The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
"L'état, c'est moi," Louis XIV said: "I am the state." But what does that mean?
From Plato’s Republic right down to modern debates in the US Supreme Court, the idea of the state is one of the most important and frequent topics of the Great Conversation. One might think, therefore, that defining it would be easy; but of course something that so many different people have weighed in on never is. We tend today to think of the state in terms of government, with connotations of political sovereignty and independence, but in many older sources, “the state” is simply a synonym for society—any sort of society.
Societies, in general, are sometimes equivalent with ethnicities, especially in very ancient or isolated cases. Still, there was probably never a time when most societies were ethnically or culturally homogenous. Even the most primitive records from the Bronze Age show civilizations that are already “mixed” internally and in contact with other civilizations externally. Mesopotamia is a good example: Sumerian city-states like Ur, Eridu, and Lagash not only had constant interchange with each other, but had cultural, economic, and military relations with the Akkadians to the north, Egyptians and Canaanites to the west, and Elamites to the east; conversely, Sumerian influences are detectable even as far away as the Indus Valley and Greece. The same has remained true ever since, and only gotten truer as communication and travel have become more sophisticated over the centuries.
Turning to issues like sovereignty, state authority is often juxtaposed with two other forms of authority, those of the family and of religion. This is partly a consequence of the specific character of European history. The idea of a contrast between secular and religious authority was not really present to the mind of a citizen of classical Athens or republican Rome; paganism was religious, but it was not a church, something with its own internally defined structure, beliefs, and mission. (Indeed, even calling it “paganism” as if it were a single thing is something of a misnomer.) But with the diffusion of Judaism and especially the rise of Christianity in the ancient Mediterranean, the contrast between the two spheres begins to become important. In St. Augustine’s classic The City of God, the two become fully distinct and even metaphysically opposed—despite the fact that this is more than a century after the official conversion of the empire under Constantine. The relations of Church and state in the Orthodox and Catholic powers of Europe have become our paradigm for understanding the relationship of the state to religion, even though few world religions are as formally institutionalized as Christianity; even Judaism and Islam, its closest “relatives” in both history and content, are not exactly churches, and faiths like Buddhism or Hinduism are radically different in structure.
The contrast between family and state authority might be a little clearer, but, insofar as one’s state was one’s people, it was not a contrast anybody was likely to accent. The fact that Dante’s hell ranks treachery to one’s country as worse than treachery to one’s family might strike us as odd today, but back then, country and family resembled each other more closely in conception. When social contract theory began to be proposed in the early Enlightenment, and moreover individual families (often due to their religious loyalties) might travel from one state to another or from their motherland to a colony, the distinction grew more important, until in our own day it is often a sticking point in politics.
This raises the question of what the rights of the state are, as contrasted with those possessed by the family, religious authority, or indeed the individual. The condemnation of Socrates proved to be one of the seminal events of Western philosophy, and the Crito professes to present Socrates’ own reasoning for why he should not defy even an unjust sentence from his city. This would be challenged by most subsequent thinkers; the very concept of an “unjust law” implies that law is, at most, an expression of justice rather than justice itself, and can be in conflict with justice. The Christian martyrs and the liberal opponents of aristocracy, in quite different ways, both took up this idea. In the foment of the early nineteenth century following the French Revolution, one strain of thought even questioned the legitimacy of state authority as such, and came in consequence to be known as anarchism.
Speaking of laws, how ought a state to be organized? This is one of the principal concerns of one of the most famous and influential politics treatises of all time, Aristotle’s straightforwardly-titled Politics. He identified three basic types of constitutions: rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by the people collectively, dividing all three kinds into good and bad versions. What differentiated the good from the bad was the actual character and behavior of the rulers: those who pursued the common weal were good, while those who pursued their own profit (a part of the community at the expense of the whole) were bad. Since every constitution must be administered by human beings in practice, none was immune to abuse; however, each one had its own strengths and weaknesses in Aristotle’s eyes, and he accordingly recommended a mixed constitution, taking elements from all three forms that would help lessen the inevitable vulnerabilities all states are subject to. The American founding fathers took this very much to heart, designing their democratic republic to be elected by the people and balanced between the legislative, executive, and judicial functions.
This has become the conventional wisdom of most states worldwide today, not only in Europe and the Americas but also (if to a lesser extent) throughout Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. However, two other elements have become important in the modern concept of statehood: Westphalian sovereignty and nationalism. The former, named for the Peace of Westphalia (which ended the massively destructive Thirty Years’ War in 1648), is the idea that a state government should have the final say in whatever happens within its borders. This in turn implies that borders must be clear and fixed. This formed something of a contrast with the medieval period and the Renaissance, during which multiple kinds of authority might have claims of different types on the same area; an English church was assuredly part of England, for example, but a person who claimed sanctuary in that church could not be touched by the law (in theory, anyway). Westphalian sovereignty drastically simplifies the situation—while also creating problems of its own. Nomadic peoples, for instance, unless their traditional regions of wandering all fall inside the territory of a single state (which is rare), are singularly ill-served by Westphalian states. Moreover, when states commit crimes against their own people, such as so-called ethnic cleansing, what is to be done? International institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court represent another kind of pressure on the Westphalian definition of political sovereignty.
Nationalism, on the other hand, fits fairly neatly into the Westphalian theory. It is the idea that nations, i.e. ethnic groups, should be united and self-governing: for instance, Poles should not be distributed among various empires and have to accept the status of a subject people, but should have a Poland that belongs to them. The breakdown of multinational empires, such as the Austrian, Ottoman, and British, was driven largely by local nationalisms of the subject peoples, and nationalism continues to fuel aspirations of independence among ethnicities who have no nation-state of their own, such as the Kurds of northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and eastern Turkey. Sadly, nationalism has also been an animating force behind certain forms of totalitarianism and violence. Fascism is more or less always nationalistic in its claims, and, as its Nazi form displayed, relies heavily on rhetoric of “purity” and nostalgia for a simpler past.
Herodotus, The Histories
Cicero, The Republic
Dante Alighieri, On Monarchy
St. Thomas More, Utopia
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers
Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
Mahatma Gandhi, “Statement at the Great Trial”
Gabriel Blanchard is the editor at large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might like this author profile of Michel de Montaigne, this student essay on the historical influence of Thomism, or this post from an active teacher on classical education as an element in American civics. And don’t miss out on our podcast, Anchored!
Published on 17th May, 2022.