The Conquest of Eros: Tyranny Revisited as the Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns

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Tyranny: A New Interpretation. Waller R. Newell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.


In recent years whenever I am obliged to teach the history of European political philosophy and development of political knowledge, I keep repeating to my students that not a single idea has come down to our age without serious debate among major political thinkers, who regarded those ideas as fundamentally important for their respective times. Aristotle criticized Plato, Saint Augustine quarreled with Pelagius, Locke vehemently attacked Filmer, Burke had to defend himself against Paine – the lines of debate are almost endless. But it is more difficult to draw lines of such debate over individual questions. Perhaps the Marxists developed several systems of intellectual clashes; Machiavelli too generated almost a labyrinth of literature; and Nietzsche’s impact has become a cultural phenomenon in itself. But European intellectual life, apart from religious movements, created one overarching, general debate about its identity in various fields and genres and on different levels that finally acquired the name of the quarrel between the ancients and moderns. Was there really a break in European intellectual history? If yes, we must take it as a vantage point in our analysis of European development of political and philosophical ideas. If not, then we must consider the peculiarities of European modernity compared to other cultures.

Waller R. Newell’s book Tyranny: A New Interpretation has everything a book can offer to a serious reader of political philosophy. The context of the book fits into the debate initiated in late seventeenth century France and that has been carried on with fluctuating intensity practically until today. The central issue of that debate was whether the ancients or the moderns had better answers to man’s eternal issues and problems. Newell does not want to decide this issue; he simply uses this context in order to construct a solid foundation for his examination of one of the most burning questions of modern political philosophy, i.e. what is new in modern tyranny, if anything?

Newell has set the task for himself to face the monstrous modern tyrannies of the twentieth century. He does not satisfy himself with applying the phraseology of modern ideology, or “value free” (or, simply, intellectually nihilistic) modern political science to address this issue. He is specially keen on repeating several times what the central thesis of his book is: “the classical understanding of tyranny viewed it as a deformed and excessive version of eros, the cure for which lay in the proper redirection of eros toward civic virtue and philosophy. In contrast, I argue, modern political thought, beginning with Machiavelli, understands statecraft as originating in an act of will that attempts to master nature, and above all to master the passions expressed through eros” (p. 26).

The author admits that “although my approach has been considerably influenced by Strauss, my particular interpretation of Machiavelli as a post-Christian and in some ways ‘apocalyptic’ thinker owes something to Voegelin” (p. 14). This remark implies that Newell had to decide to what extent to follow Strauss, and where to soften or qualify his views with the help of Voegelin. Beyond doubt the key moment is how one reads Machiavelli. The tension caused by the different assessments of Machiavelli by Strauss and by Voegelin produces in Newell a hesitant or skeptical judgment of the issue of tyranny that is relevant in understanding the whole book. Newell reads the original texts, whether he wants to or not, through the interpretation of Strauss and/or Voegelin. Hannah Arendt plays only a minor role in his exploration of the subject. What must be taken seriously is the author’s dual intention: understanding tyranny in itself, and doing so under the pressure of the authority of both Strauss and Voegelin.

The author’s double intention is partly revealed by the structure of the book. The reader’s eyes are immediately struck by the length of the book (518 pages plus bibliography and index). Today few people write such long books unless one wishes to give a final teaching on a subject. Our second impression is that the book has an unusually long introductory part. It consists of the Introduction but also the first chapter, which I regard as the organic continuation of the Introduction. This part of the book alone totals 80 pages. And then we have a Conclusion plus an Epilogue, which together come to almost 100 pages. To me these things suggest that in addition to the actual arguments regarding tyranny, the author had a second subject to tackle. But this dual focus makes the book very exciting to read.

Newell has not only integrated and thoroughly applied the intellectual intentions of great thinkers like Strauss or Voegelin, but he has tried to challenge them in a moderate and decent way. Yes, the spell of these thinkers might well be over, but their intellectual superiority is still almost disarming, and Newell is ready to accept it. This is perhaps due to certain simple facts, for instance, the fact that they read ancient Greek and Latin, that they probably read more than we do today, and most importantly, that they were the first to understand what the real problems of our age are. We still live in the same age that the great twentieth century thinkers witnessed and studied. The question of whether modern totalitarianism collapsed with the fall of both national socialism and communism must be answered by the same types of questions posed by Strauss and Voegelin regarding the totalizing and “immanentizing” tendencies of modern culture. Together with the author (he implies it), I believe that we have to seek answers to our self-inflicted or human-caused problems. The major and most important question is this: is there progress in human development at all, or only “dialogue”? (p. 24). Is there “progress,” or only exchanges among truth-seekers who want to make a mark in the history of human existence? Newell also focuses on technology. For many modern thinkers, it is the solution to human problems. However, in truth it consists of the reduction of ancient teachings on virtue and the common good to mere utility, which is the sum of political action, according to the “deeroticized cadre of political methodologists, for whom the harmony of the soul is irrelevant” (pp. 462-3). Modern tyranny, to be sure, cannot be understood without also understanding modernity’s complete break with the ancient focus on “fate” and “virtue.”

We must bear in mind that the first question of man is how we should like to live (Aristotle, Politics, Book VII). So when we raise the issue of politics we have to put philosophical and not scientific problems first. We cannot, understandably, decide questions scientifically which are the concern of all of us. The ancient meaning of eros, which is completely different from our present understanding of it, which follows the meaning of the Latin “sex,” has the force of one’s intention to rule in a political sense. Eros is, therefore, the key to understanding Newell’s argument about the cause of tyranny. Eros belongs to the most profound urges of human behavior. Tyranny therefore is also based on that human urge. Newell argues extensively in favor of the ancient teaching on tyranny that attempts to tame eros by using virtue to direct it to the common good of the polis. The modern solution, starting with Machiavelli, is different to the extent that eros wishes to conquer human nature, i.e. if eros can be subdued then the problem of tyranny will also disappear. The ancients knew eros could never be eradicated because it is a fundamental component of the human soul. The moderns think they can eradicate eros to solve the problem of tyranny, but this “solution” is itself tyrannical. Modernity created a new mindset or psychology of tyranny, the cult of the will which looks rational, but remains just as uncontrollable as eros is.

Newell devotes a lot of energy to close readings of Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon to understand ancient tyranny, but in order to understand the meaning of modern tyranny, he analyzes extensively Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, and Hobbes who rejected the ancient understanding of human nature and thus political tyranny. The modern intention purports to be realistic, and superior to the purported utopianism of the ancients. As a result, modern tyranny must be deeroticized, realistic or pragmatic, utilitarian, and guided by some ambition embedded in a rationalistic argument. What is at stake is the proper understanding of modern tyranny, because if we misjudge its nature then we shall be in trouble when we encounter it. Yet the problem of understanding modern tyranny is compounded by the fact that the modern social scientific modes of understanding it are so closely related to the phenomenon of modern tyranny itself that they tend to occlude its real character. Modern science and modern tyranny share the same ends. The modern solution targeted nature to be conquered, that is to say, we human beings are capable of changing human nature by subjecting it to both reason and will. Are the moderns, not the ancients, then the real utopians? Yes, of course. One would think that the modern obsession with institutionalism would force us to admit that human nature cannot be conquered. However, if we continue to believe it can be conquered, then we shall perhaps become something different from what we call human today. But then political philosophy will be doomed as well. This is why Newell’s inspirational work has a bearing on more than the issue of what is tyranny. The question of modern tyranny turns on the question of what is the true way of knowing human things, modern science or ancient political philosophy?

Newell’s book is remarkable because it inspires the reader to raise political issues in terms of philosophy. But this is the fate of philosophy. Though I have some reservations about his argument in that he seems to rely on modern, mainly Freudian psychology (he uses phrases like “sublimation” and “ontology” that mainly belong to the European leftist and mostly progressive vocabulary of thinkers like Georg Lukács and the like), he has managed to address the most vital problems of modern human beings and thus political philosophy, including the ultimate question of whether humans have progressed in their understanding of what it means to be human.

According to Strauss or Voegelin, progress is a modern concept incorporating all the dubious aspects of modernity itself. Newell shares this view but one wonders about the sufficiency of their arguments. Strauss preferred the ancient answers to man’s problems, but the Straussian approach raises the question of how to distinguish history from historicism, the latter being something Strauss hardly criticized. I understand this as Newell’s last and final question. He refuses to accept modern concept of progress, but at the same time he does not return to the ancients, as did Strauss. Instead, he favors Hegel’s views on history, and probably those of Voegelin. No wonder that as we are coming closer to the end of the book, more and more we have phrases like “in my view,“ or “I believe that,” indicating that the author is walking in an unknown or dangerous territory.

Newell has accepted Strauss’s theory of a break in European political thought beginning with Machiavelli, but he also expresses his doubts regarding this break. The reason seems to be that Newell has doubts about the future of our culture, including the possibility that there is progress on the whole. But he also wonders whether this possible progress would lead to a disastrous end. The book is about the ultimate issues of political philosophy by an author who has reached the edge of the abyss of human existence as described by the many authors who represent and embody the revival of political philosophy that occurred in the twentieth century. The problems are the same and are still with us: secularism, progress, technology, and historicism.

Andras Lanczi

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András Lánczi is Director of the Political Science Institute at Corvinus University of Budapest in Hungary. He is author of Political Realism and Wisdom (Palgrave, 2015).