Cosmos [to] Commons: Systems and Sustainability in Classical Life and Thought

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Cosmos [to] Commons presents a genealogy of modern ideas about sustainability and complex systems through a series of case studies from Greek and Roman antiquity. It is a self-described work of “environmental philology” that probes the question of how ancient thought and experience might still speak to us today. The word “to” in the title is something of a double-entendre. On the one hand, it is meant to suggest the range of topics and scope of this inevitably multidisciplinary exploration. But the word also verbalizes a colon (:), which in mathematics and logic signifies a ratio. The ratio cosmos:commons represents several terms of relation: that of macrocosm to microcosm, for example; Nature to Culture; scientific and humanistic research and speculation to social institutions, lifestyles, and policy. But Cosmos to Commons posits something stronger—a homology—one that seeks to capture an implicit, cumulative argument of this study, namely that sustainable lifestyles and stable societies are realizable only in proportion to the degree we understand and treat the world as the complex system that it is.

CHS Project Description and Summary

Modern proponents of sustainability and systems science tend to present their ideas as new and innovative. To the extent that the new fields of complex systems and sustainability studies utilize new technologies and discoveries in their pursuits, they are indeed new, and important. However, the fundamental tenets of sustainability—living within limits, encouraging limits and stewardship of resources through education, social incentives and civic policies, while engaging in decision-making processes that treat persons and populations (human and non-human) as ends, not means—these are some of the hallmarks of ancient Greek culture and thought. As for systems—the proposition that phenomena are not discrete, isolated entities or events, but part of dynamic, self-organizing, relational wholes—this is precisely the philosophic undertaking of the Greek Presocratics, the poet Hesiod, the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes (in his political reorganization of Attica), and is certainly the premise that undergirds the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle, and, later, the Stoics and Epicureans.

In The Systems View of Life (2014) Capra & Luisi claim that “The view of living systems as self-organizing networks whose components are all interconnected and interdependent has been expressed repeatedly, in one way or another, throughout the history of philosophy and science.” The statement is true, but the demonstration of it for antiquity is totally lacking and desperately needed. In fact, the dictum so often invoked in complexity circles as an anticipation of one of its cornerstone doctrines that “the whole is something besides its parts” is twice cited by Capra & Luisi—two leading exponents of this field—with false attribution to Gestalt psychology, though the idea clearly harks back verbatim to Aristotle (Metaphysics 8.6). Aristotle’s closely related observation that “Nature is not a series of unconnected episodes, like a bad tragedy” (Metaphysics 14.3), which is never cited in this connection, hangs low from the branch, ripe for the picking, linking as it does two traditionally separate domains of inquiry, that of the humanities (i.e., literature, philosophy, history) and the hard sciences. My project forges links of just this kind among ostensibly disparate disciplines and ideas, attempts to bridge artificial divisions between science, the social sciences, and the humanities, and fills the lacuna in current discussions by tracing the trajectory of modern notions of systems and sustainability back to the Greeks and Romans.

As I try to tease out in the Introduction, I characterize the subject matter and approach of my book as “environmental philology.” I think I may have coined this phrase, which springs, obviously, from the better-established, more familiar labels “environmental philosophy,” or “environmental humanities.” By philology I mean simply the methods and materials that comprise the multidisciplinary field of Classics (Altertums-wissenschaft), which is the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature and culture in all its facets. Many ecologists and environmentalists find Western values (i.e., Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian) at fault for our current crisis and advocate for a shift to aboriginal or “Eastern” attitudes toward Nature. I’m all for Eastern and aboriginal values. What this study aims to reveal, however, is how rooted systems and sustainability thinking is in the so-called Western tradition. The Greeks and Romans have bequeathed to us both the enigma and its solution: Pre-industrialized, pre-digital, pre-capitalist, pre-reductionist, pre-postmodern—the ancients necessarily lived closer and with greater sensitivity to both the perils and prospects of their environments. As inheritors, yet mismanagers, of their legacy, we have much to re-learn from them.

The book is forthcoming from SUNY in a series in environmental philosophy and ethics. There are chapters in it on Greek myth and cult, the cosmologies of Anaximander and Heraclitus, Plato’s Republic, Cynic and Stoic philosophy and ethics, Roman agronomy and the working landscapes of Italy, and the Benedictine Rule. The chapter I completed at the CHS, “Mutual Coercion, Mutually Agreed Upon,” concerns Cleisthenes’s democratic reforms and reorganization of Attica in 508 BCE. The institutions of the Athenian direct democracy that Cleisthenes initiated were designed to spread knowledge and information broadly amongst its citizens. Ober argued this point forcefully in Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2008). In doing so he was developing ideas derived from economist F. A. Hayek, an early complexity theorist, who called it catallaxy, by which he meant that order in social institutions, as in markets, arises spontaneously by self-regulation and “mutual adjustment.” I argue that while that may be true to an extent, the corollary to this idea, that intervention in a system is inimical to that system’s success, does not follow. It certainly does not ring true of political life in historical Athens, which is marked by a notional, practical, and institutional respect for limits. Indeed, the idea of limit as an intervention or check on undue influence and excess is a common thread that runs through all of Cleisthenes’s democratic reforms. It is seen in the establishment of a judiciary and the guarantee of due process; in the imposition of procedural and institutional checks on individuals in government; and it is seen especially in Cleisthenes’s redrawing of the map of Attica by redistricting and by realigning the social affections and identities of the electorate. Insofar as Cleisthenes’s reforms impacted the livelihoods and lifestyles of all residents in Attica, one could justly say the limiting principle in his reform program was ecological in nature and in scope.

Expanding on the general approach taken by Lévêque & Vidal-Naquet in their landmark Clisthène l’Athénien (1964), I situate Cleisthenes’s reforms in a nexus of Presocratic (Pythagorean) thought about limit (πέρας) and about ideas that circulated at the time under the names of isonomy (ἰσονομία) and harmony (ἁρμονία). I also point out parallels between Cleisthenes and Pythagoras as “deutero-oecists,” i.e., second-founders of their cities (Croton and Athens respectively) who put such principles into practice. Ultimately, I align the Cleisthenic reforms and the classical Athenian democracy less with Hayek’s ideas about spontaneous order and knowledge-sharing in society than with Garrett Hardin’s ideas, articulated in his widely-read essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), about managing common pool resources and incentivizing social responsibility by “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon”—a process and principle that is based on a robust recognition of limits. Translating these ideas to our contemporary situation, I argue that, under the current paradigm of unlimited growth, in a world of finite resources free markets will eventually make conditions conducive to freedom impossible. Limits, in other words, are all the more necessary on a global scale today in the face of gross asymmetries in economic power. The ancient Athenians, I suggest, newly freed from political tyranny and the social upheaval of 508, recognized the intrinsic value of limits and restraint and built them into the structures of democratic life.

Sample Bibliography (for the Cleisthenes chapter only)

Blok, Josine. 2017. Citizenship in Classical Athens. Cambridge University Press.

Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162:1243-1248.

Hayek, F. A. 1945. “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Repr. 2014. The Market and Other Orders, ed. Bruce Caldwell. University of Chicago.

———. 1964. “The Theory of Complex Phenomena.” Repr. 2014. The Market and Other Orders, ed. Bruce Caldwell. University of Chicago Press.

Lévêque, Pierre, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. 1964. Clisthène l’Athénien. Les Belles Lettres; expanded English version: Cleisthenes the AthenianAn Essay on the Representation of Space and Time in Greek Political Thought from the End of the Sixth Century to the Death of Plato. Trans. David Ames Curtis, Humanity Books, 1996.

Manville, Brook. 1990. The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens. Princeton University Press.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth. Universe Books. Repr. 2004. Ed. Chelsea Green.

Ober, Josiah. 2008. Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton University Press.

———. 2015. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press.

Rowett, Catherine. 2014. “The Pythagorean Society and Politics.” In A History of Pythagoreanism, ed Carl A. Huffman, 112-130. Cambridge University Press.

Seaford, Richard. 2004. Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2012. Cosmology and the Polis: The Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus. Cambridge University Press.

Vlastos, Gregory. 1953. “Isonomia.” American Journal of Philology 74.4:337-366.

Zimmern, Alfred. 1956. The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth-Century Athens. 4th edition. The Modern Library.