Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hills and Valleys in Greek Speculative History (Or, Prolegomena to a Sketch of an Anarchist History of Western Political Theory)

(Warning: 2000 words or so on the place of “hills” and “valleys” in Greek political thought).

As I mentioned in a previous post, reading Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia pointed me in the direction of thinking about the place of “hills” and “valleys,” state spaces and stateless places, in political theory. Scott claims that both Southeast Asian and Western political thought have stigmatized those hill-dwellers who have no permanent residence (p. 101), and identified civilization with the settled states of the valleys (pp. 100-101), though he also pays homage to Ibn Khaldoun’s Muqaddimah (p. 20), a work which does not stigmatize the stateless (at least so far as I remember; it’s been a while). He even notes that Aristotle famously argued that human beings were political animals, i.e., animals that live in poleis or cities, a characterization that suggests that people who do not live in cities are not fully human (p. 101 – though Scott fails to note that for Aristotle such people can be both above and below the level of humanity). I cannot speak about Southeast Asian political theory, but it seems to me that at least with respect to Western political theory the picture is a bit more complicated, even if Scott is correct overall.

For example, Aristotle’s famous pronouncement about the polis-nature of human beings is complicated by the fact that the polis was most certainly not an agrarian state – the “statelessness” of the polis is well known, though some of the larger poleis did eventually develop something like police forces and other aspects of statehood – and that Aristotle did not define the polis in contrast to nomadic life and in terms of settled habitation, but in contrast to the family and in terms of its purpose. Indeed, he takes pains to distinguish the polis both from the great empires of his time (which were true extractive agrarian states of the sort that Scott discusses in his book) and from mere settlements (whose focus on “mere life” did not qualify them for civilization). The barbarian empires were “uncivilized” despite their possession of large and powerful states, and the city-less are low less because they are scattered than because they have no “clan” and are “lovers of war,” i.e., because they are insufficiently social.

Thus, though Aristotle does seem to indicate that nomadic peoples are “primitive” (the Cyclops, who are traditionally represented as a nonsedentary people, appear as an instance of the “old ways” of political organization), there is no clear indication that sedentary existence per se is necessary to the polis, or that it is in itself valuable. In this Aristotle is in keeping with what I take to be the traditional Greek way of thinking, where not the physical location but the citizens constituted the city: “For the men, not the walls nor the empty galleys, are the city,” and so “Wherever you settle, you will be a polis as Nikias tells his soldiers in a speech Thucydides either invented or recreated for his History of the Peloponnesian War. To be sure, this is still consistent with the story that Scott tells about the importance of men, rather than land, in the construction of states; but it ought to put a wrinkle in the “stigma” thesis.

But it is in Plato that we find an explicit consideration of the valence of “hills and valleys” in the sense that Scott is really concerned with. In book III of his long dialogue Laws, Plato develops the contrast between the hills and the valleys through a speculative history which he uses to isolate those factors that gave rise to politeiai (political organization) and laws, both of which are associated with the cities of the plain and the states they controlled. (Ancient speculative histories are fascinating. I suspect they functioned among ancient thinkers much as economists’ or political scientists’ models function today: as interesting simplifications with some explanatory value that isolate general reasons for action operating in particular contexts.).

The narrative is more or less as follows. The Athenian Stranger (the leading character in the dialogue) asks his interlocutors to imagine a situation where, thanks to some massive flood, the states of the plains were destroyed, leaving only a slight remnant of pastoralists high up in the hills (677a-b). This catastrophe not only radically simplified technology (most arts and sciences are lost), but also greatly reduced exposure to the various forms of greed and morally dubious competition prevalent in cities (677b-c). In fact, the catastrophe destroyed the memory of cities and politeiai and laws: the hill peoples are clearly stateless in a radical sense (678a). But laws and political life are not necessarily good; the Athenian stresses that with laws and political life properly speaking you can get both virtue and vice (and more often the latter than the former, especially in the form of warfare). By contrast, the hill peoples are naïve or artless (εήθεις; literally having “good habits”), not educated (or mis-educated) by urban artifice, and rather peaceful.

Indeed, war is presented in the story as an artefact of civilization (678d-e); so long as land is abundant, and the memory of catastrophe is recent (the “fear of the plain”), the hill peoples do not fight (and at any rate they do not have much of the technology and arts of war, so their fighting is not, the Athenian speculates, highly destructive). On the contrary, they welcome each other (679a) and have pleasure in each other’s company (given low population densities, they do not meet each other that often), and because their societies are less unequal than urban societies (with less of both poverty and wealth, as well as less hierarchy and subordination), they develop in an environment that ultimately makes them more courageous, moderate and just than urban peoples (679d-e). It’s an idyllic picture (and not a terribly bad description of forager/pastoralist societies in the absence of states, either, though idealized in some respects). How do laws emerge, then? What are they for?

The first step towards law and political life is made possible, in this speculative story, by the very naïveté or artlessness of the hill peoples. Because they did not have the cunning and scepticism of urban peoples (who are experienced about deception, both as agents and subjects of it), they believed any old story that they were told about “gods and men” (679c), and adopted these stories as the basis of their customs. (Note the dig here towards all mythical stories of founding and legitimation; most of these stories are simply nonsense, in the Athenian’s view). These customs were not yet laws; their orality disqualified them from this status. (The hill peoples are illiterate, 680a). But they did not need to be laws in order to regulate their social life, which was still quite self-contained.

Their self-containment could be interpreted as a form of “savagery” (680b-d), or perhaps more accurately a lack of “domestication,” as the Athenian notes by comparing such hill peoples to the mythical Cyclops described in Homer. Yet he does not himself endorse the comparison, which seems at any rate inconsistent with his previous praise of the justice and moderation of the hill peoples; the one who proposes it is Megillos, the representative of the slave-holding valley state par excellence, Sparta (680d3), which was also known for its "savagery" (cf. 666e, where the Athenian calls the Spartan system "savage"). To be civilized, for Megillos, is to become domesticated; but the metaphor of domestication is not altogether unambiguous in Plato (sheep and pigs are also domesticated, after all).

But this self-containment cannot last. As the memory of the initial cataclysm fades (perhaps an echo of a collective memory of an old fear of the cities of the plain? Fears of slave-raiding, for example, as Scott suggests in his discussion of the stories of hill peoples from Thailand and Burma? Not that Plato mentions such fears), hill peoples move down, and some turn to farming and a sedentary life (681a), coming in contact with other recent transplants from the hills. But now they need to coordinate regarding which of their various and incompatible customs (based on the random stories mentioned earlier) is to regulate their common life; and here we have the origins of legislation properly speaking (681b-d).

From here the Athenian shifts from speculating about the origin of valley states to recounting the history of the first Greek valley states, in particular the Dorian states (Sparta, Argos, and Messene), a history that would have been familiar to his two interlocutors (the Spartan Megillos and the Cretan Kleinias). This narrative is then put to use in order to understand why in some states (Sparta) the rulers were more constrained by laws than in others (Argos and Messene), despite their various similarities. This is perhaps the first systematic empirical comparison in political science, using a “most similar cases” design, but the Athenian no longer mentions hill peoples, so I shall not summarize the rest here.

This speculative history is notable in two ways. First, it marks a contrast between the natural but “naïve” or “artless” goodness of the peoples of the hills and the potential for both virtue and corruption of the cities. The hill peoples do not need “technical” or "artificial" virtue to live well; their natural virtue is enough. But cities do need such “artificial” virtue (or rather, they need real knowledge), and it is not obvious that this is not a curse, since such knowledge is exceedingly scarce. As the Athenian notes in the “historical” part of his narrative, life in most valley states seems to end in some form or another or tyranny due to a lack of knowledge and virtue; the hill peoples had it better in that respect.

But second, the narrative suggests that short of a major cataclysm, there is no going back to hill life. Indeed, the point of the Athenian’s political theory in this part of the dialogue is to find a way to realistically mitigate the evils of life in settled valley societies; and for this, he will introduce for the first time a systematic theory of the “mixed constitution” - the ancient predecessor of our theories of the “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” (though the theory is in many ways quite different from our modern equivalents; more in a future post, probably). It is precisely the possession of something like a “mixed constitution” that enabled Sparta to become a relatively law-governed state, in contrast to the situation in Argos and Messene, which degenerated, in the Athenian’s telling, into more arbitrary regimes. But this did not make Sparta perfect; on the contrary, he had criticized it earlier as an “armed camp” more than a city (666e).

One could note that the Athenian’s narrative is still valley-centric; there is no mention of flight into the hills, for example, and certainly the background fact of slavery as a requirement of the valley states is kept deep in the background. At any rate, it seems that, from the point of view of a fourth century Greek like Plato, the hill frontier had more or less closed, or had become an unrealistic option (or perhaps it was all only a thought experiment to begin with). And the full flourishing of human life does seem to go through urban life, but in Plato (in contrast, perhaps, to Aristotle’s more optimistic take later on) this is a road that is almost certain to lead to disappointment. The hill peoples had it better.

Now, it is possible that canonical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle were not representative of the tenor of Greek political thought on the question of the valence of hills and valleys. One probably would have to scour a much larger sample of writings, and our sources are often fragmentary and biased. And though the “anarchism” of the early Stoics and Cynics is reasonably well attested, as well as the antipolitical attitudes of the Epicureans (or at least as well attested as the meagre fragments of their texts that survive allow), these attitudes clearly soften in later thinkers identified with these schools (and more from these later people survive). Moreover, the evidence of etymology supports the “stigma” thesis; the word asteios, for example, which originally meant something like “urban” in a neutral sense, eventually came to mean something like “good.” At any rate, canonical thinkers like Plato clearly tend to be unrepresentative; that is part of the reason why their thought can be continuously re-appropriated by later generations, and why it remains interesting beyond the narrow context in which it emerged. But still, in general it seems that there was more ambivalence about the identification of states and civilization in Greek political theory than Scott suggests, and this ambivalence does not simply die off. Beyond Plato to Augustine to Rousseau there is a strand of Western political theory that is willing to call most states “bands of robbers” and has difficulty making its peace with them; and as with Rousseau, this strand sometimes comes close to saying that a stateless existence would be better, even if they also acknowledge its impossibility in a world where the valley states are dominant.

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