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Eric A. Havelock: The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics
(Yale University Press: 1964)


“It is proposed here that early Ionian science included as a central element in its speculations a fairly coherent theory of the origins of human society, technology, and civilization, itself based upon a theory of the development of man as a species out of previous species, a theory which can fairly be described as naturalist and evolutionary, in sharp contrast to the typological reasoning of Plato and Aristotle.... Though not unobserved by specialists...it is as though this area of knowledge and the evidence for it, when presented to the attention of classical scholarship, has encountered a blind spot.... [Moreover, the proposed link between this science and democratic political theorizing in Periclean Athens] strikes harshly upon the sensibilities of the Hellenist, who by instinct and training has been schooled to look for the theoretic basis of the free citizenship of the Greeks in the pages of Plato and Aristotle. It is argued here, on the contrary, that it was the view of man as an animal species, consisting of individuals whose common biological characteristics were descriptively more important than their social differences, which furnished essential theoretical support for a doctrine of political equality...The very different theories of Plato and Aristotle, so far from being a summation of Greek thinking in this department, were designed to counteract its effects, or more properly to call up the forces of an older order of Greek ideas to correct the balance of the new. If this book speaks any truth about the Greek mind in its formative phase, that mind was not really the kind of mind it became in the Hellenistic age, when, under the combined influence of the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoa, it moulded into the shape of what we now style ‘the great tradition’ of the West. That tradition is much more conservative and metaphysical, aspirational and moralistic, than is the message of these pages.... It was in a simpler epoch of plainer living and high thinking that Democritus observed, ‘Poverty under a democracy is as much to be preferred to what men of power call prosperity, as is liberty to bondage.’”
(Havelock, pp.5-8)

Classical scholarship has long been dominated by scholars of a conservative mindset, and  this is still true today, albeit one may often need to look closer to find the fundamentally conservative assumptions underlying superficially “radical” work. Support for this contention is not at all difficult to find, particularly when the reception of this genuinely groundbreaking (and yet long out-of-print and ignored) work is considered.

Originally released in 1957 - then (briefly) reissued in 1964 w/a new preface - it documented for the first time the existence of a naturalistic philosophical anthropology amongst the ancient Greeks, and showed how these arguments - which pre-dated democracy itself - could be seen to underlie the work of those thinkers who had defended democracy. And, contra the established opinion in the discipline, it also clearly demonstrated how Plato and Aristotle’s concerted attacks on such arguments strongly supported the existence of a relatively coherent democratic approach to political theory.

The argument was clear, the evidence ample - albeit fragmentary - and the scholarship exemplary. Yet modern treatments of the area basically ignore Havelock’s work, and  largely restate the old consensus that Plato “invented” political theory...whilst the anthropological tradition Havelock documented is (still) almost totally ignored, lending a one-dimensionally conservative cast to our understandings of Greek political thought.

But, of course, this is a truly ironic state of affairs, given that so many of the fundamental concerns (and texts) of the Classics discipline are rooted in the era of ancient Athenian democracy - the oldest state we can prove to have conspicuously structured itself around a substantially inclusive - rather than exclusive - political order. And, for this reason, such foundational political theorizing is of interest to more than the usual specialists, especially when it can be shown to reach seemingly “modern” conclusions from fundamentally different premises. This is the real value of The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics for a broader readership, and that which makes its current obscurity in these days of democratic malaise a genuine tragedy for political thought:


“In the West, at least since the Hellenistic age, it has been the prevailing temper to think of morality and law in a priori terms, as resting on principles which are independent of time, place, and circumstance.... But there is a radically different conception, which views human codes of behaviour less as principles than as conventional patterns, embodying not eternal laws...but rather common agreements elaborated by man himself as a response to collective need. They are the rules of the game by which he finds it convenient to live, and, as such, they are subject to change and development as the game of life itself becomes more complicated. All societies need them in order to live an orderly existence and, indeed, the more primitive the society, the tighter the code seems to be. But in many practical details these conventions represent historical accidents.... Their validity is temporal, not eternal.... There is no necessary competition here between moralism and immoralism. The historical and evolutionary approach to morals and law is no less likely than the metaphysical to come up with the conclusion that ‘mercy, pity, peace and love’ have in fact proved to be historically necessary to man’s survival and development.... [Indeed,] so far as the scientists of the fifth century could see, from their own foreshortened perspective, there had been a tendency for life to become less savage and more humane, and for forms of government to become correspondingly less autocratic and to rest more on negotiation of opinion.”
(Havelock, pp.29-32)

As this extract suggests, moreover, the arguments of these thinkers were both straightforward (in their fundamental assumptions), and sophisticated (in their exploration of the implications of these). The results are surprisingly optimistic, albeit on rather different grounds than we are used to seeing in realistic political theory. And yet, any social psychologist would hardly find their starting points exceptionable. For, rather like mainstream economic theory, our political theorizing is, in the main, built upon an unrealistically-delimited notion of human nature, albeit this time inherited from the two essentially authoritarian thinkers whose influence has dominated in the Western intellectual tradition...


“One can say that, whenever western man has directed his thinking towards those problems created by his relation to his fellowmen, problems of society in general, of the state in particular, of government and law, of rights and responsibilities, of duties, of constitutions, of citizenship, he has consciously or otherwise used the political and often the moral vocabulary supplied to him by the two masters....[But, unfortunately,] for reasons which, as we shall argue, had nothing directly to do with political life as such, both Plato and Aristotle gave first priority to problems of political authority. This is not to say these were not vital problems. But it meant that, at the level of practical application, they concentrated almost exclusive attention on the mechanisms of power.... [Moreover,] the thinking of both, despite their differences, is committed to the proposition that society is a fixed quantity, or reaches towards a fixed quantity, or should do so. Both share a parallel conception of the human soul  as itself a little cosmos, a closed system or an essence, either itself an eternal idea, or the final form of a natural process which becomes a fixed quantity, if it does not begin as such. These two determinate systems...are then fitted together into an air-tight system of politics and morals, [in which] the act of organization as applied either to society or to the soul is not spontaneous, nor is the system automatic.... Hence the problem of building an intelligent authority over the whole had automatic priority in their thinking, as against the disposition and behaviour and autonomy of the separate parts.”
(Havelock, pp.12-13)

“Greek liberalism, as it is to be discovered in the following pages, was conceived in a wholly different intellectual climate. It was incapable of conceiving of human behaviour as obeying the control of a law of nature, single, universal and timeless, the same at all times and under all circumstances for all men. It was equally incapable of thinking of individuals with inalienable natural rights, received from  their creator or inherent in the structure of their personalities, for the simple reason that Platonism had not yet invented the basis for this notion of personality. Nor did it polarize its findings round the opposing claims of authority versus liberty, for Plato and Aristotle had not yet made the constitution of authority the central issue in politics."
(Havelock, p.17)

In many ways, it can be argued, Democritus is the secret hero of this book. A non-citizen resident of Athens at the very peak of its achievement, he is best known today for his development of atomic theory, and his strict materialism, but - as Havelock shows - he was also one of the chief heirs of Ionian naturalistic anthropology...and a committed democrat to boot. Moreover, as Havelock explores his social & political thought - surviving in a series of difficult-to-translate aphorisms and consequentialist reasonings - it becomes clear that Democritus was closer to figures such as Vygotsky and Bakhtin - whose social/developmental thinking is still not yet properly assimilated in our intellectual traditions - than to any kind of conventional “liberal” theorist. In short, then, we still haven’t caught up w/the ancient Greeks!


“Strictly speaking, Democritus has no word for individual, that is, for individual self-subsistent personality, and he is incapable of thinking the concept. His terminology baffles us, because while viewing groups or aggregates as made up of single parts, he never seems to visualize the laws of behaviour of the parts without automatically visualizing that behaviour as social.... His utilitarianism, then, if it be fair to use the term - and it probably is, for the symbols of utility, profit and interest had already been advanced by the naturalist school before Plato united them strategically with the form of the good - his utilitarianism conceives of well-being versus ill-being, of profit versus damage, as indicating alternative conditions which affect the person and his community simultaneously, for a person’s ‘way of life’ is life in a community. The group and its component parts have a double-acting relationship.”
(Havelock, pp.130-3)

In this view, notions such as the “common good” - and the human ties which underpin them - do not have to be “salvaged” from the interstices of a falsely extreme individualistic social theory. On the contrary, they emerge naturally as part of the emotional/behavioural (and, hence, rational) repertoire of the highly social - and cultural - species we already are. Clearly, here Democritus has some necessary lessons to teach us re politics, even if such learning will involve shucking several comfortably “realistic” - read: overwhelmingly pessimistic -  assumptions about human nature which have descended to us from Plato and Aristotle. This is, perhaps, nowhere more evident than in Havelock’s treatment of Democritus on compassion, political ordering, and justice:

“The remarkable thing about compassion in Democritus is that it is presented in conjunction with altruism as a political principle of the first importance...and one which can have structural effect upon the condition of the body politic. In this respect, the thought of Democritus is much tougher and more systematic than that of Rousseau. Compassion is not to be viewed as an intuitive recoil from suffering in others, a vague but powerful sentiment rooted in the untutored primitive. It is a phenomenon which presents itself at an advanced stage of human culture, and it is the specific property of the stronger and more successful elements in that culture.”
(Havelock, p.144)

“However, Democritus does not allow these historical glories to carry him over into some Hegelian vision of the corporate community. His analysis remains complex: consensus had been achieved in a competitive situation by the addition of non-competitive forces. Once achieved, it therefore cannot be viewed as becoming a static condition or even an ideal formula into which individual energies become absorbed. Itself a process, it releases further processes.... The political vision of Democritus is complex - more complex, as far as we know, than any of his successors. Perhaps it was because he kept his eye closer than any other did to all the factors of the historical process which had generated politics, and not just to some of them.... [And so, unsurprisingly,] for Democritus there were some problems that remained...[such as] the stubborn fact [that] a democratic society cannot yet be a just society in any Platonic sense of that word.... Part of Plato’s weakness, as of Aristotle’s, was the conviction that in politics all problems, as they may be soluble theoretically, must therefore be solved now. Democritus was content to leave something unresolved, and his readiness in this respect reveals the measure of his stature as a political thinker, for it grows from his conception of politics as a continuing process which, because it began far back in the past, with the savage, will still continue beyond the present.... The anthropological story is one of the invention of successive tools and devices which in politics are addressed to political problems. We are waiting just now, he says, for a fresh addition to these devices. For the presently constituted society, no such device exists.”
(Havelock, pp.146-153)

Now, while Democritus’ reputation does not need salvaging - Plato having (perhaps wisely, perhaps cowardly?) left him entirely alone, at least in the surviving corpus - the same cannot be said for sophists such as Protagoras, “sophistry” being the prime intellectual insult in the West for the last 2400 years, as the result of Plato’s calumnies, and Aristotle’s more subtle misrepresentations. But the truth of the matter,  Havelock argues, was very different:


“If Democritus kept his eye on cosmos, that is the physical and social pattern, for the [Elder Sophists] the word was logos, the flexible discourse of human beings....[They] sought to rationalize the process by which opinion is formed and then effectively expressed, and by which leadership is imposed and followed, sentiment crystallized, common decisions reached....[But] the fact that to this day in western society the practical politician with his eye on public opinion, the negotiator, the dealer in compromises, without whom liberty would not survive a week, is still a person on whose account we feel obliged to feel embarrassed, bears witness to the effectiveness with which Plato performed his task of undermining the moral stature of the Elder Sophists... [Moreover,] historians in search of actual information covering the ‘sophists’ are always eager to credit Plato with their own motives and their own standards of reporting. Plato was a philosopher, not an historian, and the standards governing the literary composition of his day gave wide latitude to the dramatic manipulation of historical figures.”
(Havelock, pp.156-9)

“If we intend to use the term sophist of these people, in its modern derogatory sense, the title is a misnomer, and that, even if we rearrange our values sufficiently to grant that they grappled seriously with problems of language, discourse, and communication, we still have not made a sufficient historical adjustment.... Of course they taught rhetoric as a technique for the effective formulation of political ideas, but as ancillary to a bigger thing, a larger view of life and man altogether. If there is one quality which identifies them, and yet which is wholly incompatible with their traditional reputation, it is a sense of social and political responsibility. Beginning with the sociology attributed to Protagoras with its rationality, its humanity, its historical depth, continuing with the pragmatism which seeks to understand the common man’s virtues and failings and to guide his decisions by a flexible calculus of what is good and useful, and ending with a theory of group discourse as negotiation of opinion leading to agreed decisions, we are steadily invited to keep our eye not upon the authoritarian leader, but on the average man.”
(Havelock, pp.229-30)

“The basis of Platonism lies in a kind of religious experience, and religion, however humane, is always intolerant of purely secular thinking and of pragmatic discourse. For it believes that secular anthropology and historical causation and the social sciences perpetrate an act of robbery upon the soul. Hence, it is part of Plato’s own sincerity that he should be unable to conceive of sophistic pragmatism as sincere at all; that he should be unable to visualize the problems faced by the sophists as being  real problems; they are irrelevant to the autonomous soul and its destiny, and therefore their authors were not thinkers.”
(Havelock, p.161)

And, whilst discussion centres upon Plato - the writer - as opposed to Socrates - the oralist - the latter comes in for some well-justified critiques also, even if his “sainted” reputation is largely protected by the lack of direct evidence for any scholar as careful as Havelock. Nonetheless, the characteristic shape of Socrates’ argumentation - the vastly overpraised “dialectic” - is supported by all the sources, and this (when shorn of its worshipful aura) is hardly what it is usually taken to be:


“This is not a conversational method, nor a genuine exchange of ideas. Nor is it intended that such an exchange should take place. There are quite a few set speeches, long and short, in Plato’s dialogues, but over the length and breadth of them a genuine conversational handling of serious ideas between equal minds is not to be found. The only possible kind of thinking which they allow to take place is dogmatic thinking.”
(Havelock, p.209)


Too true, and the contrast between this methodology and that of the “liberals” is clear, as is the difference between their underlying assumptions, particularly in reference to the bases of the social order, as we shall see:


“No form of political authority can ever be explained as privilege or prerogative. [For] it comes into existence, by definition, only as a vehicle of good government.”
(Havelock, p.150)

“Man is a historical animal, not a fixed quantity; he lives in process; even his capacity for producing material wealth is unlimited.... [He is, therefore,] not a ‘polis animal’. The liberal theory is one of human society, not of statehood. [But] it was Aristotle’s vigorous and successful purpose to kill this theory, and replace it by one of statehood. For statehood and state are definable in terms of permanent patterns of power; while ‘society’ for the liberals was ultimately something different, something in which power-patterns existed pragmatically and temporarily.”
(Havelock, p.379)

“In the liberal vision, all human beings, whatever their endowment or temper, were equal partners in the societies they formed. This egalitarianism did not mean that ‘one man was as good as another’. The identity between human beings lay not in technical capacity or moral character but in the common drive for safety, for sociality, and for pleasure.... [And] though the principle of equality was identified with that of moral right (dikaion) it was never linked with any inalienable rights theoretically possessed by any and every human being. Indeed, the whole doctrine of natural rights (in the plural) is modern; and while in spirit and temper it recalled Greek liberalism, the form which it was cast reflected the long influence of the doctrine of the independent existence of the soul of man.... Greek naturalism relied, instead, upon a more generalized and scientific perception of the human being. He is a member of a species and between him and his fellow members the natural similitudes are therefore basic, while the personal differences are incidental. The similitudes take effect in the common drive to survive, to enjoy oneself, and to express amiability. The instruments, social and technical, which make survival, enjoyment, and amiability possible are all genetically identical and procurable only by co-operation.... In short, the citizen of a liberal society was properly a hedonist and a philanthropist and an egalitarian all in one.”
(Havelock, pp.379-93)

“It is not fashionable to count human affection among man’s political principles. Its inclusion sounds both unscientific and sentimental. Yet, as the account of Greek liberalism proceeds, it conveys an increasing and inescapable impression that the concept of philanthropy was central and that it was intended to describe not how human beings should feel and behave if only they were good enough , but how they actually did; surely a bizarre perspective to take upon a society divided by faction and rent by war.... [But] the conception was neither as sentimental nor as simple as it sounds. It was elaborated and applied somewhat on the following lines.  Association, to achieve security, and secondarily to manufacture the means of plenty, being the visible law of man’s historical development, the human being involved in this process must, by definition, possess some capacity for permanent association. This at its lowest common denominator shows itself as an inclination to feel ‘good will’ rather than ‘ill will’.... [Therefore,] if pleasure be the name of that drive which requires biological satisfaction, and utility, or interest the name of any means devised to serve either protection or pleasure, amity falls under both heads. It serves use and interest as providing the right atmosphere for legal and economic co-operation; it is fundamentally pleasurable because it expresses the instinctive to greet and live with and welcome our human neighbors. It ‘inheres in human beings as such’. But human history is a process, and man not entirely a fixed quantity. Sociability has to enlarge as the physical area and the content of society enlarge, and as its mechanisms of exchange become more complex. Pleasure itself is, therefore, not a fixed quantity either; our capacity for it increases with our historical development.... [Moreover,] no tug-of-war between altruism and selfishness is involved. The biological human good will, at all its levels, is good will towards others and towards one’s self simultaneously. And doing good and having good done to one are different facets of the continuous dynamic process which comprises association and forms society. Altruism and egotism are complementary aspects of man’s natural endowment. [And] it is equally obvious that they are functions of his egalitarianism....”
(Havelock, pp.394-7)

Today, Eric Havelock is best known as the key figure in expanding the oralist theses of Parry & Lord into the still-contested domains of archaic and classic Greek thought, demonstrating that the growth of a fully-literate culture was far slower, and much more piecemeal, than scholarly traditions had blithely assumed. However, whilst these arguments have slowly - and very grudgingly - won a measure of mainstream acceptance over the years, his earlier (and equally revolutionary) work on the early growth of ancient Greek anthropological & political thought has basically disappeared for, rather than being refuted, it has simply been ignored to the point where many younger scholars probably do not even know it exists...

This neglect can undoubtedly be connected to the convergent influence of several factors: the sheer unfamiliarity of the arguments, the fact that this submerged tradition of thought was to be linked to liberalism (rather than more fashionably left radicalisms), the difficulty most humanists have with understanding biologically-based anti-essentialist thought (a problem which, if anything, is even worse in the Humanities today) and, finally, the sheer scholarly inertia of the Plato & Aristotle cults, which were not about to seriously entertain a rival composed of fragments by thinkers rarely seen as political - such as Democritus - or, conversely, already traduced before the court of history through the biased testimony of their heroes.

However, it’s also clearly time that The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, with its careful scholarship and startling perspectives, was rediscovered. In particular, the capabilities approach to morality and economic thinking, recently argued most forcefully by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, is in many ways an independent reinvention of this ancient way of thought...although none of its modern exponents (even the classically-trained Nussbaum) appears aware of their original Greek antecedents. Moreover, as Havelock so clearly demonstrates, we still have much to learn from these thinkers, who came to what are surprisingly “modern” conclusions from very different assumptions. Given the problems we now face w/our widespread disillusionment over the outcomes of representative “democracy”, and the difficulties rights-based legal reasonings have engendered, Havelock’s “liberal” tradition appears to offer us a fresh way of theorizing our discontents, and of enriching the emergent capabilities approach. We would do well to take advantage of this offer to properly purge the outmoded remnants of authoritarian thought from our basic assumptions for, as Antiphon so justly observed:


“We all breathe the same air.”


“The order of priorities in political thinking had been security and authority, law and order first, and liberty, freedom of choice, individual decision a bad second. When, under pressures historical and economic, the emphasis began to shift towards the second, it could do so only under the aegis of concepts derived from the first.... Human society and the human individual remained ideally fixed quantities. Aspirations for personal liberty, demands for commercial freedom, and rebellions to gain religious and national independence still sought to ground themselves on conceptions of morality and society which derived man and society from a priori principles, outside time and space historical inspection.... Metaphysics in politics is perhaps no bad thing when used to serve such [causes], but it is a double-edged tool, more readily placed at the disposal of authority than liberty.... Thus laissez faire in economics presupposes a system of natural law...[and] the insistent protection of the civil and legal liberties of the individual against all organs of government, legislative and executive, which in America is the single most prominent characteristic of the liberal mind, this purpose carries the implication that individual men are inviolable essences, ends in themselves, who cannot be ‘forced to be free’. Such doctrine...would be incomprehensible without many centuries of acceptance of the dogma that all individual personalities have an independent metaphysical status, and have ‘rights’ which enjoy a metaphysical authority independent of the community.”
(Havelock, pp.14-16)




John Henry Calvinist