Small Form versus Cosmopolis (Essay)

« Each nation has to care for its nationals in ways that should make them privileged human beings, in virtue of their human right to happiness », writes Rahmane Idrissa. « In that effort, nations have to defend their own particular interests against the needs and interests of other nations, and therefore undermine the human right to happiness of the members of those other nations. » Read on.

The civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean invented the politics of the small form, the compact civic association of households within the confines of what is, essentially, a town. The small form, embedded in some narrow hinterland – Attica, Latium, the coastal countryside of Phoenicia or of Africa – became a standard autonomous unit whose activities and interests shaped the fates of humans in the area by managing trade and waging wars: Mycenae and Troy, Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, Numantia, Sidon, etc., all starting to appear and disseminate from the tenth century BC.[1] Before the conquests of Alexander, the only territorial states in the Mediterranean were Egypt and Macedon. Political experience and ideas in much of the Mediterranean were therefore greatly determined by the politics of the small form. The general pattern of such politics was a tension between rich and poor within the community, and the construction of alliances and colonies outside it. This contrasted with the politics of the territorial or imperial states, where political relations were mediated by a relatively evolved administrative apparatus and territorial expansion was a mainstay of foreign policy .[2] The political philosophy of the territorial states is excluded from the Western canon of Ancient Political Philosophy, and as a result that canon, from Plato to Cicero, reflects only the experience of the politics of the small form.[3] As such, the politics of the small form presents a certain number of traits which have ultimately shaped the theories of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, and both inspired and blunted the promise of human freedom that they offer.

Metaphorically, the civic state was an island. In fact, most were located on or close to the sea, and their relation with the sea was vital. In Greece, Sparta was the major exception to this pattern, and its dependence on land (materialized by its atypical subjection of the Helots) was a source of inferiority relative to its great rival, Athens. The Greeks traveled chiefly by sea: some roads were maintained within the hinterland of the foremost civic states, but there was no system of roads between the civic states to speak of. Warfare and trade were thus much more easily and commonly carried through sea lanes. This situation reflects the origin of the civic state as an association of households gathered up in a settlement for the sake of security and wealth, something which Aristotle describes in decidedly isolationist or insular terms as “self-sufficiency.” The civic state emerges not as an expansive, but as a contractive political form. When its population threatens its standards of self-sufficiency, it does not strive to conquer new lands and stretch its possibilities: it splits up, and founds other civic states (colonies) elsewhere. Following Aristotle’s rule of the beautiful object which should be neither too big nor too small, it sets a boundary of size which it seeks not to transgress (of course, it is this behavior of the civic state which inspired Aristotle’s axiom of political aesthetics, not the other way around). That boundary is not necessarily one that sets limits to resident population, but one that encloses the political population – the citizens – which occupies, physically, the institutional space of the town: the public halls of the Agora in Athens, the temples and official houses of the Forum in Rome, the temples and council houses between the harbors and the citadel of Byrsa in Carthage, etc. These spaces were also market places, and were thus the area were citizens and non-citizens from within as well as from without could mix and mingle. Precisely for this reason, that is also where citizenship could most easily be demarcated and signified.

The structure of the civic state displays therefore a double boundary: one which creates it by setting up its normal size, generally enclosing it within massive outer walls; and another which demarcates its political identity through the legal or inner wall of citizenship. The best description of citizenship in this context would be to say that it is that which gave access to and participation in the political and religious rituals of the Agora or the Forum. The nature and degree of participation in these rituals created one’s status as a citizen,[4] and one’s role in the citizenry (magistrate, voter, judge, pontiff, etc.) The inner wall was much more complex than the outer one: rigid in Greece, softer in Rome (where it could absorb non-citizens and transform them into citizens) its line was constantly being redrawn following the successes and failures of the various classes of citizens in their attempt to promote their interests. When the inner wall opens up wide to accommodate the majority of citizens in the political rituals, the identity of the civic state becomes democratic; when only the narrowest apertures are carved into it for access to significant political rituals, the identity of the civic state shifts to that of an aristocracy. The inner wall could also be sealed by a tyrant, becoming a rampart that, materially, encompasses the precincts of his regal residence: the civic state becomes a kingship. Again, this kind of evolution is typical of the small form: the territorial states had neither outer, nor inner walls and their political logic and identity were totally different.[5]

Yes, these boundaries turn up in the shape of actual walls, they take form in the materiality of the town and its cultivated hinterland. But essentially, they are moral (subjective). They create the origin of individuals in the political system. In the imperial states, and later, in the Roman Empire, people were not spawned by the state as the human beings who would identify with its laws and gods.[6] They were individuals and communities interested in the benefits from peace and good administration all around them.  When Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all male residents of the empire in 212, the goal was to increase taxation and conscription, not to create true Romans (the season for that had long past by then) The imperial state does not create an origin, it does not require such an operation to be constituted as such, in fact, it arises by crushing origins (civic states and other closed communities) and melding people into a dutiful subject population with only a private (apolitical) connection to their various origins. Any political claim of origin is a threat to the imperial state, which responds through wrathful persecution. That is how the Roman Empire dealt with the Hebrews, and later with the Christians – who defeated it in the end. Origins are the native soil of rights and duties in the politics of the small form. A person was “of” this or that place not only because he or she was born and nurtured there, but because he or she was literally what that place was made of, and in fact, the raison d’être of the said place as a political community. The origin of a person was what created a certain place as a state, the public power in which one could be originated, or in more concrete terms, Athens was not a state, a public power, because it produced Athenians: rather, it is because the Athenians were a people that Athens was a public power. When the Athenians became the subjects of an imperial state (Rome), although Athens continued to reproduce a population, she stopped being a state because the Athenians were no longer a people (were no longer “free” in the parlance of the day): they became a governed populace[7]. The difference is stark. A governed population isn’t defined by legal and subjective walls, but by the blank form of the administrative district that makes it governable by decrees, bureaus, and civil servants. The Romans grouped the former Greek civic states into one peninsular province for purposes of administration, blending into one drab “Achaia” the enemies of heroic battles and the fiercely antagonistic identities of Thucydidean Greece.

arche de caracalla
Inscription of the Arch of Caracalla in Volubilis (Morocco). The Respublica Volubilitanorum thanks the Emperor Cesar Marcus Aurellius Antoninus Pius (Caracalla) for granting its people Roman citizenship


The concept of the origin played also a major role in the international politics of the small form: not only individuals, but collectivities such as colonies were also constituted by their origin and invented the metropolis as a space in which colonies were originated. In the Greek wars, even when the metropolis and the colonies were not allied or were fighting on different sides, the relationship of rights and duties that embody the concept could still be called upon, as Thucydides indicates in relation to the initial quarrel between Athens, Corinth, Corcyra and Epidamnus in the Peloponnesian War.

To sum up, the politics of the small form was based, inter alia, on a contractive political community, structured in such ways as allow for the exclusion from and inclusion into political life; and it engendered a population which found its origin in the public power and freedom of the community. In the context of the Ancient Mediterranean, before Alexander’s conquests and the rise of Roman power, this type of politics could be contrasted to the imperial states of Egypt, Persia and Macedon, which were expansive, cosmopolitan in their concept (especially the two former) and agglomerative[8] rather than originative.


Theory is a cultural object. It is a statement about reality which strives to be equivalent to it via rational concepts, or, as the Greeks said, the logos – while at the same time endeavoring to transcend it and reach eternal verities. But it isn’t unfair or misguided to consider the theorizing of Plato or Aristotle to be as every bit a product of the politics of the small form as, say, the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the poetry of Pindar, or the sculpture of Praxiteles. They were creations of a time and a place. Plato’s ideal state could not have been imagined without the real-life structure of the civic state, and his theory (or science) failed to transcend that structure in a measure that would have allowed it to speak for (or about) the imperial state as well.[9]Aristotle, who was born in an imperial state[10]but fell hook, line and sinker for the cultural life distinctive of the small form, sees this more clearly than Plato. His account of the constitutional history of Athens goes into the nitty-gritty essentials of the politics of the small form, which he could thus see to be something very distinctive. This account isn’t independent from his theory, as can be seen by looking at some of the connections between the Constitution of Athens and the philosophical works (the Ethics and the Politics). These connections show that Aristotles derives from the politics of the small form a theoretical statement which is conditioned by it yet transgresses and transcends it in some intriguing ways.

In the final remarks of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of “the right approach to legislative science,” which, after the theory of happiness he proposed in that work, should allow him to “complete the philosophy of human affairs as best as we are able”. “First then”, he writes, “let us review any sound remarks our predecessors have made on particular topics. Then let us study the collected political systems, to see from them what sort of things preserve and destroy cities, and political systems of different types; and what causes some cities to conduct politics well, and some badly. For when we have studied these questions, we will perhaps grasp better what sort of political system is best; how each political system should be organized so as to be the best; and what habits and laws it should follow.[11]

That such a remark should come at the close of a treatise on how to live rightly so as to be happy is kind of surprising. Certainly, it connects the ethical assumption that the highest raison d’être of the civic state is the happiness of its members to the necessity to find out what the best civic constitution should be. And obviously, such an inquiry makes sense in the economy of Aristotle’s theory, since only the best civic constitution could fulfill the highest raison d’être of the happiness of the citizens. However, it is not sure that it makes as much sense in the context of the politics of the small form. These closing – and, in the context of Aristotle’s theory, transitory – remarks suggest a (deliberately?) biased approach to the theory of the state (or political science stricto sensu), especially given Aristotle’s highly specific view of full human happiness as being found in the activity of the mind. I will be looking in a moment into the paradox that leads Aristotle to adopt this approach regardless, but before that, it is useful to consider some of the consequences of his engagement with the politics of the small form.

Aristotle’s constitutional history of Athens is very blatantly about something which is only faintly implicit in his political theory: power relations. It begins with a storyline that sets up the key players in the creation of the laws and rituals of Athens as being the rich and the poor, the aristocrats and the commoners. The narrative bristle, or shall we say, is cluttered up with the discussion of legal texts, statutes, financial matters, voting and other ways of selecting officials, etc., but the drama of the fight between the rich and the poor carries it forward. In the end, the fate of Athenian legislation is decided by the twists and turns of that fight – which reminds me of Michel Foucault’s quip about the fact that “there is blood dried in the codes”. Or one may also think of Dickens and say that Aristotle wrote, as it were, a tale of the two walls. His constitutional history was an account of how the outer and inner walls of Athens were built and constantly redrawn by the confrontations between the rich and the poor. In these legal and physical battles, the aim was not the happiness or self-sufficiency of the state, but rather domination and freedom from domination. In these battles, the rich were the ones who showed less respect for the norm of the origin, i.e., the notion that the preservation of the state should be the supreme interest of the individual. When matters ran against their will, they showed no hesitation in conniving, against their own, with traditional enemies such as Sparta or even Persia. In any case, all of the institutions of Athens, including the norm of the origin, shifted and changed following an acrimonious haggling that involved the power of money and that of numbers. Athens’ entanglement in international Mediterranean politics directly impacted any arrangement by defining and testing the extent and solidity of the outer wall.

The Constitution of Athens is an empirical work. Value judgment rarely filters through the compilation of facts and documentary evidence – apart from the mantra of moderation and balance, which is indifferently invoked with regard to both the oligarchic and democratic phases of the city. But it closely follows the clues that would indicate decay and imperfection in each regime, and the chains of events this would lead to. Aristotle follows this tack more systematically in Book II of the Politics – where, a bit oddly, real-world constitutions (of Athens, Sparta, Crete, Carthage) are examined alongside the ones dreamed up by Plato and other theorists (Aristotle did say that he would “review the sound remarks” of his predecessors as well as studying existing constitutions). There, he looks for the ways in which people could free themselves of the power politics inherent in the structure of the small form and move towards something that would liberate them from the imperfection inherent in such power politics: lack of balance and moderation, and consequent degeneration.

To achieve this transition from the real to the ideal, Aristotle makes two rather bold leaps out of the realities of the small form as described in the Constitution of Athens and in Book II of the Politics: one leap is purely normative and in a sense, arbitrary; the other leap, the theoretical leap as I would call it, is more important to what I am trying to understand here. The normative leap is the fact that Aristotle decides that we should define the citizen and the civic state as follows: “For we can now say that someone who is eligible to participate in deliberative and judicial office is a citizen in this city-state, and that a city-state, simply speaking, is a multitude of such people, adequate for life’s self-sufficiency.[12]” This definition does not contradict anything we know of the politics of the small form, and in fact, provides a clever generalization of its strictly political structure. But it requires us to make two assumptions: 1. the proper agent of politics is the citizen and 2. the system of the civic state makes for adequate life’s self-sufficiency (implicitly for the citizens). Let us keep in mind this normative leap.

The theoretical leap is related to both Aristotle’ science of nature and his original commitment to Plato’s science of idea (note: Aristotle was once a student of Plato – and this apparently cryptic sentence will become clearer below). I want to suggest here, doubtless more abruptly than should be the case, that Aristotle’s overall theoretical attitude derives from the distinctive way in which he blends the pre-Platonician (or pre-Socratic as the more common phrase goes) interest in the workings of nature and the Platonician conception of the physical (natural) universe as a distorting mirror of the pure forms, or ideas. This mélange creates a productive paradox in Aristotle’s thinking, one which allows him, for instance, to avoid what we might feel are highly implausible and weird conclusions in Plato’s theory. The concept of nature as a life force tending toward various degrees of perfection, according to the material in which it operates, was pervasive in Greek thought and was not at all unfamiliar to Plato. But it plays in the work of Plato the marginal role that other such general cultural notions play there: it is part of his vocabulary rather than of his theory. Pure forms, ideas, are the measure of things and the compass of knowledge, not nature. Nature is, if anything, acted upon by the forms, including in the human or political realm. This view isn’t foreign to Aristotle, but he complicates it. Consider for instance these two quotes from the same work, Aristotle’s Protrepticus, written when he was still a student at Plato’s Academy: “Just as the most intelligent doctors and the majority of those who are expert in physical training agree that good doctors and good trainers must have a general knowledge of nature, so, and even to a much higher degree, good lawmakers must have a thorough knowledge of nature. For the former are concerned only with the health and strength of the body, while the latter are concerned with the excellence and the virtues of the soul and claim to teach what concerns the well-being or distemper of a whole state, and therefore are still more in need of philosophy.[13]” And: “Therefore, just as that man will not be a good builder who does not use the rule or the other instruments of this kind but takes his measure from other buildings; so he would, perhaps, not be a good lawgiver or serious statesman who gives his laws or administers the affairs of the state with a view to, and in imitation of, either administration as conducted by other men or the constitutions of actual human communities, as for instance those of the Lacedaemonians or the Cretans or others.[14]” In a clear sense, both these Aristotelian quotes are very Platonician. The reference to good doctors and physical trainers in relation to the statesman, and of a healthy body in relation to a sound polity, or even more clearly (in the second quote) the rejection of empirical research in favor of the “exact original” (the pure form as it were) directly refer back to Plato’s teaching. However, we must note the insistence, in the first quote, on the “thorough knowledge of nature” requested of the statesman, an insistence which creates a slight inconsistency with the second quote. Aristotle seems here to take the notion of nature more seriously than Plato, while still following Plato’s lead. As is noted for instance by Von Fritz and Kapp, the Greek notion of physis is connected to the idea of perfection: “For the assumption is always made that ‘nature’ aims at something, namely, perfect health, a perfect harmony and functioning of the body which is but scarcely, if ever, realized.[15]” Aristotle’s comparison of the doctor and the statesman on the basis of a “thorough knowledge of nature” implies that for him, perfection in the realm of politics is of the order of the natural, not of the ideal. This will become more obvious in the Politics, and I will not spend more time to this issue. I would only like to point at the following implication: if political order is, theoretically, a natural process aiming at perfection (“the best political system”), and if we need, to understand the said process a thorough knowledge of nature, what are we to make of the normative leap of Aristotle, and especially, of its consequence, the paradoxically biased approach to the science of the state that I have mentioned earlier?

Nature, as understood by Aristotle and the Greeks more generally, aims at perfection through the material form in which it functions: for instance, to use Aristotelian examples, a body part such as the eye, a manufactured object such as the knife (which uses the cutting efficiency of a natural material to achieve its perfection as a knife) – or a human being. The natural perfection of the human being, Aristotle asserts, is life in a civic state, or even more broadly, we might guess, a human society.[16]Such life is perfected if and when the civic state creates conditions of amity and general benevolence which allow men to cultivate their highest abilities and opportunities in the pure activity of reason. Whatever we make of Aristotle’s exalted conceptions of the activity of reason, it is hard to find justifications for refusing to admit that true freedom and the ensuing capacious performance of our humanity flowers in a climate of friendship and goodwill. The notion is moreover politically radical, because Aristotle grounds friendship in a good dose of equality of social condition. Because friendship facilitates moderation in dealing with common problems, this is, moreover, a form of radical politics conducive to equity.

The logical argument that follows from the naturalist premise seems to be that the best polity (one which, perhaps, can be “scarcely, if ever, realized”) should therefore create a politics of friendship, allowing all humans to perfect their humanity, through notably a moderation of social inequalities – along the very lines in which this was praised by Aristotle himself in the Constitution of Athens. But the conclusions of Aristotle are very different, and in many ways, just the exact opposite of this. In painfully unconvincing ways, Aristotle finds that nature, which functions in a uniform way in minerals, plants and animals, functions heterogeneously in humans, producing low-grade minds (women), native slaves and mind-blunting habits in manual workers, all of this in a way that is wholly in line with his normative leap (remember?). Given that women, slaves and the toiling classes form a necessary part of the very real politics of domination and freedom from domination documented in the Constitution of Athens and in Book II of the Politics, Aristotle facilely solves the problem of arriving at the politics of friendship in this context by removing them from the realm of “unqualified citizenry” and casting them, so to speak, in the limbos that evanesce between the walls of the small form. Aristotle proposes a vision of politics which transcends the harshness of the politics of the small form only to re-inscribe that harshness in a perfected version of its structural inequities. Why?

There are many responses to a question thus posed. In a way we could dismiss it as unfairly taking Aristotle to task for the ways of his times and an unsurprising inability to think like a twenty first century person. But the objection that I am making is not contingently related to Aristotle’s rationalization of these unsavory aspects of the politics of the small form. Rather, I am pointing here to the inconsistency of his notion of Nature when it comes to the human world, and how that inconsistency serves to direct his political theory away from its most logical development. And since it is Aristotle’s normative leap that propelled him away from his theoretical leap and landed him back into the snares of the small form, therein lies the problem. The politics of the small form is not compatible with the naturalist premise, nor is it conducive to a true politics of friendship. I also think that the radical theory of Aristotle is borne out only in something that one might call the politics of humankind, in cosmopolitics. Let us see what this means by traveling forward to our own times and politics of the small form.


Something happened. By the fourth century BCE, the small form was dying in the Mediterranean. In peninsular Greece, it had withstood the Persian onslaught only to be taken over, almost by stealth, by the Macedonian kings, who went on to overpower it in Asia Minor as well. In the western Mediterranean, a more curious phenomenon was evolving: the vicious rivalry between the two dominant civic states of Carthage and Rome pushed the latter to develop an imperial policy which gradually allowed it to defeat its enemy.[17]After the passing of the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula reverted to the politics of the small form until newer imperial states to the north and west (France and Spain) consolidated enough to yet again exercise their traditional function of destroying civic states.

But then again, something else happened: the multiplication of imperial states in the same confined space of the wider European peninsula led to the development of an imperial politics of the small form, variously known as the Westphalian system, the balance of powers, the “concert des nations,” etc.[18] This European story resulted in the (rather haphazard) elaboration of the modern wall systems of national citizenship, national interest, representative government (with its emphasis on who could vote and get formally represented), etc., at the same time that the cosmopolitan ethos of the imperial states was leading to the development of a new naturalist philosophy of human affairs, the human rights philosophy.[19] At the crux of that evolution, in the 1780s, the memory of the Greek and Roman civic states was mythologized in the revolutionary processes of the United States and France, while at the same a naturalist declaration of human rights urbi et orbi was propagated by the resulting dispensations. The inherent contradiction was not noticed, in part because of the Manichean view, at the time, that all evil derived from “despotism”, i.e. from the monarchies of Europe.

The contradiction is parallel to the one I have identified in Aristotle’s work, but with the following modifications: 1. our politics of the small form is managed by imperial states and 2. the naturalist premise is, in this context, a formal ideology as well as a philosophical theory. These two points are in fact interconnected. I have not looked here into the particular politics of the imperial states, but I have indicated earlier that they lack the norm of the origin specific to the small form. In Ancient Political Theory, the works of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius indicate as much. For instance, Cicero does away with all the qualifications that the Greek theorists bring to bear on their idea of natural law when they make distinctions between Greeks and Barbarians, or even more egregiously, “unqualified citizens” and the rest of humans in a particular setting. Cicero writes: “But of all the things which are subject of philosophical debate, there is nothing more worthwhile than clearly to understand that we are born for justice and that justice is established not by opinion but by nature. That will be clear if you examine the common bonds among human beings. There is no similarity, no likeness of one thing to another, so great as the likeness we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is equally valid for all humans.[20]” Elsewhere, Cicero characterizes laws of citizenship as mere conventions set up to organize a specific population, and inferior in the eye of reason to natural law. Cicero recognizes the full implications of the naturalist premise but, in a move which mirrors his historical situation in an imperial state still ruled (or rather, misruled) by civic laws, he offers a theory of the civic laws of Rome (although – but I won’t go into that here, he considered these laws as mere useful conventions, not a normative necessity). Much later, in the context of the full-blown Roman imperial state, such a move becomes irrelevant for instance for Marcus Aurelius, for whom the supremacy of natural law isn’t even a matter of debate. Origin is unsubstantial in the cosmopolitan world of the imperial state, and laws aren’t made to constitute particular citizens, but to rule humankind according to its congregation with reason.[21]


In our modern context, imperial states are bizarrely wedded with the norm of the origin, and claim to have been constituted not by their territorial expansion (as was historically the case) but by the creation of a “nation,” the Latin-derived word for a political concept of origin. At the same time, the cosmopolitan notion of the human rights was associated to the very concept of the nation, in terms that makes a liberal nation responsible for defending and propagating them within and – for the more powerful – without. The contradiction is readable in the title of the 1789 declaration of “the rights of man and the citizen”. In Europe, where the norm of the origin was radicalized through the nineteenth century by nationalistic ideologies, this contradiction eventually led to the terrifying attempt at eradicating human rights and cosmopolitanism by fascism and Nazism. The defeat of these projects of inhumanity led to a reassertion of human rights, indeed, to the human rights idea coming of age on the world stage – but that was by no means the end of history. The contradiction between the norm of the origin and the cosmopolitan ideology continues to be the main drive of the imperial politics of the small form to date. Each nation has to care for its nationals in ways that should make them privileged human beings, in virtue of their human right to happiness (and albeit this happiness is not equivalent to Aristotle’s rarefied conception, the terminological similarity is not simply coincidental). In that effort, nations have to defend their own particular interests against the needs and interests of other nations, and therefore undermine the human right to happiness of the members of those other nations. The curious modern solution to Aristotle’s problem is therefore that the naturalist premise is put at the service of the norm of the origin (and so, here too we have some kind of normative leap).

Eleanor Roosevelt contemplating the end of history in 1945

The radical way out of this dilemma consists in suppressing the norm of the origin. In an “international world” where the nation is indeed a conventional regime of laws (as per Cicero), not something natural and necessary, national privileges are fictions which serve to conceal the very real politics of domination and freedom from domination which run across those forms (the nations). If we accept the naturalist premise as our lodestar, then what we are confronting isn’t incompatible national interests, but the use made of a power conceptualized as national, against the potential for natural friendship which derives from the fact that “no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others.” Until this is realized, the promise of cosmopolitical friendship will be checkmated by the structural inequities of our imperial politics of the small form.


By Rahmane IDRISSA



[1] There were civic states elsewhere in the world, including the much more ancient settlement of Mohenjo Daro in today Pakistan and the settlements of Ife and the other towns of the Nok culture in today Nigeria, which were contemporary to the Mediterranean civic states. But the politics of the small form as I consider it here was far less characteristic of these regions.

[2] For this and other reasons, the imperial states represented for the civic states a different kind of threat than other civic states. They were usually more dangerous. Thus, if Persia did not succeed into absorbing the communities of peninsular Greece, it did subject momentarily those in Asia Minor and destroyed the independence of the Phoenician civic states. The Greek civic states were eventually conquered by Macedon. And although Rome succeeded in leading an imperial expansion while being a civic state, that policy eventually forced it to morph it into a territorial state with a pointless nostalgia for its civic past.

[3]Aristotle’s constitutional inquiries include for instance the Phoenician African upshot of Carthage, but neglect Egypt or Persia, because it was not so much the “East” which was exotic to his thinking as the idea of the imperial state. It is also telling that Xenophon’s admiring in-depth exposition of the founding principles (the constitution as it were) of the Persian Empire in the Cyropadia did not make it into the Western canon, despite its moral and political philosophical value.

[4] For instance, given that religious rituals were the sacred chores which bounded the households to each other’s and gave a meaning to the state, women, the household citizens par excellence, were allowed to participate only in religious rituals – the ceremonial space in which the ties between the household and the state were perennially recreated.

[5] For instance, the Great King (as the Persian monarch was called by the Greeks), or Pharaoh, could not be compared to the Greek tyrants. To understand that, it is enough to look at the Egyptian state ideology, based not on the management of walls, but on the control of the cosmos – with Pharaoh maintaining the dual balance of the two countries (Lower and Upper Egypt) and of the world of the gods and that of humans, through upholding Maat, the Rule of Harmony. These conceptions implied different political virtues, rituals, statuses and roles – which, incidentally, profoundly influenced both Plato and Judaism, the two sources of the Western canon.

[6]The Apology of Socrates is a good example of what that identification means. Despite the fact that his sentencing to death was unjust and that officials were ready to let him slip out of town – most of them only wanted to force him into exile – Socrates preferred to die an Athenian in Athens, in deference to the inscrutable edict of the laws and gods of his city.

[7] The Romans regrouped the Greek civic states into one peninsular province for the needs of their global law and exchequer, blending in one transparent unit the enemies of heroic battles and the fiercely antagonistic identities of Thucydidian Greece.

[8] This means that they function by union. In the fifteenth century, the duchy of Burgundy, an imperial state made up of scattered “states” (formerly independent feudal lordships) like the Flanders, the Franche-Comté and Lorraine, etc., was called a “monarchical union of states.” The appellation denotes very well this agglomerative nature of imperial states. Significant is also the failure of Athens to consolidate its empire by coming up with the concept of a union instead of that of a league. Rome morphed into an imperial state by gradually transforming alliances into a union.

[9] Plato’s political theory was in that sense already inadequate for Romans of the time of Cicero, because by then, the real-life civic state of Republican Rome was transgressing the idea of the small form in ways which would were unconceivable to Plato. Fast forward a few centuries, and Plato’s polity had become totally irrelevant to the subjects of Marcus Aurelius, the man who tried to be a philosopher king and found that to be only a dream.

[10] Macedon, located in a poorer part of the Ancient Mediterranean, did not have the prestigious civilization of Egypt or Persia, but its underlying political form was the same, as its sweeping conquest of Greece and then of the other imperial states showed. The result of this was a multiplication of imperial states (the Diadoch kingdoms), not the founding of colonies à la Greek.

[11] NE, translated by Terence Irwin, Hackett Publishing Company, 1985, X, 1181b12-20, p. 298.

[12] Politics, C.D.C Reeve translator, Hackett Publishing Company, 1998, 1275b 15-20, p. 67.

[13] Kurt von Fritz and Ernst Kapp translators, Hafner Publishing Company, 1950, p. 211 (The Constitution of Athens and various works).

[14] Ibid, pp. 212-213.

[15] Ibid, introduction, p. 38. They are referring to the concept of nature in Greek medicine but add that “this concept of ‘nature’ is frequently found in Aristotle’s writings…”

[16] Aristotle’s has no words for the imperial states, but we may surmise that in this instance he considers them as dilated civic states. In any case, they do not constitute a fourth realm in which man can fall back short of being a political animal, a god or a beast.

[17] In effect, by the time of the last Punic War, Carthage was facing not a traditional civic state, but a hybrid between an imperial state and a civic state, a peculiarly lethal power. The Carthaginians had not evolved in the same way and clearly did not understand what was happening. It is not sure that the Romans themselves really understood it either.

[18] The best empirico-philosophical study that I know of this evolution is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Commentaire sur le Traité de paix perpétuelle de l’Abbé de Saint-Pierre, where Rousseau argues that the imperial (he used the term “monarchical”) nature of the European states leads them to constantly thirst for territorial aggrandizement, while the fact that they had to cohabitate with one another meant that such thirst could never be quenched. The result, according to Rousseau, is more likely to be perpetual war rather than perpetual peace. Only, he avers, when the European states become civic (“based on the law”) will they escape this condition (a thesis reprised by Kant in Zum ewigen Frieden). This European situation can be compared to the Asian, where imperial states succeeded each other rather than cohabitating with each other –although even there, there was a time period when a situation similar to the European one obtained: from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century, The Great Turk, the Great Sofi (the Safavid ruler of Persia) and the Great Mogul had to cohabitate in Central Asia and actually developed a war-and-diplomacy not system not that different from the Westphalian.

[19] The fact that such a philosophy in its multiple roots – in Hobbes’ Leviathan, in Spinoza’s Tractatus Politicus, in Locke’s Treatises on Government, in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, in Rousseau’s Discourses and Social Contract, and especially in works like Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs or Diderot’s Voyages de Bougainville – was legitimately interpreted as part of the development of liberalism against absolute monarchy should not blind us to the alternatively interesting fact that this was happening in the particular civilization maintained by the imperial states (absolute monarchies) of Europe – which were not walled-up nation-states. In a sense, it was easier for Montesquieu to say, circa 1730, that he was “first a human and second a Frenchman”, than it would be to say so today.

[20] On the Laws, James E. G. Zetzel translator, I, § 29, pp. 115-116.

[21] See the case of other imperial states. In Egypt, the notion of Maat was akin to that of Logos used by Marcus, and Marcus’ commonplace book uses the same format and displays the same kind of forbearing, ecumenical wisdom as the “teachings” (really commonplace books) of pharaohs like Akhty (to his son Merikarè) and Jedefhor, or of high state officials like Imhotep and Kaires.


Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s