The Great Tradition vs. Empire - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

The Great Tradition vs. Empire

This essay appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Imperialism is a temptation coeval with political life. An inherent element of human nature is to want “more,” and this desire can manifest itself individually or collectively, positively or negatively. We may loosely define imperialism as the collective effort of a group of people to have “more”—territory, resources, wealth, power, influence, or likely some combination of these—at the expense of one or more other groups. We tend to think of the ruling group as a nation, but historically it is just as likely to have been a polis (the Greek term roughly translated as “city-state”) or a transnational elite.

Empires have awed and fascinated mankind since the earliest times. Indeed, some of the largest, wealthiest, most extensive and powerful, militarily strongest, technically accomplished, and culturally sophisticated political entities have been empires. It suffices to mention ancient Rome—still, for many, the standard against which politics is judged—but one could
just as well cite modern empires from the Spanish and Portuguese to the British and Soviet.

Yet despite all this manifest accomplishment, we are entitled—even compelled—to wonder whether empire really is the height of political achievement or even desirable on its own terms. Imperial rule does, after all, entail an element of coercion well beyond that necessary to politics simply—that is, the state’s monopoly of force to compel obedience to legitimately enacted just laws. It is one thing to submit to the rule of law in a republican or representative regime based on consent, or even to deep-rooted and moderate constitutional monarchy, which rules a single people at least ostensibly with a view to the common good. It is quite another to be compelled to obey a purely external force for the overt good of that force.

The necessarily tyrannical or oppressive and exploitative character of empire is hardly its only flaw, though it may be the most fundamental. Thinkers over the past two thousand years have analyzed the issue—both actual imperial projects and the theory of empire—and found imperialism seriously wanting as a political arrangement.

Yet we may say that the Great Tradition almost begins with praise of imperialism. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia is arguably the oldest work in the literature of political philosophy. (Xenophon and Plato were both students of Socrates, but the former was older and apparently wrote his aristoúrgēma, or magnum opus, earlier.) The book purports to be a biography of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. In fact, very little in its pages is factual. If you want to learn about the real Cyrus, read Herodotus. The Cyropaedia instead presents Xenophon’s take on the political philosophy he learned from Socrates—Xenophon is one of just three writers whose works survive who knew Socrates personally. In fact, the ancient biographer and gossipmonger Diogenes Laertius writes that Xenophon and Plato wrote similar books “as if out of rivalry with each other” and equates the Cyropaedia with Plato’s Republic.

Xenophon introduces his book by saying that he has witnessed and read about so many political failures—regime collapses, to be more precise—that he wonders whether it is simply impossible for human beings to rule over other human beings. But then he remembered Cyrus, who was amazingly successful at exactly this. Cyrus, he says,

acquired very many people, very many cities, and very many nations, all obedient to himself. . . . He was willingly obeyed by some, even though they were distant from him by a journey of many days; by others, distant by a journey of even months; by others, who had never yet seen him; and by others, who knew quite well they would never see him. Nevertheless, they were willing to submit to him, so far did he excel other kings. [Emphasis added]

He goes on to sketch the way in which Cyrus acquired his empire:

Cyrus, after finding the nations of Asia in [an] independent condition, set out with a little army of Persians and became the leader of Medes, who were willing that he do so, and over the Hyrcanians, who were also willing; and he subdued the Syrians, Assyrians, Arabians, Cappadocians, both the Phrygians, the Lydians, Carians, Phoenicians, and Babylonians; he came to rule the Bactrians, Indians, and Cilicians, and similarly also the Sacians, Paphlagonians, and Magadidians, and very many other nations whose names one cannot even say. He ruled also over the Greeks who were in Asia, and, going down to the sea, over the Cyprians and Egyptians. He ruled these nations even though they did not speak the same language as either he himself or one another. Nevertheless, he was able to extend fear of himself to so much of the world that he intimidated all, and no one attempted anything against him; and he was able to implant in all so great a desire of gratifying him that they always thought it proper to be governed by his judgment. He attached to himself so many nations that it would be a task even to pass through them, no matter which direction one should begin to go from his royal palace, whether toward the east, west, north, or south. [Emphasis added]

This may all be very impressive on a certain level. But does it sound attractive to anyone? Maybe if you, personally, are Cyrus. Anyone else? Would you want to live in such a regime, subject to such a ruler?

Still, as the book progresses, Xenophon takes care to make Cyrus’s imperial project—and above all Cyrus himself—superficially attractive. Cyrus is smart, strong, cool-headed, and charismatic. He’s always the most talented (Xenophon would say “virtuous,” not necessarily in the moral sense) person in the room, or tent. He’s a natural leader to whom other talented men not only flock but eagerly follow. And he’s an extremely adroit politician, able to hold together tricky coalitions and divide his enemies.

What’s more, everyone loves a winner, and Cyrus is emphatically a winner. He wins a lot of battles; indeed, in Xenophon’s telling, he never loses. Cyrus goes to his grave unassailed and unassailable; his Persia is immeasurably larger and richer, grander and more civilized, far better developed in the arts and sciences than the little city Cyrus starts out from.

But is it better? All the above are real goods, of course. But are they the summum bonum of political life? To answer that question, we have to step back and see what, in Xenophon’s fable, the Persian Empire replaced.

Conquest as “normal”

At the beginning of the book, “Persia” is a small, republican city. It is in fact an idealized Greek polis, stripped of many of the real thing’s imperfections. It resembles nothing so much as Sparta but, tellingly, lacks the helot, or slave, population that was the economic backbone of the real Sparta. It is far poorer than the eventual Persian Empire but also far more equal. There is real political liberty, in the Aristotelian definition of ruling and being ruled in turn. There is virtue, not just in the sense of military discipline—which survives into the empire—but in the more profound and difficult sense of stern self-denial and dedication to the common good. We shouldn’t make too much of this. Part of Xenophon’s point is to show how shallow the early Persians’ dedication to virtue really was, given how quickly and readily they abandon it when tempted by Cyrus. But Xenophon also means to show that something important is lost in the transition from republic to empire.

First and foremost: liberty. No one but Cyrus is free in the new Persia; he’s the boss, and that’s that. There is certainly no political freedom: the ability to deliberate collectively about public goods and ends. Cyrus must also maintain his rule via a massive secret-police and spying apparatus; those who think these are modern innovations and/or require modern technology should read this book. It also appears that imperial Persia is always—must always be—at war, requiring massive taxation and unending conscription, to say nothing of the ensuing death, injury, and destruction.

Government itself becomes arbitrary: the law is nothing other than the preference or favor or whim of Cyrus. Cyrus’s new “Persia” reminds one of the old Russian proverb that the best form of government is a good czar, while the worst is a bad czar. Luckily for the Persians, Cyrus is a good—or at least effective—ruler. But one-man rule is inherently unstable. At the end of the book, Cyrus dies and his regime immediately collapses, as would-be successors fight with one another over the spoils. The ending is so incongruous with the rest of the book that many commentators have argued that Xenophon didn’t write it but that it was tacked on later. I disagree: I think the ending is there precisely to show the undesirability of despotic imperial rule.

On top of all this is the human tragedy of subsumed nations and forced homogenization. Differences—meaningful differences beyond harmless customs, folkways, and eating habits—must be suppressed to make the imperial project work.

If, as Diogenes Laertius contends, Plato and Xenophon considered themselves rivals, their rivalry did not stop them from agreeing on certain fundamentals—perhaps not surprising given their common Socratic education. Hence Plato, in the Laws, has his Athenian Stranger criticize the Spartan and Cretan regimes—to a Spartan and a Cretan, no less—for being too focused on war at the expense of leisure and peace.

But it is, unsurprisingly, in the pages of the sober-minded Aristotle that this thought is developed most fully and straightforwardly. In the Politics, he writes that some

assert that the mode of regime involving mastery and tyranny is the only happy one. Indeed, with some cities this is the defining principle of the regime and the laws—that they exercise mastery over their neighbors. Hence while most of the usages existing among cities are, so to speak, a mere jumble, nevertheless if the laws anywhere look to one thing, it is to domination that all of them aim at. In Sparta and Crete, for example, it is with a view to wars that education and the greatest part of the laws are organized. Further, among all nations that are capable of aggrandizing themselves, power of this sort is honored.

Aristotle almost immediately follows this analytical statement of fact with his own, unfavorable, judgment:

it may perhaps seem absurd . . . that this should be the function of one expert in politics—to be able to discern how to exercise [imperial] rule and mastery over those nearby, whether they wish it or not. How can this be characteristic of political or legislative expertise when it is not even lawful? It is not lawful to rule a city in this fashion justly, let alone unjustly; and it is possible to conquer others unjustly.

Note the entirely different frame of reference confronting Aristotle: his audience takes for granted that conquest is just and must be persuaded that “it is possible” for conquest to be unjust! Perhaps in part because of Aristotle’s logic and influence, that presupposition changed over time.

Aristotle further teaches that there are three fundamental political entities or unit-types: the tribe, the polis, and the empire. The first two resemble something like what we today would call the nation. They are formed by a distinct people; their “constitutions,” written or otherwise, recognize a fundamental distinction between members and nonmembers—or, to borrow from Book I of Plato’s Republic, between friends and enemies.

We should be careful not to take the latter terminology too far. Even under this conception of politics, not every foreigner is necessarily an enemy. But if he’s a friend, he’s one of a different kind than a fellow citizen with whom, however distant, one shares a bond of civic friendship. This bond is necessarily absent among foreigners who therefore in principle remain potential enemies. The sundering of the bonds of civic friendship is also the reason why civil wars are typically far more brutal and terrible than foreign wars: passions run much hotter.

Staying for a moment with Plato’s Republic, it is fair to say that in this, his most famous dialogue, Plato presents his political teaching at its most universalist and abstract. The so-called “city in speech” articulated in the dialogue is allegedly based on universal truths common to all men in all times and places and accessible as such to unassisted human reason.

Yet even this “best” city is not open and universal in its practical application. It is, to the contrary, emphatically closed and particular. It has a border, with citizens on one side and noncitizens on the other. The famous “noble lie” that Socrates insists must be told to its citizens holds that they are all literally blood relations, their common ancestors having grown up out of the very ground beneath their feet, the same ground that now comprises the city’s sacred soil. One teaching of the Republic is that any city—that is to say, any political community, even the best, whether real or imagined—only “works,” or works well, when it takes care of its own. Part of the definition of “justice” that emerges over the course of the work—and remember that the Socratic “What is?” question that animates this dialogue is “What is justice?”—is that justice is every citizen receiving his due for doing his proper work and minding his own business.

Still, Plato, Aristotle, and the other ancient philosophers are aware that, in both theory and practice, the issue is not quite this clear-cut. They know, for instance, that on a certain level, the distinction between citizen and noncitizen is arbitrary, in that there is no clear line drawn in nature. Athenians and Spartans are not distinct in the same way that (say) horses and cattle are distinct. What, ultimately, makes them different? They both speak Greek. While their laws are different, many religious and cultural practices are similar and some identical. They believe in the same gods and the same myths. The Persian wars recounted by Herodotus show that they can unite when necessary.

Yet something not only keeps them apart, but scarcely a century after joining forces to win immortal fame against the Persians at Thermopylae, Marathon, and Salamis they fought an intensely destructive war that hastened the ends, first, of their empires and later of their independence. We still say that both are “Greek,” a judgment they themselves would not have disputed. But where is the line for “Greekness” drawn? Thrace? Macedon? Nearer? Farther? We today tend to think of Philip and Alexander as “Greek,” but the Greeks they conquered didn’t.

On the other hand, the ancient philosophers also know that human beings will sort themselves into tribes and nations; this is just part of human nature. There are some natural, or naturalistic, factors underlying this tendency—for example, the effect that climate and geography have in forming distinct peoples. Peoples on either side of a formidable geographic barrier will tend to differ, for instance. Other differences are conventional or man-made, such as languages and customs. But all these factors, whether natural or conventional in origin, are natural in the higher sense that they are part of human nature.

Another way to see this is by recourse to the concept of “love of one’s own.” The classics were clear that one’s own may, or may not, be intrinsically lovable. We may say that the Platonic dialogues explore this question at length and, further, that Socrates was executed (in part) for suggesting that “Athens’s own” might have had some shortcomings when viewed in light of the truth and the good.

But even Socrates would be the first to recognize that love of one’s own is natural to man, inexpungible. How many of us would want to look around our Thanksgiving table and see none of our relatives? Perhaps a few, I grant . . . But even if they were all replaced by Ivy League hedge fund managers who were all taller, richer, better educated, better dressed, and better looking, most of us would still say “no,” because we love our own. And this love naturally extends beyond family: to the clan, to the tribe, and to the nation.

Hence there will always be nations, and the attempt to suppress nations is to suppress nature. This suppression requires, in the final analysis, force. Xenophon shows this, in his own unobtrusive way.

To someone who might ask, But what about the British Empire? I reply that it was as successful as it was, for as long as it was, precisely because so little emphasis was placed on squashing the national characteristics of its colonies. It also did a particularly good job of maintaining the fiction of self-rule—something that, as we shall see, Machiavelli teaches is all but indispensable to successful imperialism.

Another might object that we have thus far established that imperialism is bad for subjects, but any idiot already knew that. What about for the rulers? Surely it’s good for them, right?

Not so fast. Let’s back up. As we saw from Plato and Aristotle, it was commonplace in the ancient world for regimes to base their fundamental laws on imperialism. Yet these and other philosophers also judged that this is not such a great idea. But if it isn’t, then why do states and statesmen do it?

In the case of Cyrus or any one man, the answers are obvious: greed, ambition, and above all glory. Nietzsche said that the secret desire of every Greek was to be a tyrant, or to “become the law.” Contra Nietzsche, I believe such souls are rare—but they do exist, and their existence explains the adventures of men such as Alexander the Great, Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, and many other lesser but still impactful figures.

But what about more republican regimes? Why do they practice imperialism? The most obvious answer is to get rich, or (to paraphrase Lincoln) to eat without working. This sounds reasonable, if immoral. But does it always work out in real life?

You’d think someone like Machiavelli would take the side of the imperialists. And he seems to, on the surface: no philosopher so ostentatiously praises war and expansion quite like Machiavelli. But even on the surface, he makes you wonder if that praise is his last word. In a famous chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli advises a French king who invaded Italy how to do a better job the next time and warns that

when one holds a state with men-at-arms in place of colonies, one spends much more since one has to consume all the income of that state in guarding it. So the acquisition turns to a loss, and one offends much more because one harms the whole state as one’s army moves around for lodgings. Everyone feels this hardship, and each becomes one’s enemy: and these are enemies that can harm one since they remain, though defeated, in their homes.

In other words, imperialism is not necessarily a great way to get rich. It can be expensive to hold your conquests, not just in money but in men. Conquest tends to irritate the conquered, who are in a position to give the conqueror trouble—up to and including bloody and costly insurgency warfare. It can also be wearying to the folks back home and a cause of serious domestic political instability.

The inescapable link between domestic public opinion and foreign conquest is shown most forcefully in Thucydides’s famous account of the “Melian Dialogue.” In this episode from the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens, the Athenians send an embassy to the island of Melos, which has ties to Sparta but wishes to remain neutral in the war. The Athenian ambassadors demand that the Melians make a choice: either submit to Athens or be destroyed. Naturally the Melians protest but are met with the cold logic of “might makes right.”

Now, this argument is as old as political life and has been analyzed and found wanting—most memorably in Book I of Plato’s Republic and in his Gorgias. In both those dialogues, Plato’s Socrates does his usual work of ferreting out the unseen contradictions implicit in the assertion. Thucydides by contrast shows the outcome and lets the reader judge. Imperialism, he seems to show, corrupts the public spirit of the citizenry. It grows people accustomed to having and wanting “more,” desires that politics finds hard to limit.

Worse, the frank immorality of the Athenian demand—which was, it’s important to remember, a very public demand—has the effect of sapping Athenian morale, and therefore war enthusiasm, at home while undermining support for Athens abroad. It makes it very difficult for an imperialist people to believe they are fighting in a just cause, something that Thucydides seems to indicate is an indispensable ingredient to military success. Sparta could always plausibly claim it was fighting a defensive war, to protect or vindicate the liberty of its allies and of those states being bullied by Athens. After the Melian Dialogue, that case became far easier to make—to the Spartans themselves and to other Greek cities—while the converse case that the Athenian cause was just became far more difficult for Athens to make even to itself.

In another chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli warns the prince that while it is better to be feared than loved, one must also avoid becoming hated. And few things make people hate another state more than being conquered by it. Imperialism is, as the corporate types say today, a major “reputational risk.”

The foregoing is, I believe it is apposite to note, nearly identical to the case made by the American Founders. First and foremost, they agreed with Plato and Aristotle that imperialism is nearly always unjust. The very first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence says that “Nature and Nature’s God” entitle the nations of the world to a “separate and equal station” vis-à-vis one another.

But they also agree with Machiavelli (whom none but John Adams ever dared quote) that imperialism is expensive, requiring excessive taxation. It is manpower-intensive, requiring a coercive draft. Machiavelli’s remark about soldiers’ lodgings sounds nearly identical to the complaint against quartering troops in the Declaration and the prohibition of the practice in the Third Amendment to the Constitution. Above all, imperialism is corruptive of virtue and liberty.

The EU fraud

The wreckage that imperialism unleashes on the world may be, for certain thinkers, the strongest case against the practice. The central book of Machiavelli’s magnum opus, the Discourses on Livy, purports to be an analysis of Roman foreign and military policy. Read carefully, those chapters show that the ultimate imperial project—the Roman conquest of the ancient world—was a disaster for mankind. Machiavelli intimates (while trying to avoid the ire of papal censors) that among the Roman conquest’s fruits were the loss of liberty and republicanism for fifteen centuries, the subordination of philosophy to religious authority, the erasure of once thriving and separate peoples and cultures, and the diminishment of man into a kind of slave. High prices to pay for fleeting glory!

Montesquieu—most famous to Americans as the French philosopher who inspired our Founders, among other things, to adopt the separation of powers—also wrote a little-known (and today little-read) book on the Romans in which he makes a judgment similar to that of Machiavelli. The Roman conquest was a disaster the first time, he concludes, before going on to warn (between the lines) that nothing similar should ever be attempted again.

Now, these writers were arguing against physical conquest—a project few, if any, today favor or even take seriously as a real possibility on the scale discussed by these thinkers. But imperialism persists in different forms, such as transnational institutions and homogenizing intellectual, cultural, and economic currents and products. Or, in a word, “globalization.”

Of course every good globalist will recoil in disgust at being called an imperialist. But when we compare the effects of classical imperialism—which we have by now explored at some length—with those of its modern counterpart, the comparison becomes more difficult to wave away.

The philosophic roots of modern or soft imperialism are complex, but we may say that they grow out of Hobbes’s observation that every sovereign or state is in a state of nature vis-à-vis every other. If we take that argument to its logical endpoint, it would seem to require world government. That was certainly the conclusion of Alexandre Kojève, as it were the philosopher of globalization. His view was that Hegel fixed the problem inherent in Hobbes, only to leave yet more problems that he, Kojève, himself then fixed.

But we needn’t go into this in any detail to see that globalization is the imperialism of our time. Its partisans and beneficiaries are attempting to do through (more or less) peaceful means what the Romans (and Cyrus, and others) achieved through arms.

And their project is consequently burdened by the same flaws. Hubris, of course. The erosion of liberty, or even outright attacks on it, for globalization not only requires centralization, the two are in a sense synonymous. Globalization has a disastrous impact on thought and speech, both because homogenization reduces actual differences in thought and because even where it does not, the ruling class resorts to persecution when it feels threatened by certain ideas. This is perhaps the most important root of political correctness and ongoing censorship by the globalist tech sector.

As for the effects on man, we can do no better than to look to Tocqueville. From his comparison of America and his native France, he concluded that the more the state, or any noncivic institution, does for man, the less he does for himself, and the more infantilized he becomes. If you’re a ruler who wants a docile population, that’s a feature, not a bug. But if you care about the fate of human freedom, you might see things differently.

Globalization’s defenders would ask, heatedly, How can our project be imperialist when it is voluntary?

We could concede that point and still argue that it’s bad. The mere fact that something is voluntary—there is the presence of consent—is not the measure of goodness.

But is it even reasonable to concede that modern globalization is voluntary? Electorates, mostly, aren’t asked to vote on it. When they are, they tend to vote against it. And when they do, the globalist elites go to some lengths to have those votes reversed. Globalization in practice turns out to be as “voluntary” as an alliance with ancient Rome—whose “allies” very quickly learned how much independence they had given up and how little freedom they really had.

The European Union—which may be said to be Kojève’s philosophic and practical baby (he was a senior French bureaucrat in charge of pushing forward the integration of Europe)—is similarly a massive fraud. Has the EU panned out the way its authors promised it would, the way the people signing up thought it would? They thought they were simply getting lower trade barriers and hassle-free access to cheap vacations. Instead, they’ve been shackled with a massive superstate that regulates every aspect of their lives and drains sovereignty and decision-making power out of their elected governments.

If it is true that some inclination to national­ism is a part of human nature, then what happens when outside powers try to tamp it down, to force it to fit into an unrealizable project that it doesn’t like? It rebels. That perfectly natural and predictable rebelling is the core underlying reason for Brexit and Trump, for the yellow vests in France, for the populist ascendency in Poland, Hungary, and Greece, and for the popularity of Salvini in Italy. These rebellions are signs of life, of hope. We should encourage them, and be encouraged by them.

It is in no one’s interest—and certainly not the U.S. government’s—to homogenize the world. That is, in no one’s interests except the little army of soft Cyruses who run the soft tyranny that currently runs our world. Why do they want this? Because, as noted, homogenization makes people docile: less trouble, less spirited, easier to rule. It also makes them more interchangeable and thus fungible in the labor and consumer markets.

Strong peoples in strong states, by contrast, stand up for themselves. Yoram Hazony has summarized—correctly—elite conventional wisdom on nationalism as: “nationalism caused two world wars and the Holocaust.” Even if we were to stipulate that—which I for one am certainly not willing to do—it would still be reasonable to ask, Does a lack of nationalism have any downsides? Nationalism stopped the Germans at the Marne and ensured that not a single Prussian boot set foot in Paris 1914–18. Lack of nationalism—demoralization—contributed to the breakthrough at Sedan in May 1940, the swift collapse of the French army, the occupation of two-thirds of the country, and a hideous puppet regime in the rest. In any case, I fail to see how standing and fighting for one’s own, in a just cause, is anything but noble.

Beyond all this, globalist leveling makes the world less rich (I don’t mean in money, but it also does that, at least for all but the elite), less interesting, less human, more boring. Here is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970:

In recent times it has been fashionable to talk of the levelling of nations, of the disappearance of different races in the melting-pot of contemporary civilization. I do not agree with this opinion, but its discussion remains another question. Here it is merely fitting to say that the disappearance of nations would have impoverished us no less than if all men had become alike, with one personality and one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.

He was talking about another empire, which had subsumed and was trying to brainwash out of existence many nations. We used to call them “captive nations.” Now they are free—in part because of him. The world—humanity—is better off for it.

I could end by noting that those who bleat loudest for “diversity” are most likely to be engineers in the great homogenization-leveling project of our time. But instead I will end with this, from Horace: “You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she still will hurry back.” The great soft imperialist project of the past fifty years (at least) is not merely unnatural but anti-nature. As such, it cannot last.

I believe, or hope, that we are seeing the beginning of its end. Which will be a relief, because nature long ago snatched the pitchfork from us and has been using it to stab us in the rear end for a while now. Isn’t it time we were all able to sit down comfortably once again? ♦

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump administration. This essay is adapted in part from remarks given at the National Conservatism conference in Washington, D.C., in July.


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