Theme Panel: Precedent for the Unprecedented: Ancient Thought & Post-Plague Politics

Precedent for the Unprecedented: Ancient Thought & Post-Plague Politics

Co-sponsored by Division 54: Ideas, Knowledge, and Politics and The Society for Greek Political Thought
Mini-Conference

Mini-Conference Description:
Unexpected world events have the potential to unsettle previously unquestionable socio-political conventions; COVID-19 is one such event. Quarantine orders and travel restrictions reintroduced us to a time of radical isolation, interrupting an era of seemingly limitless opportunities for personal interconnectivity and unmediated communication. What was once ‘normal’ is now called into question. The unsettled reality brought on by the pandemic may reflect enduring political issues and tensions. When times change and scholars must reconsider how they conceive of politics, it is fruitful to look to the past as much as the future. For better or worse, history serves as the testing ground of ideas, and the history of political thought its laboratory. Delving into classical understandings of
politics generates new insights into how political life was imagined in the past, and how it might be re-imagined as the new post-pandemic world unfolds.

This mini-conference brings together an intergenerational forum of scholars to consider the study and teaching of ancient political thought in a post-pandemic political science. Our twenty-nine participants come from varied academic backgrounds, represent seventeen institutions, and span four generations. Together, we seek to create a space for necessary conversations about the future of political theory, the history of political thought broadly, and how lessons from the past can help guide us through uncertain times.

We begin with our first panel, “Classical Reimaginations: Shaping Political Reality and Public Ethos.” These five papers discuss how the concept of political life was first developed in ancient Greece and Rome, including the ideals and contested notions of justice it raised, the practices underpinning public debate, and the private ambitions which public politics fomented or unleashed. Turning to Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Cicero, the presenters explore not only the contours and content of the political sphere in the past, but also how ancient ideas about public life were taken up and transformed by later thinkers in the medieval and modern periods. Through reflecting on antiquity, the presenters will illuminate new possibilities for the ethics of discourse and ambit of political action as we seek to shape and re-shape the politics of the new, uncertain, post-pandemic reality.

We then turn to a roundtable on “The Plagues of Antiquity: Rupture and Continuity in Post- pestilence Politics.” Our participants explore the ways in which ancient thinkers responded to disease. Despite the advances in science and medicine we enjoy today, the start of COVID-19 forced us to confront the limits of human knowledge and the unpredictability of the natural world. This roundtable seeks insight into the ways that plagues destabilized and altered politics, as well as how the memory of such outbreaks influenced justifications for changes in state power, conceptions of desire and the good, and the relationship between science and society.

Our second roundtable, “Teaching Ancient Political Thought to (Post-)Modern Students,” addresses a challenge faced by all scholars of the history of political thought: making ideas of the past accessible and engaging in today’s classrooms. As avowedly critical modes of inquiry become more prominent among students, questions about the relevance of the ancient world to modern life, the necessity of theoretical learning, and the morality of engaging with ideas that challenge contemporary views about justice become louder. Educators must answer these challenges, encouraging students to interact with antiquity as something more than an onomasticon of elite men or a syllabus of errors. We must show that the classical world is neither the font of all wisdom, nor the headwaters of all folly. This roundtable discusses the tensions between critique and understanding, engagement and approbation, and theory as a living body and a historical phenomenon.

Finally, we conclude with our second panel on “Classical Reimaginations: Happiness, Longing, and Political Stability.” Hoping to offer reflections that might guide us through our current times, this panel investigates ancient conceptions of the relationship between politics, (in)stability, and the pursuit of our deepest longings. The five presentations consider Aristotle’s notions of happiness, Platonic eros, the impact of plague on Athenian society, and how lessons from the ancient world were transformed by later thinkers including Augustine, Lucretius, and Thomas Hobbes. By examining the many desiderata of politics, these papers explore the relationship between the desire for immortality, the quest for enduring happiness, and the basic drives of the human psyche.

Conference Organizers: Rachel Wagner, Ph.D. Student, University of Toronto; Joseph Dattilo, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto

 

Panel I: Classical Reimaginations: Shaping Political Reality and Public Ethos
Full Paper Panel

Session Description:
The public sphere undergirds political discourse, shaping what can be said, sought, and achieved by political actors. However, the public sphere does not arise ex nihilo, it is created, sustained, and shaped by political acts and discourse. A curious case of co-causality thus arises: how do actors shape the public sphere which in turn shapes their actions? The five papers on this panel help shed light on that question and discuss how the concept of political life was first developed in ancient Greece and Rome, including the ideals and contested notions of justice it raised, the practices underpinning public debate, and the private ambitions to which public politics gave rise. Turning to Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Cicero, the presenters explore not only the contours and content of the political sphere in the past, but also how ancient ideas about public life were then taken up and transformed by later thinkers in the medieval and modern eras. Through reflecting on antiquity, the presenters will illuminate new possibilities for the ethics of discourse and ambit of political action as we seek to shape and re-shape the politics of the new, uncertain, post-pandemic reality.

Participants:
(Chair) Nadia Urbinati, Faculty, Columbia University; (Discussant) Nate Gilmore, Faculty, University of Texas at Austin; (Discussant) John Wallach, Faculty, City University of New York

Papers:

An Appeal to Public Humanism through Plutarch
Rebecca Kingston, Faculty, University of Toronto

In this paper, I offer reflection on the tradition of public humanism stemming in part from early modern reception of Plutarch (as presented in more detail in my forthcoming monograph Plutarch’s Prism: Classical Reception and Public Humanism in France and England 1500-1800). It could be suggested that more modern strands of political practice and reflection have often overshadowed that legacy with greater focus on procedures, institutions and means to best to measure the popular will. With a shift of focus in historical terms, I offer an assessment of key features of that earlier tradition in which the reception of Plutarch, as author of both the Lives and Moral Essays, played a central part.
The distinctive features of that earlier tradition of public humanism (for which figures such as Erasmus, More, Seyssel, Bacon and Montaigne were central) included attention to the special moral psychology of public life and the ways the character (or the isolated virtues) of public figures can be relevant to their exercise of public responsibility. It also included a sense of the enduring importance of a concept of public good for political life. I argue that certain distilled aspects of that tradition are worth both focusing on and retaining in the contemporary context.

Bridging the Divide: A Consideration of Justice in the Works of Aristotle and Hobbes
Shal Marriot, Student, Carleton University

Is the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns still relevant to the history of political thought today? This paper will argue that although it provides an interesting framing for discussion, the debate itself has rested on assumptions, which when analyzed do not hold up to scrutiny. Particularly on the question of political obligations. I will begin by analyzing the works of the 19th century thinker who helped to popularize the debate in political science, Benjamin Constant. Constant articulated what he perceived to be the fundamental differences between ancient and modern
conceptions of liberty, in his lecture The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns. Although Constant was not the first to engage in this debate, his remarks have had a significant impact on scholars, who continue to draw a bright line between ancient and modern political thought.

This divide has had particular focus on the question of what citizens owe to a political community. However, this divide is not as clear concerning the question of political obligation as has previously been thought. I subsequently turn to question the account Constant provides of the differences of political obligations by analyzing two of the foremost thinkers of ancient and modern political thought respective: Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes. By looking at how they conceptualize political society, as grounded in human nature, and the respective accounts of justice and the rule of law they detail in their political works, I will demonstrate how they share in common a crucial thread within political justice that issues a strong challenge to Constant. Although both thinkers have indisputable differences in how they understand political society, they both value the upholding of a particular standard of political justice within it, committing citizens to a standard of behavior towards one another. By demonstrating the way Aristotle and Hobbes share a sense of political obligation in common, political scientists will be better positioned to question other ways in which the division between ancient and modern political thought has obscured concerns which philosophers writing in
both periods shared and the relevance of those concerns to a greater understanding of the history of political thought.

Classical Thought and the Birth of the Political
Rob Ballingall, Faculty, University of Maine

Why was the classical city so very good to think with? What if anything distinguishes the political thought that it inspired? The usual answer points to its utopianism. Classical thought seems uniquely preoccupied with the lofty ends implied by ordinary politics, especially as these culminate in the virtues. The moderns repudiate these “imaginary principalities,” or so the story goes, preferring to go directly to the effectual truth. The medievals meanwhile might remain utopians, but the bent of their political thinking would seem more otherworldly, even than Plato’s. Taking a broad view of the subject, I argue that this characterization, while roughly true, misses more basic—and in some ways more fruitful—features of classical political thought. These have to do with the very concept of the political and the political way of life. Drawing on a range of classical sources, I show that Greekthinkers in particular understood “the political” as the collective pursuit of a common good, to be distinguished from the self-interested domination of a despot or tyrant. But I argue that this understanding—though certainly “normative”—is not necessarily utopian. The good pursued in common by one city can require visiting evils on another. That which is believed to be good for the city can in fact be bad. And the very belief that something is good for the whole can be weaponized by mendacious parts. I suggest that it is these “realist” aspects of the political that classical thought especially emphasizes, not in spite but because of its basic normative understanding.

‘Naked’ Speech in Late Republican Rome
Rob Goodman, Faculty, Ryerson University

This paper offers evidence for the existence of a distinctively populist rhetoric in the late Roman republic. My argument challenges claims that the republic was characterized by “ideological monotony,” in which populares and optimates alike gestured toward populist themes. On the contrary, I argue that we can trace the outlines not only of a popularis ideology, but of a popularis style—a style that is grounded in important, contestable assumptions about the relationship between orator and audience, and between the various institutions of republican politics. While attempts to reconstruct this style are hampered by the Ciceronian bias of the sources, I approach Roman populist rhetoric through a method of triangulation. If the relatively unknown variable is the speech of Cicero’s popularis or popularis-adjacent enemies, including Catiline, Clodius, and Marcus Antonius, the better-known variables are the rhetorical practices of Cicero’s somewhat friendlier rivals—in particular, the “Atticist” orators and Caesar. Cicero discusses the speech of all of these figures with a common conceptual vocabulary, centering on the idea that his enemies’ speech is nudus, or “naked.” Cicero consistently (if polemically) casts populist speech as lacking in artifice and control, more a product of nature than of human craft.

Cicero conceives of stylistic diversity as a means by which the orator demonstrates responsiveness to the audience—qualities that the populares evidently minimized through the pursuit of comparatively unaffected speech. Why would a politician intent on securing popular support want to minimize responsiveness? A refusal to accommodate can itself send a powerful signal: that the speaker’s identification with the people, as embodied in the popular assemblies, is so complete that no accommodation is required. Cicero, by contrast, strives to make visible the sheer difficulty of rhetorical responsiveness, drawing an analogy between “mixed speech” and mixed government.

The Corruption of Love: Books VIII & IX of Plato’s Republic
Max Morris, Ph.D. Student, University of Toronto

Books VII and IX of Plato’s Republic detail the various stages of the degeneration of the regime and soul from their best condition (the Kallipolis and philosopher) to their worst (tyranny and the tyrant). However, a relatively recent trend has emerged in the scholarship that asserts the proximity between the tyrant and the philosopher. If tyranny is simply the inevitable conclusion of a process of degeneration, how can philosophy have anything to do with it? This puzzle is often either overlooked or incompletely resolved by those scholars who affirm the association between the philosopher and the tyrant.

In support of the general idea that the philosopher and the tyrant are intimately related in Plato’s work, I seek to resolve this puzzle by providing a genetic account of the corruption of the tyrannical soul. I argue that the origin of the corruption of the tyrannical soul is a set of social and political circumstances, rather than an inherently evil or licentious nature, as some scholars suppose. In other words, the tyrant is not naturally evil but is, rather, made evil. If we take seriously Socrates’ claim that only those with an exceptional, philosophic nature are capable of doing great good or great evil, his identification of the tyrant as “the worst man” indicates, conversely, that he is equipped with the best nature. This would seem to indicate that the tyrant-to-be has a natural eros for wisdom. Yet, all we read about the tyrant is that he is possessed by a “lawless” eros primarily for sexual gratification. Assuming that this constitutes an erotic transformation in the soul of the tyrant, I focus on three pivotal moments in it: first, the tyrant-to-be grows up under the laissez-faire instruction of his democratic father, who does not impose any moral strictures that his son is compelled to adhere to for fear of punishment or public shame; second, he is filled with hubris and the desire to satisfy antisocial appetites, such as cannibalism, by others who wish to use the boy to further their own political interests; finally, the public having arrogated political power to him, he orders the murder of some of his fellow countrymen. While radical freedom, an eros that frustrates the social order, and even hatred of one’s fellows may be associated with the philosopher, a well-ordered regime precludes their public expression, and this (paradoxically) prevents the transmutation of eros for wisdom into lawless sexual eros.

 

Panel II: The Plagues of Antiquity: Rupture and Continuity in Post-Pestilence Politics
Roundtable

Session Description:
In this roundtable, our participants explore the ways in which ancient thinkers responded to disease. Despite the advances in science and medicine we enjoy today, the start of COVID-19 forced us to confront the limits of human knowledge and the unpredictability of the natural world. This roundtable seeks insight into the ways that plagues destabilized and altered politics, as well as how the memory of such outbreaks influenced justifications for changes in state power, conceptions of desire and the good, and the relationship between science and society.

Participants:
(Chair) Rachel Wagner, Ph.D. Student, University of Toronto; (Presenter) Dan Schillinger, Postdoctoral Fellow, Yale University; (Presenter) Larissa Atkison, Dalhouise University; (Presenter) David Polansky, Independent Researcher; (Presenter) Dan Kapust, Faculty, University of Wisconsin; (Presenter) Lindsay Mahon Rathnam, Faculty, Duke Kunshan University; (Presenter) Clifford Orwin, Faculty, University of Toronto; and (Presenter) Ryan Crosschild, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Calgary

 

Panel III: Teaching Classical Political Thought to (Post-)Modern Students
Roundtable

Session Description:
This roundtable addresses a challenge faced by all scholars of the history of political thought: making ideas of the past accessible and engaging in today’s classrooms. As avowedly critical modes of inquiry become more prominent among students, questions about the relevance of the ancient world to modern life, the necessity of theoretical learning, and the morality of engaging with ideas that challenge contemporary views about justice become louder. Educators must answer these challenges, encouraging students to interact with antiquity as something more than an onomasticon of elite men or a syllabus of errors. We must show that the classical world is neither the font of all wisdom, nor the headwaters of all folly. This roundtable discusses the tensions between critique and understanding, engagement and approbation, and theory as a living body and a historical phenomenon.

Participants:
(Chair) Joseph Dattilo, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto; (Presenter) Ryan Balot, Faculty, University of Toronto; (Presenter) Joel Schlosser, Faculty, Bryn Mawr College; (Presenter) Seth Jaffe, Faculty, John Cabot University; Ella Street, Postdoctoral Fellow, Cornell University; (Presenter) Naomi Campa, Faculty, University of Texas at Austin; (Presenter) Bernard Dobski, Faculty, Assumption University; (Presenter) Matt Dinan, Faculty, St. Thomas University; (Presenter) Lincoln Rathnam, Faculty, Duke Kunshan University

 

Panel IV: Classical Reimaginations: Happiness, Longing, and Political Stability
Full Paper Panel

Session Description:
The COVID-19 Pandemic has revealed anew a maxim of political and social life that had nearly slipped from collective consciousness in the 21st century: instant gratification of our desires is not always possible. Disrupted supply chains cannot immediately satisfy every material whim; stay-at-home orders frustrate social spontaneity; fear of illness and death forces us to rethink our ambitions and desires. Hoping to offer reflections that might guide us through our current times, this panel investigates ancient conceptions of the relationship between politics, (in)stability, and the pursuit of our deepest longings. The five presentations consider Aristotle’s notions of happiness, Platonic eros, the impact of plague on Athenian society, and how lessons from the ancient world were transformed by later thinkers including Augustine, Lucretius, and Thomas Hobbes. By examining the many desiderata of politics, these papers explore the relationship between the desire for immortality, the quest for enduring happiness, and the basic drives of the human psyche.

Participants:
(Chair) Dan Schillinger, Postdoctoral Fellow, Yale University; (Discussant) Zachariah Black, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto; (Discussant) Abbie LeBlanc, Ph.D. Student, Harvard University

Papers:

“Felicity” and “Makarismos”: Hobbes on Happiness and His Ancient Sources
Erfan Xia, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto

This paper argues that for Hobbes, human happiness is achieved through our recognition of the limitation of the power of every one of us and entering a political society. According to Hobbes, what is good is what one happens to desire, and it vacillates with one’s changing desires. Without a conception of consistent or absolute human good, Hobbes nevertheless has a conception of happiness or a good life which we can find in his definition of “felicity” as continual satisfaction of momentary desires. Scholars take this conception of happiness to confirm their interpretation that the fundamental human pursuit in Hobbes is the pursuit of power after power, as they assume that accumulation of power is the only or best way to achieve continual satisfaction of momentary desires. This paper challenges this reading. Right after presenting his opinion on “felicity” in chapter 6 of Leviathan, Hobbes tells us there is a Greek word “makarismos”— “that whereby they signify the opinion they have of a man’s felicity”, a simple translation of which is “congratulation”. Through examining the cases of “congratulation” in Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, and Polybius, we see that the ignorant and the proud hold the opinion that happiness is to have ever more wealth and power while the moderate figures, who recognize the power of fortune and the limitation of human power either through wisdom or experience, expose the hybris underlying the understanding of happiness of the ignorant and the proud. As Hobbes calls our attention to these warnings against the hubristic and unrealistic pursuit of happiness as having ever more power, this paper proposes a different reading of the implication of Hobbes’ “felicity”. Continual satisfaction of momentary desires could be achieved by entering a political state where individuals’ desires are coordinated and shaped so that people do not need to overpower others to satisfy themselves.

Imagining Two Plagues: Hobbes, Thucydides, and Lucretius
Dan Kapust, Faculty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Thomas Hobbes’s first published work under his own name was his 1628 translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. A remarkable achievement on his part, Thucydides’ text – and especially Thucydides’ account of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BCE – deeply influence Hobbes’s writings, and his account of the natural condition of mankind in particular. Yet Thucydides’ account of the plague was not the only one Hobbes would have been familiar with, for he also knew Lucretius, at least by the 1640s. What does a comparative study of Thucydides’ Greek text and Lucretius’ Latin poem tell us about Hobbes’s thought? This question is the focus of this paper, which explores Hobbes’s imagination of the natural condition of mankind in his three systematic works – Elements, De Cive, and Leviathan – in light of these two plague narratives.

Platonic Eros vs. Augustinian Caritas: The Turn from Immortality to Eternity
Joseph Dattilo, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto; Rachel Wagner, Ph.D. Student, University of Toronto

Throughout the history of political thought, longing has played a central role in conceptions of the human mind and moral psychology – with two of the most influential (and seemingly opposed) accounts deriving from Plato and Augustine. Platonic eros, as glimpsed throughout Symposium and Republic, stems from a lack which might be pacified through corporeal pleasure, political pursuit, or philosophy. The Augustinian account, by contrast, explicitly denigrates bodily longings in favour of divine love. In this paper, we compare Plato’s eros with Augustine’s two forms of love, cupiditas and caritas. First, we aim to elucidate the Platonic conception of eros as a mortal longing for immortality – arguing that within Plato’s account, this longing manifests in different ways, ranging from bodily desire to the love of wisdom which drives the philosopher. Moving from the philosophical to the theological, we turn to Augustine, principally asking whether his notion of desire or love is at all analogous to eros. Within Confessions and the Cassiciacum Dialogues, we see a connection between Augustine’s personal encounters with sexuality and his conception of divine love. Despite his denigration of bodily pleasure, and his stark differentiation between the two loves, we suggest that Augustine’s personal ascent from cupiditas to caritas might reflect the philosopher’s journey depicted in Plato’s Symposium. Caritas goes far beyond eros, however, in terms of the object it seeks; for Augustine, the immortal pales in comparison to the eternal. Moreover, we suggest that Plato and Augustine differ in the role free choice plays in the formation of worthy desires; for Augustine, all that which is chosen in the absence of divine grace is perverse, and caritas stems from something external rather than the human psyche alone. By contrast, Platonic eros emerges from the individual’s perpetual lack, rather than divine compulsion. We conclude in considering whether these differences regarding the role of lack and longing in his account of the human soul reflect Augustine’s larger departures from Plato and Greek political thought broadly.

Reconciling the Space Between Us: Eros, Identity, and Sexual Ethics in Plato’s Symposium
Kelsey Gordon, Ph.D. Student, University of Toronto

In Plato’s Symposium, each speaker gives an account of eros/desire that reflects their identity, be it as a beloved, a lover, doctor, comedian, poet, or philosopher, suggesting that erotic attachments participate in and inform our sense of self and who we are in relation to others. This includes how we evaluate and are evaluated by others, how we arrange our social relationships, and who gets to speak and when. Crucially, women are not present to speak in the symposium, yet one, Diotima, appears in memory and speech through Socrates’ retelling of her account of eros. Famously, Socrates claims that he knows nothing but erotics, and that he learned this wisdom from Diotima. Through these speeches Symposium reveals a series of theoretical and practical tensions that emerge because of differing erotic attachments. These tensions range from questions about the good possible in sexual relationships to the outright denial of the value of the embodied self by allowing eros to guide us to seeking value beyond human life. In this last instance, eros detaches from sexual, social, and cultural institutions, which raises an important question about whether allowing eros to guide us ultimately undermines the possibilities of living together, despite originating out of these very relationships. We see this detachment most clearly in the severed relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, which leaves them separated in different spaces, Socrates in the metaphysical and Alcibiades in the physical. I conceptualize this erotic problem as disconnected space and suggest that the disconnection emerges when eros is singular in its pursuits. In this paper I explore the possibilities for reconciling these spaces by taking the gendered dimensions of Diotima’s speech seriously, emphasizing duality, movement, and transformation in her
account of eros.

Platonic Eros and the Desires of Consumer Capitalism
John Wallach, Faculty, City University of New York

Desire has become highly politicized in the 21st century as media infused by capitalist, governmental, and social agents not only seek to make us who we are but are able to do so in deep and unprecedented ways – probably more significantly than traditional ideologies because of their reach inside our minds. In this respect, we have come full circle to Plato’s treatment of eros – which he and Athenians more generally understood as both a personal and political phenomenon. Drawing on Plato’s dialogues, particularly the Phaedrus and Symposium, I shall identify the principal characteristics of Platonic eros as a personal and political phenomenon and then put them in dialogue with contemporary concerns about the politics of desire. In addition to Plato’s works and their contextual significance, I shall bring other major Western political writers into this conversation – keeping in mind the inflection of their words by their historical contexts and ours – e.g., Augustine, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Marx, and Marcuse.


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