A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star,
24 December 1967,
of two books:
1) WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT.
Plato to Augustine,
by Christopher Morris.
Xxxx: Basic Books, 19xx
ECONOMIC LIFE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD,
by Jean-Philippe Levy.
University of Chicago Press, 19xx
"The Classicists' Approach to Western Thought"
WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT
Volume I: Plato to Augustine.
By Christopher Morris. 282 pages, with
index and notes.
Basic Books. $6.95.
THE ECONOMIC LIFE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD.
By Jean-Philippe Levy. 147 pages, with
index and bibliography.
Chicago: University Press. $5.
A hundred or even eighty years ago, the classicists sat at
the top of the academic world. They dominated higher education and access to
it. Even at that time they were narrow, pedantic, and inflexible, smug in their
cultural superiority despite their ignorance of science, philosophy, or general
history, which hampered their understanding of the real meanings of the ancient
writings to which they professed devotion. As a result, the benefits which
education could have gained from their knowledge of the ancient languages was
largely lost. Their insistence that this knowledge be an end in itself, rather
than a tool to better understanding of the past, made it necessary for education
to free itself from their smothering embrace.
Such thoughts are brought to mind by these two volumes, which are
sad examples of this old, and clearly not yet extinct, classical outlook. The
chief assumptions of that outlook were:
1. The myth of "the Greek miracle,”
which pretended that Greek culture rose suddenly and dramatically from the
innate genius of the Greek people without much contribution from their historic
predecessors (an error based on the classicists' ignorance of these
2. The belief that the experience of one Greek people, the Athenians, over a
very brief period (roughly from 480 to 340 B.C.) was typical, if not identical,
with that of all Greeks in all periods (except Sparta).
3. The belief that the Greek writings which survived revealed the outlook of the
Greeks as a whole, without any recognition that the reason some of them, such as
Xenophon and Plato, survived was just because they DID NOT represent the outlook
of the ordinary Greek of their day, but were, in fact, the rebellion against
4. The classicists’ attribution of ideas were to these reactionary writers (like
Plato and Cicero) rather than to the real originators, such as the Sophists,
whom classicists despised, maligned, or ignored.
Deals with Plato
The Morris book, written by a fellow of
King's College and lecturer in history of Cambridge University, England, is an
example of this point of view in its more virulent form. It is the first of
three promised volumes on the subject down to Marx and J. S. Mill. After an
opening chapter on “The Miraculous Birth of Political Thought," an event which
the author attributes to the Greek polis "and with it ‘the Greek miracle,' the
first jerking of western humanity out of its intellectual rut," the author gets
down to his subject with Plato. This is followed by seven more chapters on
Aristotle, “From Polis to Cosmopolis,” the Stoics and Epicureans, then Rome, two
chapters on the church, and a final one on Augustine. There is total ignoring of
the Asiatic, Egyptian, Persian, Hebrew, and early Greek contributions to the
If Morris’ sins were only those of omission, his book might be used
for information on the political thought of classical antiquity, but even on
this, presumably the author's special field, his inability even to see the
correct questions, let alone the significant relationships, is beyond belief. He
makes no effort to tell the reader what were the political ideas of the men and
movements he mentions, but is content merely to write down, in no sensible
sequence, his random and often mistaken thoughts and reactions to these. The
fact that his prejudices on these matters are those of the average triumphant
classicist of vintage 1880 does not make these meanderings any more acceptable
to any reader today. He misses completely the great stages in the growth of
ancient political ideas by which a community based on blood kinship was replaced
by one based on religion, and the latter, in turn, by one based on public
authority of a relatively secular character, a process which occurred in western
Asia centuries before it happened in the Mediterranean Basin in a less elaborate
and less instructive form.
Greeks and Tribal Origins
Morris does not see how close the Greeks were
to tribal origins and to a tribal outlook, in which there could be no
distinction of state and society and in which the individual must be totally
absorbed in the group, and he seems to be quite unaware that Plato and
Aristotle, as political reactionaries, wished to preserve that condition and the
polis itself, a century after Pericles saw that the polis was obsolete as a
political organization. The Sophist and Stoic efforts to free the individual
from the all-embracing grasp of the polis and later the imperium are totally
misconstrued by Morris. He talks with naïve enthusiasm of the Greek efforts to
bring morality into political rule as if the numerous Egyptian and Hebrew
thoughts on this matter, some of them a thousand years before the Greeks, had
never taken place. He neglects the most basic contribution of the Greeks to
politics and to all thinking, their establishment of the rules for thinking in
two-valued logic, and he does not see the dire consequences of this triumph of
exaggerated philosophic realism (in the belief that intellectual categories have
real existence). As a result, he misses the whole meaning of the Sophlst
discovery of philosophic nominalism, which brought that group into alliance with
the Ionian scientists and the Hippocratic doctors. This alliance, which was
destroyed by the subsequent alliance of Platonism and oligarchy, gave the first
great impetus in Greek thought toward individualism and reliance on observation
as the chief source of human knowledge and, by distinguishing nature from
convention, established the idea of natural law and right as superior to the
older idea that all power, even that of the gods, or the state, rested on force
or whim (as it still does in Moslem thought).
This volume is full of errors. Morris tells us (p. 42), "All Greek
philosophers believed in change, for theirs was a dynamic rather than a static
universe"; this is, of course, the exact contrary of the truth, for the
combination of two-valued logic and philosophic realism made it impossible for
the Greeks to deal with motion, with the consequence that many Greek thinkers
from Zeno of Elea, through Plato and the early Aristotle, denied either the
reality or the significance of change, a misconception which dominated Western
cosmology thereafter until Galileo insisted, "But it does move!" Similarly,
Morris writes (p. 46), "Socrates was at least a liberal in the sense the
individual before the state,” when the "Crito" shows Socrates prepared to
sacrifice an individual life (his own) rather than to oppose the state in what
he regards as an erroneous action.
Defining "Just Man"
Morris tells us (p. 41)
that talented children of worker parents in Plato's Republic "should nonetheless
receive a philosophic training," a point which Warner Fite refuted 35 years ago.
He also believes that Plato, in "The Republic," regarded a just man as a
"balanced, harmonious, non-lopsided man," when Plato's whole argument shows the
"just" man as a narrow specialist who "minded his own business." Morris' bias
and ignorance is shown in hundreds of slips, such as his calling Democritus "the
great Athenian scientist" (p. 61), when, in fact, Democritus, a widely-travelled
resident of Thrace, made but one doubtful visit to Athens.
Morris' slovenly Scholarship is most evident in what he himself
calls (p. 64) "the central argument of ‘The Republic', the parallel which Plato
draws between the individual and the state." In that argument, the individual
and the state (the latter, to Plato, identical with society) are both organisms
that are real living entities with dissimilar parts which are not
interchangeable. This last characteristic was the vital one for Plato, since his
whole argument was intended to lead to the conclusion that individuals, like
organs of a body, would continue to function in society in the places to which
they were born. Naturally Plato could never have persuaded Thrasymachus of this,
because the latter was a nominalist to whom only individuals were real entities,
but Morris says (p. 68) that Thrasymachus "has been made to accept the analogy
between the state and the individual;" and gives a footnote reference to "The
Republic" to prove it. Unfortunately the reference is to Book; II, where
Thrrasymacchus does not appear, and the speaker in question is Glaucon, a
different person. On the preceding page (67) another speech attributed by Morris
to Thrasymachus turns out to be by Adeimantus. Such methods of argument are not
cricket, but they show clearly that Morris' familiarity with his materials is
deficient. In fact, a casual check of his footnotes, of which there are
hundreds, shows that they are very unreliable.
Much of this volume is written in this slovenly way, a great pity,
for no period in history, since the late 16th century, is in greater need of
clarification of political ideas than today, and certainly one of the best ways
to clear up such confusions is to go over the paths along which political
thought has traveled in the past, especially in antiquity. But in that we would
need a more reliable guide than Mr. Morris, despite his high academic position
Levy's "Economic Life of the Ancient World" is in every way much
less of a book. Less than half as long; for a larger subject, it is little more
than a sketch. Its four chapters deal with the period before Alexander, the
Hellenistic era; the Early Empire, and the empire in decay. The first chapter is
almost valueless, with no recognition of' the basic chronology nor the
fundamental geographic facts and economic issues. The other chapters are better,
but still mediocre and too brief to explain anything important.
Scans of original review