Mere Life or More Life?

Glen Newey

  • Great Books, Bad Arguments: ‘Republic’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by W.G. Runciman
    Princeton, 127 pp, £13.95, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 691 14476 4
  • Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy by Bonnie Honig
    Princeton, 197 pp, £15.95, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 15259 2

Here are the nominees for the greatest bad argument in political theory. They are: Thomas Hobbes, for Leviathan; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for The Communist Manifesto; and Plato, for the Republic. Why them? Each of the candidates is hallowed as a Penguin Classic. Each has been foisted on freshman generations in Pol Phil 101. And each could be thought to exemplify, after a fashion, the aristocratic style in political theory. Indeed, each of the three contenders either was a blueblood in his own right, or spent much of his life cheek by receding jowl with them. They have imagined a political theory that comports with their standing as ottimati in their own right, or their counsellors. Plato was an Athenian nob, connected via his mother, Perictione, to several of the Thirty Tyrants. Hobbes spent virtually all his adult life in the service of the Cavendish family, of the earldom (now duchy) of Devonshire. Even Marx, a Rhineland Jew, managed to cop off with the daughter of the Baron von Westphalen.

It can all make one feel a bit déclassé, or indeed jamais classé. And our form guide is Walter Garrison, 3rd Viscount Runciman, the former president of the British Academy, whose jacket photo shows him sitting, presumably in his study in Cambridge, fingers interlaced, gazing evenly at the reader. It’s fitting, then, that the three greats are dispatched with superb hauteur. Plato ploughs in the Pol Soc exam, as the Republic ‘turns out to be confused in formulation, illogical in exposition and implausible in application’. Hobbes goes one better, failing ‘twice over’ by his inability to explain co-operation without a sovereign, or dissension with one; his contentions are variously ‘weak’, ‘simply not true’ and ‘absurd’. Meanwhile, over in the British Library, Marx is making a pig’s ear of the history paper. His analysis of class societies proves ‘flawed’, ‘naive’ and ‘ludicrous’.

So what led people to think that these three supposed classics were so marvellous in the first place? Various explanations, such as Myles Burnyeat’s suggestion that a great text lends itself to multiple interpretations, are summarily entertained and dismissed. However commendable a lack of clarity may be in fiction or verse, Runciman points out, it ill serves these authors’ avowed aim of writing a how-to guide for aspirant guardians, autocrats or proletarian revolutionaries. Nor are they to be read primarily as religion, or literature. Given the title of Runciman’s book, a subversive thought suggests itself. Might it not be the hallmark of a classic text that it serves to edify later generations, or at any rate flatters their amour-propre, just by bungling memorably? No. Or, at least, Runciman doesn’t think so, and probably rightly. Since the greats have hardly cornered the market in non sequiturs, the question remains: what is it that makes these blunders stick in the memory?

The answer cannot, Runciman argues, be given by contextualism, also known as the Cambridge School, which treats historic texts not as readings for a timeless seminar on the philosophical verities but as interventions in local political debates. On Quentin Skinner’s reading, Leviathan aimed to reconcile waverers – especially erstwhile royalists – to the new republican regime in England after the civil war. But, Runciman says, contextualism is ‘antiquarian’: it treats canonical texts as breathless dispatches from history’s front line, to be endlessly recycled thereafter for reasons unknown.

Instead, Runciman puts down the texts’ durability to grammatical modality. They swap the indicative or imperative mood for what he calls, at the end of the book, ‘optative’ sociology. This neither describes nor directly enjoins, but imagines how desirable things could be brought about, given certain conditions: ‘They are masterpieces of anger transmuted into hope.’ Plato, Marx and Hobbes are not utopians: they take humans pretty much as they come. Accordingly, they don’t imagine us being replaced by morally regenerate androids, as in, say, News from Nowhere, William Morris’s spine-chillingly joyous vision of life in 22nd-century Hammersmith. What they do say, in Runciman’s paraphrase, is: ‘If only this were to come about, how much better a place the world would be!’

This sudden inauguration of optative sociology jars somewhat. For the first nine-tenths of the book, Runciman hauls Plato, Hobbes and Marx over the coals for various kinds of argumentative solecism. Arguments may be bad because they are invalid – that is, the conclusions don’t follow from the premises – or because they’re unsound: the premises are false. If the problem is that they are unsound, then the premises’ lack of truth is not remedied by acknowledging the fact and retooling them as optative rather than indicative claims. Similarly, arguments are valid or invalid regardless of whether or not their premises are true, in which case the sociological accuracy of their claims ought to be beside the point.

Anyway, it now seems that sociological credibility, as established by the historical record, is not really what matters. The Republic and the rest are permitted to claim that, given favourable conditions, humans are malleable enough to modify their behaviour. It is hard to know what standard of empirical veracity Plato and his fellow candidates are being held to. As these conditions are, in the nature of optative sociology, counterfactual, it is possible that one book’s conclusions could be true without the others’ conclusions being false.

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