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Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Sixth Century libertarian?

I have lately been immersing myself into sixth century Byzantine history, and I am currently reading The Secret History With Related Texts, by Prokopios (usually rendered in  English as "Procopius") translated by a brilliant classics professor at The Ohio State University named Anthony Kaldellis. Pretty far afield from reading Robert Anton Wilson, or so I thought.

But it turns out that Prokopios had a tolerant attitude toward religion, and belief in general, that is strikingly modern, and also reminiscent of RAW.

You'll no doubt remember the famous quote from RAW encapsulating his philosophical attitude: "My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything."

This quotation is related not just to Wilson's personal philosophy, but to his libertarianism. If you can't be sure of being right about anything, you can hardly be justified in coercing everyone else to behave, or believe, as you would like them to do.

Now, compare that RAW quote with a passage from Prokopios' The Wars of Justinian that is translated by Kaldellis:

I think it is insanely stupid to investigate the nature of God and ask what sort it is. For I do not believe that human beings have a sufficiently exact understanding of merely human things, far less of anything that bears on the nature of God. Therefore, I will keep a safe silence about these things, with the sole intention of not allowing honored teachings to be disbelieved. For I would say nothing else about God than that he is entirely good and holds everything within his power. But let each say about these things whatever he thinks he knows, where he is a priest or a layman. (5.3.5-9).

Allowing everyone to express his own opinion is a pretty bold statement in favor of freedom of thought. I also like the statement about how it is impossible to understand "merely human things." This is an even more remarkable quote if you know enough Byzantine history to grasp the context. Prokopios' Wars was published during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, who envisioned the empire as a kind of totalitarian theocracy. He enthusiastically persecuted pagans, Neoplatonist philosophers, heretics, homosexuals and anyone else who failed to meet his definition of a model citizen of the Roman Empire. It was also Justinian who shut down the school of philosophers in Athens that had existed for centuries.

My description of Prokopios as a "Sixth Century libertarian" in the headline of this post probably seems like a stretch, but Kaldellis, contrasting the political views of Prokopios and Justinian, remarks in the preface of the book, "We have here an archetypical conflict between a classical conservative-liberal on the one hand and a revolutionary ideologue on the other." (For those unfamiliar with libertarian terminology, a "classical liberal" is a kind of moderate, limited government libertarian. The folks at the Cato Institute essentially are classical liberals.)

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Robert Shea's historical novel All Things Are Lights, essential a kind of thematic prequel to ILLUMINATUS! The hero of the novel, Roland, is dragooned into King Louis' crusade against the Moslems in Egypt, although he secretly believes that all religions have about the same amount of truth and falsehood. This seemed like an anachronistically modern attitude when I read the book last year, but now I am not so sure.

Whether you buy my opinion that Prokopios was a kind of early libertarian, or at least an early civil libertarian, he was undoubtedly one of the first revisionist historians. His Wars of Justinian stuck mostly to the official line on Justinian's wars against the Persians, the Vandals and the Goths, but his Secret History (which could not be openly circulated when Prokopios was alive) offered a scathing, alternative view of Justinian and his tyranny.


michael said...

What a terrific article.

Any book with a title "Secret History" immediately catches my eye, and I was aware of this but had never read it. I've never even looked at it.

Your piece here makes me really want to read it, if only as fodder for some future second round of writing about heretical texts...

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Anonymous said...

who is the best modern libertarian thinker to pursue? it seems to me, being a british subject, that there is no real difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism, maybe I'm just massively ignorant

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Andrew, some libertarians are actual anarchists who don't want any government at all. Classical liberals believe in a limited government, although some want more government than others. My favorite "modern libertarian thinker" is Robert Anton Wilson, I guess. My favorite current libertarian journalist is Radley Balko. I read Reason's "Hit and Run" and the Cato Institute's blog as time allows. I follow Jesse Walker on Twitter. My favorite "libertarian thinkers" don't always toe the line, e.g. I like Will Wilkinson and Tyler Cowen.

Michael, "Secret History" is available in several translations, including a free one on Project Gutenberg. The Kaldellis book is worth hunting up.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

The problem with making a list is that as soon as one turns off the computer and gets up to make lunch, one thinks of someone that you meant to include. I follow Jeremy Weiland on Twitter (@jeremy6d); he is an example of a "left" libertarian, and his back and forths with Radley Balko illuminate his points in common with a mainstream libertarian, and where he differs. I also like the work done by the libertarians at

Anonymous said...

I would say I have a lot of influence from Popper, as some people on this site can probably tell, and some anarchist thinkers: michael albert, noam chomsky, but i think these are far from libertarian, by the sounds of it. I think from libertarians, it's only RAW, now that you mention he is a Libertarian.

Anonymous said...

I take it libertarianism is pretty much an american phenomenon, or do you know of any english libertarians? the problems I find with reading american politics, 1) I don't generally understand the disinctions that are made and 2) a lot of the political problems don't overlap with british ones. I see britian as generally more socialist and america more liberal. but they both at the moment are pretty much market oriented managerialists. if you understand me.

Jesse said...

There's a libertarian group in the UK called the Libertarian Alliance.

I don't think Albert calls himself an anarchist, incidentally. Chomsky is an odd mix of anarchist and social democrat.

Sean Gabb said...

I agree with Tom. Procopius would have been a happy man in the 2nd or 18th centuries. Instead, he had the misfortune to live in a world run by ranting lunatics.

This being said, I will try to be fair to Justinian. He was, from the outset, extravagant with the taxpayers’ money and a bigot. But he did begin with a full treasury and a commanding position on the Persian frontier. The Eastern part of the Empire had enjoyed a good fifth century, and there was a moral and strategic case for taking back the Western provinces. The Western collapse was recent enough for it still to be shocking for Roman citizens and for Rome itself to be under barbarian rule – barbarian rule which, in the case of Africa, was grossly oppressive. Africa was recovered with one battle. An uncertain part of Spain may have taken without that. Italy turned out to be harder, but could have been taken without great cost. Whether he also wanted Frankish Gaul and even Britain can’t be said. But Justinian had the will and apparently the means to reunite the Empire after one of its recurrent periods of disintegration.

What sent everything tits up was the first visitation of bubonic plague in 542. It may have killed off a third of the Mediterranean population. In particular, it ended Greek domination in Syria and Egypt. For a thousand years, Semites who came from the countryside to cities like Alexandria and Antioch and Damascus etc had been expected to make themselves into Greeks – and, more recently, Orthodox Greeks – before they could move up the social ladder. In one season, these Hellenised ruling classes were swept away, and hardly anyone after that felt the need to learn Greek. Except Islam wasn’t yet part of the mix, the settlement that became visible in the 630s was already present in the 540s.

Justinian can be blamed for not realising this. The last response he should have made was to centralise the Imperial State and to sharpen its fiscal and theological teeth. He can be blamed, because it is the duty of a ruler to see things as they are. He should have called off the war in Italy and struck a deal with the heretical Semites in Syria and Egypt. He could then have spent the last half of his reign staring down the equally shattered Persians and nursing the Empire back to some kind of health. Instead, he carried on regardless. Because of that, he presided over the collapse of the Ancient World.

I think Procopius realised this. He was himself a Hellenised Syrian, and knew how thin the crust of Greek had been outside the Home Provinces. He spent the best years of his life flattering a bankrupt megalomaniac, and it seems to have sent him mad.

In short, he’s a good read.