporal redemption for individuals, but not through a collective transformation of the human condition.
Modernity co-opted the linear idea and then gave it an “upward” movement of change—that is, progress. 20 Modernity was only possible in a Christian environment of linear history. In fact, modernity in almost every manifestation—political, moral, scientific—was only possible in a Christian environment, but this is a story that has been told many times and will not be repeated here.

Modern “progress” can only be understood as movement toward a fixed point understood as the highest “good.” History as an idea is still phenomenologically determined by the good. But in every present moment one still always has the same problem of my hypothetical individuals adrift on the ocean. One can posit historical motion like progress only by positing end points that are outside the movement, and those points are grasped in thought. 21
For example, the beginning point for modern thought is prehistorical or subhuman man in something like the “state of nature.” It was the future end point that the philosophers of history—most notably Hegel and Marx—had to posit philosophically to make it possible to posit distinctive directional movement. That implied a phenomenological understanding of an unchanging human good toward which we have been moving—self-conscious satisfaction or oneness with our “species being”—even if it has never been completely or perfectly grasped, let alone actualized pending the future termination of history.
Despite what anyone might pretend, the possibility of an idea like “history” relies on the possibility that humans can reach a terminus, or end, that is good, beyond which there are no higher goods. And that notion in turn rests on an idea of the good that has to be grasped before the fact, in the present, in some fashion. One posits the telos of history before the fact—but ultimately that always comes from a phenomenological understanding of the good that already exists. This grasping of the good is accomplished before one even attempts to determine what will pass for facts to support historical movement. Without grasping the telos of history in advance, one would have no way of making sense of the actual everyday grist of human existence, which at every moment is adrift on the horizonless sea of present temporality.
The end of history as an empirical possibility has to somehow be present in the phenomena as they show themselves in a/any historical present, that is, long before the end. But if that understanding of the good already phenomenologically exists, there is no need for “history” to somehow invent what is already phenomenologically available to thought. History can never do away with the phenomena, and especially the phenomenon of transcendence. If the good already shows itself in the present, why do we need necessary history to grasp what it is or wait for its final actualization to know it? In short, the idea of history never gets us away from the necessity of a phenomenological point of departure. But, of course, the notion was always hypothetical and a rhetorical sleight of hand, and this was made explicitly clear by originating authors like Rousseau and Kant.
We are always left with starting from the phenomena of the present, standing between our past and future, dialectically interrogating the present as it shows itself in whatever present moment we find ourselves as it emerged from the past that we cannot change: and this is all the more true precisely when we think we can constantly rewrite our past. We always, even in that alleged rewriting, begin from the aspirations and perceptions that get articulated in a present public space. Rarely do those who think they can consciously rewrite the past openly discuss the end of the undertaking. 22 This may seem naïve to some to identify that end, but it is philosophically consistent, and it sneaks no premises in the back door to which one is not entitled. 23 And it gives priority to the aspirations and perceptions of more than a few; we must give priority to what can be called the everyday citizen perspective.
The phenomenological and dialectical approach assumes neither a beginning nor an end to temporal human history. No such thing speaks to us from the phenomena themselves. 24 We may be able to proceed dialectically to posit “up” and “down” toward the just, the noble, and the good if they phenomenologically show themselves in the present, but we cannot posit “up” toward an inevitable end to be actualized necessarily in history once and for all.
By adopting the dialectical understanding of philosophy, with its necessary phenomenological point of departure, one is forced to reject the idea that political philosophy—philosophy at its most comprehensive—is some subset or branch of pure theoretical philosophy, which in turn is understood as a purely theoretical staring at immediately graspable, atemporal, theoretical entities of one kind or another. 25 Quite the contrary, the practical revelation of reality is prior and foundational.
Therefore one must simultaneously reject that political philosophy is simply the public or rhetorical face of theoretical philosophy deployed for defensive purposes—for telling lies in public. That would mean that political philosophy merely defends a nonpublic, Epicureanized philosophy understood as a pure theoretical activity that withdraws from the public space. Political philosophy so conceived would have nothing of substance to it that was its own; it would dissolve into pure rhetoric and misdirection. In short, political philosophy would be a permutation of constructivism in the service primarily of public misdirection on the part of philosophers who longed to withdraw from public participation and interaction.
Following Plato and Cicero, what I am presenting as political philosophy makes it an architectonic, proto-philosophy, or first philosophy. 26 To see political philosophy as a branch of a prior and autonomous philosophy is to posit philosophy as “theoretical” and hence as either autonomous ontology, cosmology, or, as in the modern variant, epistemology. Phenomenologically one cannot accept that ontology, cosmology, or epistemology can be autonomous starting points.
Only if there is such theoretical autonomy could political philosophy be reduced to a branch of philosophy, a branch that primarily does no more than deduce morally and politically applicable conclusions from philosophy’s apodictic, and immediately available, theoretical first principles. 27 For example, in one permutation of this move, political philosophy would deduce various things from ontology.
Political philosophy must start from the fundamentally phenomenological, shared, practical revelation of reality shared with others in a public space. It is only in such phenomenologically shared space that we can discover our individual selfhood. If that is the necessary point of departure, all purely theoretical undertakings are therefore derivative from some prior practical revelation of reality into which we are always already thrown and alongside and within which we are always already under way in our public and collective doing and making. In other words, things first show themselves precisely as what the Greeks called pragmata , 28 not as detached, self-standing entities at which we merely stare.
A phenomenologist must go further and reject the epistemological solidity of the theoretical/practical distinction as a primary rather than derivative notion. 29 Saying that all thought is always already thrown into a practical revelation of reality with its prior distinctive public space is to say that first philosophy always begins from a specific present “situation,” which always already “shows itself” in a public fashion and in public speech. This is another way of asserting the priority and primacy of the “phenomena” that show themselves and do not have to be posited or constructed. The phenomena may point to the meta , and I will argue that they do. But what “is” immediately available is the present phenomena as articulated and displayed in publicly shared speeches and activities. Their meaning may initially be concealed, but the implications can be unconcealed by public dialectical interrogations.
This seems to be Socrates’s primary discovery. In an exceptionally wordy and vaporous fashion, Heidegger returns to a similar notion in his phenomenological, as opposed to the later post-metaphysical, explorations. For Heidegger, all theoretical notions are derivative from prior practical revelations of reality—especially those distinctive revelations of the Greeks from which we can never emancipate ourselves.
This makes all thought primarily mediated or dialectical, which means that one never starts from some pure, unsullied theoretical given immediately present to thought, including the existence of a fully transparent self-grounding ego. 30 Without an unsullied, immediately present theoretical given at the beginning of thought, there is nothing to be “re-presented” in some allegedly “pure” form of speech. All speech is always public speech that presents itself before the fact in a publicly shared space. Public speech cannot be antiseptically “purified.” It can be dialectically interrogated, and with that, transcendence of the present becomes possible.
I will continue to make the point that it was Aristotle who perniciously made it a theoretical given for the West that the locus of truth is statements that eventually strive to become logically antiseptic truths. 31 That opened the door to the eventual longing for the autonomy of logic, or linguistic analysis, in one permutation or another, which in some Anglo-American venues eventually dismissed the rest of thought as murky and irrelevant.
A phenomenologist must reject the premise that the locus of truth is statements, as, I argue, Plato and Cicero rejected such a notion. The locus of truth is in the phenomena of everyday, shared, social doing and making. What is embedded in the phenomena can be brought out into the open more or less occlusively. Socrates showed that he thought that truth was to be found in the deeds and perceptions of his fellow citizens. This led him in phenomenological fashion to interrogate their views in his novel fashion—his “second sailing,” by which he eschewed direct access to ontological issues, and all forms of causality other than formal causality. 32 By his deeds, at least as depicted in the Platonic dialogues, Socrates himself takes those perceptions and speeches as arenas of truth.

But other of Socrates’s deeds, again as depicted in the Platonic dialogues, seem to come close to transferring truth to the speeches and away from the phenomena. There are places, therefore, where Socrates seems on the way to Aristotle’s transference of truth from phenomena to statements. In this regard, Aristotle represents the full development of a permutation of Socratism in a way Plato does not—in fact, Plato tried to moderate this Socratic move with elements of poiesis and his showing of the centrality of the actions of his politikos , especially in a dialogue like the Statesman in which he removes Socrates as the discussion leader. 33
If there is to be a future political philosophy, it will have to position itself beyond both modern logicism and constructivism; it will have to be phenomenological again. As I will argue, as with Plato that phenomenological opening will point toward the need for various forms of “weaving.”
Following the phenomenological premises I have briefly sketched, all thought is based ultimately on a foundation that is publicly shared, situated, and in need of dialectical interrogation of what currently shows itself to all in a public space. All of the things that show themselves may not show themselves articulately to everyone all the time; the phenomena may be lurking concealed in the background most of the time. But those phenomena can be dialectically brought to the surface and made articulate.
The main point is that even though never totally present, the phenomena do present themselves in a fashion that cannot be dismissed or willed away precisely because they are unavoidably foundational; they are always already there even if inarticulately. Rejecting the primacy of the phenomena will at best only send us on a trip into the nothing, a journey for mystical hermits who do not need speech. At worst, the rejection of the phenomena will land us in the grasp of the groundless Nietzschean will to will and of his “commanders and legislators” who long to rule in an unrepublican fashion, having destroyed the public space where truth can show itself.
Let us return to another simple phenomenological example. Phenomenologically, do we not first and foremost grasp the world as a world of discrete things? 34 If we ask ourselves the simple question, “What is a thing?,” we will quickly come to see that all things are sensible ( aesthesis ) ensembles somehow held together. 35 To begin to see this, hold up any object, let us say, a pencil. Ask an audience what they see—here meaning the sense phenomenon made possible by the eye. The audience will repeatedly say, “I see a pencil.” Keep stressing the word “see.” Eventually someone will catch on and say that they see yellow and red and silver and cylindrical and so on. All one can see are colors and shapes.
If we brought the other senses into play to investigate our pencil we would sense the hard of the wood and the soft of the eraser, colors, perhaps redolences, occasionally tastes, and in other arenas, sounds. The senses offer us an ensemble that comes forth and shows itself as a one; in the case of the pencil, a yellow/red, cylindrical/octagonal, hard/soft, smelling of graphite single thing. We grasp the world as a world of things so displayed.
It is at this point that Heidegger will object that we do not primarily relate to things in this kind of detached staring, which is a form of theoretical staring. Heidegger would protest that this attitude of staring at detached things that is primary for Socrates and leads to the “what is” questions is itself already derivative. We initially grasp reality as ensembles of things with which we are interested in our doing and making. This is to relate to things as pragmata . The key question, and hence the key phenomenon in need of interrogation, may be why certain things come forward so that we take cognizance of them, while others in the same field or region are not at any given moment present for us at all. Must one not go further back and ask: Why do we focus on some things and ignore others that are in the same field? For that we must concentrate on the prior phenomenon of the horizon of meaning that focuses our attention on certain groups of things. Focusing on individual things ripped out of context is already a theoretically derivative move.
Yet at the primary level of common sense, must not one start at the surface as always already given? And that is a surface of an ensemble of individual things that when interrogated in Socratic fashion present themselves as ensembles of qualities, predicates, or attributes? After all, the things that Heidegger presumes to be in some sense prior—like interrogating the “world” ( res publica ) that makes things show themselves in their being—is, from the perspective of common sense, the derivative theoretical move.
Heideggerian phenomena like “worlds” or “regions” are not prior for common sense and hence are not prior phenomenologically. They are in fact theoretical categories that though presupposed are not present for anyone in their doing and making. By common sense we here mean “the shared sense of a community that shares a public space and the things that show themselves” therein—and that means substantially show themselves to the senses. Aesthesis is and always remains primary for common sense. In fact, the surface look of things ( eide ) always remains primary. 36
The phenomena first show themselves on the surface through their eidos , or surface “look.” That look determines them as things qua ones that are actually manys. And with only a bit more reflection we see that the ones also sort themselves out into various groups or tribes of things—trees, bushes, plants, dogs, cats, animals, pencils, and so on.
Phenomenologically the interesting fact here is “things.” The world of common sense presents itself to us as a world of discrete, individual things. A little reflection will also show that the unity of the qualities, “attributes,” or “predicates” that allow things “to be” things is not made present for us by any one of the senses, but by thought. Yet because of the importance of the surface look of things sight takes precedence. Hence the look ( eidos ) of a thing also has the quality of a thought ( idea ), and this is a mysterious association that cannot be made to go away because the senses do not access the unity of the “thingly” nature of the phenomena; that is done by thought.
The association in Greek of the very distinct words idea and eidos points to the very mystery at the heart of human understanding. The world presents itself as a multiplicity of things, each and every one of which is a unity of a multiplicity, which then becomes part of a process of sorting out into discrete groups or tribes of things.
Reality presents itself “on the surface” as a great plethora of things, but the things sort themselves out into discrete groups or tribes of things. Otherwise we would need a proper noun for every last thing in the world, and this is utterly out of the question phenomenologically given the kind of beings we are who are in need of publicly engaging others in intelligible and efficient speech. We could not live without making sense to each other and doing so efficiently and quickly.
We are necessarily social beings who must do ( praxis ) and make ( techne ) and speak ( logos ) to live. Hence we must speak intelligibly, which means speak about phenomena we share with others, and do so in a reasonably efficient fashion. Otherwise, each speech would be endless, pointless, and meaningless if all we had was an infinite number of proper names. We must speak but we do not have time for endless chatter that amounts primarily to pointing. The shared phenomenal reality we live in shows that we do in fact get our points across to each other and with time can even come to understand the point of foreign speakers.
We have no need, and hence have no real capacity, to speak about phenomena we do not share with others or that we are not trying to share with others. After the fact, we can theoretically argue that the viewing of reality as made up of unities of sensory attributes (qua things) is due to prior innate ideas, transcendent essences that act as causes, mere conventions learned by a tabula rasa and so on—and that has on one level been the history of theoretical philosophy when it attempts to make epistemology autonomous. But these are derivative theoretical discussions that are made possible only because of the prior way in which things always already phenomenologically show themselves publicly.
Another element of Heidegger’s problem with pure dialectical Socratism can be added here: we always know what a thing “is” because we know what it is for in our doing and making, which we always do together as social beings. (Once again, phenomenologically every “thing” is , first and foremost, for us a pragmata .) We know what a thing is because we know its use, purpose, or end for us and others. As pragmata , things show themselves as having uses, having ends ( teloi ); this is part of their being.
We do not primarily stare at things; we use them and interact with them. We do not theoretically invent “teleology” after the fact; things initially show themselves teleologically by being useful. The teloi (or, using a totally detached theoretical category, “values”) are not something pasted on to normatively scrubbed things, certainly not pasted on by an autonomous Ego presuming to stand in midair and exercising an act of pure will. The phenomena always have final causes embedded in their very availability for us out in the open.
Hence things always already show themselves enmeshed in a nexus of useful and useless, good and bad, just and unjust, holy and profane, beautiful and ugly, and so on. Things show themselves only in light of higher and lower and other qualitative distinctions—this is part of their being. And these distinctions are not the idiosyncratic fantasies of solipsistic individuals. These are not “value” attributes arbitrarily pasted onto some neutral underlying thing. Phenomenologically, there is no “naturalist fallacy” that is an invention of derivative, abstract theoretical reason. The very being of things always already shows itself as linked with an end within a res publica .
Teleology is not a theoretical conclusion or a mere constructivist invention, and least of all is it a mere pious assertion. It is a phenomenological given. One can argue that the basis of this showing is “natural” or “conventional,” but that distinction is also theoretically derivative. First and foremost, phenomenologically things “are” as they always already show themselves in our collective doing, making, and speaking, which is always, already normative. The fact/value problem is simply a derivative theoretical invention, which leads only in the direction of occluding and negating the actual phenomena as they show themselves.
If we focus on isolated things or even tribes of things, we are led to the priority of the Socratic “what is” questions, and that sends us off on a distinctive path of philosophical inquiry. If we see that things initially show themselves not as isolated individual things or detachable individual tribes of things with a shared eidos but as things linked in specific regions of concerned behavior, the “what is” questions do not take the primacy they did for Socrates, and all manner of potentially essentialist theoretical conclusions fall away, to be replaced by teleological ones. 37 Ultimately one must find a way phenomenologically to integrate the two lines of inquiry.
When we are freed from taking isolated individual things or tribes of things as phenomenologically primary, then we focus instead on discussing what causes ensembles of different things to hold together as phenomena. The answer there is straightforward: a shared public space is determinative. It is what the Greeks called a politeia , and the Romans called it a res publica . In short, we come to see the priority and necessity of the political. In that sense, man is by nature a public or political being, and also a historical being with a past and future. The abolition of shared public spaces would bring the abolition of man. A postpolitical world would be posthistorical and posthuman. But the full meaning of these assertions awaits the interrogation of Cicero’s texts as I proceed in this book.
Socrates may have missed the point about phenomena showing up as whole ensembles of things and may have overstressed the philosophical importance of individual things and tribes of things. That sent some of his descendants off dialectically in search of “universals.” But he did not miss the importance of the political and of interrogating men’s political and moral perceptions. The only point of interest for us at the moment is that phenomena show themselves publicly and that showing is prior to any theoretical staring at or conjecturing about them from a detached perspective. In the name of Cicero we can assert the priority of the political, or the res publica , and hence the priority of the practical revelation of reality.
The interrogation of present phenomena will show us that from a dialectical and phenomenological perspective what is always first for thought—and can never be purified out by any latter efforts that pretend to being autonomous—is our pursuit of the good in our doing and making with others . There is nothing that we do wherein we consciously wish for evil and bad consequences. We may err in our judgments, but all action aims at the good. And as Aristotle made clear, there is always, in every public space, an already constituted hierarchy of goods. For example, some may see honor as the greatest good and desire war at any cost. Some may see comfortable tranquility as the greatest good and desire peace at any cost. The latter may link easily and consistently with hedonism and see pleasure as the highest good. Others may see care for the soul as higher, and some of those may pursue goods available only in the next life.
As one ranks the goods, one sees there are the goods associated with thought, the goods that are social and require the opinions of others, like honor and wealth, and the goods associated with the senses. Even the goods of the senses can be ranked, as Aristotle also made clear. In his calculus, those goods not associated with prior pains are higher than those that always imply prior pain. 38 Hence what we call the aesthetic pleasures, those of the fine arts associated with the eyes and ears, are higher than the pleasures associated with taste, smell, and touch, which imply prior pain.
Some of the most intense pleasures have the shortest duration and are most clearly associated with prior, and future, pain. So some calculus linking relation to pain, intensity, and duration is required. From all of this comes a ranking of goods that includes thought, social goods like honor, the pleasures of music and art, the pleasures of food and wine, and sexual pleasure and the other pleasures of touch. 39

The main point is that all action always aims at the good, and one is always already thrown into a shared public space in which the various goods are always already ranked in some initially inarticulate fashion. Yet we can interrogate this pregiven hierarchy of goods and make it articulate in a public space. We can never simply emancipate ourselves from the hierarchy of goods of our res publica , or from the fact that life itself forces upon each of us a hierarchical ranking if we are to live—and our distinctive, genetic natures have something to do with this. Hence there is a phenomenological priority to the existential questions, “How shall I live?” and “What is the best life?” No one ever avoids answers to these questions. The issue concerns how articulate is our understanding of our hierarchical ranking of goods, and how clear are we about the quality of that ranking and how it links up with the happiness of a life from beginning to end.
As we are never born in isolation, the first ethical questions regarding the individual good can never be taken in isolation from the question, “How shall we live together?” Put in more traditional terms, there is a priority in all questioning given to “What is the best life?” and “What is the best regime?” And humans always already have opinions about these issues; they are opinions that may be vague and occluded and contradictory, but they can by interrogation be brought into the light of day. All questioning, even in logic and the natural sciences, presupposes answers to the phenomenologically prior political and moral questions. This phenomenological priority cannot be theoretically purged. We are in all questioning determined by the priority of the good.
This posits the phenomenological priority of ethics and political science in all thematic questioning and all theoretical undertakings—prior, that is, to even ontology and cosmology or logic and epistemology. 40 In a way, this was the basis of Socrates’s response to the pre-Socratics, who took the cosmological or ontological questions as prior. 41 Only a being that did not have to act, and act together with others, and do so using speech, could transcend the priority of ethics and political science. No one can act without a conception of the good, more or less articulately and consciously held and shared with others. Here is where Socratic questioning is at its most central and unavoidable, in articulating the underlying notion of the good shared by fellow travelers. 42
But one cannot seriously answer the “how shall” questions without reflections upon the nature of man (i.e., the nature of psyche , or anima , that which moves or animates man to be a distinctive historical being with speech among so many other nonhistorical beings), hence a logos of the psyche is needed, or psychology. On this level, and in this sense, psychology is the queen of at least the sciences of human nature. 43
Likewise, we cannot know the nature of a part, like human nature, without asking how human nature fits into the larger constitution of the whole, which is to say, without questioning regarding cosmology or ontology—and, as I will argue, ontology is the more derivative undertaking of the two and has the most prior theoretical preconceptions. Understanding that psychology precedes cosmology, and that psychology is a study of the psyche , and eventually understanding that psychology is about the psyche thinking about itself, we see that cosmology must include a discussion of the place of mind in the whole that is the natural world.
And eventually, and this is the most derivative of the necessary primary phenomenological questions, we get to epistemology, the question “How do you know?” It is only after a period of questioning surrounding the prior four primary questions that thought, after having become self-reflexive, starts to think about itself thinking and the very ground of its own activity. In due course it is the case that thought has to pass through a moment of skepticism about the very possibility of its own activity. Then it reflects upon the nature of good versus bad thinking. My point here is that epistemology is a phenomenologically derivative activity, utterly incapable of autonomy. And this is especially true of logic, which is ultimately, at best, an undertaking subsidiary to epistemology.
Beyond these five fundamental questions, all other forms of study or questioning descend derivatively from these five basic forms of questioning that emerge directly from the way the phenomena show themselves given the kinds of historical beings we are. This questioning has to be undertaken as a whole since none of the parts can be made autonomous and all of them presuppose how the phenomena show themselves always already in some public space. 44
None of the five fundamental areas of questioning can be abstracted from the whole of questioning to become autonomous—certainly not as autonomous ontology, cosmology, epistemology, and especially not as logic, which is doubly derivative from epistemological questioning. This need for the parts to be fashioned into a whole, even if ethics, political science, and the questions regarding the good have phenomenological priority, is what leads to political philosophy understood as the architectonic undertaking qua first philosophy.
It is architectonic, phenomenological, and dialectical political philosophy as first philosophy that “weaves” this questioning into a consistent whole and presents it in a persuasive, holistic, public form of speech . When publicly deployed, a political philosophy will have transformative ramifications. Downstream from the deployment of any genuine political philosophy the phenomena will be transformed in some fashion, because understanding and acting is transformed, albeit never completely.
As we perceive ourselves and our world differently, we act differently. As we act differently we change the concrete natural/physical and political/ethical environment for future phenomenological reflections. 45 The process is endless but never totally occlusive of what is an underlying phenomenological articulation of things that in many respects does not change. 46
As much as dialectical questioning and philosophical weaving opens new spaces, it is always simultaneously occlusive of something else that is bypassed or taken off the table for interrogation. This is what requires ongoing dialectical/phenomenological interrogation. Ongoing unconcealing of what remains inarticulate, and thus concealed, can never end, for the necessary process of reflection becomes part of the process of concealing itself, which occasions future reflection and questioning. And while this language undoubtedly sounds Heideggerian, one can get at this reality far more clearly from the perspective of Socrates, Plato, and Cicero.
The truth of architectonic political philosophy is its comprehensiveness, internal consistency, closeness to the phenomena, and ultimately public persuasiveness. 47 That means the truth of a political philosophy is its faithfulness in depicting the phenomena for all in a public space. Put still another way, the political philosopher assumes the status of primus inter pares among fellow citizens who engage in discussion in a res publica . Architectonic political philosophy does not long to retreat from the res publica to an Epicurean garden. It is in this sense, at the deepest level, that genuine political philosophy and republicanism are intimately linked.
The phenomenological political philosopher is not a lordly “legislator and commander” in some Nietzschean authoritarian fashion. And that is precisely what is implied in contemporary constructivist political theory, which by its actions refuses the stance of equal citizen—and even destroys the distinction between citizen and subject. It is political philosophy as I have sketched it that is intrinsically republican in character, starting from and keeping open a public space, while by its very questioning projecting forward future spaces. By comparison, constructivist theory is intrinsically despotic, attempting to impose its will on future generations and closing the possibility of future spaces freely opening themselves, to be kept open by unpredictable future discussions that should not be theoretically shut down.
Political philosophy must use the everyday speech of the world it occupies and respect everyday meanings, and not misuse and distort them. Political philosophy is a form of speech that is neither autonomous, representational logos nor the muthos of pure groundless will and imagination (a possibility that came into being only as the “other” of an allegedly pure, autonomous, representational logos ). Political philosophy is an undertaking and a form of speech that is a publicly persuasive muthologein , a term I have taken from the Platonic dialogues. 48
Political philosophy as I am using the term is an architectonic, holistic, phenomenological, dialectical undertaking. It is in this sense that Cicero is a quintessential political philosopher who weaves together a whole, publicly and in Latin, for his time. Perhaps Cicero did not possess the poetic genius of Plato—yet he was famed as a lawyer and an orator for his public persuasiveness. Though less poetic, Cicero may thematically grasp the importance of the idea of a “public space” in all of its philosophical importance better than Plato precisely because of his Latin/Roman origins.
Cicero gives us an example of what can always be done, including in our time, in weaving a whole of the necessary parts of thought using public speech within a specific historical situation within a specific public space. The need is universal; the actual performance of the need will not be. Great as Cicero and his beloved Plato were, for our own time we will have to rely upon ourselves. But first we need to be clear about what is needed. And for that we turn to an exploration and recovery of the noble thinking of Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Who Was Cicero?
All the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero.
—John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government (1787), preface
Cicero was an intellectually precocious youngster. As a young man he studied philosophy and literature and even traveled to Athens for instruction. Especially in his last years he returned to the life of ideas full-time and produced his philosophical corpus. Yet he also lived a life of civic engagement. That is a rare combination. Throughout his life, but especially at the end, Cicero was a caring and concerned philosophic statesman trying to offer hope to future generations. His philosophic works were his legacy to a hoped-for future republic—he knew his own republic was irretrievably lost.
Cicero wrote his most straightforwardly philosophical works in seclusion in his last years, hiding and even on the run, never staying anywhere for long. Those works became standards for the philosophic tradition for almost two millennia. Cicero became the intellectual darling of the early Church, an honored member of the pantheon of Western greats, studied by most schoolchildren in the early American republic—and right down to World War II in many places. But in our time he has become for most a derivative, second-rate thinker and dismissed as, at best, an eloquent orator and stylist. And the cruelest fate of all, Cicero is finally ignored as irrelevant except for the marginal historical notice that cannot be denied by any casual student of history. 1
There is almost no comparable example of an author who was once considered so great by so many for so long who has fallen so far. 2 What accounts for Cicero’s fall from grace? I will argue that his decline to an almost irrelevant footnote says more about us as early postmoderns than it says about Cicero as a thinker. The exploration that follows is an attempt to show the nature of his mode of writing, the import of his thematic discussions, and the essential issues that his work confronts, and the ways in which those fundamental issues can never be resolved once and for all, and they therefore will always return.
Cicero has not been eclipsed as an author because we have progressed so far beyond him, but because we have lost an understanding that he possessed and thus do not see what is great in one of history’s most reserved, dignified, and noble authors. It is our narrowness that denies us access to Cicero. It is we who are diminished by the constricted horizon within which we operate.
Unlike Cicero, we are the heirs not just of classical antiquity but of Christianity and also of modern commercial republicanism and modern technology and science.

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