My research focuses on classical political philosophy and its fraught relationship to modern—especially liberal-democratic—political thought. My primary interests in this area concern the politics of ethical authority and the political psychology of lawfulness. The rule of law is widely held to be one of the greatest achievements of liberal democracy. But it is also an idea beset by paradox—for how can power be limited by law if law itself is the creature of power? If law ultimately originates with some of the very agents whom it would constrain, then won’t it reflect the advantage of those agents rather than a curb on their discretion? This problem is coeval with the rule of law and is widely discussed in the literature (Hutchinson & Monahan 1987, Waluchow 2014). Even so, few have turned to classical political thought for help in thinking it through. This is unfortunate because the dimensions of the problem that the classical theories emphasize are seldom discussed by modern scholars yet endure in modern societies. These pertain to the excellences of character needed to sustain lawfulness and observe political moderation. Laws cannot create and administer themselves. However much they might limit the prerogatives of office-holders, constitutions must permit them some discretionary powers, and these are easily abused if politicians are insufficiently respectful of the laws they are sworn to uphold. That is why the rule of law depends as much on the virtues of office-holders as on the institutions that constrain them. And the most sophisticated accounts of these virtues remain those formulated by the political philosophers of classical antiquity.
My doctoral dissertation remedies this gap in the existing literature by examining the relationship between the virtues of lawfulness and the politics of ethical authority as addressed in Plato’s Laws. Ethical authority exists where community members look willingly to some tradition and its representatives for ethical insight, for what it might mean to lead an excellent human life. I argue that such authority is indispensable to constitutional government, according to the logic of the Laws. This is so because the excellences of character on which the rule of law depends do not emerge spontaneously. Plato suggests that powerful currents in human nature incline human beings away from them; to most people, they must seem burdensome and arduous. To learn and practice these virtues therefore demands abjuring the appearance they typically take. Most citizens must look beyond their private judgment if they are to become skillful ethical agents. Insofar as political men insist on autonomous ethical judgment, Plato suggests that they will use it to rationalize their attraction to injustice. Each will acknowledge as a legitimate authority whatever conforms to his private inclinations, thus compromising the respect for laws that aim at the common advantage.
The high quality of my doctoral research has been recognized with numerous awards and fellowships, including the 2017-18 Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Program on Constitutional Government at Harvard, the 2016-17 Allan Bloom Memorial Postdoctoral Fellowship in Classical Political Thought at the University of Toronto, a Harry Bikakis Fellowship in Ancient Greek Law at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and a C. B. Macpherson Dissertation Fellowship, also at Toronto. This research builds upon, and has greatly deepened, my longstanding interest in classical political philosophy. It has also provided me with a very active research agenda in the history of political and legal thought. In addition to numerous conference presentations, I have published articles and book reviews in leading journals in my field, including History of Political Thought and Polis: the Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought, and am contributing chapters to Brill’s Companion to the Legacy of Greek Political Thought, edited by David Carter and Rachel Foxley, and to Classical Rationalism and the Politics of Europe, edited by Ann Ward. I have also published research in the Journal of Intellectual History & Political Thought and Public Policy & Governance Review, the latter of which was first runner-up for the 2011 Sylvia Ostry Prize, and am preparing several other manuscripts for publication, including a monograph based on my doctoral dissertation which is under review with the University of Pennsylvania Press.
My doctoral research contributes to several promising areas of inquiry. The project adds to the revisionist movement in Platonic studies that is shedding new light on Plato’s utopianism, challenging the enduring reading of Plato as an apologist of unlimited despotism. It also intervenes in the maturing sub-field of non-ideal theory. I have drawn upon this vein of my work in an article (Ballingall 2016) in which I argue that the Laws anticipates the general theory of second-best (Lipsey & Lancaster 1956-57) familiar to students of political economy and often used to illustrate the complexities of normative reasoning under non-ideal conditions (Heath 2013, 2014). Another contribution of this research arises from my reading of the Laws as a rehabilitation of reverence (aidōs, as well as sebas and eusebeia). In the epic and tragic genres of Greek literature, reverence is the virtue whose absence engenders tragic suffering. It is the capacity for showing due respect for what exceeds and circumscribes the human (Woodruff 2003, 2014). I argue that the Laws recasts this virtue as the root of ethical learning in all-too-human citizens. Political life depends on such learning, but the Laws shows how certain elements of human nature incline most of us away from it. To acquire and practice the virtues that are its fruit thus demands refusing the inclinations that are its bane, and it is reverence that supplies the needed impetus on Plato’s account. In taking this view, my dissertation establishes a new interpretation of civic virtue in Plato’s political and ethical thought. Interpreters typically identify this “image” of virtue with either an approximation of the philosopher (e.g. Hall 1981; Bobonich 1991, 2000, 2002, 2010; Cohen 1993) or a spirited attachment to kith and kin (e.g. T. Pangle 1976; 1988; Lutz 2013; L. Pangle, 2014, 212-46). I advance an alternative reading by locating the ground of the cardinal virtues in reverence, a “prosthetic” and that can and must precede them.
My next project, Lawfulness: A Classical Problem in Modern Politics, examines the seminal theories of modern constitutionalism through the lens of Plato’s theory of law. This project asks whether the former neglect the virtue on which lawfulness depends according to the latter and, if not, how they incorporate reverence without abandoning the distinctive commitments of modern constitutional government. To answer these questions, the project avails itself of the transhistorical approach of traditional political philosophy. This approach combines historical contextualism with close textual exegesis, but respects the self-understanding of philosophers who considered themselves to be plumbing problems that transcend their immediate historical situations. After years of languishing in the shadow of “historicist” and “philosophical” methods that either excluded the possibility of such problems or bracketed historical inquiry, the transhistorical approach is being revived as political theorists recognize anew the importance of the questions that it is needed to address (Frazer 2010).
The working hypothesis of this project is that modern constitutionalism would be incoherent were its mainstream interpreters correct. On this view, its philosophical progenitors conceive political orders that escape the need for soul-craft and ethical authority. I argue that this view is misleading. Through a careful interpretation of key texts in the tradition of modern constitutionalism, including Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Burke’s Reflections, the American Federalist, Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, I show that the tradition’s intellectual founders saw clearly that, without reverence and the authority it sustains, political liberty cannot long endure. Modern societies might replace austere civic virtue with “enlightened” self-interest, but they continue to rely on the cultivation of “essentially human capacities” (Macpherson 2012, 44-76), not all of which can be assimilated to so-called “liberal virtues” such as tolerance and individuality (cf. Hobhouse 1981, Salkever 1990). A polity whose citizens grow too shallow and selfish, for example, cannot sustain their allegiance and support, even if its citizens are otherwise model liberals. But if depth and altruism are for most people reliably acquired only by learning from role models and the ethical traditions with which they are associated, then modern societies neglect ethical authority at their peril. A vital question for such societies must be how to sustain ethical authority in the face of modernity’s permissiveness and commercialism, but without unduly compromising the liberty of the individual or arousing a destructive nativism. My future research elucidates the ways in which this question, though neglected in mainstream readings, is in fact at the very heart of modern political philosophy and its approach to the rule of law.