The Paradigm Story of “Western Political Thought”

Here is an excerpt from my manuscript The Story of Politics that details what I see as the way this “discipline” understands the basic history of political thought:

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.

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About bruce wright

Professor Emeritus of Political Science
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