Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Looking Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

Slavery is now universally (and rightfully) regarded with revulsion…

This thought should be kept in mind while reading this post.  Two key takeaways: first, just because I write about slavery does not mean I am supportive of the institution (amazingly, such things need to be stated); second, the key words in the statement above are “is now.”

Casey offers that slavery is one of the oldest and longest lasting institutions known to man.  He cites Thomas Sowell, who offers that slavery was virtually universal throughout the world for thousands of years.

No great religion or great teacher condemned the practice; Christianity was not alone in this regard.  John Vincent writes, “even slaves did not wish for slavery to end….”  Now, one who only sees the American experience from two centuries ago cannot stomach this thought; a read of Casey suggests that they are looking at history in the wrong direction.

Perhaps there is no region on earth that at one time did not harbor the institution.  “Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders,” according to “the historian of slavery,” Orlando Patterson. 

I modify this: probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at different times both slaves and slaveholders.  I feel I am standing on quite safe ground when I suggest that every single one of us has blood ancestors that were both victim and perpetrator in just about any atrocity one can fathom.  Here again, tough to stomach when one is looking at history the wrong way.

The lex talionis recommends an eye for an eye.  It is considered by many to be a crude reform of revenge today, if not barbaric.  Yet, when introduced, it was a tremendous moral advance.  The previously accepted practice was for twenty or even one hundred eyes for an eye.  Just so for slavery:

…when [slavery] began, it represented a moral advance on the previous custom of killing, torturing and sometimes eating prisoners taken in war.

When looked at this way…one must say slavery was an improvement to being eaten.  Even the slave would likely agree, as Vincent suggests.  Augustine also noted this aspect of slavery when compared to what came before.  Yes, it is not fashionable, but fashionable and true are often two totally different things.

Casey considers slavery in Greece and Rome, offering that there were many types of slavery: debt bondage, clientship, peonage, helotage, and serfdom.  Chattel slavery, however, is of a different sort.  A serf, for example, still had a measure of legal personhood; he held certain legal rights.  From my earlier reading, I recall: a serf could marry and had the right to stay married and keep his family; a serf could own property and pass it on to his heirs; a serf had access to courts.  The chattel slave held nothing of the sort; his rights were like that of any other piece of property, nothing more.

Some slaves were better off than the free people of Rome.  Again, I recall reading elsewhere that during the slow downfall of Rome and the advance of the Germanic tribes, many “free” Roman citizens voluntarily gave themselves to the invaders as slaves; this option offered an improvement to what was available under Roman rule.

Other than Aristotle, no prominent thinker of the time offered a defense of or even a statement about slavery.  None was offered because none was expected: slavery was the norm not just of European society, but, it seems, globally.  At least Aristotle felt some need to mention the practice: given his views on ends and purpose, it seems this was unavoidable.  Yet Casey offers that Aristotle’s defense was less than convincing, certainly given Aristotle’s own philosophical framework.

Slavery also existed among the Hebrews.  Christians, as noted, made little immediate impact on the institution; one can point to many passages from Paul and Augustine that are, in fact, to the contrary.  Like others in the region and globally, to early Christians, it sees, slavery was accepted as a normal practice.  Perhaps the more appropriate question: why, after perhaps 1800 years, did the church begin to protest this institution?

As Thomas Sowell notes, for centuries before the origin of slavery on the North American continent, Europeans had enslaved other Europeans, Asians had enslaved other Asians, and Africans had enslaved other Africans.

It wasn’t racism that gave rise to slavery; racism became a convenient tool used by slavery’s supporters to defend the institution when all other support disappeared.


To bring this full circle, consider that history progresses in only one direction no matter what modern sensibilities might wish.  Citing Sowell:

“North Africa’s Barbary Coast pirates alone captured and enslaved at least a million Europeans from 1500 to 1800, carrying more Europeans into bondage in North Africa than there were Africans brought into bondage to the United States and to the American colonies from which it was formed.  Moreover, Europeans were still being bought and sold in the slave markets of the Islamic world, decades after blacks were freed in the United States.”

The march through history goes only one way, and for much of that march slavery was considered quite a normal practice – and an improvement on the alternatives.  Wishing otherwise doesn’t make it so.

Friday, March 15, 2019

It’s Not a State!

Casey examines Aristotle – his politics, not so much his metaphysics (I have previously offered an overview of his metaphysics here).  Fundamentally important in this examination, and in contrast to Plato, Aristotle recognizes that humans are human:

Aristotle clearly recognises the contingent variability of human action, both in individuals and in groups.  Given this, we can expect to educe just so much order and no more from individual and group human action.

Aristotle does not generate pure principles and then force them on any given area or subject:

Rather, we demand the level of precision that a given subject matter can sustain.  In matters of human action, in practical matters, we cannot expect to obtain the kind of rigour that we demand and expect in mathematics.

This view of Aristotle’s summarizes my approach to libertarian theory: we have perfected theory quite enough; what is left is to find liberty – liberty in a world occupied by humans.  There are an infinite number of spaces in between individuals and groups where we will find “contingent variability.” 

This reality suggests something about both a) the composition of a successful “group,” and b) the reality that different groups might organize differently.  But I am getting ahead of Casey on this.

Aristotle was unwilling to accept the view that justice was merely a matter of convention – whatever a group decided as “just” is, in fact, just.  I think this comes from his metaphysics: a thing (in this case, a human being) has a final cause – an end, goal or purpose.  Justice must be supportive of this final cause. 

At the same time, Aristotle did not accept that there could be one ideal and transcendent political community applicable to all and for all.  Universally applicable political philosophies are to be found in Plato, not Aristotle.

A controversial aspect of Aristotle is in his comments about the state.  For example: the state has, as one of its functions, the moral improvement of its citizens.  Casey offers that “state” meant something different to Aristotle than it does to us today.  The term used was polis, and the description of this term makes clear that it is nothing like the state we have come to know in our time.

…the polis, the city state, was that form of political organization that was small enough to allow for the participation of all its citizens while being large enough to provide the conditions necessary not just for life but for the good life.  Ethics, politics, custom and law all run together in the polis.

This sounds a lot more like a Swiss canton or Lichtenstein than it does the United States or China.  As Casey offers: “I believe it to be both futile and dangerous to reproduce the polis on a gigantic scale. …the modern nation-state was a project doomed to failure from the start….”

The polis differs from the modern state in almost every way: in size, mode of governance, and even the status of citizenship.  The constituent members could control their affairs by debate and discussion in making their laws and punishment.  Consider: this isn’t representative government via a distant legislator.  Those who will be affected by the law will first debate the law.  Again, more Swiss canton than Washington, D.C.

It is in this sense that the state (polis) is a creature of nature.  Man is a political animal; as neither the individual nor the family is a self-sufficing whole, man comes together in a community – in a polis.  It is a natural entity, as natural to man as household or village. 

One can understand the confusion to modern ears when polis is translated as “state.”  When understood as Casey describes, one finds a decentralized and reasonably libertarian governance structure.

In such a polis, we have a union of people in almost all things that matter: in history, language, customs, laws, religion, music, art, and culture.

This description will be stifling to some, liberating to others.  To Universalist libertarians, for example, it is stifling – consider libertarians who advocate open borders, the non-aggression principle (as they define and apply it) is for all, acceptance of libertine lifestyles, etc.  Can such a construct result in or maintain a polis?  Not likely.

However, if one accepts that decentralization of governance is libertarian theory put into practice, it is liberating.  Certainly, the more common the various cultural attributes, the less need for formal law.

In a subsequent chapter, Casey will specifically examine the issue of slavery.  Casey offers that Aristotle was almost unique among classical thinkers in feeling that a defense of this ubiquitous and widely-accepted institution must be offered.

For Aristotle, some people are slaves by nature, and this natural slave benefits from subjection to his master.  This runs so completely contrary to his metaphysics: humans have a final cause and justice must be supportive of this final cause.  Casey examines Aristotle’s defense of this institution, and offers:

…it is impossible to regard Aristotle’s defense of slavery, especially natural slavery, as anything other than a form of intellectual scotosis…we might have expected something better on this topic from one of the greatest intellects the world has ever known.

I had to look it up.  Scotosis: Intellectual blindness: a hardening of the mind against unwanted wisdom.  I think Aristotle would have benefitted from the Christian concept that man is made in God’s image.

Aristotle also has a Machiavellian streak in him, giving advice to tyrants as freely as he does to citizens of a polis: invent terrors, sow some discord, discourage intermediate institutions, etc.  In this way, revolution will be prevented.


Aristotle denies that a polis can be constituted simply by agreement or by a nexus of commercial exchanges. 

This runs contrary to classical liberalism and libertarian thought.  If one reads Aristotle’s description of a polis and finds in it a means and the model by which to put libertarianism in practice, one might consider that libertarianism is not sufficient for liberty.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


If I wished to punish a province, I would have it governed by philosophers.
-        Frederick the Great

Plato would disagree – to summarize, a philosopher should lead the polity, ensuring that the subjects get what is good for them, whether they know it or not.  It is the authority of the expert.  In many ways government since the Enlightenment (both tyrannical and relatively liberal) has carried this mantle. 

I have previously written something on Plato’s philosophy (forms, etc.), so I will not cover similar ground here.  However, there are several points raised in Casey’s account that are worthy of exploration.

Casey describes Plato’s basic philosophical outlook: “…virtue is primarily a matter of knowledge…no one knowingly does wrong…”  I have stared at these words, read these over and over.  I cannot think of the words to describe my reaction.  To be clear, my reaction is negative.

Plato is credited with the idea of “the noble lie” – keep the enemies guessing and keep the commoners loyal and in their place.  Consider the myths that are intended to hold together a nation – not even a nation-state, just a nation.  These exist for every population that considers itself a nation.

Casey offers a typology from C.D.C Reeve, further expanding on this point. 

-        You have a false ideology if you believe that you live in a good society when you don’t and believe this because what you are told by your leaders is false
-        You have an ideology falsely maintained when you believe you live in a good society – and in fact you do – even though you believe this because of falsehoods told by your leaders
-        You are ideology-free when you believe you live in a good society, and you in fact do, and your belief is maintained by a world-view that is true.

A sustainable and healthy society is described by the third possibility.  I believe Plato advocates for the second.  Today, I think it is safe to say many live in a world described by the first – and the second will almost always devolve into the first.  I would describe as “woke” those who recognize that they live in a “bad” society based on a world-view that is true – in other words, they see through the lies to the truth (or something closer to the truth).

Plato is suspicious of family and property, while having nothing to say about slavery despite living in a society where slaves play a central role.  Given that virtue is merely a matter of knowledge, Plato sees that the state has a central role in education.  Since no one knowingly does wrong, there is no place for punishment – only education (or re-education).  This sounds lovely, expect that those who refuse to be re-educated are to be killed….

Casey examines this further via C.S. Lewis, who notes that to the Humanitarian, to punish a man is nothing more than revenge, therefore it is barbarous and immoral.  But whatever is done to “cure” the man is equally compulsory and wholly lacking justice.  From Lewis:

There is no sense in talking about a “just deterrent” or a “just cure.”  We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter.  We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds.  Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a “case.”

I really have to read more Lewis.

If virtue is a matter of knowledge, the only “cure” is education.  If education doesn’t work, then what?  It seems death is the answer.  If the intent is to deter others, then what of the justice for the criminal? 

Libertarians will suggest that punishment isn’t the point, but that the victim – or the victim’s survivors –should be “compensated.”  But such an equation does not work in very many cases.  The list of exceptions I can think of are endless. 

Society – any community – will not survive such thinking.  I write very little about this topic of punishment, etc., because each community will figure out what works for them.  There is not a blanket libertarian answer to this question; there is no simple theory that can be applied in all cases – or even in a large subset of cases.  Call it punishment, deterrent, compensation, whatever – to the guilty party, the issue is the same: he will lose some level of freedom and / or property due to his action.

I spend no time reading those who expand on such thoughts from a libertarian perspective.  Societies have figured out this stuff for millennia; Western societies based on Christianity have guidelines on how to proceed.  I can’t touch this.

The issues of punishment, deterrence, cure, etc., are both tremendously complex and totally subjective.  To address every possibility would take something as long as the Federal Register.  Is this what libertarians are after, or is it more libertarian to expect that communities will figure this out? 

Of course, a common cultural tradition would help.  After all, shooting a child as punishment for picking an apple will likely be an issue in most places.


The enlightened leader, deciding what is good for the people whether they want it or not.  This was Plato’s vision.  This has played out in the twentieth century globally – certainly and especially in the communist east, but also in the west.  The difference is only one of degree.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Details, Details

This treatise has been praised and attacked at different times in different places contrary to my thoughts and anticipations.

On Law and Power, Johannes Althusius

In this extract from Althusius’ work, the editors of this book have captured the detailed definitions of Althusius’ construct – helping to clarify his meaning in his writing.  On the one hand, I feel as if I should have read these definitions before I started exploring Althusius; on the other, I think it has been helpful that I have read of Althusius through the eyes of people who have already done this heavy lifting as at times his writing is confusing to me.

With that said, I think a handful of these definitions are worth understanding both in the context of his work and perhaps for the continuing purposes at this blog.

What Law Is – in my opinion, law is this: something that is established after coming into being because of an action in a human affair, or because of some individual, for the necessity, benefit, and direction of this life.

The Structure of Law – The structure of law is twofold – natural or common law and civil or individual law…

This statement from Althusius offers an example of why he is somewhat confusing to read directly – he uses as interchangeable natural and common, civil and individual.  For example, later in this listing he will offer seven different terms for natural law…and common law is not one of these in this subsequent list!

The Nature of Natural Law – A law is natural and common if common right reason produces it for common necessity and welfare of human social life in general.  Therefore, it is called natural law.

Common Law – Therefore, common law is that which has been inscribed on human hearts by nature or by God from birth…

The civil or individual law must be deduced from Natural Law, yet it must be unique to the issues of the situation and location.  For this reason, it is changeable.  Althusius offers two examples of this individual law, presumably from his own experience: the prohibition of gifts between spouses, and the prohibition of granting a loan to a son when the son is still under parental authority.  Neither violates the Natural Law, yet apparently there was some cause to enact these as civil / individual laws. 

Althusius then offers duties arising from Natural Law; these duties are twofold: first to ourselves, and second to others (including God).  With respect to ourselves, the duties are self-defense, self-preservation (to include property), and self-propagation (including the proper rearing of children).  Regarding our duties to others, these are three-fold: for our duties to God, look to the first table of the Decalogue; for our duties to others, look to the second; live the Golden Rule.

What Public Power Is – Public power is what has been granted to someone from the body of an association, with a territory, for the purpose of caring for and administering the business, affairs, and individuals of the associated body.

Keeping in mind the nature of the political relationships as we have examined previously – both subsidiarity and the ability to secede – this is a reasonable definition. This Civil Administration is responsible for administering the second table of the Decalogue; the Ecclesiastic Administration is responsible for administering the first.


I continue to find that Althusius did the best he could with the material available after the Reformation.  In many ways he has tried to capture the decentralization and subsidiarity of medieval Europe without the benefit of an independent Church, and without the authority such an independent Church held.