Excerpt #13 — Larry Siedentop on Reason, Authority, and Will from Homeric Greece through the High Middle Ages

I am packing my library for a move, but dawdling in some of the books I should be carefully Tetris-ing into boxes. As I do, I am running across passages that are worth putting up here. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is one of several works with such passages.

We have examined the Homeric idea of the good and goodness here before on Into the Clarities, and it is worth noting that the Platonic idea of the philosopher is set against the background of the ideal of the Homeric hero. We have also looked at the kind of cosmos in which the stars were thought to hold sway, such as in the opinion voiced by Seneca the Younger, below. Here below, the difference introduced by reason (λογος) in the ancient Homeric world stands out as remarkable; the post-Platonic and Late Antique model of reason is also contrasted with developments in the later Middle Ages. After Aquinas, the will played a more and more prominent role in anthropological models and in the way that individual virtue was understood. (On this note, see Bonnie Kent’s Virtues of the Will, which I also began dipping into.) 

The excerpt below focuses on the changes introduced in the aftermath of a simpler warrior culture. In the wake of the change to a participatory government in the city-states of ancient Greece, the need to persuade others via rhetoric in the public assembly became a much more important skill than it was before. Thus,

Reason or rationality —logos, the power of words– became closely identified with the public sphere, with speaking in the assembly and with the political role of a superior class. Reason became the attribute of a class that commanded. At times reason was almost categorically fused with social superiority. So the assumption grew that reason could command — even when, paradoxically, it involved defining an immutable order or ‘fate’. Thus the Roman writer Seneca [4 B.C.–A.D. 65] felt able to prescribe the role of the stars: ‘On even the slightest motion of these hang the fortunes of nations, and the greatest and smallest events are shaped to accord with the progress of a kindly or unkindly star.’ [Frend, The Early Church, 8]

The assumption that reason ‘governed’ shaped the understanding of both the social world and the physical world. In the physical world, the assumption emerged as a belief that purposes or ends (what Aristotle called ‘final causes’) governed all processes and entities. In that way, relationships within the non-human world were assimilated to reasons for acting in human life. It followed that reason could identify that towards which each thing ‘naturally’ tends, finding its proper place in a ‘great chain of being’. In the social world, the assumption emerged as a belief that there was a natural hierarchy, a superior class entitled by ‘nature’ to rule, constrain and, if need be, coerce. Thus, in a society where some were born to command and others to obey, the motivational power of reason seemed self-evident. Out of its own resources, reason could guarantee action.

This assumption deserves our attention. For it runs contrary to a central tradition in modern philosophy, especially to an empiricist tradition that gives reason a merely instrumental role. In this modern view, reason as a faculty cannot motivate: it does not move us to action. Reason merely provides us with the means of calculating the consequences of different courses of action. Characteristically, modern thought interposes a separate event in the individual –‘willing– between deliberation and action. Yet even today it remains a matter of controversy whether Greek philosophers had a distinct concept of the will. If they did, it seems to have developed relatively late. What is more immediately striking is that Homeric Greek, the Greek of the Iliad and Odyssey, did not even have a word for ‘intention’. [Williams, Shame and Necessity, 33]

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 2014), 35 (footnotes within that passage given in brackets, though dates are mine)

‘Intentionality’ takes on an important role in ethics following the work of Peter Abelard (A.D. 1079–1142), and I should write about that another time (it has had important implications for our understanding of intentions regarding vows, and thus, for what constitutes marriage, among other things).

As for now, regardless of where Siedentop is going with this, this passage explodes with topical rabbit holes that invite one to dive down them.


6 thoughts on “Excerpt #13 — Larry Siedentop on Reason, Authority, and Will from Homeric Greece through the High Middle Ages

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