Category Archives: New Leviathan

NL XXXIV: What Civilization Means Generically

Index to this series

Having studied, in the New Leviathan,

  • the individual human being in Part I, and
  • communities of human beings in Part II,

we turn now to Part III, on the subject of civilization (34. 1). This is something that happens to a community (34. 4). It is a “process of approximation to an ideal state” (34. 5). That is the gist of Chapter XXXIV, “What ‘Civilization’ Means: Generically.”


We have returned to Istanbul. Below are sunset photos from our last night on the Aegean coast

Continue reading

NL XXXIII: Decline of the Classical Politics

Index to this series

Lacking the experience of social and political life mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, Germans could not understand the classical politics. German communities were non-social (33. 32). What experience those communities did have of freedom was despised (33. 5). When Marx converted Hegel’s dialectical idealism into the equally nonsensical dialectical materialism (33. 91), he sought only to teach what materialism entailed: that there was no such thing as freedom of will (33. 97).

Continue reading

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).

Continue reading

NL XXXI: Classical Physics and Classical Politics

Index to this series

As my beach holiday winds down, so perhaps does the current spate of blog posts. Here is one more. Setting aside Homer, I continue immediately with Collingwood, in part because, in the 2000 paperback impression of the 1992 Revised Edition of the New Leviathan that I take to the shore, I have now also read the Editor’s Introduction by David Boucher. (Back at the cottage, I have to type out the quotes from this that I make below; for quotes of Collingwood himself, I cut and paste from a scan of the 1947 corrected reprint of the 1942 First Edition.)

As I could infer from my pencil-marks, I had read Boucher’s introduction some time before; but I could remember little of it. I think it is aimed at professional philosophers, rather than at anybody who would admire Collingwood for saying, as he does in An Autobiography (page 6), when he describes getting prepared to go to Rugby School,

The ghost of a silly seventeenth-century squabble still haunts our classrooms, infecting teachers and pupils with the lunatic idea that studies must be either ‘classical’ or ‘modern’. I was equally well fitted to specialize in Greek and Latin, or in modern history and languages (I spoke and read French and German almost as easily as English), or in the natural sciences; and nothing would have afforded my mind its proper nourishment except to study equally all three.

Continue reading

NL XXX: War As the Breakdown of Policy

Index to this series

Humans have not always made war (30. 1); why do we make it now? War is said to be a continuation of policy (30. 14); but as Collingwood cleverly points out (30. 15), the saying due to Clausewitz (30. 69) is ambiguous: a continuation could be an extension or a breakdown (30. 16–17).

Continue reading

NL XXIX: External Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 13, 2018): External politics—dealing with other bodies politic—is the third stage of political life, after the forming of societies (as if by marriage), and their coming to rule over non-social communities (as if by having children) in the formation of a body politic. Since dialectic has been used in the first two stages, it can be used in the third. Thus, being the eristic of external politics, war has no psychological cause. Still, war is a state of mind, which does not think non-agreement can become agreement. Pacifism has this state of mind.


External politics are international relations. These represent a third “stage” in political life (29. 1):

  1. The first stage is the the joining of wills into a society, which rules itself (29. 11).
  2. The second stage is such a society’s ruling over a non-social community in a body politic (29. 12).
  3. The third stage is dealing with other bodies politic (29. 13).

Continue reading

NL XXVIII: The Forms of Political Action

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 12, 2018), To condemn political discussion is to wish for tyranny: this continues a thought from the previous chapter. The ruling class need not share their deliberations with the ruled class, but it is better if they do. As our understanding of the reason for an action evolves—at first the action is merely useful, but later it conforms to a rule—, so ruling, originally by decree, has evolved to include legislation. However, to be enforced, law does not require a formal structure; international law is an example. The best reason for an action is duty. Though the German Treitschke says our highest duty is to the state, he gives the state no duty, and so his politics are entirely utilitarian.


In Plato’s Republic, Socrates seeks understanding of the just human being through examination of the just state. In Collingwood’s New Leviathan, the order is reversed. What we first considered in somebody, we now look at in the “body politic.”

Narthex of the former Taksiyarhis Church (now museum), Ayvalık, Balıkesir, Turkey, August 30, 2018

Continue reading

NL XXVII: Force in Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 12, 2018): When persons cannot rule themselves, they are ruled by force, as a duty, by other persons, for the benefit and pleasure of all. Force includes fraud and deceit; but their use must be limited, if those persons who are being ruled by force now will one day join the ruling class themselves. If a liberal and a conservative party take up respectively the ideals of democracy and aristocracy discussed in the last chapter, the parties must understand that each needs the other, in order to engage in the dialectic that aims for the best society. If somebody thinks the two parties waste energy, either in pretending to be in opposition to one another, or in actually being opposed, then that person is effectively wishing for tyranny.


In my last post on the New Leviathan (which was my first for this year), I said Collingwood would discuss the British parliament in Chapter XXVII. That chapter now my subject.

The ruling class must incorporate new members from time to time, whether anybody thinks about it or not (27. 75). Anybody who does think about it may take up one of two goals (27. 77).

27. 79. To hasten the percolation of liberty throughout every part of the body politic was the avowed aim of the Liberal party; to retard it was the avowed aim of the Conservative party.

27. 8. The relation between them was consciously dialectical. They were not fundamentally in disagreement. Both held it as an axiom that the process of percolation must go on. Both held that given certain circumstances, which might very well change from time to time, there was an optimum rate for it, discoverable within a reasonable margin of error by experiment.

Continue reading

NL XXVI: Democracy and Aristocracy

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 12, 2018): Aristocracy and democracy are abstractions. They are inseparable from one another, and they are properly understood as correlative rules for the ruling class:

  1. Don’t let in anybody who is unqualified.
  2. Don’t keep out anybody who is.

By what in Chapter XXXI will be called the Principle of the Limited Objective (which was recognized by the Early Church Fathers), the ruling class should be prepared, not to solve every problem (as Plato wanted), but to solve those problems that are expected to come up. The concept of revolution is borrowed from the literary concept of peripety; it has no place in history, where there are no heroes or villains, just human beings, partly good and partly bad.


There can be no pure democracy, not for any length of time, not if we understand a democracy to be a society whose ruling class is the whole of it. Even the most extreme democrat of ancient Greece never contemplated citizenship for women, slaves, or resident foreigners. We may be more liberal today, at least regarding women and slavery. Still we do not open the ruling class to foreigners, such as myself where I am; nor do we open it to children. We could do so, in the sense of extending the franchise to all human residents. Both possibilities were discussed favorably by a legal minor in The Nation in the early 1990s, as I recall. However, perhaps most children could not be given such adminstrative duties as used to be assigned by lot to Athenian citizens. Even if they could, what of the animals that live among us?

Edward Hicks (American, 1780-1849 ), The Cornell Farm, 1848, oil on canvas, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch

Continue reading

Effectiveness

Preface

First published May 17, 2018, this essay concerns Eugene Wigner’s 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” I wrote a lot, which I now propose to summarize by section. (The meditations also continue in the next article.)

  • Some things are miraculous. Among Wigner’s examples are
    • that mathematics is possible at all, and
    • that “regularities” in the physical world can be discovered, as by Galileo and Newton.

    For Wigner, we should be grateful for the undeserved gift of a mathematial formulation of the laws of physics. This makes no sense theologically—and here I agree with the character Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. Wigner’s idea that our mathematical reasoning power has been brought to perfection makes no sense to me either.

  • Everything is miraculous. Here I agree with Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy. A miracle cannot be the breaking of a natural law, since such a thing cannot be broken. A great artist like Beethoven follows no rules in the first place, or makes them up as he goes along; and he is like God in this way.
  • Natural law. That it cannot be broken is part of the very concept of natural law. Quantum phenomena and the theory of relativity have not in fact been brought under a single law; for Wigner, it may not be possible.
  • Mystery. Not only can we not define miracles, but (as we should have observed in the first place) we cannot even say when they happen. If like Wigner we call something miraculous, this means it cleanses our own doors of perception, in the sense of William Blake.
  • Definitions. In his treatment of miracle in Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood shows the futility of trying to define a term when you are not sure how to use it. He makes this futility explicit in The Principles of Art. If we are going to think about the use of mathematics in natural science, this means we ought to be mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher; and not just “natural scientist,” but physicist and biologist, since if mathematics is effective in physics, it would seem to be ineffective in biology.
  • Being a philosopher. We are all philosophers, in the sense that Maugham describes in the story “Appearance and Reality,” if only we think. All thought is for the sake of action. This does not mean that thought occurs separately from an action and is to be judged by the action. We may value “pure” thought, such as doing mathematics or making music or living the contemplative life of a monk. This however moves me to a give a thought to the disaster of contemporary politics.
  • Philosophizing about science. For present purposes, compart­ment­al­ization of knowledge is a problem. So is the dominance of analytic philosophy, for suggesting (as one cited person seems to think) that big problems can be broken into little ones and solved independently. In mathematics, students should learn their right to question somebody else’s solutions to problems. In philosophy, the problems themselves will be our own. Philosophy as such cannot decide what the problems of physics or biology are, though it may help to understand the “absolute presuppositions” that underlie the problems. Philosophers quâ metaphysicians cannot determine once for all what the general structure of the universe is. This does not mean they should do “experimental philosophy,” taking opinion polls about supposedly philosophical questions. What matters is not what people say, but what they mean and are trying to mean. As Collingwood observes, metaphysics is an historical science.

For more on the last points, see a more recent article, “Re-enactment.” (This Preface added June 3, 2018.)


I am writing from the Math Village, and here I happen to have read that Abraham Lincoln kept no known diary as such, but noted his thoughts on loose slips of paper. Admired because he “could simply sit down and write another of his eloquent public letters,”

Lincoln demurred. “I had it nearly all in there,” he said, pointing to an open desk drawer. “It was in disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper.” This was how he worked, the president explained. It was on such scraps of paper, accumulating over the years into a diaristic density, that Lincoln saved and assembled what he described to the visitor as his “best thoughts on the subject.”

Thus Ronald C. White, “Notes to Self,” Harper’s, February 2018. My own notes to self are normally in bound notebooks, and perhaps later in blog articles such as the present one, which is inspired by the 1960 article called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” by Eugene Wigner.
Continue reading