Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Jeffrey Dymond on Machiavelli’s Debt to Polybius

Jeffrey Dymond is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He works on Renaissance humanism and on early modern European intellectual history more generally. He is interviewed by contributing editor Max Norman about his article, “Human Character and the Formation of the State: Reconsidering Machiavelli and Polybius 6” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).

Max Norman: Your article attempts to bring some clarity to a long-standing debate on the sources of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, in particular the potential use of the Hellenistic Greek historian Polybius as a source in Book 1, Chapter 2. But before we get to that: The central idea of Book 6 of Polybius’s Histories is anacyclosis. Can you explain this term?

Jeffrey Dymond: Anacyclosis is a Greek term that signifies cyclical movement.  Polybius uses it to describe what he sees as the natural tendency for political constitutions to change in a cyclical pattern. Behind the idea is Polybius’s belief that human beings possess certain psychological dispositions that, when interacting with particular historical circumstances, lead to cyclical change For example, the dispersion and violence of the natural state of human beings elicits a psychological response in them that, in turn, results in the institution of a monarchy. Later, the interaction between the particular attributes of monarchical government and Polybius’s psychological apparatus will create the conditions first for tyranny and then, through the same process, aristocracy. Eventually, and again following the same process, aristocracy will degenerate into oligarchy, before being replaced by a democracy that will then become an ochlocracy, or mob rule. The cycle then comes to completion when ochlocracy, which resembles the dispersion and violence of the natural state, is replaced by a new monarchy. 

Anacyclosis works through two types of change. First is degeneration, when monarchy descends into tyranny and aristocracy into oligarchy; the second is alteration,when tyranny, a species of one-man rule, becomes aristocracy, a form of government of the few. Degeneration is caused by the corrupt behavior on the part of the rulers, which Polybius believes will eventually happen if they are unchecked in the exercise of political power–something that is likely to be granted to them, Polybius holds, after a period of virtuous rule. Alteration, on the other hand, comes about as a response to corruption, leading to change. It is important to note that here circumstantial factors shape the response, but that they are circumstances that will be repeated in every cycle. So, for example, the nature of tyrannical corruption is most upsetting (according to Polybius) to a group of noble and virtuous individuals who then lead a rebellion against the tyrant, later becoming the aristocracy.  The same process can be seen when oligarchy is replaced by democracy: a leader emerges among the people who then collectively move them to dispose of the oligarchs and institute a democracy. A new aristocracy isn’t created because the few are implicated in the corruption of the oligarchy, and a new monarchy isn’t established because the people remember the degeneration of monarchy into tyranny. The final alteration—from ochlocracy to monarchy—unfolds the way it does because it resembles the natural state that had, at the beginning, created the first monarchy. With this new monarchy, the cycle then commences again. 

All of the circumstantial attributes of the cycle notwithstanding, the motor of anacyclosis is the fact that every leader will, eventually, on account of the supreme power conceded to them as reward for their earlier virtuous government, become tyrannical and self-aggrandizing. The problem, in short, is that human psychology is structured in such a way that vice grows out of virtue. Polybius does, however, present his readers with a way to escape the cycle, and that is the mixed constitution. The mixed constitution, by imposing limits on absolute political authority, will stop (or at least slow down) the cycle by taking away the primary cause of corruption: the unchecked political power awarded to people on account of their virtue. But the institution of the mixed constitution requires foresight and affirmative action, since, otherwise, the cycle will continue. Polybius’s explanation of anacyclosis and its causes in Book 6 intends to equip prospective legislators with the means to do just that.

MN: You reconstruct a prevailing interpretation of Book 6 of Polybius’s Histories in early sixteenth-century Florence, against which you read the Discourses to demonstrate the ways in which Machiavelli was simultaneously indebted to the Greek historian but original in his reading. Methodologically, how did you reconstruct something like a ‘standard reading’ of Book 6? How widely-held do you believe this interpretation to be?

JD: Reconstructing this interpretation mainly involved looking at the ways early modern readers of Book 6 incorporated the text into their own works. A particularity of this case, though, is that the text had just recently been re-introduced, meaning that reconstructing a commonly held reading did not involve a long process of excavating a great and complicated tradition of interpretation: it went back only a couple of decades before the Discourses and, crucially, to a group of Florentines who also happened to be in Machiavelli’s circle. Over time, of course, alternative readings emerged, but this one I believe was quite prominent since there is evidence, as I note in the article with the examples of Paolo Paruta, Jean Bodin and François Hotman, that it spread to other parts of Europe. An interesting point to consider for how this particular reading spread is that the man responsible for the first Latin translation, Janus Lascaris, travelled widely in Europe. After leaving Florence in the late fifteenth century, he moved to France, where he helped establish the Royal Library at Blois and corresponded with famous French humanists such as Guillaume Budé. He then spent his later years in Venice as a representative of the French monarchy, before moving to Rome, during which time he continued to travel across Italy and to Florence in particular.  Lascaris was an acquaintance of both Bernardo Rucellai and Machiavelli, so any input they received from Lascaris that helped to shape their readings of Polybius could also have been given to others in France and then later in Venice and Rome. In other words, Lascaris’ position as a highly mobile first translator of Book 6 could help explain the early prominence and diffusion of a particular reading of it.

MN: In what ways was Machiavelli’s thought in the Discourses influenced by Polybius? How was his reading of Book 6 different from his contemporaries?

JD: The most straightforward way to see the influence of Polybius in the Discourses is in the ways his psychological apparatus helps explain certain arguments made by Machiavelli that are often otherwise perplexing. For example, a commonplace in the Discourses is that the great (the grandi) in any state aim to oppress the other, while the people (the popolo) seek not to be oppressed.  But there are also several instances in the Discourses where Machiavelli seems to suggest that the popolo are just as capable of oppressing as the grandi. A prominent instance of this is in D.I.37, where Machiavelli addresses the Agrarian Laws in Rome. Here he states that after the popolo in Rome acquired access to all the city’s magistracies, and no longer possessed a lower political standing than the grandi, they also began to exhibit grandi-like ambition. This suggests that Machiavelli’s claims about the popolo and the grandi rest on a general account of human psychology, which holds  certain instincts to be dependent on the particular condition an individual finds themselves at a certain time. I argue that Machiavelli  extracted this psychological apparatus from Polybius 6, and that it can explain what kinds of behaviors Machiavelli attributes to each group on account of their condition (e.g. the vulnerable seeking protection, the great dominance), how and why changing circumstances yield different behaviors, and finally the sequences of events that could cause these changing circumstances.

With respect to the relation between Machiavelli’s reading of Polybius and that of his contemporaries, Machiavelli’s was for the most part rather conventional in this respect. However, one notable difference between them is that among Machiavelli’s contemporaries, Polybius was frequently mentioned alongside Aristotle. For example, Donato Giannotti and Bartolomeo Cavalcanti, two humanists mentioned in the article, integrate Polybius’s psychology with material from Aristotle’s Politics, and especially material from Book 5’s discussion of revolutions and constitutional change, suggesting that they viewed the two works as to some extent complementary.  Machiavelli does not at all. This could suggest some tension between Machiavelli’s Polybius and that of his peers.  It also makes the lack of reference to the Politics in D.I.2 even more conspicuous.

MN: To what extent does Machiavelli’s Polybian theory of politics and its relationship to human psychology in the Discourses align with his positions in his more widely-read book, The Prince?

JD: Although there is no explicit mention of Book 6 in The Prince, some of Machiavelli’s recommendations there are compatible with the way he puts Polybius to use in the Discourses. Chapter 9 of The Prince, for example, makes the same statement about the differing dispositions of the nobles and the people, with the more powerful nobles more likely to dominate, and the less powerful people more likely to seek protection. Because I argue that Polybius 6 had been known in Florence, and in Machiavelli’s circle, since at least a decade before the composition of The Prince, it is more likely than not that Machiavelli’s Polybian thoughts would be consistent throughout his works, since they do not depend on a singular event from which he would have been made aware of Book 6’s argument. Much of J.H. Hexter’s argument in his famous article on the question of Machiavelli and Polybius hinges on dating a meeting between Machiavelli and Lascaris; on my account, though, Machiavelli did not require such a meeting in order to know Book 6.

MN: What was the influence of this reading of Polybius on later political theory in Italy and beyond?

JD: This reading of Polybius was very influential on later political theory and especially on the evolution of constitutional thinking. On the basis of his psychological theory, Polybius—and his early modern readers—endorse a kind of mixed constitution, in which political power is distributed between different centers in order to restrain each other’s worst tendencies by mandating cooperation. The idea of constitutional mixing was of course present in Europe before the re-introduction of Polybius and had been an important part of Aristotelian political thought since the thirteenth century.  This Aristotelian form of mixing is quite different, however: it aimed to produce virtuous “middling” or “moderate” outcomes by creating a government composed of members of different classes. For the Polybians, on the other hand, the aim of a mixed constitution was balance, not moderation. The notion of a “separation of powers” so central to the US Constitution is more indebted to the Polybian idea of mixed government than the Aristotelian. But this idea did leave the Polybians open to the charge that their proposed mixed governments risk creating multiple bodies with multiple heads, with each part of the constitution using its constitutional authority to create partisans from among the citizenry. Perhaps somewhat ironically, this view would frequently be expressed by people who endorsed Polybius’s psychological apparatus, arguing that the needed balance can only be maintained in stable circumstances. If circumstances change, like, for example, in the case of a war, then one of the constitution’s parts could leverage its position to gain the upper hand, destroying the balance between them. This is was such an important concern, in fact, that this argument would be frequently deployed in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in support of a kind of pacifist republicanism, which saw war and imperial expansion as the means by which the executive parts of mixed constitutions can swell up and upset the constitution’s balance in their favor. In the decades after Machiavelli, though, the risk of Polybian mixed constitutionalism degenerating into “two bodies, two heads” would feature prominently in the emergent discourse of sovereignty. Polybius’ psychological apparatus, I would suggest, helped to shape the conceptual problem to which ideas of sovereignty were a response.

Max Norman studied comparative literature and classics in America and England, and now writes often on art and literature for magazines in both countries.

Featured Image: A statue of Niccolò Machiavelli in the arcade of Florence’s Uffizi museum. Courtesy of Elan Ruskin/flickr.

Dispatches from the Archives

Democratized Archives in an Enforced Digital Age

By Avery Weinman

Archival work is my bread and butter. Throughout the fall of 2020, I spent a majority of my time researching Eliyahu Beit-Tzuri and Eliyahu Hakim: two Palestinian Sephardi members of the extremist Zionist terror organization Lohamei Herut Israel (also known by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi). On November 6, 1944 in Cairo, Beit-Tzuri and Hakim assassinated Lord Moyne, who, as the British Resident Minister of the Middle East, was one of the highest-ranking officials in the British Empire in the Middle East and North Africa. The assassination thrust the British-Zionist conflict in Palestine to the forefront of the international imagination, and the reverberations from the assassination and subsequent trial both accentuate the importance of Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s Sephardi identities and situate Zionism alongside other anti-imperial national liberation movements of the early-to-mid twentieth century. As I sifted through Hebrew, French, and English newspapers from the mid-1940s, court transcripts from Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s trial in Cairo, their letters to home, fiery propaganda issued by Zionist terror cells, and interior memos of the British Foreign Office, I was filled with the buzzy delight that characterizes how I feel working with primary sources. It was only in the brief moments of unexpected interruption—in which the alarm for my lunchtime baked potato went off, or my laptop chirped that I had ten minutes until my umpteenth Zoom meeting of the week—that I remembered how deeply removed I actually was from traditional archival work.

Since the spring of 2020, archives all over the world have closed their doors in accordance with quarantine measures designed to impede the spread of COVID-19. These conditions are, to put it mildly, a profound challenge to historical research. But these challenges are not without their silver linings, the potential benefits of which are especially visible in the Israeli archives I used while researching Beit-Tzuri and Hakim. While state and state-adjacent institutional backing typically determine the legitimacy of Israeli archival sources, coronavirus-related closures have brought digital accessibility to the fore as a newly significant factor in historical archival research. The abnormal circumstances of archival work in the coronavirus era, which restricts historians almost entirely to the digital space, acts as a sort of hyper-fertile incubator that accelerates historians’ inquiries into the idea of archival work, which archives count, and, ultimately, whose voices get heard.

Archival theory and historians’ investigation into archives themselves well predate the absurdity of 2020. As part of the post-colonial, post-structuralist wave that began in the mid-twentieth century, historians have expanded their understanding of the archive beyond a mere container for data to what Ann Laura Stoler memorably coined “archives-as-things” in her 2009 monograph Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Here, Stoler identified and analyzed the palimpsests of colonial anxieties about race, gender, and power as they appear in archival documentation from the nineteenth-century Netherlands Indies to unveil archives themselves as dynamic expressions of historical processes. In addition to Stoler’s establishment of the archive as a site of historical inquiry, Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s 2015 article “Black Holes, Dark Matter, and Buried Troves: Decolonization and the Multi-Sited Archives of Algerian Jewish History” and Diana Taylor’s 2010 article “Save As… Knowledge and Transmission in the Age of Digital Technologies” raise questions into the role of the archive that have been sharpened by the era of coronavirus. Stein shows that who has the legitimate “right” to archival material and what kinds of archival materials different players seek to control indicate how historical actors use the conquest dimension of the archive to exert authority over the historical narrative. In Stein’s piece, four distinct actors—Algeria, France, Israel, and the Mzabi Jewish community from southern Algeria—competed to possess Mzabi Jews’ archival trail. Both in a literal sense by attempting to collect and house Mzabi documentation, and in a symbolic sense by moving to weave the Mzabi Jewish past into their own narratives, each rival party sought to nationalize, colonize, liberate, or localize Mzabi records to substantiate their own claim as the authentic heirs of Mzabi Jewish history amidst the upheavals of post-colonial independence in the mid-twentieth century. Their four-way tug-of-war prompts historians to consider the problem of dominion over archival materials, and to question the ideologies behind where archival materials are located. Taylor studied the digital archive specifically, and concluded that digitization and twenty-first-century technologies have fundamentally redefined what an “archive” is and can be by democratizing access to and construction of archival (web)sites. According to her, these technologies have transformed which kinds of materials are worthy of archival documentation, eroded the notion of archival ownership or copyright, and deracinated archival sites from physical space and capital. While each of these works predated the coronavirus pandemic, the questions Stoler, Stein, and Taylor have posed are especially potent in a time when being restricted to the digital realm further magnifies the form of archives themselves. My own research experience with Israeli archives this past fall exemplified the renewed relevance of these scholars’ analyses, as historians’ temporary relegation to the e-archive have overturned the pre-existing hierarchy of Israeli institutional archival legitimacy.

Divisions between different Zionist factions siloed whose histories went to which Israeli archives along political lines. This was especially true for the bitter, and often violent, rivalry between the Labor Zionists and the Revisionist Zionists. The Labor Zionists dominated the political landscape of both the pre-state Yishuv and the initial decades of Israeli state sovereignty, from the early twentieth century through the late 1970s. Conversely, the Revisionist Zionists were relegated to the fringes of Zionist and Israeli politics and governance. As Israeli historian Amir Goldstein explains in his 2015 article Olei Hagardom: Between Official and Popular Memory,” the Labor Zionist establishment led by David Ben-Gurion and the Mapai party at the beginning of Israeli statehood were acutely aware of the political power that came with their ability to use institutional legitimacy to curate Israeli collective memory. By privileging their own activities in archives, museums, and ceremonies, while obscuring the presence of their Revisionist Zionist rivals, Mapai formalized a decades-long precedent of political marginalization through institutional exclusion. In so doing, Mapai fixed the parameters for what kinds of politics would be considered legitimate in the Israeli sphere for decades to come. To cement their own position as the hegemon of Israeli state power, the Labor Zionists excluded, redacted, and erased the presence of their political rivals—most notably the Revisionist Zionists, but also the Israeli Communist Party as well—from the archival bodies of state and state-adjacent institutions.

Israeli scholar Tuvia Friling articulates both the process and the consequences of this exclusion of Revisionist Zionist voices from the archive and Israeli historiographical narrative in his 2009 article “A Blatant Oversight? The Right-Wing in Israeli Holocaust Historiography.” Examining the “lacunae” of writing about Revisionist Zionist efforts to facilitate so-called illegal immigration to British Mandatory Palestine following the enactment of the 1939 White Paper, Friling explains that the Labor Zionists at the head of the newly created state of Israel quickly mobilized “sweeping historiographical enterprises to secure their version as the canonical narrative of national rebirth.” In other words, in spite of the fact that Revisionist Zionists’ role in facilitating Jewish immigration was well-known among the population of British Mandatory Palestine, the state expunged records of their activities from institutionally legitimized archives. As a result, Revisionist Zionists were, and remain, overwhelmingly absent from both popular commemoration and Israeli historiography of Jewish immigration in this formative period of national myth-making.

Revisionist Zionists did attempt to set up their own institutions and archives in response to neglect in state interest and state funding. However, because of infighting between different Revisionist Zionist factions and predilection towards mythification and privatization within the ideology of Revisionist Zionism itself, these institutions and archives opened slowly and without the necessary organizational unity required to make a meaningful intervention into the historical narrative. For example, The Lehi Museum in Tel Aviv did not open until 1991. The Menachem Begin Heritage Center, which enjoys a greater degree of political recognition, only began collecting archival materials in 2000. The state of Israel officially recognized the archives of the earliest and most established of Revisionist Zionist bodies, the Jabotinsky Institute, in 1958, but Friling asserts that even the Jabotinsky Institute “remained an isolated island in the ocean of institutes connected in various ways with the leftist camp.” It is one of the peculiarities of Israel that, even four decades after the Revisionist Zionists achieved mainstream political success with the Likud Party’s first victory in the 1977 elections, Revisionist Zionism remains peripheral to the dominant historical narrative and structures of the state.

Eliyahu Beit-Tzuri and Eliyahu Hakim were both members of the Lehi, meaning I relied on marginalized Revisionist Zionist archives—especially the Jabotinsky Institute—to conduct my research. State and state-adjacent institutional archives like the Central Zionist Archives or the Israel State Archives have few, if any, relevant sources on Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s actions and lives. Because of coronavirus-related closures, my main consideration in conducting meaningful research was online access to digitized material. Fortunately, I discovered quite quickly that the Jabotinsky Institute hosts a veritable treasure trove of digitized content on its website that is free to access for anyone with an internet connection. For my research, this archival body yielded an abundance of photographs, letters, newspaper articles, propaganda publications, transcripts, and commemoration pamphlets about Beit-Tzuri and Hakim, their roles in the assassination of Lord Moyne, their trial in Cairo, their executions in March of 1945, and the resonance they would ultimately leave in a hotly contested landscape of Israeli collective memory. With supplementary sources from the extensive collection of historical newspapers provided through the National Library of Israel, I conducted rigorous archival research akin to the standards of working in a physical archival space—all while sitting comfortably at my desk in my tried-and-true Adidas sweatpants.

Working entirely digitally allowed me to conduct this research with relative ease, and to bypass the hierarchy of Israel’s politically siloed archives. This fact, in turn, has prompted me to consider if the crucible conditions of archival work in the era of coronavirus closures have actually created an accelerated democratizing process that casts which archives are considered institutionally legitimate and which histories get told into sharp relief. As Goldstein and Friling point out, the Revisionist Zionist archives I relied on typically fall outside the boundaries of institutional legitimacy. However, because those sources are digitized and easily accessible, Revisionist Zionist archives benefit from the leveled playing field brought about by the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. This strange period in time in which digital access outranks institutional endorsement encourages historians to work with archives they might have otherwise overlooked. My experience researching Beit-Tzuri and Hakim was specific to Israeli archives, but the accelerated process of democratization enabled by digital accessibility applies broadly to archival work across fields of study. How does “doing history” change when unexpected challenges recalibrate which archives historians can even use? Can this moment, as frustrating as it is, instruct historians in how to better include marginalized voices? Can it embolden historians to challenge the notion that institutional backing is synonymous with historical legitimacy? These prodding questions into the idea of archives themselves predate the era of coronavirus closures, but I would optimistically hope that historians can extract a silver lining from this enforced digital age to turn a challenging time into an opportunity to examine the archive with renewed zeal.

Avery Weinman is a graduate student in the UCLA Department of History and the Harry C. Sigman Graduate Fellow at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Her main areas of focus are modern Jewish history, Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies, the history of modern Israel, the history of the modern Middle East and North Africa, and the intellectual history of Zionism. Currently, she is intensely interested in the activities and worldviews of Sephardi and Mizrahi members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi and Lohamei Herut Israel in the 1940s during the British Mandate of Palestine.

Featured Image: Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Interior shot of the storage facilities at the Archives of American Art’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. June 1, 2011. Accessed February 8, 2021. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. | Victor Grigas. Wikimedia Foundation Servers. July 16, 2012. Accessed February 8, 2021. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

News and Events

Intellectual History News and Events

With the proliferation of online lectures, working groups and all manner of events, we at the JHI Blog thought it would be a good idea to consolidate news and opportunities relevant to our colleagues working in intellectual history. We will publish these roundups of public lectures, conferences, calls for papers, working groups and new journal issues every other Saturday.

We encourage our readers to send us information and updates about any news or events that fits within this scope. You can use this form to let us know about something you’d like us to publicize.

Discussion: “Who Needs a Worldview? Raymond Geuss in Conversation”

Brooklyn Institute for Social Research faculty Ajay Singh Chaudhary, Michael Stevenson, and Rebecca Ariel Porte will welcome world-renowned philosopher Raymond Geuss for a wide-ranging discussion of Geuss’s most recent book Who Needs a Worldview? (Harvard).

The event is free to attend and will stream live to the BISR Facebook page.

February 28, 2:00pm EST. Sign up.


Panel: “Health, Disease, and Early American Environments”

This panel discussion brings together the histories of health, disease, and the environment to cast new light on key sites of Colonial American history. With authors Molly Nebiolo (Northeastern University) and Camden Elliott (Harvard University), commentary by Thomas Wickman (Trinity College). Part of the Pauline Maier Early American History Seminar.

March 2, 5:15 – 6:30pm EST. Register.


Lecture: “Microhistory and Global History,” with Carlo Ginzburg

The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies has invited internationally renowned historian Carlo Ginzburg to reflect on his pioneering research in conversation with historian Francesca Trivellato of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. The discussion will touch on the relationship between micro-history and global history, the relevance of Ginzburg’s work for the study of the Jews and marginalized others, the intersections between his life and his work, and the nature of the historian’s craft, among other topics that have been illumined by Ginzburg’s fecund and capacious intellect.

March 2, 12:00 – 1:30pm EST. Register.


Book Launch: Adorno and the Ban on Images, by Sebastian Truskolaski (KCL)

Virtual launch of a new monograph exploring the recurrence of the Old Testament interdiction against image-making in Adorno’s writings, recently published by Bloomsbury Academic. The author will be in conversation with Dr Cat Moir (Germanic Studies, Sydney). Part of KCL’s Comparative Literature research seminar series. 

March 3, 5:30pm UTC+01. Register.


Presentation: “The Dark Green: FIRE,” by Heather Sullivan (Trinity University)

The “dark green” project focuses on narratives revealing plant-human relationships that enable and cultivate human cultures but also the darkly petroleum-fueled industrialization, mass species extinctions, and strange new ecosystems in the Anthropocene allowed by rotted plants in the form of oil, coal, and methane gas. In this talk based on the “FIRE” chapter of the book, the author focuses on literary and scientific explorations of plant-based energy forms as well the many meanings of fire broadly for human culture particularly in the Anthropocene, or the era since the industrial revolution.

Hosted by the Centre for Culture and Ecology, Durham University.

March 4, 7:00pm UTC+01. Register.


Talk: “Sovversivismo: Gramsci on Reactionary Insurrections,” by Roberto Dainotto

Can a popular insurrection “from below,” passionately fought again constituted power, be the expression of the most reactionary of politics? That was the question that the “fascist revolution” had posed for Antonio Gramsci. The presentation examines Gramsci’s changing attitudes towards sovversivismo, or “subversiveness.” Hosted by the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University.

March 5, 9:30 – 1:00am EST. Register.


Film Screening: “I’m No Longer Here” (dir. Fernando Frias)

Join the Spring 2021 Lang Philosophy Film Club series. Everyone with an interest in philosophy, film, and/or convivial conversation about the meaning of what we experience is invited. Each screening will begin and conclude with a discussion facilitated by a member of the NSSR Philosophy Department.

March 5, 7:00 – 10:00pm EST. Register.


Talk: “Entangled Nuclear Colonialisms, Matters of Force, and the Material Force of Justice,” by Karen Barad (UCSC)

In this talk, Karen Barad will expand upon their pathbreaking article “After the End of the World” (Theory & Event, 2019), which states that “quantum theory is shot through with the political.” In order to demonstrate, in relation to the theme of composite bodies, the highly political nature of not only our modes of meaning making, but of matter, they will outline the socio-political dimensions of their agential realist reworking of quantum physics and will briefly discuss the political nature of matter, followed by a discussion of the article and its implications for notions of justice.

March 10, 5:00pm. Register.


Lecture: “The Great Departure: Mass Migration and Freedom,” by Tara Zahra (University of Chicago)

Hosted by the Miami University Humanities Center, co-sponsored by the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.

March 11, 5:00pm. Join via Zoom.


Colloquium: “Feminized Labor, Sex Work and Precarity”
With Annie McClanahan (UC-Irvine) and Jon-David Settell (UC-Irvine)

This meeting will center around discussion of a paper from Annie McClanahan and Jon-David Settell entitled “Service Work, Sex Work, and the “Prostitute Imaginary.’” It’s the second of three events in a semester-long series of programming addressing the capacious theme “racial capitalism and crisis” Attendees can download the paper here and should read it in advance of the colloquium.

March 11, 12:30-2:00pm. Register.


Lecture: “Thinking with Adorno: Metaphysical Experience and Aesthetic Autonomy,” by Henry Pickford (Duke)

In the spring of 1969, when Germany was convulsed by popular unrest and police violence, the editor of the German magazine Der Spiegel begins his interview with the philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno by saying “Professor Adorno, two weeks ago, the world still seemed in order,” to which Adorno responds, “Not to me.” The interview concludes with Adorno asserting, “I am not in the least ashamed to say very publicly that I am working on a major book on aesthetics.”

While Adorno submitted the oppressive tendencies of modern western society to withering critique, his practice as a public intellectual as well as his philosophy also seek to develop capacities of resistance and hope. The talk offers an account of some of these capacities, centering on two concepts advanced by Adorno: metaphysical experience and the riddle-character of modernist art.

March 12, 9:30-11:00am. Register.

Featured Image: Juan Gris, “Fruit Bowl, Book and Newspaper.”

What We're Reading

February Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

I was fascinated by a short piece for Public Seminar by William E. Scheuerman, a scholar of Carl Schmitt and his Frankfurt School critics, which reflects on the paradox that in Schmitt’s view, “Democracy’s realization can legitimately take authoritarian forms,” such as plebiscites and sham elections. As Scheuerman explains, Schmitt argued that democracy (narrowly conceived as homogeneous political identity) and liberalism (narrowly conceived as preserving individual liberties) are not only different but fundamentally antagonistic. This view has returned from the dustbin of historical ideas in Hungarian leader Victor Orbán’s proud affirmation of “illiberal democracy”—a notion Jan-Werner Müller has argued is self-contradictory. Eschewing the “fascism debate,” Scheuerman argues that Trump remained—disturbingly—within the realm of democratic practice, however exclusionary and illiberal his actions may have been: “Authoritarian populists such as Trump hollow out democracy while mimicking its language and sometimes its forms. They practice staged or phantom democracy.”

The historian Robert Gerwarth similarly argues in his piece “Weimar’s Lessons for Biden’s America” that while direct analogies between Trumpism and fascism do not stand up to scrutiny, if Weimar offers one lesson it “is that it is fatal for conservatives to think that they can play with the fire of right-wing extremism without getting burned. Trump is no Hitler, but his deliberate mobilization of the far-right has made the Republican Party dependent on voters who include militant nationalists, Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists—in short, people who want more than just a different government.”

Finally, in Jacobin, historian Matt Karp argues that the present “American political situation portends much scattered violence, but nothing that resembles either civil war or fascist coup.” Rather, he argues that the best historical analogy for understanding the present moment is the Gilded Age, which similarly locked American politics in identity-based partisanship and prefigured the present “class dealignment” of political parties that became strikingly clear in the results of the 2020 election: upper-middle-class suburban whites flocked to the Democratic Party to remove Trump from office, but on the same ballots voted against substantive policies like progressive taxation. In the reverse direction, Karp notes, one working-class county in Florida voted overwhelmingly both to raise the minimum wage to $15 and to reelect Trump. While all three authors argue that removing Trump from office hardly ensures the security of American democracy in the years to come, Karp notes that the democratic process is thriving in at least one sense: “More than two-thirds of eligible voters cast a ballot this fall, making 2020 the highest-turnout election since 1900.”

Max Norman

I have been sampling from A Dictionary of Symbols, by the Spanish artist, aesthete, and latter-day humanist Juan Eduardo Cirlot, recently reprinted by New York Review Books. Cirlot took to symbology in order to understand the ancient roots of the symbols that animated the twentieth-century avant garde: the crosses, hourglasses, skeletons and the like that modern artists took from the tradition like so much ancient spolia. Weaving together Jungian psychoanalysis and 20th century Geistesgeschichte, Cirlot writes a kind of encyclopedia of the tradition, with miniature essays on topics from ‘abandonment’ to the Zodiac. It’s a work whose grandeur and fascination approaches that of Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. Caveat lector: reading before bed may cause Surrealist dreams.

Simon Brown

Earlier this week, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published and publicized and represented his Beat generation of poets, died in San Francisco. He helped to found City Lights, the bookstore and printing house that was sued for obscenity when it published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. It is an icon and fixture of the Bay Area literary world. It also represented the San Francisco that I imagined before I moved to the East Bay in 2015. If you live in Berkeley or Oakland or elsewhere across the Bay, you spend a lot of time—usually unintentionally —looking over at San Francisco and, by extension, thinking about it. On one hand, it makes sense to think about its successive migrations—of Chinese workers, Queer runaways, and now tech workers—since the early twentieth century. There is also the implacable view that Ferlinghetti himself gave in his poem (“The Changing Light,” 2005), of a place recognizable by its natural light: 

    The light of San Francisco

                                                    is a sea light

                                                                          an island light

    And the light of fog

                                        blanketing the hills

                            drifting in at night

                                        through the Golden Gate

                                                              to lie on the city at dawn

Nathan Heller, writing recently for The New Yorker, described “the Northern California style of intellection,” in which writers like Joan Didion have “pinned their ideas to details of landscape,” to escape endless abstraction. The light of San Francisco attracts that style, and makes it hard to look elsewhere. Ferlinghetti captured that and much more of the city.  

Featured Image: Don Quixote Reading. Honore Daumier, c. 1865 – 1870.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Sven Reichardt on Fascism as a Process-Concept

Sven Reichardt is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Konstanz. He works on the history of global fascism, on social movements, and civil societies in the 20th century as well as on the history of war, civil war, and terrorism. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, he contributed an article titled “Fascism’s Stages: Imperial Violence, Entanglement, and Processualization,” which describes the radicalizing practice of the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes in the 1930s and conceptualizes fascism as a global phenomenon.

Contributing editor Jonas Knatz interviewed Reichardt about the interpretation of fascism as a political process-concept and the relevance of such a concept for contemporary debates about fascism as historical analogy.


Jonas Knatz: In your article, you argue that fascism “cannot be defined as a static entity or a catalogue of ideas” but “must be understood as a political process-concept.” (88) With reference to scholarship on National Socialism as an empire and by analyzing fascist warfare and imperial settler policies, the essay shows fascism as a radicalizing process in which the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes of the 1930s engaged in both inter-imperial collaboration and competition that successively radicalized the ideas of a “grand-area imperialism.” Additionally, in line with Anson Rabinbach, you conceptualize fascism as a “political Haltung” (ethos), a commitment to subscribe to an often-incoherent worldview characterized by a “conglomerate of nationalist, racist, anti-socialist, right-wing populist, anti-feminist or male chauvinist, and imperialist” ideas. (89) What is the connection between this political Haltung and the process of radicalization? And what are the advantages of understanding fascism as a political process-concept?

Sven Reichardt: Fascism has often been defined as something static. Whether with the help of a list of characteristics or one-sentence definitions: again and again, this made auxiliary constructions such as “para-fascist,” “proto-fascist,” or “semi-fascist” necessary. In the long run, this is a tiring game of deciding between “not yet,” “almost” and “already fascist,” but it can be overcome or at least mitigated by using a process-term. Fascism as a movement, acting within a democratic system, should be understood as fundamentally different from a state carrying out a genocide in the exceptional situation of the Second World War. Moreover, a process-concept can better capture the inherent radicalization dynamics of fascism, because fascism had a tendency to dissolve boundaries through its polycratic power structures. This is true at both the national and the global level, as both competition within national parties and among fascist regimes led to the violent dissolution of fascism’s boundaries. This tendency to transgress boundaries can be better understood as a habitus or Haltung than as an ideology—even though these two notions cannot, of course, be neatly separated.

JK: The presidency of Donald Trump sparked a wide-ranging debate about the applicability of the label of fascism to cotemporary politics in general and the US in particular, which gained even more steam after the Capitol riots on January 6. Michael Wildt tweeted that one could see “modern fascism” on this day, while Robert Paxton overcame his previous hesitation to call Trump a fascist and argued that “the label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”  Previously, others had been more reluctant about the precision of the term fascism, seeing the fascism debate as a distraction from a debate about the structural causes that paved Trump’s way into office or reflecting more generally on the political consequences of historical analogies. How can understanding fascism as a “political process-concept” contribute to these debates?

SR: Most historians emphasize the differences between Trumpism and interwar fascism. The constitutional structure of the United States is more stable than that of young democracies during the interwar period. Economically, the contemporary United States has been in a much better position (at least before the Corona crisis) than the Weimar Republic ever was. In foreign policy, the US is also less isolated; it is still well-integrated and internationally respected. Left- and right-wing extremism lead a primarily extra-parliamentary existence. In one respect in particular, today’s right-wing populism differs (at least quantitatively) from the anti-system protest of the interwar period: despite the storming of the Capitol, it is not a primarily violent movement, unlike the interwar fascist movements that were shaped by World War I and the bloody street battles with socialists. Undoubtedly, there are numerous instances of violence in the present; consider the hundreds of right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan supporters who converged on the small college town of Charlottesville, VA in August 2017 and turned violent on a massive scale. In the US, the propagators of violence among “white supremacists,” such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and alt-right ideologue Richard B. Spencer, have had a significant boost since Trump’s election. But brutality and militancy were far more widespread in the interwar period, and the legacy of World War I continued to operate in the virulent interwar paramilitarism. Murder rates, anger, and the general acceptance of violence were also significantly greater in the interwar period.

I do see parallels between the past and the present in how society has become divided, marked by hatred and attitudes of “unconditionality” (Unbedingtheit) that, in the case of the Weimar Republic, destroyed democracy. In the US, we have witnessed the formation of antagonistic camps. This is at least true of racism and the political-cultural divide between the metropole and the provinces. In the present, there is a renewed upsurge of nationalism and populism in international politics, from de-tabooed political language to the rise of targeted assassinations of individual politicians by right-wing extremists, or the emergence of a heavy-handed police state.

Presumably, liberal democracy will be further weakened by the Covid-19 crisis, because well before 2020, liberalism, prosperity, freedom of movement, the standing of democratic parties, consensus politics, and social justice had already come under massive pressure from a new authoritarianism. Jürgen Habermas‘ thesis that right-wing populism forms the “breeding group for a new fascism” is worth considering. The Viennese historian of Eastern Europe Philipp Ther prophesies in Der Spiegel that “existential crises like the current pandemic have strengthened xenophobic nationalists and right-wing radicals” several times in history. As is well known, there are no simple, automatic repetitions in history. However, a “Fortress Europe” already seems to manifest itself against asylum seekers. Non-European migrations to Europe will continue to be limited in the future. It is an entirely open question whether crisis-ridden Europe, in the face of tendencies toward re-nationalization since the 2010s, the recently adopted entry barriers by individual nations, and the massive prospects for over-indebtedness and recession, will continue to hold together.

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.

Featured Image: Luigi Russolo, La Rivolta, 1911

Dispatches from the Archives

Why Emerson Admired Bentham But Rejected His Utilitarianism

By Christopher Porzenheim

While it’s become increasingly common since 1970 for scholars to study Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher and evaluate his relationship to canonical philosophers, no one has thoroughly analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks upon Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, which is now one of the most influential contemporary schools of moral philosophy. This is odd. Emerson says at least as much, if not more, about Bentham than he does about Immanuel Kant, yet a vast amount of attention has been devoted to Kant’s influence on Emerson while very little ink has been spilled on Emerson’s relationship to Bentham. Indeed, so far as I know, Neal Dolan and Bhiku C. Parekh are the only scholars who have published anything on this subject.

Ultimately, I believe an analysis of Emerson’s remarks confirms Dolan and Parekh’s claim that Emerson rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, but also reveals something new—why he rejected his ethics. Understanding why Emerson disagreed with Bentham’s ethics matters because it will help anyone who wishes to compare John Stuart Mill and Emerson, characterize the nature of Emerson’s own moral philosophy or determine where he fits in the philosophical canon. As we shall see, Emerson was likely hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because of the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although quite accurately, Emerson recognized Bentham as one among many of the reformers making “accusations of society” in the 19th century (W 1: 228) whose proposed reforms focused on the subject of “Civil Law.” (EL 3: 225-26)

In addition, Emerson had some unambiguously complimentary things to say about Bentham. For example, Emerson is grateful Bentham coined words like maximize, minimize and “international.” (J 7: 69-70) Emerson also believes we should mimic one of Bentham’s habits. According to Emerson, if we wish to have excellent friendships we should primarily spend one on one—rather than group—time with our closest friends, just like how Bentham would only admit one person at a time into his study. (EL 2: 289) More generally, Emerson admires Bentham as a man of ideas (J 8: 465) unseduced by “too fanciful refinements” (EL 2: 289) who loved the truth (J 2: 501-502) and prophetically saw the need to advocate for “systematic Moral Education” in response to the “dark times” of his era. (J 3: 348, EL 2: 97) The rest of Emerson’s praise for Bentham is more ambivalent in its tone.

While Emerson admires Bentham’s aims and intellect, he is also unsettled by the idea that Bentham’s philosophy will be idolized. Emerson thought that Bentham, just like Charles Fourier or Emanuel Swedenborg, was a reformer armed with “a mind of uncommon activity and power” which would allow him to easily impose his philosophical “system” and “classification[s] on other men”. Therefore those with “unbalanced minds” will likely idolize Bentham’s philosophical system and mistakenly think of it as an “end” rather than “a speedily exhaustible means” of reforming society. (W 2: 79-80, EL 3: 140-141, LL 1: 356)

Why is Emerson worried about Bentham becoming idolized? There are at least two reasons. The first is that, as a rule, Emerson believed uncritical hero worship was vicious, whether for writers and poets like Shakespeare or Goethe, philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, or religious figures like Jesus. (W 1: 88, 130-131, 4: 18). The other reason Emerson was uneasy with Bentham is more unique to Bentham. Emerson was always suspicious of very systematic theoreticians like Fourier, Swedenborg, or Bentham: “The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it.” (W 4: 135) This dislike follows from the first reason. Emerson believed that the more comprehensive a theoretical system was, the more likely it would be uncritically worshipped by intellectually complacent pupils. (W 2: 79, EL 3: 140)

Despite Emerson’s concerns there is little evidence that Bentham had anything like a cult following. As Bhikhu C. Parekh relevantly observed in his reception history of Bentham: “If one surveys the controversial writings and the systematic political treatises of the first six or seven decades of the nineteenth century, one finds that the leaders of thought [in America] were untouched by or were unfriendly to Benthamism.” Thus, it seems Emerson’s worry Bentham’s philosophy would be idolized by many of his American contemporaries was unwarranted.

Perhaps the safest general characterization of Emerson’s estimate of Bentham was that he saw him as a positive and negative role model. For, on the one hand, Emerson appears like he may have wished to emulate what he perceived to be Bentham’s life-long focus popularizing one idea. In a journal passage, Emerson asked himself “what do you exist to say?” after approvingly noting that Bentham existed to say one thing “The greatest good of the greatest number”. (J 8: 422) This passage, alongside others, suggests Emerson may have believed he should, like Bentham, focus on popularizing one idea. (JMN 4: 348-349) But, on the other hand, Emerson seems uncomfortable with what he perceives to be Bentham’s monomaniacal focus. As Emerson thought Bentham was “insane on one side” and simply as “crazy” as the popularizer of phrenology Johann Spurzheim for being so eager to repeat one idea over and over again (J 3: 505, EL 3: 140); Bentham “pound[s] on one string till the whole world knows that.” (J 7: 186)

Yet, while Emerson was of mixed minds about Bentham himself, he had no love for his moral philosophy. Emerson’s earliest judgments of Bentham’s philosophy occur in his prize winning Essay on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy. In this youthful scholastic essay, the 18 year old Emerson is dismissive of Benthamite consequentialism, but not openly hostile. Emerson claims that those looking to advance the “science” of ethics should ignore Bentham’s utilitarianism because his “moral arithmetic” is not “necessary” for the “science” of ethics to discover the proper moral “precepts”.

Later, when the mature Emerson judges Bentham’s moral philosophy in his private journals and public lectures his judgements become harsher. Emerson’s outright contempt for Benthamite utilitarianism is well summarized by Bhikhu C. Parekh

in 1831 he [Emerson] wrote in his journal: ‘The stinking philosophy of the utilitarian! Nihil magnificum, nihil generosum sapit, as Cicero said of that of Epicurus.’ [J 2: 455] Two years later, however (a year after Bentham’s death), he [Emerson] wrote to his brother from London: ‘I have been to see Dr. Bowring, who was very courteous. He carried me to Bentham’s house and showed me with great veneration the garden walk, the sitting room, and the bed chamber of the philosopher. He also gave me a lock of his gray hair, and an autograph.… He is anxious that Bentham should be admired and loved in America.’ [L 1: 392] Emerson contributed nothing to that end. He rejected utilitarianism with the same contempt as did his friend Carlyle, by whose views on this subject he was greatly influenced. In 1836, he [Emerson] wrote: ‘I had rather not understand in God’s world than understand thro’ and thro’ in Bentham’s. [L 1: 450]’

This passage from Parekh makes clear that Emerson considered Bentham’s philosophy stinking, ignoble and ungodly, but not so clear why. Some philosophical context can help clarify.

To justify his specific criticism of Bentham’s “stinking philosophy” Emerson appears to be invoking one of Cicero’s arguments from De Finibus; a dialogue written by Cicero in which an Epicurean and Stoic spokesperson defend their ideas about virtue. One of Cicero’s many criticisms of the Epicurean position is that he thinks the Epicureans are mistaken for only valuing virtue instrumentally as a means of securing pleasure, rather than for its own sake. (Cicero. DeFinibus. Bk2.69-73) By invoking Cicero on this point, Emerson implies that this same Ciceronian criticism can be applied to Benthamite utilitarianism. Emerson is right to think so. Like the Epicureans, Bentham’s ethics does not value virtue intrinsically. Bentham’s utilitarianism values actions and things instrumentally insofar as they are conducive to utility (i.e the greatest happiness principle.) Thus, as the Epicureans only value virtue for the sake of pleasure, Bentham can only value virtue for the sake of utility. In contrast, as Jonathan Bishop has noted, Emerson believes that virtue is valuable for its own sake. (W 2: 94-95, 102-103, 121-123, 255) Therefore, Emerson seems to reject Bentham’s ethics because it necessarily denies virtue has intrinsic value (i.e. that virtue is its own reward.) 

Emerson also offers what seems to be a different but related criticism of Bentham’s ethics, namely that it fails to show enough interest in cultivating our character (i.e. in cultivating virtues like temperance, courage, justice, or wisdom.) As Emerson puts it, Bentham is an advocate of a “vulgar utilitarianism” which aims merely at “political or external freedom” and neglects an appropriate concern for “inward freedom also”. (EL 2: 67) Now, it’s undeniable Emerson is objecting to what he perceives to be Bentham’s ethical vulgarity, but not necessarily why. A quick conceptual detour can clarify Emerson’s ire.

Emerson’s critique of Bentham assumes a distinction between what contemporary philosophers sometimes call “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” Put plainly, I lack some positive liberty if I am an alcoholic, because I cannot freely choose among courses of action; an alcoholic has an intemperate (hence vicious) desire to get drunk all the time which shapes all their decisions. Whereas, I lack some negative liberty if the government imprisons me for drunk driving, because it has interfered with my ability to freely choose among courses of action; I am now constrained to one location.

Because Emerson derides Bentham’s utilitarianism as “vulgar” for focusing its concern on our “political or external freedom” (negative liberties) and not also our “inward freedom” (positive liberties) this suggests that Emerson thinks that ethics should be concerned with helping us cultivate the kind of intellectual or moral virtues that allows us to exercise “inward freedom”. Therefore, Emerson seems irked by Bentham’s utilitarianism because he thinks it neglects an appropriate ethical concern for cultivating a virtuous character. 

We can now safely say a few things about Emerson’s remarks on Bentham. There are at least three patterns. One, Emerson tends to be slightly more kind to Bentham in public lectures and essays, and slightly less in his private letters and journals. Two, Emerson admires and criticizes Bentham for the same quality: a monomaniacal, systematic, and lifelong focus popularizing one idea. Three, while Emerson somewhat admired Bentham as a person, he had no admiration for his consequentialist ethics, which he saw as unnecessary moral arithmetic at best, and ignoble and ungodly at worst.

Ultimately, Emerson appears to have been hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because he believed it considered cultivating character relatively inconsequential and subordinated virtue to utility, rather than valuing virtue as its own reward. Thus, it seems as if the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics is driving most of his hostility toward Bentham’s consequentialist moral philosophy.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Abacus Patent Application filed by Andrew F. Schott. 1964. US Patent Office, US110564A.