Canonical Difficulties

The writers listed above are traditionally considered to have contributed most influen-tially to political debate on the principles and practices of good government across the centuries, and therefore are taken to be the key figures in the history of European political thought.

This may look like an uncontentious statement, but it is not. Just how we evaluate who contributed most and how we determine which authors and which of their works ought to be included on the list of 'great political theorists and theories' are hotly debated questions, not least by those who teach courses called 'the history of political thought' in European and North American universities. This debate over the 'canon' consists in asking: how has the tradition become what we have taken it to be, and why have certain thinkers been traditionally included while others have not? Why, for instance, have there been no women?1 Why, until very recently, are most of the 'great

1 See the various responses to this question in, for instance, M. L. Shanley and C. Pateman, eds, Feminist Interpretations and Political Theory (Oxford, 1991); C. Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge, 1988); D. Coole, Women in Political Theory: from ancient mysogyny to contemporary feminism (Hemel Hempstead, 1988); E. Kennedy and S. Mendus, names' in this constructed tradition of an intellectual elite mainly dead, 'white' and male?

There has been considerable irritation expressed over the fact that even in recently published histories of Western political thought, the history of feminism has been relegated to footnotes. But a good deal of writing on the political tradition of dead, white males has precisely made the point that whatever else the history of much of Western political theorizing is, it is, and was meant to be, a male and white enterprise. Women's voices, black voices, colonial and immigrant voices, non-Christian voices other than those of the pagan ancient Greeks and Romans are, for the most part, absent. We should not thereby assume that dead, white males were the only distinguished theorists who existed in the past. But it was the seminal male-authored political theories that led first to a focus on sexual difference, to the extent that the early 'state' became an exclusive preserve of men, and more recently, to the contemporary modern liberal state with its persistent denial of difference and implicitly, its favouring of men as universal models of citizen rationality and behaviour. A history of'our' political thought, that is, the varieties of political theorizing that have dominated and structured the West's 'state', is a history of narratives that either have edited out alternative discourses or have subsumed other voices within the dominant (male, white and Christian) discourses. No matter how eloquent the women or any other marginalized group of the past, they were not taken explicitly to have helped to construct the modern state and it is precisely for this reason that contemporary feminisms have challenged dominant male-stream political theories of all kinds. The reconstruction of a history, say, of feminisms in order to liberate women's voices from the past is, therefore, a different enterprise from the one that seeks to uncover and reconstruct what has been called the European, patriarchal state and its political theories. I shall try to explain, below, why I believe this to be the case.

Nor is the canon of'great political theorists' as stable as some may think. It does not always include the same thinkers, nor give the same thinkers similar weight. This becomes clear when we go beyond the Anglo-American university and consider what different Continental European traditions take to be the 'great thinkers' on the principles and practices of good government. But in general, it remains true that when we select those names that appear on all lists, we confront what have only quite recently been shown to have been cultural prejudices concerning race, gender and religion. And it is these prejudices which have, through complex processes of exclusion and selection, determined which voices were, in fact, taken seriously in the past. There is no doubt that for specialists in any period, certain authors who are relatively or virtually unknown today appear at the time to have been much read and influential. Specialist historians wonder why their names and texts gradually disappeared in the references of subsequent generations and they try to provide some answers. Especially when we study the political theory produced from the period of the ancient Greeks to the sixteenth-century Renaissance, we can see this exclusion and selection process operating in the testimonies eds, Women in Western Political Philosophy (Brighton, 1987); A. Saxonhouse, Women in the History of Political Thought: Ancient Greece to Machiavelli (New York, 1985); J. B. Elshtain, Public Man Private Woman: women in social and political thought (Princeton, NJ, 1981); G. Lloyd, The Man of Reason: 'male' and 'female in western philosophy, 2nd edn (London, 1993); S. M. Okin, Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton, NJ, 1978); S. Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1972).

of those who wished to make explicit to contemporary and future readers of their works which authors they believed to have influenced them. As a consequence, and retrospectively, the traditional canon of thinkers is surprisingly small and relatively stable and it goes back a long way.

Most of us would, however, agree where the history of Western political theorizing begins for us: in ancient Greece followed by ancient Rome. Today, however, we need to explain why this is so, because students come to read translations of Greek and Latin political and philosophical texts without any background in the culture or language of classical antiquity. This is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the first quarter of the twentieth century it was thought that a training in Greek and Latin was the prerequisite for being considered an educated person, even if we are under no illusions about the degree of fluency in either 'dead' language that was acquired by a nineteenth-and early twentieth-century elite of students. Furthermore, today's students often learn about the history of political thought in university departments which focus more directly on modern political and social sciences, where the historical and cultural contexts in which these theories were first generated are not necessarily discussed or even thought to be relevant to an understanding of these texts. Today, as never before, we need to ask and answer the question: why should we think the ancient Greeks followed by the ancient Romans, and thereafter, Christian medieval and Renaissance thinkers who selectively absorbed 'Greek' and 'Roman' lessons and adapted these to aJudaeo-Christian biblical world view, to be worthy of study, either in their own right or as relevant to our current concerns?

It seems to me that there are at least three interrelated reasons for beginning a study of the history of political thought with the ancient Greeks. The first two are so generally accepted as to be thought (wrongly, I believe) to require little further discussion. They concern (1) what we take 'the language of politics' itself to be and the range of its application ('language' is used here in its generic sense to include the many distinct discourses that developed over time). Related to this is (2) the belief that philosophy has a history within which political theorizing has played a determining role. Most people who are somewhat familiar with what is often referred to as 'the classical heritage' would agree that in some sense we owe to the Greeks our very willingness to accept that there is a distinctive 'language of politics' as well as the belief that what we think of as the discipline of philosophy began with them. But I would suggest that the reason we accept that there is a language of politics and a history of philosophy owes rather a lot to the third reason we begin with the ancient Greeks, and this is not often discussed by historians of political thought. I want to argue here that we begin with the Greeks because of the way in which a European (Euro-American, in fact) identity has come to be constructed over the centuries.2 It is this constructed identity which has determined the significance to us of (1) the language of politics and (2) the history of philosophy in the first place. And it is also this process of constructing an identity which has ensured the exclusion of other voices from the traditional canon. Let us begin, then, with the third reason for starting with the ancient Greeks.

2 See, for instance, C.J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics:Greece, Rome and the American Enlightenment (Cambodge, MA, 1994); W. Haase and M. Reinhold, eds, The Classical Tradition and the Americas (Berlin and New York, 1994).

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