Ancient crucibles of civic ideals

October 30, 2008

According to a legend that was prevalent in 12th-century monastic circles, when the tomb of Plato was found his corpse "bore on its breast a golden tablet inscribed, 'I believe in the Christ who will be born of a virgin'". This none-too-subtle attempt to package Plato for medieval Christian consumption reminds us that the great political thinkers of the past are historical creatures, in more ways than one. Yet as Ellen Meiksins Wood argues in this immensely impressive, bold and erudite book: "the understanding of political theory as a historical product has not always prevailed among scholars who write about the history of political thought".

Here Meiksins Wood, for many years a professor of political science at Toronto's York University, sets out to explore both the historical conditions in which Western political theory was invented, in the Ancient Greek polis, and how it developed in specific historical contexts: from ancient city-states to the Roman Empire and on to the "parcellised sovereignty" of "feudal" societies in the medieval West. A casual reader who picks up Citizens to Lords expecting a series of footnotes to Plato (as Alfred North Whitehead once characterised the entire European philosophical tradition) will be disappointed. For what Meiksins Wood has crafted is an altogether richer and more powerful manifesto that sets out how she thinks we should understand political theory, historically.

She is also fundamentally concerned with what is at stake in political theory and practice today when we seek to "historicise" canonical texts and thinkers. Her analysis of the history of ancient and medieval political thought thus identifies a fundamental, and bleak, paradox that still lies at the heart of Western politics: if the foundational ideas of Western political theory and practice are citizenship and civic equality, "born in the civic community of Ancient Greece", why have they been adapted "almost since the beginning ... to serve the cause of inequality and domination"?

Meiksins Wood's answer lies in a powerful and compelling vision of a "social history of Western political theory". Understanding the ideas of the great political "theorists" of the ancient and medieval worlds means grappling with socio-economic processes and not just specific historical events contemporary to any given thinker. To contextualise Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas or any of the other star players whom Meiksins Wood examines, we need to know something about the "specific ways in which people gain access to the material conditions of life". These include "relations between people who produce and those who appropriate what others produce"; "the forms of property that emerge from these social relations"; and "how these relations are expressed in political domination, as well as resistance and struggle".

Not all will agree with her approach, but Meiksins Wood's conclusions are undeniably nuanced, challenging and important. In particular, her account of the Roman culture of (private) property, encompassing discussions of Roman law, Stoic philosophy and early Christianity, sets up a fascinating account of why private property developed in the West "as an autonomous force in tension yet in tandem with the state". It also helps to explain why later medieval thinkers grounded their political vocabulary in concepts of Roman private law rather than in "public" domains of political life. Those who might be tempted to dismiss the tradition of "historical materialism" in which Meiksins Wood consciously situates herself would do well to read right up to the final page of her sparkling prose. Moreover, if Roy Hattersley is right, and we live increasingly in an age where economic fatalism encourages an "abdication from ideas", then this book ought to be compulsory reading for us all.

Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

By Ellen Meiksins Wood

Verso, 336pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781844672431

Published 15 September 2008

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