Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.03

Peter Murphy, Civic Justice from Greek Antiquity to the Modern World.   New York:  Humanity Books, 2001.  Pp. 350.  ISBN 1-57392-951-4.  $59.00.  

Reviewed by John Lewis, History and Political Science, Ashland University (
Word count: 3153 words

The Greek city, the author states, "embodied a particular (civic) conception of justice: justice as an equilibrium (isonomy) of contending powers and forces." This book "traces the passage of the civic idea of justice from the Classical World to the New World," considering this idea in relation to architecture, sculpture, the human body, philosophy and the cosmos, but always with the intent of illuminating its political meaning. The physical shape of the city and its public spaces are vital to this meaning. The scope and structure of this investigation stretches from archaic and classical Greece through republican and imperial Rome, the Renaissance, England and into the modern America. Chapters 1 through 4, pp. 15-121, deal with Greece and Rome; the remainder moves through history into the modern world. Methodologically the book is built primarily on secondary interpretations and not primary sources, a fact that the reader must consider when evaluating Murphy's often controversial selections and claims. To evaluate them requires a high level of knowledge by the reader. It is not a text for first-year students or laymen.

Murphy presents and develops a series of contrasts that are designed to illustrate the rise and fall of civic justice as he defines it. For example, the pre-Greek hierarchical social orders were replaced by Greek order as an equilibrium of contending forces. Within the Greek context, justice as conflict is opposed to justice as proportion, and freedom as welded to land became freedom as the ability to travel. The civic ideals of the Roman republican constitution clash with the hierarchical ideals of imperial and Christian patrimonies. Renaissance humanism embraces classical and Christian outlooks, an unstable union that pits builders of cities against commentators on texts. In revolutionary America the "moralizing and legalizing propensities" of the American Founders are distinguished from classical republican city-building. Murphy develops these contrasts on many levels, but the primary issue is always a "balance of forces" view versus some version of a "dominant power" view of political organization.

In many cases, objections must be raised to the hierarchy of importance that the author assigns to the factors he uses. He often selects the interpretation that he thinks is most important, states that interpretation as a given, and then develops his dialectical argument around that factor. But why, for instance, should the reader accept without evidence that "land pressure" in a "money economy" was central to the social crisis that arose in seventh-century Athens, despite the historical and conceptual problems surrounding this claim? Or, why are a few de-contextualized passages from American Founders sufficient to support the claim that passion was essential to the drafting of the US Constitution, despite a preponderance of unexamined evidence indicating the reliance of the Founders on reason? While preserving the overall structure of the book, this review will focus its criticisms on these two periods.

Murphy's 5 page introduction is a clear overview of the book's content and its structure. The rise and fall of the idea and practice of civic justice is presented chronologically and dialectically. The rise of Athens led to its destruction in war, which was followed by its incorporation into the Hellenistic empires. The Roman Republic expands; the idea of the city cannot sustain the expansion; the city-form withers as Rome collapses and the Latin West reverts to a patrimonial, agrarian feudal world. Such a method has the advantage of clarity, but it depends upon the author's premises and his interpretation of the evidence. Unfortunately, the book deals little with primary sources. The first chapter, for instance, cites only one such source -- two lines quoted without line numbers from a Homeric Hymn. In essence, this book is an interpretation of interpretations of the periods in question.

In Chapter 1, "Kallipolis -- the Beautiful City," Murphy deals with the transition of the Greeks from hierarchical clan-based societies based on force to cities in which political forces were balanced at a center. Reason understood in terms of limits served to create the balance of forces that defines Kallipolis. The ethos of guest friendship and the forming of colonies were vital to the idea that the civic ideal was movable; to become universal freedom had to shift from a concept rooted in land to one that allowed movement across "public" spaces. As always, Murphy considers the idea of "public" land and "public" construction, which he does not validate or define for the period in question, to be essential to "civic justice." This is a theme that reverberates throughout the book.

Murphy's use of sources can be criticized using an example. To support his idea of justice as a middle between forces, he maintains that wars in Greece were "a testing of customs, rites and laws of one city against another. The pre-classical Greeks fought for the law embodied in the civic hearth. Cities with similar laws rarely went to war with one another." Murphy here cites Paul Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern. But what Rahe actually says is "Cities with a common origin and extremely similar nomoi rarely went to war." Further, Rahe is in a classical rather than an archaic context, which is evident from his citing of Thucydides 7.57. Thucydides here analyzes who fought against whom in Sicily and why. He stresses how Athenians were accompanied both by Ionians and others who came as subjects, independent allies or mercenaries. Dorians might fight each other due to hatred or profits.1 Murphy drops the classical setting and applies the idea unproblematically to the archaic period, thus ignoring the historical context. He fails to indicate that Thucydides is actually discussing why people with similar origins and laws did fight each other. Murphy also ignores the factors of common origin, profit and compulsion, thus elevating one factor, laws, into primary importance without justification.

Chapter 2, "Metron -- the Common Measure," deals with Athens from Solon to Cleisthenes. To correct a corrupted order, cities such as Athens brought in lawgivers. Because the Athenians identified freedom with their land, they did not have the "safety valve of overseas settlement to release the pressure of land shortage." This land problem motivated Solon to establish a "corrective justice" that guaranteed freedom but was ultimately unable to provide an alternative to the "patriarchal landed economy." The tyrants who followed participated in the shift "from the patriarchal city to the city of citizens." But Cleisthenes was the major innovator who "offered a no longer divine but mathematical and geometrical (rational) image of justice." Isonomy was the first rational principle of balance that opposed the principle of domination. This geometric equality was reflected in Anaximander's cosmology, in Heraclitus's philosophy, in architecture, and in the new "public power" that set the terms for contestatory engagements.

Isonomia, Murphy maintains, is not equality before the law but rather a balancing of norms. "Each of the parts of the polis had its own nomos. The Isonomia was the constitutional ordering of all the nomoi." "Those who confront each other in public are not the same. The nomoi of their family, household, class or function in society sets them apart." "Yet, underlying such contestation was an awareness of limits, moderation and measure." Murphy here does not consider whether the idea of nomos existed in archaic Athens, whether this idea was the same as the nomos in the classical period, how exactly nomoi could conflict, what difference exists between a nomos and a particular claim, or whether the nomos here was not precisely the "underlying awareness of limits" that was needed to resolve conflicts.

Unfortunately Civic Justice too often attributes modern ideas to the ancient world without explaining their application. Consider the first sentence of this chapter: "The growth of the money economy in the Greek world during the seventh century stimulated the increasing social and economic weight of the demiourgoi, 'those who worked for the public'." Was there money, and an economy, in the archaic "Greek world"? Who "worked for the public?" Is it important that "demiourgos" is a very rare archaic term that denotes a craftsman and not a "public" servant? What, if any, archaic sense of the "public" existed at all? Assertions such as "the Athenians, guided by Solon, turned the care of orphans into a public responsibility" are stated as facts. Such claims require support, but none is offered.

Chapter 3, "Kosmopolis," takes Athens through its classical period into the Macedonian defeat. The archaic Athenians "were not a thalassocratic people," yet when land pressures threatened grain shortages at the end of the seventh century, they seized Sigeum to control the Black Sea grain trade. Solon urged the annexation of Salamis; the Pisistratids expanded the city cult and annexation strategy; Perikles later immortalized both. It is in this context that the idea of the isonomic regime enters "directly from Pythagorean sources and indirectly through Plato and Aristotle." Plato's connection of justice to the soul was vital to his understanding that moderation, not balanced conflict, was civic justice. To undercut the agonistic discourse in Athens Plato wanted to re-form the city. But the philosophers were too late; the Macedonians replaced the polis ideal with a patrimonial empire. The Greek civic ideal survived due to its "transportable nature" (its emancipation from the land) and due to the "institutionalization of knowledge in the Hellenistic library" that allowed the idea to spread through history.

In Chapters 4 through 8 Murphy takes the idea of civic justice from Rome through the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. The basic tension in Rome was between the public union (civitas) among citizens and hierarchical beliefs and practices. Citizens were connected both by moral ideals such as honestum and fides and by patrimonial means of distribution. The death of the Republic was a re-assertion of the hierarchical ordering of society. Rome underwent a three-centuries long "erosion of the civic order" into a decentralized patrimonialism that was recast in terms of medieval estates.

The collapse and revival of cities in the post-Roman world resulted from sea trade, the inadequacies of the Germanic patrimonial forms, the retreat of the Byzantine Empire, and Islam's grip on the Mediterranean. Christian urban centers became sanctuaries from the surrounding chaos, not crossroads of intercourse. Murphy concludes that "the revitalization of cities began with the loosening of Islamic power over the Mediterranean." But the Italian Renaissance cities developed a stronger civic life than the Germanic cities to the north. The fundamental conflict here is presented as Hellenistic-Roman ideals of cosmopolitanism (including the virtues of honestum and fides necessary to trade) versus the Christian values of "prudential caution, restraint, ascetical thrift." The result was a new kind of power, "civic power, derived from the collective agreements of the citizens of the commune," that displaced the patrimonial power of the nobles. This gave the Renaissance city its civic spirit.

Murphy's most extended treatment of any primary source is Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante exhibits powerful parallels to Cicero's eclecticism as well as to the Christian / Greek syntheses in the fourth century AD Neoplatonic revivals. The paradox of the Divine Comedy is in the Christian ideals on its surface versus the Roman virtues found beneath that surface. Dante is a confluence of Christian agape and Roman fides. There is a sharp divide between the Greeks' "point of intersection of counterpoised intellectual and corporeal shapes as they tested each other's limits in the central space of the city" and the "mystical union with the Monad" of Plotinus. The Greeks were concerned with setting limits through contestation; the Monad is infinite and formless. The tension between the limitless and the limited threatened to tear Italian Humanism apart. Murphy closely associates humanism with the balance of opposites in a civic center. He is skeptical of any city's ability to endure, given the ever-present possibility that powerful elements can ruin this balance. But the city can achieve immortality through enduring public monuments. From this materialistic perspective the important thing about Florence is the work of the Medicis and their artists to create these monuments.

Chapter 8, "The First Modernity," defines another attack on the civic ideal: the age of the baroque was the age of dunamis. Murphy argues that the classical concern for limits could co-exist only fitfully with unlimited expansion and progress. The dynamism of the age is reflected in baroque buildings, in a sense of movement rather than the "equipoise" of the Renaissance, and in political theories that legitimated the power of the state. Moderns were now born not with obligations but with rights; they had no telos, only a dunamis that was driven in a single direction. Murphy has developed several contrasts important to his view of reason and civic justice: limits rather than striving to advance; telos versus dunamis; stability versus progress; duties over rights.

Chapter 9, "Commonwealth and Contingency," maintains that the failure of royal power in seventeenth century England led to a re-assertion of the civic ethos. The antinomian ideals of the Puritans ended first in the dictatorship of Cromwell, who imposed order without form, and in the monarchy of William III. The heyday of the English baroque was expressed in the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren and the increasing bureaucracy of the English government. Earl Lord Shaftsbury challenged the moral, emotional and theological suppositions of the day by re-implanting a sense that human beings can follow nature in order to understand a larger harmonious order of things. In Murphy's view this is a return to true kosmopoiesis, the idea that "politics is the creation or ordering of the world." Ultimately, however, England was unable to follow this Ionian-Greek system of harmonic proportions, and it returned to the Augustan ideals of monarchy and empire. Murphy presents this as replacing reason with rationality by abandoning limits in favor of boundless growth. This view of reason remains characterized not by a straight line of advancement and progress, but by a circular equilibrium.

Chapter 10, "The Republican Empire," asserts that the American Revolution "was nourished by a peculiar amalgam of beliefs," especially about passion and asceticism. Murphy elevates a Puritan/religious view of the Revolution to a commanding position. Puritan asceticism as an anti-humanist ideal was Spartan and Catonian in conception; it led the Americans to reject both English taxation and public monuments in favor of institutional "moralizing and legalizing." "Because there are so many enthusiasms in the continental republic (the union of states), no one driving force can be strong or popular enough to persecute others or hold them in subjection indefinitely. Yet, also, none of the passionate movements of citizens of the republic leave behind lasting monuments or enduring works." Their state was a set of institutions, not a city. For inspiration Americans looked to the Roman Republic; but their continental-wide Republic necessarily changed those ideals. A republic in which farmers did not live in town could provide a non-class-based political framework, but it did not demand a "duty beyond duty" of its citizens, and did not provide "public things." In Civic Justice such public duties and buildings, not liberty and rights, define civic justice.

To Murphy, the American Founders, in particular John Adams, thought that "human action is ruled by the passions," not by reason; consequently "the operation of the Constitution was not the work of reason." To support this, Murphy elevates one problematic interpretation while omitting evidence for the central concern that American revolutionary thinkers placed in reason. But Adams, in a letter that Murphy cites, said something other than what Murphy claims. Adams criticized a person who sets himself to flattering a powerful man rather than upholding his principles: "that struggle which I believe always happens between virtue and ambition, when a man first commences a courtier. By a courtier, I mean one who applies himself to the passions and prejudices, the follies and vices of great men, in order to obtain their smiles, esteem, and patronage, and consequently their favors ..." Murphy first raises the approach that Adams was criticizing into Adams' own position, and then makes this position central to the American Revolution. It would be far more enlightening to engage with the American Founders about reason and the passions rather than to deny them reason based on de-contextualized citations and problematic secondary interpretations. Murphy's singling out of Jefferson as the only Founder concerned primarily with reason is profoundly misleading.

Murphy also claims that the American Republic lacked a "kosmopoietical conception of itself at birth." But, one wonders, does this reflect the views of the American Founders? In the first paragraph of the first Federalist Publius wrote that the people needed "to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."2 Their answer was to think about, debate, draft and implement a Constitution that dealt not with building great physical monuments by imposing public duties, but rather with building institutions to protect liberty. The Constitution serves as the fulcrum on which various political forces balance. This is why, as Murphy admits, no one force in America can persecute or subjugate others for long.

In Chapter 11 "The City Beautiful," Murphy presents the American Republic as conceived without res publicae, public things. "What a republic without the res publica promised was republican governance without civic ethos, and public institutions without public life." In this view the Americans attempted to split classical humanism from civic humanism by creating a civic ethos without public duties and city building. The American concern for "voluntary association was premised on the natural right of the individual to enter and exit an association." This implies "no center -- no public artifice -- that preceded or succeeded the volunteers, no objectivation that was greater than they." Again, it offers no "duty beyond duty." Murphy points out that Marx concluded that man could be free only when "real, individual man resumes the abstract citizen into himself, and becomes a species being in his empirical life." It is the American focus on the individual as a free agent that Murphy sets in opposition to his view of civic justice.

Ultimately Murphy's definition of reason, applied to the physical city as to architecture, leaves no room for the real telos of the American ideals, individual freedom. As long as cities are not under central planning and control they will appear to be chaotic. But what appears to be chaos is people acting to attain self-chosen goals; the Chrysler Building, illustrated in this volume, was such a goal. In the absence of planned cities, a planned economy and an ethos that subordinates the individual, Civic Justice is unable to see that limited government maintains the peras around the American agora. The American Founders did not leave great public monuments, but they left an idea, and a practice, that allowed for the creation of cities such as New York and the kind of prosperity that was inconceivable in the Greek, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance worlds.


1.   Paul Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1994), p.95.
2.   Federalist no. 1, in Hamilton, Jay and Madison, The Federalist (1787).

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