June 17, 2016, by Nikki Rollason

What would Plato do? Greek Thought in US Politics

As the 2016 US Presidential election campaign continues to confound forecasters, recent PhD student and Teaching Affiliate John Bloxham discusses classics and American politics.

Looking at American politics through the prism of Greek philosophy probably struck a few people as a waste of time when I started my PhD on the reception of Greek thought in US conservatism. I’ll concede that the notion that lots of Republican politicians are avid and profound readers of Plato and Aristotle sounds a little far-fetched. And I suspect that even more people would be sceptical today (thanks a lot Donald Trump!). Still, Greek thought and the US right have enjoyed a close relationship since modern American conservatism developed after World War II.

In the 1950s, when secularism was apparently undermining public morality, how could conservatives base traditional values on a god that fewer and fewer people seemed to believe in? The answer was an appeal to the authority of reason in the form of Plato’s moral philosophy. Likewise, when neoconservatives wanted to utilise social science to critique President Lyndon Johnson’s emerging welfare state in the 1960s, they faced a quandary. A key criticism of Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ agenda was that it seemed to undermine public morality, but as social scientists they were committed to the ‘fact/value distinction’ of Max Weber (which meant they were supposed to be disinterested observers when it came to matters of morality). Their solution was a turn to Aristotle, marrying his virtue ethics to social scientific methodology to create a neoconservative social science. And when neoconservatives in the 1990s wanted to chart a new course in US foreign policy, between the realism of Kissinger and the liberal internationalism of Clinton, to whom did they turn but the Greek historian Thucydides?

So in these and other examples, the adoption of Greek thought has reinforced and invigorated conservatism. But these were not always straightforward translations from ancient to modern, and contemporary concerns and debates have often given new and contradictory meanings to ancient texts. For example, the neoconservative Thucydides who emerged in the 1990s had to compete with the older, opposing Thucydides of conservative realists. By assessing the decisions made by modern appropriators (what they used, adapted or omitted) against on-going shifts in the social and political context, both fresh perspectives on antiquity and deeper insights into modern conservatism can be gained.

Looking ahead, Bernie Sanders’ doctrinaire socialism is likely to lose out to Hillary Clinton’s left-leaning pragmatism in the Democratic primary contest, just as Ted Cruz’s doctrinaire conservatism was no match for Trump’s brash and populist pragmatism in the Republican race. So perhaps the American political scene is entering a less ideological phase. Nevertheless, it seems likely that at least some thinkers will continue to look to antiquity for inspiration. Greek ideas have tended to be used most fruitfully during periods of reinvention and, after Trump, it seems likely that the right will be in for another interval of self-examination.

Image: Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration at the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Classical receptionGreek literaturePhilosophy