My Journeys from Greek Thought to Barbarians: Celts, Picts and Germans, Oh My

Like most professors who have taught political philosophy (really “Western European Political Philosophy”) I set out to write a more or less typical book organized around the standard idea of a sort of intellectual history.  I don’t really know when I started.  I note, however that the earliest versions that I gave out to students is from 2002  I thought I did a pretty good job of dealing with an introduction about the nature of “paradigms” and the consequent idea that paradigms are necessarily expressed in metaphors. I then adopted the idea of “stories” as the basic metaphor used in political thought, not really aware that Hanna Arendt has used this term widely.  Under this rubric I wrote a chapter on Plato (isn’t the dominant story that he originated “political philosophy”), on Aristotle, Cicero (as a way of making sense of stoicism since there are really not many actual stoic texts extant) and then St. Augustine.  I was ready to move on to medieval thought when I begin to realize that if I wrote next about St. Thomas I would be skipping a very long historical period.  So for this, and for some other probably pretty obvious reasons, I decided that in order to make sense of the medieval period it would make sense to consider alternative stories arising from non-Greek and non-Latin sources, even if I was to follow the standard model.  This led me to think about what I rather naively thought of as “barbarian” political thought.  Although I had spent a lot of time as an undergraduate studying medieval thought and some time  later in thinking about legal systems other than the Roman one I had not really understood much, if anything about northwestern Europe before the Roman conquest.  In the back of my mind was the idea that when I got into St. Thomas I would have to make sense of the Roman concept of the ius gentium, or law of the peoples.  But I didn’t really know much about what these might have been.

I decided that it would be a good idea to try to tell “the story of politics” as I had come to call my manuscript from the perspective of pre-Roman European peoples. So I decided to do a chapter on “barbarian political thought.”  My first realization that I knew nothing about this topic after over forty years of “doing political philosophy” came when it became apparent that this term has been used rather indiscriminately.  The Fall of the Roman Empire seemed at first a good beginning.  After all, Rome “fell” to the barbarians.  So who were they? Given my old Aristotelian tendencies I fell far too easily into the idea that these were “pre-political” peoples.  I had always realized the suspect character of the  story that lies behind most “history of political thought.” As I was taught and as I taught this story it arose in Ancient Greece, got transferred to Rome and then somehow went north and west so that it is ultimately northwestern European, English and North American political thought.  In my teaching I had, especially as time went on, begun to make fun of this ridiculous idea. But what was the alternative story?  Well, maybe for a guy like me it was “my” story. The story of the “barbarians.”  I don’t feel very Greek or Roman.  So who are they? (See my other post The Paradigm Story of “Western Political Thought” for a bit more formal discussion of the “standard story”).

As even the most cursory observation will show “barbarian” has been used to refer to lots of different peoples.  Indeed for the Greeks they were most especially peoples from the East, that is the original centers of much of “western” civilization.  This included especially people like the nasty enemy, the “Persians.”  btw: Gee, they are the barbarians again in contemporary American popular discourse which has a hard time distinguishing that from “Arab” or even “Muslim.”

I soon realized that of course the “barbarians” that “overthrew” the Roman Empire were actually mostly peoples from Germanic groups, generally known as “Goths.”  These are hardly the same “barbarians” that Julius Caesar conquered in the Gallic Wars.  Oh, yeah, those are the “Celts.” Of course a little research, like actually reading Caesars’ Gallic Wars soon taught me that he was the one that seemingly created the distinction betweeen the Celts (Gauls) and the Germans.  The former were the almost civilized folks he conquered, the latter, those “beyond the Rhine” were the simply primitive warlike “Germans.”  O.K., now I was getting somewhere.  So I had to have at least two chapters on “barbarians” (forgetting all of those eastern peoples that Aristotle mostly had in mind when he discussed “barbarians”).  One for the Celts and one for the Germans or Goths.

In further posts I’ll detail some of the stages of the journey that has led me to my present view about “political philosophy.”

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About bruce wright

Professor Emeritus of Political Science
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6 Responses to My Journeys from Greek Thought to Barbarians: Celts, Picts and Germans, Oh My

  1. xxxicana says:

    Aren’t goths those dark peeps that dress in black? ;-)

    • wrightb says:

      Actually they are usually very light peeps. Oddly, to put in a serious note, it turns out that in the period when the Eastern Empire was trying to reassert itself some people would say they were Goths if they were talking to someone they thought wanted to hear this and Romans to others. In fact, it came to mean largely simply “soldiers” as a result of the fact that so many of the military in the later empire were not of Roman origin. At least glad someone read the post, thanks.

  2. songboy says:

    This looks familiar.

    I’d say it was some bad Halloween trip if not for the fact (as we all know) my bad trips always involve lost luggage. But that too is, quite properly, just a story.

    I do like stories. And fishing. The big ones never got away from the Romans. At least, to hear them tell it.

    Nice blog and about time.

  3. Tom Martin says:

    Fascinating post, but I must object to the characterization of Celts as “almost civilized”. Speaking as a descendant of Celts, I must insist that we are not nearly civilized, and darned proud of it.

    • bruce wright says:

      Thanks for your comments. I hope you will see that the “almost civilized” language refers to how Julius Caesar saw the matter. My purpose is to point out, as you already know, that his Roman perspective has unfortunately been continued in much Western thought through the present. There certainly were Celtic civilization, given virtually any definition of the term. It is how to communicate this in the context of restructuring our understanding of “Western” thought that I am struggling with. I certainly would not like to be associated with the Roman view of the matter. You might note from my name that I am hardly of Roman origin either. Nearly all of my siblings have Celtic (in this case, mostly Scotch) surnames. My great grandfather was an immigrant from Wales. My wife, whose grandparents were Irish immigrants are also clearly Celtic. The idea of the “wild Irish” held by the English conquerors of much of Ireland is one of the most vile aspects of English history. So I guess my point is that I am not on the side of this that you seem to infer from my comments about the Roman aristocrat’s vicious views. He thought of the Celts as somewhat closer to being civilized than the Germanic people. His reasons for this clearly really have to do with his own Roman ambitions. What is so horrifying to me is that this remains the kind of “standard” view of the matter. Of course I guess lots of us might prefer to be seen as uncivilized and proud of it if the Roman and English definition of civilization is to be the standard. As a Nebraska native (my father always called me a “bugeater”) I do see you point of view Tom. I hope you see mine. I have to admit that I read this over several times before I paid clear enough attention to what you said to get clear about what I guess you are saying. Let’s go on being not even nearly civilized together. In fact come on out and I’ll buy enough Guiness to make sure that any damned Englishman that might be around will know well what we mean.

  4. Angela Trumbauer says:

    It is so great to at least be able to read your blog and comments. You ARE my very favorite University prof ever!!!!!!!!!!! I still tell Bruce Wright stories… especially how students were so terrified of you, and they would drop out so scared, but your smaller classes were always the BEST! Thanks for writing this blog… I will enjoy it very much!!
    BTW, I might have some bread suggestions :)

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