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Polis, State, and the Common Good

Polis, State, And The Common Good

In his critique of William T. Cavanaugh’s classic essay “Killing for the Phone Company: Why the Nation-State Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good” (2004), Thomas Storck1 invokes the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition to show the teleological necessity of the state. He notes Cavanaugh’s rejection of those claims, a refusal that “puts in jeopardy important truths.” He states (and criticizes) Cavanaugh’s three major claims as follows: 1) the state is not natural; 2) the state forms or “gives rise to” society; and 3) the state has merged with society. I shall critically respond to Storck’s critique of these claims by Cavanaugh within various sub-sections that follow. I will then offer some additional reflection that further supports Cavanaugh’s concerns about the state.

Stressing continuity, Storck writes that, “Political authority has always been both necessary for mankind and, in any particular case, often of dubious origins. But despite that fact, political writers have insisted again and again that the ruler ruled for the sake of his subjects,” making rule, government, or state “an institution as old as the human community” (italics added). Throughout his essay, Storck relies on this notion of political authority as the definition of what it means for a political organization to be natural, and he maintains that the state is such a natural political organization to the extent that it is one in which rulers rule for the sake of their subjects. But here a danger, noted by theologian James M. Cameron, arises, namely, that Catholic writers committed to normative, ideal definitions will find themselves giving “a sacred and unchallengeable character…to the commands of the state, notably where matters of war and peace are in question.”2


Storck recapitulates Aristotle’s teleological argument (adopted by Aquinas) whereby the polis (“state”), pursuing greater ends, ordains certain ends for its subjects. Someone must rule, and thus political institutions are “always” found “in human society” as a “final directive force.” Storck rather hurriedly (but in a longstanding tradition) gathers this wide range of practices across time together as the state,3 closely associating the state’s asserted naturalness with the claim that states rule for the sake of their subjects.

Considerations of space and time preclude taking up the teleological argument here. Let us then take an empirical and historical path. (Aristotle, after all, was a great empiricist in his way.) To anticipate, it is questionable whether ruling for the sake of subjects was ever the primary activity of the Greek city-states that Aristotle saw as natural to man, any more than it is the primary activity of modern states. Thus, I will seek to show how empirical reality suggests that neither Aristotle’s polis nor the modern states are natural in the sense that Storck defines a natural political organization.

Cavanaugh’s First Claim: The State Is Not Natural The City-“State”

By Aristotle’s time, ancient Greeks were used to living in small-scale political societies—the word “political” remaining, however, like polis, somewhat ambiguous.4 Historian Edward E. Cohen notes that Herodotus used polis to mean “towns, states, countries, territories, political communities, central urban areas, municipalities, and villages”; while Aristotle tended to lump society and state5 together under the term. Athens was more of an ethnos, or “nation,” a term generally opposed to polis; “it was too large, too impersonal, too lacking in self-sufficiency” to be a proper polis: “by Aristotle’s criteria, it was not a polis at all.” A polis is perhaps best seen as a body of citizens loosely connected to a place; the definition is thus political and not ethnic and territorial.6 (We still cannot say whether it is a state.)

For classicist Sir Moses I. Finley: “Self-sufficiency, autarky, was the objective” of town life and since “autarky is a nonsensical idea for a town,” a larger entity, the polis, came to be. Autarky (self-sufficiency in resources) was among the reasons Aristotle gave for the polis. This change, however, was conscious and, to a degree, artificial and even revolutionary. One historian characterizes Cleisthenes as “a man who wanted to achieve his political goal at any cost; and this goal was the creation of the Attic nation. Henceforth the nation appears as a single body, divided into ten tribes, thirty ‘thirds,’ and about one hundred communities (demoi).”7

Given this history, Aristotle could take poleis (cities) as fully natural and inevitable, and as (in philosopher Terence Irwin’s words) “the natural goal and completion of the smaller human communities.”8 The polis was thus necessary for human flourishing (eudaemonia). In effect, Aristotle inserted the city into his conception of human nature and seems to have taken concrete historical outcomes for natures and essences. But this may be no better than his alleged “argument” for slavery.9
The final causes (“end,” reason for being, or purpose) of man-made things do not derive from their own already-existing essences or natures, but from the intentions and plans of their human makers. We may expect social institutions to come (partly) within such limits; but of course institutional outcomes are not always intended, much less designed. As Irwin states: “Social and economic institutions and practices may become and remain dominant because they serve the interests of the dominant class in society, even if no one intends them to have that effect…”10

Lasting social institutions are often the work of a minority and can reflect the partisan intentions and interests of, say, a ruling class. In such cases, to take institutions as beings with their own self-evident ends would be to accept the self-serving ideology of a given class of power holders and to deny the existence of social conflict. Aristotle, whom Karl Marx, a trained classicist, called “the greatest thinker of antiquity,” did not ignore conflict. The twentieth-century Marxist classicist G. E. M. de Ste. Croix laid this out very nicely (1981) as “Aristotle’s Sociology of Greek Politics,” and described politeia (“polity”) as equivalent to “constitution” or “way of life,” and politeuma as equivalent to politeia or “body politic,” of which the everyday government is the agent.11

In Greek cities, then, there were organized bodies politic, some tightly oligarchic, some relatively democratic. But from a later perspective these seem more like large-scale private clubs exploiting non-citizens and slaves, and protecting class-rule, than anything we might call a state, pragmatically or ideally. They were not natural political organizations in Storck’s sense of what it means to be a natural political organization. They certainly do not seem much like modern, abstract, bureaucratic states on stage since about 1500 A.D. Furthermore, we can even question whether any large, modern body-politic can truly be natural according to Storck’s definition, because it is highly doubtful that any such organization would truly function and be ruled for the sake of citizens as a whole. Political scientist Leonard Brewster makes this point when arguing that the state—taken as a social-service entity “which can bring order, or function for the good of the whole society, and is therefore of significant benefit to anyone outside the ‘governing class’”—is in fact impossible. It is possible, however, to have a ruling class or coalition (of which more below).12 The Greeks thus seem to have had an early form of possible governance.

This survey suggests that the polis for which Aristotle supplied both theoretical rationale and empirical analysis is not a state as understood since the sixteenth century, nor was it a truly natural political organization according to Storck’s definition of the term. (We may note in passing that Aquinas typically saw man as a social animal and only called man a “social and political animal” in three or so places.13 ) However, in another sense (but not according to Storck’s definition), leadership and governing, even with narrowly self-interested ruling elites in charge, seem “natural” enough in human society, in the sense of being found in most times and places. But the naturalness of class-based rule—much less its metastasis in the modern state—is not established under the telos (end) proposed by Storck.

Second Claim: The State Causes Society

For Cavanaugh, the state brings uniform national societies into being in very large territories. Storck finds an equivocation here, in that society—understood as families, clans, guilds, etc.,—originally “gives rise” to the state, after which the duly-formed state builds a bigger and better society on its own plan by incorporating new people and territories and broadening its effective power. The state, then, is natural to man but overreaches on a grand scale. This tendency is so practically entwined with the state’s absorption of society that we may proceed to the third claim.

Third Claim: The State Has Fused with Society

Here Storck believes he has caught Cavanaugh in an equivocation involving the term “state,” which can mean “the government itself or the political community” (where “government” = rulers). But since Storck has already assumed government or state (it is not clear which) into society, he himself may be caught in some equivocations on state and society. For Storck, “polis or state can also mean a particular human community as politically constituted,” and this Hellenic premise encourages him to write: “We can think of the actual human beings as the matter and the regime, in the broadest sense of that term, as the form of this community.” Here Storck seems to repeat a claim made by Bodin (1576), repeated by Orestes Brownson (1866), and criticized by Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (1967).

Wilhelmsen (no enemy of authority) saw Bodin’s claim as a disaster, since substantial form is “that interior principle of growth and specification (dynamis) which quickens a reality from within and makes it to be what it is. It follows that hylomorphism14  could never have been used in any properly symbolic sense to describe medieval politics.” In those societies, public power served under practical and doctrinal limits to harmonize “an already differentiated and institutionalized society,” to enforce known law, secure justice, and to repel invasions and maintain internal peace. “Public power became absolute only when it truly did become the substantial form of the republic.” Thereafter, the modern state—the very thing of which Cavanaugh complains—made the community into “amorphous dough…absorbed all Authority within itself and proclaimed itself Sovereign.” Society’s previously existing institutions and practices became “so many quaint relics…” Now the limits on this power were internal to the state itself (not much of a limit), if they existed at all. At this point, liberal theorists arrived to propose controlling this monolithic power with various clever mechanisms (“separation of powers,” “checks and balances”) whose failure now seems evident.15

Storck adduces a quotation from Aristotle in which the state “is the end of [the earlier forms of human association], and [since] the nature of a thing is its end…the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part” (citing Politics 1.2). But not every type is a proper universal and if on some occasions we can do no better than to give a name to some complex set of phenomena, then “nominalism” may actually apply, and offering us teleology is little help, if no self-standing essence or nature with its own inbuilt ends has been shown to exist. Where social institutions are concerned, the “nature” at issue is actually human nature, which is (like other natures) actualized in distinct beings (here: “persons”). In the light of experience, we have considerable knowledge of human nature, both immediate and historical, making it possible to discover some minimal foundations for society. Thinkers as different as Thomas Paine, John Wild, Walker Percy, Pope John Paul II—the list could go on—agree that humans are fitted “for society.” This conclusion requires fairly minimal experience, on the basis of which we are free to take it as rather self-evident and a priori to further reflection.16 Language by itself is already good evidence: Who else are we going to talk with?17 Wild, for example, writes: “the community is ‘natural (φύσει)’ to man…” Here the over-determined modern mind will readily seize, rightly or not, on the word “community,” just as it might seize on “political” (=“urban” or “town-dwelling”?), and read either as necessarily licensing a state. But this assumes the very point in dispute. Wild adds that, according to Paine, “man is a social being not by contract but by nature, and originally endowed with tendencies that fit him for social life.”18

Humans are (or can be) cooperating social beings. They work together to achieve shared ends as families, kindreds, associations, enterprises, and communities. These collectivities do “exist.” The question is to what extent, if any, we can say that human associations and institutions exist as discrete beings to which we can attribute ends over and above, or separate from, the shared ends of their members. For this reason we have to study human institutions, including states, empirically and historically. It would be naïve to concede to the state some overriding end before we investigate how those who compose states conduct themselves. On that ground, we might well conclude that humans in large organizations generally behave in shocking and depressing ways. Perhaps the “essence” (derived, not given) of states is here, in flawed and sinful human nature, as some material below will suggest.

Thus our agreement that social organization arises from human nature does not concede much to the state; in fact, the real functioning of the state is often at cross purposes with the social nature of subjects in that the state tends to aim primarily at advancing the interests of rulers and their allies at the expense of their subjects. The state does have some connection, albeit rather negative, with human nature, as already hinted. While granting the many complexities of social life and theory,19 original sin must appear on the list, and this must awaken reflection on whether the state may better serve as a channel for the sins of rulers than it does as a corrective for the sins of its subjects. On materialist grounds, Sir Ernest Gellner wrote in a critique of Soviet Marxism that we can explain the state “simply by the self-interest of the soldiers and officials who man it. They do very nicely out of it, thank you, and given that they control the means of coercion and persuasion…they will keep the system going.” Gellner found it rather touching that Marxists seemed to think that exploitation of man by man was not part of human nature and had to be invented.20

And while we are speaking of class rule and exploitation, it is interesting that toward the end of his essay Storck agrees with Cavanaugh that states and corporations are increasingly allied, but assumes that Cavanaugh has missed something: “Capital has taken control of the state and is using the state for its own purposes.” The state must, therefore, have become weaker. But the malevolent synergy of capital and state, cooperatively eroding our freedoms and liberties, makes neither of them weaker, despite their occasional quarrels. The interpenetration of state and capital—already noted by Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917)—is longstanding and arguably strengthens both. In Cavanaugh’s words, “Capitalism and the state arose simultaneously as, respectively, the economic and political logic of the same movement.”21 Here indeed is Louis Althusser’s extended state22—the reigning coalition of formal state and inseparably allied interest groups—whose operations suggest that ideal states actually pursuing the common good are thin on the ground, if not “impossible,” as Brewster holds. Here a large empirical literature on the predatory character of actually existing states looms up. Certainly states as we know them, with or without a pre-modern pedigree (see below), have become very successful organs of class rule.

British sociologist Tom Burns sees the state as the “greatest artefact of the Renaissance.” Sixteenth-century political thinkers underlined the state/society distinction chiefly to make the state transcendent under a drastically remodeled—and state-building—notion of “natural law.” Civil society (the people) now became “a vast residue from which power and authority have been extracted and distilled into sovereignty.” Rulers installed vast, bureaucratic chains of command over which their control was incomplete. Like Boss Tweed, self-interested bureaucrats made the most of their opportunities. In time, civil service reform supposedly fixed things. By the late twentieth century, the (British) state’s departments had politicized themselves, and allied with economic interests, were carrying on a war for spoils within the state and between the state and society23—whence, one could add, the many variations on interest-group liberalism, or even corporatism, found today.

In a piece frankly called “The Predatory Theory of Rule,” political scientist Margaret Levy broke with the kind of Marxism that makes the state merely “a dependent variable, a product of the mode of production and an instrument of the dominant economic class.” Instead, the rulers are proactive: “State rulers, often in coalition with state agents or a particular faction of the subject population, compete with subjects in dividing up society’s wealth.” Starting under feudal decentralization, a stronger class “will form a coalition to establish a state that undermines any competition by specifying and enforcing their own property rights.” This done, the ruler (king or parliament) relies on “a repressive apparatus composed of police, jailers, and other hirelings paid to uphold the laws”—i.e., “a domestic military…” Cases vary, but predatory rulers calculate and are pretty good judges of what they can get away with.24

Historian David Gross has noted that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, states “went on the offensive against virtually every kind of intervening body existing between the individual and the state itself.” Activity increasingly had to be licensed, chartered, and permitted. (“Was nicht Pflicht ist, ist verboten,” as the old joke goes.) Occupying its recently acquired high ground, the state promoted corrosive individualism and handed out “rights” as sovereign gifts. Yet, even under “so-called laissez-faire capitalism, the state never actually relinquished its numerous policing functions.” Enforcing its ideology through public education and writing its own history as the avatar of Progress, the state (or states) finally aspired to “monopoly over the storage of information” in order “to generate power over those whom they are used to regulate.” (The NSA already knows this—in fact they “know” everything, if we mistake information for wisdom and knowledge.) Along the way, states took over time itself, even if they share it with the atemporal capitalists.25

The radical French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu sees the state as an active concentration of various kinds of capital: “physical force or instruments of coercion (army, police), economic capital, cultural or (better) informational capital, and symbolic capital.” With these in hand as “statist capital,” states can prevail over holders of lesser, specific capitals. Tax collection, which began in earnest at the end of the twelfth century, involved “a veritable internal war” against state subjects. At the same time, states invested themselves with symbolic capital (liveries, etc.) and informational capital, unifying and homogenizing society by knowing more and more about people’s activities, and finally, by providing people with national identity, ideology, and a civic religion. Hierarchical court systems followed, along with honor rolls. Taken together, these efforts left the state with “a genuinely creative, quasi-divine, power.” Indeed, “the state has imposed the very cognitive structures through which it is perceived” and may then demand that people die for the state (pro patria mori).26

This is all very depressing, and we now call another witness, sociologist Joan Dyste Lind, on tribute-seeking organizations that strive systematically, rationally, and purposefully to realize revenue. Nomads were rather good at this in ancient times. They and later rent-seekers learned to reinvest some of their earnings in instruments of future coercion as well as for defense of their subject territory. The long-range result was “a cumulating social technology,” arrived at through a rather Darwinian process of trial-and-error. The biggest trial was war, which eliminated some competitors and left winners stronger. Under certain social conditions, sustained warfare between competing territorial lords might be expected to raise the coercion-and-extraction cycle to the level needed to produce modern states, as Charles Tilly tells us.27 By now, modern begins to seem redundant in speaking of states (see below).

State and Society: Some Further Considerations

The following is a loose set of further considerations about society, the modern state, and other matters that both support Cavanaugh’s perspective and, hence, raise concerns about Storck’s criticisms of Cavanaugh.


Sitting through a good many sociology classes between 1968 and 1971, I came to wonder where we would find the “society” on which the sociological guild focused. If memory serves, neither the lecturers nor the readings gave a ready answer. Finally in the 1980s, light shone forth and Anthony Giddens made it clear that “society” is any bunch of humans confined within a recognized, sovereign nation-state.28 This was implicit all along, but direct admission was infrequent and slow in coming. With due realism, sociologists—those students of the modern—had annexed society to the surrounding states, repeating as observation and theory what Cavanaugh sees (rightly) as the product of over five centuries of lived history and struggle—or as Jacob Burckhardt put it, “the terrible convulsions” and “what it cost” to establish states.29 A substantial literature tells the state’s modern tale.30

Is the State Only Modern?

Some scholars such as Luigi Marco Bassani and Carlo Lottieri argue that states are only modern. Cavanaugh shares this view.31 On this view, large-scale political orders in the ancient world—even empires—were at most what English historical sociologist John A. Hall calls “capstone empires”: organizations extracting revenue and keeping order over large spaces but only minimally able to penetrate deeply into the underlying societies they dominated.32 The Chinese and Roman Empires, with their developed agrarian bureaucracies and huge territorial extension, represent the nearest approaches to modern statehood before 1500. It is, by contrast, the modern European state that developed orderly boundaries, theories of sovereignty, and the power to intervene deeply and effectively into society itself.33 Under this new scale and scope of politics we are no longer dealing with poleis or indeed anything Aristotle is likely to have understood or approved.

State vs. Government

At this point in the quest Albert Jay Nock’s contrast between “government” and “State” begins to look promising. Nock probably inherited the distinction from Hegelian-American political scientists like John W. Burgess, but he deployed it against the State’s totalizing claims and ambitions. As Nock put it, “government implements the common desire of society, first, for freedom, and second, for security,” whereas the state “originated in conquest and confiscation” and organized the political means to wealth. Nock’s government—ordinary, local, limited in power, ambitions, and scope, and sometimes subject to popular control—bears some likeness to Greek cities, at least until Athens tried out empire and Sparta exhausted itself. Interestingly, the late George Carey recommended renewed attention to twentieth-century conservative writers concerned with “the full dimensions of the modern state’s aggrandizement of power,” particularly Nock, Robert Nisbet, and Bertrand de Jouvenel.34

Effective Merger of Society and State

Cavanaugh’s claim that modern states have eaten society seems entirely true. Yet much is said lately about some imagined “withering-away” of the state in the face of globalization and neo-liberal “laissez faire” and austerity at home. These claims quickly deconstruct themselves. 1) Globalization rests on the artificial, imperial creation of markets (mostly by the United States) at considerable cost in life, liberty, and material welfare. (The distribution of these “bads” is very uneven.) 2) Massively increased state spending (again mostly American) on wars, military hardware and forces, and expansionist “security” projects offsets any alleged “savings” on domestic infrastructure and welfare, while ratcheting up incredible levels of (American) state debt. There is no net reduction in the power and role of the state; instead the evidence strongly suggests considerable increase. What is actually withering away is any concrete distinction or boundary between state and society.35 Legal historian William Novak, for example, notices how the American central (“federal”) government has taken over American local government and is, within few limits, able to deploy all governmental power on the continent,36 especially in matters of alleged security—and we might add, creation of artificial (and perhaps unwanted) national and global markets. The state-corporate merger noted by both Cavanaugh and Storck is a feature of an ongoing merger of society and state. If this merger benefits certain narrow political and economic sectors while burdening everyone else, this may be taken as evidence that states seldom serve the common good.

An Aside on Arguments from Romans 1337

Our landfall (above) in the neighborhood of modern states with demonic powers raises the question of what St. Paul meant by the exousiai (“powers”) in Romans 13. There, rulers seem to be “under” [ύπο] God, but so are fire ants, hurricanes, earthquakes, and alligators. So far this is no ringing endorsement, whether these rulers are states or something else again.38

The great Thomist philosopher and historian Étienne Gilson comments: “The classical misconception on the point consists in supposing that all power is legitimate because all power comes from God. The true doctrine is that no power is legitimate save that which comes from God. To have the right to exact obedience, the authority must first itself obey the eternal law; its whole legitimacy consists in being an expression of that law.”39 Similarly, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder sees Paul as meaning: “The state is not instituted, i.e., established, but rather accepted in its empirical reality, as something that God can overrule toward His ends.”40 The matter is, one must admit, fraught with difficulties, but it seems to me that its resolution can only follow along the lines pursued by Gilson and Yoder. Such considerations lead us back rather quickly to the massive empirical critique of states alluded to above (see notes). That critique does involve human nature, but more as flawed by original sin and power lust than as corrected by large organizations deemed essential for living well. Natural law accounts must give some room to a New Testament account.41


“Government,” very loosely construed as direction of human social enterprises, provision for (real) security, leadership, etc., is no doubt good in its sphere, that is, where it can be good. A king whose advice counts because he is trusted and respected would stand leagues above a king who believes his word is “law” because the king’s opinion matters. Greek political societies, or “republics,” had their merits, even if these reached early limits. Alas, equivocation runs all through the problems at hand, the whole history of the topic, and the very words we have inherited as tools. As soon as “society” is taken to include the “state,” or the state is taken as legitimately providing the proper boundaries of society, difficulties arise—not least because actual human persons suddenly become “parts” of “wholes” whose status typically remains rather under-specified. As philosopher Germain Grisez writes, “many Christians formerly thought of the state as if its interests were those of a whole of which individuals were only parts, so that capital punishment could be justified in the same way as amputation.” Marion Montgomery makes the interesting point that Averroism, an originally Islamic reading of Aristotelian philosophy rejected by Aquinas, posited an ultimately single human consciousness (intellect), thereby making concrete persons once more into parts of a whole.42

It seems quite wrong to suppose that Aristotle’s views on concrete Greek political societies can justify or explain everything from a town council to a modern European-style state, even if the latter parade under republican forms and slogans. As classicist Patricia Springborg writes: “ancient city-republican forms have been transported, with unintended consequences, into the setting of the large territorial state, is perhaps due to the factor of scale being overlooked.” Human-scale cultural and economic interaction and the “concept of the city as a public space” are “all lost when the state ceases to be the city and government is removed to some isolated federal capitol on a hill, with hegemony over lands and seas on which many of its citizens have never personally cast an eye.”43 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, often seen as having advocated modern, out-of-scale republicanism, knew better. He wrote that once citizens defer to a standing legislature, power will ultimately devolve to the executive: “Executive power is only force; and where force alone rules, the state is dissolved. And that, gentlemen, is how all democratic states perish in the end.” Here is a nice summary of the history of oversized western republics, including the not-exceptional United States.44

I have to think that the Philosopher would never have embraced the modern state whose very size and ambitions make “politics” in Aristotle’s sense quite impossible.45 In our situation, we might well wish to give the Greeks a second look, but not as founding modern states. It is indeed the matter of scale46 that makes the polis a continually attractive alternative: a vision that has influenced thinkers from Jefferson down to Max Horkheimer, Walter Karp, Murray Bookchin, and a good many off-brand conservatives including Robert Nisbet, as well as Agrarians and Distributists. We should be happy to serve in such worthy company, which includes Thomas Storck,47 even if we disagree with him on certain arguments linking poleis and states rather too tightly.



1. William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Phone Company: Why the Nation-State Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good,” Modern Theology 20 (April 2004): 246‒60, ; Thomas Storck, “William Cavanaugh’s ‘Killing For The Telephone Company,’ A Critique,”

2. J. M. Cameron, “Obedience to Political Authority,” in Problems of Authority, ed. John M. Todd (Baltimore: Helicon, 1962), 212‒13 (clauses transposed).

3. For a critique of attempts to find essentially the same institutions across time and space, see Robert A. Nisbet, Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).

4. Richard John Cunliffe’s Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (1924; repr., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 335, gives these meanings for polis in Homeric Greek: “πόλις, πτόλις….. (1) A town or city (cf. άστυ),” with various examples dealing with town life. James Donnegan’s New Greek and English Lexicon (Philadelphia: Butler & Williams, 1844), 1018 (italics added), provides the following: “Πόλις…. a city; a town—a state; the commonwealth….” A famous Chicago School thinker claims to have found a minimal Homeric “state”: Richard Posner, “The Homeric Version of the Minimal State,” in The Economics of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 119‒45.

5. Cohen uses the term “state” without reference to arguments about when actual states arose.

6. Edward E. Cohen, The Athenian Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), ix-x, 3, 7‒8, 53.

7. M. I. Finley, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1983), 4‒5. Ernest Barker, ed., The Politics of Aristotle (1946; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), Book 1: 2, 4‒5. “The Fall of Tyranny in Athens and the Reforms of Cleisthenes,” in Hermann Bengtson, ed., The Greeks and the Persians (New York: Delacorte, 1968), 29‒30.

8. Terence Irwin, Aristotle’s First Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 607n. Cf. Politics of Aristotle, Book 1: 2, 2‒8.

9. Patricia Springborg, Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 30 (longer discussion at 26‒31).

10. Terence Irwin, Classical Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 127‒28 (longer discussion at 126‒31).

11. G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 23‒24, 69‒80 (“Aristotle’s Sociology of Greek Politics”), 286‒87.

12. Leonard Brewster, “The Impossibility of the State,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 16 (2002): 19‒34; quotation at 19.

13. Dino Bigongiari, ed., The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Hafner, 1966), 203n. Intellectual historian Friedrich Heer refers to Aquinas’s “war against the hypostatization of society and the state, which he sees not as beings in their own right (‘Holy Empires’) with a necessary tendency towards self-deification, but simply as relations…” The Intellectual History of Europe (1953; repr., New York: World Publishing, 1966), 498n.

14. The Aristotelian-Thomistic doctrine that form determines matter, while matter individuates form (where hylē  = “matter and morphē  = “form”).

15. Orestes Brownson, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny (New York: P. O’Shea, 1866), 67. See my critique of Brownson, “Orestes Brownson and the Mystical Body of the Union,” Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, “Donoso Cortés and the Meaning of Political Power,” Intercollegiate Review 3 (January‒February 1967): 115‒17.

16. Uskali Mäki, “Mengerian Economics in Realist Perspective,” in Carl Menger and His Legacy in Economics, ed. Bruce J. Caldwell (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 289‒310.

17. Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (1954; repr., New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1975).

18. John Wild, Plato’s Modern Enemies, 171, 121.

19. Cf. Margaret Archer, “Realism and the Problem of Agency,” Alethia 5 (2002): 11‒20.

20. Ernest Gellner, “Soviets against Wittfogel,” Theory and Society 14 (1985): 351, 367.

21. Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Phone Company,” 264.

22. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” inContemporary Critical Theory, ed. Dan Latimer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 60‒102.

23. Tom Burns, “Sovereignty, Interests and Bureaucracy in the Modern State,” British Journal of Sociology 31 (December 1980): 491‒96, 500‒02.

24. Margaret Levy, “The Predatory Theory of Rule,” Politics and Society 10 (1981): 434, 439‒40, 433 (italics added), 456‒57.

25. David Gross, “Temporality and the Modern State,” Theory and Society 14 (1985): 62‒65, 69‒71, 74‒77. Ernst H. Kantorowicz, “Pro Patria Mori in Medieval Political Thought,” American Historical Review 56 (April 1951): 472‒92.

26. Pierre Bourdieu, “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field,” Sociological Theory 12 (March 1994): 4‒8, 9‒12, 14.

27. Joan Dyste Lind, “The Organization of Coercion in History,” Social Theory 1 (1983): 2‒4, 10‒11, 13‒15. Charles Tilly, “Warmaking and Statemaking as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169‒91. See also Kenneth Boulding, “Towards a Pure Theory of Threat Systems,” American Economic Review 53 (May 1963): 424‒34; R. E. Canjar, “The Modern Way of War, Society, and Peace,” American Quarterly 36 (1984): 433‒39; and Youssef Cohen, Brian R. Brown, and A. F. K. Organski, “The Paradoxical Nature of State Making,” American Political Science Review 75 (December 1981): 901‒10.

28. Anthony Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985).

29. Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom (1943; repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 111. Burckhardt, to be sure, thought of states as both ancient and modern.

30. Bertrand de Jouvenel, Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Public Good (1957; repr., Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997); John U. Nef, Western Civilization since the Renaissance: Peace, War, Industry and the Arts (New York: Harper & Row, 1963); Hans Lubasz, ed., The Development of the Modern State (New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1964); Reinhard Bendix, Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Gianfranco Poggi, The Development of the Modern State (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978); Niels Steensgaard, “The Seventeenth-Century Crisis,” in The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Geoffrey Parker and Lesley M. Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 26‒56; Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1979); William Hardy McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Giddens, Nation-State and Violence; John Brewer, Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688‒1783 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989); Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); Bruce Porter, War and the Rise of the State (New York: Free Press 1994); Martin Van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999);  and William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), esp. 142‒50.

31. See Luigi Marco Bassani and Carlo Lottieri, “The Problem of Security: Historicity of the State and ‘European Realism,’” in The Myth of National Defense, ed. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2003), 21‒64, and Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Phone Company,” 255‒64, where Nisbet’s insights on the matter are conserved and surpassed.

32. John A. Hall, “Capstones and Organisms: Political Forms and the Triumph of Capitalism,” Sociology 19 (May 1985): 173‒92.

33. For the state as modernity, see John Boli-Bennett and John W. Meyer, “The Ideology of Childhood and State,” American Sociological Review 43 (December 1978): 797‒812; John Boli-Bennett and John W. Meyer, “Constitution as Ideology,” American Sociological Review 45 (June 1980): 525‒27; Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited,” American Sociological Review 48 (April 1983): 147‒60; David H. Kamens, “‘Statist’ Ideology, National Political Control of Education, and Youth Protest,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 27 (December 1983): 563‒89; Francisco O. Ramirez and John Boli, “The Political Construction of Mass Schooling,” Sociology of Education 60 (January 1987): 2‒17; and John W. Meyer, John Boli, George M. Thomas, and Francisco O. Ramirez, “World Society and the Nation-State,” American Journal of Sociology 103 (July 1997): 144‒81. And see Barbara G. Haskel, “Access to Society: A Neglected Dimension of Power,” International Organization 34 (Winter 1980): 89‒120.

34. Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy, the State (1935; repr., New York: Free Life Editions, 1973), 16‒17, 26‒28. George W. Carey, “America’s Founding and Limited Government,” Intercollegiate Review 39 (Fall 2003/Spring 2004): 21‒22.

35. See Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power (1948; repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 1962); James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution (1941; repr., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966); Poggi, Development of the Modern State; Samuel T. Francis, “Neoconservatism and the Managerial Revolution” and “The Other Side of Modernism: James Burnham and His Legacy,” in Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993); and Paul Edward Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

36. William J. Novak, “The Myth of the “Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113 (June 2008): 752‒72.

37. I am not suggesting that either Cavanaugh or Storck raised this subject.

38. Here see Eric Voegelin, “Theoretical Inquiry into Romans 13” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 31: Hitler and the Germans, ed. Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 178‒83, is very useful. See also Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956); Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, 2, Mediaeval Philosophy, Part 1 (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1962), Ch. 8, “St. Augustine—VI: The State”; Gerhart B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 254ff; James W. Douglass, The Non-Violent Cross (New York: Macmillan, 1968), Ch. 8, “Christians and the State,” esp. 193‒96 on Romans 13; and Donald D. Kaufman, What Belongs to Caesar? (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969), Ch. 2.

39. Étienne Gilson, Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 475n (italics added).

40. Kaufman, What Belongs to Caesar, 50.

41. Douglass, Non-Violent Cross, 208‒13.

42. Germain Grisez, “Christian Moral Theology and Consequentialism,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), 309. Marion Montgomery, “The Consequences of the ‘Modernist’ Idea,” Chattahoochee Review 12 (Fall 1991): 44.

43. Patricia Springborg, Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 241‒42.

44. Bertrand de Jouvenel, “Rousseau’s Theory of the Forms of Government,” in Hobbes and Rousseau, ed. Maurice Cranston and Richard S. Peters (New York: Anchor Books, 1972), 496‒97.

45. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959); and Marinus Ossewaarde, “‘Spaces of Normativity’: The Rule of Law in Attic and (Post-) Westphalian Poetics of Space,” European Journal of Legal Studies 2 (2008): 203‒19,

46. See Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghehan, 1980).

47. See a selection of Thomas Storck’s work here:


This was originally published with the same title in Anamnesis on November 13, 2013.

Joseph R. StrombergJoseph R. Stromberg

Joseph R. Stromberg

Joseph R. Stromberg is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and has held the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A columnist for, his research interests include U.S. foreign policy and the "War on Terrorism."

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