Tag Archives: Interpretation

I’ve read a lot of Rousseau. Far more than most but also less than those self-identifying as “Rousseau Scholars”. Still, I think I understand him once in a while. Reading his Statement on St Pierre’s Project, that is, Rousseau critique of the idea of Perpetual Peace, I see Rousseau confirms something that I was accused of getting wrong in a public setting. Sour grapes this is not. Rousseau is exasperating and confusing. He means everything he says and refuses to say everything he means. Once in a while I get confirmation from him that I was on the right track, and this just happened once again. (n.b. I say this in full knowledge that he’ll pull the rug out from under me soon enough – but this is the price you pay when studying him).

The point at issue here is the status of International Relations in his thought. I am returning to some research on Rousseau and Schmitt re: Sovereignty pretty soon, so I thought I’d give the St Pierre commentary a closer read than I previously have. Now, one of the points that I thought was clear to me was that foreign relations in Rousseau are totally subordinate to the pursuit of the good and just society. What matters is approximating the society of the General Will in one’s particular community and international relations matter only insofar as they impact this pursuit. I thought this was suitably clear from The Social Contract or his fragmentary essay The State of War. When I made this point in a public setting it was met with bewilderment. “This isn’t IR…” Sure, but that’s because Rousseau doesn’t see it as a separate domain of politics. Anyways, I offer this quote, pp.37–38 of Vaughan’s translation:

No man can have thought long upon the means of bringing any Government to perfection without realizing a host of difficulties and obstacles which flow less from its inherent nature than from its relations to its neighbours. The result of this is that the care which ought to be given to its internal warfare has to be largely spent upon its outward security; and we are compelled to think more of providing for its defence against others than of making it as good as may be in itself.

All I have ever done is try to understand Rousseau’s books as he did.


I never start the day reading what I’m supposed to be reading, though I always end the day that way. To wit, the last things I read last night was §29 of Being and Time on attunement, mood, and affect, and finished reading Franz Neumann’s essay “Anxiety and Politics”. This morning, I pulled a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis of the bookshelf (and IR scholar must go the Ls to retrieve Lebow, after all), and (re)discovered this passage on reading old books. Some quotes:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will corrected the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who see, most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it….None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

Never forget that Lewis’s book on Nature and Natural Right, on the Order of the Cosmos – The Abolition of Man – begins with a critique of a children’s grammar book. I’ve unconsciously followed Lewis’s advice (in previous posts here) for reading older books by pitting his understanding of Heart and Thumos against Fukuyama’s End of History, where Fukuyama reads Lewis in a purely material way to shape his argument on progress, science, capitalism, and democracy.

Pedagogically, one his hard pressed to disagree with Lewis’s point that it is far, far, easier for students to read Plato than Platonic scholarship. Students proved this to me earlier this year, in a wholly unexpected way. While designing a course on Cosmopolitanism, I left out a week of readings on the Enlightenment, specifically Lessing and Mendelssohn. But when we read a section from Kant’s Theory and Practice on International Right (“against Moses Mendelssohn”), my students preferred Mendelssohn. In fact, they were much more enamoured with Mendelssohn than they were Kant, or with Habermas and Rawls on deliberation and public reason. It behooves teachers to listen to their students.

I haven’t paid enough attention to Chapter 46 of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in English or Latin. This series of remarks from the 14th Latin paragraph are otherworldly:

For after a year or two Pope Leo, in his correspondence, exhorted Emperor Charlemagne to establish universities throughout his dominions, where all letters and sciences would be taught. So he set up, in Paris, the first university; and afterwards other kings set up others, each in his own dominion, which, once the colleges had been set up and organized for study, where to be governed by laws, according to the discretion of the Roman pontiff. Finally, from masters such as Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas, was born the theology which they call scholastic, a hodgepodge of Aristotle’s philosophy and Sacred Scripture. In the universities they teach Aristotle’s logic, his physics, his metaphysics, his ethics, and his politics, as if the whole of the sciences were in one man, who was then also the greatest father of the Church, Aristotle. But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanor of deference, they were exercised in public disputations and speeches, by which they could maintain and preach the dogmas of the Roman church. So by the sermons of ecclesiastics, sent from the universities into almost all the cities, towns and parishes of the Christian world, and by published writings, it was fixed inedibly in the minds of all Christians that there is no other rule of just and unjust except the dictates of the Roman church, that kings are not to be obeyed further than is permitted by the Roman church, and kings themselves ought to obey the Roman pontiff like sheep. And they accomplished what they set out to accomplish.

Emphasis mine, on the white-hot fire that Hobbes just threw at Aristotle. A “hodgepodge” of Aristotle and scripture has come to represent the entirety of the contest between philosophy and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem. This is somehow stronger than his justly famous English takedown: “And I believe that scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which now is called Aristotle’s Metaphysics; nor more repugnant to government than much of that he hath said in his Politics; nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics. Perhaps the benefits of modern translation vs Olde English explain my impression of the Latin text, but the clear and pernicious influence of Aristotle on the sociology of knowledge at the time Hobbes was writing comes through so loud and clear. And read this phrase again: ”But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanour of deference…" – has the problem of education ever been so pithily explained? Here’s my Hobbesian inspired statement of teaching philosophy from this day forward: to undo the demeanor of deference established among adolescents.

n.b. quotes from Curley’s translation.

It’s probably useful to list them all, in all their variants, in one place. Begin with Diogenes Laertius, compare the changes in Xenophon and Plato, as Strauss suggested on the first page of his Xenophon’s Socrates.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 2.5.40:

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, ran as follows: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.

Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.1:

I often wondered by what possible speeches those who indicted Socrates persuaded the Athenians that he deserved death from the city. For the indictment against him was something like the following: Socrates commits an injustice by not believing in the gods which the city believes and by bringing in new and different divine things; he commits an injustice also by corrupting the young.

Xenophon, Apology of Socrates to the Jury, §10:

And [Hermogenes] affirmed that Socrates said that, this being his view, when the plaintiffs accused him on the grounds that he did not believe in the gods in whom the city believes but brought in other strange daimonia and corrupted the young…

Plato, Apology of Socrates, 24b

It is something like this: it asserts that Socrates does an justice by corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel. The charge is of this sort.

Plato doesn’t report this part of his biography, though Diogenes Laertius does:

Justus of Tiberias in his book entitled The Wreath says that in the course of the trial Plato mounted the platform and began: “Though I am the youngest, men of Athens, of all who ever rose to address you”–whereupon the judges shouted out, “Get down! Get down!”

Xenophon, of course, couldn’t have spoken at the Trial of Socrates because he was busy leading 10,000 Greeks out of Asia, or something. One wonders what would have transpired if Xenophon rose to speak, and not Plato. That begs the question of whether Xenophon would have ever risen to speak in the same way.

In closing, compare Aristophanes’ charges against Socrates with Socrates’ charges against Gorgias.

Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, under the fifth proposition:

Man, who is otherwise so enamoured with unrestrained freedom, is forced to enter this state of restriction by sheer necessity.  And this is indeed the most stringent of all forms of necessity, for it is imposed by men upon themselves, in that their inclinations make it impossible for them to exist side by side for long in a state of wild freedom.  But once enclosed within a precinct like that of civil union, the same inclinations have the most beneficial effect.  In the same way, trees in a forest, by seeking to deprive each other of air and sunlight, compel each other to find these by upward growth, so that they grow beautiful and straight–whereas those which put out branches at will, in freedom and in isolation from others, grow stunted, bent and twisted.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”

Socrates was put to death, but the socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination overt the whole intellectual firmament.  Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.

Far from missing the forest for the trees, there is a world of disagreement buried in this wood.