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1 Civil Society and the Classical Heritage The classical understanding of civil society as a politically orga­ nized commonwealth received its first coherent formulation in the cities of ancient Greece. It also revolved around the understanding that men and women lived their lives in separate spheres, and Greek theory considered a wide range of human relations. Love, friendship, teaching, marriage, citi­ zenship, the duties of slaves, the responsibilities of masters, the skills of arti­ sans, and the division of labor—all were studied in their uniqueness and in their connectedness. The observation that people live together in distinct yet related associations stimulated debate about uniqueness and commonal­ ity, particularism and universalism. Systematic political theory arose out of these discussions, and political categories framed the first approach to civil society. Classical thought consistently maintained that political power made civi­ lization possible. The celebrated distinction that the Greeks drew between themselves and barbarians separated those whose membership in a political association enabled them to live in civil society from those who were unable to do so. The broadest and “self-sufficient” level of activity, politics made it possible for men to rise above their immediate circumstances and con­ sciously establish the principles of moral life. If the idiotes was the solitary man whose life was constituted by individual drives, the self-governing citi­ zen personified what public action guided by reason could accomplish. “Here,” said Pericles in his celebrated testament to Athens, “we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own af­ fairs; we say that he has no business here at all.”1 The willingness to subordinate one’s private interests voluntarily to those of the city was the decisive mark of the citizen-soldier. Pericles knew firsthand how powerful civic spirit could be. “No one of these men weakened 3 4 | Civil Society and the Classical Heritage because he wanted to go on enjoying his wealth; no one put off the awful day in the hope that he might live to escape his poverty and grow rich. More to be desired than such things, they chose to check the enemy’s pride.”2 Forged in the aftermath of the ruinous Peloponnesian War, classical Greek political philosophy insisted that the common good could be discovered through public debate and organized by public action. It followed that civic decay was the inevitable consequence of private calculation and individual interest. Plato first articulated political theory’s orientation toward the com­ prehensive public life of a moral community. In so doing, he revealed some of the strengths—and dangers—of a civil society organized around a com­ mon moral project. The Danger of Private Interest The son of a prominent Athenian family, Plato tried to counter the political and moral confusion of his day with a philosophical realm of absolute cate­ gories supported by a rationalistic approach to knowledge. Born in 428 b.c., the year after Pericles’s death, he came to maturity in an environment shaped by Athenian military defeat, economic chaos, political instability, and ethical confusion. His drive to establish the moral principles of govern­ ment was a direct response to the uncertainty and disorder of his day. The primacy he accorded to political knowledge and power shaped a theory of civil society that owed as much to its unified conception of truth as to its powerful aversion to private interests and separate spheres. Because Plato was unable to theorize the individual, beauty, goodness, or any category of social life apart from the state, his understanding of civil society was ulti­ mately betrayed by the same orientation to universality that gave it life. Socrates’s early debate with Thrasymachus established The Republic’s cen­ tral claim that individual interest can never provide a sufficient foundation for a happy, just, or civilized life. Legitimate power, authority, and knowl­ edge exist only for the welfare of those for whose sake they are exercised. Just as a doctor’s craft lies in curing disease and a captain’s authority is exer­ cised on behalf of his crew, “no ruler, in so far as he is acting as ruler, will study or enjoin what is for his own interest. All that he says and does will be said and done with a view to what is good and proper for the subject for whom he practices his art.”3 Political power exists to serve the welfare of the city and its citizens. Civil society...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814722831
Related ISBN
9780814722077
MARC Record
OCLC
45844125
Pages
288
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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