The Cave & the Quadrivium: Mathematics in Classical Education

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts

by Dr. Jeffrey Lehman

What place should the study of mathematics have in classical education? Most classical schools rightly emphasize the linguistic arts of the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—but few have thought through (much less implemented) the mathematical arts of the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—in a meaningful way. This is not to say, of course, that classical schools do not study mathematics; rather, it is simply to point out that the classical liberal arts of mathematics have little, if any, influence on the way mathematics is considered and taught in most classical schools. Are these quadrivial arts, in contrast to those of the trivium, simply outmoded today? If so, why? If not, how might they inspire and be incorporated into the curricula of classical schools? In order to answer these questions, we must first begin by getting a clear sense of what the quadrivial arts are, as well as what they are not. To do so, we will turn to Plato’s Republic, one of the fountainheads of education in the Western tradition.

Book VII of Republic contains two of the most remarkable passages in all of Plato’s dialogues. The first, the image of the cave (514A-521B), compares the effect of education (and its lack) on the human soul to the experience of being shackled in a subterranean prison. The second passage, the mathematical plan of studies described immediately after the cave image (521C-531E), is presented by Socrates as the remedy for man’s imprisoned condition, the means by which he is able to be liberated and to ascend to the full light of the sun. Ironically, while the image of the cave is arguably the most remembered passage in Plato’s works, the mathematical means of ascent—the proposed solution to our predicament—often goes unnoticed. In what follows, let us take a look at these two passages, focusing principally on the way Plato (through Socrates) presents a vision of these mathematical studies as distinct yet related means of ascent from lower to higher things.

Meditations on the Cave Image

Part of the delight of the cave image is its inexhaustibility. The more we reflect upon the image together with what precedes and follows it, the more we find to wonder about. Thus, in these comments on the cave we will not attempt to plumb the depths of this image in any comprehensive way (if that were even possible); instead, our purpose is to focus attention on those aspects of the cave image that best prepare us to receive the mathematical plan of studies that follows in Book VII. With this purpose in mind, let’s see what we can find.

As was mentioned above, Socrates presents the image of the cave as a likeness to “the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature” (514A). Socrates calls on Glaucon (and us, the readers of the dialogue) to exercise our imagination:

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show puppets (514A/B; emphasis added).[1]

After Socrates describes people along this low wall who use statues of men and animals to cast shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners, Glaucon comments, “It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners” (515A). Socrates replies: “They’re like us” (ibid.).

I have conveyed the kernel of this passage for two reasons. First, notice the significant place of images and the imagination in the tale. Rather than draw everything out for Glaucon, Socrates exhorts him repeatedly to imagine—to take an active part in creating this image of the soul in its lack of education in his mind’s eye. This active engagement of the imagination is crucial to the ascent that follows. Second, as strange as it sounds to Glaucon (and to us!), this image is meant to bear a true likeness to our own benighted condition without education. What exactly is so disturbing about the image? Of course, no one would wish to be physically bound; but the prisoner’s predicament is far worse than simply a loss of freedom of movement. The chains are themselves an image of an even more coercive force, one that leaves the prisoners in the dark about what really is. As Socrates points out, the prisoners “would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts” (515C). Another way of putting it is to say that they mistake images for the more substantial realities of which they are images. Because the prisoners cannot “turn around” to see the machinations of the puppeteers, they take the shadows to be things themselves and thus are unaware of the true cause of what they see.

After giving us a clear image of the soul in a state of ignorance, Socrates describes what happens when a prisoner is freed and ascends out of the cave. “I suppose,” Socrates remarks, “that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then the images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun” (516A/B). Having been habituated to see only the images right in front of him, it takes time and effort for the former prisoner to embrace his newfound freedom. Furthermore, his ascent to knowledge has a certain order to it: first, he comes to sees shadows for what they really are—namely, shadows and not the things of which they are shadows; then, he apprehends the reflections of men and other creatures in water, able in time to discern the difference between these reflections and that of which they are reflections. In each case, perceiving the “lower” thing—a shadow, a reflection—become a means of truly coming to know a “higher” thing. Fundamental to this ascent is the ability to perceive an image as an image. As Socrates puts it, the one who ascends from the cave of ignorance into the light of knowledge is able to “know each image for what it is and also that of which it is the image” (520C). Contrary to a common caricature of Plato’s thought, he is not a “dualist” who exalts the intelligible realm at the expense of the sensible realm. Moreover, he does not seek to do away with images, as if one could use the images as a ladder to reach higher things and then kick the ladder away once the ascent is accomplished. Rather, perceiving images as images is vital to the process of coming to know; both the movement from image to the thing itself and the movement back again from thing to image are necessary for teaching and learning.

The one who perceives an image as an image recognizes at least three things: 1) the image, 2) that of which it is an image, and 3) the necessary relation between the two. Thus, when we come to realize that an image is an image of something, we attain some awareness—however partial, perspectival, and incomplete—of what lies beyond the image. This insight regarding images sheds light on comments Socrates makes about “causes” in this passage. For instance, in the quotation from 516A/B above, Socrates says that the one making his ascent will proceed from a study of “the things in the sky and the sky itself … at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon” to “looking at the sun and the light of the sun” during the day. Significantly, the ascent described here ends with the sun, presented elsewhere in Republic as an image of the good (506D ff.). What is more, “at this point [the aspirant to knowledge] would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see” (516B/C; emphasis added). Note well that the one who successfully ascends to the contemplation of the sun is then able to look back at what has come before and see that “in some way” these lower things are caused by the sun. A moment’s reflection reveals that what is true of the sun on a grand scale is also true of lesser things. In other words, just as the sun is the cause of lower things in the visible world, so also is every “thing itself” the cause in some sense of its own image. To give a simple example, the tree (together with the sun, of course) is the cause of the tree’s shadow. The ascent to higher things is paired with a subsequent descent back to lower things, rendering them more intelligible in the process.

Before turning to a treatment of the mathematical plan of studies that follows the image of the cave in Book VII, a few general comments about images and the imagination are in order. We live in a culture saturated with images. Through cell phones, the Internet, television, printed images and other media, the average person is presented with myriad images every day, far more images, one could argue, than at any previous time in human history. Given this unprecedented inundation with images, one might expect that the imagination would flourish. Instead, for most of us these images simply overpower our imaginative power, leaving us glutted with images and yet starved for the kind of nourishment that would make our imagination strong and healthy. Like the people chained in Plato’s cave, our imaginations are enthralled by appearances; and those with enthralled imaginations are much easier to manipulate and control. One key factor leading to the impotence of imagination today is the absence of any serious discipline or formation of the imagination. To be a passive recipient of empty and deceptive images is one thing; to be an active former of true and beautiful images is another. This is where the quadrivial arts come in. Let us return to Book VII of Plato’s Republic to begin to see how these mathematical arts can form the imagination, making possible the ascent to higher studies.


Imagination, Mathematics, and Ascent

Once the interlocutors have completed their account of the cave and discussed its implications for the education of rulers in their ideal city, Socrates poses the following question: “Do you want us to consider now how such people will come to be in our city and how—just as some are said to have gone up from Hades to the gods—we’ll lead them up to the light?” (521B/C). After Glaucon’s hearty affirmative response, Socrates continues: “This isn’t, it seems, a matter of tossing a coin, but of turning a soul from a day that is a kind of night to the true day—the ascent to what is, which we say is true philosophy” (ibid.). This reference to “turning the soul” underscores a distinction made earlier in the account of the cave, namely, the difference between a “stamping” and a “turning” education. First mentioned in Book II, the stamping education is described by Socrates as suitable for the young: “You know … that the beginning of any process is most important, especially for anything young and tender? It’s at that time that it is most malleable and takes on any pattern one wishes to impress upon it” (377A/B). As a signet ring may be impressed upon molten wax, leaving the form of the ring embedded in the receptive material, so the education of the young is compared to impressing the malleable minds of students with an external teaching, placing it “in” their minds from without. The stamping image of education is not challenged in Book II. Here in Book VII, however, Socrates gives the impression that a stamping education attempts the impossible: “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes” (518B/C). Given this critique of stamping education in Book VII, one might wonder whether there is any place for such education in the broader scheme of teaching and learning. Addressing this question is clearly beyond the scope of this essay; for now, suffice it to say that the turning education commended in Book VII is clearly presented as superior to the stamping education of Book II. And more to the point, Socrates identifies such turning education with the ascent made possible through the mathematical plan of studies he is about to describe. After briefly reminding us of the basic training in gymnastic (for the well-ordered body) and music (for the body and the soul) advocated earlier in Book II (376E ff.), Socrates then proceeds to outline the mathematical studies that will make the ascent possible.

The first mathematical study mentioned is number and calculation, “that inconsequential matter of distinguishing the one, the two, and the three” (522C). Socrates remarks that arithmetic is a “common thing that every craft, every type of thought, and every science uses and that is among the first compulsory subjects for everyone” (ibid.). While common and compulsory in some form, Socrates is at pains to point out that arithmetic as it is customarily studied and used is not conducive to the ascent and freedom he envisions. He contends that “no one uses it correctly, … as something that is really fitted in every way to draw one towards being” (523A). Socrates makes a distinction among sense perceptions: some “summon” the understanding to look into them, others do not. “The ones that don’t summon the understanding are all those that don’t go off into opposite perceptions at the same time. But the ones that do go off in that way I call summoners—whenever sense perception doesn’t declare one thing any more than its opposite, no matter whether the object striking the senses is near at hand or far away” (523B/C; emphasis in original). For an example, Socrates asks Glaucon to consider his fingers—“the smallest, the second, and the middle”—and then Socrates explains:

It’s apparent that each of them is equally a finger, and it makes no difference in this regard whether the finger is seen to be in the middle or at either end, whether it is dark or pale, thick or thin, or anything else of that sort, for in all cases, an ordinary soul isn’t compelled to ask the understanding what a finger is, since sight doesn’t suggest to it that a finger is at the same time the opposite of a finger (523C/D).

Once Glaucon agrees, Socrates turns to the various opposites that are present in our perception of these same three fingers—bigness and smallness, thickness and thinness, hardness and softness, etc. Anyone who attentively considers the matter realizes that perceiving a finger as one finger among many involves something more than mere sensation. In other words, to count fingers requires some ability—however imperfect—to judge what counts as a finger. Without some inchoate knowledge of the nature of things, a knowledge that passes beyond the opposite sense perceptions we typically receive when perceiving multiple instances of the same kind of thing, we are unable engage in “that inconsequential matter of distinguishing the one, the two, and the three.” In order to do so, our imagination must be able to submit its objects to reason so that they can be judged by reason. Socrates explains:

Reason it out from what was said before. If the one is adequately seen itself by itself or is so perceived by any of the other senses, then, as we were saying in the case of fingers, it wouldn’t draw the soul towards being. But if something opposite to it is always seen at the same time [e.g., bigness and smallness, thickness and thinness, hardness and softness, etc.], so that nothing is apparently any more one than the opposite of one, then something would be needed to judge the matter. The soul would then be puzzled, would look for an answer, would stir up the understanding, and would ask what the one itself is (525D/E).

On the one hand, it is obvious that the imagination receives something from the senses in order to form images. The ability that the imagination has of faithfully capturing what it receives from the senses is absolutely essential to the possibility of retaining any awareness of what we have sensed in the past. On the other hand, the imagination is not—or at least it should not be—the slave of the senses. Instead, the images of our imagination are themselves considered and judged by our understanding. This twofold ability of imagination—to receive from the senses and to serve the understanding—makes possible the “turning away” from the merely sensible and toward what is truly intelligible.

In order to see this a bit more clearly, let’s consider the second mathematical art presented by Socrates, namely, geometry. As was the case with arithmetic, in his account of geometry Socrates is keen to distinguish what he is talking about from what those who practice geometry typically say about it. Speaking of these practitioners, Socrates claims, “They give ridiculous accounts of it, though they can’t help it, for they speak like practical men, and all their accounts refer to doing things. They talk of ‘squaring,’ ‘applying,’ ‘adding,’ and the like, whereas the entire subject is pursued for the sake of knowledge” (527A/B). Notice the difference between the two geometers in terms of purpose: the one who practices geometry for the sake of measuring parcels of land, determining heights or perimeters of buildings, etc., always engages in geometry for practical ends—that is to say, his knowledge is for the sake of something else; the one who pursues the kind of geometry Socrates has in mind seeks knowledge for its own sake. This difference in end also implies a difference in the role of imagination. For the practical geometer, the imagination need never pass beyond the senses. After all, the objects created by practical geometry, once produced, will occupy the same sensible world where his measurements began. Thus, there is no need for the practical geometer to trouble himself with considering the nature of geometrical objects in themselves. The practical geometer as practical geometer is not (and should not be) bothered by the fact that, try as he may, he cannot draw a line that is absolutely straight, or create a circle whose radii are exactly equal. Doing so would take him beyond the practical, workaday concerns of land measurement, building construction, and the like.

The geometer of Socrates has fundamentally different ends and therefore employs different means. It is precisely the geometrical objects themselves that concern him. Thus, he wants to know what a point is, what a line is, what a circle is, and so on. Furthermore, when he does his “constructions” he wants to be able to form geometrical figures and solids not in the sand or on a whiteboard, but in his imagination. The constraints of the sensible realm that limit the practical geometer do not limit him. Although the liberal art of geometry clearly owes its origins to practical geometry, by abstracting from the sensible realm and its conditions the liberal art of geometry can effectively turn away from a total immersion in the sensible realm in order to see what can be known about geometrical objects in themselves and for their own sake.

Perhaps an example would be helpful here. Let’s consider the first proposition in Euclid’s Elements, the greatest introduction to geometry ever written. In this proposition, Euclid sets out to construct an equilateral triangle on a given straight line (AB). In order to do so, he first uses the straight line AB to describe two circles. He then draws straight lines from one of the points of intersection (C) to create the lines CA and CB, as in the diagram below:

No alt text provided for this image

Given that all the radii of a given circle are equal to one another, Euclid proves that AC and AB must be equal to one another; for the same reason, BA and BC also must be equal. Since two things (AC, BC) are each equal to the same third thing (AB, which, of course, is the same as BA), those same two things (AC, BC) must be equal to one another. Thus, all three lines (AB, BC, CA) are equal and we know that Euclid has constructed an equilateral triangle, ABC.

This simple proposition clearly illustrates the difference between the two types of geometers and their respective geometries. If the geometer of Socrates (and Euclid) were using an actual straightedge and compass to construct his lines and circles, he obviously could never prove this proposition. For the purposes of practical geometry, on the other hand, a line that is for the most part straight and a circle whose radii are approximately equal is sufficient. If greater accuracy is needed, the practical geometer can try to avail himself of tools and procedures that would fit the bill. But for the one who engages in the liberal art of geometry, any deviation from strict equality among the radii will make the proof absolutely break down, since the argument only follows if the radii are in fact equal. Thankfully, he is not strictly speaking constructing the figure in his diagram, but rather in his imagination. So while our geometer uses diagrams to illustrate what he is attempting to prove, such diagrams are never meant to instantiate the truths in question. Rather, the diagrams serve simply as mediators between minds—the one teaching the proof, the other(s) learning it.


Quadrivial Studies and the Foothills of Philosophy

At this point, let’s stop and take a retrospective glance at the ground we’ve covered. This essay began with a few general questions about the nature and status of the quadrivial arts. In order to make headway on these questions, we examined two passages from Book VII of Plato’s Republic. Our examination of the cave image drew attention to the importance of images and the imagination in making an ascent from the cave of ignorance into the light of knowledge. Recognizing an image as an image was vital to the movement upwards. And the imagination, while clearly tied to and reliant upon sensation, also served higher purposes. In our brief consideration of two of the quadrivial arts, arithmetic and geometry, we caught a glimpse of how these mathematical studies could help to bring about a turning away from unreflective immersion in sensation and a turning toward higher things. Central to this turning was the way in which the imagination could aid the understanding, being used by the understanding to help it render judgments about things that transcend sensation and point toward intelligible things. Finally, in considering geometry we saw the imagination at work, not merely receiving images but actually constructing geometrical objects under the direction of the understanding. These objects, though inspired by our encounter with the sensible realm and in some sense rooted in that realm, nevertheless transcend that realm and direct us toward still higher things.

Earlier in the essay, we noted that Socrates identified a training in these mathematical studies with “the ascent to what is, which we say is true philosophy.” A remarkable claim, to be sure. Even more remarkable, though, is what Socrates says of them a little further on. While discussing the quadrivial plan of studies, Glaucon makes a passing comment about the “usefulness” of the study of astronomy: “a better awareness of the seasons, months, and years is no less appropriate for a general than for a farmer or navigator” (527D). Socrates replies:

You amuse me: You’re like someone who’s afraid that the majority will think he is prescribing useless subjects. It’s no easy task—indeed it’s very difficult—to realize that in every soul there is an instrument that is purified and rekindled by such subjects when it is blinded and destroyed by other ways of life, an instrument that it more important to preserve than ten thousand eyes, since only with it can the truth be seen (ibid.).

In distinct yet intimately related ways, the quadrivial arts serve this very purpose: to purify and rekindle the mind’s eye so that it may see the truth. In doing so, the quadrivial arts lead us through the foothills of philosophy; they help us begin the journey, pointing us in the right direction, perfecting our intellectual vision so that it is well-suited for the philosophical way of life. Through a renovation of the imagination, these arts can assist in freeing us from an undue preoccupation with and attachment to lower things. Through them the philosophical soul begins its ascent to the things themselves and what truly is.

[1]Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube, rev. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 1992). All quotations of Plato’s Republic are from this edition.

Arts of Liberty: An Introduction

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts

by Dr. Jeffrey Lehman

What is Arts of Liberty?

The mission of Arts of Liberty ( is to educate students, teachers, and lifelong learners in the purpose and power of the liberal arts and liberal education. To accomplish this mission, we offer a variety of online, interdisciplinary resources intended to form and to foster a knowledge and a love of the liberal arts and liberal education.

Our resources are for everyone—from the newcomer with a budding desire to learn but with little knowledge of the liberal arts and liberal education, to the seasoned scholar who already knows and loves this tradition of education and is seeking to deepen that knowledge and love.

Our vision is to equip all who seek the True, Good, and Beautiful with the arts that free us from vice and free us for virtue, that ennoble us as persons and enable us to lead others rightly, that begin in wonder and end in wisdom. By providing these resources, we desire to assist all lovers of wisdom by arming them with the arts of liberty.

Arts of Liberty is a Project of the University of Dallas, an academic institution with a long and distinguished history of promoting the liberal arts and providing an exceptional liberal education. UD’s mission is “to educate its students so they may develop the intellectual and moral virtues, prepare themselves for life and work in a problematic and changing world, and become leaders able to act responsibly for their own good and for the good of their family, community, country, and church.”

Arts of Liberty is a natural outgrowth of UD’s mission, one that seeks to share the riches of the liberal arts and liberal education with the world.

What do we offer?

Our resources include lesson plans for entire courses on the classical liberal arts of logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy as well as study guides for great books on mathematics, natural science, literature, history, politics, philosophy, and theology.

Our image galleries include hundreds of high-quality images of art and architecture as these embody the tradition of liberal education. Such images are ideal for helping orient the student by contextualizing the liberal arts and liberal education in time and place; they also bear witness to the way this tradition has had an enduring influence on Western culture.

Our history of education timeline (currently offline for routine maintenance and expansion) includes images, text, video clips, and other supporting materials that tell the story of education in the Western tradition and contextualize that story within the larger scope of world history.

In the near future, we plan to unveil several new resources, including a series of podcasts, additional audio and video resources, and a module of the web site dedicated to understanding and practicing the moral and intellectual virtues.

These resources will be of use to anyone who wishes to acquire a knowledge of the liberal arts and the great books for themselves, or to teach the same to others.

The entire web site is a collaborative effort, involving scholars and educators from around the world who are actively engaged in liberal education at the K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels.


Today’s Trivium: The Comeback of Classical Education

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts, Liberal Education

by Alyssan Barnes

It is a little known secret—though it should be no secret at all—that classical education has been making a comeback of late.  In some circles, classical education needed no revival, for its life was never really in danger; for instance, at the undergraduate level, schools like St. John’s College, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Dallas have quietly continued, to greater or lesser degrees, to carry the torch of classical learning.  The revival I speak of began in the 1980s, and it has been taking place chiefly at the primary and secondary levels.  True to its name, today’s classical movement has brought the liberal arts, particularly the “trivium” (the arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric), front and center.  And while classical education has been growing within a variety of sub-groups—parochial schools, charter schools, and homeschools—in American education, it remained more or less on the fringes of the mainstream until fairly recently. 

In 2010, however, this secret return of classical education went public with the New York Times op-ed by Stanley Fish titled “A Classical Education: Back to the Future.”1 Therein Fish, one of America’s best known public intellectuals, tells the story of what he considers the finest school that he has experienced firsthand.  He writes, “[A]lthough I have degrees from two Ivy league schools and have taught at U.C. Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Duke, Classical High School (in Providence, RI) is the best and most demanding educational institution I have ever been associated with.”2 The education he received there as a high school student—one that, to most of his readers, will sound “downright antediluvian, outmoded, narrow and elitist”3—propelled almost a hundred percent of its graduates to go on to attend college, even though many, like Fish, were the first within their families to earn a high school diploma.  Fish goes on to cite three recent books, each one making the case for a return to an education that otherwise seems passé.  The first of these books, The Core: Teaching Your Child the Core of Classical Education, is by the CAO of Classical Conversations, Leigh A. Bortins; the second is Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities; the third is Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.  The fact that, as Fish notes, “[t]hree more different perspectives from three more different writers could hardly be imagined”4 highlights the various ways in which interest in classical schooling is being revived and suggests that it will continue to make waves in American education.  But why was it abandoned in the first place?  And what led to its recent revival? 

The Beginning of the End of Classical Education

The tale of classical5 education and its decline in the United States is spun in various ways.  One version traces its American demise to John Dewey (1859-1952), champion of a “progressive” education that attempted to replace more traditional educational forms of his day—forms that drew heavily and generally on the Western heritage—with a pedagogical model in favor of what lay ahead.  Progressive education sought to prepare students for democratic citizenship, self-consciously casting off the study of impractical disciplines such as philosophy, of “dead” languages like Latin and ancient Greek, and of particular literary texts that had long been part of the unquestioned canon.  Another version of the turn away from these older forms of education looks to Horace Mann (1796-1859), who died the year that Dewey was born.  Mann (himself a one-time tutor of Latin and Greek at Brown, his alma mater) is considered the “Father of the Common School Movement,” a movement that expanded public education first in Massachusetts and later throughout the nation.  According to this interpretation, the contemporary impulses for standardization and enculturation begin with Mann.  A third version of the story goes further back, pinning the rap on America’s founders, men like Thomas Jefferson, whose lives marked an ideological turn from the liberal to the practical arts.  The concern for utilitarian education and the suspicion of book learning that shows up in the writings of men like Jefferson, even though his own formation was indubitably classical, is identified by Eva Brann as the beginning of the end, in the American context at least, for traditional learning.6 

But, as far back as Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the lament could be heard regarding the eclipse of an older style of learning that highlighted the study of the liberal arts.  Writing in the early 1700s, Vico saw in his own time a departure away from the ancient classical tradition and toward the sciences.  In On the Study Methods of Our Time (1709), Vico begins by pointing out the new vision Francis Bacon has offered in proposing, as Vico puts it, the “new arts and sciences [that] should be added to those we already possess” and the ways that “we may enlarge our stock of knowledge, . . . so that human wisdom may be brought to complete perfection.”7 Doubting that Bacon’s proposal will be able to deliver on its promise of achieving perfect wisdom, Vico continues, asking, “Which study method is finer and better, ours or the Ancients?’”8 He then goes on to suggest that, whereas the new arts and sciences offer a kind of precision, certainty, and clarity, the new study methods lack a place for what he finds to be just as valuable: common sense, imagination, ethics, philosophy, and eloquence.9 Concerning this newer sort of education, Vico maintains, “We devote all our efforts to the investigation of physical phenomena because their nature seems unambiguous; but we fail to inquire into human nature which, because of the freedom of man’s will, is difficult to determine.” 10 For Vico, then, the study methods of the ancients might be said to be more modest, for they do not promise certainty; however, they also are more fundamental in that they take into account human purposes.

In fact, Vico’s vision for the place of these new studies anticipates that of more recent thinkers, including Albert Einstein, who, more than two hundred years later, agreed that science furnishes only means, not ends:

What hopes and fears does the scientific method imply for mankind?  I do not think that is the right way to put the question.  Whatever this tool in the hands of man will produce depends entirely on the nature of the goals alive in this mankind.  Once these goals exist, the scientific method furnishes means to realize them.  Yet it cannot furnish the very goals. . . .    

     Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem—in my opinion—to characterize our age.11

These remarks, written in 1941 during World War II, attempted to draw attention to the dependence of science upon the character of its users.  That is to say, for Einstein formation is to be considered before transformation, or, to put it differently, the one who wields technology must first be correctly molded before he or she begins to shape the world.

The Turn Back: World War II and the Call for Educational Reform

Einstein’s questioning of the scientific impulse of his own day, an impulse that was not answerable to anything outside itself, only became more important as the atrocities of World War II slowly came to light.  That great international conflict proved a critical moment to a number of thinkers, many of whom would later echo in various ways Einstein’s concern for the aimless progressive tendency of the scientific and technical education being offered students.  In 1943, while the war was still being fought beyond the borders of North America, The Humanities after the War was published,12 a collection of essays discussing the role that the humanities might have in education when the war finally came to an end.  That volume points out that the inhumanities faced in World War II—a war characterized by “an expert barbarism misusing science”13—exposed the importance of preserving goods that the humanities might singularly make possible.  One particular contributor to that volume, Roscoe Pound, insisted that a distinction be made between subjects of study that are foundational and those that are in the “superstructure” of education; while the former help to impart wisdom, the latter rely upon a previously acquired wisdom in order to operate (22).

To various thinkers, then, World War II offered a critical moment for the reconsideration of the place of education in forming students.  In the 1948 publication of The Impact of the War upon American Education, one of a series of reports commissioned by the Committee on War Studies, I. L. Kandel concludes that the war revealed the important role education can play in shaping values and how that role had increasingly been ignored in times leading up to the war (189).  Kandel writes,

The literature on college education, which began to appear as soon as the war broke out in Europe and which mounted in volume as the war progressed, attacked the absence of a sense of direction and purpose in education; and, in emphasizing the importance of liberal education in general and of the humanities in particular, sought to re-emphasize the urgent need of the guidance of values if education was to make its contribution to the preservation of the democratic ideal. (188) 

That is to say, the war revealed that the goods and values of a civilization cannot merely be assumed or remain inherited capital; rather, they must be rediscovered and embraced anew by each generation, and education plays a unique role in that reappraisal. 

In mentioning “the literature” being written on education, Kandel may have had in mind that produced by intellectual luminaries of the day, many of them temporarily turning from their areas of specialization to address the educational concerns of their historical moment.  According to Alan Jacobs, the list of such figures included Mortimer Adler, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain, to name only a few.14 In 1942, C. S. Lewis delivered the first of three lectures in Newcastle that would evolve into The Abolition of Man, a treatise on education that, as its title suggests, regards applied science cut off from universal values as the undoing of the human.  W. H. Auden’s 1943 Phi Beta Kappa address at Swarthmore College, a talk he titled “Vocation and Society,” addressed similar concerns, and serves as the prosaic companion to his later and better known poetic work The Age of Anxiety, published in 1947.  In “Vocation and Society,” Auden  urges students to approach their education not in terms of securing future creature comforts but rather in terms of falling in love or of making a vow; education, he suggests, is a matter of the soul waking to consciousness.15  Also in 1943, in the Terry Lectures at Yale University, Jacques Maritain evoked a similar theme, beginning his talks by saying that, although education naturally aims at the particular—“a particular child belonging to a given nation, a given social environment, a given historical age”16—the fact that a child is a human child must be the first educational consideration.  Those talks took human nature as their theme, enabling Maritain to explore the ontological purpose of education over and against an education with no articulated or defined purpose whatsoever.  In other words, Maritain was seeking to offer an alternative to a type of education that approaches the human solely with a scientific view.17  The title of the 1943 Terry Lectures was published as Education at the Crossroads, with, again, World War II serving for Maritain as the crucial event that demanded a radical reappraisal of the means and ends of education.18  Finally, Mortimer Adler was especially prolific during the first half of that decade,19 publishing no fewer than five books whose titles suggest their prompting by the second World War: The Philosophy and Science of Man: A Collection of Texts as a Foundation for Ethics and Politics (1940), How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (1940), A Dialectic of Morals: Towards the Foundations of Political Philosophy (1941), How to Think About War and Peace (1944), and The Revolution in Education (1944).  These years, then, were a critical period in which various thinkers were considering the type of education needed after World War II, for it was a decade marked by similar, though apparently unassociated, impulses to revive a kind of education that was in danger of being abandoned.  These diverse calls for educational reform, and for a revival of what may generally be called “classical education,” planted the seeds that would not bloom for nearly forty years.20

While general calls for reform were issuing from a variety of scholars and artists, two non-Americans—one in England, at the height of her influence, and the other in Canada, at the outset of his own—happened upon the same rather specific educational concept, namely, that of the trivium (the language arts of grammar, dialectic or “logic,” and rhetoric).  Those two writers were the English essayist, novelist, and Dante scholar Dorothy Sayers and the North American media theorist Marshall McLuhan.  In 1943, McLuhan received his Ph.D. from Cambridge without being required, because of the dangers imposed by the War, to travel back to England for his oral defense.21  His dissertation, The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, remained unpublished until 2006.  Consequently, it would likely have been unknown to Sayers in 1947, when she delivered a talk dealing directly with a form of education patterned on the trivium.  Addressing an audience at Oxford, Sayers delivered a lecture entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” later published as an essay by the same name.  That address has arguably become more important to contemporary classical educators than any other single work, being taken up by education reformers in the final two decades of the twentieth century.

In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Sayers explores an alternative to modern education, one that she finds in the trivium of the medieval world, a syllabus of learning that Sayers believes offers a more promising educational alternative in turning out informed students who think clearly and communicate effectively.  Sayers takes up the three language arts of the trivium in an innovative—perhaps even unorthodox—way, seeing them as stages of developmental psychology that she nicknames “the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic,” respectively.22  The Poll-Parrot stage is that of the young child who memorizes easily, parroting back information but finding “critical thinking” difficult.  The Pert stage corresponds roughly with the early teenage years, in which youngsters delight in arguing, possessing a black-and-white view of even complex issues.  Students who pass to the Poetic stage become concerned with self-expression; they experience an awakening of the imagination that Sayers maintains is “usually dormant during the Pert age.”23  She goes on to define grammar, logic, and rhetoric not as subjects but as “methods of dealing with subjects”; rather than curricular content to be learned, the three language arts become, as Sayers’s title suggests, the “tools of learning” necessary for the training of the mind.  In this understanding, every subject studied would have its own inherent grammar (its basic content to be mastered), logic (its ordered relationships), and rhetoric (its effective expression).  For Sayers, the arts of the trivium are the arts of learning itself, and they line up neatly with a child’s developmental growth.

Before mapping out a suggested syllabus for each of the three stages, Sayers acknowledges the near futility of her efforts to revisit the trivium as a model for education: “It is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.”24  Today, however, it is “classical” education that has, by and large, taken up Sayers’s gauntlet, while McLuhan’s has yet to exert any influence on trivium-based education.25

Today’s Trivium

If there is a single identifiable moment that marks the recovery of Sayers’s ideas, it must be the year 1981, the year that saw the opening of Logos School in Moscow, Idaho.26  The founder of that school, Douglas Wilson, explains that he took up Sayers’s challenge and started the private school so that his own children could have the type of education described in that 1947 Oxford address.27  Ten years later Wilson published Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (1991), a book that sparked nationwide interest in Sayers’s interpretation of trivium-based education.  Today, the new brand of “classical” schools pepper the United States, growing in number every year and ranging from Protestant private schools to non-sectarian homeschool co-ops, and from Catholic schools revamping their curriculum in order to boost dwindling enrollment to public charter schools promising a radical educational alternative.  The state of Texas alone, for instance, has at least 68 private classical schools of various stripes and organizational structure28 and has begun opening classical charter schools, as well.  Furthermore, to cater to classical schools and to the growing demand for curriculum and teacher training, various presses and organizations have formed.29  

At the forefront of the movement in classical education is the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS), founded in 1994.  The ACCS now has over 250 member schools and serves more than 40,000 students.30  The ACCS website offers compelling statistics illustrating the academic performance of their students as compared to their public, religious, and independent school counterparts.  For example, in the chart titled “SAT Performance Relative to College & Career Readiness Benchmark,” a combined score of 1550 is the benchmark for the three SAT tests.  In results for 2015, public school students scored an average of 88 points below the benchmark, religious schools 46 points above, and independent schools 99 points above.  ACCS schools exceeded the benchmark by 237 points.  As for the ACT, average composite scores for the nation were 21.0 in the year 2015; ACCS schools earned an average of 26.2 that year.31  Inspired by the vision and the success of these mostly Protestant classical schools, the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education [ICLE] was formed in 1999, hosting its first conference in the summer of 2013.32  The ICLE website lists 88 Catholic schools33 that now teach a classical curriculum reminiscent of the educational syllabus that flourished in cathedral schools during the medieval era. 

Private schools are not alone in this revival of classical education.  According to a 2012 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 1.8 million children were homeschooled that year in the United States, a number that has steadily been on the rise.34  Home educators, whose reasons for opting out of both public and private education,35 often choose a classical curriculum, devising their own plan using such resources as The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, first published in 1999.  Now in its fourth edition with Norton, and with more than half a million copies sold, the book—a much revered “canonical” resource within classical circles—offers over 700 pages of curriculum guidance.  Both families and schools draw heavily from the book, and one of its authors, Susan Wise Bauer, is a popular speaker at events hosted by homeschool and classical education groups, groups like Classical Conversations, which began in 1997.  Classical Conversations works in tandem with homeschool families by offering weekly classes across the nation.  In the United States, approximately 105,000 students are currently being served by the 2,300 learning communities throughout the United States; to date, 189 of those communities are in the state of Texas alone.36  Furthermore, “university-model” K-12 schools 37 are also on the rise, and many of them specialize in a classical curriculum; the National Association for University Model Schools now boasts 31 university-model affiliate schools in Texas alone.38

Private schools and homeschooling families are two of the major players in classical education, but there is a third group emerging: classical charter schools.  Great Hearts Academies, whose byline is “Classical Education, Revolutionary Schools,” began in 2004.39  A network of 28 schools in Arizona and Texas, the Great Hearts Academies network served approximately 14,000 students in the 2016-17 school year.40  These schools are nonreligious, no-cost public schools that accept students through a blind lottery system.  Additionally, their academies receive much fewer tax dollars per child than traditional public schools,41 but their academic results surpass those of their public school counterparts.42  For example, the composite SAT average for graduating classes 2012-16 was 200 points above the national average.43  A similar group of classical charter schools, a project of the Barney Charter School Initiative and Hillsdale College, have also started to open around the nation; their mission is to open fifty schools by 2022.44  A final example of an open-enrollment charter school is Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.45  The official ACT report for Ridgeview in 2014 was posted online, showing an average composite of 25.7 for Ridgeview Classical students on the ACT compared to an average composite of 20.6 for the state as a whole.  English scores in particular were the most divergent, with Ridgeview averaging 27.2 compared to a Colorado state average of 19.9.46

Each of the above groups—private schools, homeschool students, and public charter schools—adds a particular flavor to the “classical” education they offer.  That is to say, private schools couple classical schooling with religious learning, the homeschool sector orients classical education around the character of each particular family, and public charter schools tend to promote classical education for the preparation of civic leadership.  Whatever their differences, however, certain elements remain generally consistent throughout the various branches.  “Classical,” for these newer groups, could be said to mean four things.  The first of these is, unsurprisingly, the study of “classical” languages—regularly Latin and occasionally Greek—and literature.47  These studies almost always begin prior to high school, and in some institutions, may begin as early as prekindergarten.  Because more than half of English vocabulary can be traced to Latin, the philosophical commitment to the teaching of a classical language means that these students have various practical advantages, as well: according to the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages (NCSSFL), Latin students outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT.  The NCSSFL also notes that 75-80% of the vocabulary of Romance languages is derived from Latin48; thus, the study of Latin allows students to acquire third and fourth languages more easily, as well. 

Second, “classical” generally suggests an attitude of respect for traditional texts, so-called “great books.”  The reading of old books is nothing new for classical education; historian H. I. Marrou, for example, claims that the whole of Greek education pivoted on a single work: Homer’s Iliad (xiv).49  Mortimer Adler, whose lifelong campaign was for the teaching of great books, has deeply influenced the leaders of the contemporary classical school movement.  In fact, Adler’s 24-member Paideia Group of the 1980s proposed to reform the United States K-12 public schools in their entirety; their vision was that public school education at large would adopt a curriculum grounded in the classics, resulting in education that would be “general, not specialized; liberal, not vocational; humanistic, not technical.”50  In Adler’s 1984 publication The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus,51 he offers an extensive list of recommended readings, which Geraldine Van Doren, a Paideia Group member, sees as the “backbone of a Paideia School.”52  Van Doren continues, arguing that the books included in the list “deserve to be called important, beautiful, difficult, and profound.”53  Although Adler and his colleagues did not fulfill their vision to reform public schooling before the end of the twentieth century, Adler’s ideas on great books education are commonly referenced in the publications of today’s classical schools.54 

Third, classical schools have what would appear to be curricular oddities compared to a typical public school.  Writing is often taught using various forms of progymnasmata exercises, hearkening back to Hermogenes’ rhetorical exercises; imitation—copying the style or structure of great literary or rhetorical works55—is generally emphasized, rather than individual creativity on the part of the student.  Reviving the rhetorical canon of memory, classical schools exercise students in copious memorization, such as poetry recitations and lists of dates, facts, and personages.  Another such curricular distinctive is the chronological teaching of history through its major eras.56  It is typical, for example, that second graders in a classical school would spend an entire academic year studying a significant time and place in history—say, for example, ancient Egypt.  Third graders may then focus on the study of Greece and Rome; fourth graders may move on to learn about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; and fifth graders would complete the cycle by focusing on the modern and contemporary world.  In many classical schools, that cycle would be repeated, with middle school and high school students returning to the same historical units/epochs, studying them a second time both in greater detail and in a way that corresponds to their respective developmental stages.

Teaching the trivium as developmental stages is perhaps the most unusual distinguishing characteristic of today’s classical schools.  Almost all contemporary classical schools take seriously Sayers’s interpretation of the trivium in terms of developmental psychology; thus, their educators attempt to tailor pedagogy to a student’s particular stage.  For example, schools are often divided into “grammar school,” “logic school,” and “rhetoric school,” divisions that correspond roughly to the elementary, junior high, and high school years.  At each stage, teachers offer instruction in pedagogically distinct ways.57  Besides boasting instruction in formal English grammar, a grammar school emphasizes rote memory, for instance, as well as narration, dictation, and the aforementioned imitation; logic schools will highlight debate in many of their classes (science, history, et al.), while offering separate courses in formal and informal logic; students in rhetoric schools study formal rhetoric,58 of course, but they are typically asked to apply their rhetorical training to their written compositions and oral presentations, often ending their studies with a lengthy thesis that must be publicly defended.  The developmental interpretation of the trivium serves as the backbone in a number of books within these classical circles, such as Perrin’s An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents, Wise Bauer and Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind, and Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.  Curriculum presses such as Veritas Press and Memoria Press also tend to divide their entire curriculum according to the three stages. 

A Third Wave?

In a 1981 treatise on classical education, David Hicks claims, “Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place; rather, it can be recognized by its distinct spirit and form.”59  In this quotation, Hicks identifies both a desire of contemporary classical educators and a potential contradiction that lies within their project as it is currently conceived.  That tension, as it has developed, is the heavy dependence upon what has been dubbed the “Sayers Insight,”60 the innovative developmental interpretation of the trivium’s liberal arts as distinct stages of learning.  But leaders in the classical revival are not unaware of this fact; Susan Wise Bauer, for example, recognizes that the type of education that is actually being offered today is not so much classical as it is “neo-classical education.”61  In fact, the movement appears to be going through something of a second wave, as books like Wisdom and Eloquence (2006) and The Liberal Arts Tradition (2013) have questioned the trivium as a developmental model and offer suggestions for changes in the neo-classical curriculum.  But the Sayers Insight still holds sway, and it is unlikely that things will change any time soon, for the three-stage approach seems to have proven itself an effective teaching strategy in many of the places where it has been adopted. 

Nonetheless, this developmental model, while still predominant, is—from the perspective of the trivium’s very long history—the novelty.  Other, older accounts of the trivium can serve as foils to Sayers’s developmental model, offering a fuller vision of how the liberal arts shaped education over the centuries prior to 1947.  A helpful example of an alternate interpretation can be found in Sister Miriam Joseph’s book The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, first published in 1937.  Joseph offers a version of the trivium as comprising three arts: the art of symbol (grammar), the art of thinking (logic), and the art of communicating (rhetoric).62  Notably, Joseph’s interpretation of the trivium as comprising three arts, rather than stages, predates Sayers’s developmental reading.  Moreover, her interpretation falls more in line with the traditional conception of the trivium than does Sayers’s, revealing that it is Joseph’s conception of the trivium—as arts, not stages—that holds sway throughout much of its history, with the Sayers Insight being the latecomer. 

But another important conception of the trivium lies unexplored.  As mentioned earlier, Sayers and Marshall McLuhan happened upon the trivium in the same decade, and as her essay was sparking the current classical education resurgence, McLuhan’s dissertation remained unknown and unpublished until 2006.  Within that dissertation—and in signature style—McLuhan takes an altogether original view of the three language arts, calling them “rival sisters.”63  By this he means that grammar, logic (“dialectic”), and rhetoric are more than subjects of study; they are, rather, different perspectives on reality, each one jockeying for dominance within a given age.  McLuhan, then, is able to offer an alternate—one critic calls it “postmodern”64—reading of the history of the trivium.  Little concerned with the structure of education in these periods, he seeks instead to determine which of the language arts can be identified as preeminent over the other two at a given historical moment.  Strikingly, McLuhan collapses the Greeks and the Romans together, considering their era one in which rhetoric and grammar ruled over dialectic, hemming in the “middle” art of the trivium.  Indeed, because of its groundless nature, dialectic requires the guidance of grammar and rhetoric in order to keep the trivium in balance.  McLuhan, then, sets the abstracted means of knowing—dialectic—at odds with grammar and rhetoric, whose union he sees represented in Cicero. 

McLuhan’s privileged mode is grammatical; he understands “grammar” not to be merely the study of parts of speech but rather as the art of making and interpreting symbol, an art which has been historically ignored in the more recognizable opposition between dialectic and rhetoric.  That very rivalry is identified by Stanley Fish as a war between foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, or between homo rhetoricus (“rhetorical man”) and homo seriosus (“serious man”),65 terms he adapts from Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence.  Indeed, from this perspective, Fish looks back upon the rhetorical tradition and sees the strains of rhetoric and dialectic at odds, with one alternately more prominent than the other.  What Fish does not discuss, however, is a third possibility, that of homo grammaticus (“grammatical man”), and it is McLuhan’s insights into the nature of grammar, and the distinct forms of knowledge that it allows, that are most promising for the contemporary proponents of the trivium.

The comeback of classical education potentially has a third wave ahead, then, one that takes seriously the insight of McLuhan, whose construal of the language arts as rival personalities offers a new way of thinking about the trivium.  That is, the three language arts may actually be unique kinds of knowing, each with an inherent potential to overpower her “sisters.”  As contemporary classical education moves through what is being called its second wave, leaders in the movement might take the “McLuhan Insight” to heart, considering how the forms of trivium-based education being offered can be dominated by a particular art.  That is, an education dominated by, say, dialectic can reinforce students’ commitment to foundational truths, but it can do so at the risk of raising up abstractionists; conversely, rhetorical education can prepare students to articulate and defend goodness in the world, but their desire to succeed in such efforts could come at the expense of a growing comfort with anti-foundationalism.66  No doubt, the rich tradition awaits a fuller recovery.  McLuhan’s contribution, then, allows one to look beyond the trivium as a developmental model.  Instead, classical educators might ask an important question of their schools: Which rival sister of the trivium dominates the others?

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On the Liberal Art of Grammar

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts

by John F. Nieto,

Thomas Aquinas College,

1.The following comments propose to clarify the nature of grammar as an art, a speculative and liberal art. First I distinguish grammar from other arts concerned with speech [2-9] with particular attention to the difference between grammar and logic [6-9]. Then I show that while grammar is an art, it is a ‘speculative art’ [10-24]. (Here I show how this art is ‘speculative’ as a whole [10-11], and can yet be divided into parts that are ‘speculative’ and ‘practical’ in several ways [12-25].) Finally, I discuss the respect in which it is entitled ‘liberal’ [26-28].

2. The three parts of the trivium, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, have speech as their subject. Though it is not part of the trivium, one might add poetry to this list. Now, it is not difficult to see that these are distinct arts. Each of them must therefore consider speech in its own way.

3. The division of these arts from one another is made clearer by considering that speech belongs properly to the composite of the human body and the rational soul, which is immaterial. This soul has operations in common with the body, such as fear or anger, as well as other operations proper to itself, such as thinking. Speech can be therefore ordered to something immaterial as well as to something material.

4. Logic considers speech insofar as it manifests some immaterial, universal intention, together with all those things that follow such universality. Both rhetoric and poetry consider speech insofar as it manifests not only thoughts but also the passions common to body and soul. But rhetoric considers speech insofar as thought and passion can be ordered to human action, while poetry considers speech insofar as these passions can be ordered to the pleasure and delight of those listening. Respectively, these three arts consider speech insofar as an honest good, a useful good, and a pleasant good can be found in it.

5. The grammarian, however, does not consider speech precisely as it attains any of these ends. Rather, like many ministerial arts, it considers the making of the instrument as such. A lower art commissioned by a higher art to make its instrument knows the order of this instrument to that end, although it does not know the proper causes of that end. The violin maker knows the order of his instrument to music making, though he does not, precisely as a violin maker, know how to play this instrument. So the grammarian considers speech as an artifact capable of expressing thought and even passion. (Thus a good grammar has a section on the fundamentals of prosody.) But the grammarian does not consider speech precisely insofar as it attains a further end. Rather, he considers the proper principles by which speech itself is formed. He considers what makes a word to be a noun, a verb, or some other part of speech, and the order these parts of speech have to one another. Thus he ultimately considers the constructions that arise from the order between such words as from their proper causes.

6. Distinguishing grammar more carefully here from logic can assist in seeing the order proper to grammar. Logic considers the order in words precisely insofar as this order manifests the order in thought, which must be resolved to things themselves. Thus, for example, the logician considers ‘substance’ insofar as it is a name signifying some individual, such as Socrates, or its essence insofar as these can be conceived. Again, the logician recognizes that ‘action’ is represented as belonging to some subject and terminating in an object. But he considers this ‘mode of signifying’ to be a manifestation of what action is and how it is conceived. Thus, he recognizes that the verb ‘to suffer’ is not in the logical category of action.  For the logician the mode of signifying is always considered insofar as it signifies something with a mode of understanding and thus a mode of being.

7. But the grammarian only considers the order in words insofar as it is a principle of sentences. For the grammarian, ‘substance’ is merely something about which other things can be said. He forms the noun and pronoun with this ‘mode of signification’, whether or not the nature signified is a substance logically: ‘man’, ‘humanity’, ‘whiteness’. Likewise he considers the relation of action to a subject and an object insofar as this produces certain kinds of verbs. Thus he sees that the concept of action has produced a distinct schema or template by which the active, transitive verb is formed as an instrument to his intellect, without attention to the reality signified or its definition. In this way ‘suffer’ in the following passage is understood by the grammarian to be an active, transitive verb: ‘[I]t can be only weak, irresolute characters…who will suffer an unfortunate acquaintance to be an inconvenience, an oppression for ever’ (Emma).

8. This difference between logic and grammar is pointed out by Saint Thomas when he says,

quia logica ordinatur ad cognitionem de rebus sumendam, significatio vocum, quae est immediata ipsis conceptionibus intellectus, pertinet ad principalem considerationem ipsius; significatio autem litterarum, tanquam magis remota, non pertinet ad eius considerationem, sed magis ad considerationem grammatici. (Expositio libri peryemenias II.2, p.3: Because logic is ordered to raising knowledge about things, the signification of sounds of voice [vocum], which is immediate to the very conceptions of the intellect, per- tains to its principal consideration; but the signification of letters, as if more remote, does not pertain to its consideration, but rather to the grammarian’s consideration.)

Saint Thomas explains the logician’s concern with the signification of vocal sounds by stating that this signification is immediate to the intellect’s conceptions. One could say that the modes of signifying no longer exist in the written word itself to the extent that these modes of signifying concern the logician. For in writing they are separated from thought. Only when the written text is again read can the logician find his object. For his object is never separated from the modes of understanding.

9. But the written word still possesses in some manner the mode of signifying insofar as it is ordered to certain constructions. The subject, object, and verb thus demand certain forms and positions if they will cohere in a sentence, and these properties are found in writing. Thus, one who is learning another language can recognize the grammatical implications of certain ‘cases’ and positions in a sentence without understanding what the sentence says. He notices that canem is accusative and thus some kind of object. Or, again, that ‘man’ and ‘dog’ are in the position appropriate to the subject and object respectively, though he does not know what these words mean. For the modes of signifying are not considered by the grammarian as revealing things and the manner in which those things are conceived, but as constituting parts of speech with the power to be brought together to form a certain whole, the sentence, the mind’s principal instrument for expression.

10. Grammar is in this way an art, that is, a ‘certa ordinatio rationis quomodo per determinata media ad debitum finem actus humani perveniant ( In libros posteriorum analyticorum I l.1: ‘a certain ordination of reason in what way human acts arrive through determinate means to a determinate end). It considers the modes of signifying as the means by which one makes speech. And in virtue of its object grammar is a liberal art. For it has ‘opus aliquod quod est immediate ipsius rationis, ut…orationem formare.’ (Super Boetium De trinitate Q.5, a.1, ad 3, 231-233. Cf. I-II Q.57, a.3, ad 3: some work which belongs immediately to reason, as…to form speech’). The sentences grammar constructs by means of the modes of signifying are immediately instruments of the intellect in expressing its thoughts.

11. Speech, however, is distinguished from the sounds of animals, not by its expression of passion (however much more sublimely it does so), but by its order to the expression and communication of human thought. For this reason the art concerned with speech precisely as a sign, that is, as an instrument of thought, is among the ‘speculative’ or ‘theoretical’ arts which are ordered to particular, yet speculative, ends. (Super Boetium De trinitate Q.5, a.1, ad 4, 273-277: Cum enim philosophia vel etiam artes per theoricum et practicum distinguuntur, oportet accipere distinctionem eorum ex fine, ut theoricum dicatur illud, quod ordinatur ad solam cognitionem veritatis, practicum vero, quod ordinatur ad operationem. Hoc tamen interest, cum in hoc dividitur philosophia totalis et artes, quod in divisione philosophiae habetur respectus ad finem beatitudinis, ad quem tota humana vita ordinatur….Cum vero dicuntur artium quaedam esse speculativae, quaedam practicae, habetur respectus ad aliquos speciales fines illarum artium. [For when philosophy or even the arts are distinguished by the theoretical and the practical, one must take their distinction from the end, as that which is ordered only to the knowledge of the truth is the theoretic, but what is ordered to operation is practical. Yet there is this difference, when the whole of philosophy and the arts are divided in this that a reference is had in the division of philosophy to the end of beatitude, to which the whole of human life is ordered….But when certain arts are said to be speculative and certain practical, a reference is had to the some special ends of those arts.]) In this sense grammar is always a speculative art, no matter how practical the manner of its study is, no matter how slavish its use is.

12. But, while the grammarian’s consideration of the modes of signifying and the constructions they cause is in itself and as a whole a ‘speculative art’ because it produces an opus belonging immediately to reason, there is reason to distinguish within grammar a part that is speculative from a part that is practical. For the grammarian’s consideration can be ‘propinqua uel remota ab operatione. Saint Thomas discusses this distinction as it is appropriate to medicine, which as a whole must be judged a practical art in consideration of its end, the healing of the body.

13. For part of medicine too can be called ‘practical’ and another part ‘speculative’. One part of medicine which ‘docet modum operandi ad sanationem’ can be called practical because it is near the operation considered by medicine. Another part that ‘docet principia, ex quibus homo dirigitur in operatione, sed non proxime12 is called speculative merely because of its ‘distance’ from operation.

14. A similar distinction between what is near operation and what is far from operation can be found in grammar. And this distinction can be applied to grammar in several ways. Here I will propose three that I understand to be of particular importance.

15. In one way this distinction is found in grammar just as it is found in medicine. This involves a distinction of the consideration of grammatical principles from their application to particular operations. For the grammarian must obviously be able to form particular sentences and correct particular grammatical errors. Teaching how to do so is close to operation and therefore ‘practical’ grammar.

16. But grammar also distinguishes the modes of signifying and recognizes them in the various parts of speech. These modes of signifying are then assigned as the proper causes of the constructions found in speech. In this way a particular category, such as substance, or even a very determinate nature, such as a ‘chain’ (taken for an unnamed genus), is understood to provide the ‘schema’ or mode according to which a particular word is this or that part of speech, here a noun or a conjunction. Again, the nature of the demonstrative pronouns ‘this’ and ‘that’ (and their relation to antecedents) may be considered universally, without considering how to use them in a manner close to speech. The grammarian also shows why some mode of signifying gives rise to some construction: how the mode of action allows the verb to be said of a subject or how the mode of a ‘hook’ allows a preposition to terminate an intransitive verb in an object.16 The grammarian thus considers universally and in principle the operation of all speakers. Insofar as his consideration is distant from the particular act of speaking, it can be called speculative.

17. Note, however, that, though such consideration is ‘remote from operation,’ it is not speculative in the sense that it does not have some opus or is not ordered to operation. It can be distinguished as speculative rather than practical because it is farther from the particular opus and operation than other considerations are. Rather than separating such considerations from operation altogether, this ‘remoteness’ allows the consideration to embrace in a universal manner many more opera and operationes. Thus ‘speculative grammar’ is still an art.

18. Another way in which this distinction is found in grammar arises from the fact that the principles and causes of speech can be considered insofar as they bear upon a particular matter. One often sees, for example, the theologian, who studies the divine nature, consider the application of grammatical principles to the particular matter he speaks of. Sometimes he discusses determinate propositions, as when he explains why the past imperfect is used in the statement, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ or the sense of the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’ in the sacramental formula ‘This is my body.’ Again, the theologian sometimes considers the very possibility of naming God or forming propositions about Him. Now all these considerations are near to operation (though one may be nearer than another) because they are contracted to the matter being spoken of.

19. Sacred Theology must often ask such questions, because its subject matter is not properly represented by the modes of signifying found in speech, but other sciences may do so as well. In natural theology the philosopher recognizes that one must not only say that God is alive, but also that he is his life. Again, the physicist must recognize that the perfect and the imperfect or ‘progressive’ aspects signify something really distinct when said of local motion. ‘To be walking to Athens’ is not ‘to have walked there.’ Yet, when said of the operations of sense, these aspects signify the same reality. ‘To be seeing something’ and ‘to have seen it’ do not signify a different reality. They do signify that reality with a different aspect. One phrase signifies the act as ongoing; the other signifies it as perfect or complete. But, unlike walking, the act of seeing itself is complete (I do not mean ‘over’) as soon as it begins.

20. In these examples, grammar is serving another science. Yet even within grammar itself, especially in the consideration of particular languages, the grammarian may be concerned with the need to speak about a particular matter. Thus he may explain the use of the passive or ‘middle’ voice to name certain actions, such as sensing (αἰσθάνομαι) or following (sequor.) Again, he may distinguish the material and formal accusatives in a statement such as ‘We made him king.’ This distinction is founded on some relation in the things signified, the man and his kingship. Likewise, the distinction in various kinds of genitive constructions (e.g. the possessive, the subjective, or the objective genitive) is founded on distinctions in the matter represented by the genitive.

21. In all such cases, grammatical principles must be applied to the matter at hand, whether this occurs in a particular proposition or a very determinate kind of proposition. This nearness to operation is, it seems to me, one way in which a part of the art of grammar, although it remains part of a ‘speculative art,’ can be called practical grammar rather than speculative grammar. In this determinate sense, grammar would be speculative when it fails to consider the grammatical import proper to the matter spoken of.

22. Grammar can be distinguished as ‘practical’ and ‘speculative’ insofar as its considerations are closer to or more removed from operation in the two ways mentioned. But grammar can also be remote from or near to operation through a cause proper to its subject. For, though the modes of signifying that grammar studies, whether or not found in all languages, have a kind of universality, these modes of signifying only exist in particular languages that embody them in sounds determined by convention and so they vary in one place and another and at one time and another.

23. Thus what is commonly understood as grammar involves the consideration of the determinate words and constructions used by a language or even the comparison of these among various languages. All such considerations are obviously nearer to operation and can thus be called ‘practical.’ But the considerations that abstract from any particular language, even if they illustrate grammar’s teachings with the usage of particular languages, are remote from operation and are in this sense called ‘speculative.’

24. Again, even the determinate considerations mentioned above, by which a science applies the teachings of grammar to a particular matter, may demand consideration of one or more particular languages. So Saint Thomas discusses what is proper to Greek and Latin when commenting on Aristotle’s definition of the verb or on the prologue to Saint John’s gospel. Such considerations would be practical in two ways, insofar as it considers particular sentences and insofar as it is concerned with the peculiarities of one language in distinction from another.

25. Hence, grammar can be divided into speculative and practical parts in at least these three ways, as it is concerned with the principles of speech or their application in forming particular sentences [15-17], or as it considers speech without attention to the matter spoken of or with such attention [18-21], or as it is concerned with the very nature of language or with particular languages [22-24]. Note that in these ways parts of grammar will be called ‘speculative grammar’ or ‘practical grammar.’ But the whole of grammar is not called ‘speculative grammar’ but a ‘speculative art.’

26. Note that all the considerations mentioned belong to grammar insofar as it produces an opus belonging immediately to reason. Such considerations therefore belong to grammar as it is a liberal art. Now an art is liberal insofar as it is ordered to the intellect’s satisfaction (Sententia Libri Politicarum I l.5: dicuntur aliquae artes liberales, quae deputantur ad actus liberorum). In this way ‘liberal’ adds some notion to ‘speculative.’ The speculative art produces some work that belongs immediately to reason, but the liberal art considers that work in a manner that serves man’s intellect and thus makes him free.

27. So any consideration of particular languages ordered merely to obtaining the habits of speaking, reading, or writing that language without attention to the principles by which it is an instrument of the intellect shares little or not at all in the liberal character of this art. Though one cannot make the art ‘servile’ (for one cannot change the nature of the art), one can use the art in a servile way.

28. The liberal character of grammar demands that in the consideration of a particular language, even in its idioms, one sees the order in words as an instrument the intellect forms for the expression of its thought. To the extent that the grammarian fails to consider the order instituted in language by the mind, he fails to understand the order of speech to his own intellect. He thereby does not consider grammar in the manner appropriate to the free man, who lives for his own sake and thus for the sake of the highest faculty. (The grammarian often considers principles outside his science to clarify his own principles. Thus he may, for example, consider the modes of understanding implied in various uses of the genitive: the possessive genitive, the subjective genitive, the objective genitive. This order allows him to understand the nature, unity, and breadth of the genitive case. Again, historical principles may explain the development of the accusative case. Though such principles are outside the science, they help to manifest the nature and unity of this case. A good example of the use of such considerations as an aid to what is properly speculative consideration (however imperfectly it is distinguished from the practical) can be found in A New Latin Syntax by E. C. Woodcock.)

Athena as Founder and Statesman in the “Eumenides” of Aeschylus

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts, Rhetoric

by John Alvis

University of Dallas

The Oresteia develops upon three levels: the theological, the political, and the ethical. The theological development moves from divisiveness among the gods to the consolidation of the rule of Zeus; the political development moves from Troy to Argos to Athens; and the ethical development moves from will without restraint, to will subject to responsibility, to self-rule fully responsible to religious, familial, and political obligations. 

The agency driving this threefold development is human effort in partnership with divine purpose. The Athena of the third play provides the executive, personal agent who, in founding a polity, gives over divine to human providence. The great question provoked by the trilogy is the question of assigning ultimate causality, since from beginning to end throughout the course of the trilogy we view human, divine, and physical agents all contributing something to the momentum and direction of plot in the three plays. Then, within the realm of human agency, we observe human beings acting in four modes, i.e. as individual characters, as characters strongly marked by male or female predisposition, as members of families with a familial history, and as citizens participating in particular polities with their particular constitutions and having, as well, distinct histories. 

To which of these agencies does Aeschylus seem to attribute the most decisive weight? To restate in philosophical terms, which of these intermingled agents emerges as the dominant efficient cause? Further, can we identify a final and a formal cause, a telos or purpose, and what of the formal means to achieving that purpose? My thesis: the efficient cause Aeschylus has conceived is human intelligence acting in the political mode, the final cause is the good life conceived as individual self-government, and the formal cause is the best political constitution combining legal and religious provisions supervised and maintained by a deliberative assembly. Finally, the idea of tempering or the analogy of weaving affords the key to imagining this coordination of causes. 

I propose to attempt an explanation of the foregoing synopsis by focusing upon the end of the trilogy examining the various actions of Athena in the final trial scene while from time to time reflecting back upon passages in the preceding action in The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the earlier portions of The Eumenides.

Public Trial by Jury as Political Refounding

In her conduct of the proceedings with which The Eumenides concludes, we perceive Athena simultaneously presiding over a trial and a founding, adjudicating a particular contention over justice while exemplifying principles of justice, of statecraft, and of constitution making. To do so requires that she attend throughout to the three dimensions of justice as these come to be recognized by a philosophical tradition most explicitly set forth by Aristotle. Athena must attend to justice in its retributive form. The question before her court is what retribution for matricide should befall Orestes. In addressing this issue Athena must also manage an issue of commutative justice. Can there be discovered a punishment for the matricide that in some respect equates with the punishment the plaintiffs demand yet substitutes for the capital punishment a retribution more in keeping with extenuating circumstances as well as accomplishing some positive good?     

These are considerations familiar in judicial litigation. Yet Athena also seeks equity in its third dimension, of distributive justice. Distributive justice pertains to allotting limited goods with respect to desert, goods identified with economic property, with honors, or with political offices. We see her intent upon exhibiting principles bearing upon distribution and actually inventing institutions—jury trial, as well as the Areopagus—to embody and secure the principles she has employed. We may even incline to say that Athena indicates more interest in the distributive than the retributive outcome, or to say that she uses the occasion for deciding retribution for the sake of the benefits she means to extend by her scheme of distribution, that is to say, by modeling a new constitution for the city named for her, thereby securing justice not just for the occasion but in perpetuity. (572) 

Both activities are novel in the context established by the preceding action of the trilogy. In this case the obvious is significant. Of the numerous conflicts between divinities, individual human beings, families, and cities not one has sought resolution in a trial at law. A legal contest requires a law subject to violation, a judge, and a proceeding by presentations of evidence and argumentation from both prosecution and defense. The first offense to which Aeschylus alludes—that of the first murderer Ixion—finds its issue in a summary judgment delivered by Zeus. But evidently this establishes no precedent for human beings in their dealings with crimes. Victims or the kinsmen of victims take retribution against the perpetrators of the crimes attributed to members of the family of Atreus. Atreus famously punishes Thyestes with the terrible banquet whereby the father is made to feed on the flesh of his sons. The surviving son assists Clytaemestra in the killing of Atreus’ son Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s son Orestes thereupon slays in private (i.e. within the royal domus) both Aegisthus and Clytaemestra. 

Between cities retribution is exacted in the same manner, namely, summarily and by force exerted by the victim or his kinsman (by both victim and brother with Menelaus and Agamemnon destroying Troy for the crime committed by Paris and abetted by Priam and his family). Among the gods as well there seem to be no trials. We infer Zeus deals with crimes committed by divinities in the same manner he had dealt with the human criminal, Ixion. (441) Nor are there trials when the offense is charged to a city and the offended parties are divinities— Troy the case in point, and perhaps Argos if we are to understand that the victors have offended the gods in the course of sacking Troy. 

Presumably, summary judgment by kings had also been the practice under Theseus and his successors in Athens. Since Athena mentions Theseus twice by name (402, 686) and records his battle with the Amazons in the second mention, Aeschylus adheres to the traditional accounts which credit Theseus with founding Athens by assembling tribes under his kingship. We must then consider Athena presently to be engaged in a refounding. What has happened to Athenian kingship we are not told. It appears that something on the order of the polis is to replace a government that had not differed from the unlimited kingship of Troy and Argos. But if Aeschylus understands polis more in the sense of a constitutional government, then this second founding he may deem more decisive than Theseus’s gathering of originally scattered tribes. It is more decisive in distinguishing this city from other sites of human habitation. For that we have Athena’s express declaration when she says of the judicial body she establishes: “If… you righteously fear an august body like this, you will have a bulwark to keep your land and city safe such as no one in the world has.” (700-702)

Jury Trial as Political Tempering

In any event, jury trials are consistent with the principle the classical polis serves in tempering the passions of the chief constituent elements of the urban population. The institution of public trials contributes to tempering the passions that drive private retribution for two reasons. First, deciding issues by trial entails elevating speech over inarticulate spasms of violence, and, second, action by trial introduces a wider perspective upon matters of contention. Not merely the loves and enmities within or between families, but the concerns of the city at large, enter into the decision. Even, as here, concerns extending to external relations with other nations may enter in. 

By contrast, although the welfare of all inhabitants of Troy and Argos had been affected by deeds committed within ruling families, the people at large had no voice in addressing these deeds. In the first two plays of the trilogy we see cities subjected to catastrophe emanating from the ruling family. But since the inhabitants of Troy and Argos are subjects, not citizens, they can only witness and await an outcome determined by others who neither consult them nor act with a view to the public welfare. The chorus of elders of The Agamemnon doubt that the war to regain Helen has a benefit to the public at all proportionate to the losses in lives suffered by the public. At moments the elders are disposed to act against Aegisthus and Clytaemestra, but they divide in their counsels because they cannot deliberate or take action through an institution designed for just such a purpose. Argos evidently has no public institutions that can oblige its royal family to consult those it governs. Agamemnon speaks of canvassing certain of the populace for information regarding the condition of his kingdom (Ag. 845-846), but his gesture does not proceed from a sense of constitutional obligation. Although in hesitating to tread on the costly fabrics Clytaemestra has spread before him he contrasts himself with a Priam he considers a barbarian despot, Agamemnon shows himself attentive to no more formal limits upon his unilateral authority than Priam had observed. 

Consequently, in addition to introducing judicial arbitration, Athena’s establishment of the Areopagus provides what has been lacking in the previously depicted regimes as well as what cities other than Athens continue to lack, a permanent institution to insure trials but also a permanent forum for public deliberation on all matters for which provision can be made by legislation. She conceives of this body of select elders as a sort of combination of Supreme Court and Senate, a guardian of the Athenian constitution, which she emphasizes by stating explicitly that it should sustain the old laws against innovations. Her imagery for this conservative function bears noting. “Do not,” she warns, “mix the clear water with mud.”(693) Not every mixing produces a tempering. A mixing that is a proper tempering combines opposites in such a way as to create a compound that adds strength to strength while diminishing the characteristic weaknesses of the constitutive elements. 

It seems Aeschylus through his Athena has advised a further tempering that addresses the fundamental problem besetting Athens during Aeschylus’s life, and the one most prominent in Aristotle’s analysis of constitutional tensions a century and a half later, namely, the problem of apportioning power arising from the competing claims of democrats and oligarchs. Aeschylus’s Athena, by instituting the Areopagus, delivers her city from subjugation to a ruling family and thereby elevates the public over the private. Nevertheless, she does not identify the public with the democratic, with the rule of the majority of freemen possessed of equal votes. She makes it clear that membership in her favored institution must be selective. But on what principles selective? If we go by the only criterion Athena mentions when she chooses the eleven jurors who will share with her judgment upon Orestes’s case, she says simply “men without fault” (475) and “the best from among my citizens.” (487) 

The division between the many and the few ordinarily gets expressed in the terms most visible to every eye: the many are the relatively poor, the few the relatively wealthy. Athena, however, in designating the “best” employs the alternative identification of the few, that which designates the aristocrats. She does not insist upon property qualifications as the oligarchs would, or upon equality as democratic partisans typically do. Moral and intellectual virtue without further prerequisites evidently suffice to qualify a citizen for membership in this select council. The implication may be that tempering the perennial opposition, pitting rich against poor, will either produce the best men as the only mediating element acceptable to both of the partisan interests, or will enable the better among the citizenry to side with one or the other party as justice may dictate. If this is a proper inference we can see that efficient and final cause of the best regime coalesce, that moral and intellectual virtue in those who make law and judge by law promotes in the citizenry such moral and intellectual strength as individual citizens are capable of attaining. 

Athena as Personified Political Prudence 

Besides these institutional provisions, Athena also says she intends her words and actions in presiding over the trial to illustrate justice in a complete form. Aeschylus thus puts the goddess on display as his chief exhibit of a mind at work in achieving a just resolution of contending interests. How does his Athena proceed? She proceeds first by an exhibition of self- control that distinguishes her from her fellow Olympian, Apollo. From Apollo’s reaction to his first sight of the Erinyes at the outset of the play we appreciate the good effect of Athena’s composure. Apollo had recoiled in disgust at first sight of the band of Furies, as had the priestess of his temple. Athena’s spontaneous reaction on their first appearance would have been the same had she not immediately checked her first aversion, (410-412) deciding on second thought to consider beyond appearances and greet them respectfully. 

The Furies will complain several times of what appears to be inveterate disdain expressed toward them by the younger gods who, the Furies protest, accompany loathing of their ugliness with disregard, if not ignorance, of the benefit the Furies provide. These vestiges of the oldest strata of divinity claim they function as a sort of cosmic sanitary service exercising a distasteful but indispensable function in punishing human crimes against blood kin. Though they spare the Olympians from having to take on this task they are unappreciated, indeed reviled, as they just experienced when Apollo wanted to eject their band from his temple precincts. Athena’s deference to them they receive as a novelty portending better prospects. They must regard Athena’s welcome as something momentous because apparently upon no other grounds do they assent to her assuming jurisdiction over the matter of arbitrating their dispute with Apollo over Orestes’s fate, this the second most astounding of their speeches. 

Athena’s discretion has made possible a revolution in the relations among gods and between gods and men. In the first place, divinities of both generations of gods—the ancient descendants of Night and the most recent Olympian generation—now become participants in a legal process to the outcome of which they submit themselves. Second, the more extraordinary of the revolutionary aspects, the divine litigants will in effect be subject to the judgment of human beings. That is the consequence of Athena’s unnecessarily associating herself with this first human jury to judge a homicide. 

We must add that her arrangement includes submitting herself to human judgment since (unless she counts on some unannounced management of the ballots) she cannot depend upon the tie vote that does eventuate. When one thinks through the implications one realizes Athena has contrived a reapportionment of power between men and gods in its magnitude of consequence comparable to that following upon the technological revolution Aeschylus ascribes to Prometheus’s gift to mankind of Zeus’s fire. Neither the Furies nor Apollo give their consent from motives of philanthropy. Both parties think they serve their respective self-interest and are quite disposed to ensure the desired outcome by threats and bribes. Not until the conclusion of the trial, if even then, will they be aware of the consequences they will have assisted in producing by conferring their prior consent. 

But such is the nature of statesmanship. The wise statesman makes use of partisan interests and partisan short-sightedness in order, by tempering partisan views, to arrive at non-partisan justice. Whether Athena herself works from partisan self-interest—she obviously benefits from Athenian alliance with Argos— depends upon how Aeschylus estimates Athenian contributions to mankind as distinct from her favor to Athens. 

Here I must interrupt this account of Athena’s statesmanship and founding in order to note a problem familiar to everyone who attempts to grasp how the Greek poets regard their portrayal of gods. The poets insist upon the personal character of the divinities they represent in speeches and deeds. These same poets insist equally upon the modalities embodied in the various divine persons they depict, their association, or indeed identification, with features of nature—earth, sky, sea—or of human nature, sexual desire, warfare, technology, prudence, music, and so forth. From our attempts to understand poetic theology problems arise for discerning just how to adjust instance by instance this bifocal presentation. 

In the matter of the trial scene of The Eumenides one baulks at accepting as credible the idea of divine persons acquiescing to a proposal that human persons similarly situated would be likely to reject, or, having once unthinkingly accepted would be unlikely to honor once the consequences of assenting had become clear. Much easier to accept is a generalized proposition looking only to modalities: kinship bonds are strong, beneficial for the weak young and the weak old (the Furies’ strong suit), yet they are beneficial only as part of a whole and thus subject to regulation with a view to the whole. Obligations incurred in contractual marriages are beneficial to man and ought to be respected, in some circumstances should be honored even at expense of obligations incident to kinship, Apollo’s brief. But these more voluntarily assumed bonds also ought to give way to adjustment by reference to an entire field of obligations. 

Perhaps the resolution to this problem consists in observing that the Aeschylean gods need not conform to probabilities attached to human persons because they are images of persons only in quite a restricted sense. Excepting Athena the Aeschylean gods are images of minds and wills so reduced in complexity that should we encounter human beings of such character we would consider them inhumanly simple, one-track consciousnesses, even specimens of what another era will term neurotics. An actual human being displays a variety of dispositions, affinities, projects, and obligations. You could say an individual human being resembles an arena in which various “gods” contend for a prize consisting in seizing that temporary priority of allegiance which from case to case, moment to moment, determines the human being to choice and action. 

The gods are to be conceived as more monolithic. Nothing puts them at variance with themselves. Hence they behave in the manner of partisans who must be governed by intelligences that can recognize the partisan, the one-track-minded, as such. In Homer and Hesiod that co-ordinating intelligence is Zeus. The intelligence capable of such understanding of the partial by reference to the whole can experience dilemma. Among gods given stage presence, only Athena is shown to reflect upon the sort of dilemma that human beings experience all the time, and which previously in the trilogy Agamemnon, then Orestes experiences in the acute form we recognize as tragic. The chorus of The Agamemnon as well as the chorus of slave women in The Libation Bearers confront dilemma in a form distressing enough though not so acute as that of the King and his son, both divided as they are between obligations of blood and what they suppose to be political obligations. 

Apart from Athena, we see the gods provoke dilemmas they do not themselves experience as such. Artemis cherishes the young and reacts to the rending of the pregnant hare signifying the destruction of Trojan children by becalming the fleet. But it is left to Agamemnon to agonize over the conflicting emotions occasioned by Artemis’ requiring Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his own young daughter if he would get his ships underway to exact retribution upon Troy. Artemis will not agonize over requiring destruction of the young in her resentment of destruction of the young. Orestes must debate with himself over slaying one parent to avenge the other, but Apollo so depreciates the female “on principle” that he will not admit that claims of motherhood usually better grounded than in the case of Orestes’ mother should weigh upon deciding Orestes’ case. Then of course the Furies can boast, truthfully, of providing for family cohesion yet are unaware that by depreciating marriage unions, the Furies themselves would actually undermine the integrity of the family. Again like their opponent Apollo, on their own insufficient notion of “principle,” the Furies, if they prevail, will strike against the very institution that enables awareness of blood relation. Athena must perceive what they do not, that blood relations depend upon the political institution of wedlock between a man and woman of different blood. 

To this point I have neglected to treat the particular issue that must be adjudicated in the trial: what to do with the confessed homicide, Orestes. That is because Aeschylus has so designed his trilogy that we can see the case does not allow of the sort of determination one expects in a proper trial. A proper trial would have to determine whether the killing was a justifiable homicide. This trial does not address the issue. It can’t address the issue because the necessary evidence is unavailable. There are no witnesses to the deed. Aeschylus’s audience has witnessed a deed that no participant in the trial except Orestes has observed. If Athena had observed the confrontation between matricide and mother she declines to make the fact known. If the prompt appearance of the Furies to Orestes upon his committing the deed implies their presence at the moment of Clytaemestra’s death, the Furies do not now perceive the importance of bringing forward the circumstances. 

So, as members of an audience we find ourselves in the interesting position of knowing more than anyone on stage knows as well as of apprehending the pertinence of that knowledge. Itemizing what we know of the circumstances may lead us to conclude that a verdict in favor of Orestes is at best problematic. We know that Orestes slays his mother only after he has destroyed Aegisthus who commanded the palace guards. From the message delivered by a servant that informed her of the killing of Aesgisthus, Clytaemestra had called for “an axe to kill a man” (889), the audience knows the mother means to kill her son. Yet Orestes does not hear that report, and Clytemaestra confronts her son alone, without the axe she had called for. In any event, Orestes had felt himself compelled to pause before striking and ask Pylades whether he should strike. (900-901) Need he kill his mother? 

I am supposing that even knowing as much as we have been given of circumstance, we as audience do not know enough to judge. Aware of this persisting uncertainty we are disposed to accept Athena’s casting vote for acquittal and give Orestes the benefit of the doubt because Orestes has demonstrated a compunction superior to the narrow perspectives of both his opponents and his partisan Apollo, then attested compunction in a practical manner by undergoing numerous purification rituals. Just as important, or more so, Argos needs a ruler. In acquitting, Athena consults a more comprehensive distributive justice recognizing that uncertainty prevents a more exacting retributive settlement. But she also arranges thereby to demonstrate another benefit Athenians will enjoy from the institution of trials. At least within her city, future trials of crimes can have better prospects of determining circumstances pertinent to arriving at fair retributive judgments. Trials within the vicinage of the indicted will have the advantage of better discovery and information.

Athena as Reconciler of Law and Piety, State and Family

To complete this examination of Athena’s statecraft, we can consider its second installment whereby she seeks to appease the Furies. As she had in the first installment Athena accompanies her ostensible effort to appease with a further project of constitution making. This time she directs her founding activity to concerns combining the political and the religious. 

Once the acquitted Orestes departs in company with his advocate Apollo, the Furies vent their outrage and threaten reprisals. Notable in respect of their repeated threats is that they envision consequences for the most part “natural” to the course of human affairs, not sensational, as would certify divine agency. That is to say, the reprisals would occur without any positive action on the part of these supernatural agents. The bad prospects the Furies foretell for Athens will follow as a matter of course from the bad precedent set by the acquittal. Partisan zeal for kinship pieties now gives way to partisan despair over the likelihood of preserving the kind of piety that favors the old. Parents can expect no reverence from their children. The children will abuse the weakened fathers and mothers to the general ruin of everyone. 

Athena responds in such a way as to indicate that she neither expects the result the Furies anticipate nor intends to go beyond a certain point toward appeasement. She reminds them, or at any rate claims, that in having at her disposal the thunderbolts of Zeus she can suppress by force if need be. (826-82) Political life differs from such other modes of human interaction as commerce or friendship in that it necessarily acts by means of the sovereign’s monopoly upon coercion. That reminder is salutary for citizens whether the Furies credit Athena’s declaration or not. 

On the other hand, Athena’s persistence in seeking to pacify the Furies indicates she tempers reliance on force with an intent to placate founded on appreciation of the partial wisdom underlying the partisan exaggeration. She seems to credit the losers with an imperfect sense of moral probabilities she can adjust to more reasonable dimensions. Athena looks to a perennial necessity in order to make from her present act of diplomacy an enduring institution devised to accomplish an enduring alliance between the city and parents. The best constitution requires parental authority to accomplish what the laws cannot, chiefly to transmit to children who will become citizens the habituation in law- abidingness which the parents acquire by living under laws applicable directly only to adults. 

Athena co-opts the Furies by giving them a cave and a cult. Their new habitation is well considered. Daughters of ancient Night, they like the dark. Pacified or not, they will retain their fearsomely uncouth appearance, so to assign them precincts underground will spare citizen sensibilities while keeping the Furies close enough to instill wholesome dread. Yet they will exert their influence from a distance sufficient to prevent gerontocracy. The older generations will receive due respect but not to the extent Kronos thought he could assume when he devoured his offspring. The principle: children are to be reared with a view to their being citizens in the making, not with a view to their functioning as property at the disposal of parents. 

As contrivance, the subterranean temple is clever enough, but it might prove inert without the cult Athena also takes care to establish. With Athena’s introduction of a cult in reverence for the Furies, the trilogy moves from theology (study in the nature of the gods) to religion, (public observances in honor of gods). Religious practice promises, however, profoundly to affect Athenians’ conception of their gods and even to effect changes in the conduct of gods toward human beings. Like Prometheus’s innovations in sacrifices and like Athena’s previous judicial and legislative provisions the cult will produce a revolution in divine-human relations. I suggest that a consideration of the features specified for the cult will support this contention.     

This time although Athena repeats the courteous mode of address effective earlier, so intense is the Furies’ outrage that they can only voice it in two identical strophes combining half articulate protests with spluttering noises. When at last they subside sufficiently to take note of what Athena has twice offered them they respond favorably, first, to its novelty. Belatedly the sisterhood realizes Athena has promised them a local and honorable habitation. And she has assured a publicly accessible place situated near the public site for Athena’s own worship. The Furies realize one of the chief of the younger gods has finally appreciated their previously despised prerogatives. Their gratitude for this honor appears warm enough to cause them to overlook the consequence that being housed they are thereby confined. 

In addition to enjoying the new deference accorded them by an Olympian, perhaps the Furies can afford to accept confinement because the cult ensures them of wider, more dependable, and more enduring honors to be had from the Athenian citizenry. Hitherto such honors as have come their way have had their source in individuals like Clytemaestra or Electra who for their momentary need dispense their sacrifices out of the relatively restricted means of households. The Furies can anticipate more ample and more punctual rites of deference. For the first time the sorority has cause to perceive its self-interest is bound up with the safety and prosperity of a city. 

Athena’s appreciation of the benefits to be had from this new alliance presumably accounts for her extravagant expectations for Athens’ future. She anticipates the Furies will not merely secure parental piety but will operate to inspire patriotism. She prays the sisters will act upon the citizenry to make them spirited, yet public-spirited, not clannish. Athena would have her citizens resemble game-cocks, reputedly so aggressive that the sons would fight sires. She wants her people not to fight their fathers, of course, but to direct that game-cock temper against the city’s enemies. Athena wants a warlike people. She wants frequent wars and indicates no concern to restrict war to just defense. Yet she does not commission Athenians to assemble an empire. One can imagine that as she had shown herself aware of one stern fact of politics when she had earlier alluded to the city’s resource of coercion she now recognizes another. 

Whatever other provisions for citizen solidarity may assist, nothing so effectively consolidates citizens as their putting aside competition with one another to mount campaigns against a common enemy. Athena trusts she can make her revised cult serve this practical political purpose. Yet on the basis of their argument during the trial one had supposed the Furies were concerned exclusively with vengeance upon crimes against blood kin. Now, in other respects as well, the Furies appear to expand their field of operation. Once won over to Athena they begin to speak of their intent to contribute to the territory’s agriculture, to good weather, to the fertility of Athenian wombs. (956-960) This seems to be too much of a good thing. Does Athena expect the Furies to alter, redirect, or somehow adapt to political needs their very modality? This after Aeschylus has accustomed us to think of a difference between human beings and gods as the inflexible adherence of the particular gods to their particular ordained spheres of action? 

Consider the following solution. First, we are not to suppose the Furies now reveal an expanded range of modalities previously concealed. They do not suddenly disclose they have direct management of agricultural and human fertility. Rather we should understand their assurances of bounty as hyperbolically asserted predictions of the effects of human effort once Athenians respond to Athena’s new constitution of which the Furies are now a part. The new cult will engage the Furies in their old modality of fostering well-knit families through their ministry of fear. The benefits accrue in successful cultivation of the land and in procreating many children and raising them well. Athenians then make better use of whatever good weather befalls them and can better mitigate the losses inflicted by bad weather. Second, the Furies doubtlessly consider such benefits owed to themselves, whereas Aeschylus instructs us they follow from an intelligent statesmanship that makes use of the Furies and of the family affections with which the Furies are associated. Athena makes use in the sense of allying with the Furies while also subordinating and limiting their authority. That means she also subordinates and limits the authority of the family and the affections and disaffections the family generates. She means to mix family affections with civic attachments and thus temper and redirect the former for the sake of the latter. 

If this is how we should understand what occurs in the second installment of Athena’s constitution making, are we not led to the conclusion that what Athena has accomplished with respect to the Furies could be duplicated with respect to the entire panoply of divinities presented in the trilogy? From the outset the various gods and goddesses have been at odds among themselves whether in regard to oppositions connected with Troy or with respect to conflict in Argos, and in the trial at Athens. These oppositions pitting divinity against divinity mirror the oppositions between human beings. In every opposition we here observe there is something to be said for each of the contesting parties and something against each. That is because, whether they be human or divine, all the contestants act from a conception of justice but from a partial conception thereof, and the partiality of their conceptions owes in the human contestants to their very characters, while in the divinities to the very modalities which are the divine equivalents of characters. 

A complete political constitution would incorporate a religion which looks to honoring the various gods in proportion to their place within the whole. This would accord with laws and constitutional provisions that aim to distribute honors to citizens in proportion to their contribution to the well-being of the city. Zeus, never appearing though constantly mentioned, seems to stand for attainment of a justice not partial. But the Zeus of Aeschylus never deals directly with human beings. Zeus may be Aeschylus’ conception of a standard of justice never attained, or it may be we are supposed to believe Athena’s claim to act as her Father’s plenary representative. The final words of The Eumenides do seem to endorse her claim since they declare that “Zeus and Moira are at last reconciled.” Moira can be translated as “Fate” or “the Fates,” a divinity also, like the Furies, the offspring of the Mother Night. But, alternatively, Moira can be translated as “Portion,” as the word is employed when one means to indicate distributive justice, all receiving their proper portion or treated in proportion to their deserts.

Athena, Mistress of Political Weaving

I save for last what strikes me as the most extraordinary feature of Aeschylus’ presentation of the Furies. The Furies urge upon the citizens of Athens the principle they state as a warning: “Refuse the life of anarchy; /refuse the life devoted/ to one master.” (525-527) One hears their prescription with astonishment, not for what it says but because it is they who say it. Not for what it enjoins because soon thereafter Athena herself abjures her citizens with almost identical words: “No anarchy, no rule of a single master.”(696) Indeed the prescription expresses succinctly all that Athena has done as judge and founding statesman. For that matter it expresses the perennially sound political sense one recognizes, for instance, in Madison’s reduction of government to the twofold purpose of giving to government sufficient authority to protect the rights of citizens from one another while seeking to enable those who govern so to rule themselves such that they do not themselves violate those rights. 

Yet for the Furies to command such wisdom must surprise us, and for two reasons. First, neither from what anyone previously in the trilogy has said nor from what the Furies say of themselves in this play would one suppose they concern themselves with politics. They have previously manifested themselves only as agents of retribution for crimes perpetrated against blood kindred, and, in reply to Orestes they say they had not tormented Clytaemestra because the murderess had not been bound by blood to the husband she killed. (605) Does it suffice to say that Athena has induced the Furies to reconceive themselves simply as result of her arranging a change in setting and forum: they find themselves in a public place rather than in a house, and must address a forum composed of men not kinsmen? 

Second, Athena has maintained throughout the trial scene and thereafter in her diplomatic effort to placate the Furies that she obeys Zeus in all she does. Yet there has been hitherto no indication that Zeus employs the Furies in executing his justice. From Hesiod’s account in the Theogony, we would incline to think Zeus would not approve Athena’s overture since Hesiod keeps strictly separate the line of gods descended from Earth and Sky from the line descended from Mother Night. Hesiod’s Zeus makes two marriages from alliance with goddesses beyond his generation as well as sexual connections other than marriage. But his miscegenation never extends to Nyx or her progeny. In the Eumenides Apollo bespeaks the resolute antipathy we expect from Olympians and from Zeus. 

If Aeschylus otherwise operates from the same assumption we must conclude he imagines Athena so far departs from it that, for the sake of the constitution she is fashioning, she will break ranks and perhaps break with her father. Perhaps she does so because she identifies the beautiful with the useful more than does Zeus who in his alliances with females requires beauty in its erotic aspect whereas virgin Athena, as she says, does not. (737) Or perhaps we are to infer that Athena would deny she departs from the precedent set by Zeus, that in fact she has merely extended the scope of Zeus’s strategy of alliance and co-optation. To found Olympus Zeus had required no mingling with the aesthetically obnoxious branch of the gods. But human beings are in their corruptible natures closer to the children of night as well as more distant from Olympians subject to Zeus’s management on Olympus exercised near at hand and without intermediaries. Thus Athena would act in accord with her father’s example, only accommodating his art to the less receptive human material it must work upon. 

The principle Zeus observes in Hesiod’s account of his statesmanship is the principle guiding Athena in her work upon Athens. It is the principle of weaving. In addition to her connections with prudence and intelligent conduct of war Athena is patroness of the craft which creates strength in fabric by crossing the strands of the warp with the strands of the woof. One application of this principle in the field of human management produces strong families from the intersection of the human male and human female in the political institution of marriage. Another application produces political economy by intersecting the many laboring citizens who are relatively poor with the relatively rich who provide material to be labored upon and tools with which to multiply the effect of labor. Another application appears in dispersing the powers of government such that officers of the polis rule yet are also subject to rule, each having authority sufficient to defend his rights yet insufficient to encroach upon rights of others. Yet another application causes inhabitants of a polis to view themselves as members of families bound by blood, but also, simultaneously, as bound by the mutual interests of common citizenship and by laws applicable to all. And a final application introduces a civil religion in accord with which the several gods receive public worship on analogy with the dispensation of public honors to citizens. All gods are honored; no god is honored exclusively; a religion as cult is publicly observed and regulated if not indeed confined to obligatory and public observances.     

That is to say, why not consider the cult designed for the Furies as a model for the city’s practice of religion in every respect and with regard to all the gods? Prudent reverence, if not indeed religion reduced to prudent recognition of timeless necessities, is personified in images of personal gods. 

With the aforementioned amendment introduced by Athena, the entire ensemble resembles Zeus’s government of Olympus in its main outlines. The question arises whether such an arrangement supplants the gods altogether, though in the name of properly worshiping them. However that may be, there remains one signal difference between what Athena contrives and what Zeus has exemplified. Zeus’s statesmanship extends universally whereas Athens must survive among contending regimes. Hence, as earlier observed, Athena expects, indeed hopes for, frequent wars. What can be hoped for in the way of weaving diverse interests within a nation is much easier to say than achieve. But that aside, such a prospect seems fantastic even to hope for, once one looks beyond national boundaries. The best Athena can hope for is that wars, predictably frequent, whether wished for or not, may help Athenians patch the abrasions that must always prevent citizens from becoming friends in the fullest sense. 

What is the significance of all of these observations and speculations? Suppose we try to imagine how Aristotle would view them. I think he would say something like the following: Aeschylus has portrayed a political development in which the uninhibited rule of the pambasilea gives way to rule of law. In consequence political power is rationalized and decentralized. Kings must share their authority with other institutions. Then religious observances supplant private dictates of kings and fathers alike as the chief means to formation of pious citizens. The aim of politics becomes the benefit of the governed, to be effected by securing not just the conditions of subsistence, national independence, and prosperity, but a fostering of the good life understood as individual self-government. It remains to be asked of Aeschylus as one asks with respect to Aristotle, whether a city so dedicated exists for the sake of proper worship of gods or whether it exists for proper cultivation of what Aristotle terms “that which is most divine in us.”     

The Blessings of Liberty: Reminders from Aristotle and Livy For Our Troubled Times

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Liberal Arts, Liberal Education

by Andrew T. Seeley

. . . Let [the reader] follow in his mind how, as discipline broke down bit by bit, morality at first foundered; how it next subsided in ever greater collapse and then began to topple headlong in ruin—until the advent of our own age in which we can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them. . . .  Recently wealth has brought greed in its train, manifold amusements have led to people’s obsession with ruining themselves and with consuming all else through excess and self-indulgence.[1]

Those of us who are anxious about the health of Western society might imagine these words to have been written about our own times.  This is a sobering thought, since Livy began his history shortly after Augustus, with the grateful acquiescence of the Senate and People of Rome, had effectively ended the Roman Republic.  Our loss of character might tempt us similarly to despair of our democratic republics.  Those who have been liberally educated are particularly susceptible to this melancholy.  History invites us in imagination to become citizens of other places and times, but can also encourage us to indulge in nostalgia for a past we never knew.  Philosophy leads us to critique real regimes according to an ideal form of government discovered through abstract arguments, one that might not be possible or desirable in reality.

Truly liberal education confers many blessings.  It frees us from our cultural assumptions so that we can see other ways and other principles and so judge our own fruitfully.  This is particularly important today, when the fundamental tenets of freedom and equality reign unchallenged in reality and even in imagination.  Yet despair and nostalgia too frequently turn to condemnation, especially among the young, who easily blame the very freedom of our institutions as the source of the license that dominates their contemporaries.  Plato and Thomas present monarchy as ideal, under which light only fear of tyranny seems to justify our constitutional systems.  This can undermine the affection we have for the political liberty that we enjoy.

Is there more to be said for free institutions that would inspire in our young the love for and devotion to liberty that animated our fathers?  Or have we been deceived in thinking that liberty deserves our devotion?  Perhaps a look back to times when freedom was in question will help us see whether we should despise freedom, adore it or consider it a matter of indifference.  Aristotle, the philosopher, and Livy, the historian, both lived in times when political liberty had recently been lost.  Livy clearly laments its loss. They both see political liberty as ideal—it fosters the full development of human virtue.  Yet they also recognize that it is difficult to maintain.  It demands virtue.  Not every people is capable of enjoying the blessing of liberty.  Such people might need monarchical government, but its function should be to prepare them for the day when they can be truly free.

I. Aristotle

Aristotle lived in a time when the small democracies and independent states of Greece had failed, succumbing to the enforced unity provided by Philip of Macedon.  It was a good time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government, and in particular to consider the blessings of monarchical rule.  Aristotle consistently argues that monarchy is not the best form of government for a people whose members are capable of sharing in the same kind of virtue.[2]

Aristotle focuses his consideration by telling his readers that not everyone who goes by the name of “king” really is a fundamentally different kind of governor from those found in a constitutional republic.  The Spartans had “kings,” but these men were merely leaders in battle, whose power was unlimited in war but very limited inside the city.  A real king, Aristotle says, is one who rules a political community in the way that a father rules his household.  No law binds a father; no one can really challenge a father’s decisions, except by appealing to the father’s love.  Similarly, a real king is one whose will is law, whose decisions are appealable only to him, who can change his determinations at any time.  As Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar says when explaining his change of mind:The cause is in my will: I will not come; / That is enough to satisfy the senate.”[3]  (2.2.70)

Plato and Aquinas seem to suggest that when a wise king rules his people with a father’s love and a shepherd’s care, society is most blessed and most unified.  Aristotle, however, criticizes even idealized kingship as unjust, alienating, and demeaning.  It hampers the development of goods central to the flourishing of human excellence.  He also gives reasons to think that it fails to provide the best governance.


Justice is the fundamental good proper to the political order.[4]  Men form a common society so that they might share in a happiness greater than any they can experience on their own, and they rightly expect to share in the good of the community.  To be excluded from the common good is to be treated unjustly.

Even justice in private exchanges binds men in a city together:

. . . Since a city is kept together by proportionate reciprocation.  For people seek to return either evil for evil—otherwise they feel like slaves—or good for good—otherwise no exchange takes place, and it is exchange that holds them together.  This is why they erect a temple of the Graces in a conspicuous place, so that benefits might be repaid.[5]

But according to Aristotle the kind of justice that distributes honor according to the merit of those who share in society is even more important.  Aristotle calls to mind the opening scene of The Iliad, in which Agamemnon’s violation of distributive justice incites the rage of Achilles.  In the violent world of The Iliad, prizes acquired in war, including female captives, were distributed to all who participated in the battle according to their importance in the battle.  As overlord of the entire Greek expedition, Agamemnon represents an exception to the order—he receives the highest prizes, not because of his efforts in battle, but simply because of his station among the Greek leaders.  Achilles already finds the justice of this order difficult to accept, but Agamemnon destroys the entire order by threatening to claim prizes already distributed.  Aristotle quotes Achilles’ complaint that he has been treated “like some vagabond without honor”; Agamemnon has alienated Achilles from the Greek nobility.

In a civilized society, where the desire for excellence and great action drives the best of its citizens, the prizes of honor are not booty and captives, but political offices.  A city honors one of its own by entrusting to him offices of responsibility for the common good.  For someone to be excluded from sharing in governance according to his ability and service is an injustice that bites deeply, making him feel like he is not even a citizen in the fullest sense.  “One who shares in prerogatives is in particular spoken of as a citizen—thus, for example, Homer’s line ‘like some vagabond without honor.’  For one who does not share in prerogatives is like an alien.”[6]  But a kingship includes really only one office—that of the king.  All others who work for the community are his appointees, dependent solely on his will for their continuance in office.  Only those favored by the king receive appointment, leaving the rest of the citizens as “vagabonds without honor.”  Even his appointees act as his instruments, so that the honor they earn belongs properly to him. But a society of men of comparable capabilities demands that all have some share in the offices.


Injustice is a great evil, and it has evil effects.  Those treated unjustly become disaffected from the regime that oppresses or ignores them.  As the twentieth-century victories of democratic republics over enormously powerful tyrannies have shown, affection for a regime holds a political society together during difficult times and makes it thrive in good times.  In an early speech,[7] Abraham Lincoln called the affection of the people the “strongest bulwark of any government.”  Aristotle also recognizes the crucial importance of cultivating affection among the citizens:For we suppose affection to be the greatest of good things for cities, for in this way they would least of all engage in factional conflict; and Socrates praises above all the city’s being one, which is held to be . . . the work of affection.”[8]  In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates expresses the view that affection is undermined by contention over private goods like property and family.  He thinks that eliminating any sense of property should promote unity.  Aristotle holds that, on the contrary, loss of property will undermine the unity of society by undermining affection, because no one will care for what is not his own.  So the key to a unified polity is developing the sense among citizens that the city belongs to each of them.  “For there are two things above all which make human beings cherish and feel affection, what is one’s own and what is dear. . . .”[9]  Participating in the governing process is the surest way to ensure that sense of belonging.  What I work for becomes for me an object of love.  Being excluded from participating in political decision-making undermines affection and, when coupled with the sense of injustice at being excluded, encourages the formation of an enemy population within the city itself.  For these reasons, a wise political ruler will do what he can to find governing roles for all the members of a city:Solon seems, at any rate, to have granted only the most necessary power to the people, that of electing to offices and auditing; for if the people did not even have authority over this, they would be enslaved and an enemy.[10]  A citizen becomes attached to the government because of his personal involvement; unity with his fellow citizens develops as he works with them to achieve what is in the interest of all:. . . A city is said to be in concord when people agree about what is beneficial, rationally choose the same things, and carry out common resolutions.”[11]  The horrors of the Peloponnesian War, in which revolution and counterrevolution led to the most hideous brutalities, were still alive in the memory of Aristotle’s contemporaries.  They had experienced for themselves the horrors of having an enemy within their walls.[12]  Reversion to a monarchical form of government, by excluding active citizens from real participation, runs the risk of developing civil animosity.


The political community provides opportunities for great activity that rarely if ever can happen outside of it.  The closest Aristotle comes to a serious defining expression for man is when he says in Book I of the Politics that “Man is by nature a political animal,” to which he might add “that speaks of the just and advantageous.”  Beasts and gods do not need a city, the former because they are incapable of happiness, the latter because their happiness depends on no one else.  But man is essentially destined for political life, because only as a part of a city can he attain to the happiness that is his birthright.  Sharing in city life does not merely provide one a safe haven in which to pursue private interests; it is participating in divinity.[13]  Cities can attain a temporal immortality that no human being can.  To share in that and in the other great actions that only a city can achieve provides a possibility of happiness no barbarian can dream of.

The good of any part depends upon fulfilling its proper role in the whole.  Because his good is so bound up with the city’s, a man must participate in governing to be virtuous.  Though Aristotle understands the desire to live a private life and the feeling that only people who have a passion to meddle in the affairs of others get involved with politics, he insists that every man needs to understand how the affairs of his own household relate to and contribute to and enhance the whole society.  For this reason, he holds that political prudence and personal prudence are really the same virtue.[14]  But since the prudence necessary for excellence can only develop through the experience of decision-making, simply obeying laws is not enough.. . . Prudence is not a virtue of one ruled, but rather true opinion; the one ruled is like a flute maker, while the ruler is like a flute player, the user.”[15]  So Aristotle concludes that to be a citizen, which is to be fully a man, one must share in both ruling and being ruled.  But in a monarchy, the king makes all the decisions.  He alone bears the responsibility and praise or blame for the outcomes of his decisions.  All others under him are like children who can make requests and even counsel their father but in the end must simply submit to his decisions.[16]  Only when a child leaves his father and mother does he enter into the realm of responsibility that leads to real prudence and virtue.  The case is similar in a political society.

Shakespeare’s Cassius expresses this view when passionately denouncing Caesar to Brutus. Brutus fears that Caesar might become a tyrant.  For Cassius, the real problem is that, tyrant or no, if he holds all authority, Caesar is really the only man in Rome:When could they say till now, that talk’d of Rome, / That her wide walls encompass’d but one man? / Now is it Rome indeed and room enough, / When there is in it but one only man.” (1.2.153-157)


Aristotle thinks that sharing in ruling is necessary for each citizen to be treated justly, to be attached to his government, and to develop virtue.  But some like Plato might counter that a sole ruler will at least provide much better governance, just as a physician knows better how to heal than the multitude of his unschooled patients.[17]  Aristotle challenges that position, arguing that universal involvement makes for better laws and better government:

Any one of them taken singly is perhaps inferior in comparison [to the best man]; but the city is made  up of many persons, just as a feast to which many contribute is finer than a single and simple one, and on this account a crowd also judges many matters better than any single person.  Further, what is many is more incorruptible: like a greater amount of water, the multitude is more incorruptible than the few.  The judgment of a single person is necessarily corrupted when he is dominated by anger or some other passion of this sort, whereas it is hard for all to become angry and err at the same time.[18]

Although it is tempting to think that an expert would make the best laws, Aristotle questions whether one man can make better laws than a multitude, who can share their various experiences with what works and what doesn’t.  More importantly, when a multitude is the source of governance, then reason has a much better chance of being the real ruler.  For though some will be passionately involved in any particular matter under discussion, the majority of a multitude is less likely to have their personal interests aroused.  One who asks law to rule, therefore, is held to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast.  Desire is a thing of this sort; and spiritedness perverts rulers and the best man.  Hence law is intellect without appetite.”[19]

Natural Monarchy

For all these reasons, Aristotle rejects kingship as a proper form of government for civilized society.

[It] is evident among similar and equal persons it is neither advantageous or just for one person to have authority over all matters, regardless of whether there are laws or not and he acts as a law to himself, whether he and they are good or not, even whether he is better in respect to virtue, unless it is in a certain manner. . . .[20]

In this passage, Aristotle qualifies his rejection of kingship:  “unless it is in a certain manner.” He explains why in his fascinating, seemingly irrelevant, extended consideration of the man who by nature is no part of the city because his excess of excellence makes him independent of it.  Such a man is self-sufficient for happiness, which means that he must be god-like compared to even excellent men of human virtue.  This causes no problem if he lives isolated from others.  But if he is found among an established people, his presence will cause uncertainty and he will be a huge problem.  His excellence will attract many to him and will make the leaders of the city, even the city itself, look deficient.  What should be done about him?  Aristotle presents exile as an understandable solution. All men want to share in government, and so they will get rid of one who threatens them.  But this is hardly just.  The only just course is that the whole city should submit to him.

For surely no one would assert that such a person should be expelled and banished.  But neither would they assert that there should be rule over such a person: this is almost as if they should claim to merit ruling over Zeus by splitting the offices.  What remains—and it seems a natural course—is for everyone to obey such a person gladly; the persons of this sort will be permanent kings in their cities.[21]

Perhaps here Aristotle has in mind a hero like Achilles or a man like Socrates.  A Christian might think of Jesus.  Still, it illustrates an important point in Aristotle’s consideration of monarchy.  Monarchy is only a natural rule, a just rule, when the king exceeds his subjects by nature, when his opportunity for excellence is of a completely different order from his subjects.  This is why the king’s rule is like that of a father—no matter how much experience children have, as long as they are children, they can never have prudence or virtue to compare with his.  And so, for their good, they need to submit themselves to his direction: “For by nature, the king should be different, but he should be of the same stock; and this is the case of the elder in relation to the younger, and the one who generates to the child.”[22]  This difference in nature is so important for kingship that, when it does not really exist, kings try to conjure it through art, clothing the king with elaborate dress, pompous titles, and striking “prerogatives.”[23]

From this entire consideration, we see that Aristotle, far from being a monarchist, argues strongly that, in a city of men, kingship is neither necessary nor desired.  This is not because of what the king might become, but because even a good king is the sole ruler, the one who rules society in the way that a father rules his household.  In addition to being unjust, the exclusion of all others from governance undermines the affection of citizens, hinders the development of the fullness of human virtue, and invites desire and preference to rule over reason and the combined wisdom of the citizenry.

II. Livy

Aristotle formed his general views on the best form of government after a thorough examination of the constitutions and histories of many city-states and empires.  Livy gives a remarkably sympathetic historical account.  Livy devotes his account of republican Rome to “the history of a free people” which, having shaken off the Tarquin tyranny, was now able to begin enjoying the “excellent fruits of liberty.”  Yet he quickly shows that enjoying liberty was neither easy nor quiet.  Books II-V of Livy’s first pentad recount Rome’s century-long struggles to remain unified in the face of continual conflict between the senate and the plebeians.  The great general Cincinnatus voiced a commonly expressed frustration over these turmoils: “By some mysterious fate, our gods favor us more in war than in peace.”[24]  When no external enemies distract them, the senate and the plebs behave like two nations at war within.  Rome’s Etruscan neighbors present sobering examples of the Scylla and Charybdis that could easily have destroyed the young republic: in Ardea, the plebeians turned violently against the aristocracy;[25] in Veii, disgust with the endless class turmoil brought a return of kingship.[26] These examples serve to underscore Livy’s ejaculation:

So difficult is it to steer a moderate course in safeguarding freedom.  Each man pretends to want equality but strives to better himself at the expense of his fellows; and in taking steps to prevent themselves feeling fear they make themselves feared, and, as if it were necessary either to inflict or to suffer wrong, the injuries we escape we visit upon others.[27]

And yet Rome survived the enormous century-long trials, emerging as a strong, united people ready to subjugate the Italian peninsula.  Their internal struggles, resolved through concession, compromise, persuasion, and generosity, led to greater justice and a deeper love for city and homeland.

Protecting plebeian liberties

Livy traces the slow progress of Roman unity.  The opening sentence of Book II states that Roman freedom consisted in “the election of annual magistrates and greater obedience to the commands of law than to those of men.”  Together with the right of appeal to the people, Livy frequently refers to these as the “safeguards of freedom.”[28]  But the existence of these constitutional practices alone did not bring a stable enjoyment of liberty.  Annual consular elections allowed the senate to maintain its governing position while granting almost regal power to the consuls for carrying out its decrees.  The plebs, however, frequently hated the consuls almost as much as the kings, since they seemed to exercise their office only in the interests of the senatorial class.  Internal conflict came to a head in 494 BC.  Many of the plebs had become so indebted that they faced imprisonment.  However, these same plebs were the soldiers enlisted to fight in the many battles that arose between Rome and its neighbors.  The incongruity in risking life and limb for Rome on the battlefield only to be imprisoned for debt upon coming home infuriated the plebs.  The senate at first took a factional stance in the dispute; led by Appius Claudius they urged the consuls to inflict the full penalties on the debtors.  But the plebeian soldiers withdrew from Rome to the Sacred Mount, determined not to engage as citizens in the common assembly or on the battlefield until their personal liberty was guaranteed.  The senate realized it had no choice but to find an approach acceptable to the plebeians.  And so the first tribunes of the plebs were created, non-senators who would look after the interest of the plebs.

However, the Romans needed more than factional representatives if they were to establish concord and ultimately maintain their republic.  Livy frequently suggests the tribunes caused more turmoil than they prevented by arousing the plebs to seek their own interest against that of the senators.  Nor did the rule of law fully exist for the plebs.  In Book III, the plebeians complain that, without a written law, the consuls act like kings and simply judge according to whim.[29]  After more than a decade of agitation, the plebeians finally won their point.  A delegation sent to learn about the laws and customs of the Greeks returned, and a board of ten men proposed ten tables of laws.  No plebeians were allowed to be one of the decemvirs, but the decemvirs actively sought plebian advice about their laws.  Livy’s explanation of this is reminiscent of Aristotle, who saw that citizen involvement in government produces better governance and deeper commitment: “When many people contribute talent and suggestions, the better the results.  The legislation would then seem to be what the Roman people as a whole had decided for itself rather than accepted from others.”[30]

Full participation

Books II & III of Livy’s history show that the plebeians cared more to protect their private interests through equal protection offered by magistracies and laws than to gain the honor associated with having a role in governing.  The senators, on the other hand, were jealous of their honor as members of the governing class.  For this reason, the censors, who determined membership in the social ranks, wielded tremendous power: “Eventually to [the censor] fell complete control over morals and behavior, the right to honor persons by enrolling them in the senate and in the centuries of knights or to dishonor them by expulsion.”[31]  Still the plebs did share in governing to some extent; participating in the popular assemblies, electing magistrates, serving as tribunes, and judging appeals were essential to safeguard their liberties and made them feel they had a share in the good of Rome.  By the end of Book III, they find courage in the thought that they are for the first time fighting as free men for a free Rome.[32]

However, the new laws codified the customary ban on class intermarriage, which insulted the plebeians and ensured internal turmoil for another decade.  Livy begins Book IV by recounting how the tribunes proposed laws allowing class intermarriage and opening up the consulship to plebeian candidates. The senate was greatly alarmed by these proposals, detesting the pollution of blood and fearing the complete loss of their power to the multitude.  The plebs felt deeply the disdain implied in the ban on intermarriage.  They came to see that only those who can share in ruling can be real partners in the commonwealth, as Gaius Canuleius expressed in terms reminiscent of Aristotle:

And so I say to the consuls that the plebeians are ready to go to war now . . . but only if you restore the right of intermarriage and at last make our country whole again, only if we plebeians become one with you . . . only if there is full partnership, equal participation in the running of our country, only—and this is the mark of equality before law—if one may be a citizen obedient to his elected officials and then in turn become one of those officials himself.[33]

The senate objected that plebeians could not fulfill these magistracies because they involved leading religious rites; the tribunes cried out that this implied plebeians were despised by the gods as well as by the senators.

As in all these early struggles for freedom and equality, the senate ultimately granted the plebeians the “freedom and dignity”[34] they demanded, recognizing the preeminent need for concord between the classes.  It knew that concord between the classes gave Rome the strength to overcome the world.  In the culminating book of his first Pentad, Livy shows a unified Rome emerging victorious from its fierce death struggle with Veii, recounts Roman resiliency in beating back the fierce but wild Gauls after their sack of the City, and describes the Romans formally recommitting themselves to their homeland under the leadership of Camillus.

Virtue and freedom

The story of the early Roman republic is the story of class struggles that made the Romans a fully free people through constitutional adjustments leading to a more equal participation in governing for the plebeians.  Aristotle believed that involvement in governance was essential for the full development of human virtue.  Livy witnesses to this.  Acts of generosity and restraint were crucial for binding together the orders of Roman society.  Leaders arose who upbraided their own orders and led them to recognize the just claims of the other class.  In the middle of one dispute, the great Quinctius Cincinnatus was elected consul; the plebs feared he would be partisan.  Yet “he proved from the tribunal to be more vehement in castigating the senate than in restraining the plebs. . . .”  He charged the senate with failing to exercise leadership; he charged the tribunes with factionalizing the plebs into “a second country.”  Both plebs and senate responded to his leadership.[35]

The plebeians, too, needed to restrain themselves: as they enjoyed more of the blessings of liberty, abuse of liberty became a growing concern.  Appius Claudius upbraided the plebians for balking at the demands of the war with Veii: “In short, freedom at Rome has come down to this: freedom to scorn the Senate, magistrates and laws, freedom to flout tradition and the institutions of our ancestors, freedom to subvert military discipline.”[36]  Acts of generosity between the classes fostered devotion to the common good.  The senate volunteered to pay plebeian soldiers, the plebeians elected only patrician magistrates when they were first allowed to elect plebeians, and the knights too showed their commitment to the common good:

. . . Each senator signified by words and gestures to the crowd assembled below the nation’s delight, calling Rome a city blessed, invincible and eternal because of this marvelous cooperation, praising the knights and the plebs, calling it a red-letter day in Rome’s history, and confessing that what had just been done surpassed the goodwill and generosity of the senate.[37]

Livy shows the blessings of liberty at work in the early Republic.  The plebeians found justice as their interests were safeguarded and they attained greater participation in governing Rome.  As justice increased, concord grew.  As concord grew, virtuous actions on behalf of the commonwealth increased.  The rule of law was extended; persuasive reason was continually exercised in the public assemblies.  In all these ways, Livy’s history supports Aristotle’s philosophical account of the ideal form of government.[38]

III. A Time for Monarchy

According to his preface, Livy savored the work he did on the early Republic.  It enabled him to turn away from his own times and look at a past filled with a wealth of excellent moral examples.  He knew that as his story approached his own times, sorrow and anxiety would fill his mind while chronicling how “a mighty people has long been bent on its own undoing.”  Yet he wanted his readers to see that it was the loss of moral discipline that had brought the great people to the complete ruin he witnessed, “in which we can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them.”

What is the remedy that the Romans could not endure?  Was it perhaps Augustus’ enforced concord after a century of civil wars?  Luxury and greed undermined the moral character that forged and led a united, free Rome to the height of glory; without a return of that character, must Rome remain united but enslaved?  Perhaps the Roman people could be reformed.  Livy’s first book reveals how monarchy once had a crucial role in forming a people worthy of liberty; perhaps it could again?

As we have seen, Livy is an unabashed trumpeter of the blessings of liberty, but he recognized that those early monarchs were absolutely necessary to prepare the rough, barbaric Romans for its enjoyment:

Nor is there any doubt the same Brutus, who won so much glory in expelling Superbus, would have done a grievous wrong to the state if out of a premature desire for liberty he had wrested rule from one of the earlier kings.  The plebs were a mixture of shepherds and adventurers who had fled their own lands.[39]

The plebeians (and perhaps even the senators) needed to be cowed by the king, allowing time for love of the common life to develop.

What would happen to them when they won immunity if not liberty under the sacred protection of asylum?  Uncowed by the absolute power of the king, they would have been stirred up by tribunician agitation and would have begun battling with the senators in a city not their own, before they became united in spirit by commitment to wives and children and by love for the soil – a love which takes a long time to develop.  The nation not yet grown up would have been torn apart by dissension.  But as it was, a calm and moderate exercise of governmental authority fostered and nourished it so that when it matured and grew strong, it was able to enjoy the excellent fruits of liberty.[40]

Aristotle also recognized that historically and naturally uncivilized peoples have needed kings and have benefited from them.  Kings arise naturally because their rule is most like a father’s.  All men have experience of paternal rule, but the uncivilized don’t know anything else.  So as men move into collectives that reach beyond the kinship ties characteristic of tribes and villages, they gravitate around men of unusual leadership abilities.  Around these men, peoples form and learn to submit themselves to a governor.  They begin to gain a taste for the blessings of the common life, and the experience necessary to make it work.  They become civilized.  And they need it.

. . . Laws of ancient times were overly simple and barbaric.  For the Greeks used to carry weapons and purchase their wives. . . . In general, all seek not the traditional but the good.  The first [human beings], whether they were earthborn or preserved from a cataclysm, are likely to have been similar to average or even simple-minded persons today, as indeed is said of the earthborn; so it would be odd to abide by the opinions they hold.[41]

Livy highlights the “barbaric” origins of the Roman people.  Yet, uniquely, they did not arise from any particular tribe.  Their origins lay in the shepherds and refugees who gathered around Romulus and Remus, followed by the famous union with the Sabine tribe. “[Romulus] therefore selected a site for an asylum. . . . A motley mob from the neighboring peoples flocked to the spot, with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life.  These men were the beginning of the real strength of the city.”[42]  The people gathered together in this way were free from common tribal traditions and loyalties, yet they also lacked the unity that comes from natural connections.  They needed laws to rule them, laws that would form the beginnings of the bonds of unity.  Yet the principal source of unity remained Romulus himself.  For which reason, as Aristotle might have advised him, Romulus “thought that the rustics would feel bound to observe the laws if he made his own person more august and imposing by adopting various insignia of power, both in his dress and particularly by the addition of twelve lictors to accompany him in public.[43]  Romulus through his personality, his governance, and his enhanced presence made himself a real king.  Livy points out that Romulus succeeded in making his people look to him as a father, and even as a god, at his death “hailing him with one accord as a god born to a god, king and parent of the city of Rome.”[44]  They felt themselves orphaned, and looked for a new parent, whom they found in Numa.  In order to control their aggressive character, Numa encouraged devotion to the gods, which became the chief Roman characteristic.[45]

Through succeeding kings, Rome continued to grow by conquest and immigration, yet it also became more unified through common laws, religion, and battle.  The sixth king, Servius Tullius, following the Aristotelian program, took the final step necessary for establishing a people ready for freedom.

. . . Just as Numa had been the author of the religious system, so Servius’ aim was that posterity should remember him as the one who established all the distinctions and ranks in society whereby groups are differentiated from one another by station and wealth.  What he created was the census, an invaluable institution for a nation destined to be so great: a man’s duties to the state in war and peace would no longer be determined randomly one by one but in proportion to the amount of money he possessed.[46]

The census provided the foundation for a formidable citizen military.  The wealthier citizens provided the most substantial arms, and they were compensated by having a leading say in civil matters.  Under the previous kings, whenever a vote was required, each citizen had an equal vote.  But this violated distributive justice, according to which all should have a role in governing commensurate with their contribution to the state.

Eventually Servius Tullius was assassinated by Tarquinius Superbus.  But Livy sees the divine providence governing this atrocity.  First, Tarquin’s plots were delayed for many years by an infortuitous marriage, a delay which extended Tullius’ reign through 43 years, “long enough to lay a firm foundation for the building of Rome’s national character.”[47] Second, the tragic spectacle of the assassination ensured that “disgust with kings might all the sooner usher in an era of liberty.”  Livy hints that Tullius himself knew that kingship had served its purpose in preparing the people for liberty by passing along the view that Tullius “intended to abdicate precisely because it was rule by one man, but that—alas—villainy within his own family prevented him from carrying out his plan to give freedom to his country.”[48]

IV. Conclusion: Monarchy and the New Man

Livy saw in the history of Rome what Aristotle thought was generally true of mankind.  The strong, natural unity provided by a monarch prepares the way for the most just, most virtuous, and best form of society in which all citizens are involved in governing.  Livy shows dramatically the effort and commitment to the city needed to make a politically free society work for all its citizens.  But he also knew that his own times had lost the virtue and the wisdom needed to maintain freedom.  Perhaps, though, he had some hope that the moral reforms instituted under Augustine could recall the old magic under Rome’s early kings and make a Roman people once again fit to enjoy liberty.  We know that never happened.  Yet his life’s work might benefit us today, if we see what can be learned from it to fit our times.  As Livy himself wrote in his preface: “The special and salutary benefit of the study of history is to behold evidence of every sort of behavior set forth as on a splendid memorial; from it you may select for yourself and for your country what to emulate, from it what to avoid, whether basely begun or basely concluded.”[49]  We can certainly appreciate Livy’s nostalgic pleasure in looking to the virtues of a glorious past.  As with Livy, our present must fill us with anxiety over an uncertain future in which we as a people may be able to stand neither our vices nor their remedies.  Is the time for monarchy now, or just around the historical corner?  We can draw some confidence from the strength shown by our institutions and national character through the disputed presidential election of 2000.  Hopefully reading authors such as Livy and Aristotle will inspire us to cherish every bit of freedom we have and to use it while we have it to fight for a renewal of the character and forms proper to a free people.

Yet, if we are unsuccessful, what will happen when the next political crisis happens twenty years more down the road of the moral devolution of an entertainment-mad people?  While Livy might have drawn hope from the success of the early Roman kings, we will likely benefit more from looking to imperial historians such as Tacitus and Gibbon.  They offer sobering reflections for those who might consider the blessings of monarchy as a solution to vice: virtue under a monarchy wears a much different face than under a republic.  Loyalty to the ruler becomes the key virtue, flattery the most successful means of advancement, dissimulation the only protection for the just.  Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar expresses the natural distrust even a benevolent military emperor has for those who think independently: “He reads much; / He is a great observer and he looks / Quite through the deeds of men.” (1.2.202-204)  Caesar prefers men like Antony, who respond, “When Caesar says ‘do this,’ it is perform’d,” and who enjoy the pleasant favors that an emperor can bestow.  Antony’s love for Caesar is pitifully expressed in his impromptu eulogy at the scene of the assassination.  His funeral speech rouses the crowd’s love for Caesar to overwhelm Brutus’ cry to love Rome more.  These are the virtues of the publically virtuous man under a benevolent emperor secure in his power derived from loyalty.  Even under such good monarchs, independently-minded men of honor will find it difficult to exercise their virtues and should perhaps be warned to flee the center of attention and turn their virtue in other, less public directions.


Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics . Translated by Roger Crisp.  Cambridge University Press, 2000.

—–.  The Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord. University of Chicago Press, 1985

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richard Lattimore. University of Chicago Press, 1961

Livy.  The Rise of Rome, Books 1-5.  Translated by T.J. Luce. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar with Contemporary Criticism. Edited by Joseph Pearce.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012.

[1] Livy, The Rise of Rome, Books 1-5, trans. T.J. Luce (Oxford University Press: 1998), 4

[2] As we shall see, close attention to his doctrine in the Politics reveals why Hobbes considered Aristotle an enemy to his Leviathan:  “From Aristotle’s civil philosophy, they have learned to call all manner of Commonwealths but the popular (such as was at that time the state of Athens), tyranny.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (George Routledge and Sons, 1886), 306

[3] Throughout this essay, I make references to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which I have found helpful in coming to understand the problems that Livy and Aristotle both faced.  My ideas about monarchy, liberty and political character in the play are developed in an essay entitled, “Cassius and the Tragedy of Rome,” contained in the Ignatius Critical Edition cited in the bibliography.

[4] Aristotle makes this clear:  “In all sciences and arts the end is a good, and the greatest good and in the highest degree a good in the most authoritative of all—this is the political science of which the good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”  Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (University of Chicago Press, 1985), III.11

[5] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge University Press, 2000), V.5 1133a1-4

[6] Aristotle, Politics, III.5, 1278 a35-38

[7] Abraham Lincoln, Great Speeches, “Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum” (Courier Dover Publications, 2012), 4

[8] Aristotle, Politics, II.4, 1262b7-12

[9] Aristotle, Politics, II.4, 1262b21-24

[10] Aristotle, Politics, II.12, 1274 a15-18

[11]  Aristotle, Ethics, IX.6, 1167a22-24

[12] Perhaps they wept when they heard the opening lines of the Iliad: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles, and its devastation, which put pains thousand-fold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting of dogs, of all birds. . . .” [The Iliad, Richard Lattimore, trans., Book I.1-4]

[13] Aristotle, Ethics I.1

[14]  Aristotle, Ethics VI

[15]  Aristotle, Politics III. 4, 1277 b27-29

[16]  Aristotle, Ethics VIII.11, 1161a15

[17] Aristotle, Politics, III.16

[18] Aristotle, Politics, III.15, 1286a27-33

[19] Aristotle, Politics, III.16, 1287a

[20] Aristotle, Politics, III.17, 1287 b37-1288a2

[21] Aristotle, Politics, III.13, 1284 b25-30

[22] Aristotle, Politics I.12, 1259b15-17

[23] Aristotle, Politics I.2

[24] Livy, Rise of Rome, 161

[25] Ibid., IV.9

26] Ibid., Rise of Rome, V.1

[27] Ibid., Rise of Rome, III.65

[28] Ibid., e.g. III.39.

[29] Ibid., III.9

[30] Ibid., III.34

[31] Ibid., IV.8; see also IV.24

[32] Ibid., III.61

[33] Ibid., IV.5

[34] Ibid., IV.6

[35] Ibid., III.19-20

[36] Ibid., V.6

[37] Ibid., V.7

[38] Livy goes even further than Aristotle in identifying common love of the land and religious devotion to its gods as central to the success of the Roman republic.

[39] Ibid., II.1

[40] Ibid., II.1

[41] Aristotle, Politics, II.8, 1268b38-1269a7

[42] Livy, Rise of Rome, I.8

[43]  Ibid., I.8

[44] Ibid., I.16

[45] Ibid., I.21

[46] Ibid., I.42

[47] Ibid., I.46

[48] Ibid., I.48

[49] Livy, The Rise of Rome, Books 1-5, trans. T.J. Luce (Oxford University Press: 1998), 4

Portia’s Powerful Tongue: The Ethics of Lady Rhetoric in The Merchant of Venice

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Liberal Arts, Rhetoric
by Scott F. Crider

When early modern Europeans searched for a myth of human nature, familial bond, and civil association, they found one in an early Ciceronian treatise on oratory, de Inventione, in which he offers an etiological myth of rhetoric, “the origin of this thing we call eloquence”:

For there was a time when men wandered at large in the fields like animals and lived on wild fare; they did nothing by the guidance of reason, but relied chiefly on physical strength; there was yet no ordered system of religious worship or of social duties; no one had seen legitimate marriage nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew to be his own; nor had they learned the advantages of any equitable code of law.  And so through their ignorance and error[,] blind and unreasoning passion satisfied itself by misuse of bodily strength, which is a very dangerous servant.  At this juncture a man—great and wise I am sure—became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievement if one could develop this power by instruction.  Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honorable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty, and then when through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk.[1]

For Cicero and his early modern heirs, the first orator established human being, familial bonds, and civil association by means of eloquence, and this founding is re-enacted during important moments of eloquence.  The gathering of humanity through eloquence establishes us as human, and that gatherer is an especially important human, imagined by Cicero and most of his humanist sons as a special man.

Throughout his career, Shakespeare is fascinated by the art of oratory.  Both trained in the English grammar school tradition of Latinate oratory and well-read in classical, continental and English rhetorics, he continually represents the action of artful speech in his plays, not only because dramatists cannot do otherwise, given that they have their characters speak, but also because this dramatist isolates and examines a number of the most important questions within the rhetorical tradition, exploring its nature, especially the ethical character of its power to move audiences to belief and action. [2]

The Merchant of Venice represents two societies which require renewed foundations: the multicultural commercial republic of Venice, whose economic and legal bonds are failing to bind its citizens, and the idyllic estate of Belmont, whose deceased patriarch is both thwarting and enabling his daughter’s marital bond.  When Shylock tries to explain in 4.1 of the play to a disguised Portia that he will not be persuaded to forsake the bond Antonio now owes him—“By my soul, I swear / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me” (4.1.237-39)[3]—the figure of speech provides me with the focus of my essay: Generally, the power of human speech, or the “tongue,” to “alter” audiences; specifically, the ethics of Portia’s “power” as Lady Rhetoric, both in Venice and in Belmont.[4]  That Portia is an effective rhetor in both lands is obvious, yet success is not the exclusive measure of the art of rhetoric.[5]  The question is this:  Is Portia’s “powerful tongue” ethically good?  The answer: In Belmont, yes; in Venice, yes and no.  Because of her ignorance of Venetian circumstances—especially the cultural tension between Christian and Jew in the city—she makes a mistake and sacrifices Shylock in order to save her husband’s friend, a sacrifice which qualifies, without ruining, the romance of the play, a romance achieved through her ethical rhetoric in Belmont.  Portia’s suasiveness is composed of two rhetorical actions, then, one tragic and one comic, and the relationship of the two establishes the play’s unity, a unity which confirms Samuel Johnson’s observation that Shakespeare’s plays are not, strictly speaking, either tragedies or comedies:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of the one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.[6]

Shakespeare exhibits the real nature of a generally good, but flawed rhetor who restores two decaying worlds, but only by accidentally destroying a man.  In Venice and in Belmont, as in any city, the destruction of the other often establishes a new order, an order that romance, though, cannot purify.  Our ethical persuasions do not efface our unethical ones; they simply define them as such, and the play’s mode of combination provides the definition.  Let me discuss the Renaissance figure of Lady Rhetoric, the principles of ethical rhetoric, and our particular rhetorical lady in both cities.

I. Powerful Lady Rhetoric, Over-Powered

In the European Renaissance, the art of rhetoric was, as always, a suspect study.  Let me isolate one feature of that anti-rhetorical tradition: the accusation that rhetoric is effeminate, and that its powers of transformation subvert good reason and stable order.  “Womanly” rhetoric was thought dangerous because, when practiced by men, it undermines their own masculinity; and because, when practiced by women over men, it emasculates the male audience and masculates the female orator.   Even so, though the art of rhetoric in the Renaissance was usually practiced by men, there were exceptional women orators—Elizabeth I, for example—and there is even a habit in the iconographical tradition of imagining persuasion itself as female.  Lady Rhetoric—or Persuasion—is a figure for the art of rhetoric, as we see in Figure 1.[7]  Here we see a woman in flowing gown holding a three-headed beast on a leash, a leash that also binds her.  Wayne Rebhorn offers two interpretations of the emblem.  First, the rhetor’s power here is both power over and over-powering; that is, she rules the audience, yet is herself constrained by that very power.  Second, the beast is of indeterminate character since, although it resembles Cerberus, it may be a version of Hydra, the many-headed beast that represents the mass audience of the art of rhetoric.  The indeterminate beast may figure the audience to which the orator must attend; then again, it may figure the three appeals of rhetoric—logos, ethos, and pathos—which correspond to the audience’s three faculties of reason, moral sense and emotion, or it might figure the three kinds of rhetoric: political deliberative, epideictic, and judicial.[8]  In either case, Lady Rhetoric’s command of the beast is a sign that she has the art of rhetoric, defined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric as “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion” (1.2.1).  This definition indicates that, with respect to an audience and an issue, the rhetor selects means to achieve the end of persuasion, that proximate end itself achieving more remote ends.  That selection of means and ends is a power.  However, she is persuaded as she persuades, and the rhetor’s power over an audience often obscures the audience’s power over the rhetor.  Lady Rhetoric is altered even as she alters.  The bond binding the beast is also binding her.

Her gender and her moderated power help illuminate my topic: a powerful female orator who is not always fully in command of her own oratory.  Many of Shakespeare’s heroines in the comedies are distinct instances of Lady Rhetoric, the allegorical figure transformed into a number of related, but highly individual fictional characters—Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night, for example, and certainly Portia.  These women are disguised as men, and, as a consequence of such disguises—Rosalind’s Ganymede, Viola’s Cesario, and Portia’s Balthasar—they are able to exercise their rhetorical powers in ways hardly imaginable for most actual women in the period: as a teacher, a counselor, and a lawyer, respectively.  Of course, husbands were conventionally supposed to govern wives to maintain proper domestic harmony, as we see in Portia’s own submission to Bassanio in Belmont in 3.2, the new husband now “lord / Of the fair mansion” she has been governing (166-7).  One begins to see just how adventurous Shakespearean heroines are, at least during courtship.  Be that as it may, since Shakespeare’s Lady Rhetoric is not only persuasive but also vulnerable, she offers an opportunity for our poet-player to examine an ethical situation—accidentally unethical rhetoric, rhetoric whose intention is not malice, yet whose effect is.[9]  Between the very different masteries of an Iago and a Prospero is a Portia, who allows Shakespeare to develop his ethics of rhetoric because, first, she makes a mistake in being mastered by unknown, Venetian circumstances, and, second, that error both darkens, yet reveals her Belmontian triumph when she courts and educates her husband.

II. An Ethics of Rhetoric

Shakespeare read Cicero in school, but only read about Aristotle in one of his favorite books—Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier—where one of the interlocutors, Ottaviano, provides an Aristotelian ethical test for a courtier’s counsel on behalf of his prince:

And because the praise of well-doing consisteth chiefly in two points— whereof the one is, in choosing out an end that our purpose is directed unto, that is good indeed; the other, the knowledge to find out apt and meet means to bring it to the appointed good end—sure it is that the mind of him which thinketh to work so, that his Prince shall not be deceived, nor led with flatterers, railers and liars, but shall know both the good and the bad and bear love to the one and hatred to the other, is directed to a very good end.[10]

For Aristotle and Castiglione, any instance of influence or counsel must employ meet means and a good end.  The Ciceronian formulation in de Inventione is in accord: the study of oratory must be accompanied by that of “philosophy and moral conduct,” he argues there, or the orator’s “civic life is nurtured into something useless to himself and harmful to his country” (1.1).  Let me add one requirement and refine the above two—three conditions suggested by Aristotle’s rhetorical understanding, conditions any instance of rhetoric must meet to be ethical.  First, the audience must be free to agree or disagree; that is, there can be no force involved which would compel assent.[11]  Second, the rhetor’s end must both be good and be freely agreed to be good by the rhetor and her audience.  And, third, the rhetor’s means to that end must be thought to be both good and true by the rhetor, and they must actually be so.  An audience freely persuaded to a good end through good and true means: this is the character of any ethical suasion.  What distinguishes the sophist from the rhetor for Aristotle is an ethical differential: “The sophist is such,” he argues, “not through ability, but through deliberate choice” (1355b18, emphasis added).  The ethical rhetor must have the power of discovering the available means of persuasion in the particular case, but she must also properly exercise ethical choice in the discovery and deployment of means toward end.  Portia’s legal rhetoric is unethical because it finally fails to meet the above conditions,[12] but her romantic rhetoric is so because it does.  Let me make good on that claim.

III. The Accident of Rhetorical Ignorance in Venice

Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric includes the demand that the rhetor know what “the particular case” is.  That is an ethical demand.  Remember that, in the Nicomachean Ethics, the first requirement of an act is that one discern the particulars of one’s situation: discernment precedes deliberation, choice, and action.  This is what he means when he argues that the ethical decision requires perception.[13]  To the degree one is ignorant of such particulars, to that degree one is not acting freely.  Ignorance is one of the causes of involuntary action, including involuntarily unethical action.  Granted, Portia’s Venetian rhetoric is not unethical throughout.  Her first appeal to Shylock’s mercy (4.1.181-201) is completely legitimate:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

’Tis mightiest in the mightiest.  It becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway.

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.  (4.1.181-199)

Her appeal here is logical, ethical, and emotional.  The logical appeal is supported by the topic of invention of definition.  The “quality” of mercy is its essence, which explains why, syntactically, Portia’s periods indicate either what “mercy” does—“It droppeth as the gentle rain,” “blesseth him that gives and him that takes,” and “becomes / The throned monarch better than his crown”—or what it is—“’Tis mightiest in the mighty,” “is enthroned in the hearts of kings,” and “is an attribute to God himself.”  As well, she marshals the topic of comparison by contrasting force and mercy, the king’s scepter with his heart.  By contrasting justice and mercy, she appeals to emotion, specifically the emotion of fear: “in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy.”  Her definitions and comparisons also establish her own ethos since, after all, those who appeal to ethical principle—here that of mercy—are thought to embody them.  Her moving appeal to mercy is supplemented by one to self-interest—“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” (224)—indicating that she has his interest in mind, as well.  The rhetor’s ethos, according to Aristotle in the Rhetoric, must be characterized by “practical wisdom, virtue and good will” (2.1.5), the last indicated by the rhetor’s concern for the audience’s good.  Her conclusion appeals to the emotion of fear, here the fear of judgment.  Aristotle argues that, while the emotional appeal is often abused (1.1.3-6), it is a legitimate appeal nonetheless, provided the emotion is in accord with the circumstances at hand (2.1-11).  All three appeals in her speech are ethically legitimate.

However, once Shylock refuses those appeals—“My deeds upon my head” (203)—Portia changes.  What distorts Portia’s rhetoric in 4.1 is ignorance: though she has certainly studied the law with Doctor Bellario with some, if not perfect, care, she does not understand “the particular case” of Antonio and Shylock, not seeing that Shylock’s desire to destroy Antonio is animated by a mistaken, but certainly understandable desire for revenge for past injustices.  The play convinces us that his revenge upon Antonio is occasioned by Jessica’s betrayal by juxtaposing in 3.1 Solanio and Salarino’s taunting of Shylock for having lost his daughter with Shylock’s encomium to Christian revenge.  When Portia enters the courtroom, claiming that she is “informed thoroughly of the cause” (4.1.170), her very next question indicates that her general knowledge has its limitations: “Which is the merchant here?” (171).  Throughout her exchange with Shylock, she appears not to realize that Antonio is Shylock’s professed enemy and cannot imagine Shylock has been the victim of Antonio’s hate crimes.  Shylock earlier narrated those crimes to Antonio himself:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances.

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help.

Go to, then.  You come to me, and you say

‘Shylock, we would have moneys’:  you say so—

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold, moneys is your suit.

What should I say to you? Should I not say

‘Hath a dog money? Is it possible

A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or

Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key,

With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness,

Say this:  ‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;

You spurned me such a day; another time

You called me dog; and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?  (1.3.103-125)

Antonio’s response indicates that this narration is true:  “I am like to call thee so again, / To spit on thee again, to spurn thee, too” (126-7).  Antonio and Shylock are, as Antonio reminded him when he took the loan, enemies (1.3.128-33).  If an audience has forgotten 1.3 by 4.1, Shakespeare reminds it in the later scene with Shylock’s question to Bassanio right before Portia enters:  “What wouldst thou have the serpent sting thee twice”? (4.1.68).  Portia, of course, has seen and heard none of this, which is the point.  What Shakespeare understands is that majorities have an ethical habit, having abused minorities, to desire not only justice, but even mercy from them, once minorities are in a position to respond to the abuse.  Because Portia is ignorant of the injustice, she cannot comprehend his desire for revenge, so she instrumentalizes Shylock to achieve her end of freeing Antonio and accidentally turns Shylock over to those who would revenge themselves upon him.  Shylock may fail to show mercy—“’tis not in the bond” (259)—but Portia shows neither justice before the law, since Jews in Venice are given legal rights but denied the means to effect them; nor equity, since full knowledge of Shylock’s situation would dictate, not that he be allowed to revenge himself upon Antonio, but that he and Antonio both be freed from their bond; nor mercy, since, had she known, she might very well have believed that Shylock should be shown more than equity.[14]  By the time Portia grows excited by her rhetorical victory—“The Jew shall have all justice” (4.1.317)—she is neither just nor equitable, arguably even denying the principles of her own earlier speech on mercy (181-202).  The latter end of her discourse forgets the beginning.

Portia fails all three conditions of ethical rhetoric.  First, Shylock is subject to a high degree of force; after all, he is compelled to convert to Christianity upon pain of death.  The Duke is very clear that if Shylock refuses Antonio’s “mercy” of theft and conversion, he will “recant / The pardon” of his (387-8).  Second, Portia’s end of saving Antonio is too limited, given the situation, since her goal ought to include human flourishing for all parties concerned.  Even Bassanio realizes, once Shylock is willing to accept the money, that there is no need to go any further:  “Here is the money,” he says, just before Portia says that “[h]e shall have nothing but the penalty” (4.1.316-317).  Third, her means in achieving this narrow end are sophistical.  She will allow Shylock to claim his pound of flesh, but not if it means shedding Christian blood (302-309), yet it is legally irrational to allow a right that cannot be exercised.  When she revenges herself upon Shylock on behalf of her adopted city, she accuses Shylock as a resident alien of having sought the life of a citizen (344-53), but that would necessarily imply that there is no equality before the law and that no resident alien could accuse any citizen of a capital crime without committing a crime, implications which would be, of course, sophistical nonsense if, as Antonio has earlier explained, Venice’s legal code is established by “the course of justice” offered to all of Venice’s inhabitants (3.3.26-31).  Portia is ignorant of the life of persecution Shylock has led at the hands of Antonio, seeing only the revenge, not the persecution being revenged.  She then turns Shylock over to the will of his enemies to confiscate his wealth and force his conversion, traces of both acts of injustice remaining throughout the play.

IV.  The Power of Courting and Altering Husbands in Belmont

Her legal rhetoric is not her only rhetoric, though, and her romantic rhetoric—as exhibited in the tests of the three caskets in Acts 1-3 and the ring in Acts 4-5—is ethical, both tests achieving and educating her husband-to-be, and meeting the standard of ethical rhetoric: 1) Bassanio is free; 2) her end of a good marriage to him is a good and agreed to be by both; and 3) her means to that end—here, the question becomes controversial—are certainly good, but are only arguably true.  Goodness concerns moral virtue; truth concerns intellectual.

You will remember that Portia’s choice in marriage is constrained by her father’s test of the caskets, and she does assist Bassanio in his choice of the lead casket.  We do not know for sure who sings “A Song the whilst Bassanio comments on the Caskets to himself,” as the First Folio directs in 3.2.  It is either Portia or one singing on her command.  Everyone notes the way the song pointedly rhymes with “lead”—“bred,” “head,” “nourishéd,” “fed.”  We ought to notice, as well, that the song has a moral about erotic desire, which is “engendered in the eyes, / With gazing fed; and fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies” (3.2.67-70), a moral Bassanio learns in his meditations upon the “shows” of gold and silver:  “The world is still deceived with ornament” (74).  He will not be: “But thou, thou meager lead / Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (104-6).  Is Portia’s education of Bassanio cheating?  I do not believe so.  Her father—“ever virtuous,” according to Nerissa (1.2.27)—would not imagine that the suitors would be deliberating alone; instead, he would foresee that his daughter, moved by preference, would deliberate with them.  He is a kind of absent Prospero, ensuring that his daughter’s future suitors would speak with his daughter—or at least listen to her sing—before marrying her.  No wise parent expects to be obeyed entirely when it comes to a child’s love life, knowing that marriage necessitates separation.  Portia’s father is no Capulet.  When Portia assists him, the persuasion involved is less the sophistry of deceiving a parent and more the rhetoric of deliberation with a spouse.  A beautiful woman is usually going to have to teach her chosen suitor to restrain his fancy when activated by her beauty.  Portia and her father know as much.

Her second test is more debatable; after all, she disguises herself to her husband and arguably “entraps” him into giving up the ring.  Let me defend both the disguise and the entrapment.  First, the disguise is not primarily intended to deceive Bassanio.  After all, she cannot practice her influence in the court without disguise, given the constraints upon women practicing law.  Ultimately, disguise in Shakespeare is a dramatic figure for the appeal of ethos or persona that is unavoidable in human speech.   Second, once disguised, she discovers that Antonio and Bassanio are closer than they should be, given that Bassanio has just married her.  While disguised, Portia hears her husband say to his close friend, “But life itself, my wife, and all the world / Are not with me esteemed above thy life.  I would . . . sacrifice them all / . . . to deliver you” (4.1.281-2).  Bassanio has a disordered understanding of the respective values of friendship and marriage, and his wife needs to persuade him toward an ordered understanding of it.  She may even suspect, as others in the play do, that Antonio’s love for Bassanio is more than friendship.  (The term of “love” between men in early modern England did not need to refer to homosexual desire; even so, it is worth noting that Antonio remains unmarried at the play’s close, a rarity for major characters at the end of comedies.) Bassanio has not been compelled to marry, but, once in its order, he must value its vows properly.  We must allow that Bassanio does not give over the ring at first, doing so only after being pressed by Antonio:  “Let . . . my love withal / Be valued ‘gainst your wife’s commandment” (446-7).  What the ring now figures is Bassanio’s broken vow.   He may not be a slave to erotic fancy, but he is not yet wise to the nature of marital vows.  In Shakespeare’s world, those vows supersede parental claims and male friendships, and young husbands had better lose their finger than their wedding ring.  Portia’s rhetorical end is good: to educate her husband to understand that the oath of marriage is a supreme speech act, one which, to use Portia’s metaphor, rivets the ring to his flesh with faith.  The ring is a sign of “faith.”  By refuting Bassanio’s excuse for the lapse of faith, she ensures that there will probably not be a future one.  Her end, then, is a good marriage for them, and that is certainly a human good shared by both.  The question then becomes whether her means to achieve that end are ethical since the test and the refutation withhold the truth from him.  One must distinguish between two forms of withholding the truth: In the first, the rhetor denies the audience the truth; in the second, she delays it.  The art of rhetoric demands good timing.  As Proverbs 15 would have it—the Hebrew text in accord with the Greek or Roman understanding of rhetorical kairos or decorum—“[A] word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (15.23).  Or, as Portia puts it, “How many things by season seasoned are / To their right praise and true perfection” (5.1.107-8).[15]  By season seasoning the truth is the essence of rhetorical power.  The ethical demand is that an audience must learn the truth; the rhetorical demand is that he learn it when it will be most persuasive.  My claim is quite strong, then: not that Portia uses unethical means to an ethical end, but that she uses ethical means to an ethical end.  Rhetorical prudence only resembles sophistry.  This becomes clear when we contrast Portia’s rhetoric in Venice with that in Belmont:  Shylock is forced, but Bassanio is not; Shylock is not included in the good of Portia’s end, but Bassanio is; and Shylock is the victim of legal sophistry, Bassanio the beneficiary of marital discretion.

One cannot extricate the two rhetorical actions in the play fully, of course, and the romance of 5.1 is made more sober, not only by the presence of Antonio—Shylock’s triumphant enemy, who re-establishes the bond between Portia and Bassanio— but also by that of Jessica and Lorenzo, now financial beneficiaries of her father’s degradation and the impending death of the “rich Jew” Nerissa mentions a mere fifteen lines before the play ends.  And, perhaps more importantly, the emphasis on the ring—Portia’s “first gift” to Bassanio (5.1.167)—reminds us of another ring, Leah’s first gift to Shylock, the parental ring Jessica and Lorenzo sold for a monkey once they escaped from Venice with her father’s treasure (3.1.111-116).[16]  The ring of romance resembles the ring of tragedy.  Bassanio’s venture in Belmont, we are reminded, was paid for by Shylock.  From this, one might deny the romance of the play, undermining it altogether with historical injustice.  That would be a mistake, not because the play effaces that injustice—it does not, instead vividly representing the personal and political cost for some of the happiness of others—but because “Shakespeare play’s,” as Johnson reminds us, “are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind.”  In our ethics of rhetoric, we want a rhetor who is both good and always fully in command.  We want a Lady Rhetoric who binds, but is not bound, someone who does not makes mistakes.  But the rhetorical bond that binds all the marital, economic, and legal bonds of the play binds the very rhetor who holds it in her hands, wrapping itself around her gown.  The sweet doctor is herself poisoned, even as she delivers sweetness, not to all, but to so many in this highly distinct composition.

What Shakespeare finally understands is that ethical rhetoric is a difficult achievement.  In the ethical moment of disposing means to end, the rhetor is only imperfectly in command of a fallen world, and if this limitation can lead a woman of Portia’s moral and intellectual virtue to error in her sacrificing a tragic usurer to secure comic marriages, we ought not be overly confident in either the virtue of our own rhetoric or the exactitude of our own generic terms.  As Johnson would have it, a Shakespearean play “exhibits the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety or proportion and innumerable modes of combination.” Shylock’s sorrow underwrites, yet does not erase, Belmont’s joy, and the powerful tongue of this rhetorical lady is greatly responsible for both.[17]

[1] 1.2.  Trans. H.M. Hubbell, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1949).  Cicero repeats the myth in his more mature de Oratore, trans. Sutton and Rackham, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1942): “To come, however, at length to the highest achievements of eloquence, what other power could have been strong enough either to gather scattered humanity into one place, or to lead it out of its brutish existence in the wilderness up to our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens or, after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribunals, and civic rights?  And not to pursue any further instances—well-nigh countless as they are—I will conclude the whole matter in a few words, for my assertion is this: that the wise control of the complete orator is which chiefly upholds not only his own dignity, but the safety of countless individuals and of the entire State” (1.8.30-34). De Inventione was the better known of the two works in early modern England.  The scholarship on rhetoric in the early modern period is large.  The best introductions are now Peter Mack’s Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), Heinrich F. Plett’s Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), and the first half of Quentin Skinner’s Rhetoric and Reason in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), 1-211.  On rhetoric more generally, see Brian Vickers’ In Defense of Rhetoric (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1989).  On the myth of the rhetor-founder, see Wayne Rebhorn’s The Emperor of Men’s Minds: Literature and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995).

[2] For Shakespeare’s own rhetorical character, the standard texts remain T. W. Baldwin’s William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, 2 volumes, (Urbana, 1944), esp. Vol. 2, 1-238, and Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language (New York: Columbia UP, 1947).  See, as well, the following: Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare and the Arts of Language (New York: Oxford UP, 2001); Marion Trousdale’s Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982); and Brian Vickers’ “Shakespeare’s Use of Rhetoric” in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Muir and Schoenbaum (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971), 83-98.  The following examine Shakespeare’s ethics of rhetoric specifically: McDonald, esp. “Words Effectual, Speech Unable,” 164-192; Peter G. Platt’s “Shakespeare and Rhetorical Culture” in A Companion to Shakespeare, ed. David Scott Kastan (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 277-296; Plett, 415-433; Trousdale, 114-159; and Brian Vickers’ “‘The Power of Persuasion’: Images of the Orator, Elyot to Shakespeare,” Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), 411-435.  On Shakespeare and “moral philosophy” generally, see Baldwin, Vol. 2, 578-616.  See David N. Beauregard’s Virtue’s Own Feature: Shakespeare and the Virtue Ethics Tradition (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995) for an argument that Shakespeare was familiar with a tradition of “Aristotelian-Thomistic moral thought” (9).  On Shakespeare’s ethics of rhetoric, see my With What Persuasion: An Essay on Shakespeare and the Ethics of Rhetoric (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

[3] The Oxford World Classics, ed. Jay L. Halio (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), 4.1.237-239.  Hereafter, cited internally.

[4] The secondary literature on The Merchant of Venice is vast, and I have read only a small portion of it.  I am indebted to the following readings of the play: C.L. Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1959), 163-191; Beauregard, 87-103; Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics, with Harry V. Jaffa (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964), 13-34; Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Penguin, 1998), 171-191; William C. Carroll’s The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985), 117-126; Lawrence Danson’s The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale UP, 1978); Jane Freeman’s “‘Fair Terms and a Villain’s Mind’: Rhetorical Patterns in The Merchant of Venice,” Rhetorica 20.2 (May 2002): 149-172; Harold C. Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951), 81-116; David Lowenthal’s Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form (Lanham: Rowen and Littlefield, 1997), esp. 147-172; Platt, esp. 291-293; Norman Rabkin’s Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981), 1-32; James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1996); Barbara Tovey’s “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic P, 1981), 215-237; and esp. Martin D. Yaffe’s Shylock and the Jewish Question (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1997).  Freeman, Platt, and Yaffe discuss Portia specifically as a rhetor.

[5] In Aristotelian terms, success is its external, not its internal end because, having discovered all of the available means of persuasion, the rhetor may still fail.  The best rhetor is not always successful; the worst rhetor sometimes is.  See Eugene Garver’s Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994), esp. 18-51, for a fine discussion of the distinction.

[6] “Preface to Shakespeare” in Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson (New York, 1971), 261-307. 266-267.  Johnson’s Preface is the best single piece of literary criticism on Shakespeare there is, and his notes are full of treasures.

[7] The figure comes from Rebhorn.  For his discussion of the gendered understanding of rhetoric, see 133-196; for his analysis of the figure, see 75-76.  One of the most famous representations of Lady Rhetoric comes from Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, a mythological treatment of the trivium and quadrivium, trans. William Harris Stahl and Richard Johnson with E.L. Burge (New York: Columbia UP, 1977): “What countenance and voice she had as she spoke, what excellence of and exaltation of speech!” (156).  Plett discusses the iconographical history of representations of rhetoric (501-552), including Figure 1.

[8] On the three appeals and three rhetorical genres, see Aristotle’s Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2007), 2.1-26 and 1.3-15, respectively.

[9] Shakespeareans usually classify a persuasion as either “good” or “bad,” without defining or complicating either.  Plett, for example, offers what he calls “a fourfold typology of the orator”: a good orator with either a good or bad character; and a bad orator with either a good or bad character (418).  This is helpful, and it distinguishes the art of oratory from the character of the orator; even so, it hardly does justice to Portia’s complex speech acts.

[10] Trans. Thomas Hoby, ed. Virginia Cox (London: Everyman Library, 1994), 296, spelling and punctuation modernized.  I am not as convinced that Shakespeare knows Aristotle as Beauregard; it seems more likely that he discovers “Aristotelian” thought in Cicero and Castiglione.  Even so, we can use Aristotle to increase our understanding of Shakespeare and the actions he represents.

[11] On rhetoric and force, see my With What Persuasion, 79-99.

[12] Yaffe makes the case that Portia is an ethical “statesman” throughout the play.  See esp. 46-87.  Though he and I disagree, I highly recommend his fine study.  On the difficulties and possibilities of being an ethical rhetor, see my With What Persuasion (145-178), where I examine Paulina in The Winter’s Tale.

[13] See the Nichomachean Ethics, 1109b23.  On the topic of such perception, see Martha Nussbaum’s “The Discernment of Perception” in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford UP, 1990), 54-105, and Nancy Sherman’s The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue (New York: Oxford UP, 1989), esp. 13-55.

[14] Reflecting on the relationships between and among justice, equity, and mercy, one might say that justice requires strict symmetry without reference to particularities; equity, imperfect symmetry with reference to them; and mercy, asymmetry toward the object of mercy either with or without reference to them.  On the relationship between equity and mercy in Aristotle, see Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), esp. “Equity and Mercy,” 154-183; on that relation in both Aristotle and Shakespeare, see Beauregard.

[15] That the comment is occasioned by music indicates the musical nature of what is thought of as an Orphic art of rhetoric.  Interestingly, the play has one of the few mentions of Orpheus in his canon in  Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica (5.1.54-88) on “the sweet power of music” (79).  On the relation between music and rhetoric, see Plett, 366-412.

[16] Even the high romance of Bassanio and Portia’s casket scene (3.2) is qualified by the fact that it is framed with the scene in which Shylock learns from Tubal that his daughter stole and sold Leah’s gift to him (3.1) and the one in which he taunts Antonio (3.3).

[17] This essay was given as lectures in the University of Dallas’ Shakespeare in Italy program in Rome, lectures informed by discussions with Wayne Ambler and Dustin Gish; as a presentation at a forum on the play at the University of Dallas, refined by conversation with Joshua Parens and Martin Yaffe; and as a speech at the Athena Foundation, by invitation of Herschel and Dona Gower (now deceased), in conversation with Eileen Gregory.  I am grateful for all the three opportunities.  This essay is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Diane J. Crider, an eloquent lady from whom I learned to love the English language, a love that led me to Shakespeare.