Magazine article Modern Age

The Great Tradition vs. Empire: From Xenophon to Machiavelli, Philosophy Shows That the Wages of Imperialism Are the Ruin of Virtue-And That Applies to the Soft Imperialism of Transnational Government, Too

Magazine article Modern Age

The Great Tradition vs. Empire: From Xenophon to Machiavelli, Philosophy Shows That the Wages of Imperialism Are the Ruin of Virtue-And That Applies to the Soft Imperialism of Transnational Government, Too

Article excerpt

Imperialism is a temptation coeval with political life. An inherent element of human nature is to want "more," and this desire can manifest itself individually or collectively, positively or negatively. We may loosely define imperialism as the collective effort of a group of people to have "more"--territory, resources, wealth, power, influence, or likely some combination of these--at the expense of one or more other groups. We tend to think of the ruling group as a nation, but historically it is just as likely to have been a polis (the Greek term roughly translated as "city-state") or a transnational elite.

Empires have awed and fascinated mankind since the earliest times. Indeed, some of the largest, wealthiest, most extensive and powerful, militarily strongest, technically accomplished, and culturally sophisticated political entities have been empires. It suffices to mention ancient Rome--still, for many, the standard against which politics is judged--but one could just as well cite modern empires from the Spanish and Portuguese to the British and Soviet.

Yet despite all this manifest accomplishment, we are entitled--even compelled--to wonder whether empire really is the height of political achievement or even desirable on its own terms. Imperial rule does, after all, entail an element of coercion well beyond that necessary to politics simply--that is, the state's monopoly of force to compel obedience to legitimately enacted just laws. It is one thing to submit to the rule of law in a republican or representative regime based on consent, or even to deep-rooted and moderate constitutional monarchy, which rules a single people at least ostensibly with a view to the common good. It is quite another to be compelled to obey a purely external force for the overt good of that force.

The necessarily tyrannical or oppressive and exploitative character of empire is hardly its only flaw, though it may be the most fundamental. Thinkers over the past two thousand years have analyzed the issue--both actual imperial projects and the theory of empire--and found imperialism seriously wanting as a political arrangement.

Yet we may say that the Great Tradition almost begins with praise of imperialism. Xenophon's Cyropaedia is arguably the oldest work in the literature of political philosophy. (Xenophon and Plato were both students of Socrates, but the former was older and apparently wrote his aristourgema, or magnum opus, earlier.) The book purports to be a biography of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. In fact, very little in its pages is factual. If you want to learn about the real Cyrus, read Herodotus. The Cyropaedia instead presents Xenophon's take on the political philosophy he learned from Socrates--Xenophon is one of just three writers whose works survive who knew Socrates personally. In fact, the ancient biographer and gossipmonger Diogenes Laertius writes that Xenophon and Plato wrote similar books "as if out of rivalry with each other" and equates the Cyropaedia with Plato's Republic.

Xenophon introduces his book by saying that he has witnessed and read about so many political failures--regime collapses, to be more precise--that he wonders whether it is simply impossible for human beings to rule over other human beings. But then he remembered Cyrus, who was amazingly successful at exactly this. Cyrus, he says,

acquired very many people, very many cities, and very many nations, all 
obedient to himself....He was willingly obeyed by some, even though 
they were distant from him by a journey of many days; by others, 
distant by a journey of even months; by others, who had never yet seen 
him; and by others, who knew quite well they would never see him. 
Nevertheless, they were willing to submit to him, so far did he excel 
other kings. [Emphasis added]

He goes on to sketch the way in which Cyrus acquired his empire:

Cyrus, after finding the nations of Asia in [an] independent condition, 
set out with a little army of Persians and became the leader of Medes, 
who were willing that he do so, and over the Hyrcanians, who were also 
willing; and he subdued the Syrians, Assyrians, Arabians, Cappadocians, 
both the Phrygians, the Lydians, Catians, Phoenicians, and Babylonians; 
he came to rule the Bactrians, Indians, and Cilicians, and similarly 
also the Sacians, Paphlagonians, and Magadidians, and very many other 
nations whose names one cannot even say. … 
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