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Citizens to Lords: A Social History of…

Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from… (udgave 2011)

af Ellen Meiksins Wood (Forfatter)

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingSamtaler
861245,192 (4)Ingen
In this groundbreaking work, Ellen Meiksins Wood lays out her innovative approach to the history of political theory and traces the development of the Western tradition from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages.
Titel:Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages
Forfattere:Ellen Meiksins Wood (Forfatter)
Info:Verso (2011), Edition: Reprint, 256 pages
Samlinger:Dit bibliotek

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Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages af Ellen Meiksins Wood


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This book concludes: "A more generous version of human emancipation requires us to go beyond ruling ideas to a richer tradition of emancipatory struggle, in action and thought; but we can best reveal the limits of prevailing orthodoxies if we understand the canonical tradition and the historical experience in which it is rooted."

On the one hand, it's hard to argue with that. Wood does an excellent job in her introductory chapters. She argues that the Cambridge school of the history of political thought is pretty good, but needs to be improved. Those gents (I fear mostly gents) read the canon in the context of the disputes that a canonical work might be a response to, and it's very enlightening. But, as Wood points out, their understanding of 'context' is very narrow--almost entirely textual. Wouldn't it be nice to take that contextual approach, broaden it out to include, say, socio-economic factors, and gain a better understanding of the great books? Sure would.

Unfortunately, Wood fails to do this, and at times fails spectacularly, because, as I would have thought only an unreconstructed Leninist could, she insists that the context is always and only a binary relationship between oppressor (/ruler/ruling class/property owners) and oppressed (/subject/working class/peasantry).

To get a feel for how misleading this can be, consider her answer to the question why political thought developed as it did in the West. Woods argues that this tradition is unique, that political thought does not exist in the same way in East Asian or Islamic or African societies. Western political thought starts in Greece, she says, because only in Greece is economic and political power separated. In the West, there is such a thing as "private property" far earlier than anywhere else, because in "Greece" there was democratic rule, rather than oligarchic, monarchical, or imperial.

On the one hand, this seems interesting, but then you realize that Greek political thought is clearly the result of Greek political conditions, i.e., many city-states all with different ways of ruling themselves, and all aware of the imperial models on the other side of the Mediterranean. And then your remember that almost no Greeks ever got to be 'citizens.' And then you realize that Woods has imported into the distant past a very modern way of understanding what 'property' is, and what 'democracy' is, and thus of what 'society' is. And that all her claims about proper historicization are straight hypocrisy. This is bad enough, but at least arguable. Perhaps this putative disconnect between economic and political power was and important one.

Where things get really bad is in her readings of the texts. For each text Woods tells a simple story: the author is an apologist for the rich and powerful, and the 'context' for the book is the need to keep the poor and powerless as they are. In order to tell this story, Woods identifies a hero in each case.

So, in the case of Socrates (evil), we have Protagoras as our hero (in the Platonic dialogue of the same name). Socrates believes that true knowledge is only available through divine insufflation, and that means the rabble can't have it, whereas Protagoras believes in democracy. Also, the sophists invented political thought. This is an odd reading, to say the least, given that Protagoras never says anything of the sort in the dialogue, that the 'insufflation' at the end of the Meno is clearly ironic (i.e., Socrates specifically does not believe that), and that we know nothing at all about what either Socrates or Protagoras really thought, since this is a dialogue by Plato, not a fucking documentary film. It won't surprize you that Wood also systematically misunderstands Stoicism. The Stoics end up as free will libertarian irrationalists. I am not making this up. No mention here of the stoic sage and the elitism this belief entails, no no no. The stoics, being not so famous, must be the good guys.

As for Rome, well, Rome consolidated the distinction between public rule and private property because of the weakness of the centralized state. I'm not making this up. All of imperial Rome, by the way, can be treated in more or less the same way, from Augustus to the last of the Western emperors, and we can ignore entirely the Eastern half of the empire (you might be interested to 'know' that "Roman imperial structures and institutions" were preserved in the Christian church of the West, and not in the Eastern Empire). This, I may have mentioned, is a book very insistent on the importance of historicism.

That historicism also allows us to act as if St. Paul and Augustine had the same historical circumstances. For the sake of comparison, imagine if I said that T. W. Adorno and Baruch Spinoza should be analyzed in the same terms, since they were both Jewish and lived in Europe.

Christianity is described more or less by the phrase "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," a phrase that any contextualization at all would show to be a response made by a Jewish man, Jesus, to other Jewish men who had asked, in the context of Jewish rebellions against Roman taxation, whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome. If he says yes, they can send damn him. If he says no, they can take him to the powers that be. Instead he questions the bases of the tax rebellions, more or less saying "I'm not concerned with that kind of thing, and neither should you be."

Anyway, St. Paul is 'credited' with turning this little moment of wit into a "defense of absolute obedience to earthly powers." His theological principles were far more congenial to the state authorities than "Judaism or Jewish Christianity," which would have been news to the Saducees, and would also be news to scholars of early Christianity who have been arguing for some time now that there simply was no division between Christianity and "Jewish Christianity."

In one particularly astonishing moment, Wood claims that "Paul's emphasis on salvation by faith rather than works had clear advantages to those who stood to lose from strict adherence to the social Gospel." The social Gospel, you may remember, was an early twentieth century movement. Paul's 'emphasis' on salvation by faith rather than works is a Reformation interpretation of one sentence of Paul's; Paul himself almost certainly meant by 'works' "Jewish ritual traditions," and anyway is quite clear in other places that good deeds are necessary for salvation. Not done yet, Wood then proves that Paul, not content with being an imperialist lackey, was also in favor of slavery. How? She quotes from a letter that Paul probably didn't write, then intentionally misreads a letter he did.

Fair enough, of course; Wood is not a Christian and not interested in Christianity and, given her belief that the winners are always more evil than the losers of history, she's likely to find all kinds of turpitude in Paul. Surely things will get better with Augustine though, right? He's a proper political thinker.

Dear reader, it is not to be. So ingrained is this "people I've heard of must be evil, people who are obscure must be good" logic that the freaking Donatists, of all people, are described as a working class movement for democracy. Whereas, for Wood, Augustine is--I'm not exaggerating--popular culture's Calvin. "The essence of Augustine's doctrine is, again, the fallen condition of humanity... he underpins this doctrine with a particularly harsh conception of predestination. Not only are some predestined to enjoy God's grace and salvation, whatever their own acts on earth, but the separation of others from God's grace and their eternal punishment is also predestined, not as a function of their own uniquely sinful acts," but because God is a prick. Except, of course, that's not how Augustine understands predestination, that's how a singularly caricatured Calvin does. For Augustine, God foresees one's actions without constraining them (an argument better expressed by Boethius); in that sense punishment or salvation is 'predestined.' But punishment is precisely due to one's own uniquely sinful acts.

Why is Wood even writing about this? It's not clear, except that we have to make sure the Christian thinkers are the bad guys. So bad that Augustine's pessimism in The City of God is explained by his theory, not the fairly obvious material historical fact that his civilization was getting taken over by (people he understood to be) barbarians. Did I mention recently that this is a book very concerned to stress how historically materialist it is?

Also, Pelagius is a hero, of course, for all the obvious reasons.

I contemplated not finishing the book at this point, but thought someone had to tell the truth about it on Goodreads, so I read on.

The final chapter, 'The Middle Ages,' was actually quite promising. Wood's central thesis about the importance of property and power being split in the West is slightly truer for the feudal West, if only because the central political powers were so weak. She is rightly critical of historians who think that any trade or commerce in the middle ages is a forerunner of capitalism (or, from another perspective, "freedom").

But all too soon the same ignorance raises its head. To take just a few examples, Wood writes that: the Magna Carta was not about barons "asserting their own jurisdiction over other free men." The filioque controversy was really about "the necessity of obedience to prevailing authority," which the Byzantines were really not into but the West was all about. Aquinas was canonized because the Dominicans were easier on ecclesiastical wealth than the Franciscans. Christianity has unique difficulty dealing with the relationship between philosophy and "religion" (by the way, have I mentioned how this book is concerned with historical difference, and would never apply modern concepts to medieval realities?), despite the fact that e.g., Aquinas' writings on this issue borrow heavily from Islamic and Jewish philosophers. Since Islam only started to "police theology" on 9/11 (cold comfort to those killed, by other Muslims, in the name of the Prophet or Ali or for professing Sufism and so on since at least the battle of Karbala), it never needed a concept of natural law, whereas Christianity is uniquely oppressive precisely because of that concept, a fact that will dismay the many academics writing about natural law in Islam, and puzzle those who suspect that the oppressors were more likely to wield swords than copies of Aquinas's Summa. The distinction between religion and secularity shouldn't be imposed on medieval Islam, but can safely be imposed on medieval Christianity for reasons that are not at all obvious to me.

In case it isn't clear yet, this is a work by a talented theorist (and that is intended as true praise: if this book had carried out the program announced in the introduction, I wouldn't hesitate to give it five stars). But Wood appears to know almost literally nothing about the time period covered in this book. She came to the history of political theory with a rigid structure (political theory is only ever about defending the rich), some preconceived beliefs (the marginalized are intellectually and morally right, always; dualism is always bad), and a desire to contextualize.

Context, I suggest, should be history, not one's own opinions. But I guess saying that would make me too much like Socrates, that notorious imperialist. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
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In this groundbreaking work, Ellen Meiksins Wood lays out her innovative approach to the history of political theory and traces the development of the Western tradition from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages.

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