Why national size matters | The American Conservative
With the United States tumbled by a global pandemic and the aftermath of a controversial election, it is hard to avoid a spirit of grievance and vengeance pervading the country now. Donald Trump’s call to “make America great again” has led to the cynical reaction from Andrew Cuomo and others that “America has never been so great”. Even libertarians and many traditional conservatives see talk of size as little more than a smoke screen for an aggressive foreign policy and an interventionist state. Unfortunately, none of the parties to this debate seem to fully grasp the critical role that ideas of bourgeois size play in maintaining a free society.
In this context, the legendary Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once made an unusual comment on the culture of freedom. In 1933, when Whitehead was examining a Depression-plagued political landscape, he suggested, rather bizarrely, that safeguarding freedom in the West might require a public culture that replaces the religious symbolism of the Book of Revelation with the political symbolism of the “Speech of Pericles.” could to the Athenians ”from Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. As strange as this comparison may seem, Whitehead had a very simple and very topical point to make.
He argued that Western notions of political freedom are largely a result of the Christian religious tradition, which embraces universal moral standards and insists on the equal dignity of each individual soul. This egalitarian universalism opens the intellectual space for human rights concepts, classical liberalism, democracy, democratic socialism and many other forms of modern politics. So far, so good.
However, Whitehead also believed that Christian heritage had a darker side, as his moral vision of the world can sometimes encourage resentment against inequality that persists despite our best efforts, as well as a spirit of revenge against those who violate moral law. Whitehead saw these more destructive aspects of the Christian heritage in the example of the apocalyptic tenor of Revelation, in which the Lord punishes transgressors at a height of sovereign power. His point of view is that a political culture of resentment and revenge remains a pervasive temptation in societies that explicitly value equality and universality, even if those values take on a more secular guise, as is the case in almost all democracies today. Paradoxically, the same values that create the culture of freedom can undermine it by pitting citizens against each other in a cycle of retaliation.
For this reason, Whitehead was fascinated by Pericles’ funeral oration given in 431 BC. In honor of the Athenian soldiers killed in the first year of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. He understood that the address, perhaps the most famous speech in Western history, provides an account of a democratic polity in which a shared understanding of political greatness helps balance feelings of resentment and moralistic vengeance. The result is that equality and universality may not be enough to sustain a culture of freedom: those moral values require a political complement, and that complement is bourgeois greatness.
The Athenians faced difficult circumstances when Pericles, whom Thucydides called “the first citizen of Athens”, was called in honor of the dead. Sparta had ravaged the fields around Athens at the beginning of the war and the property of numerous citizens, and many promising young men had already perished. Nevertheless, he took the opportunity of the laudatory speech to tell the Athenian citizens a story about their own greatness, which enabled them to see their suffering as something that could be brought together with honor and dignity.
Surprisingly, for modern readers, Pericles explains, first of all, that the first place of honor must be given not to the fallen soldiers, but to the distant ancestors who founded the state and, secondly, to their own fathers, who preserved and enlarged this legacy. This is a complex rhetorical step, and the purposes of reflecting on the achievements of the ancestors are many. One goal is to clarify the obligations that span generations and create a longer time horizon that allows one to sacrifice one’s immediate self-interest for a common good that will only be realized in the future when many of the viewers become like the fallen soldiers are no longer alive. This generational standpoint is a necessary counterbalance to democratic cultures that favor short-term gratification in a way that hinders collective action.
Second, the founders’ praise is intended to arouse pride in the audience – but in a way that arouses self-interest in serving the common good. Note that Pericles’ reference to the accomplishments of previous generations is by no means nostalgic as it neither portrays the past as a golden age Athens should return to nor suggests that its greatness was wrongly stolen by fate or a stranger’s rival. On the contrary, the reference to the founders is intended to confront those present with a great achievement and then dare to surpass it with their own deeds. From this perspective, Pericles assumes that Athens remains great precisely because it has been given the opportunity to preserve what has gone before and, with a little luck, to surpass it. It’s about encouraging proud, self-serving citizens to gain fame in competition for the common good.
In short, Pericles deliberately outlines a story about the Athenian past that makes it “useful” to those still living. Of course, he knows full well that much of this praise is embellishment, which he tacitly admits when referring to the “evil” deeds of previous generations. “Everywhere,” he explains, “we have left unforgettable monuments behind, whether for good or for bad.” Regardless of their achievements, the ancestors also committed grave injustices, made mistakes, and fought among themselves. Does this fact mean that Pericles is telling a lie about the size of Athens? Should the immortal monuments be torn down? Is he trying to cover up the plain truth that “Athens has never been so great”?
Not necessarily. For one thing, an exaggerated condemnation of past injustices is no truer than an exaggerated praise. More importantly, a cynical fixation on past mistakes, even if somehow more truthful, not only would not honor the sacrifices of countless Athenian citizens, but such degradation would have a corrosive effect on all of body politics. The time horizon would be shortened and individuals would be encouraged to look only at themselves, as personal sacrifices to such a corrupt regime would be both pointless and morally questionable. Cynicism would also destructively affect the audience’s pride, directing self-interest to the search for guilt and urging them to seek revenge with all their might. But the truly democratic spirit, Pericles said, depends on a willingness to overlook certain things. Democratic societies recognize that men are flawed, but also believe that “a man’s merit as a citizen more than outweighs it[s] its disadvantages as an individual. “
Pericles continues to praise the written laws that make Athens great. He claims that social status in Athenian society depends on merit and not on inherited wealth. In addition, the democratic government favors “the many over the few” and enables citizens to freely pursue their own interests and talents. Here, too, it is easy to see that the democratic ideal described by Pericles is, strictly speaking, not true. Athenian society has always been stratified by gender and class, and has kept thousands of slaves in bondage.
Even so, Athens was more egalitarian than virtually any other ancient society, and its free citizens played a greater role in public life than the people of a twenty-first century democracy. This imperfect achievement is worth praising. More specifically, it is only this fictional representation of democratic equality that upholds the political ideal and keeps the standard alive as something to be realized in the future. If the Athenians accepted that politics is all about power and selfishness everywhere, they would risk destroying the ideal.
Finally, Pericles insists that the democratic spirit goes beyond explicit laws to include the unwritten habits of collective life. He says that Athenian democracy is unique because “we are not far from being jealous of one another, but we do not feel urged to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he wants or even with the harmful ones Giving up looks that cannot fail to be offensive …. “The public condemnation of law-abiding fellow citizens, even though it is not against the law (and is indeed protected by it), inevitably causes insults and wounds. Wounded pride in turn creates factions and factions to fight. Conversely, the democratic form of tolerance practiced in Athens minimizes the factional conflict by encouraging citizens not to indulge in small insults or moral contempt if the neighbor happens to do what he wants.
Relearning these lessons has never been more important. The funeral address shows that individual self-interest and the spirit of retaliation for past mistakes can be directed towards the common good, precisely because the citizens of Athens are bound together by a common history that spans generations, common narratives and common history are common searches for civic greatness. In America, as in Athens, the alternative is factional warfare and political decline.
Christopher M. England is Visiting Assistant Political Economy at the College of Idaho. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 2016. He wrote an academic book: The existential foundations of political economyas well as numerous peer-reviewed articles on political thought and international relations, as well as popular political writing in outlets such as The national interest and RealClearDefense.