Preservation, Conversion, and Innovation: The Evaluation of Political Novelty from Plato to Machiavelli
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CitationPappin, Gladden John. 2012. Preservation, Conversion, and Innovation: The Evaluation of Political Novelty from Plato to Machiavelli. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractA premier distinction of liberal democracy is its praise of novelty and change, in the form of technological innovations and new expressions of personal liberty. To understand and critique our dedication to innovation, I study classical, medieval and early modern views on what the most important changes are for human beings—the changes of political regime and the changes of the soul. The philosophers from Plato to Machiavelli studied the desirability and possibility of political preservation, the effects of conversion and its relationship to notions of divine providence, and the changes brought by new religious institutions of a quasi-political character. The classical philosophers emphasize the importance and the difficulty of political preservation. In the Republic, Plato shows that a defensive conservatism results in political change. In the Symposium, while making human desire a major cause of change, he shows the human longing for preservation, as well. The attempt to make a lasting city is an effort to resist the tide of change which overtakes all things. In the fifth book of his Politics, Aristotle shows his expectation that political change will always occur, and that its many different causes make it difficult to master. The Christian revelation praises newness as the quality of conversion, whose difficult political consequences emerge at the beginning of Augustine’s City of God. His initial deprecation of political preservation in favor of conversion gives way to an insistence on preservation’s importance once conversion is widespread. Because the agent of conversion is the Church, a quasi-political institution, Marsilius in his Defender of the Peace revises Aristotle’s account of political change. Machiavelli challenges the possibility of genuine political endurance through a critique of its basis in dubious stories about the past. His praise of the innovating prince considers men’s ambivalent attitudes toward novelty in a way that our casual embrace of innovation does not. By appearing everywhere, innovation has now gone into eclipse. The praise of newness obscures the changes human beings once thought were the most important.
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