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Vast Personal Forces: Thucydides, Populism, & the Liberty of the Ancients

Bust of Thucydides Thucydides

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought welcomed Dr. Seth Jaffe, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at John Cabot University, who presented “Vast Personal Forces: Thucydides, Populism, & the Liberty of the Ancients.”

The lecture, attended by 45 students and members of the greater YU community, was hosted by Dr. Neil Rogachevsky, associate director of the Straus Center, and was part of the Jack Miller Center lecture series. Previous Jack Miller Center guests include Dr. Paul Cantor. Future guests will include Dr. Alexander Orwin (Louisiana State University) and Dr. Rita Koganzon (University of Virginia).

Dr. Jaffe began his lecture by discussing the differences between ancient and modern democratic societies. Today, citizens talk about liberty in terms of rights, specifically private rights, and expect the government to uphold those rights on their behalf. This government is formed through elections, where citizens select representatives to serve and protect them.

Ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks, had a different understanding of what a democratic civilization should look like. These city-states were smaller and more homogeneous. Therefore, they were able to sustain direct democracy, where every citizen (in this case, men who owned property) represented himself and only himself. They also spoke in terms of duties rather than rights.

Dr. Jaffe then quoted Benjamin Constant, a Swiss-French political writer, who wrote that, due to their size and representative nature, modern democracies don’t allow direct participation by the average citizen. That role is delegated to the representative. However, this leaves citizens feeling powerless and alone as they can rarely see and feel the results of their political actions. In contrast, ancient democratic citizens usually felt powerful and part of a collective since they had a real say in their decisions and were participating with their fellow citizens.

Thucydides brings this ancient power to light in his History of the Peloponnesian War. In the scene where Pericles speaks at the funeral for the dead soldiers, Pericles praises the citizens for raising the city to its current level of power of empire and self-sufficiency. By doing so, he is also praising the virtues of the citizens since only the virtuous can succeed. This power, in turn, makes the citizens free since they do not have to worry about internal or external enemies. And since the citizens make up the city through direct representation, the city itself is also powerful and therefore free. Power in government is then pooled citizen virtue, which creates a vast personal force that can be felt by every citizen in contrast to the vast impersonal force of modern democracies.

Like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the modern state goes above the head of the average citizen. Only the representatives can truly see its inner workings. The citizen, then, feels no connection to the state and therefore feels powerless and less free. This is especially true if they feel no pleasure from the state and the state fails to deliver on its promise to protect the citizens’ rights. This opens the door to populism, which promises the citizen a return to freedom and power.

In a provocative question and answer period, Dr. Jaffe and the attendees considered whether America’s traditional remedies to the feeling of powerlessness—religion and political participation—were still functioning in our current political moment. The talk left participants with some important thoughts on whether and how religion and civil society might yet give people a stake in our society and lead to a healthier politics.