Book Review: The Birth Of Politics

The Birth Of Politics:  Eight Green And Roman Political Ideas And Why They Matter, by Melissa Lane

There are a lot of aspects of Greek and Roman history that are greatly of interest to contemporary political theorists and this author is by no means alone or even rare in seeking to play up the importance of Greek and Rome and to downplay Jerusalem when it comes to understanding how to behave as a citizen and how to deal with matters of politics and political culture.  To be sure, the author is far from an uncritical scholar in such matters, and the book is full of comments about slavery and feminism and the question of how critically the Romans took the legacy of Greek political thinking and how critically we should view both Greek and Roman political thought and practice and how philosophical matters deeply influenced one’s political thinking and behavior.  This is an interesting book if you have a classical bent and happen to be interested in the implications of classical political thought and practice on the later Western political tradition, but this book is clearly missing a great deal of moral insight from the Bible tat would make this a better book, if a longer one.

This book of a bit more than 300 pages is divided into eight chapters and various other materials that are based on a related set of concepts that can be found and that were contested both in the world of the Greeks and Romans as well as in our own day.  After a list of figures and maps, the author introduces the book by talking about the possibilities of power and purpose when it comes to politics and then discusses in turn eight different qualities that were hotly debated during the Greek city-states as well as the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire, and down to our own day, namely justice (1), constitution (2), democracy (3), virtue (4), citizenship (5), cosmopolitanism (6), republic (7), and sovereignty (8).  The author, again, rather pointedly ignores the Jewish and Christian influence on these ideas in our own time and focuses on the classical heritage, and she comments as well on how philosophers and philosophical approaches led to various differences in how these various words were viewed and defined, and how it was that Greeks and Romans dealt with the gap between ideals and practicality, and how they addressed or failed to address their own personal or societal blind spots.

There is a great deal of interest in this particular book when it comes to the implications of Greek and Roman political thought and practice for our own time period.  The author urges readers to recognize how it is that certain oligarchical conceptions have managed to survive in contemporary Western “democratic” societies, and how it was that democracy was discredited in the classical world due to the excesses of imperialistic and democratic Athens and other similar regimes (whose populist behavior is not so different from many contemporary republics).  And truth be told, the author is correct to note that there are various tensions and ambiguities in the terms that were used in the past and today to talk about various political regimes as well as ideals and practice.  Admittedly, we might think to ourselves the way that we view wealth and/or education and/or birth as being important in establishing legitimacy within political or other institutions and recognize that we may not always be as egalitarian as we would want to see ourselves, and be correspondingly less harsh on the lack of egalitarianism we can find in the past.  After all, just as the people of the past had their own blind spots and hypocrisies, the same is no less true for us today.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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