NL XXXII: Society and Nature in the Classical Politics

Index to this series

In the last chapter, we described classical politics by analogy with classical physics. Now we turn entirely to politics. The nature of “Society and Nature in the Classical Politics,” Chapter XXXII of the New Leviathan, is not the nature studied by physics; it is the nature of the “state of nature” (32. 32), which is our theoretical political origin.

The “problem of the classical politics” (32. 1) is “to give an account of the social element” of political life (32. 19). The non-social element of political life is nature (32. 19).

By the way, I do not know why Collingwood uses the definite article in saying “the classical politics.” If a non-native English speaker said this, I would think it an error, albeit an inconsequential one. British English and American English are different, but I did not think they differed in use of the definite article. However, the sense of correctness in use of language is a mysterious thing (and is why, in my view, linguistics is properly a criteriological science, not a natural or descriptive science).

In limiting its objective to what is social, as distinct from what is natural (32. 2), politics imitates physics, which limits its objective to what is mathematical, as discussed in the last chapter.

Politics differs from physics in a way that Collingwood does not now remark on. Political life is “a polarized complex, a thing with two ends: a dialectic” (32. 21). Along the lines suggested in the last post, this is why natural science cannot study politics.

The two ends of political life are society and nature (32. 22). Society is the positive end, in the sense of being what politics tries to bring about (32. 28). We are effectively spelling out a remark from two chapters ago:

30. 81. No society is altogether a society (21. 5). Every society, so called, is partly the society into which it is trying to turn itself, and partly the Yahoo herd it is trying to leave behind.

In principle, society is all we need understand, in order to bring it about, just as, to teach Latin to a child, all you need know is Latin (32. 35). True, some child psychology may be useful (32. 36). In the same way, in aiming for the positive end of political life, we may want to know something of the other end (30. 75), the state of nature.

The classical politicians did study this other end (32. 4). Hobbes says in three places that it can never be fully superseded (32. 41):

  1. People remain there “in certain respects” (32. 42).
  2. Some people never leave it at all (32. 43).
  3. The agreement to form a society is always under strain (32. 56).

The sources of strain are chiefly “Competition, Diffidence, and Glory” (32. 57). They are causes, not of state of nature—for this can have no cause (32. 6)—, but of war. Hobbes says the state of nature is war; Locke says not (32. 63). “Hobbes, as usual, is truer to the terms of the theory they both accepted” (32. 66); “Locke is closer to the facts” (32. 67); “war is not the mere absence of society—; it is a catabolic process in the opposite sense” (32. 68).

The creators of the classical politics were men of the world, not profesors (32. 7). To understand them, you need experience both of political life (32. 73) and of social life, that is, partnerships (32. 74). Such experience was common in the period under consideration. Now Collingwood alludes to Spinoza, who was not listed with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau as a creator of the classical politics, “only because his Tractatus Politicus was left a fragment at his death” (31. 2 note):

32. 9. Such was the condition of the world in the middle and late seventeenth century that the Leviathan could be understood without a commentary not only by another Englishman like John Locke but by a Portuguese Jew living in Holland, heir to the Jewish tradition of social life in economics and religion and the Dutch tradition of republican politics; a ‘citoyen de Genève’ (as Rousseau called himself on the title-page of the Contrat social) brought up in an essentially similar atmosphere of political republicanism and economico-religious social life; and in fact by almost anyone accustomed to breathe the air of western Europe.

The Germany of Hegel and Marx was not in western Europe in this sense. That will be the theme of the next chapter, the last chapter of the part of the book called “Society”: “Decline of the Classical Politics.”

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] « NL XXXII: Society and Nature in the Classical Politics […]

  2. […] was observed in Chapter XXXII that, in the dialectice of politics, knowing where we have started from is of secondary importance […]

  3. By NL XL: Peace and Plenty « Polytropy on September 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

    […] is the positive end of civilization quâ process, and as was pointed out on Chapter XXXII, “Society and Nature in the Classical Politics,” the positive end is the primary thing to know in conducting a process […]

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