4 January 2017

From Plato to NATO - review

      I have spent some time reading through David Gress' From Plato to Nato. I was not very impressed by the book, but the exercise helped me reflect on the definition of liberalism and on the difference with respect to conservatism, so I took the opportunity to write a reaction (more than a review).

      Gress presents his whole interpretation as opposed to a "Grand Narrative" (GN) that has supposedly been very popular and that hides the true origins of Western civilization. His Introduction starts by:

      Liberty grew because it served the interests of power. [...] The key historical insight underlying this book is that liberty, and Western identity in general, are not primarily to be understood in the abstract, but as a set of practices and institutions that evolved, not from Greece, but from the synthesis of classical, Christian, and Germanic culture that took shape from the fifth to the eighth centuries A.D.

      This phrase summarizes not only the author's conclusions, but also his strategy of discourse: he switches before the history of ideas and that of events, favoring the latter but also resorting to the former when needed.

      The book does make a few interesting points (such as the role of Christianity in the development of Western civilization) but I was ultimately disappointed on several accounts, summarized below:  
      1. The work is more concerned with assigning praise or blame than with understanding the work of a certain author on its own terms and assessing its historical influence. The result is a completely lopsided presentation (see below).
      2. In particular, Gress defends a certain conception of liberty, which he labels "classical liberalism", but is in fact closer to what is currently termed "conservative liberalism", heavily relying on Burke (whom he would not call a conservative p.304) and on Tocqueville. He does not discuss other interpretations of liberalism and relevant concepts.
      3. For instance, Gress insists on the idea of liberty, but has no feeling for that of equality. This may be why, in a 600-page text, he manages to ignore (almost) completely authors or events where equality plays a crucial role:
        • There is no substantial discussion of Locke. 
        • He deals with the French Revolution in less than ten pages.
        • There is no mention of Saint-Simon or Comte, although he defends epistemological positivism as a source of objective knowledge (pp. 509-510).
        • Labels J. S. Mill as "founder of modern liberalism", but only refers to him once (p. 83), to discuss his allegiance to the Greek model (part of the GN).
        • Condemns John Rawls as illiberal, for his "egalitarian obsession" (p. 459). I am also uncomfortable with some of Rawls' artifices (in particular the veil of ignorance), but I wouldn't deny his importance as a political philosopher.
      4.  I was also bothered by a few other points:
        • Gress often inserts citations in the text, without setting them in context (and sometimes without properly sourcing them: the "carnivorous sheep" retort to Rousseau cited on page 302 belongs to Joseph de Maistre, but the reference is to a biography of Edmund Burke.) This makes some chapters look like patchwork, and some of the patches are very questionable.
        • His peremptory dismissal of man-made global warming did not age well.
        • Gress constantly relies on the GN and often refers back to it for correction (and sometimes for moral condemnation), which becomes cumbersome after a few hundred pages. Even the title is a catchy summary of the account he is trying to undermine, chosen for no particular reason (although it does rhyme.)

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