Quotes on Ancient Western Political Thought

"Only in ancient Athens and in the United States so far has democracy lasted for as much as two hundred years. Monarchy and different forms of despotism, on the other hand, have gone on for millennia. A dynasty or tyranny or clique may be deposed, but it is invariably replaced by another or by a chaotic anarchy that ends in the establishment of some kind of command society. Optimists may believe that democracy is the inevitable and final form of human society, but the historical record shows that up to now it has been the rare exception."

Donald Kagan
Free Press
October 1998
Library Topic
Library Topic: What is Government?

"An examination of the few successful democracies in history suggests that they need to meet three conditions if they are to flourish. The first is to have a set of good institutions; the second is to have a body of citizens who possess a good understanding of the principles of democracy, or who at least have developed a character consistent with the democratic way of life; the third is to have a high quality of leadership, at least at critical moments. At times, the third qualification is the most important and can compensate for weaknesses in the other two."

Donald Kagan
Free Press
October 1998
Library Topic
Library Topic: What is Government?

"The new and emerging democracies of our time are very fragile, and they all face serious challenges. Few can rely upon strong democratic traditions, and all suffer economic conditions that range from bad to disastrous. Many are now confronting long-suppressed ethnic divisions that threaten to destroy the needed unity and harmony. The image and example of the prosperous, free nations of the world, conveyed to their people by modern technology, has meanwhile raised material expectations to unrealistic levels. If the newly free nations see democracy chiefly as a quick route to material well-being and equal distribution of wealth, they will be badly disappointed, and democracy will fail. To succeed, they need a vision of the future that is powerful enough to sustain them through bad times as well as good and to inspire the many difficult sacrifices that will be required of them. They must see that democracy alone of all regimes respects the dignity and autonomy of every individual, and understand that its survival requires that each individual see his own well-being as inextricably connected to that of the whole community.

This new faith will be especially hard to instill in societies that have learned to be cynical about the use of political idealism. The new democracies will, therefore, need leaders in the Periclean mold, leaders who know that the aim and character of true democracy should be to elevate their citizens to the highest attainable level, and that cutting down the greatest to assuage the envy of the least is the way of tyranny. They need leaders who understand that individual freedom, self-government, and equality before the law are of the highest value in themselves. And they especially need leaders with the talents to persuade their impatient citizens that these political institutions are the necessary first foundation for a decent regime and a good life for all. Older, better established democracies have the same needs if they are not to become the aimless, selfish, unstable, and doomed perversions of the Periclean vision described by Plato and Aristotle."

Donald Kagan
Free Press
October 1998
Library Topic
Library Topic: What is Government?

"It is for this reason that posterity needs to study the Greeks: if we ignore them we are simply accepting our own decline."

Jacob Burckhardt
St. Martin's Griffin
October 21, 1999
Library Topic
Library Topic: What is Government?

"As Lord Acton said, historical thought is far more important than historical knowledge. Historical thought is using the lessons of history to understand the present and to make decisions for the future. In other words, it was by using history as an analytical tool and making use of the lessons of his­tory that our founders brought our Constitution into being."

J. Rufus Fears
Heritage Lecture #917
The Heritage Foundation
December 19, 2005
Library Topic
Library Topic: What is Government?

"For the Romans understood that freedom really is an ideal of three components, which are not all mutually inclusive: national freedom, freedom from foreign domination; then political freedom, the freedom to vote and to choose your magistrates; and finally, individual freedom, the freedom to live as you choose as long as you harm no one else."

J. Rufus Fears
Heritage Lecture #917
The Heritage Foundation
December 19, 2005
Library Topic
Library Topic: What is Government?
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Quotes on Ancient Western Political Thought

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In this article, a professor of theology examines the roots of Western civilization in "Jerusalem and Athens," noting that the influence of both comes to us through Rome. This is a book review of Rémi Brague Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization.

This article offers an overview of the differences between these Greek thinkers, putting their ideas in a historical context.

This article reviews Bruce Thornton's "remarkable essay on our debt to the Greeks," Greek Ways. It considers various attacks that have been made on the influence of ancient Greece, and argues that Western civilization needs to acknowledge the genuine innovations of Greek culture (such as recognizing that slavery is unnatural) and the influence of those advances on us today.

Analysis Report White Paper

An in-depth review of Ancient Greek Democracy.

This lecture examines the continuing influence of St. Augustine's writings.

This author argues that Augustine founded a form of political realism rooted in the idea of original sin: because humans were capable of evil, they needed government, but they fail to achieve perfection through it.

This scholar of Jewish political thought argues that "The biblical discussion of the government of ancient Israel stands at the very beginning of Western political life and thought."

This essay argues that the idea of "covenant" led to "federalism as a political principle and arrangement, the modern corporation, civil societies based upon interlocking voluntary associations, and almost every other element that reflects social organization based upon what has loosely been called 'contract' rather than 'status.'"

The author examines the account of David assuming the throne as a case study of transition from one type of government to another, and analyzes the differences between the tribal federation system and the Davidic monarchy as "two competing paradigms of the classic regime in the Jewish political tradition...."

The Biblical book of Deuteronomy, this article argues, is one of the oldest surviving fundamental laws, and "the study of Deuteronomy as a political constitution is generally important for the study of political science, particularly of constitutionalism and constitutional design, because of its character as an ancient constitution."

This author argues that the ancient Jewish thought preserved in Biblical sources embraces "the popular constitution of the polity, the responsibility of the governors to govern, and a proper separation and distribution of powers among the governors - the three great criteria for democracy."

J. Rufus Fears lectures on the greatness of the Roman Empire and the lessons the Romans continue to teach to this day.

Video/Podcast/Media

This lecture on Aristotle's life and philosophy is part of the 10-lecture course The History of Political Philosophy: From Plato to Rothbard.

Murray Rothbard's book discusses the development of economic thought before Adam Smith.

A selection from Giants of Philosophy: Aristotle by Thomas C. Brickhouse, read by Charlton Heston.

This lecture on Plato's life and philosophy is part of the 10-lecture course The History of Political Philosophy: From Plato to Rothbard.

Primary Document

Augustine was Bishop of Hippo from 396-430 AD, during the decline of the Roman Empire. This volume collects 35 letters and sermons from him, often to Roman governors and military commanders, in which he discusses political issues. He considers the responsibilities of citizenship, criminal justice, the ethics of war, and religious liberty, among other issues.

Augustine's response argued that the "City of God" was not an earthly kingdom to be achieved through Roman power. While Christians have a responsibility to the City of Man, he argued, it cannot achieve perfection. Consequently, he argued for a strongly Christian culture, but full realization of the limits of what can be accomplished with temporal power.

In this letter, Gelasius I expresses his opinion to the Emperor on the roles of the church and state.

Polybius was a Greek historian who wrote during the time of the Punic Wars (between Rome and Carthage). He wrote several works, but all that survives are portions of his 40 volume Histories.

The Institutes of Roman Law is Gaius' best known work which became the authoritative legal text during the late Roman Empire.

Marcus Aurelius argues for a government of service and duty, arguing "that one can reduce oneself very close to the station of a private citizen and not thereby lose any dignity or vigor in the conduct of a ruler's responsibility for the common good."

Pericles was a political and military leader in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and an architect of Athenian democracy. This speech, recounted by the contemporary historian Thucydides, provides his explanation and defense of democracy as the system that "favors the many instead of the few" and will "afford equal justice to all."

These essays, attributed to a student of Socrates, explain the political systems of Athens and Sparta in the 400s and 300s BC.

Herodotus (often called the Father of History because of this work) provides another glimpse into ancient Greek thought. He recorded his Histories primarily to record the victories of the Greek city-states over the Persian Empire.

Thucydides wrote a contemporary account of the Peloponnesian War and the relations between the Greek city-states.

The Laws, Plato's last and longest dialogue, is written as a conversation between three old men from different Greek cities.

Aristotle, one of the best known Western philosophers, concluded his work on ethics with the statement that he intended to look into "the whole question of the management of a state." The Politics was his effort to do so. He examines the origin and purpose of government, and then discusses Plato's The Republic and other proposed and existing forms of government.

This volume contains The Politics by Aristotle along with an extract from his Nicomachean Ethics and the "Constitution of Athens" which is often attributed to him.

This volume, written in dialogue format, is the original work of political idealism by one of the best-known Western philosophers.

Also known as Cicero's Republic, this is the second part of his political writings (see explanation here). Cicero's work has been noted to have influenced thinkers from St. Augustine to American Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Marshall.

Marcus Tullius Cicero argues that the Roman Republic blended the best elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with a strong executive, a Senate dominated by the elite class, and open elections for other positions. Like other classical authors, he discusses the concept of justice and emphasizes the importance of education.

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