How Great a Scholar Was Judith Shklar?

June 23, 2019 Topic: History Region: Americas Tags: Judith SkhlarUtopiaPoliticsForeign PolicyGermany

How Great a Scholar Was Judith Shklar?

Utopian dreams that curdled into nightmares were a frequent theme and personal experience of Stalinism and Nazism infused Shklar's scholarship. She stands out for the wide range of her interests, literary and historical, enabling her to draw connections between authors separated by centuries and revolutions of thought.

There are cogent reasons to think that these difficult proofs would have transcended Crito’s mental reach. He is among the unphilosophical figures whom Socrates confounds in the “early dialogues” such as the religious fanatic Euthyphro or the naïve rhapsode Ion. They are foolish, but, in reading them, we come to realize that so are we in thinking we know things that, in any true sense of “know,” we don’t. This dialogue is a bit different from these others, which leaves Socrates’ interlocutors in a state of perplexity. Socrates must leave Crito with the positive conviction that he is right to obey Athenian law. To accomplish this, he recruits the Icritoaws, who provide specious but rhetorically effective arguments. Their authority overwhelms Crito. Shklar dissects the pseudo-arguments of the Laws with great skill and acumen but without even mentioning that they don’t derive from Socrates.

Was Socrates really an awful person? He goes out of his way to try and reason with Crito in ways he can comprehend. The considerations brought forth by the Laws are narrowly tailored to the life and habits of Socrates, such as the central argument of tacit consent: by remaining in Athens, Socrates has agreed to abide by all legal judgments. This is the famous “love us or leave us” proclamation. Crito buys it.

FRIENDSHIP FORMS a central theme in Shklar’s lectures. She probes how far friendship can override the obligations of citizenship and the defense of one’s country in her seventh lecture. She emphasizes that she uses the word “very expansively to cover family members as well as elective affinities,” an ironical allusion to Goethe’s novel, perhaps, in which those affinities didn’t work out very well. Her own gift for friendship is apparent in asseverating that “while most writers on friendship exclude spouses and other immediate family relations, there is no reason at all to do so.”

Cicero, whose essay Laelius de Amicitia is at the heart of her discussion, would have demurred. Friendship was for him an exclusively male preserve. Friendship between women were of zero interest to him. Following the Ides of March, Cicero enlists Laelius, a paragon of republican virtue from the golden age before the civil war. The occasion of Laelius’ encomium of amicitia is the death of his friend Scipio, another superlatively virtuous Roman who offers an implicit comparison between the tyrannical Caesar and an upright Scipio. The bond between Laelius and Scipio was perfectly compatible with patriotic devotion to the res publica. What especially engages Cicero’s interest and that of Shklar are the instances in which the private and public are at odds.

Unfortunately, her lack of interest in the essay as a drama and in its historical context renders her discussion less useful than it might have been. Friendship, contends Laelius, is incompatible with the policies pursued by a frequent target of Cicero’s vituperative rhetoric, Tiberius Gracchus. These were policies of agrarian reform bitterly opposed by members of the senatorial aristocracy and wealthy equestrians with whom Cicero had cast his lot. Cicero’s rather utopian aim was to force a union of interests, his cherished concordia ordinum. Caesar’s demise may have offered Cicero an opening for the resurrection of this scheme. In any case, Caesar’s amici (friends) might be detached from venerating his memory and enrolled in the republican column. The tug between the claims of friendship and country, the theme of Cicero’s dialogue, is beautifully illustrated by the letters exchanged between Cicero and Gaius Matius, whose devotion to Caesar never flags. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Matius gets the better of Cicero. He underscores Cicero’s argument that friendship must play second fiddle to the country’s interest, observing that it was anything but certain that Caesar’s assassination was in that interest. How right that turned out to be as republic gave way to principate with Cicero as one of the first victims. By introducing these letters, Shklar might have provided her auditors a chance to plumb an ethical dilemma.

ANOTHER DILEMMA concerning obligation that Shklar dwells upon is in Shakespeare’s Richard II. It centers upon “that of a ruler, an anointed king specifically, to his divine self and office, and what he owes himself.” Shklar is alluding to the thesis of Ernst Kantorowicz’s celebrated The King’s Two Bodies. In his first chapter, Kantorowicz examined the tragic downfall of Richard under the lens of the medieval doctrine that the king was unique among mortals, resembling Christ in possessing a divine along with a mortal body. His natural body may dissolve; his divine self is eternal. That gives a new twist to Richard’s self-pitying soliloquies: not only is he Christ’s anointed deputy, he is also in some sense a divine being. Kantorowicz himself did not point to a line in the play that explicitly refers to the two bodies. None of the rebels mentions it. That Richard, like Saul and David, is “the Lord’s anointed” and may not be overthrown except by the Lord is an insistent theme, but from anointment it does not follow that the anointed is blessed with a body—not a soul—that survives his natural one. Richard laments, “You have mistook me all this while/I live with bread like you, feel want/Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,/How can you say to me, I am a king?” It seems supererogatory to suppose with Shklar that Richard has in mind his two bodies. Rather, he has painfully won insight into his common humanity; Lear is in the offing.

Shklar goes on to observe that only the women in the play “feel ties of personal loyalty” and that the “lack of political friendship” on the part of the men is a sign that Shakespeare’s world is moving into a new and Machiavellian era. Divine right is on the way out. Power politics is in. But Bolingbroke’s rise had little of the deviousness about it that would be “Machiavellian.” The kingdom virtually fell into his lap. The play’s true interest rests in Richard’s response to his dethronement. The epithet “Machiavellian” should not be stretched to cover any act of sly and cruel ambition.

SHKLAR COMES to her own in the lectures devoted to modern times. She examines why Americans who are “...rather more loyal to their country than have [been] the citizens of other countries” regularly indulged in orgies of ferreting out disloyal subversives. In discussing Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, she strikes the appropriate balance between admiration for individual conscience with distaste for intense self-centeredness. Her intellectual prowess is also on display as she traverses the life and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that her writings continue to attract notice. Writing in July 2018 in Foreign Policy, for example, Jacob T. Levy declared that

in the wake of the political catastrophes of the 20th century, she saw more clearly than most what was truly important to the liberal political project. Without building a system or offering a blueprint for utopia, but also without retreating into anti-political disdain for the fallen world, she offered a theory rich with real political wisdom. That kind of wisdom has been neglected, and is needed, in the defense of liberal governance against authoritarianism today.

Indeed, Shklar’s work on obligation and the right of citizens to freedom of fear has acquired a fresh salience. It would be a pity if it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Her collection of essays offers a welcome, if necessarily incomplete, opportunity to revisit the urgent themes that she devoted her life to exploring and explaining.

Gunther Heilbrunn is a retired classicist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Image: Reuters