Robert Jensen’s new book discusses an aphorism of mine “The universe is an undifferentiated whole. About this we can say nothing more.”

I am a little more than thrilled that Robert Jensen of UT discusses an aphorism of mine in this new book Arguing for Our Lives, A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog\

I am doubly thrilled that it is published by City Lights Books for a very odd reason:
When I was a young teenager from Kansas my family visited with my brother Howard in Berkeley. He took us to City Lights. I was a big fan of Lawrence Ferlinghetti so it was exciting for me to go the store and to have someone mistake me for an employee. It gave me a thrill to think “at least I look like a beatnik to someone who should know.”

Bob comments at some length on a little aphorism that I used to state a lot: “The universe is an undifferentiated whole. About this we can say nothing more.” He develops some discussion based on this that I find really interesting. His book is a fine introduction to argumentative reasoning. It would make a very good book for many introductory courses in various disciplines.  He is a journalism professor but I would have used his book in many of my political science classes.  It is perfect for critical reasoning or introductory philosophy courses as well as nearly any social science course.  It is well written and clear.

Bob knows me through my brother Angus, now retired from Sacramento State’s Environmental Studies Program. Angus apparently mentioned this statement of mine at a Land Institute board meeting. If you don’t know The Land, founded by Wes Jackson check it out:

“The universe is an undifferentiated whole. About that we can say nothing more.”

This catchy aphorism from political philosopher Bruce Wright may seem nonsensical at first glance, but is worth pondering in the service of deepening our intellectual humility. Facing multiple, cascading ecological crises, we humans need science more than ever—and more than ever we need to understand the limits of science.

Like many, Wright—a retired political science professor from California State University, Fullerton—is concerned about the unintended consequences of science and technology. When we started burning fossil fuels, no one could have predicted global warming. If we try to “solve” the problem of global warming by a reflexive faith in evermore complex technology, we should be prepared for new problems that come with such solutions.

The lesson is pretty clear: The knowledge we humans can acquire—while impressive in what it allows us to build—is not adequate to manage the complexity of the world. No matter how smart we are, our ignorance will always outstrip our knowledge, and so we routinely fail to anticipate or control the consequences of our science and technology.

Wright’s aphorism reinforces that point and takes it a step further: It’s not just that scientific analysis can’t tell us everything, but that the analytical process destroys the unity of what we are trying to study. When we analyze, the subject becomes an object, as we break it apart to allow us to poke and probe in the pursuit of that analysis.

To “differentiate,” in this context, means the act of perceiving and assigning distinctions within a system. Thinking of the universe as an undifferentiated whole recognizes its unity, providing a corrective to the method of modern science that breaks things down to manageable components that can be studied. That “reductionism” in science assumes that the behavior of a system can be understood most effectively by observing the behavior of its parts. At first glance that may seem not only obvious but unavoidable. How else would we ever know anything? We can’t look out at the universe and somehow magically understand how things work—we have to break it down into smaller parts.

Imagine a pond in the woods. That ecosystem includes the air, water, and land—the various inanimate objects such as rocks; the plants we see and their root structures underground; the animals and marine life that are big enough for us to see and the many other micro-life forms we can’t observe with our eyes; and the weather. No one person could walk into the scene and offer a detailed account of all that is happening in that ecosystem, let alone explain how it operates. Even a cursory description of the ecosystem requires knowledge of meteorology, botany, zoology, geology, chemistry, physics. To make sense of the complex relationships and interactions among all the players in that one small ecosystem, experts in those disciplines would observe, experiment, and explain their part of it. Putting all that knowledge together, we can say some important things about the system, but we can’t claim to know how it really works. Not only is there is a unity to the ecosystem that we can’t understand, but our analytic approach destroys the unity we seek to understand.

Does that sound crazy? Consider two obvious limitations of our knowledge claims in science.

First, if we claim to understand the system through its component parts, we have to be able to identify all the relevant parts. How much do we know about the microscopic organisms and their role in that ecosystem? We know the things we have identified, using the tools we have at our disposal. But is that all there is to be identified, that which we can observe? For all that scientists and farmers know about soil, for example, most of what happens in the soil is at the microscopic level and unknown to us. Second, while that pond ecosystem can be broken down into its component parts and studied, that study cannot include the dynamic interactions between all the parts, which are too complex to track. It’s not a failure of the method, but simply an unavoidable limitation.

In short, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and considerably more than the sum of the parts we can observe. The process of scientific analysis—of studying the parts to try to understand the whole—is powerful but limited. When we take what we’ve learned about the parts and construct a picture of the whole, we will miss the complex interactions between all those parts, which are crucial in creating the whole.

There’s nothing wrong with using methods that are limited—any method we employ will be limited. Scientists struggling with these problems understand the vexing nature of “complex adaptive systems,” a term that recognizes we are dealing not with static parts but with dynamic networks of interactions and that the behavior of the entities will change based on experience. But problems arise when people make claims to definitive knowledge and then intervene in the world based on those claims, often with unpleasant results. Unintended consequences do damage that often is beyond repair.

Wright’s aphorism suggests we should not only see a specific ecosystem as a whole, but regard the universe as a whole, as one big system of complex and dynamic interactions. While seemingly fanciful at that level, this idea has been widely discussed at the scale of the planet. To say that Earth is an undifferentiated whole is to suggest that everything in our world—organic and inorganic—can be understood to form a single self-regulating complex adaptive system. This is the Gaia hypothesis formulated by the environmentalist James Lovelock: The Earth itself is a living thing. Whether or not one goes that far, it focuses our attention on the dynamic, complex, adaptive nature of our world.

Wright’s provocative claim—“About this we can say nothing more”—doesn’t mean that we can say nothing at all about the component parts, only that we can’t pretend to say more than we can really know about the whole. To describe a system as an undifferentiated whole is to mark its integrity as a whole, that must be understood on those terms. Once we see the world as a living system, our attempt to know it through analysis of the parts is, by definition, always an incomplete project. We can’t really know the whole world; it exceeds our capacity.

That’s not an argument against science, but an argument for humility.

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Smoking fish

Smaller size of raw fish on Komodo KamadoI just put king salmon (Scottish farmed so supposedly ecologically sound), steelhead (farmed by who knows) and rainbow trout (farmed again). I have cooked a lot of fish on the KK and smoked some from time to time. This time I am preparing for a xmas party and wanted a lot of smoked fish. I like pretty heavily smoked and fairly dry smoked salmon and trout. I have had a lot of success in the past with trout. So, instead of being smart and checking the forum before I started I did it my own way. Brined all of the fish overnight in just kosher salt and lots of water. Stuck them on the lil Isla, the salmon on the lower rack also filled remaining space with some of the trout. Steelhead and rest of salmon on top grill. Mostly cherry chunks but also some other stuff, probably lemon and guava under the heat shield. I did not leave the fish to dry before putting them on. But I am starting at a very low temperature (between 100 and 110 F) and hope this will dry it. It seems to be forming some pelliciles now. After consulting forum I added some lime juice (have abundance of Mexican limes on my tree). I intend to keep it at this temperature for as long as practicable, take some out and freeze it to destroy possible parasites) and up the temperature on the rest until I get it to at least 145 internal temperature.

Fish beginning the smoke on Komodo Kamado

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The Roman Conquest of Gaul and the Celtic Story, Latest version, I hope, of chapter on Celts from The Story of Politics

Chapter IV:  The Roman Conquest of Gaul and the Celtic Story

((Note: This Chapter is very preliminary.  It was written after the next two chapters and substantial research on Athe barbarians.@ I now know that a good deal of it is based on views that are no longer accepted by the best of scholarship.  This research made me realize that the Abarbarians@ often refer to at least two fundamentally different groups in temperate Europe, the ACeltic@ and the AGermanic@ barbarians (Scandinavians are to some extent a separate group), as well as numerous Middle Eastern groups, among them the Persians and even the Egyptians. The present text refers largely to the “Celts” and the “Germans.” The story of the former in its continental form in Gaul was largely both effaced by, and incorporated into, the Roman Empire.  As an independent story it is largely known to us through stories that have maintained themselves (and been reinvented) in Irish, Welsh and Britonic (from Brittany) stories.  In its origins it is a largely pre-Roman story that makes sense as a counterpart to the classical Greco/Roman story.  Our most direct historical evidence about these peoples comes from their conqueror, Julius Caesar, and from passing comments made by classical authors about them.  Much of the remainder of our knowledge about the ancient Celts is either archeological or from written documents produced five hundred or more years after the Roman conquest of Gaul, the major home of peoples who spoke Celtic languages prior to the Roman conquest of Western Europe.  In this chapter I attempt to reconstruct the story of the Celts as substantially a pre-Roman European one about which we have only the most limited evidence.

The story of the German barbarians as I reconstruct it in Chapter VI is fundamentally different.  As some scholars have noted, the Germans as a people were largely a creation of the Roman Empire itself.  The term “ethnogenesis” has been coined to refer to this phenomenon.  The Western story substantially consists, after the AFall@ of the Roman Empire, of the incorporation of the newly dominant Christian story within the Roman Empire into a AGermanic@ world which became AWestern Europe.@  Thus the Germanic story as I will deal with it in that chapter is a largely post Roman one that describes the early development of modern European nations.  The first draft of this text did not recognize the fundamentally different character of these two Abarbarian@ stories.  Thus the present chapter is the most recently written part of the text and is undergoing substantial development as of the beginning of 2007.  I include this draft here only so that students in my Spring 2007 classes can see what I am doing at the moment  Any comments or suggestions to improve this chapter are solicited and welcome.))

From Classicism to Barbarism

The dominant political story of the West suggests that civilized political thought began in ancient Greece, or more precisely, in Athens and somehow manifested itself in the Roman Republic.  The end of the Roman Republic occurred when three major leaders, Marcus Licinius Crassus (ACrassus@), Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) and Gaius Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar) took power as the ATriumvirate.@  Crassus died in battle.  Civil war between forces backing Pompey and Caesar ensued.  With Julius Caesar’s victory in this civil war he became, in effect, sole ruler of Rome.  His assassination, which most of us know more through the work of William Shakespeare than from actual historical accounts, prevented him from lasting very long as Adictator and consul for life,@ a title that had been granted to him in 45 B.C.E.  After his death a new period of civil war ended with victory for his great-nephew and adopted son Octavianus, who was named “Augustus Caesar,” the first of the official Roman Emperors.  Rome had been an empire in the sense of a single state that controlled many others for some time prior to this, at least since the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.E.  Rome received tribute from a number of states throughout the Mediterranean world which it ruled through its tribunes.  But the empire was substantially expanded by Julius Caesar when he conquered Gaul and parts of Britain. and the ensuing events fundamentally altered the structure of Rome and its empire, transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.  From the fourth century the Empire was divided between the Western and Eastern Empires.   The story continues with the ultimate Afall@ of the Roman Empire, meaning the Western Empire that had by then “ruled the world” for nearly five hundred years.  On this standard account the fall was followed by a roughly five hundred year period of chaos that was not really ended until the beginning of feudalism.  “Barbarism” ruled in Western Europe as a result of the disappearance of the Empire. The Empire in the East continued along a different path existing until the fifteenth century.  Today it is usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire, although it never officially adopted such terminology.  After the end of the “Dark Ages,” North Western Europe experienced “the Middle Ages” or a “Medieval” period, so the story goes.  This period was marked by a system known as “feudalism” in which the major issue for political thought was the question of the relative roles of the Roman Catholic Church and secular rulers, ultimately the Holy Roman Emperors as well as local princes.  Only with the “rebirth” or “Renaissance” of classical culture, around 1500 did Western Europe become what we know as “modern,” in this view that is widely held, if not always explicitly stated.  In the story told in this way we have a picture of Europe which “declined” and was held fast by barbaric superstition and the development of theologically-based systems for nearly a thousand years.  The “rebirth” was accompanied by the development of genuine knowledge “science” and an emergence from a long period of stagnancy.  Only since the Renaissance has Western thought become thoroughly rational.

But a more inclusive story would recognize that the apparently Awild barbarians@ whose civilization existed independently of the Roman Empire in much of Western Europe and who were responsible for the ultimate defeat or “Fall” of the Empire constituted a group or peoples who hardly broke suddenly onto the world stage, as the dominant story might suggest.  In fact they had long been developing in relation to other Abarbarian@ groups and the Romans themselves.  They had a substantial culture, involving cultivation of arts and craftsmanship, and a high level of intellectual development.  They were not merely “wild barbarians” who set back the process of civilization of the West.  In this sense, the Roman Empire was preceded not only by the Roman Republic but by the development and history of several different peoples in what we now know as AWestern Europe,@ among whom were many groups that had practiced agriculture in settled communities for many centuries and were developing urban centers and somewhat centralized political entities at the time when they were conquered by the Romans.  Among these peoples were the Celts. The image of “barbarian hordes” with no homelands invading Rome is a story with little foundation in historical reality.[1]  The dominant story tends to be told in terms of a series of “migrations” of peoples from the north and east of Western Europe.  Yet much recent evidence based on archeological and D. N. A. analysis, among other things, suggests that there was, as John Haywood puts it “a marked degree of cultural and genetic continuity in western Europe which appears to be at odds with the accepted migration-based interpretation of Celtic history.”  Haywood goes on to say that it “may actually be that Celtic-speaking peoples emerged over a much wider area of central and western Europe than has been generally thought, and a at much earlier time, perhaps in the Neolithic (c. 6000-2000 B.C.).  Central Europe, France and the British Isles may have been part of this ancestral Celtic-speaking area.”[2]  It has also often been thought that the peoples of “barbarian” cultures in Europe lived in terms of a static social and political system.  Much recent research and analysis has shown, however, that the “barbarians” and specifically the Celts lived in dynamic social and political systems that underwent substantial change over time.  In Gaul this dynamism included a movement away from monarchy towards both a kind of aristocratic republics and “democratic monarchies.”[3]  Indeed some commentators have speculated (and of course this can only be speculation) that Celtic society would have developed an advanced civilization with a central political organization of its own without the Roman conquest.  This chapter is an attempt to make sense of the story of these Celtic speakers and their contributions to political and social development.


Gaul, the British Isles and the Romans

When Julius Caesar Aconquered@ Gaul he said that the area was divided into three parts and that it was bordered on the east by the Germans.  His Commentaries on the Gallic Wars begins with a description of the peoples of the area.  He says:

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our=s Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province [a term used by the Romans to name their territory in southern Gaul and of which Caesar was pro-consul during his conquest of the rest of Gaul], and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war; for which reason the Helvetii also surpass the rest of the Gauls in valor, as they contend with the Germans in almost daily battles, when they either repel them from their own territories, or themselves wage war on their frontiers.

It is to be noted that he is describing what we now call France and Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as parts of Germany when he discusses “Gaul.” Further on in his work he describes his invasion of the British Isles, also at least partly inhabited by Celts.[4] Gaul became a significant part of the Roman Empire.  It had been inhabited since pre-historic times by peoples who are the ancestors of today=s Western Europeans.  The British Isles were only partially conquered by the Romans, leaving substantial elements of Celtic civilization, especially the Celtic language, alive.

If we were to tell the story from the point of view of these peoples we could surely develop a more complete understanding of Western politics than the dominant one that sees Western Civilization as based almost exclusively on Greco/Roman thought and institutions.  Those who were the conquered ultimately made important contributions to what we know as Western European politics.  Their politics, law, religion and culture are at the base of much of the contemporary world.  Without their story our understanding of politics is limited in very serious ways.  But this story was nowhere developed by these peoples in the same sense as is Greek and Roman political thought.  Indeed much of what we know about these peoples is gleaned from the writings of Greek and Roman thinkers.

Is There a Celtic “Political Philosophy”?

The dominant story developed in this book is told in terms of what is often referred to as Apolitical philosophy@ or Apolitical theory.@  This paradigmatic notion assumes a certain universality for the ideas of Aphilosophy,@ Atheory@ and politics.  But further reflection shows that these concepts themselves and the distinctions that they imply are aspects of the traditional story and of the contemporary political paradigm within which the standard “story of politics” is developed.  In examining other social systems it is unreasonable to assume that these distinctions will also exist.  If we were to seek, for example, a ACeltic political philosophy@ in addition to this dominant story we would surely fail.  Some contributors to the dominant story, however, did attribute philosophy to the Celts.  Clement of Alexandria, writing in the late second century of the Christian era claimed that philosophy originated among the barbarians, including among the Celtic druids, and was taken up by the Greeks.   He wrote:

Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece.  First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Samanaeans among the Bactrians; and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour’s birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. Stromata, I, XV.

Hippolytus, writing in about 230 B.C.E. claimed, as well, that the Druids were philosophers who followed Pythagorus.  He says, in cataloging philosophers whose views he claims are used by followers of various heresies, that “the Brahmins among the Indians, and the Druids among the Celts, and Hesiod (devoted themselves to philosophic pursuits).”[5] (Bk. I).   But it is worth noting that his purpose was to show that all previous philosophy had, in an important sense, been based on error because it did not take account of the knowledge that is derived from Jesus Christ.  He says in the conclusion of his work that:

Such is the true doctrine in regard of the divine nature, O ye men, Greeks and Barbarians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, Egyptians and Libyans, Indians and Ethiopians, Celts, and ye Latins, who lead armies, and all ye that inhabit Europe, and Asia, and Libya.  And to you I am become an adviser, inasmuch as I am a disciple of the benevolent Logos, and hence humane, in order that you may hasten and by us may be taught who the true God is, and what is His well-ordered creation.  Do not devote your attention to the fallacies of artificial discourses, nor the vain promises of plagiarizing heretics, but to the venerable simplicity of unassuming truth.  And by means of this knowledge you shall escape the approaching threat of the fire of judgment, and the rayless scenery of gloomy Tartarus, where never shines a beam from the irradiating voice of the Word! (Bk. X, Chpt. XXX.).

Yet the very idea of Aphilosophy@ as a particular kind of human endeavor is largely a result of the Greco-Roman world view and its reception in modern times after a lengthy period of interaction with, or assimilation into, what we now think of as Christian theology.  Our ordinary understanding is that philosophy, as we learn from Plato, is a Asearch for the truth.@  It is to be distinguished, as Plato was so concerned to show, from the work of poets or of myth.  Although philosophy may try to make sense of history as such, it is not itself a set of historical accounts of events.  Up to this point the present work is largely a development of the ideas that serve as the foundation for this account of the nature of philosophy and the story of politics with which it is associated.  Classical philosophy on this model consists of abstract speculation.  It is the development of a system of abstract concepts within which it is possible to discern what is true.  It is laid out in a series of canonical texts which are often treated as if they have a logic that makes sense of the development of the canon itself.  In the next chapter, however, it will be shown that an alternative notion was introduced into the story by Augustine, among others.  According to this view, already suggested by Hypolytus in the passage above, there is a specialized and privileged story that is not simply known by reason.  It is the story revealed by a single divine source both through holy texts and the story of a particular people.  The “fathers” of the Church had developed such a view as early as the second century after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  This view meant that early Christians could not accept any other story about the gods, and thus would not sacrifice to the ancient gods of the Romans.  Those who adopted this position were first met with repression and persecution when Roman emperors required everyone to sacrifice to those gods.  But with Constantine the Christian view came to be accepted by those in authority within the Roman Empire itself early in the fourth century C.E. (Common Era).

It is common to see medieval political development and political philosophy as a complex interaction between the classical view of politics and that which results from official Christian doctrine.  The period from Augustine to the modern age is understood as the development of an interaction between theology on one side and secular philosophy on the other.  On this view, the distinction between philosophy and theology was only fully understood with Athe Renaissance@ of classical thinking sometime around 1500.  Thus religion and politics, political philosophy and theology, were to be seen by newly Aenlightened@ thinkers and political actors as fundamentally separate realms of thought.  Presumably this is one major hallmark of “modern” thought and of modern political practice.  All of this depends upon an understanding of the nature of human society and politics that was not shared by groups such as the Celts who drew no such distinction.  There was, among them, no distinction between “religion” and “knowledge” and thus no distinction between theology and philosophy, or between politics and religion.[6]

It is an error to see Athe Renaissance@ simply as a return to the classics from the logic of Roman Catholic theology which somehow competed with, and overshadowed, classical ideas for a time and was then Areborn@ as “reason” while theology depended on “faith.”   Renaissance understandings are, in fact, also the result of the development of ideas that have their origins in the lives of Athe barbarians,@ the real ancestors of most contemporary Europeans and Americans whose roots are in Europe.  But it is very difficult to explicitly develop the stories of these peoples, to Atell their story@ in the same manner that we can tell the story of “Western Political Philosophy.”  One major reason for this is the fact that these peoples have been historically dominated, politically, socially and culturally by those whose story constitutes what we call AWestern Political Thought.@  Their works were not preserved over the centuries in written documents.  Insofar as their views were inconsistent with those of the established Christian Church in Western Europe they were ultimately forcibly rejected, counted as “paganism” or at least suppressed and forgotten as matters of legitimate discourse.

To develop their stories, perhaps better, to Areconstruct@ them, requires looking to sources not usually well understood by contemporary political thinkers.  Our limited knowledge of these peoples comes from archeology, philology, linguistics and studies of Afolkloric@ documents as well as from historical documents from the Greco-Roman tradition that discuss the Abarbarian@ peoples.  In any case there are no texts available to us that consist of abstract conceptual analysis such as those considered to be “political philosophy” in accordance with the established canon.  Nor is there some single privileged barbarian text that would serve the same role that The Bible serves in the dominant story.  Classical Greek and Roman writers refer to the “barbarians” mostly in works that we see as histories or geographies, rather than in works that we usually think of as “political philosophy.” as it has been discussed above.[7]  But the comments of the classical authors in such texts are a major source of knowledge that provides us with some grounds for at least intelligent speculation about the way in which various “barbarian” peoples saw the world.

Classical Attitudes Towards “Barbarians”

There are no extant texts from either Celtic or Germanic sources that have the sort of abstract character that we are accustomed to think of as “philosophy,” much less “political philosophy.”  But this is not to say that there was no abstract speculation among “barbarians.”  It is simply that we have no record of the results of such speculation.  What we have is a set of comments made by classical authors that tells us something about “barbarian” life and a set of stories in terms of myth and folklore that presumably tell the story of various “barbarian” peoples.  Peter Wells points out that there were two conflicting perspectives represented by Roman and Greek sources about the presumably illiterate “barbarians.”  On the one hand “they portrayed barbarians as savage, uncouth, uncivilized peoples who behaved in an unpleasant fashion.”  On the other hand the authors sometimes “idealized them as noble simple peoples unspoiled by sophisticated lifestyles.”[8]  Yet there was a group of people, known as “druids” among the Celts, who engaged in lengthy intellectual training processes and occupied an important place in Celtic society.  They are sometimes said to have established the foundations for European universities.  I have pointed out above how they were considered to be engaged in “philosophy” by both classical and early Christian writers.  But they left us no substantial texts explaining their ideas.  This chapter is an attempt to reconstruct the Celtic story, on the basis of the very limited information we have about Celtic civilization.  Yet it remains important to realize that contemporary categories of thought were not shared by the Celts with respect to significant conceptual matters.  Roux and Guyonvarc’h put it as follows:

In truth it is necessary to admit that the Celts constitute a different domain of the classical world and that this difference of nature implies a different treatment.  There is a Celtic tradition but philosophy is Greek and rhetoric is Latin.  The two visions, the comprehensions of the world, are not capable of being simply superimposed upon each other.  There was a religious and social organization that could not survive foreign conquest—this is its only defect.[9]

We are dealing here with fundamentally alternative paradigms, different ways of seeing the world.  These two stories represent fundamentally different understandings of what constitutes politics and religion and how they relate to each other and to sets of abstract concepts.[10]  It is because the Celtic story presents us with one basic paradigm outside of the established canon that it is worth our study.  We should not take any existing paradigm for granted but should attempt to consciously formulate our own.  Trying to make sense of historically alternative paradigms provide us with a basis to do so.

Alternative Stories as Alternative Paradigms

Of course there is some conceptual sharing among even fundamentally alternative paradigms.  Otherwise we would simply not be able to examine alternatives.  But we should not take it for granted that the history of political thought as represented in the standard Western canon is the only possible way to see the origins of contemporary political orders and their philosophical underpinnings.  The stories of those who have been dominated may well play a more substantial role in actual historical developments than is suggested by the canon.  Indeed it is possible, as will be shown below, that many of the aspects of contemporary Western political systems derive as much from some of the repressed stories as from the official one.  Political institutions and practices are not merely the putting into practice of official theories; they are also the result of historical evolution of actual practices and institutions.  The established canon is necessarily one result of established political orders and the way in which they are understood by those who constitute the dominant elements in those orders.  The examination of alternative stories of politics should help us to understand this reality and to shape our own political practices with an awareness of their heterogeneous sources.  “Our” story is not merely the story represented in the canon.

Who Are (Were?) the Celts?

One strikingly unusual answer to this question is that the Celts, as a people, are a construction of modern thinkers whose ideas developed in the eighteenth century.  From this point of view the concept of “a Celtic people” serves a political purpose, especially for some groups within the contemporary politics of Western Europe, especially in the British Isles, but also in parts of France (Brittany).[11]  This argument depends on the claim that the ancient authors who mentioned Celts seemed to have used the term to refer basically to any group of “barbarians” other than the “Scythians.”   The term was thus used to mean “people from beyond the Alps” other than the more eastern “Scythians.”  This view is especially related to issues in archeology.  Many contemporary sources refer to the archeological remains of the “Hallstadt” and “La Tène” cultures as somehow Celtic.  These two groups are named after archeological sites that have been dated to as early as 1200 B.C.E. and as late as 450 in the case of the Hallstadt culture and between 450 and 50 B.C. for the La Tène culture.  Yet some contemporary authors suggest that these are not the remains of “Celtic” civilization at all.  Rather they should be seen as somehow isolated from contemporary understandings of what constitutes Celtic culture.  Of course there is no way to prove what language was used by those whose artifacts do not include literary items.  Whether or not they spoke some language that could be called “Celtic” cannot be determined from the physical objects by which we know them.  Certainly there is much to be said for the fact that there is a modern use of the idea of “Celtic” that serves contemporary social, political and even religious purposes.  Much of what is known as “neo-Celtic” literature probably is not an accurate reflection of the practices of ancient Celtic peoples.[12]  Nevertheless, there is clearly a basis for considering the significance of the cultures that are typical of Wells calls “temperate Europe.”[13] and to consider them to be “Celtic.”  Perhaps it is inaccurate to think of people in the British Isles as Celts.  British peoples may not have always thought of themselves as Celts, especially preferring some more specific term to apply to their smaller groups.  But it is also important to note that Julius Caesar clearly thinks that at least some of the people in Britain were very similar to the Celts he knew from Gaul.  He says in his Commentaries that:

The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands.  The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls: the number of cattle is great.  They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money.  Tin is produced in the midland regions; in the maritime, iron; but the quantity of it is small: they employ brass, which is imported.  There, as in Gaul, is timber of every description, except beech and fir. (5.12)

Tacitus, too, thought that the people in Britain were mostly Celtic.  He says in Agricola:

But a general survey inclines me to believe that the Gauls established themselves in an island so near to them.  Their religious belief may be traced in the strongly-marked British superstition. The language differs but little; there is the same boldness in challenging danger, and, when it is near, the same timidity in shrinking from it.  The Britons, however, exhibit more spirit, as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated.  Indeed we have understood that even the Gauls were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom.  This too has happened to the long-conquered tribes of Britain; the rest are still what the Gauls once were.(11)[14]

Of course the fact that Caesar and Tacitus saw it in this way does not prove that people in Britain were precisely the same as the people of Gaul but it is good grounds for not simply dismissing the idea that their story is similar to that of many Celtic peoples.  The argument that it is only relatively recently that people in parts of the British Isles have come to think of themselves as Celtic in the context of attempts to assert a kind of nationalism that would, for example, emphasize their relationship with the Irish and that this is grounds for dismissing the Celts as a category should not lead us to refrain from trying to reconstruct a Celtic story.[15]  There were Celts and it remains true that if we are to seek a Celtic story much of our evidence will come from what we know of peoples from the British Isles prior to the hegemony of Germanic groups such as the Angles and Saxons and later the Normans.  In any case the dominant story also serves political ends in Great Britain and elsewhere.  Our analysis should be tempered, however, by the difficulties in making sense of a view for which our evidence is so scanty and so very difficult to obtain.  This is necessarily true for any attempt to reconstruct the stories of those who have been historically dominated by others.  It is the testimony of those dominant others that constitutes a substantial base of our knowledge of the Celts as the ultimately dominated “other” whose story has been largely sublimated by the dominant paradigm.[16]

A Celtic Empire?

Greek authors, including the early geographer Hecataeus (sixth century B.C.E.) and the historian Herodutus (writing in 446 B.C.E) identified the “Keltoi” as people living in what we now know as Western Europe.  The term means “the hidden people.”  But, even if “hidden,” they were substantial actors on the world stage.  A group of Celts had met with Alexander the Great (whose father Phillip had become king of Macedonia because of the fact that his brother was killed by Celts who had earlier received tribute from the Macedonians).  Beresford Ellis, tells the story of the meeting as follows:

Among the peoples who sent envoys to his camp were the Celtic tribes who now dwelt on the Adriatic coast of Illyria. [what we now usually refer to as “The Balkans”]  Arrian, who is quoting Ptolemy, son of Lagus, who was one of Alexander’s generals says that Alexander received the Celts amicably.  He gave a feast for them.  They were, says Arrian, `men of haughty demeanour and tall in proportion’.  During the feast Alexander asked the Celts what they, feared most, expecting them to answer “You my Lord.”  However their reply was startling to the would-be conqueror of the world:  ‘We fear only that the sky will fall on our heads.’  Strabo also describes the scene again attributing it to Ptolemy’s account.  The Celtic envoys added however, that they also ‘put above everything else the friendship of such a man as he’.  Alexander, perhaps somewhat abashed, made a treaty of friendship with them.  Later, records Arrian, Alexander commented that for barbarians the Celts had a ludicrously high opinion of themselves.

Alexander and his historians seem to misunderstand the main thrust of the Celtic statement.  While certainly declaring that they had no fear of Alexander, they were using a ritual formula to emphasize their good intentions and a desire for a treaty of equals.  Their words were, in fact, a form of oath which was still to be found in Irish law tracts millenniums later, committing the individual’s corporeal integrity to keep a bargain but also invoking natural elements: `We will keep faith unless the sky fall and crush us or the earth open and swallow us or the sea rise and overwhelm us.’[17]

The passage is significant not only for showing that the Celts were known to the ancient Greeks but also as providing us some knowledge of the characteristics of Celtic ideas and understandings.  The Celts were, indeed, a proud, if not haughty people, secure in their own military prowess.  But they also had political, legal and cultural conceptions that would last for many centuries, as shown by the connection that Beresford Ellis points to between their statements and later Irish legal writings.  Aristotle is hardly to be forgiven for his limited understanding of these peoples, given his historical relationship to the Macedonian rulers.  Perhaps they were closer to animals than to Greeks for Aristotle.  But they clearly didn’t see matters this way.  The “haughty” attitude of the Greeks is at the foundation of much of our contemporary canon!

In the political sense of the term there was no “Celtic Empire” in the sense of a Roman or Macedonian one.  There was never the type of political centralization that this would have required.  Yet there were peoples who shared many things, most importantly language.  Although Beresford Ellis entitles his book The Celtic Empire, his purpose is not to show that there was an empire like the Roman or Macedonian ones that had a series of “emperors” but to suggest that “during the period of Celtic expansion, Celtic tribes and confederations of tribes spread through the ancient world challenging all who opposed them and settling as the dominant people in the areas they conquered.” (1)  Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h agree that there was never a unified Celtic empire in the political sense.  But they also say:

There was a Celtic Empire, not a political but a linguistic, religious and artistic one.  Not historical in the sense of events that are laid out in a lengthy chronology.  We know only insignificant but nevertheless tangible odds and ends.

They note that there is sufficient proof of this in the legendary, but not historical, existence of such an empire, even in Roman history.[18]  Henri Hubert puts the point as follows:

It appears that the Celts had arrived at the notion of an empire.  When they appeared in Roman history, Titus Livius depicts for us a sort of great royal realm where the sovereign was a “Biturige,” that is to say a king of the world, Ambicatus. [The “Biturge” were a Celtic people whose name signifies “king of the world”]  He sent his two standards to make two great imperial expeditions, one in Germany, the other in Italy.  It is pointless to ask if the empire of Ambicatus existed.  It is certain that he was conceived of by the Celts, because it is to a Celtic tradition that Titus Livius refers.  The Irish tradition offers us an equivalent; it is considered as a microcosm , an image of the greater universe.  It has adopted the idea of the king of the world carried by a St. Jerome or an Orose [a medieval geographer] with passion.  But the Celts, in place of creating an empire rallied volunteers to the imperial idea.[19]

Thus, in political practice there was never a single Celtic unity.  If we look to Julius Caesar’s description which includes the claim that Gaul includes “those who in their own language are called Celts, in our=s Gauls” we will soon note that he distinguishes numerous peoples among them.  Various Celtic groups united with the Romans against other Celtic groups with no apparent sense that they were acting against some common group of which all Celts formed a part.  Celtic armies did, as noted above, unite under Vercingetorix, but they were defeated.  The end of Celtic power meant that no further significant unity efforts were to go forward in Gaul.  It is not clear whether the members of each group that temporarily united under the leadership of Vercingetorix saw themselves primarily as “Celts” or whether they identified themselves as members of smaller units, such as Arverni or Aedui.  In terms of political and social structures the latter seems more probable.  This issue is discussed at greater length below but for the moment it is clear that there were people who seemed to think of themselves as Celts, or at least who shared a common culture and language, even if their primary political identification was with a smaller group.  The Celts as such were an historically important political force.  There is no evidence that the idea of a Celtic Empire was ever realized except in the rich Celtic imagination.  But as Hubert makes clear the idea was a powerful force and continued to be one in Celtic Ireland.  It is an historical reality only as a story.  But stories are an important part of political reality.  Insofar as our topic is political philosophy rather than mere history the ideals, not the practices, are our primary focus.  As we do not attempt to judge Plato by whether his description of an ideal system in The Republic is a true empirical account of any political system that he observed, we should not judge Celtic ideals as inadequate simply because they were not accurate descriptions of empirical reality.  It is the normative ideal, not a description of actual phenomena that we should think of as political philosophy, whether we deal with works in the canon or ideal expressions in the context of alternative stories.  Yet in the case of non-dominant peoples from whom we have no philosophical texts a description of their practices can help us to understand their ideals.  In this respect it is important to put the stories that we have as “folklore” in the context of actual historical developments.  The story of their domination is an essential element in making sense of their own views as is recognition of the extent to which their actual historical significance has been ignored in the canon that is the Western European/North American story of politics.

The Celts in Italy, Greece and Beyond

In addition to the interactions noted above between the Celts and the Macedonians, in 279 B.C.E a Celtic army invaded Greece and sacked the holy temple at Delphi.  The ancient Romans also had substantial contacts with Celtic peoples who came from north of the Alps and settled in what is now northern Italy.  These are known as the “Cisalpine Celts.” There they interacted militarily, politically, and economically not only with the Romans but with the Etruscans who are often thought of the predecessors of the Romans in Italy.  Indeed the Celts sacked Rome in 390 B.C.E., nearly seventy five years prior to the contact noted above with the Macedonians.  Celts aided Hannibal in his invasion of Italy in 218 and some Celtic groups invaded Italy again at the end of the second century B.C.E [20].  Romans remembered these events in thinking about the sacking of the city by the Visigoths under Alaric nearly a thousand years later.  So throughout Roman history the Celts were known to the Romans as actors in what we understand as politics in Italy.  Further east, Hellenistic forces invited Celtic forces to aid them in Asia Minor and established “Galatia” there in the third century B.C.E.  These Celts became a client kingdom of Rome in 64 B.C.E. and were annexed to Rome in 25.[21]  Gaul was inhabited by Celts.  The Romans conquered southern Gaul in the second century B.C.E. which then became a Roman province.[22]  In the remainder of Gaul Celtic political entities had existed for some time before this.  Celtic peoples have inhabited the British Isles for many centuries.[23]  They were, perhaps, indigenous to the area though Irish folklore, among other sources, suggests that they were immigrants from elsewhere in Europe.  Indeed several old texts, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England[24], written in 1136 allege that the first king of Britain was Brutus, the grandson of Aenius a famous participant in the Trojan War according to Homer’s story.  Aenius is also sometimes cited as the legendary founder of Rome.[25]

Southern Gaul “The Province”

Southern Gaul, with which Rome had long commercial and military, relationships became a Roman province in a context somewhat different from that of Caesar’s conquest of northern Gaul.  Here there had been substantial contacts not only with Romans but with the Greeks before them.  A Greek colony was established at Massalia (present day Marseilles) as early as 600 B.C.E.  For Greeks and Romans alike it was the center of trade with much of inland Gaul.  During the Greek period the culture of grapes and wine, as well as many other elements of classical culture became widespread in southern Gaul, especially along the Rhone River.  Thus Roman culture followed easily for the elites who had already been acculturated into classical Mediterranean customs.  The elites of Southern Gaul were familiar with the Latin language and with Roman commercial practices and commercial goods, especially luxury goods.  The possession and consumption of Roman luxury items, especially wine and the Roman style service of that beverage were symbols of power and success for Romano-Gallic elites.  The process of Romanization of the political and economic system of southern Gaul was largely peaceful after the annexation of Massalia by Rome in 125 and the defeat of a Celtic group of 20,000 warriors who opposed it.  While many Romans came to live in Gaul, more Gallic people came to follow Roman customs and practices and began to speak, and later, to read and write Latin.  As in other parts of the Empire, large numbers of people from Gaul joined the Roman army either as members of the Roman legions themselves or as Roman federates.  The latter received Roman citizenship upon completion of their service and became familiar with Roman practices during that service.  While they sometimes served in Gaul itself they also often served the Roman military in other areas of the Empire and thus became intimately familiar with Roman practices in many contexts.  Military pay for those who were in the Roman legions was in cash.  Land was often given to those who had completed their military service.  At the end of their service as federates in Roman military activity peoples from Gaul and elsewhere received not only land but Roman citizenship.  Thus many native Gauls (Celts) became thoroughly Romanized and were dependent on their Roman connections for their own economic and cultural existence.  Indeed many of them thought of themselves primarily as Romans.  So there was a relatively peaceful incorporation of many Gauls into Roman social existence in southern Gaul.

Caesar Conquers Northern Gaul

In northern Gaul, however, the process was more violent.  Here, as in many other areas that were annexed to the later Roman Empire, there had been a process of urban concentration and political consolidation even before the Romans themselves entered the areas.  Small groupings had allied together and formed concentrated population centers known by the Romans as “oppidia” or fortified urban areas.  Within these centers substantial economic production using advanced technological processes took place.   Nevertheless there was a great deal of enmity among and between Celtic confederations.  The oppidia were fortified against other oppidia as much as against the fear of Roman incursions.  Julius Caesar, at that time proconsul for Gaul, seized upon differences among these groups to invade and conquer Gaul.  His campaigns in Gaul are the basis for his work Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.[26] These recount his activities in warfare against various Celtic groups, some of their Germanic allies and against some Germanic groups.  He allied himself with groups of Celts that he considered to be “friends of Rome” based partly on prior relationships, including treaties between these groups and Rome against other Celts and their German allies.  In Book I he argues that his military intervention was the result of a plot by one group, the Helvetii to take over all of Gaul.  The flavor of his commentaries and his justifications for fighting against the Helvetii can be seen in the following passage from Book I:

“”:    [1.12] There is a river [called] the Saone, which flows through the territories of the Aedui and Sequani into the Rhone with such incredible slowness, that it can not be determined by the eye in which direction it flows.  This the Helvetii were crossing by rafts and boats joined together.  When Caesar was informed by spies that the Helvetii had already conveyed three parts of their forces across that river, but that the fourth part was left behind on this side of the Saone, he set out from the camp with three legions during the third watch, and came up with that division which had not yet crossed the river.  Attacking them encumbered with baggage, and not expecting him, he cut to pieces a great part of them; the rest betook themselves to flight, and concealed themselves in the nearest woods.  That canton [which was cut down] was called the Tigurine; for the whole Helvetian state is divided into four cantons. This single canton having left their country, within the recollection of our fathers, had slain Lucius Cassius the consul, and had made his army pass under the yoke. Thus, whether by chance, or by the design of the immortal gods, that part of the Helvetian state which had brought a signal calamity upon the Roman people, was the first to pay the penalty.  In this Caesar avenged not only the public but also his own personal wrongs, because the Tigurini had slain Lucius Piso the lieutenant [of Cassius], the grandfather of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, his [Caesar’s] father-in-law, in the same battle as Cassius himself.

The campaigns lasted for several years with ultimate victory by Caesar and the incorporation of all of Gaul into the Roman Empire.  After effectively conquering all of Gaul and crossing the Rhine into Germany which he was not able to conquer,[27] Caesar turned his attention to Britain which he entered in 55 B.C.E.  But in 54 B.C.E. revolts began by Celts in Gaul lead at first by Abriorix whose forces were momentarily victorious but were ultimately defeated by Caesar’s forces.  In 52 nearly all of Gaul united under the leadership of Vercingetorix.  This mighty confederation which included several of the Gallic tribes which had supported Caesar in the past, was numbered by Plutarch at nearly five hundred thousand fighters, nearly all of whom were killed at the fateful Battle of Alesia.  This bloody battle marked the end of any serious military effort to regain Celtic independence in Gaul.  The warrior class of Gaul was effectively eliminated at the Battle of Alesia.  Many other people, including women and children also died.  Ultimately groups associated with the warrior class, such as druids, were supplanted as their role in the Celtic order ceased to exist.

Romans in Britain

While Julius Caesar’s attacks on Britain were not overly successful (part of his reason for attacking was, on his account, because of the fact that druids from Britain had made troubles for him in Gaul) most of the southeastern part of the main island ultimately came under Roman rule.  Yet many groups of people on the islands remained who were never Romanized.  Ireland was never conquered by the Romans  Large-scale resistance to Roman rule prevented much of the north of Britain (what we know as “Scotland”[28]) as well some mountainous areas in Wales and surrounding territories, as well as some of the more important minor islands, such as the Isle of Man, from coming under direct Roman rule.  In these areas people retained much of their pre-Roman culture and social organization.  If we are to believe the Irish cycles, the people of Ireland came from abroad in at least five waves even before the Milesians (the first clearly Celtic group) arrived.  But these stories generally use terms that seem very Celtic in their descriptions of these immigrants and most of them seem rather clearly mythical.  Indeed they are sometimes pictured as giants or as some odd sort of beasts (in the case of the Fomorians).  Some of them have said to havev been banished from the face of the earth and continue to live underground. In any case archeological evidence shows that there were people in Ireland for thousands of years prior to the present era.  To ask whether the late Stone Age people here were Celtic is to present ourselves with a virtually unanswerable question.  It does seem clear that the earliest inhabitants came across a land bridge that existed thousands of years ago.  The “Britons” to use a less controversial term than “Celts” for these peoples continued to speak versions of Celtic languages for many centuries.  Indeed there remain small areas of Gallic speakers not only in Ireland but in parts of the United Kingdom, as well as in French areas such as Brittany.  Old Irish and Welsh stories are a rich source of information about the practices of peoples that are, at the least, closely related to the Celts of continental Europe.  While these stories are hardly histories, even when they are set as if they were, they provide us with a sense of what Celtic social structures were and of the ideals they express.

Celtic Language(s)

The only thing that constitutes a genuinely unifying element in discussing “the Celts” is language.  Linguists recognize the Celtic languages as early Indo-European languages whose modern counterparts are Irish, Welsh, Brittanic, Scotch and several other variants of Celtic.  Nevertheless, as Wells points out, the distinction between Celtic and Germanic was an “artificial creation by investigators working in the field of comparative philology in the nineteenth century.”(107)  He says that all that we can be sure of is that the “complex evidence of language suggests that at the time of intensifying contact with the Roman world during the second and first centuries B.C., peoples in Gaul spoke Celtic languages and peoples in Denmark and adjoining regions spoke Germanic languages.”(109)  The extent to which surviving languages are similar to the older ones is extremely difficult to determine.  There are common place names and personal names that provide some evidence for the continuity of Celtic languages from the early Iron Age to the present.  But these connections are necessarily weak and subject to alternative analyses.  That there are people in the contemporary world who think of themselves as continuing a very old Indo-European language is beyond doubt.  But the accuracy of their notions is difficult to determine, especially since we lack early written forms of any of the languages at issue.  Thus our attempts to make sense of a Celtic story must be considered tentative and figurative, recognizing that even our knowledge that there were any such people who shared a common story is less than certain.  That there are stories in Celtic languages is beyond dispute.

The Story of the Celts , Oral and Written

The story of the Celts is extremely difficult to reconstruct, in spite of the fact that at some point Celtic peoples occupied as much as three fourths of Europe.  Our sources consist of very one-sided descriptions of Celtic civilization in classical Greek and Roman authors, of linguistic investigations of both contemporary and older languages, of archeological investigations and of remnants of the classical Celtic story that remain in stories still current in Celtic-speaking communities.  Most of these stories were submitted to writing centuries after their presumed beginnings.  We have no lengthy written documents from pre-Roman Celtic civilization.  A major reason for this fact is that the Celts thought it inappropriate to memorialize their ideas in written form.  It is not that they were illiterate but that they chose not to write down what we would call Aphilosophy,@ Ahistory,@ Alaw@ or Apolitical ideas.@  Celtic culture was maintained by a discipline based on knowledge that was intentionally oral rather than written.  There are some examples of Celtic writing in Greek or Roman scripts and some monuments (Arunes@) with Celtic script.[29]  But the latter mostly contain merely names and the former involve matters such as business and commercial transactions.  The carriers of Celtic knowledge, known generally as Adruids,@ maintained their knowledge through an extensive and complex education which required the memorization of vast numbers of lines, in what we would call Apoetry@ and Aprose.@  Much of this was developed in terms of Astories@ presumably telling the history of Celtic groups, including genealogies of many important people.  To take what we have of these stories as history would be a vain and pointless enterprise, but as I have suggested above, examining them can aid in understanding some basic institutions and ideals that apparently prevailed among the Celts in the past.   It is also important to remember that most of these stories were transcribed no earlier than the 8th century A.D. by Christian monks.

Our Sources for the Celtic Story

The Celts in Gaul were first conquered by the Romans through military force and were later assimilated into Christianity as a result of Roman influence.  For their views we have extremely little direct evidence.  There are some allegations that they had texts which were destroyed.  In any case their military leadership was destroyed by the Romans.  The carriers of Celtic knowledge, the druids, disappeared as their functions were eliminated in the context of new Roman structures that were ultimately developed in Roman Gaul.  There is reason to believe that some schools of druidic and Celtic knowledge continued on the fringes of Gallo-Roman institutions.[30] But the adoption of Latin and the creation of Latin schools were inconsistent with any long-standing significant groups of such institutions.  Writing, not oral knowledge, prevailed once the structures of power imposed first by the Roman Empire and later by Christianity justified and explained themselves in written documents.  Prior to Christianization of the Empire the Romans did not generally attempt to forcefully eliminate Celtic “religious practices,” preferring assimilation to abolition.  Indeed Caesar himself described the Celtic “gods” as the same as the pagan Roman gods but with different names.[31]  But with the arrival of Christianity in Gaul as the preferred Roman religion all of native Gallic “religious” practices were suppressed along with the “pagan” Roman ones with which they were associated.  In several cases Roman Catholic clerics cut down trees that early Christians saw as the center of the religious practices of the druids and other pagans.  So for the Gallic Celts our sources of information are largely limited to Greek, Roman or Christian accounts of their practices.  Those who destroyed major aspects of the culture, Roman Catholic clergy are, ironically those whose testimonies constitute our major source of knowledge of that culture.

Christian priests were instrumental in compiling “histories” of Gallic and Germanic peoples, both on the continent and in the British Isles. But their work was largely undertaken in the context of newly developing national groups that were to become the modern nations of Western Europe.  The work was neither merely a continuation of the ideas of the pre-Christian Europeans of classical Greek and Roman literature nor even simply a continuation of the texts of early Mediterranean Christians.  On the continent it was a new AGallo-Roman@ literature written usually by priests and clearly related to the development of the Roman Catholic Church.  Ultimately, as well, Germanic peoples became the elites in social systems that were Celtic by origin.  Even though it is possible to trace the beginnings of France and the French language to Celtic sources the dominant story relates it to the Germanic Franks who replaced the Romans in dominance over Celtic institutions and practices.

Celtic Sources in the British Isles

In the case of the Celts of the British Isles who were not completely overwhelmed by the Romans there was a longer survival of Celtic language and culture.  One set of stories, deals with the perhaps merely legendary King Arthur.  Ironically, given the role of Christianity in repressing many elements of Celtic culture, these stories deal with a Christianized response by British peoples of Celtic origin to invasion and domination by the “pagan” Germanic and Scandinavian peoples.  These people entered Britain mostly after Roman forces had been withdrawn in the early fifth century.  Christianity had been largely effaced from Britain with the Roman exodus but maintained itself most strongly in the areas where native British people called for aid from Christian Rome.  The Mabinogion are another similar source of information about Celtic peoples that is clearly based on the assumption that the people of Ireland and those of what we now call “Wales” are the same basic peoples.[32]

Irish Sources

On the other side of the Irish Sea Christianity arrived in Ireland after the Fall of the Roman Empire.  Irish Christianity under the inspiration of St. Patrick (who made large-scale conversions to Christianity in the fifth century) allowed, indeed encouraged, the documentation of indigenous stories by the clergy, thus providing us with some of the most important remaining Celtic stories from pre-Christian Ireland.  Perhaps some of these clergy had themselves been Celtic druids prior to conversion to Christianity and they surely had direct access to others who were, or had been, druids.  While Patrick demanded the elimination of some of the functions of druids, especially those directly associated with religious practices and sacrifices, some of their functions continued intact for several centuries.  Poetry, story-telling, history and genealogy were allowed and practiced by people other than priests.  These stories have been collected in a number of “cycles:”  The Fenian Cycles tell stories related to the mythical hero Finn Mac Cumhail;  The Ulster Cycle deals, among other things with the hero Cuchalainn,; The Mythological Cycle collects a number of stories about gods and the origins of the Irish; and the Cycle of Kings.   In addition there are a large number of “annals” that report on events (some of which may well be fictional) over long periods of Irish history.  Geoffrey Keating published a presumed history of Ireland in the Irish language in 1723 that attempts to present all of history from the time of Adam and Eve until his day.  His work, much of it hardly serious history, does draw together a number of Irish stories and legends into a rather fantastic history.[33]

Celtic Social Dynamism

Any effort to reconstruct a “Celtic story” must also face the reality that, in spite of what classical authors might have thought, Celtic society was hardly static.  On the contrary, as archeological evidence clearly suggests, it was a dynamic and changing social order with its own historical logic.  We can see, for example, that from largely small agricultural settlements of a few families that might have been typical of very early Celtic social systems, urbanized structures developed in the centuries before Roman conquest in Gaul.  The very dispute about the relationship between Hallstadt archeological remains and those of the La Tene period evidences this fact.  Hallstadt culture is said to have come out of late Bronze Age from over a thousand years before our era and to have developed into the Iron Age until around 450 B.C.E.  Archeological evidence within the Hallstadt culture and that marking differences between late Hallstadt culture and La Tène culture makes clear that technological changes associated with the development of new metallurgical techniques for the construction of tools and weapons were accompanied by social and political changes, including the development of major population centers.   Early settlement patterns included the development of rather small “hill forts.”  As mentioned above, later developments, including technological ones, led to the development of what can only be called urban centers known as “oppida” (singular=“oppidium”).  These were centers of manufacturing of various metal and ceramic objects, among others, of coin minting and of commerce.  They had populations of thousands of people.[34]  Archeological investigations yield large numbers of objects such as Roman wine jugs and ceramic Roman wine service from these sites.  These factors, among others, show an increasingly complex and hierarchical social and political structure developing over time among the continental Celts.    The oppida are also evidence of increasing contacts between the Mediterranean societies such as Rome and the need for social structures that could complement the more complex Roman ones in terms of the manufacture of goods in demand in Rome and commerce in items including raw materials such as hides and amber but also artistic handcrafts.  Change within Celtic society was substantial and continuing.  As Roman influence around the fringes of Celtic societies increased social and political changes occurred, especially in terms of centralization and the creation of more complex hierarchies than had existed earlier  Caesar came to Gaul in a time when major political changes were occurring.  For example, according to Hubert several of the monarchies in Gaul were becoming either aristocracies or “democratic monarchies” when Caesar conquered them.[35]  Some of the changes were undoubtedly due the increasing pressure of Rome but others were a result of social changes occurring within Celtic social orders themselves.

Of course such changes continued in later Celtic societies such as Ireland up until its ultimate domination by English forces as late as the sixteenth century.  These changes necessarily obscure our understanding of the early Celtic story.  A major problem for making sense of pre-Roman Celtic culture is that attempts to do so by referring to the later Irish developments must recognize that the continental systems were rather more developed than the “fringe areas” that were never conquered by the Romans.  It is clearly impossible to determine whether the changes characteristic of later Irish society had parallels in the earlier development of continental and southeastern English systems.  So our stories are necessarily not only incomplete but sometimes confusing when we attempt to relate the ideals they express to periods of Celtic development that span such a long time period and deal with social systems at different levels of development.

Celtic Social Structures

In spite of the problems presented by the changing dynamics of Celtic systems over time and the large number of small and separate groups that formed it and our lack of first-hand knowledge, we can make some general observations about Celtic social structures and the ideals with which they were associated.  It is necessary in this context to engage in a process of ahistorical abstraction and to partially ignore the dynamic elements that constitute the histories of actual Celtic groups.  But if we are not to simply ignore stories other than the dominant one associated with modern Western European and North American practices and understandings of those practices we must attempt to make sense of these alternatives even given the necessary limitations of our knowledge.  We can begin our task by noticing the basic social divisions that seem to have been characteristic of Celtic systems.

The Tuatha (Tribe)

Henri Hubert, in his classic, work on the Celts suggests that the basic social division among Celts consisted of “tribes, “clans” and families.”[36] The tribes, the tuatha, were understood as “people from the same milk,” a large family.  Often the family connection, in the sense of direct biological relationships was more mythical than real.  The cycle of origin stories in the Irish tradition, as well as other sources, makes this fact clear.  Each of the waves of people who come to Ireland is described as based on a single head plus those associated with that person by common parentage.  The Tútha de Danann who burn their ships when they land in Ireland thus break themselves from any past differences since they are all seen as having a single common ancestor; they form a single “people.”  Hubert calls the unit created in this manner, the tuath, “the first social unit that is sufficient in itself.”[37]  These units were usually headed by a king.  The king of the tuatha was associated with a structure of inferior kings who were heads of families or clans.  The role of families, even smaller than the extended tuatha, was in some ways clearly more important than any larger political relationship.  The tuatha may have been the smallest “self-sufficient” group but it was hardly what Aristotle would have called a “state.”  While kings might rule directly over a small domain of their own, they did not interfere in the internal affairs of other family or clan units within his larger realm.”  In this sense though the tuath may have been self sufficient it was not really what Aristotle would call a state or polis.  The king was not sovereign either in the sense that he normally could or would interfere in decisions made at a lower level or in the sense that he was a law-maker for the whole group. Nevertheless, though some of our classical sources, as well as modern ones, thought that all “barbarians” were stateless, it is far from an accurate understanding of Celtic society to think of it as lacking in political and legal organization.

The Clan

Hubert suggests that there is no juridical role for the clan that it beyond the role of the family.  Nevertheless there are groups of families within a tribe or tuath.  These consist of groups, often different lineages headed by  people who have occupied a royal position on the basis of different direct ancestors but who have some more distant common parentage.  Often, for example, there seem to have been consciousness of lines of descent through males as opposed to lines of descent through females.  Neither was privileged above the other as new leaders might come from a lineage defined in either way.  Foster parentage was an institution that served a similar function.  Children were often raised by the relatives of one of the parents in the relative’s own place of lodging even when the parent resided with the spouse.  Thus the connection between a grandparent or an aunt or uncle might well be seen as close or closer than the relationship between a parent and his or her offspring.  It was also common for a number of young people (the stories are usually, but not always, about males) who were reared under the tutelage and training of a druid.  It was common for this group of what we would call “students” to be as large as a hundred young people.  These people saw themselves as being like brothers, establishing another strong social bond outside of the direct parental one. These institutions were a way of fostering good relationships among families within the tribe, building relationships that could issue in important political alliances, and as a method for the education of young people by especially wise people.  In Mallories Morte de Arthur and some other versions of the stories of King Arthur, Merlin takes responsibility for the infant Arthur whose education he oversees while he is reared by a woman other than his mother.  The story continues that Arthur is only recognized as king when Merlin discloses his royal parentage as the son of Uther Pendragon, the earlier king.  But Arthur’s formation was not under the guidance of his father Uther.  Thus he manifested the ideals of Merlin rather than simply of his paternal parents.  This created a major break in political relations that was ultimately restructured in Arthur’s court of “knights of the round table.”  While the Arthurian legends, and other similar ones suggested that parentage was an important element in the constitution the ruling group of knights it was by no means the only element.  Some unrelated knights were to become part of the group, for example, by being adopted as an acolyte by another knight to whom they pledged loyalty and support for life.  Many of the complex plots lines of the Arthurian legends deal with conflicts that arise from different sources of loyalty in this respect.  Similarly in The Cattle Raid of Cooley Cuchlainn is portrayed as the student of a druid, Cathba who teaches the arts of war to a hundred students.  Those who studied with Cuchalainn were thus his brothers and in the story there is a great deal made of the mutual reluctance of Cuchalainn and his “brothers” to fight each other.  The institution of foster parentage thus served to unite groups of people within the tuath but who saw each other as having special relationships within it.  According to Hubert these members of these clans marked themselves by wearing similar colors. (560)  They functioned as units for many purposes, including creating military alliances and alliances in knightly tournaments in which victory increased the common status of those who shared in the sort of community involved in foster parentage and related phenomena.  It is notable that Lancelot, the lover of Queen Guinevere, often disguises himself in tournaments so that no one can identify who is fighting for the honor of the queen.

The Family

The Celtic family was an extended family, composed of people with four common parents.  Thus brothers, sisters, sons and daughters as well as cousins with their common grandparents formed a family.  The “house” of the family, however, included other people who were dependents of the primary family members, slaves and perhaps one or more druids.  This large family was the fundamental legal and political unit.  Wrongs committed by any member of the family were held to be the responsibility of the family as a whole.  Thus a legal judgment against any one member of the family could be assessed against the whole family or any member of it.  Land was tilled by family groups and such groups.  There was thus community of responsibility and rights in members of the same family groupings.  The Celtic society was a complex structure, a sort of web, of such families that together made up the tuatha.  Within the larger unit the groups mentioned in the previous paragraph were also important in creating a complex web of alliances and loyalties

Politics and Law

Celts did not live in a culture without law, even if there was no common sovereign who administered it.  There was, however, a substantial body of customary law which might be thought of as “private law” insofar as it was implemented in a system more like arbitration than like the formal structures of Roman law courts or of later Anglo-Saxon law as it ultimately developed in England.  What we would think of as “political leaders” did not rule in the sense of holding sovereign power in their hands, they were the heads of federations of warriors.  But they were not law makers or judges.  The law was largely customary and the functions that we understand as juridical were mostly performed by the druids, although in later phases, especially after Christianization, kings or lords sometimes made the judgments in accordance with the law.  ((Note as of January 3, 2007:  The section on law needs substantial expansion, taking into consideration especially the Ancient Laws of Ireland or “Brehon law.”  It may well belong in a different place in the text))

Celtic Sexual Equality

There was a great deal of equality, including between the sexes, in Celtic society.  Prior to Christianization Celtic women who possessed property, like property-owning males, were required to fulfill military duties.  Women were included as property owners and could transfer property according to the same rules as men.  Both the husband and wife brought wealth to the marriage and it became common property, although if the marriage did not last for a period such as five years, the property all went to the woman.  Divorce was available on the initiation of either party to the marriage.

Women were able to play all of the customary roles in Celtic culture although there some dispute about whether female druids could perform all of the druidic functions. Women served as queens, as military leaders and even as heads of families.  They were important decision-makers in the division of heritable property and had full legal rights as well as obligations. ((Note of January 12, 2004:  This section requires substantial expansion. Note as of 1/3/07: much of it is simply wrong!))

Functional Groups

In addition to the social divisions discussed above, Celtic society was marked by a fundamental division of people based on the functions that they performed.  Caesar alleges in his Commentaries that:

Throughout all Gaul there are two orders of those men who are of any rank and dignity: for the commonality is held almost in the condition of slaves, and dares to undertake nothing of itself, and is admitted to no deliberation. The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their tributes, or the oppression of the more powerful, give themselves up in vassalage to the nobles, who possess over them the same rights without exception as masters over their slaves” (6.13).

The other classes are the “druids” and the “knights.”  In spite of his simple description things were a bit more complex than he observed.  There were undoubtedly people whom we would consider to be in the position of vassals in Celtic societies and thse played a substantial role but they were hardly treated as slaves.  Even outside of these categories there were also many free people who functioned as artisans.  It is unreasonable, and inconsistent with other evidence, to believe that the complex work of this group which includes many fine pieces of art, much fine weaponry and other artifacts, was done by people treated as “slaves.”  The invention of war chariots and heavy plows drawn by two oxen would also seem to indicate a much more complex social order than Caesar observed.  The role of artisans and craftsmen was more important that he suggests.  In upper Gaul Caesar was aware mostly of how the social systems appeared in a time of dramatic stress brought on by his own military activities.  Le Roux and Guyunvarc’h say that Caesar is guilty of “abusive confusion of artisans and slaves.” (1986, 36).  In any case there is little evidence in other sources to justify his claim that the system was based on slavery.  It might well be accurate to describe a group of people engaged in agricultural labor under the leadership of their clan and family groupings as “unfree” but the nature of the relationship between these people and their “lords” is based on structures relating to land tenure on a contractual basis.  It would seem that these relationships were limited in time and that people often changed their loyalty from one lord to another.  They were thus hardly in the same position of Roman slaves.  There were, indeed, slaves in Celtic social orders but they were not fundamental to the social system[38] and were largely people who had been captured in combat. (2007 note: much of this is probably wrong!)

Law:  Knights and Druids, Not Priests and Kings

At first sight the division between “druids” and “knights” may appear familiar to us as the division between “priests” and “rulers.”  We might thus think that there were two separate sets of functions with “sacred” and “secular groupings.”  One structure would be “religious,” the other “political.”  But a closer analysis shows that among the Celts the division was hardly the same as we would normally understand it within the dominant Western European discourse.  Indeed, le Roux and Guyonvarc’h allege that there was no concept of the “sacred” and the “profane” because “the profane did not exist.”(146)  Without the “profane” a separate category of “sacred” makes no sense.  The problem of using modern and medieval distinctions between “priests” as sacred and political actors as profane is clear from considering what we would consider “the political” warrior class among whom there was a preeminent leader “the king” and his vassals and the relationship between that group and the druids.  Though the warriors were political actors so were the druids.

Celts as Warriors

The dominant picture of the Celts that is memorialized in the texts of ancient Greek and Roman authors, as well as that portrayed in many Celtic stories themselves, is that of a band of ferocious fighters, mounted on horseback or in chariots (they seem to have invented chariots), hurling javelins and other objects and then dismounting to engage in fierce hand-to-hand combat.  Normally, unlike Roman military, individual warriors on horseback or in chariots did not form a separate cavalry.  Caesar describes their mode of combat as follows:

Their mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot.  The charioteers in the mean time withdraw some little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops.  Thus they display in battle the speed of horse, [together with] the firmness of infantry; and by daily practice and exercise attain to such expertness that they are accustomed, even on a declining and steep place, to check their horses at full speed, and manage and turn them in an instant and run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, and thence betake themselves with the greatest celerity to their chariots again. (Commentaries  4.33)

Mounted warriors were accompanied by foot soldiers from their own social groups, many of them united to the mounted warrior by bonds of loyalty and obligation.  There are accounts of groups of Celtic warriors who fought naked, issuing frightening war cries and using large swords to dismember their enemies.[39]  It was also widely noted that the Celts fought with their families nearby.


Single Combat


Perhaps the strongest image of the Celtic warrior is that of an individual who challenges another to individual combat.   Indeed in the Celtic legends heroes are those who engage in such challenges.  The famous Cuchalainn (half man-part deity) of the Ulster Cycle stories fought off the advance of the five united kingdoms of Erin into Ulster for a whole winter season by himself.  The invasion was the result of a dispute between Queen, Medbe of Connaught and her husband King Ailill of Leinster about whether her wealth was greater than his (he had said “True is the saying, lady, ‘She is a well-off woman that is a rich man’s wife.'”  She alleged that she had been richer before she married him and had as much wealth as he did now.  He proved that he had a bull that was greater than any of hers.  So she set out to raid Ulster to seize its famous brown bull in order to be equal in possessions to her husband.)[40]   Since the men of Ulster were under some curse they could not fight off the united force of the rest of Ireland under winter was over.  Cuchulain (the dog of the blacksmith, named for an event in his heroic youth) fought alone.  He was first reported to have killed a hundred fighters each night by throwing stones into the enemy camp every evening.  He was asked to stop doing so but was only willing to agree to challenge the strongest man from the enemy to deadly combat each day and thus to impede the advance of the enemy day by day.  The epic is a tale of his exploits in defeating every champion sent to fight him.  Hardly a mere man, Cuchalain is said to have had the aid of “demons” and other supernatural beings.  This legend (clearly not an actual historical account) informs us of the nature of the god/hero champion on the Celts.  His challenge to single combat with a champion of the hostile group was a typical way of resolving disputes between armed groups.  The leader of each group would engage in one-on one combat with the leader of the other.  The leader who was defeated thus lost the fight for his whole group.  In the similar “Fenian Cycle” that tells the story of the “Mighty Finn Mac Cumaill” (“Finn McCool”), an Irish Celtic champion, it is said, after recounting a case of combat simply among the leaders of a group, that “since it is not usual for defense to be made after the fall of lords, when the strangers saw that their chiefs and their lords were fallen they suffered defeat, and betook themselves to utter flight”[41]   The single valiant warrior is the clear ideal of Celtic culture.  In at least one case in the beginning of Roman assaults on Gaul a Roman general agreed to such a contest but the practice was soon forbidden by the Romans who undoubtedly understood that their strength was in organization, not individual valor.  Ultimately the Celtic fighting strategy of massive concentrations of individual fighters confronting their enemies all at once was no match for the organized and disciplined methods of the Roman military.  The Romans fought for money and as members of well organized units rather than as masses of individual fighters.  However valiant the individual Celtic warriors might have been they could not withstand the organized and deliberate Roman forces.

Kings, Warriors and Champions

Although the “kings” in Celtic groups were, indeed, warrior leaders, the champions, the mightest of warriors, were not themselves necessarily kings.   Kings were normally elected from among a group of war leaders who represented a federation of clans organized either for a particular struggle or on a longer-term basis.   As late as sixteenth century Ireland Celtic clans clearly elected new leaders upon the death of old ones.[42]  Celtic kings and chieftains maintained their status within their group through an elaborate process of gift- giving and receiving which involved a complex set of customary rules of exchange.  Especially important in this respect was the division of the booty that resulted from the very common warfare among small groups.  What we would call “tax collection’ sometimes took the form of raids on neighboring people whose cattle (especially) would be taken from them and then distributed to members of the group responsible for the raid.  These raids were a method of maintaining systems of tribute that were themselves often the result of earlier military confrontation.  The king, or other lord responsible for the raiding party was responsible for division of what was taken.  Those who directly participated as armed warriors were among those who benefited but many other people were also included in the division.  Druids, who performed many functions that I will discuss below, or their later counterparts poets or historians also received some of the goods.  The distribution of the goods of the leader, however, was not only a matter for the time immediately after a raid.  Leaders maintained their influence through a complex and continuing pattern of giving and receiving of gifts.  A common Celtic story involves a king who promises a wonderful gift for a person who can perform some important feat (sometimes specified before hand and other times to be named after the deed is accomplished by the hero himself).  Finn MacCool, for example, enters into a challenge by a king whose attempts to build a castle are consistently foiled by someone burning down each day’s construction.  He offers his beautiful daugthers hand in marriage of his beautiful daughter and the kingdom upon the death of the king to anyone who could stop the burnings.  Those who try and fail are to be executed.  Finn succeeds in the task but asks for the lives of the condemned champions who have earlier failed to perform the feat.  When his request is granted he frees all the captives who become the famous “Fianna” or “Fenians” who were the mythical warrior guardians of Ireland and the protectors of the high king.  In another story a queen is said to have seduced a young retainer of the king to ask him for a gift without specifying what it might be.  The king, who had pledged before to give this young man any gift he asked for, however was, under a druidic ban not to part with a specific sword.  The young man asked for this sword whereupon the king left his position in shame.  The giving and receiving of gifts created bonds of obligation and loyalty for both giver and receiver and violating these bonds led to loss of status and sometimes to loss of one’s life.  Failure to give and receive gifts was to meet dishonor.  No one was dishonored could continue to be king, or to occupy any other important place in Celtic society, at least in theory.

As in later feudal structures, groups of fighters were often those bound to service to a “lord” to whom services were owed as a result of gifts received.  Though there were “kings” it appears that there were hardly “kingdoms” defined by sovereignty over any particular territory; they were kings of a particular group of people, not primarily of a particular geographical area.[43]  Warriors were important as leaders but they were not simply what we would think of as heads of states or governments.  Though, the king was a warrior it was not merely his valiant character in combat that gave him (or her) the royal position.  Thus while the son of a king was more likely to succeed him, than was someone else (though in some groups the king’s brothers were his presumed successors) he did obtain the position automatically.  Agreement of important personages within the group was necessary in order to vindicate any individual’s claim to rule as king.  Furthermore, even as a war leader the king was bound by the advice of his counsel.  In the Gallic wars one king, Ambiorix (the term rix is apparently the Celtic word for “king”) who had in the past been a loyal ally to the Romans in general, and to Caesar in particular, found himself at the head of a group that attacked Caeser’s winter quarters.  Caesar reports what he said as follows:

…he confessed, that for Caesar’s kindness toward him, he was very much indebted to him, inasmuch as by his aid he had been freed from a tribute which he had been accustomed to pay to the Aduatuci, his neighbors; and because his own son and the son of his brother had been sent back to him, whom, when sent in the number of hostages, the Aduatuci had detained among them in slavery and in chains; and that he had not done that which he had done in regard to the attacking of the camp, either by his own judgment or desire, but by the compulsion of his state; and that his government was of that nature, that the people had as much authority over him as he over the people.  To the state moreover the occasion of the war was this-that it could not withstand the sudden combination of the Gauls; that he could easily prove this from his own weakness, since he was not so little versed in affairs as to presume that with his forces he could conquer the Roman people; but that it was the common resolution of Gaul; that that day was appointed for the storming of all Caesar’s winter-quarters, in order that no legion should be able to come to the relief of another legion, that Gauls could not easily deny Gauls, especially when a measure seemed entered into for recovering their common freedom.” (5.27)

This quote is useful in demonstrating several points; the Celtic king is constrained by councils of his warriors that are mandatory for all young fighters; and there were constant factional disputes among the Celts themselves as well as occasional calls for all Celts to unite against their common enemy, in this case the Romans.

Kings and Lords in Council


The king here is represented as responsible to his people.  This responsibility was manifest in several ways, including the role of gatherings of important people in councils.  The king acted more or less as a father of the family, the tuatha..  The council, whether a formal or an informal body, also represented the family.  In war the king was the agent of a council of warriors.  But these warriors were not all simply individual champions, they were predominantly “lords” who had a body of retainers seen as his family, either literally or metaphorically.  The lords were not landlords.[44]  They were people to whom inferiors had duties and obligations, but who also, as member of the family, had rights.  The king was the representative of all of these units.

Selection and Rejection of the King

The general rule for the selection of a king, at least in theory, was election.  This election, however, took place in the context of traditions of familial or lineage relationships.  The choosing of kings itself was accomplished in councils within which it appears that any free person was allowed to participate in some form or other.  So the king was under substantial limits based on the necessity for him to draw the community together and to seek consensus.  There were also formal rules for the conduct of kings  In the first place they were not to speak in council before the druid and they were required to seek the permission of the druid for any prolonged absence from their territory.  They were also forbidden to do manual work or to raise hogs.  But, more fundamentally, the king was bound by the rules of honor and was not expected to be overly thrifty in the gifts that he exchanged with others.  He was hardly a single sovereign.  It is sometimes said that the king plus the druid was sovereign and that in this sense the “druid-king” couple was like a married pair in their mutual needs and obligations.  The council also shared sovereignty in our sense of the term.

If the king went beyond his proper limits either in terms of his substantive acts or in terms of the necessity of acting in common with the druid and with the council there were sanctions available by which people could attempt to keep his actions within bound.  It was always possible for his retainers to leave his service upon good cause, or what they considered to be good cause.  They could also, at least theoretically remove a king or ask him to remove himself for good cause.  In the old stories it was said that a king must be, among other things, physically perfect.  The Cath Maige Tuired or The Second Battle of Mag Tuired is a major story of the origins of Ireland that provides us with a sense of the ideal role of the king and the results of his not fulfilling that role.  Núadu the king of the “Tútha Dé Danann” had led his people in their invasion of the island after they had burned their ships to ensure that there would be no retreat from the new land.  He lost his hand in the battle in which they defeated the “Fir Bolg” who had occupied the island before the arrival of the newcomers.  (The Fir Bolg had presumably themselves left the island, were enslaved in Greece and had returned).  Since the loss of his hand made the king physically imperfect (in spite of the fact that he had an artificial silver hand made to replace the original one) a new king of Ireland had to be chosen.   The story goes:

There was contention regarding the sovereignty of the men of Ireland between the Túatha Dé and their wives, since Núadu was not eligible for kingship after his hand had been cut off.  They said that it would be appropriate for them to give the kingship to Bres the son of Elatha, to their own adopted son [see the discussion of “foster parentage above], and that giving him the kingship would knit the Fomorians’ alliance with them, since his father Elatha mac Delbaith was king of the Fomoire.  [his mother had conceived him when she met his father who arrived in a magical manner in Ireland][45]

Of course we can hardly determine from this mythical story what constituted the real foundation for removing a king (he eventually magically gets his hand and his kindgom back).  But from this story we can obtain some ideas about what a king was expected to do and what could lead to his loss of his position.

Bres, the new king soon found himself in disfavor with the people of Ireland, the Túatha Dé Danann.  Three Fomorian [46] kings made Ireland pay tribute to them and all of the warriors were made menial servants by Bres.  Thus Bres became unpopular among his people since he was unable to fulfill his obligations.  He made them no presents and could offer them no good hospitality.  As the story goes:

At that time, Bres held the sovereignty as it had been granted to him.  There was great murmuring against him among his maternal kinsmen the Túatha Dé, for their knives were not greased by him.  However frequently they might come, their breaths did not smell of ale; and they did not see their poets nor their bards nor their satirists nor their harpers nor their pipers nor their horn-blowers nor their jugglers nor their fools entertaining them in the household.  They did not go to contests of those pre-eminent in the arts, nor did they see their warriors proving their skill at arms before the king…(33)

He was not obtaining the tribute owed by tribes to his tribe and he was giving the treasures of the tribe in tribute to the Fomorians, rather than distributing them among the tribe itself.  He was not sponsoring competition among artisans or warriors through which they could obtain status.  As the story puts it “But neither service nor payment from the tribes continued; and the treasures of the tribe were not being given by the act of the whole tribe.” (34)  Under these circumstances the leaders of the Tútha Dé Danam went to Bres and demanded that he renounce the kingship.  He was no longer to be considered to be king, although he was granted seven years grace which he used to organize the Fomorians to unsuccessfully conquer Ireland.  The old king returned.  Before the defeat of the Fomorian forces Bres had asked for aid from their king, his father.  The following dialogue occurs:

‘What force brought you out of the land you ruled?’

Bres answered, ‘Nothing brought me except my own injustice and arrogance. I deprived them of their valuables and possessions and their own food.  Neither tribute nor payment was ever taken from them until now.’

‘That is bad,’ said his father. ‘Better their prosperity than their kingship.  Better their requests than their curses. Why then have you come?’ asked his father.

‘I have come to ask you for warriors,’ he said.  ‘I intend to take that land by force.’

‘You ought not to gain it by injustice if you do not gain it by justice,’ he said.(37)

The story provides us with some understanding of the ideal limitations on the role of the king.  It is a story, not history, but from it we can infer something about the Celtic view of politics.  A king rules only on the approval of his people and his selection by the leaders of the people.  He is only to hold office so long as he is able to keep others from imposing tribute on his people and can provide for the needs of his people.  Bres was unwilliing to function as host for the court where his retainers are to be entertained and provided with, for example, poetry.  Though it might at first seem odd that poetry is so important it is important to see that in the Celtic view poetry is the basis of the people’s knowledge of their history and their self-understanding.  One such poet had come to Bres asking him for food and shelter.  He gets only the most meager provisions after which he recites a poem, “the first satire”

Without food quickly on a dish,
Without cow’s milk on which a calf grows,
Without a man’s habitation after darkness remains,
Without paying a company of storytellers—let that be Bres’s condition.

The story continues:

Bres’s prosperity no longer exists,’ he said, and that was true. There was only blight on him from that hour; and that is the first satire that was made in Ireland.

The poet is accusing the king of not following the proper codes of honor, the most important thing a person must do is to be “honorable.”  The violation of codes of honor was always considered to be a basis for breaking old bonds of allegiance.  In these respects Celtic monarchy (if it is even proper to use the term) was a type of constitutional monarchy.  No king was able to simply command and expect obedience to arbitrary demands.  And no one could simply assume that inheritance would be the basis for determining who would occupy the royal position upon the death or removal of an existing king.  His father points out to him that kings ought not to obtain their position by force, unjustly  It is notable that Bres is unsuccessful in trying to get the kingship back through warfare.  The Túatha Dé Danann are aided by supernatural forces (they are themselves sometimes said to really be gods as much as humans) in repelling the illegitimate attack led by Bres, who came in dishonor.  Here we have a case where the story provides us with several features that ought to mark a king.  Since it is merely a story, not a real history, the story tellers are able to show that a king not only ought to follow certain rules but that if he does so it is appropriate for others, the poets, the lords, even the gods, to do something about it.  This is not to be taken for an empirical account but for an elaboration of the normative principles that appropriately guide the political conduct of various actors.  Though it is doubtful that the satire uttered by a poet would really lead to impoverishment of a king the ideal is expressed here, suggesting that one proper function of the poet is to call a king to account.  The principle is clear.  What can actually assure that it will be implemented is not.  Nevertheless poets (after all the story is being told by one), among others, can attempt to guide their conduct by reference to such a story.  These stories “have a moral” in the sense that they provide us with an understanding of what constitutes appropriate (morally good) conduct.

In the [his]tory that Caesar recounts in which the king seeks to excuse himself from attacks on the Romans the king, though clearly powerful in his own right, alleges that it is proper for him to be responsible to his troops.—“the people had as much power over him as he did over them.”  This is but one piece of evidenced that Caesar was aware of the fact that the king as warrior was responsible to a council of his warriors.  He describes how Indutiomarus, who was leading a coalition to attack the Romans “proclaims an armed council (this according to the custom of the Gauls in the commencement of war) at which, by a common law, all the youth were wont to assemble in arms, whoever of them comes last is killed in the sight of the whole assembly after being racked with every torture.” (5.56)

Thus from both old Irish stories and from classical accounts of Celtic behavior we can obtain a part of a story of the world as the Celts see it.  This story makes clear the paradigmatic basis for political legitimacy in Celtic society.  Just as the ruler properly acts in the interest of “the whole” for both Plato and Aristotle, the Celts hold that a good king will act only in concert with other legitimate political actors in determining what is to be done.

Factions” in Gaul

Caesar’s comments about what Ambiorix said is helpful not only in making clear that kings had limited powers but also in pointing out the fragmented character of political structures in Gaul.  The Roman strategy of creating coalitions with some groups against others was made possible by what Caesar calls “factional divisions” among the Celts.  This was hardly a peculiarity of the particular conditions in force when Caesar conquered upper Gaul.  On the contrary division among Celts based on loyalty within families, clans and warrior groups was a basic structure of Celtic society.  The relative importance of these different sizes of units changed over time and in relation to external circumstances.  It was the centralized unity that Caesar faced at the end of the process that was atypical.  As Peter Wells points out, it is a general rule that “contact between expansionary complex societies and smaller indigenous ones”” creates a situation in which “the latter groups typically change substantially as a result of the contact, frequently well before the contact.”(116)  One such change is often the creation of more centralized political structures than existed prior to such contacts.  Imperial administrators prefer consolidated groups such as tribes because their existence makes it possible for the imperial administrators to have stable relationships with the peoples whom they set out to rule.  As Wells says:

Such “tribal” units are easier for empires to administer than are the typical pre-imperial diverse societies, because they are usually accompanied by a leadership structure that involves a single potentate.   This individual can represent the tribe in dealings with the imperial state.  Thus a colonizing power establishes static boundaries on groups that had been fluid and not easily understandable or administrable.  Indigenous elite individuals play special roles in such tribes as mediators between the colonial power and the newly organized entities.  (117)

The Roman administration dealt with individuals in particular groups in a manner that is well described by Wells.  Caesar made alliances with some groups against others; using the tactic of “divide and conquer” that continues to be a major element of how newly hegemonic powers deal with those whom they control.  In the case of the Gallic Wars the immediate result, perhaps unexpected by Caesar, was a newly created cohesion among groups in Gaul to resist Roman advance.  Caesar uses the word “patriotism” although it is commonly said that the concept or “patria” did not exist for the Gauls whose loyalty was to their particular group.  Finally it is important to note that Ambiorix made no apologies for having earlier united with Caesar against his Gallic neighbors.  Thus Caesar’s strategy of “divide and conquer.”

But ultimately the defeat of the newly centralized confederation headed by the “high king” (to use a phrase common in Gaelic Ireland) Vercingetorix meant the elimination of indigenous centralized resistance.  Roman administration of Gaul ultimately replaced indigenous structures with the typical Roman “civitatus.”  Yet some elements of Celtic organizations remained and influenced the development of new kinds of towns that became central to later feudal structures.

Non-military Relations between Romans and Celts

Although historical writing tends to emphasize military activity within any social order much of daily life and both major and minor events do not involve violence, even in cultures such as the Celtic ones where warfare was a major element of intra-community life.  Emphasis on military contacts tells us relatively little even about the major contacts among members of different cultures in times of peace.  Archeology is a rich source of information in this respect.  The artifacts examined by archeologists include, of course, weapons and evidence of violent conflicts and combat.  But they also show us much about the productive life of a culture or social system.  Discovery of Roman artifacts in Celtic ruins and of Celtic artifacts in Roman ruins are evidence of substantial economic contact, much of which is undoubtedly based on peaceful relationships.  So trade and even mere exploration are major elements in making sense of the contacts that developed among the peoples of Europe as well as elsewhere.  While it is true that military conquest leads to economic opportunities it is also true that economic motive have much to do with the origins of military conflicts.  More extensive examination of the peaceful contacts among the Celts and between the Romans and the Celts could surely provide us with a more balanced view of “barbarian” peoples and their political ideas.  In this context it is important to consider the function of druids and of artisans in the Celtic social order and what we can learn from such a consideration about the Celtic sense of political life.

Politics beyond Violence

To think of political life as merely a matter of violent conflict is to miss many fundamental elements of how social systems are organized for the conduct of their affairs.  It is notable that in the classical Greco-Roman philosophy political organization is hardly defined by violence.  Thrasymachus view of justice as merely based on the force of the strongest is not the Greco-Roman ideal.  While our Celtic stories often highlight warfare and violence they also provide us with much information about peaceful activities.  If we are to make sense of Celtic social orders and a “Celtic story” it is essential to go beyond a description of those whose major activity involved warfare and to understand political practices that deal with non-military matters.  In fact in Celtic society much of what we would call “political” life and power involved major actors other than warriors, even if the “kings” were preeminently fighters and the heroes of many stories are military champions.


As noted above, the three major social functions upon which Celtic social order is divided are those of the warrior, the druid and the artisan.  It is common to assume that the druids (often called “priests”) should be seen as fundamentally religious actors on both the model of classical and of modern Western civilization.  Priests are those who perform “religious” functions.  But to see it this way is to miss several major elements of Celtic social organization and to misunderstand the proper foundation for any understanding of a “Celtic” story.  Making sense of the role of druids is fundamental in understanding that while, indeed, much of Celtic life was ordered within families, clans and tribes, at least one major institution was not solely local in its orientation.  Hubert describes druidism as a “pan Celtic institution,” that made a “single coherent people from a group of Celtic peoples,” as “the cement of Celtic society.” The druids performed many functions within particular social grouping, but also among and between them. (126)  Some sources suggest that there were annual, or occasional convocations of druids and that a chief druid was chosen at such meetings.  In any case it is clear that there was a hierarchy of druids, mostly divided by function.  Caesar says:

Over all these Druids one presides, who possesses supreme authority among them.  Upon his death, if any individual among the rest is pre-eminent in dignity, he succeeds; but, if there are many equal, the election is made by the suffrages of the Druids; sometimes they even contend for the presidency with arms.  These assemble at a fixed period of the year in a consecrated place in the territories of the Carnutes, which is reckoned the central region of the whole of Gaul.  Hither all, who have disputes, assemble from every part, and submit to their decrees and determinations.  This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it. (6.13)

Here, as elsewhere we cannot simply take what Caesar says as true.  But it is clear from some Celtic stories that there was a preeminent druid, at least within one tribal group, and that there could be contests for who was to replace such a person on his death.  How “preeminence” was to be measured is not detailed by Caesar.  What is clear is that druids were, above all, scholars and intellectuals as well as poets.  Presumably preeminence would be indicated by superior knowledge and wisdom.

There is one undoubtedly fictional account of a dispute between two druids each of whom thought that he should hold the position of “ollave” (ollof) or high druid of Leinster.  The chair was vacant because Adnae, who had occupied it died.  The story details a poetic argument between Adnae’s young son, Néde and Ferchertne an older man who  had been invested with the old poet’s robe by Queen Medbh and King, Alill.[47]   Ferchertne asks the younger man where he has come from.  The colloquy proceeds:


20. Not hard.(to say) from the heel of a sage,

21. from a confluence of wisdom,

22. from perfections of goodness,

23. from brightness of sunrise,

24. from the hazels of poetic art ,

25. from circuits of splendour,

26. out of which they measure truth according to excellences,

27. in which righteousness is taught,

28. in which falsehood sets,

29. in which colours are seen,

30. in which poems are freshened.

31. And thou, 0 my senior, whence hast thou come ?


32. Not hard (to say): along the columns of age,

33. along the streams of Galion (Leinster),

34. along the Sídhe [W. Stokes said “Elfmound”] of Nechtan’s wife,

35. along, the forearm of Nuada’s wife,

36. along the land of the sun (science),

37. along the dwelling of the moon,

38 . along the young one’s navel-string.

39. A question, O instructing lad, what is thy name ?

A dialogue between two poets, each showing his erudition, proceeds.  Each man is eminently polite to the other.  Before the dispute is resolved we are provided with a detailed set of ideals about the nature of Celtic (or here, at least Irish) society.  At the end the young man prophesies about what an ideal future would be and the older one provides a forecast of doom.  Ultimately the older man concedes.  Presumably the younger has won the poetic contest by demonstrating superior knowledge and wisdom, not by merely declaring that his father occupied the position before him.  It is notable that Ferchertne does not argue that he should hold the position simply because he had been invested with the ceremonial robe by the king and queen.  Rather he is content with an intellectual contest and declares the young man the winner because of what he says and how he says it.  As in the case of the details of an ideal king we do not have here an actual description of what occurs in contests about who should hold an office, but an idealized version of what should happen.  It is the “story” as those who compiled it saw it, of what a good social order is like and what role the druid would serve within it.[48]  The colloquy makes clear that there are a number of functions that a druid is to perform.

Multiple Roles of the Druids

While druids were, indeed priests they were also “scholars,” “poets” “historians,” “medical doctors,” “architects,” and “door-keepers” (people who controlled access to powerful people and places).  They were also magicians and soothsayers who were able, presumably, to perform magical feats.  As this list, drawn from Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h, should make clear, druids were major political actors in our sense of term.  Indeed they were always allowed to speak before a king and kings needed druidic permission to leave their home territories.

The Druid Ambassador

            There are numerous accounts of how druids served as peacemakers who, in fact, were responsible for stopping major battles.  Their role as ambassadors and major political actors is highlighted by the fact that according to Le Roux and Guyonarc’h, the only druid for whom we have a name on historical grounds is Diviciacus.[49] This is because Caesar discusses his role in some detail in the Gallic Wars.  But at first glance if one checks the source it is perplexing that Caesar does not call Diviciacus a druid, he treats him as political and military actor.  He details his relationships with Diviciacus who provides him major support in his complex interactions with the various groups in Gaul and describes him as a friend not only of Caesar himself, but of Rome.  Indeed Diviciacus himself at one point went to Rome to ask the Senate to ask for Roman support to free the Aedui from the group that Caesar describes as at that time “holding the sovereignty of all Gaul.”  Although he was not successful in his appeal to the Senate, Caesar later allied with him and accomplished this purpose.  (6.12) At one point Caesar refers to him as “a chief” of the Aedui.(1.16)  Yet Cicero who met Diviciacus while in Rome speaks of him as a druid, a man of knowledge who could foretell the future.  Caesar did not share Celtic understandings of functional differences and might well have failed to recognize that rather than being a “chief” of the Aeudi, he was actually a druid.  A close analysis of what Caesar says about him will reveal that the functions that he mostly performed with relation to Caesar were those of an ambassador.  Numerous stories tell us of the way in which druids serve as intermediaries between different groups and their rulers.  On occasion they are even said to have come between opposing military forces, carrying branches of mistletoe and created peace in which the opposing sides agreed to terms based on the druids’ suggestions.  Priests, of course, have served similar functions in other social orders, including our own but this is hardly the role that we have in mind when we think of clerics as performing “religious” functions.  It appears that it was a more common function for the druids.  Their status as individuals who were connected with others like themselves in other political units clearly facilitated this aspect of their activity.

Druid Magicians

They were also, as is more commonly known from our popular culture, magicians who could predict the future.  They were able, presumably, to make themselves invisible or to appear in quite different forms from their usual persona.  In some versions of the Arthurian legends, Merlin was able to make Uther Pendragon appear to the wife of a lord he had just killed as her husband and thus to conceive Arthur.  The price was that the child was to be given over to Merlin to be educated and raised by foster parents under Merlin’s direction.  This story, while surely not historically accurate, provides us with a number of clues to Celtic social orders.  There was, in fact, a custom of giving children over to foster families (often their family relations) to be reared and druids were charged with the education of the youth.  When young Arthur first draws the sword from the stone the older warriors do not accept him as the legitimate owner of the sword, and thus as king.  At least part of their argument was that he was not of “royal blood.”  The repeated drawing of the sword from the stone does not suffice until Merlin tells the story that legitimates Arthur as the son of Uther Pendragon.  Here again, the story is an indication of the fact that the druids had substantial political power.  They provided, even through their magic, legitimacy to some and not to others.

The Druid Historian and Geneologist

Without regard to the Arthurian story, or even whether Arthur should be considered Celtic, we have clear knowledge that one of the major functions of the druids was to provide genealogies in the form of historical accounts.  Insofar as family position was important the druid thus was an important person in providing legitimacy to the claims of those who would hold political power based on their ancestry and the deeds of their forebears.   As late as sixteenth century Ireland it is clear that political figures used poets or bards to establish their credentials in family disputes about who should accede to political power. [50]

Druid Teachers  ((not complete as of January 3, 2007)).

Druid Poets as Satirists who Remove Kings

Those who have the power of history and of the official story thus play important political roles.  Those who possess exclusive knowledge and who train others in that knowledge are able to provide a basis for political legitimacy and for challenging that legitimacy.  Indeed there is continuous reference in Celtic stories and in classical accounts of the role of druids to their function as “satirists.”  The druid as bard or poet who provides a negative story to an assembled crowd of powerful political actors was apparently often able to provide legitimacy to those who would unseat a powerful leader.  “Satire” can thus be much more than a joke.  The poems were taken seriously and poets were well rewarded for their work.  This is not to say that it was possible in practice to simply recite a satire and thus to unseat a king.  Druidic accounts of the rule of “good kings” suggest that during their reign everything was good, including the fertility of the soil.  Under “bad kings” everything failed; even to the extent that animals refused to reproduce.  These accounts could be put to use to call royal power into question.  But, of course, mere stories by themselves do not overthrow warrior-kings, although stories might be used to provide cover for those who can overthrow them.  Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h point out that in stories bad kings were assassinated by their enemies, drowned in a vat of beer or mead or were burned in their palaces.  But, as they say “in practice a king of Ireland never ‘restored’ (handed back) royal power: he lost it with his life: his ordinary end is violent death at the hand of his successor, younger and stronger than he.”[51]  Nevertheless bad stories can help the would-be successor to build alliances to make it possible to succeed in the murder of the king who has been satirized.

Druid Warriors

Although druids were exempt from compulsory military service they often engaged in combat.  Even more importantly, they were the official teachers, including the guardians of youth undergoing military training.  The story of Cuchalainn begins with his forcing himself into the school of the young man through demonstrating fighting skills superior to even all of the other combined.  The teacher must recognize Cuchalainn but he is also responsible for him and the other young warriors.  ((Incomplete as of January 13, 2004))

Druids and the Law

In a literate society the law is a written document which is, at least in principle, available to anyone.  In a social system with an oral tradition only those who have very specialized training have access to the laws, just as they have exclusive access to all “official” knowledge.  Though the philosopher may not be king in this circumstance s/he may well be as strong as a king.  There were customary laws in Celtic societies and they were largely known through the official stories of druids.  ((Incomplete as of January 13, 2004))

Celtic “Sacred Practices”

While it is important to underline the functions performed by druids that we would see as non religious it is also essential to understand them in terms of what we would call “sacred” or “religious” practices.  Surely they were seen as intermediaries between the gods and humans and they did perform sacrificial functions.  Although there is no evidence for the existence of druid altars druids apparently wore special garments and engaged in special rituals.  Unfortunately, though many would think of druids preeminently in terms of this role we have extremely little evidence about these matters.  We do know that they held that human souls are immortal, that there is a world of the living along a world of the dead and that perhaps souls are reborn into the world of the living.  Caesar and the Romans did not forcibly eliminate Celtic religious practices, instead seeing them as basically the same as Roman ones.  He did, however, forbid what he took to be the common practice of human sacrifice among the Celts.  Whether or not such sacrifice was common is not very well known but it is important to note the imperial justification for “civilizing” the barbarians by preventing them from continuing with “barbaric” practices like human sacrifice.  There is no doubt that humans were killed and their heads were displayed as trophies.  But Romans, too, killed many people, including large number of those whom they had defeated in combat.  Indeed it was a common practice to bring vanquished warriors to Rome, to parade them through the streets and then to execute them.  This was considered a normal part of the heroic spectacle with which conquering Roman leaders, especially emperors, were greeted on their return to Rome.  In Celtic society where there was often warfare among and between very small groups it is difficult to be sure of the extent to which what was perceived as ritual human sacrifice was something other than the killing of captives from warfare, whether on a large or small scale.  It is clear that sometimes people were executed for the commission of crimes and that druids played a role in this process.

With the arrival of Christianity both in Gaul and in the British Isles, including Ireland Celtic “sacrificial” practices were forbidden and even knowledge of what they might have been was considered heretical.  A genuine battle, including much violence, was used by those who established Christianity and repressed “pagan” religious practices.  So many of those sources that might aid us in making sense of this aspect of the work of druids is forever lost to us.  Irish Catholicism or it first real head, St. Patrick did not forbid all of the activities of druids.  Yet  Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h say that Patrick is responsible for our lack of knowledge of the doctrine, and ritual of Irish paganism.[52] The significance of this fact can be underlined by noting that an old Irish prayer states:

We revere St. Patrick, principle apostle of Ireland.  Admirable is his glorious name, it is a fire that baptizes nations.  He battled against the druids with a hard heart.  We evoke Patrick the chief of the apostles.  His judgment liberated us from condemnation and from the ugliness of the dark demons.

((Here ends the text incomplete as of January 13, 2004))

Individualism in the Celtic Story

Community in the Celtic Story

[1]  There were numerous movements of peoples throughout the Eur-Asian landmass.  It is been traditional to think about these movements as a series of invasions by one people after another who emerged from barbarity to conquer indigenous peoples.  But recent research clearly indicates that much of the ‘migration” discussed as the basic principle of European history is at least an overstatement of the reality.  As Peter Wells points out, in spite of what classical authors suggested, early migrations did involve the movement of people to look for new settlements but many people also returned to their places of origin.  Peter S. Wells The Barbarians Speak. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, 45-47.  None of this should be taken to suggest that there were never large-scale migrations by, among others, the Celts.  But there is also much evidence to link the peoples who are thought of as those whose area was “invaded” by others as themselves connected with the invaders by culture and language.  In the case of both the Celts and Germans the invaders as well as those who were invaded had long practiced agriculture.  They were not simple pastoral nomads, nor “wild” uncivilized peoples.  In some respects the role of the “Huns” is different from the others, especially in terms of the fact that the Goths were threatened by Hunnic invasion.  It is important to note, however, that even in this case the group led by Attila was not simply one ethnic group but a large confederation of peoples from different groups, including the Goths themselves.  Ultimately, of course, the Huns withdrew.

[2]  Atlas of the Celtic World. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.  23.

[3]  Henri Hubert  Les Celts Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 2001. 578-9.  The text in its present form was apparently produced in 1932.

[4]  There is some dispute in contemporary literature, especially in archeology, in which some argue that the peoples of Britain were not really Celts.  For a succinct summary of the issue see Christopher A. Snyder, The Britons  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003, 1-6.  Old Irish stories sometimes suggest that the “Milesians,” were the first Celts.  Yet even the names of the presumed earlier groups are of Celtic origin.  There is, however, some doubt that the early Neolithic monuments in Ireland and other parts of Britain are connected with later Celtic culture.

[5]Philosophumena” or “Refutation of all Heresies” available at:

[6] It is quite important to notice that the Eastern Roman Empire, now usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire continued long after the Western Empire.  Here both political and religious ideas took a different form than they did in Western Europe.

[7]   It is true that Aristotle, for example, makes some remarks about “barbarians” in his political works but he usually does so to dismiss them as somehow inferior to peoples who live in a polis, that is “political peoples.”  For Aristotle anyone who does not live in a polis is not political, and thus not really fully human..  Such a person does not have the capacity to fulfill the “nature of man” as political.  Thus, in The Politics, Aristotle makes several references to the structures of power among “the barbarians” whom he considers to be pre-political.  He, indeed, at least once, in Book VII, chapter 4 compares them to animals.  He clearly does not think of them as having a political philosophy that would be worth the consideration of Greeks.  His remarks are, at best, what we would call “anthropological.”  It is also important to see that the term “barbarians” referred as much to peoples to the east and south of  Greece, including Persians and Egyptians.  It is the Greek city-state, or polis that makes man “political” for Aristotle. In our contemporary terminology we would certainly not consider the Persians, the Egyptians or several other groups as “pre-political.”

[8]  Wells, 100.

[9] Francoise Le Roux and Christian-J. Guyonvarc’h, Les Druides .  Rennes, France: Ouest-France, 1986, 12.  The translation from French is mine.  Hereinafter cited as Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h, 1986.

[10]  It is interesting to note that although Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h recognize this point in many ways they don’t seem to be able to overcome the religious/political distinction in making sense of Celtic culture.  They insist that for Celts religion was superior to politics and that for Romans politics was superior to religion.  Indeed they argue that Celtic culture was ultimately submitted to Roman culture because these two views were incompatible and the Roman view prevailed on the basis of military force.  But this hardly makes sense of much of what happened in medieval European thought where it is at least a vast oversimplification, if not simply false, to allege that politics was seen as superior to religion.

[11]  Morvan Lebesque  Comment peurt-on Être Breton? (How Can One Be a Breton?)  Paris:: Éditions du Seuil, 1970  is an interesting analysis of how the loss of identity based on the suppression of one variety of Celtic identity serves a centralizing and “leveling” purpose for current political orders.

[12]   The present text is not the place to discuss the full implications of this sort of argument.  It must suffice here to note that the idea of a consistent “Western European” culture is also a construct that serves political and social purposes.  Indeed a large part of the motivation for the present work is to discuss the implications of this fact.  But extensive discussion of the issue must wait for a latter portion of the text.  Haywood ends his work with a consideration of “the modern Celts” which presents the issue well. 126ff.

[13]   The discussion here of the view that the idea of “the Celts” is a modern construct is largely drawn from Wells who discusses it in detail on pp. 111ff.  The most important work presenting this idea is Malcolm Chapman, The Celts: The Construction of a Myth.  New York: St. Martins, 1992.

[15]  For a website that suggests that understanding the Celts is fundamental to contemporary “anti-imperialist struggle see   The first few lines of the page read:

The basic global social struggle, the basic cultural context of resistance to and ravaging by imperialism, the basic tribal society in which the pattern of global Euroimperialism was set is that of the Celts. Everything that was done over the centuries to the “third world” by the European colonialists was first practiced against the Celtic peoples of Europe. The African slave trade, the genocide of Native Americans and the colonialist parasitism of India all had their precedents in Celtic Europe.

Celtic society was the first traditional, tribal, indigenous, non-imperialist obstacle to imperialism. Celtic culture was the primary alternative to imperialist culture. Celtic indigenous ties to the land were the first extensive impediment to the spread of imperialism.

The continuity between Celtic Europe and the third world of later centuries is clear in the language of the Greeks and Romans, who, sounding very much like the English speaking of the Irish, Scottish Highlanders or Welsh, described the Celtic peoples of Europe as primitive, savage, barbarian, bestial and insane. This also sounds remarkably like the European propaganda regarding Africans, Indians, Australians, etc.

As with the third world, the history we are given regarding the Celts is filtered by the interests of those in power, the imperialist forces bent on destroying them, from the second century BC in Gaul and Iberia to the nineteenth century AD in Ireland and Highland Scotland. The nature of the societies destroyed, and the atrocities committed against them in the process, and the motivation behind this millenia-old struggle are all hidden from the view of the public and the academic.

[16]  Any search for a “politically neutral” paradigm for making sense of political reality is necessarily fruitless.

[17]  Peter Beresford Ellis, The Celtic Empire:  New York: Carrol and Graf, 2001, p. 76.

[18]  La Civilisation Celtique  Rennes, France: Édilarge S.A.—Éditions Ouest-France, 1990. hereinafter cited as Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h, 1990.  The quoted text is my translation from the French original.

[19] Les Celtes.  Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 2001. 582.  The text in its present form was apparently produced in 1932. My translation from the French original.

[20]  Wells, 104.

[21]   Haywood, 40.

[22]   Haywood points out that the contemporary “Provence” is derived from the Latin provincial and that this is simply the term used to refer to this province by the Romans.

[23]  But see the discussion of this issue above.

[24]  He alleges that his work is a copy of an ancient text written in the old British language (presumably some variety of Celtic).

[25] There is, of course, little evidence to suggest that there stories are “true” in an historical sense.  They clearly are at least partially an attempt to legitimize peoples in Ireland by association with the peoples that became dominant both politically and intellectually largely through the Roman Catholic Church.

[26]  Available as an electronic text from, among other places,

Another useful Roman source that discusses these campaigns is Plutarch’s Lives which includes a chapter on Julius Caesar.  While agreeing with much of what Caesar himself says, Plutarch helps make clear how the campaigns in Gaul served Caesar’s interests in Rome.

[27] Peter Heather convincingly argues that the ultimate limitation of Roman expansion was not based on “an ethnic divide” where the Germanic peoples were simply militarily superior to the Celts but on a general principle that a system like that of Rome simply finds it not “worth conquering” areas in which there is no economic system that can provide a surplus that is useful to the conqueror.  As he puts it: “there is a general tendency for the frontiers of an empire based on arable agriculture to stabilize in an intermediate, part-arable part-pastoral zone, where the productive capacity of the local econom is not by itself sufficient to support the empire’s armies.” His other prime example is China.  The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 57.

[28]  The idea of Scots as separate people from the Irish arose only some time after Roman withdrawal.

[29]  Wells says that Latin was adopted by peoples that we can understand as Celtic by “the first half of the first century B.C.E.” (108).

[30]   It is interesting to note that nearly a millennium later when the Irish language was ultimately forbidden by the English it was largely preserved in “hedge row” schools.  Contemporary Irish nationalism has included a revival of the Irish language which is officially a language of state in the Republic of Ireland.

[31]  For an interesting discussion of the idea that there was single “pagan” religion see James J. O’Donnell “Demise of Paganism,” Traditio 35(1979) 45-88.  Available at:  He argues that “paganism” should not be seen as religion itself.  The very term is a fourth century creation of Christians.  As he puts it  “In summary, it is necessary to look upon the religious sociology of the fourth century with two separate (if often, and confusingly, overlapping) distinctions in mind: that between worshippers of Christ and worshippers of other gods; and that between men who could accept a plurality of worships and those who insisted on the validity of a single form of religious experience to the exclusion of all others.”  Thus the Roman “pagan” rulers were inclined to assimilate Celtic “religious” practices rather than to directly suppress them, unlike the latter Christian priests and emperors.  This is not to say that Celtic druidism would have survived without Christianity but that its stories might not have been so forcefully eliminated.

[32]  Available at:  Lady Charlotte Guest first translated them as a single text under this title in 1849.

[33]   A major repository of electronic versions of various Celtic texts is collected by the Corpus of Electronic Texts, CELT, maintained by the University College Cork in Ireland..  It is available at:  The “cycles” are discussed and posted at:

[34]   Wells, 52.

[35]  579.  Hubert is, of course, a very old source.  But on these fundamental details there seems to be little contemporary dispute.

[36]   Les Celtes.  The following material about social structures is largely drawn from this, perhaps somewhat dated, but classic text 556 ff.  The material was originally  The text in its present form was apparently produced in 1932.

[37]  Hubert, 34.

[38]  The only thing that might lead one to an alternative conclusion is the frequent reference to “female slaves” as compensation in legal cases.  Although Le Roux and Guyunvarc’h say that there is no word for “slave” in any Celtic language (1990, p 69), the point seems to be that there is not group of people who are slaves as a result of their parentage.  Thus slavery was a condition, usually resulting from being captured in conflict, of individuals, not of a whole class of people.  We may, thus, be safe to think of the “females slaves” as people captured in warfare and treated as a kind of booty.  There is little reason to believe, however, that the children of these people were also seen as slaves.

[39] Those who have seen moving pictures presumably representing combat with Native Americans can be forgiven for seeing substantial resemblances between these images and those presented by ancient authors discussing the Celts.  See the comments about such representations in note 5 to Chapter VI.  This helps us to see is that there is a sort of stereotype of “barbarians” that is consistent in dominant stories of “Western Civilization.”  The “other” is seen as large, forbidding, brave and “wild.”

[40]  “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” I.  It can be consulted at

[41] The Fenian Cycle “Deirdru of Dub Silab And the Hounds” It can be consulted at:

[42]    For a number of stories recorded by Irish annalists that detail examples of this phenomenon in a much later context, see Bernadette Cunningham and Raymond Gillespie  Stories from Gaelic Ireland   Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003.

[43]  Of course since particular groups of people often occupied the same territory over many years.  Therefore on a practical basis a king or lord did rule over a particular space.  But the theoretical basis of his rulership was the bond between people and groups of people, not between people and the space they occupied.

[44] In this respect their position was like that of the king as noted above.

[45] Elizabeth A. Gray (ed), First edition [One volume. 141 pp. Introduction 1-23, Text 24-72, Translation 25-73, Notes 74-114, Index to Notes 115f., Index of Persons 117-137, Index of Places 138-141.] Irish Texts Society Kildare (1982) . Irish Texts Society [Cumann na Sgríbheann Gaedhilge]. , No. LII, p 30.  Available at:

[46]  The Fomorians were another group, with whom the Tútha Dé Danann had allied to overthrow the Fir Bolg.

[47]  The colloquy can be viewed at:

[48]  It is notable that the story includes several references to Christian ideas and to the proper organization of a Christian church.  In this sense the story as we have it is, of course, hardly perfect evidence of what pre-Christian Celts might have thought.  Surely the monks who transcribed put in their own notions in this respect.

[49]  1986, 24.

[50]  Cunningham and Gillespie, provide a number of points to make this clear, especially in the story of the murder of an historian that they discuss in Chapter 3.

[51]   1990, p.72.

[52]  Le Roux and  Guyonvarc’h, 1986, p.69.  The prayer is translated from the French of Le Roux and Guyonvarc’h.

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First Try at Bread Baking

First try at the idea of what I would do when I retired. A bit late but not too bad

This was “Italian Bread” from an old cookbook to which I added a bit of olive oil, thus, according to the book, making it french bread. It was pretty good, though I didn’t roll the loaf together tightly enough. I hope I didn’t burn out the mixer by kneading it with the dough hook.
Next time I will try a whole grain bread adapted from a recipe used by Marilee that we used to use to make bread for back packing. Any recipe suggestions welcome.

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Raw Milk Yogurt

Today I am trying to make yogurt in the most simple manner I can think of. I am using, as usual, raw milk. But this time, unlike in earlier attempts inspired by Carlene Sanchez at xxxicanana’s webblog <a
I added about half a pint of raw cream to a quart of raw milk and about a quarter of a cup of old yogurt, half my old stuff and half Brown Cow cream on top. I heated it in a sterilized glass jar by simply emerging it in hot water from the tap at about 120 degrees. When the mixture reached 110 degrees i submerged the jar in very slightly warmer water in the bottom of a styrofoam cooler. I intend to let it sit for about 12 hours. From the recipes on read on the net I think I will get a very thin yogurt. If the enemies of raw milk are right perhaps my wife and I will get sick and maybe even die. But I doubt it. I will report on the results tomorrow if I am still alive and well.
Carlene's site:
(I can’t seem to figure out how to put the link here.)

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Kant (and Hegel) as Background for Marx

Kant and Hegel as Background to Marx:
Part I, Kant on Speculative Reason
The point here is to provide the student with a sense of the nature of the philosophical and political world within which Marx worked. To make sense of Marx*s solutions to theoretical and practical problems we must understand what he thought the nature of the problems was. To see Marx from the perspective of English empiricism is to fail to comprehend the radically different approach from which nineteenth century German philosophers worked. In this context it is important to recognize that in the nineteenth century Germany was in many ways the center of the philosophical world.
The major point of German philosophy, in distinction from British empiricism, is to see the world not as some finished whole whose laws can be described to make sense of the accidental conjunction of events that constitutes history, but ,as Engels says in describing Hegel’s view in which:
for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement. and development. From this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment—seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways, and to trace out the inner law running through all its apparently accidental phenomena­ (Socialism:Scientific and Utopian, as reproduced in Tucker, p.697.]
It is not correct to see this as simply different from the empiricist view-it was explicitly developed by Kant as a rejection of Hume*s philosophical arguments. The empiricist view with roots in Hobbes and Locke suggested that our sense impressions give us knowledge of the way the world is. Hume accepts this notion and points out that a thorough analysis of its implications shows that we cannot know many things that we have thought we could. Hume is remembered by Anglo-American thinkers largely for his argument that no series of “is” statements can logically produce an “ought conclusion. But his epistemological questioning of the foundations for our knowledge of cause and effect relations is often passed over. For Kant, Hume’s work produced a major revelation; he says that it was the challenge of David Hume that “first interrupted my dogmatic slumber” (Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in Friedrick, 45)
Thus it is essential to get a brief understanding of Hume’s argument.
Basically Hume claims that we can never observe necessary relations between two events. We can see that one billiard ball moves to a position next to another one and that the second one then moves as well. But we cannot observe that ball a “caused ball b to move.” There is nothing in our observations that can warrant us in alleging that future conjunctions of events will produce the same result. True to his own basically conservative cast Hume resolves all of this in terms of the notion of “conventions” that are useful fictions without foundation in knowledge of the underlying realities of events. Kant, however, moved in a fundamentally different direction.
Kant alleges that an understanding of Hume’s argument shows us that the whole project of philosophy has been misdirected. Hume has shown us that there is nothing that we can observe in the universe that will justify our claim that every event has a cause. Hume thinks that this casts doubt upon whether we know that indeed every event does have one. For Kant it is clear that we know that every event has a cause even though Hume is right to point out that we cannot obtain such knowledge from observation of the world. What this suggests is that we must find some other basic foundation for our knowledge than an examination of the character of the underlying noumenal structure of the universe. All that we can observe are phenomena and it is true that through such observation we can never obtain knowledge of necessary relations, only of contingent ones. Thus if philosophy is to proceed it must work from some other basis than an explication of the character of noumena (the underlying structures of the universe that are assumed by many philosophers to be somehow represented in phenomena). Thus Kant suggests that philosophy should take a step analogous to that taken by Galileo in his explanation of planetary motions. Just as Copernicus changed his focus from the earth as the center of the solar system, we should change our focus away from the universe in our explanations and instead focus on our minds themselves; we need a Copernican revolution in philosophy. As Kant puts it:

It has hitherto been assumed that our cognition must conform to the objects; but all
attempts to ascertain anything about these objects a priori, by means of conceptions, and thus to extend the range of our knowledge, have been rendered abortive by this assumption. Let us then make the experiment whether we may not be more successful in metaphysics, if we assume that the objects must conform to our cognition This appears, at all events, to accord better with the possibility of our gaining the end we have in view, that is to say, of arriving at the cognition of objects a priori, of determining something with respect to these objects, before they are given to us. We here propose to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to explain the celestial movements. When he found that he could make no progress by assuming that all the heavenly bodies revolved round the spectator, he reversed the process, and tried the experiment of assuming that the spectator revolved, while the stars remained at rest. We may make the same experiment with regard to the intuition of objects. If the intuition must conform to the nature of the objects, I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori. If, on the other hand, the object conforms to the nature of our faculty of intuition, I can then easily conceive the possibility of such an a priori knowledge. Now as I cannot rest in the mere intuitions, but–if they are to become cognitions–must refer them, as representations, to something, as object, and must determine the latter by means of the former, here again there are two courses open to me. Either, first, I may assume that the conceptions, by which I effect this determination, conform to the object–and in this case I am reduced to the same perplexity as before; or secondly, I may assume that the objects, or, which is the same thing, that experience, in which alone as given objects they are cognized, conform to my conceptions–and then I am at no loss how to proceed. For experience itself is a mode of cognition which requires understanding. Before objects, are given to me, that is, a priori, I must presuppose in myself laws of the understanding which are expressed in conceptions a priori. To these conceptions, then, all the objects of experience must necessarily conform. Now there are objects which reason thinks, and that necessarily, but which cannot be given in experience, or, at least, cannot be given so as reason thinks them. The attempt to think these objects will hereafter furnish an excellent test of the new method of thought which we have adopted, and which is based on the principle that we only cognize in things a priori that which we ourselves place in them. (From PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION, 1787 my p. 38 in Word edition from Gutenberg Project)

What philosophy can do is to make sense of how it is that we know things. It is not the job of philosophy to replace the sciences, either natural or social, but rather to explain how these sciences are possible. To offer such an explanation is not to describe the world but to make sense of the foundations of knowledge themselves.
Another way to put the point is to notice that traditionally it has been thought that philosophy was based on experience. Kant’s point is that metaphysics, as he often denominates the fundamental aspects of philosophy, cannot be based upon experience. It cannot be a result of experience, rather it is necessarily prior to experience, it is a priori. Having experience assumes some kind of basic knowledge, at least it assumes some basic concepts. Without the concept of space, for example, it would be impossible to experience any object; we could have no empirical evidence absent the concepts that make experience possible. As Kant puts it in The Critique of Pure Reason:
Such a priori origin is manifest in certain concepts, no less that in judgments. If we remove form our empirical concept of body, one by one, every feature in it which is empirical, the color, the hardness or softness, the weight, even the impenetrability, there still remains the space which the body (now entirely vanished) occupied, and this cannot be removed. Again, if we remove from our empirical concepts of any object, corporeal or incorporeal, all properties which experience has taught us, we yet cannot take away that property through which the object is thought as substance or as lingering in a substance (although this concept of substance is more determinate than that of an object in general). Owing, therefore, to the necessity with which this concept of substance forces itself upon us, we have no option save to admit that it has its seat in our faculty for a orion knowledge.
(Friedrich, p.2?)
The basis of philosophy is knowledge that is prior to experience, thus we cannot base philosophy on experience even though philosophy assumes the existence of experience and is dependent upon science to provide substantive knowledge of experience. We could not, live in a purely a priori world; are life is experience. Philosophy, however, can begin from examining the logic of our empirical knowledge to determine what is the case a priori. Kant alleges that is confusion about the relation between the a priori (that which precedes experience) and the a posteriori (that which comes only after experience) on the one hand, and analytic and synthetic judgments on the other hand.
A priori knowledge is what we know prior to experience, a posteriori knowledge is what we know as a result of experience. It appears that all a priori knowledge must be analytical; it can only be derived from definitions. An analytical argument is one in which we have no more knowledge in the predicate of a sentence than we do in the subject. It is rather odd to say that we can prove that bachelors are unmarried adults; we just know that it is true by definition that they are. To understand the concept of “bachelor” is to understand that it refers to an unmarried adult. Thus a priori arguments may not appear to be the basis for obtaining knowledge. Rather we seem to obtain knowledge through experience, we learn things and thus we can construct synthetic arguments; ones where the predicate contains information not included in the subject.
Kant argues that it is unsound to simply identify a priori arguments with analytical arguments; in fact , he alleges, there are examples of synthetic a priori statements. These are statements that contain more in their predicates than is included in the subject, but where the additional knowledge is not based on experience. Every event has a cause” is a statement of this kind. Hume*s problem is that he alleged that we could not know that there is a necessary connection between cause and effect simply because he recognized that we cannot base such knowledge on experience and it is obviously not a merely analytical claim. Hume is right that this is not an analytical claim and that it cannot be based on experience but he is not justified in doubting that the claim is true simply because of these logical points; what he should have done, and what Kant sets out to do, is to recognize that this is an example of a true statement that is at once synthetic and a priori. Once this has been recognized, Kant believes, the point of philosophy is to explain how it is the case, to “prove,” that it is true that every event has a cause.
It is as if Kant were saying “of course we know that every event has a cause, if we find a philosophical argument that leads us to doubt that we know this we should not question the knowledge, we should question the philosophical foundation from which the argument proceeds. It is essential to all explanation in the natural science, or at least Kant thinks that it is, to work on the assumption that every event has a cause. Thus our knowledge is dependent upon this foundation which we can understand to be a sound one. It is a characteristic of our minds, or perhaps more appropriately, of our knowledge, that every event has a cause. It is true, as Kant recognizes, that this does not mean that there is some world which lies behind our experiences themselves in which every event has a cause, that it is noumenally the case, even though for the purpose of making sense of phenomena at we must assume that it is as if it were.
Philosophy thus shows us what it is necessary to assume if our experience is to be explicable, it does not depend upon experience in the sense that a blank slate is written on, as Locke would have it, but it does depend on experience in the sense that whether or not philosophical argument is sound depends upon whether it can make sense of our experience and the knowledge that is derived from it. The Critique of Pure Reason, or as Kant once said he should have named it The Critiques of Pure Speculative Reason, has as its purpose the philosophical explication of the foundations of natural sciences and mathematics; here Kant alleges to provide us with the necessary metaphysical foundations of those sciences. A good deal of the book is taken up with a discussion of the “categories of the mind” which make our knowledge possible.
Yet when Kant comes to deal with moral philosophy he is faced with a fundamental problem. When he searches for the foundation of moral thought and action which would play the same role as the notion of causation in speculative reason, it turns out that this foundation is fundamentally distinct from the one he has developed in the first critique. It is clear that this type of philosophy is“practical.” “Practical reason” helps us to understand what we are to do, or more precisely how we can understand the foundations for our actual arguments by which to determine what to do. In this sense Kant’s position looks oddly like contemporary views of the division between the is and the ought.
The problem is that when we examine Kant’s moral philosophy is far from the naturalistic or relativistic foundations of most contemporary attitudes on. this question. We well see how this is the case as we develop his moral theory.
The point of moral philosophy is to attribute responsibility of subjects for their actions. To say that a person is a “good person” or that an act is a “good act” requires us to assume that the actor is responsible for the actions. Insofar as we see human activity (behavior) as caused we cannnot attribute responsibility to human beings. Thus, in order to make sense of our moral knowledge we must assume that actors are free to choose at least part of the time. This appears to be in contradiction with the principle of “speculative reason” that “every event has a cause.” But this is not a matter of what is true in the world. Rather it is an aspect of our knowledge. Two things that are true appear to contradict each other. But it is not really “things” that are in contradiction, it is our ideas. Kant’s solution to this apparent problem is to denote this theoretical situation as an “antinomy.” Where two propositions are in contradiction with each other this is not, to reiterate, a characteristic of the world. It is a characteristic of our knowledge. His “critical” approach to pure speculative reason has shown that it is limited in that it cannot provide us with knowledge of “things in themselves,” with noumena. But practical philosophy is not necessarily so limited. Although we can have no knowledge based on experience of the nature of human freedom, of the existence of God or of the nature of the human soul this does not mean that we can have no such knowledge in any sense. This knowledge is not possible for speculative reason but it may be possible for “practical reason.” We can resolve the contradiction that every event has a cause and yet that some actions are free by noting that each proposition refers to a different realm of discourse. Causal language belongs to our explanations of phenomena. It is a “necessary” concept in that without it we could not describe phenomena. Without it we would not be able to manipulate objects. But it is not the job of moral philosophy to describe phenomena, or to manipulate objects, rather it is to provide us with guidance for our conduct. In this sense moral knowledge has as its aim making sense of the activity of subjects. Just as we cannot simply give up on scientific or mathematical knowledge because there is no phenomenal way to observe that every event has a cause, we cannot simply give up on moral knowledge because it requires us to assume that some actions, at least, are to be seen as caused by a subject. Subjects cause events in this sense. But a causal explanation of subjects would not provide us with moral knowledge. We don’t look to philosophy to describe what moral actors do, we look to philosophy to help us understand how to regulate our own conduct in such a manner as to make sense of our moral evaluations. The function of philosophy is not to decide whether we have moral knowledge any more than it is to decide whether we have scientific knowledge. Rather it is to make sense to us of how we can have such knowledge; to develop the foundations of such knowledge. We overcome the antinomy by noting that it is a feature of our knowledge. We have two separate kinds of knowledge, each requires it own a priori foundations.
To attribute responsibility to actors requires us to assume that they are free agents. This is not to make a claim that freedom exists in the world. Rather it is to claim that freedom is a necessary concept for us to engage in practice, to do things, rather than simply to understand how things are done to us. Thus “freedom” is a necessary concept for all practical knowledge, for all knowledge that we can use to determine what to do. Speculative knowledge makes it possible to know how to do things, how to produce the effects that we desire to create. Moral knowledge helps us to decide how to act. This cannot, according to Kant, be based on any “end” which is determined for us. To say, for example, that the principle of morality is to obtain happiness, is to suggest that we are determined, not that we are free. This is because what will make us happy is determined by the world in which we live. Thus, though it may sometimes be appropriate to act in order to make ourselves happy, this cannot be the principle of morality. The principle of morality must be such that it can promote freedom.
But freedom is not merely to be without restraint. We are actually only free when we are capable of determining our actions. That is, we must be free to act. But are freedom to act must conform to some principles. This is because free action is necessarily action in accord with reason. Insofar as we merely “respond to the promptings of desire” as Rousseau puts it in The Social Contract, we are not free. So there must be a principle that binds us but that allows us to remain free. After lengthy consideration Kant argues that we must act based on reasons. Reasons are not merely individualized matters. What counts as a good reason for me to act must count as a good reason for any other person in the same circumstances. Thus we must act in accordance with “the categorical imperative.” This states that “we must act in accordance with a maxim that could be a universal rule.”
Note that this does not tell us what to do. It tells us what will count as a good reason for doing something. If the “maxim” (the reason) upon which we act is consistent with the categorical imperative we do what is morally acceptable. We apply a formal principle, the categorical imperative, to our proposed actions. The proposed action provides the content of our action which is to be judged by the extent to which the reason for it meets the formal principle of morality. This principle is stated in several different ways. Among them are:
We should act on a maxim such that it could be a universal law. (The purely formal, a priori principle of morality. It applies to any rational being.))
We should act on a maxim such that it could be a universal law of nature. (The ‘typified’ version of the first statement. This applies to humans as natural beings. In this respect we are merely partially rational beings. Our nature includes pursuit of happiness.)
Always treat persons as ends, not as means.
Act in such a way as to promote a kingdom of ends.
Act in such a way as to promote freedom.
Do your duty out of respect for duty.
Yet this formal principle presents problems for understanding our practical moral concerns. Note that what counts is not the consequences of our actions. Rather it is the “principle” of our actions, the reason for which we act. But while we can observe the consequences of people’s actions, we cannot observe the reasons for which they act. Two people may perform exactly the same actions, may do the same thing, but do so for very different reasons. Furthermore we may encounter obstacles to our actions so that we do not succeed in accomplishing what we intend to do. But for moral purposes it is the intention, not the result that counts. Yet no one but the actor can determine the reason for which anyone actually acts. So whether or not a person is a good person can only be determined by that person herself. Kant says that this is true in one realm of morality, the realm of “virtue.” So, note that we cannot require anyone to act for a particular reason. It is possible to force people to say, for example, that they “believe’ that Jesus saves us from our sins. But you can’t force them to actually believe it. Thus the law, in this sense, cannot enforce morality. It cannot force people to do things for the right reason. This is not simply to say that the law “ought” not to enforce morality. It is to say that it is logically impossible for it to do so. Judgment of persons is necessarily a matter for self judgment. Only the subject can judge the reasons for her actions. Thus moral philosophy provides guidance for individuals in determining what sort of actions are good ones. Individuals are free here in a double sense. On the one hand they are free to act in accordance with their own reasons; they cannot be forced to act morally. They are negatively free, that is free from coercion. On the other hand they are free to perform actions only insofar as they use reason to guide their conduct, they are positively free. They can act rightly.
Yet law is coercive. Just as it is essential to note the distinction between speculative and practical reason in order to overcome the antinomy between the principle of causation and the principle of freedom, we must distinguish between virtue and right (law) within moral philosophy to make sense of how coercion is inconsistent with the “Doctrine of Virtue” and Jurisprudence within the Metaphysics of Morals. The former deals with morality outside the realm of coercion, the latter with the moral foundation of legal coercion. How can we justify, that is make sense of, law as coercion? How can coercion promote freedom? Humans, as noted above, are only partially rational beings. They often act irrationally, that is in a manner inconsistent with morality. Sometimes when they do so they present obstacles to the freedom of others. There can be no good reason, given the categorical imperative, to diminish the freedom of others. So presenting obstacles to the freedom of others cannot be based on reason; it is inconsistent with the categorical imperative to do so. For some authority, the state, to remove obstacles to obstacles to freedom is not to limit, but to enlarge or promote freedom. Insofar as laws do this they are justified. In this sense the state, as for Rousseau, must reflect the will of the community if the law is to be just. The community must will its own freedom as well as the freedom of its members. To act in accordance with our common will, the law, is to act rationally. To act in opposition to this will is to act irrationally. Thus violating the law is to act irrationally, to act in opposition to one’s own will.
It is important to understand the status of this argument. Kant is not saying that all actual political systems in fact act justly, nor that every piece of legislation is consistent with the principle of law. He does argue that it is irrational to resist the sovereign authority since it is a manifestation of the common will. Thus revolution can never be rational. This is because it is irrational to resist the sovereign since the sovereign is a manifestation of our own will. To oppose our will to that of the sovereign is to oppose ourselves. Only if we understand this can we make sense of how the law and the state is rational. But if the individual must always obey the law what is the point of this philosophical argument?
Answering this question is facilitated by noticing two different aspects of Kant’s thought. The first is that he praised both the American and the French revolutions. This would seem to be in contradiction with his arguments that suggest that there can be right to revolution. But we must remember what philosophy can do for Kant, and thus what its limits are. Philosophy can only make clear the foundations of our substantive knowledge. It cannot tell us precisely what to do, it can only present us with formal principles of action. It is merely formal, it does not have any content in itself. To show how law is rational we must point out how it is the expression of a common will. If, in fact, some human situation is irrational it cannot be comprehended by philosophy. Thus there can be no unjust law, in principle. But there can be unjust actions that hide under the color of law. Historical actions can occur that are in a fundamental sense “irrational.” If human actions can eliminate this irrationality they will have restored rationality to the world. Similarly there can be no justification for revolution within the philosophy of law. But revolutions may, in fact, occur. It is not the job of philosophy to describe the ethical world, merely to portray it as rationa.l. If some event has the effect of maximizing freedom in the world we can praise it. But philosophy is not in the business of judging effects, it properly judges the principles of action. Retrospectively Kant can praise the American and French revolutions. Prospectively, within the philosophy of law and the state, he can provide no rational grounds for resisting legitimate political authority. For individuals to judge political authority, the sovereign, is to violate the principle of sovereignty itself. But in the world of only partially rational actors, the human world, people sometimes do this. It may be possible to judge their acts in some sense as good ones even though they violated the principle which makes law and political authority rational because the actual actors who presumably represented the idea of sovereignty did not in fact do so. A successful revolution produces a new sovereign in practice.
The second aspect of Kant’s thought that helps explain the point of the philosophy of law in spite of the idea that the individual must always obey the law is the matter of who is to receive guidance from legal philosophy. For Locke and for Rousseau it appears that individuals citizens are to receive guidance from political philosophy. An individual, for Locke, may judge that resistance is justified if civil government violates the right to property on a consistent basis. The individual is obligate to obey the law insofar as it is an expression of the “General Will” for Rousseau. So for both of these thinkers the social agreement (“compact” for Locke, “contract’ for Rouseau) While Kant discusses the idea of the social contract he argues that the origin of the state is none of the business of individual citizens and they must always obey the law, without regard to its origin. As he puts it

The origin of the supreme power is practically inscrutable by the people who are placed under its authority. In other words, the subject need not reason too curiously in regard to its origin in the practical relation, as if the right of the obedience due to it were to be doubted (jus controversum). For as the people, in order to be able to abjudicate with a title of right regarding the supreme power in the state, must be regarded as already united under one common legislative will, it cannot judge otherwise than as the present supreme head of the state (summus imperans) wills. The question has been raised as to whether an actual contract of subjection (pactum subjectionis civilis) originally preceded the civil government as a fact; or whether the power arose first, and the law only followed afterwards, or may have followed in this order. But such questions, as regards the people already actually living under the civil law, are either entirely aimless, or even fraught with subtle danger to the state. For, should the subject, after having dug down to the ultimate origin of the state, rise in opposition to the present ruling authority, he would expose himself as a citizen, according to the law and with full right, to be punished, destroyed, or outlawed. A law which is so holy and inviolable that it is practically a crime even to cast doubt upon it, or to suspend its operation for a moment, is represented of itself as necessarily derived from some supreme, unblameable lawgiver. And this is the meaning of the maxim, “All authority is from God”, which proposition does not express the historical foundation of the civil constitution, but an ideal principle of the practical reason. It may be otherwise rendered thus: “It is a duty to obey the law of the existing legislative power, be its origin what it may.”
So the social contract is not an idea of reason to be appealed to by individual citizens to determine whether the law is just. The point of the philosophy of law in this respect is not to provide criteria for obedience to law or for the possibility of disobedience. Law can meet disobedience only by coercion. It is, insofar as it make sense philosophically, an elaboration of the general will, of human reason applied to particular circumstances. Making sense of law philosophically requires us to understand it as rational, just as making sense of natural science requires us to understand it as rational. The law makes sense as the expression of the will of a united community. This cannot provide guidance outside of that community.
The philosophy of law, however, can provide practical guidance. It can show the legislator the criteria upon which rational law making can proceed just as the categorical imperative can show the individual how to assess proposed actions. If a proposed law is logically capable of being understood as the expression of the will of a community united by an original contract is can be a good law, it would be appropriate to adopt it as a matter of legislation. Again, philosophy is merely formal. It does not provide substantive guidance either to individuals as citizens or to legislators, it provides them with an understanding of the formal requirements of their actions. If someone with legislative power is contemplating enacting a particular statute s/he can decide whether it is consistent with the principle of law by asking whether it could be the expression of a united will. This is not an empirical question. The sovereign law maker does not merely reflect the will of individuals, s/he manifests that will. It is in determining what to do that a sovereign can use the criteria provided by the idea of the original contract. Once again the content is provided by what goes on in the world, the formal principles derive from theory.

Part II Hegel’s Critique of Formalism
Hegel’s philosophical system is often elaborated, especially by those who are interested in Marxism in terms of the abstract idea of “the dialectic.” Such an elaborations proceeds from the idea that history moves in dialectical terms. Each historical situations is taken to be a “thesis.” In each situation an “antithesis” arises in contradiction to the thesis. The contradiction between the two produces a “synthesis” which in turn breaks down into a thesis and an antithesis. While such a description of Hegel’s logic provides us with some illumination to offer such a description is to provide a formal understanding of logic. This looks like Kant’s idea of how form applies to content in human practice. Yet the most cursory glance at Hegel’s Science of Logic will show that he rejected the distinction between form and content. This should lead us to seek a more serious analysis than is provided by the simple tri-partite “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” analysis. Hegel says:
The hitherto accepted concept of logic rests upon the assumed separation of the content of knowledge and the form of knowledge (or truth and certainty)–a separation that is assumed once for all in ordinary consicousness. First, it is assumed that the material of knowledge is present in and for itself in the shape of a finished world apart from thinking, that thinking is in itself empty.

This is incomplete. What follows should be a lengthy quote from The Science of Logic
The lengthy quote:

In no science is the need to begin with the subject matter itself, without preliminary reflections, felt more strongly than in the science of logic. In every other science the subject matter and the scientific method are distinguished from each other; also the content does not make an absolute beginning but is dependent on other concepts and is connected on all sides with other material. These other sciences are, therefore, permitted to speak of their ground and its context and also of their method, only as premises taken for granted which, as forms of definitions and such-like presupposed as familiar and accepted, are to be applied straight-way, and also to employ the usual kind of reasoning for the establishment of their general concepts and fundamental determinations.
§ 34
Logic on the contrary, cannot presuppose any of these forms of reflection and laws of thinking, for these constitute part of its own content and have first to be established within the science. But not only the account of scientific method, but even the Notion itself of the science as such belongs to its content, and in fact constitutes its final result; what logic is cannot be stated beforehand, rather does this knowledge of what it is first emerge as the final outcome and consummation of the whole exposition. Similarly, it is essentially within the science that the subject matter of logic, namely, thinking or more specifically comprehensive thinking is considered; the Notion of logic has its genesis in the course of exposition and cannot therefore be premised. Consequently, what is premised in this Introduction is not intended, as it were, to establish the Notion of Logic or to justify its method scientifically in advance, but rather by the aid of some reasoned and historical explanations and reflections to make more accessible to ordinary thinking the point of view from which this science is to be considered.

§ 35

When logic is taken as the science of thinking in general, it is understood that this thinking constitutes the mere form of a cognition that logic abstracts from all content and that the so-called second constituent belonging to cognition, namely its matter, must come from somewhere else; and that since this matter is absolutely independent of logic, this latter can provide only the formal conditions of genuine cognition and cannot in its own self contain any real truth, not even be the pathway to real truth because just that which is essential in truth, its content, lies outside logic.®

§ 36

But in the first place, it is quite inept to say that logic abstracts from all content, that it teaches only the rules of thinking without any reference to what is thought or without being able to consider its nature. For as thinking and the rules of thinking are supposed to be the subject matter of logic, these directly constitute its peculiar content; in them, logic has that second constituent, a matter, about the nature of which it is concerned.

§ 37

But secondly, the conceptions on which the Notion of logic has rested hitherto have in part already been discarded, and for the rest, it is time that they disappeared entirely and that this science were grasped from a higher standpoint and received a completely changed shape.

§ 38

Hitherto, the Notion of logic has rested on the separation, presupposed once and for all in the ordinary consciousness, of the content of cognition and its form, or of truth and certainty. First, it is assumed that the material of knowing is present on its own account as a ready-made world apart from thought, that thinking on its own is empty and comes as an external form to the said material, fills itself with it and only thus acquires a content and so becomes real knowing.

§ 39

Further, these two constituents — for they are supposed to be related to each other as constituents, and cognition is compounded from them in a mechanical or at best chemical fashion — are appraised as follows: the object is regarded as something complete and finished on its own account, something which can entirely dispense with thought for its actuality, while thought on the other hand is regarded as defective because it has to complete itself with a material and moreover, as a pliable indeterminate form, has to adapt itself to its material. Truth is the agreement of thought with the object, and in order to bring about this agreement — for it does not exist on its own account — thinking is supposed to adapt and accommodate itself to the object.

§ 40

Thirdly, when the difference of matter and form, of object and thought is not left in that nebulous indeterminateness but is taken more definitely, then each is regarded as a sphere divorced from the other. Thinking therefore in its reception and formation of material does not go outside itself; its reception of the material and the conforming of itself to it remains a modification of its own self, it does not result in thought becoming the other of itself; and self-conscious determining moreover belongs only to thinking. In its relation to the object, therefore, thinking does not go out of itself to the object; this, as a thing-in-itself, remains a sheer beyond of thought.

§ 41

These views on the relation of subject and object to each other express the determinations which constitute the nature of our ordinary, phenomenal consciousness; but when these prejudices are carried out into the sphere of reason as if the same relation obtained there, as if this relation were something true in its own self, then they are errors — the refutation of which throughout every part of the spiritual and natural universe is philosophy, or rather, as they bar the entrance to philosophy, must be discarded at its portals.

§ 42 Ancient metaphysics had in this respect a higher conception of thinking than is current today. For it based itself on the fact that the knowledge of things obtained through thinking is alone what is really true in them, that is, things not in their immediacy but as first raised into the form of thought, as things thought. Thus this metaphysics believed that thinking (and its determinations) is not anything alien to the object, but rather is its essential nature, or that things and the thinking of them — our language too expresses their kinship — are explicitly in full agreement, thinking in its immanent determinations and the true nature of things forming one and the same content.

§ 43

But reflective understanding took possession of philosophy. We must know exactly what is meant by this expression which moreover is often used as a slogan; in general it stands for the understanding as abstracting, and hence as separating and remaining fixed in its separations. Directed against reason, it behaves as ordinary common sense and imposes its view that truth rests on sensuous reality, that thoughts are only thoughts, meaning that it is sense perception which first gives them filling and reality and that reason left to its own resources engenders only figments of the brain. In this self-renunciation on the part of reason, the Notion of truth is lost; it is limited to knowing only subjective truth, only phenomena, appearances, only something to which the nature of the object itself does not correspond: knowing has lapsed into opinion.

The point here is that Hegel is arguing that the very distinction between form and content that forms a fundamental element of Kant’s thought is a misconception. Or worse, it is something that does fundamental damage to philosophy. In fact, in Hegel’s view, the world and philosophy are both in a process of development in which they necessarily determine each other. In The Philosophy of Right he expresses this point in terms of law (“Recht”: meaning “right” but also more importantly for this purpose “law”):

Philosophy is, as I have already observed, an inquisition into the rational, and therefore the apprehension of the real and present. Hence it cannot be the exposition of a world beyond, which is merely a castle in the air, having no existence except in the error of a one-sided and empty formalism of thought. In the following treatise I have remarked that even Plato’s Republic, now regarded as the bye-word for an empty ideal, has grasped the essential nature of the ethical life of the Greeks. He knew that there was breaking in upon Greek life a deeper principle, which could directly manifest itself only as an unsatisfied longing and therefore as ruin. Moved by the same longing Plato had to seek help against it, but had to conceive of the help as coming down from above, and hoped at last to have found it in an external special form of Greek ethical life. He exhausted himself in contriving, how by means of this new society to stem the tide of ruin, but succeeded only in injuring more fatally its deeper motive, the free infinite personality. Yet he has proved himself to be a great mind because the very principle and central distinguishing feature of his idea is the pivot upon which the world-wide revolution then in process turned:

What is rational is real;
And what is real is rational.

Upon this conviction stand not philosophy only but even every unsophisticated consciousness. From it also proceeds the view now under contemplation that the spiritual universe is the natural. When reflection, feeling or whatever other form the subjective consciousness may assume, regards the present as vanity, and thinks itself to be beyond it and wiser, it finds itself in emptiness, and, as it has actuality only in the present, it is vanity throughout. Against the doctrine that the idea is a mere idea, figment or opinion, philosophy preserves the more profound view that nothing is real except the idea. Hence arises the effort to recognise in the temporal and transient the substance, which is immanent, and the eternal, which is present. The rational is synonymous with the idea, because in realising itself it passes into external existence. It thus appears in an endless wealth of forms, figures and phenomena. It wraps its kernel round with a robe of many colours, in which consciousness finds itself at home.

Through this varied husk the conception first of all penetrates, in order to touch the pulse, and then feel it throbbing in its external manifestations. To bring to order the endlessly varied relations, which constitute the outer appearance of the rational essence is not the task of philosophy. Such material is not suitable for it, and it can well abstain from giving good advice about these things. Plato could refrain from recommending to the nurses not to stand still with children, but always to dandle them in their arms. So could Fichte forbear to construe, as they say, the supervision of passports to such a point as to demand of all suspects that not only a description of them but also their photograph, should be inserted in the pass. Philosophy now exhibits no trace of such details. These superfine concerns it may neglect all the more safely, since it shows itself of the most liberal spirit in its attitude towards the endless mass of objects and circumstances. By such a course science will escape the hate which is visited upon a multitude of circumstances and institutions by the vanity of a better knowledge. In this hate bitterness of mind finds the greatest pleasure, as it can in no other way attain to a feeling of self-esteem.

This treatise, in so far as it contains a political science, is nothing more than an attempt to conceive of and present the state as in itself rational. As a philosophic writing, it must be on its guard against constructing a state as it ought to be. Philosophy cannot teach the state what it should be, but only how it, the ethical universe, is to be known.

Idou Podos, idou kai to pidima
Hic Rhodus, hic saltus. [NB]

To apprehend what is is the task of philosophy, because what is is reason. As for the individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes. If a theory transgresses its time, and builds up a world as it ought to be, it has an existence merely in the unstable element of opinion, which gives room to every wandering fancy.

With little change the above, saying would read:

Here is the rose, here dance

The barrier which stands between reason, as self-conscious Spirit, and reason as present reality, and does not permit spirit to find satisfaction in reality, is some abstraction, which is not free to be conceived. To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present, and to find delight in it, is a rational insight which implies reconciliation with reality. This reconciliation philosophy grants to those who have felt the inward demand to conceive clearly, to preserve subjective freedom while present in substantive reality, and yet thought possessing this freedom to stand not upon the particular and contingent, but upon what is and self-completed.

This also is the more concrete meaning of what was a moment ago more abstractly called the unity of form and content. Form in its most concrete significance is reason, as an intellectual apprehension which conceives its object. Content, again, is reason as the substantive essence of social order and nature. The conscious identity of form and content is the philosophical idea.

It is a self-assertion, which does honour to man, to recognise nothing in sentiment which is not justified by thought. This self-will is a feature of modern times, being indeed the peculiar principle of Protestantism. What was initiated by Luther as faith in feeling and the witness of the spirit, the more mature mind strives to apprehend in conception. In that way it seeks to free itself in the present, and so find there itself. It is a celebrated saying that a half philosophy leads away from God, while a true philosophy leads to God. (It is the same halfness, I may say in passing which regards knowledge as an approximation to truth.) This saying is applicable to the science of the state. Reason cannot content itself with a mere approximation, something which is neither cold not hot, and must be spewed out of the mouth. As little can it be contented with the cold scepticism that in this world of time things go badly, or at best only moderately well, and that we must keep the peace with reality, merely because there is nothing better to be had. Knowledge creates a much more vital peace.

Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

I rather like the Knox translation of this material but it is, I think copyprotected, unlike what I have produced here. The final line as Knox has it is “The owl of minerva takes its wings only at the falling of the dusk.” The significance of all of this is fundamentally that for Hegel Kant is wrong not only in separating form from content(as have all other philosophers it might seem) but also in denying that philosophy can have a normative function (“teaching us what the world should be”). Thus philosophy and history become merged. We cannot even tell what is to happen next. History itself, “embodied spirit,” determines what is to happen. As philosophers we can “only understand the world.”

As Hegel rejects Kant on fundamental grounds Marx rejects Hegel. As Marx says “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point, however is to change it.” (Eleventh Thesis on Fuerbach)  In order to do this Marx undertakes a fundamental critique of the philosophy of right from the point of view of Fuerbachian “materialism.”  This is not mere materialism in the common English sense of the term that might be connected with “empiricism.”  Marx’s materialism is “historical materialism.”  In this sense it retains the historical approach of Hegel but presumably moves away from the idealism of both Kant and Hegel.  It is only with this understanding that we can make sense of Marx as a philosopher, theorist and practical actor.  It will not do to wrest his work from the tradition of German thought though many of its critics have done so and continue to do so. It is in an effort to combat this error that I have undertaken this little piece.

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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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