Servant of the People By Rebecca Kingston, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and author of Plutarch’s Prism: Classical Reception and Public Humanism in France and England 1500-1800 (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2022).
The American Political Science Association (APSA) met last month in Montreal. It can be a daunting experience as thousands of political scientists descend on a convention center or hotel and seek to do the impossible in three days: reconnect with friends from graduate school, learn about new trends in the discipline, make new connections, solve the pressing issues of the world, learn about new and forthcoming books of interest to research and teaching, visit a new city and listen to a few words of wisdom from those who have proven themselves in the field and who are often honoured for lifetime achievements in the teaching and research of politics. Of course, those who attend may weigh these priorities differently, but on the whole the list offers an overview of the goods in common sought by both senior and junior scholars who attend.
I often enjoy the latter, that is, hearing from those who have been teaching and doing research over a long career. In this regard, this year’s meeting did not disappoint. I had the chance to hear Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard University, speak on the state of the discipline on the occasion of her lifetime achievement award.
Mansbridge is well known as a democratic theorist, having researched the dynamics of radical participatory politics of the 1960’s. Yet in her talk on the state of research in political science I was struck by two key points. The first is that despite her contemporary concerns and focus on the functioning of democracy, she acknowledged the importance of the study of the history of ideas for helping all in the discipline gain better analytic clarity on the terms invoked in the study of politics. Of course, it is obvious, as how can one get a real grasp on the state of democracy, public life, the nature of equality, etc. without having some sense of how these normative and descriptive ideas developed, changed, were justified and were given changing priorities in the development of our communities? She advocated a capacious view of the discipline and the need to include the wide variety of approaches to the study of politics that has characterised the discipline in the past.
A second point of interest is that despite her keen interest in how citizens themselves mobilise and seek to shape political agendas, she acknowledged that contemporary trends of globalization, technological innovation and increasing international interdependence make the responsibility and function of public life and states more important than ever. The array of new forces that have an impact on our daily lives, such as what impacts the production of the avocadoes that we purchase at our local supermarket, means that the need for public oversight is greater and not less. We need to put in place mechanisms to help ensure that processes and structures work to the benefit and good of the people implicated in them. In short, in the midst of a shift in our politics, we need an ongoing recognition of the importance of and commitment to a notion of public good.
My book, Plutarch’s Prism: Classical Reception and Public Humanism in France and England 1500-1800, just published by Cambridge University Press, takes a very different path to a similar place. The account goes deeper than modern democratic theory, looking to some of the ways in which classical ideas were taken up and received into European political thought at the time of the Renaissance. There is a normative picture of the nature and purpose of political power developed in the early modern period that owes a great deal to classical reception, and the work of Plutarch is especially important for the French tradition of political reflection. This work demonstrates the ways in which a commitment to an idea of the public good permeated political reflection in France and England. It also offers insight into the special moral and socio-psychological features of the exercise of public power. Most importantly, it fills a gap in our understanding of how the legacy of classical ideals continued to be instrumental in political reflection, despite certain shifts in ideals and priorities coming into the modern era. It offers a case for why a notion of public good should remain a foundational concept for our politics going forward. The most contemporary case of Plutarch reception is the first shot we see of Vladimir Zelensky playing the role of a lowly high school teacher in the popular Ukrainian comedy Servant of the People. The character is reading Plutarch at night in preparation for his class. Soon after, as we all know, the television character is caught on video ranting about the poor quality of public life, something that launches his successful career in politics rooting out corruption. Then life imitates art and the actor is elected President of Ukraine in real life. The case for Plutarch and the relevance of an idea of public good as things evolved could not be made more clearly.