Violence and Political Founding in Ancient Greece: Susan Collins

When we look out into the world we see
regimes which are crumbling, which are in civil war, which can’t come to the table.
We can’t bring about a consensual, contractual relationship among them. I
began looking at questions of political founding and what I was very much
interested in is what the ancients saw as the violence that’s involved in
political founding. Authors such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon they don’t see founding as coming about as a result of consent. The ancients rightly see the
true founding as the victory of one set of partisans. That’s a very different
view of founding and I think it gets at some of the dilemmas we have today when we see wars and revolutions and civil wars. How does one build a political
community out of that? How does one come to a citizenship which has a shared view
of justice, shared view of the common good? It also raises questions about our
own constitutionalism. It raises questions about what the real
distribution of power is. How we constitute a community. There has to be a
way in which the political community comes to a common life, a common good so that law isn’t seen as just the imposition of the stronger over the
weaker but rather the law achieves a common good for all of the citizens of
the community. This is a deep and urgent question for politics. Another part of
this project is a study of Sparta, classical Sparta. Sparta is considered,
both by ancient thinkers and by modern thinkers, as the fullest instantiation of
this idea of a regime. I look to ancient Sparta to try to understand first of all
the nature of a regime how one can fully legislate a life, a political order, and
then also, to see the strengths and weaknesses of Sparta as a regime. In what ways does human nature resist this kind of shaping? Ancient authors, mainly
Athenian authors, show that there were flaws in the Spartan citizen which tells us
something about the impossibility of fully shaping a citizen so that they are
wholly devoted to the common good. I really try to get my students to
understand that we see the world through 21st century American eyes and in order
to try to see the world more fully we have to understand our own biases and
prejudices and then we can begin to, I think, see the world through ancient eyes
but it also we look with new eyes upon our own world. Those moments in which you spark a student’s interest, where you see they make a connection, then I think you
are reminded about why it’s important to be what I would say is a kind of
custodian of these great conversations, of these important questions. The
ancients need to be made relevant for the concerns that we have today.

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