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Patricia Springborg takes as the centre of her history of Western politics kingship instead of the
city-state; Egypt and Mesopotamia instead of Greece and Rome, and obliges us to look at the
Greco-Roman West in a Hellenistic and Nilotic perspective. The result is a brilliant inversion of
what she considers to be a perversion of history, and may well become a classic of post-liberal or
neo-liberal thinking.
J. G. A. Pocock, John Hopkins University2

It may be fair to say that in the last 40 years—a period encompassing the civil
rights movements in the U.S. and the advent of African studies at British
universities—one of the major questions in humanities and social sciences disci-
plines at Western universities has been the question of the canon and its content.
Consistently under attack by the left and subject to vigorous defenses from the
right, traditional canons are often the subject of intense and legitimate critiques, as
the argument that they were constructed to validate the experiences of a few—
notably white, bourgeois, heterosexual males—is well-known. While disciplines
like anthropology and comparative literature have been subjected to an intense
degree of scrutiny, political philosophy has generally escaped unscathed in these
debates, and it is still commonplace for survey courses to begin with the ancient
Greeks and end with either Marx, Freud, or Rawls, with little acknowledgment of
the battles over the canon that have shaken the rest of the academy. I commence

An earlier version of this paper was presented at a seminar organized by the Centre for Caribbean
Thought, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. I would like to thank Brian Meeks for
inviting me to deliver this paper. The comments of George Belle, Charles Mills, David McNally, and
Esteve Morera have been useful in making revisions, but all responsibility for errors and omissions
lie with the author.
Blurb on back cover of Patricia Springborg, Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992).


the following review essay with a critical analysis of one recent attempt to discuss
the canon of political thought, Siep Stuurman’s essay “The Canon of the History
of Political Thought: Its Critique and a Proposed Alternative.”3 I follow this with
a long appraisal of Patricia Springborg’s Western Republicanism and the Oriental
Prince, and locate it within renewed debates about the nature of the ancient polis,
and the “birth” of political theorizing. I conclude this article with a reflection on
the importance of the intervention that this work and allied studies make to the
conceptualization of any canon of political thought.
Stuurman begins his analysis by pointing out, uncontroversially, that “the
canonical story of political thought is at the very center of European, and more
generally, Western identity.”4 Its very nature has been under attack for sometime,
and it has “lost its serene aura of finality,” but is unfortunately “easily criticized but
not so easily dismissed.”5 Stuurman proposes two lines of critique, which he terms
the “democratic critique,” and the “methodological critique.” The democratic
critique suggests that the canon is “selective and incomplete” and is representative
of only European males. Stuurman is sympathetic to this argument, particularly
those that emanate from gendered critiques of the canon, and he strongly criticizes
the “textbooks fail[ure] to discuss the gender bias and the patriarchal assumptions
within the classical texts of the canon, brought to light by the feminist critique of
male political thought.”6 His discussion of Eurocentrism is, however, problematic.
Anti-colonial thought, and the critique of the canon’s “complacent silence about
imperialism and racism” enters Stuurman’s essay via Edward Said’s Orientalism.
There is a total absence of any major prior anti-colonial thinkers in Stuurman’s
essay or footnotes—not Mahatma Gandhi, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Frantz
Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Angela Davis, to
name just a few. What Sylvia Wynter in a recent interview has termed the
extraordinary way in which the memory of the anti-colonial struggle has been
excised from the consciousness of the world is fully evident in this essay.7
Nevertheless, Stuurman correctly suggests that the importance of the demo-
cratic critique, is that it could result in a salutary “alter[ation] [of] the social and
intellectual context of all discourses about liberty, and therewith the range of
Siep Stuurman, “The Canon of the History of Political Thought: Its Critique and a Proposed
Alternative,” History and Theory 39 (2000): 147–66.
Ibid: 147.
Ibid: 148. The difficult status of political theory might well arise, according to Stuurman, from inter-
and intra-disciplinary perspectives on its utility: “empiricist political scientists tend to see it, at best,
as a prelude to real, ‘hard,’ political science, philosophers often dismiss it as ‘too historical’ and
therefore superficial, while historians frequently question its validity as ‘history.’ ” Stuurman (2000):
Ibid: 153.
David Scott, “The Re-enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter,” Small Axe 8
(2000): 119–207.


meanings of the concept of liberty itself—and indeed, the very notion of what
liberty and individuality are.”8 In a noteworthy passage on the possible objections
to the democratic critique, Stuurman states the following:

However, one is well advised to observe that the universalistic notion of the autonomous and
rational individual has not disappeared from the story but has rather been displaced and, so to speak,
put into operation at one remove. One might well maintain that all three critiques mentioned above
start from a rigorous abstract idea of universal liberty, and deploy it in their critique of mainstream
political thought and its historiography. The question of how to write a history of “contested liberty”
is thus not yet resolved. An unsympathetic critic might object that all these socialist, feminist and
anti-imperialist critiques start from twentieth-century political realities and assumptions which
ought to have no place in a rigorously historical account of the development of political thought.9

To his credit, Stuurman does not fall into this trap that he suggests lies open for
those who advocate the democratic critique of the canon. He counters this by
showing the importance of marginal writers, who show that anti-imperialist per-
spectives were present throughout history, and thus Locke, Hume, and Mill et al.
look even more like the spokesmen for the class interests that they were. I would
add that it also ignores the presence of cultures with concepts of freedom outside
the European epistemological horizon of the times. To think less is to conflate the
“local culture” of the West to a universal one, or suggest, as Hegel did, that people
of African descent had no conception of “freedom” before their contact with
Stuurman’s methodological critique is not as important for my purposes here,
though J. G. A. Pocock’s invitation to look at “political languages, modes of
discourse available to people discussing political affairs in particular times and
places” rather than individual theorists and established philosophies represents a
well-established and significant event in political theorizing.11 It is rather more
important to note that this approach, often called the “Cambridge school” after its
two most famous proponents, Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock, does not reject
the canon, but rather deconstructs the status of certain key figures within it. This
seems to bring the methodological approach close to certain postmodern and
poststructuralist arguments, which Stuurman rejects as the “postmodern subter-
fuge of total contingency,” arguing instead that they are possible guidelines on
which a revised canon can be established.12 One central aspect of Stuurman’s

Stuurman (2000): 156, original italics.
Ibid: original emphasis.
The idea of the West as a “local culture,” like all others, I borrow, of course from Clifford Geertz,
The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
Here Stuurman cites the work of J. G. A. Pocock. See J. G. A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time:
Essays on Political Thought and History (New York: Atheneum, 1971).
Stuurman (2000): 161.


proposed revision is, however, critical, and shows the glaring shortcomings of his
revision of the canon. Stuurman states that “the ancient Greeks and Romans can
no longer figure in the first chapter as [. . .] some genial ‘early Europeans.’ ”13 As
an alternative, he posits “the best starting point for a new history of political
thought” as “the early medieval period (from Charlemagne onwards) when
European ‘intellectuals’ (clerics and others) were salvaging and making sense of
the remnants of Greek and Roman philosophy they were able to recover, attempt-
ing to reconcile them with their Christian beliefs as laid down in the Bible and the
fathers of the Church.”14 It is amazing that Stuurman can consciously pose such a
fundamentally Eurocentric alternative, given that the very Greek and Roman
philosophy “recovered” by Europeans in the Middle Ages was as a result of the
preservation and extension of this work by North African and Islamic scholars. It
still amounts to a suggestion that political theory begins with the Greeks, though
in a more indirect fashion, and is strange given Stuurman’s comment that “in the
history of ideas an epistemological zero hour is extremely rare and perhaps
nonexistent.”15 This seeming contradiction can be explained when one considers
further his statements on political philosophy as an invented tradition—“My
critique of the canon is thus not that it is an invented tradition—it could hardly be
anything less—but that it is an unreflexive invented tradition that is no longer
adequate to our history and our present concerns”16 and later “[t]he ancients are
ancient and we moderns are modern, but precisely because they are our ancients
they are part of our modernity.”17 The reader will have to decide for himself
whether Stuurman’s proprietary concerns over the canon have resulted in a truly
“democratic” reading.
The limitations of Stuurman’s attempt to suggest a new canon of political
thought reinforce the need for more efforts to vigorously re-think the canonical
formation and epistemological bases of political philosophy. In what follows, I
will examine one of the most daring efforts in recent times to subvert the tradi-
tional canon of political thought, Springborg’s Western Republicanism and the
Oriental Prince, and locate it within renewed debates about the nature of the
ancient polis, and the “birth” of political theorizing. While I hope to show below
that the canon continues to be very much a part of an invented Western tradition,
this alone does not de-legitimize it, as it can easily be argued that it is of
considerable importance as an artifact of thought, and has structured the context of
debates at the heart of political theorizing for centuries. I wish to make it clear that

Ibid: 164.
Ibid. The information in brackets comes from Stuurman’s essay; the italics are mine.
Ibid: 165.
Ibid: 165, my italics.
Ibid: 166, original italics.


unlike Stuurman, I do not propose an alternative canon of political thought for a

number of reasons—mainly the fact that I believe that thinking about a canon as
dependent on the time, location, and space in which the material in question is
being taught is vastly preferable to universalizing notions that one “canon” of
political thought can be applied throughout the “Western world.”



Springborg’s Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince has been amaz-
ingly overlooked in scholarly circles but is a superlative work of intellectual
history, covering in its scope topics as divergent as Bronze Age archaeology and
Renaissance texts, and advances our understanding of the result the invention of
“the legacy of the Greeks” has had on political forms like republicanism, and also
on the Greek–Barbarian divide in antiquity. Springborg strikes at the very heart of
the discipline of political theory in her re-reading of the legacy of the ancient polis
and Western republicanism. Her methodology works by a process called reverse
discourse.18 Three hypotheses are central to her argument—“first, that the conti-
nuity of the Western European ‘political’ tradition is a work of the imagination, or
at the least a social construction; secondly, that the considerable irony by which
the landed monarchies of Western Europe fell heir to the classical republican
traditions of Greece requires some explanation; and thirdly that this explanation
may take the form of a critical examination of their particular histories.”19 A turn
to “reverse discourse” allows Springborg to “show that one has only to read the
accounts of the Ancients from a different perspective to find an alternative, and in
some cases more literal, meaning.”20
Springborg opens Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince with a dec-
laration that it is “a story of how the West was won, which tells at the same time
of the deep origins of orientalism and anti-Semitism—as it affects all Semites,
Arab and Jew.”21 This description immediately seems to situate her work as
heavily influenced by Edward Said’s enormously influential Orientalism, but the
reality is somewhat different.22 While Said looks at the construction of the Near
East in colonial times by Western scholars, Springborg interrogates the reasons
why the divide between East and West, present long before the nineteenth century,
became cemented in the first place. It is possible to read her work as a prelude to
Springborg attributes this term to the political theorist Pocock.
Springborg (1992): 4.
Ibid: 5.
Ibid: vii.
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978). For references to Said, see Springborg
(1992): 182, 282.


Orientalism, and one that may be similarly critical for the field of political
The Greek–Barbarian divide in antiquity, commented on by a number of recent
theorists, is, for Springborg, based on “the power/property nexus.”23 This charac-
terization was most famously articulated by Aristotle, who believed “Eastern
kings rule their people as slaves,” a condition which arose since “it is because
non-Greeks are by natural character more slavish than Greeks (and the Asiatics
than the Europeans) that they tolerate master-like rule without resentment.”24
Aristotle’s views here are not simply ethnocentric, but are “grossly distorted [. . .]
(and rest) [. . .] on differences of entitlement, and a conceptualisation of power and
its relation to property, that are fundamental.”25 Noting Aristotle’s interesting
abhorrence of political slavery but acceptance of natural slavery, Springborg
comments that “[. . .] on almost every occasion on which the nature and status of
slavery is discussed by Aristotle, he refers to women in the same breath; and that
the distinction between them does not lie too far apart as far as he is concerned.”26
The right of men to own slaves in ancient society was not “merely a dictate of
necessity,” but provided “ontological proof of mastery.”27 In Aristotle, we also see
the precursor to Locke’s arguments about “just wars” and people captured during

This means that it is according to nature that even the art of war [. . .] should in a sense be a way
of acquiring property; and that it must be used both against wild beasts and against such men as are
by nature intended to be ruled over but refuse; for that is the kind of warfare which is by nature

Springborg correctly notes the disturbing “association between barbarians, slaves

and wild animals.” The representation of the barbarian—really no more than the
Greek cultural “other”—as uncultured due to his inability to speak Greek, and
living within a society in which only one person was truly “free,” the great king or

Springborg (1992): 23. For recent studies of the Greek-Barbarian divide in antiquity, see John E.
Coleman and Clark A. Walz (ed.), Greeks and Barbarians: Essays on the Interactions between
Greeks and Non-Greeks in Antiquity and the Consequences for Eurocentrism (Bethesda, MD: CDL
Press, 1997); also Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
See Springborg’s quotes from Aristotle’s Politics in Springborg (1992): 23.
Ibid: 24. Also, Mavis Campbell, “Aristotle and Black Slavery: A Study in Race Prejudice,” Race XV
(1974): 3; Marylin B. Arthur, “Early Greece: The Origins of the Western Attitude Toward Women,”
Arethusa 6 (1973): 7–58.
Springborg (1992): 24–25, my italics.
Aristotle’s Politics, quoted in Springborg (1992): 26, my italics.


oriental despot is well seen in Aristotle.29 The barbarian’s slavishness is what

marks him out for living under conditions of despotism, and he can be expropri-
ated legitimately, since this slavishness is a natural condition, similar to the
supposedly natural, biologically determined inferiority of women. The barbarian
thus served as a means through which the Greeks could project all of the undesired
elements of the imagined collective personality of their people onto others.30 He
emerges as a representative of the other cultures the Greeks were aware of at that
time. Thus, Springborg refers to Plato’s quote of Socrates:

For we are not like many others, descendants of Pelops or Cadmus or Aegyptus or Danaus, who are
by nature barbarians, and yet pass for Hellenes, and dwell in the midst of us, but we are pure
Hellenes, uncontaminated by any foreign element, and therefore the hatred of the foreigner has
passed unadulterated into the lifeblood of the city.31

This statement for Springborg shows clearly the understanding “[. . .] that ‘pure
Greeks’ distanced themselves from the partners to the synoecism that consti-
tuted Greece as a melting-pot of Afro-Asiatic races.”32 The attempt to preserve
a pure Greece through a repudiation of barbarians living within their midst, as
seen in the comment above, reminds us of the Afro-Asiatic presence attested to
by Martin Bernal. Black Athena did not serve as an inspiration Western Repub-
licanism and the Oriental Prince, despite the latter’s appearance five years after
Black Athena it was conceptualized separately, with references to Black Athena
incorporated when near completion.33 References to Bernal can be found
throughout Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince, with the longest in
relation to Bernal’s treatment of the philological evidence, and approaches to
this evidence and the historical record by both writers remain similar. Spring-
borg adopts the position taken by Bernal, Sarah Morris, Walter Burkert, and
Peter Walcot on the importance of near Eastern mythology on Greece, as can be
seen in her comment that the relationship between “Mesopotamian creation

The word barbarian originated from the fact that their speech was seen as gibberish, or sounded to
the Greek ear like “bar-bar.” John E. Coleman, “Ancient Greek Ethnocentrism,” Greeks and
Barbarians: Essays on the Interactions between Greeks and Non-Greeks in Antiquity and the
Consequences for Eurocentrism, ed. John E. Coleman and Clark A. Walz (Bethesda, MD: CDL
Press, 1997) 178.
Ibid: 175.
Springborg (1992): 29, original italics.
Ibid: 31.
Ibid: vii; also, personal correspondence with Patricia Springborg, December 4, 1998. The central
ideas of Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince can be seen in a series of articles by
Springborg from 1984, the most directly relevant one being “The Contractual State: Reflections on
Orientalism and Despotism,” History of Political Thought 8, 3 (1987): 395–433. Also see her review
article “Early History of the State: West and East,” Politics 22 (1987): fn. 10.


myths and the cosmogony of Hesiod” is “too close for coincidence,” and pos-
tulates (following Bernal, Frank Stubbings, and Walcot) a critically important
Egyptian influence on Mycenae.34 Incorporating into this schema the role of
Egyptian creation myths is just as important as it may help to explain some
missing links in the genesis of Greek mythology, and the influence on ancient
Greek concepts of kingship.35 Her position on myth as historical evidence seems
to equivocate—while on one hand “what myth reveals is not statements of his-
torical fact,” it served in antiquity as “a third way, neither exactly fact nor
wholly fiction.”36 This makes Springborg vulnerable to the critique of myth in
Black Athena by the classicist Edith Hall,37 though her summary position on oral
tradition––“It is likely that the eponymous heroes, gods and their animistic
images [. . .] derive from an oral tradition chronicling the colonization and
settlement of Greece”––raises the question of whether she believes colonization
took place, a firm position on which she does not take. Bernal’s use of Hero-
dotus, so heavily criticized, pales in comparison to Springborg’s, who deals far
more extensively with Herodotus’ histories, and her support for Bernal’s thesis
also extends to her recognition that the Afro-Asiatic goddess worshipped as
Neith in Egypt became Athena in Greece.38 Her approach of “reverse discourse,”
seen in her treatment of the philological record and Herodotus, may well be
fraught with difficulties, given the reception that Bernal’s similar schema, which
he dubs “competitive plausibility,” has been given by the academy.
I have noted that the conceptualization of property is, according to Springborg,
at the heart of our ability to understand the East–West divide in antiquity. These
fundamental differences in the conceptualization of property, explored previously
by Springborg in her essay “The Contractual State: Reflections on Orientalism and

Springborg (1992): 116. For the cited works by Bernal, Burkert, Walcot, and Stubbings, see Martin
Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots to Classical Civilization, Vols I & II (London: Vintage,
1987, 1991); Sarah Morris, “Daidalos and Kadmos: Classicism and ‘Orientalism.’ ” Arethusa 22
(1989): 39–54 and “Greece and the Levant,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 3 (1990):
57–66. Walter Burkert, The Orientalising Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in
the Early Archaic Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992). (Springborg refers to Burkert’s earlier
work, but this is perhaps his boldest statement on the relationship between the Near East and
Greece.) Martin Bernal, “Burkert’s Orientalising Revolution,” Arion (Fall 1996): 137–47; Peter
Walcot, Hesiod and the Near East (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1966); also see Peter Walcot’s “Review
of Black Athena II,” Greece & Rome 39 (1992): 78–79; Frank H. Stubbings, “The Rise of Mycenean
Civilization,” Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1963): 627–58.
Springborg (1992): 120, 124–25.
Ibid: 142, 133.
Edith Hall, “When Is a Myth not a Myth? Bernal’s ‘Ancient Model,’ ” Arethusa 25 (1992): 181–201
and Bernal’s rejoinder “Response to Edith Hall,” Arethusa 25 (1992): 203–14.
Springborg (1992): 100.


Despotism,”39 are based on the fact that in the ancient Near East and Egypt, “title
to land was typically maintained by the Crown, as representative of the gods, to
whom it really belonged. Title to use, however, was vested with tenant farmers by
a contractual arrangement whereby they agreed to furnish taxes to the central
government, as well as paying a lease.”40 Thus,

appeal from racial characteristics and property entitlements to make the case for the slavishness of
the barbarian involved conceptual failures that were either deliberate or inadvertent. The subjects of
Asiatic kings were vested with different property entitlements, never properly understood in the
West, resting on a contractual agreement whereby right of usufruct was gained for the willingness
to pay taxes to the central government.41

Plato’s Republic occupies a pivotal role in the history of ideas on the state, and
some recent commentators have suggested that it may well be based on the
Egyptian state.42 This line of reasoning is hardly new, as Marx himself commented
that Plato’s division of labor in the Republic is “merely the Athenian idealization
of the Egyptian system of castes.”43 The question of what the influence of Egypt on
Plato might mean for the history of political ideas seems not to have been the
subject of much comment by political theorists post Black Athena. In Black
Athena, Bernal declares that there is “the only reason for doubting that his
Republic was based on Egypt is [. . .] that he does not say so in the text,” using one
of Plato’s earliest commentators, Krantor, to bolster his argument.44 In his review
of Mary Lefkowitz’s Not Out of Africa, he refutes her suggestion that Plato never
went to Egypt, citing some modern sources that suggest he may well have
journeyed there.45 Springborg is similarly unambiguous in her views of the back-
ground of Plato’s philosophical thought—“Plato’s constant references to the
model of Egypt and its laws, its educational system, division and specialization of

Springborg (1987).
Ibid: 35.
Ibid: 31.
George Belle, “The Collapse of the Soviet Union: Implications for the Caribbean Left,” Crossroads
of Empire: The Europe-Caribbean Connection 1492–1992, ed. Alan Cobley (Bridgetown, Barba-
dos: University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, 1994) 94–110; Bernal (1987); Rupert Lewis,
“Review Article: The Writing of Caribbean Thought,” Caribbean Quarterly 36 (1990): 153–65.
Karl Marx, Capital, ch. 14, 5, 346; as cited in Springborg (1992): 215.
Bernal (1987): 106. Krantor, writing within a few generations of Plato, wrote, according to Bernal,
that “Plato’s contemporaries mocked him, saying that he was not the inventor of his republic, but
that he had copied Egyptian institutions.”
See Martin Bernal, “The Afrocentric Interpretation of History: Bernal Replies to Lefkowitz,”
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Spring 1996): 86–94. This is the most accessible version of
Bernal’s reply, though it does not contain his important footnotes, which were on the version on the
Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC) website in October 1999.


labour [. . .] suggest even an attempt to meld the Greek experience to this model”
and “the theory and practice of Egyptian kingship is perhaps more faithfully
represented in the work of Plato than that of any other Greek writer.”46 Using
Herodotus’ accounts of the Egyptian class system that was comprised of “priests,
warriors, cowherd, swineherds, tradesmen, interpreters, pilots,” Springborg notes
that this structure is “remarkably similar to the class structure of the Republic.”47
In an even more fascinating link in the history of ideas, Springborg suggests that
the Egyptian concept of Ma’at “may well have influenced Plato in his conception
of the just king.”48 Tracing the genesis of Plato’s ideas is not merely the concern
here, as Plato’s praise of Egyptian civilization in The Laws is an issue that
“concern(s) [. . .] the fundamental questions of ontology and epistemology in the
sacred realm.”49 These questions of ontology and epistemology can best be seen in
Springborg’s take on Plato, the Timaeus, and Egypt:

[. . .] the substance of Timaeus’ cosmology, sandwiched in between the first and the second versions
of the priestly tale, and presented by Plato, like the Myth of Er to which it is related, as central to
the metaphysical framework of his philosophical system, contains a striking number of elements in
common with Eastern cosmologies. The world as the product of a creator god, new to the Greeks,
which made the Timaeus appear to Christian medievalists an anticipation of monotheism, was also
a feature of Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths. The Timaeus is theological in a way that
Greek thought, even in the Ionian cosmologies of Empedocles, Leucippus and Democritus, with
which Plato’s Timaeus shares much, are not. Plato’s atomism; his attempt to reconcile mathematical
and geometrical realities; the perennial elements of matter: earth, air, fire and water; his aetiology;
although shared by Ionian, Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies, do not necessarily mark out
the Timaeus as specifically influenced by oriental traditions. But the creator god does, and the
religious character of the work requires us to rethink the current, primarily rationalist, interpreta-
tion, which views Plato’s metaphysics in terms of abstract ontological and epistemological

Springborg’s bold re-reading of the influences on Plato, and reference to mono-

theism reminds one of Jan Assman’s book on Moses and the legacy of Egyptian

Springborg (1992): 53–54, 51.
Ibid: 99.
Springborg (1987): 108. For work on ancient Egyptian philosophy and Ma’at, see Theophile
Obenga, African Philosophy During the Period of The Pharaohs: 2780–330 B.C. (San Francisco:
Per Ankh, 2004); Maulana Karenga, Ma’at, The Moral Idea in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical
African Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2004); Cheikh Anta Diop, “Does an African Philosophy
Exist?” in Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology (New York: Lawrence Hill Books,
1991); Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, trans. John
Baines (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982); and Jan Assman, Ma’at: L’Egypte pharonique
et l’idee de justice sociale (Paris: Julliard, 1989).
Springborg (1992): 98.
Ibid: 115.


monotheism.51 Her comments on the shift between Aristotle and Plato similarly
deserve to be quoted in full:

In Plato’s Republic, again perhaps a reflection of the realities of Eastern regimes, ownership of land
was also vested with the state, its use being communal. But Aristotle [. . .] has a secure niche with
Cicero in establishing the property/power nexus; just as surely as he is responsible for formulating
the divide between Eastern and Western systems in terms, paradoxically, of the patrimonial state.
The anomaly that Aristotle, theorist par excellence of cities and the city-state, should have been
ruralized to produce an advocate of feudal kingdoms, can now be seen to have a basis in Aristotle’s
theory of property, which those who constructed the medieval Aristotle may well have intuited. For
Aristotle, in book 2, chapters 3–5 of the Politics, rests his critique of Plato’s Republic on the
centrality of property to the state and Plato’s failure to understand the material basis of all affection
an affinity in the right of possession [. . .] In chapter 5, Aristotle insists, against Plato, that property
should remain in private hands, although its use can be communally shared. He precisely denies
what Plato was at pains to assert, that depriving the guardians of the state of property rights was
appropriate in preserving the neutrality of their interests, and would not be a source of unhappiness,
once this was understood. Against this argument, later reasserted by the falsifa of early Islam,
Aristotle argues that ownership, like love of self, is not bad, but only when it leads to selfishness and
excessive greed.52

This theoretical shift between Plato and Aristotle in the conceptualization of

property is of considerable significance. Though the history of Orientalism has
“involved a tissue of distortions as elaborately crafted, as embroidered with myth
and romance, and as overlaid with legal sanctions, as the fabric from which the
control of sexuality is cut,”53 the property/power nexus is critical. The similarity of
Cicero’s position on property to Aristotle’s is of considerable import, since
“Cicero was the only political thinker of pagan antiquity whose works continued
to be accessible to the Christian West following the collapse of Roman domina-
tion.”54 In tracing this line of thought through Aristotle to Machiavelli, one also
encounters the critical figure of Polybius. Polybius’ perspective on the progression
of state forms led him to “posit democratia as an evolutionary advance over
monarchia, the primitive kingship of the barbarians.” His version of democracy
was, of course, little more than oligarchy, but it is interesting nonetheless, as
Springborg’s analysis suggests it is actually descriptive of a number of contem-
porary regimes:

Jan Assman, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard UP, 1998).
Springborg (1992): 35.
Ibid: 288.
This quote is from Cary J. Nederman, “Nature, Sin and the Origins of Society: The Ciceronian
Tradition in Medieval Political Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (1988): 3–26, cited in
Springborg (1992): 36.


It is notable that when Polybius describes democracy he focuses on equality and freedom of speech
as definitive, characteristics of constitutional rather than strictly democratic regimes. For equality
implied equality between equals, inequality between unequals, among citizens equal under the law
but unequal in their class, status and functional designations, as Aristotle so succinctly pointed out;
while freedom of speech is freedom to voice one’s own opinion in the assembly, and to hold private
views—both negative forms of freedom.55

In Polybius, we see again the specter of the oriental despot, living in decadent
luxury that a state seeking not to decline into tyranny must denounce. This led to
Polybius’ “fear of defining freedom so as to include economic goods,” a concern
that Machiavelli noticeably did not share.56 Plato was not accepted uncritically by
Machiavelli—he rejected, according to Springborg, “his otherworldliness, his
insistence on supererogation as the ruling political value, and his lack of political
realism, in the Republic at least,” but his experience with the large-scale states of
the ancient Middle East and Egypt meant his perspectives were seized upon by
Renaissance thinkers like Machiavelli, for whom in The Prince previous theories
of the city-state were not his overriding concern.57 This, of course, is related to the
exigencies of the Renaissance political condition, in which “the failure of the polis
form to generate stable governments and a lasting peace [. . .] encouraged the rush
to monarchy and federation under the larger imperial umbrella.”58 While “the
classical curriculum kept ancient models before early modern eyes,” “the lure of
empire was too great.”59
Questioning the primary intellectual influences on the Renaissance is another
important departure that Springborg makes with mainstream political thought. She
follows Quentin Skinner’s re-reading of the political theory of the Renaissance,
which Skinner declares “[. . .] at all phases of its history, owes a far deeper debt to
Rome than to Greece,”60 extending his comment by attributing Renaissance politi-
cal theory to “Aristotelian and Platonic concepts of kingship, the figure of
Alexander, Platonic magic and mysticism—and not the orderly analysis of social
forms to be found in Aristotle’s Politics or Ethics.”61 Inspiring Springborg’s
re-reading of political theory is a desire to redress the silences in Western political
thought about the role of Islamic political thought, which heavily influenced the
Renaissance. Again, Springborg’s analysis of the transmission of ideas deserves to
be quoted in full:

Springborg (1992): 61.
Ibid: 86.
Ibid: 213.
Ibid: 210.
Ibid: 185.
Quentin Skinner, “Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Artist as Political Philosopher,” Proceedings of the
British Academy 72 (1986): 56, cited in Springborg (1992): 204.
Springborg (1992): 193.


Not only was the Renaissance “state”, not a quattrocento Italian invention; much more unified and
powerful Islamic states challenged it from West and East, from Spain to Syria, as well as knocking
on its door in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But the Islamic states drew on the sedentary culture
of the great Hellenistic cities, Pergamum, Alexandria and Antioch, which had nurtured Greek
philosophical traditions long absent from the “West”—not because they had died out, but because
they had never crossed language barrier from Greek to Latin. This rich philosophical, theological,
legal, scientific and literary heritage, which Eastern cities had largely created under the Hellenistic
king, and which they promoted and developed under the Islamic conquerors, produced a mirror of
princes genre in important respects similar to the Machiavellian Prince. Although there is no
internal evidence to suggest direct acquaintance with this literature, the link through Byzantine
Platonism may be sufficient to explain similarities too striking to be coincidental.62

The lack of acknowledgment of the Islamic world’s preservation and continuation

of the rich heritage of Hellenistic thought is not just a diminution of its achieve-
ments, but results in a missing link in the history of political thought, as “conti-
nuities between the social forms instituted by the great Alexander, Seleucid
successor states, and the Islamic kingdoms are greater than the discontinuities.”63
The tradition of the Islamic mirrors contained “legal and administrative treatises
unmatched in Western literature until the seventeenth century,”64 while the great
Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun’s attempt to write a universal history is cited by
Springborg as an “incomparably richer maco-historical account than Polybius or
any of the Greeks, apart from Plato and Aristotle themselves.”65
Machiavelli’s position on the East does not “reveal orientalist assumptions that
the West has a monopoly on virtue, as post-Reformation thinkers were inclined
to.”66 Indeed, Machiavelli and Jean Bodin actually perceived the Ottoman Empire
as the legitimate successor to the Roman Empire.67 Again, however, we see a
fundamental switch in thinking to Eastern regimes as “oriental despots” as a result
of a major conflict, this time the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the Venetians
at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.68 Springborg, closely following the account of the
Venetian ambassadors at the Sublime Porte by Annales historian Lucette Valensi,
shows that from 1575 previous perspectives on “Ottoman greatness” had devolved
into images of the Grand Turk as a ruler over slaves, rather than “a regime
animated by a unanimity which binds the hierarchies together.”69 This tyranny was

Ibid: 260.
Ibid: 275.
Ibid: 267.
Ibid: 271.
Ibid: 223.
Ibid: 279.
The first period of solidification of the “oriental despot” also occurred soon after a war, that between
the ancient Greeks and the Persian Empire. See Coleman (1997).
Springborg (1992): 281.


expressed in gendered and sexual terms as not only a regime of “outrageous sexual
appetite, depravity and corruption,” but where “women and minors rule behind the
scenes.”70 Springborg explains this shift in attitudes as mostly due to the perennial
misunderstanding of Eastern forms of land tenure, but claims for the “superiority
of European Christian rule” is due also to the perception of its “freedom, preserve
of ‘stable institutions founded on the rule of law’ and a hereditary nobility.”71 The
subsequent declining influence of the Ottoman Empire further added evidence of
instability to a highly ideological climate of opinion. As a result:

Aristotle had used the term despotic government with specific reference to the Asiatic powers. As
long as Venetians perceived the Ottoman Empire to be a Platonist law-governed entity, whose
military guardians and auxiliaries scrupulously served their functions, there was no Asiatic power
on the horizon which fit the description. But once violence became manifest as a foundation of rule
and corruption widespread, the “virtuous city” became a “despotism” consistent with Aristotle’s

The turn toward the solidification of the conceptual category of the “oriental
despot” occurred with the post-Reformation early modern political thinkers, by
which time the Turk had become the epitome of the “anti-Christ.”73



Springborg’s main concern then—the historical roots to the East–West divide,

its legacy of Orientalism and anti-Semitism, and the conceptualization of
“Western republicanism”—turns on the categories of “race, property, oligarchy,
aetiology and economy.”74 For Springborg, the distinction between Greeks and
Barbarians75 that led to the justification of slavery as befitting Asiatics, with

Ibid: 282, 284. Sally Humphreys suggests that “the contrast between masculine Greeks and femi-
nized barbarians rested on belief in the powerful influence of queens at the Persian court as well as
on associations between personal autonomy and citizenship.” Sally C. Humphreys, “Diffusion,
Comparison, Criticism,” Anfange politischen denkers in der Antille: nahostliochen Kulturen und die
Griechen Schriften des Historischen Kollegs [The Beginnings of Political Thought in Antiquity: The
Near-Eastern Civilizations and the Greeks], ed. Kurt Raaflaub (Kolloquien 24 Munchen: R.
Oldenbourg Verlag., 1993) 10. For Springborg’s arguments on gender and state forms in antiquity,
see Royal Persons: Patriarchal Monarchy and the Feminine Principle (London: Unwin Hyman,
1990); and “Pandora and Hatshepsut: Ancient Archetypes in the Iconography of Kingship,” Aus-
tralian Journal of Political Science 26 (1991): 488–509.
Ibid: 281, original italics.
Ibid: 285.
Ibid: 223, 289.
Ibid: 287.
See Coleman and Walz (1997).


freedom for Greeks, is inextricably connected76 with the perception of property in

oriental states: “The particular condition of slavery was deemed to stem from a
general lack of entitlement in property systems where oriental subjects were seen
as slaves of the Great King, members of his household, rather than citizens of a
state, because they owned no property in land.”77 Springborg sees this as an
ultimate perversion of history as the oligarchic basis of the Graeco-Roman system
meant that freedom for the many was defined politically, while for the ruling few
it was defined politically and economically. The denial of the Greek myths of
origins was necessary to racial superiority and its use in political domination.78
Western European states, in their quest for legitimation, adopted the Graeco-
Roman model—for Springborg a further irony—and developed their own version
of the East–West divide, this time a complex amalgam of different historical and
contemporary forces, but mainly predicated on the battles between the Northern
Europeans and the “barbarous” Muslim hordes. The new sedimentation of the idea
of the oriental despot thus came about due to forces that included “the advance of
the Ottoman Empire into the heartland of Europe; the late reception of certain of
Aristotle’s ideas to account for Ottoman rule as a patrimonial regime; and a
general change in perceptions of the Turks, [. . .] (which can be seen) through the
eyes of the Venetian ambassadors at the Sublime Porte.”79
The “supreme irony” of Western states’ appropriation of republicanism and
conceptualization of the “oriental despot” is that “in the history of state legitima-
tion theories [. . .] the pluralistic, transactional, entrepreneurial, but traditional and
relatively ungovernable East, should have been deemed ‘despotic’ by the pastoral,
quiescent, relatively underdeveloped West, whose main concession to democracy
involved parliaments, to which universal access was granted as late as the twen-
tieth century of our era.”80 Springborg’s quest to undo the tissue of lies that
legitimated this conception leads her to salutary re-readings of Weber and the
contractual state in the East.81 Taking on Marx, she claims he is responsible for the
most “gratuitous and transparently untrue” comment on the nature of civil society
in the Near East, in his observation that in the East “the first basic condition of
bourgeois acquisition is lacking, the security of the person and the property of the
trader,” when the reverse was actually the case, since the ancient Near East not
only had “the longest recorded history of civil and private law regarding the rights
and property of the trader, but it likely pioneered the contractual forms in which

Springborg (1992): 287.
Ibid: 288.
Ibid: 1.
Ibid: 19.
In addition to Western Republicanism, see Springborg (1987).


they are expressed.”82 Linking brilliantly to contemporary times, Springborg

shows how these distorted ideas of near Eastern state forms are used today:

The spectre of “oriental despotism” continues to be the mirror held up to expansionist democracies
to remind them of the dangers of excess. As the vehicle for a cautionary tale, the concept has
substance more as a foil for the failings of republicanism, than by virtue of intrinsic properties. As
a highly transportable form, “oriental despotism” moves from Moscow to Teheran, Damascus to
Baghdad, as the occasion suits. But everywhere it performs the same function: the grim reminder
to those who would take the logic of economic expansionism too far, that corruption ultimately
leads to tyranny. So the despot is always accompanied by the concubine; crown and seraglio go
together. If pressure as far north as Moscow is momentarily relaxed, it is reapplied further East—in
Baghdad or Teheran. If in the twentieth century oriental despotism has been melded to the
phenomenon of totalitarianism, this reminds us that Western economic acquisitiveness has reached
correspondingly gargantuan proportions, that it needs such a spectre to legitimize it. So much so
that borrowing against the future to fulfill the promises of economic freedom made in the present
threatens the very stability and longevity of “democracy.”83

Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince strikes at the heart of the com-
placent timeline of Western political thought, and its privileging of the Greek
polis. The spectre of ancient Egypt haunts her reconstruction of the ancient record,
and it emerges that it “played a role extraordinary in ancient political thought.”84
Ignoring the ancient Near East and Egypt in a history of Western political thought
is now untenable:

Not only did these large-scale systems precede, by several thousands of years, the development of
the polis, but they were the dominant forms into which the Greek and Roman worlds relapsed in the
Hellenistic period, after its brief experiment was over. It is a testimony to its marvelous literature,
preserved fortuitously by a long philhellenic but Eastern intellectual tradition, that the polis has
continued to dominate our conceptions of the ancient world to the degree that it does. Along with
its literature, of course, we have tended to perpetuate Attic stereotypes of eastern systems; and it is

Ibid: 20. Springborg’s perspective on Marx’s limitations is echoed by Bernal, who notes that Marx
was inundated with the Hellenomania of educated German circles between 1820 and 1840. See
Martin Bernal, “First by Land, Then Sea: Thoughts about the Social Formation of the Mediterranean
and Greece,” Geography in Historical Perspective, ed. E. Genovese and L. Hochberg (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1989) 17; Bernal (1987): 295–96. For Bernal, “Marx argued that it was only in Greece
that the individual had cut the umbilical cord from his community, and had changed from a
Gattungswesen (species being) to a zoon politikon (political animal/city-dweller).” Bernal (1987):
295. For Bernal, Marx’s difficulty in accounting for the rise in “slave society” is as a result of his
inability to realize its origins lay in Phoenicia. See Martin Bernal, “Phonecian Politics and Egyptian
Justice in Ancient Greece,” Anfange politischen denkers in der Antille: nahostliochen Kulturen und
die Griechen Schriften des Historischen Kollegs [The Beginnings of Political Thought in Antiquity:
The Near-Eastern Civilizations and the Greeks], ed. Kurt Raaflaub (Kolloquien 24 Munchen:
R. Oldenbourg Verlag., 1993) 241–61.
Springborg (1992): 185.
Ibid: 46.


for this reason that notions of republicanism and despotism are paradigmatic. Concepts that [. . .]
hardly do justice to the experience of ancient kingship, now revealed by archeological and epi-
graphic research. Or even to the analysis of Eastern systems that less favoured ancient writers can
reveal. Indeed, once the reconstruction is complete, the insights of Plato, like those of Polybius, on
Egypt and the great civilized world beyond Greece’s boundaries, belie these categories. The
construction of the myth of oriental despotism has been the foil for classical republicanism, and its
deconstruction must follow the same path.85



The extraordinary range and daring of the argument made by Springborg about
early Western political thought makes the silence that has greeted her work quite
stunning.86 There has been an almost total silence on Springborg’s work, with
apparently only two reviews of Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince in
print, one in the Times Higher Education Supplement, and none by her colleagues
in the academy, or by leading journals in the history of ideas like Political Theory,
History and Theory, and the Journal of the History of Ideas.87 It might appear
puzzling that J. G. A. Pocock’s glowing endorsement (as cited above) and Quentin
Skinner’s support have not translated into a more sustained engagement with
Springborg by the academy, since they are indeed two of the most prominent
figures in contemporary political philosophy.88 The silence toward Springborg’s

Ibid: 45.
There is certainly a tradition of silence by the academy toward the provocative contributions to
debates on ancient history by scholars like Martin Bernal, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Ivan van Sertima.
However, Springborg, unlike the Afrocentrists, is not an outsider to the academy, and unlike Bernal
and van Sertima, she is not an outsider to the discipline in question. Her articles have been published
in the leading journals of political theory, and Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince was
published by Polity Press, a leading academic press in the United Kingdom. She is the holder of a
personal chair in political theory at the University of Sydney and a one-time Vice-President of the
International Political Science Association’s Political Philosophy Research Group, and cannot be
caricatured as an amateur, or a “crank,” an epithet that some still insist on throwing at Martin Bernal.
See Mary Lefkowitz’s introduction to Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (ed.), Black
Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill and London: U of N. Carolina P, 1996). For a critique of this volume
of responses to Bernal and the politics surrounding it, see Molly M. Levine, “The Marginalisation
of Martin Bernal,” Classical Philology (October 1998): 345–63.
Only two reviews of Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince have apparently been done,
according to Springborg, personal correspondence from Springborg, December 4, 1998. See
Jyotirmaya Sharma, “The West’s Despots,” Times Higher Education Supplement, November 6,
For Pocock’s endorsement, see the blurb on the back cover of Western Republicanism and the
Oriental Prince. Both Pocock and Skinner have confirmed my belief that Springborg’s work
represents an important contribution to political theory and has been unjustly neglected in personal
correspondence to me dated February 23, 2001 and February 26, 2001, respectively. Pocock is best


work can be best assessed by a greater attention to the politics of knowledge

surrounding ideas about the “origins” of political thought, to which I will now
The importance of Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince lies in the
fact that it is the most clearly articulated and sophisticated of a new set of
scholarship that contests the idea in the traditional canon of political thought
that the ancient polis and political thought originated in ancient Greece.89 The
conference entitled “Beginnings of Political Thought in Antiquity: The Near-
Eastern Civilizations and the Greeks” represented a critical juncture in these
deliberations.90 In a fine opening essay on methodology in the examination of
ancient political thought, Sally Humphreys contests the idea of what constitutes
political space, which she sees as predicated upon “a definition of politics
created by the Greeks,” while a process of comparison between ancient political
formations should be “to problematize this definition, to explain how it came to
be accepted and what it excluded.”91 The same definition of the political has
been used for comparisons between early Greece and the Near East by some
recent writers to justify their claims that “the political was for the first time
discovered in Athens in approximately the first half of the fifth century B.C.”92
This has resulted in the transposition of the model of the “small, homogenous

known for his magisterial The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the
Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton and London: Princeton UP, 1975); while Quentin Skinner
has written the influential The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols (Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1979).
For an important seminar on this topic, see Kurt Raaflaub (ed.), Anfange politischen denkers in der
Antille: nahostliochen Kulturen und die Griechen Schriften des Historischen Kollegs [Beginnings of
Political Thought in Antiquity: The Near-Eastern Civilizations and the Greeks] (Kolloquien 24
Munchen: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1993). See in this volume Martin Bernal, “Phoenician Politics and
Egyptian Justice in Ancient Greece,” Anfange politischen denkers in der Antille, reprinted in Black
Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics, ed. Martin Bernal and David Chioni
Moore (Durham: Duke UP, 2001) 345–72. Also see Nancy Demand, “Poleis on Cyprus and Oriental
Despotism,” More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis, ed. Mogens Herman Hansen and Kurt
Raaflaub (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996) 7–15.
Raaflaub (1993).
Humphreys (1993).
Ibid: 3. Sally Humphreys refers here to the recent book by Christian Meier, The Greek Discovery of
Politics, trans. David McClintock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990). For a review that com-
pletely accepts Meier’s view on the origin of politics, see J. Peter Euben, “Review of the Greek
Discovery of Politics,” Political Theory 20 (1992) 152–57. Also see the introduction to J. Peter
Euben, John R. Wallach, and Josiah Ober (ed.), Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction
of American Democracy (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1994) during which the authors state on
page 10: “Athens and its political thought hardly provide a biblical vocabulary for progressive
thinking about democracy today, but its importance transcends its position as the first link in the
historical chain of democratic practices and ideas in Western political and intellectual traditions.”


Greek polis community [. . .] to the level of the whole of Egypt or [. . .] Meso-

potamian empire.”93 Even the definition of the political proposed by as noted a
Eurocentrist as Weber might be preferable, as Weber’s definition is based on
ideas of “authority and power, with legitimate and illegitimate forms of domi-
nation.”94 Weber’s schema allows one to see “significant resemblances between
early Greek and Near Eastern political thought clustering round the concept of
justice.”95 The use and abuse of authority, the right to citizenship and discussions
around these issues “provide our best evidence for political discourse,” since
“the comparative data on representations and contestations of authority, power
and legitimacy are richer than the material on conceptions and representations
of political identity, and the two themes often appear in conjunction.”96 Com-
parison, without a hegemonic conception of what constitutes the political, can
be used to “sharpen our awareness of the peculiarities of ‘politics’ and the
‘political’ as Western cultural categories, which distort our perception of other
societies and conceal from us aspects of our own experience.”97 In a more direct
attack on the trope of “oriental despotism,” Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg notes
that Herodotus himself can be mobilized to attack notions of oriental despo-
tism.98 The idea that the “Persian empire was the paramount example of an
Oriental monarchy without [. . .] much philosophy or political thinking behind
its luxurious palace walls” is an artifact of fifth-century Greek thought, and
should be discarded, along with the “tacit assum[ption] [. . .] that Persian politi-
cal thinking is non-existent.”99 A true perspective on Persian politics and political
thinking might be gained by “attempt[ing] to describe Persian thought [. . .] on
the basis of Persian sources.”100 An analysis of these sources and a less culturally
biased view of history suggests that “it is definitely harmful to describe the
Persian empire as an Oriental monarchy” and the “analysis of Near Eastern
history would considerably improve if the use of terms like Orient, Oriental
despotism and Oriental behaviour were entirely omitted.”101

Humphreys (1993): 4.
Ibid: 5.
Ibid: 7.
Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “Political Concepts in Old-Persian Royal Inscriptions,” Anfange
politischen denkers in der Antille: nahostliochen Kulturen und die Griechen Schriften des His-
torischen Kollegs [The Beginnings of Political Thought in Antiquity: The Near-Eastern Civiliza-
tions and the Greeks], ed. Kurt Raaflaub (Kolloquien 24 Munchen: R. Oldenbourg Verlag., 1993)
Ibid: 145, 146.
Ibid: 145.
Ibid: 147.


Martin Bernal’s contribution to this conference focused less on methodology

and more on issues of transmission and influence.102 His focus is on the first
millennium B.C.E., from the establishment of the polis between the ninth and
seventh centuries B.C.E., and Aristotle. Bernal points out that the use of “lots” in
the decision-making process of Canaanite states negates the understanding that
“Greek cities differed categorically from Phoenician ones in being ‘free’ while the
latter were authoritarian.”103 He uses linguistic evidence to make the claim that
several Greek words concerning law, justice, and politics have Egyptian roots, and
argues that Lykourgos, Solon, and Plato journeyed to Egypt, and brought back
with them key aspects of legal and constitutional forms they discovered there, an
argument which is supported by the ancient writers. This legacy of borrowing and
adaptation of constitutional forms resulted in the high esteem that Greek philoso-
phers had of Egypt as the original home of justice, particularly poignant in light
of their general contempt for non-Greeks who they considered to be simply
unmitigated barbarians.
In a further exploration of the legacy of the ancient polis, Nancy Demand has
made a couple of important interventions on the issue of the polis and oriental
despotism.104 Chastising the narrowness of contemporary definitions of the polis,
Demand shows that this perspective eliminates Cypriotic kingdoms from consid-
eration, as does the idea of oriental despotism, an idea applied to them only in
recent times but not in antiquity.105 Demand’s interest is in critiquing the very
concept of oriental despotism and in “rehabilitat[ing] the Cypriot kingdoms as
legitimate forms of Greeks states,” which leads her to suggest that “some modern
scholars are [. . .] employing definition by opposition, seizing upon a creation of
the Greeks own propaganda, Oriental despotism, in order to define the polis and
therefore to present their own political system as its political heir.”106
Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince also exposes the fundamental
Eurocentrism of works like Orlando Patterson’s Freedom in the Making of
Western Culture.107 The title of Patterson’s first section “The Still Birth of Freedom

Bernal (2001).
Demand (1996).
While not expanding on the point of the legacy of the polis in the Near East, Springborg makes the
point that “urban, entrepreneurial society of the riverine and littoral civilizations of Greece,
Mesopotamia and the Levant produced city-republican forms that have endured from the third
millennium BC.” See Springborg (1992): 51.
Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For
a fine review of Patterson highlighting the absurdity of his argument, see Martin Bernal, “Review
of Freedom in the Making of Western Culture,” American Journal of Sociology 97 (1992): 1471–


in the Non-Western World” is revealed as deeply problematic by Springborg’s

scholarship which shows that “Lagash has the honour of recording in its annals the
first known use of the word ‘freedom,’ celebrated in the Urukagina Reform
Document of around 2350 BC in terms strikingly similar reminiscent of Solon’s
seisachtheia nearly 1800 years later.”108 In a similar argument, Bernal points out
that “during the fourteenth century BC, we have the first reference to the people
as sovereign in a Levantine city,” and “the contrast between servility and freedom
[. . .] existed in Mesopotamia since at least the third millennium,” with the obvious
conclusion that “it is European cultural arrogance to claim that the Greeks
invented the concept of freedom.”109 In a more direct attack on Patterson’s book,
Bernal declares it to be “fatally flawed” and points out a number of factual errors
that Patterson makes which he attributes to his “Eurocentric blinkers.”110 These
errors include suggesting that ancient China was preliterate and the failure to
identify Carthage as a slave society, which is due to Patterson’s reluctance to
acknowledge the existence of slave societies in the Near East before the classical
Greeks. Patterson’s belief that the Greeks were the first to create a mass-
participation, large-scale government is dismissed by Bernal, who proceeds to
point out features of Near Eastern cities that not only seriously contest Patterson’s
argument, but suggest that in writing Freedom he had a vision of the Near East
similar to stereotypes of oriental despotism. His case for a Plato-Nato trans-
mission of freedom from the ancient Greeks to America is for Bernal “not made
persuasively,” and Bernal doubts “that the classical Greeks invented freedom or
that there is one Western thread leading from ancient Greece to the modern
But if the canon of political thought can be critiqued from an evidentiary basis,
it is certainly more vulnerable to critique from a philosophical basis. Certainly, the
standard approach to teaching Western political thought is utterly in a thrall to
the trope of “Western civilization,” which suggests that a searching critique of
its canon is well overdue. An examination of two highly influential surveys of
Western political thought can help to make this point. George H. Sabine’s A
History of Political Thought was first published in 1937 and widely—and
justifiably—is considered a fine survey of Western political thought.112 Its contri-
bution to political theorizing means that the following critique is not voiced as a
dismissal of it as a text, but advanced to show the shortcomings of its approach to

Springborg (1992): 8.
Bernal (1989): 22, 26.
Bernal (1992).
George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).
Originally published in 1937, it has been reissued since then in 1973 in a revised form by Thomas
L. Thorson.


the “origins” of Western political thought. Though Sabine’s opening line of

chapter 2 (titled “the city state”)—“Most modern political ideals—such as justice,
liberty, constitutional government, and respect for the law—or at least the defini-
tions of them, began with the reflection of Greek thinkers upon the institutions of
the city-state”—can now be dismissed as pure fiction, it is chapter 1, written by
Thomas L. Thorson for the fourth edition in 1973, that should command our
attention.113 In a deft excision of the social and political practices of the majority
of the world’s cultures, Thorson states that in political theory “our primary object
of study is a collection of writings and not [. . .] actual political institutions,
practices and customs.”114 Close attention should be given to Thorson’s definition
of political theorizing:

If we were to define political theory as broadly as “any thinking about politics or relevant to
politics” we would come close to including all human thinking of all time. But political theory as
we shall mean it in this book is the “disciplined” investigation of political problems and as such it
was invented at a particular place, namely among the Hellenes in what we now call Greece, and at
a more or less specific time, during the fifth century before Christ.115

The main issue to note in this definition is the idea that despite the presence of
earlier cultures that may have made contributions to the intellectual history
of humanity, it was in Greece that “man crossed the threshold of science, philoso-
phy and political theory.”116 Justification for these grossly universalistic and
Eurocentric comments is attempted by consigning pre-Hellene thought to the
category of “myth.” Thorson manages to directly contradict himself on this same
score when he suggests that while the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians
“underst[ood] [. . .] the relationship between man, the earth, and the heavens [. . .]
very much in the form of myth, their actual handling of this fundamental subject
matter was extraordinarily precise and sophisticated,” followed by the com-
ment that the astronomical and architectural advances of those civilizations

The quoted line is from Sabine (1973): 19. For Thorson’s acknowledgment of himself as the author
of the first chapter of the revised edition, see “Preface to the fourth edition” in Sabine (1973).
Ibid: 4, my italics.
Ibid: 3–4.
Ibid: 7, 15. It is hard to trust the objectivity of Thorson’s sweeping claims in his opening chapter,
when comments like “The Golden Age of Athens [. . .] which we look back upon with reverence”
are routinely made, along with comments like the following, referring to myth in the East and West,
“the distinctions indeed are [. . .] much sharper in the West than in the East and this is no accident,
for it is Western man and not Eastern man who is the direct cultural descendant of the Greeks.”
Thorson’s views are further complicated by his approving quotation of McNeill, who though an
unapologetic Eurocentrist, states that “Even before Cyrus’ time, a cluster of petty Greek city states
had begun to create a civilization which, while drawing upon the Orient for many of its elements,
was nevertheless profoundly different in quality.” Sabine (1973): 12, my italics.


“represented considerably greater advancements than the Greeks with their more
‘scientific’ approach were able to achieve.”117 Apart from displaying a colossal
ignorance of the scientific advances of Near Eastern civilizations and Egypt,
Thorson achieves little.118 His one concession to political theorizing in the ancient
Near East is divulged with shades of the “oriental despot” thesis:

For all of the turmoil and imperfection that characterized the history of the ancient Middle East, a
kind of political model is nonetheless discernable. The political order is focused in a god-king,
supported and surrounded by a priestly bureaucracy whose members interpret the world through the
form of myth refined into a mathematical astronomy-astrology.119

This, of course, refers to Egypt, which also apparently was able to “prefect a
relatively static style of life and thought,” which “provides an important and
illuminating contrast to the Greek invention of philosophy.”120 Strangely, Thorson
never explains what was the nature of this “illuminating contrast,” and why Greek
thought represented such a categorical leap over it that it should be confined to
little more than a sideshow in the history of political ideas. It is, unfortunately, in
such guileless ways that the trope of “Western civilization” is inscripted upon an
entire discipline.
J. S. McClelland’s A History of Western Political Thought (1996), written in a
later era, is similarly prey to these assumptions.121 McClelland, as is customary,
starts his book with ancient Greek political thought. The opening sentences are as
follows—“The ancient Greeks are said to have invented political theorising, but
the sense in which they invented it is frequently misunderstood. Systematic
reflection about politics certainly did not begin with Plato, and Plato himself
certainly did not wake up one day, find that he had nothing much on his hands, and
begin to write the Republic.”122 Nowhere does McClelland attempt to suggest what
the critical distinction between the “systematic reflection about politics” that
existed before the Greeks, or indeed, what might have been the influences on Plato
that led to the Republic. Nor can he resist the temptation of the “oriental despot”
thesis. According to McClelland, in the Greek polis “the law was always for

Ibid: 14.
For a recent argument on science in antiquity, see Martin Bernal, “Animadversions on the Origins
of Western Science,” Isis 83 (1992): 596–607; along with Robert Palter’s response “Black Athena,
Afrocentrism, and the History of Science,” History of Science 31 (1993): 227–87; and Bernal’s
rejoinder, “Response to Robert Palter,” History of Science 32 (1994) 445–64.
Sabine (1973): 15.
Ibid: 10.
J. S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought (London and New York: Routledge,
Ibid: 4.


something beyond the timid acquiescence required by an eastern despot.”123

McClelland’s A History of Western Political Thought, after well over 700 pages,
ends “symbolically [. . .] with Nietzsche [. . .] and chronologically with the sup-
posed European bankruptcy of Marxism” which manages to excise the entire
anti-colonial movement in the twentieth century from consideration.124 Nietzsche
is instrumental as his “work already contains all the equipment necessary to a
thoroughgoing piece-by-piece dismantling of the whole enterprise of political
theorising as traditionally conceived.”125 A sophisticated reading of Nietzsche in
1900 may well have allowed one access to the conclusions of the next three or four
generations of European thought, but as it were, “it was mainly from later voices
that Europeans were to learn the things which were so fundamentally to under-
mine the intellectual foundations of their civilisation.”126 We cannot tell from what
sources those voices came—as they are not named—but again we see the excision
of the memory of the great decolonization movements of the twentieth century.
Can these movements that resulted in tremendous shifts in the geo-politics of the
century still be dismissed as outside of the canon of political thought?
The call for a re-thinking of the canon does not merely extend to areas previ-
ously neglected by the canon of Western political thought, and promulgate their
inclusion as “appendages” either before or after the main canon—that is, adding
Egypt and the Near East before and anti-colonial thought after. There is a funda-
mental need to re-think the material included in the Western canon throughout its
history and consider the ruses by which canons come into being. Preliminary
questions might include the following: How do we evaluate and comprehend the
complicity of many of the most influential Western political theorists in the
construction of the modern colonial world? What is the role of gender in this new
canon?127 How do we theorize the defense of colonialism and transatlantic slavery

Ibid: 10. See also McClelland’s reference to the “civilized despotisms of the east” on page 9.
Lewis Gordon has recently suggested that this perspective denies the existence of “authentic
twentieth century thought”: “At the end of the twentieth century, much thought has been devoted
to the conflict between its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century legacies. From what is considered the
failure of Hegel’s and Marx’s legacies, Adam Smith is often advanced (eighteenth century) or
Neitzsche is advanced (nineteenth). Authentically twentieth-century thought was a rarity, at least
with regard to theorizing the social world.” Lewis R. Gordon, “Africana Thought and African
Diasporic Studies,” The Black Scholar 30 (2000): 25–30.
McClelland (1996): 786. Little needs to be said about such an extraordinary comment, but for those
who believe that Nietzsche’s contribution would have been enough, if he had been originally read
correctly, to deconstruct what Charles W. Mills calls the “racial polity” would do well to read
William A. Preston’s provocative essay “Nietzsche on Blacks,” Existence in Black: An Anthology
of Black Existential Philosophy, ed. Lewis R. Gordon (London: Routledge, 1997) 167–72.
McClelland (1996): 786.
As I have already stated, Stuurman is aware of this issue, see Stuurman (2000): 153, fn. 17. The
critical interventions by feminist philosophers on the canon of political thought are vast and include


and the creation of the idea of the colonial subject without the right of citizenship,
outside of the “social contract,” by many of the key figures of the Enlighten-
ment?128 And crucially, when we speak of political thought, what is the nature of
the political that we seek to assess, and does it by definition exclude non-Western
forms of political organization? The very history of ideas of the Western canon is
distorted by not considering the imperial context of the time, as postcolonial
critics and philosophers from Edward Said to Charles Mills have consistently
argued.129 My larger aim here, then, is a call for the revision of what is seen as the
legitimate parameters of the discipline of political philosophy.


In conclusion, a return to Springborg highlights one of the problems with the

traditional canon that her remarkable book does not quite escape. In her discussion
of the reasons for the falsifications of history that she methodically outlines, her
position becomes evident. Springborg’s understanding of the reasons for these
distortions is worthy of further examination:

Such historical inversions are due less to malice or a predilection for untruth, than they are to the
ideological status of the claims involved—as provisional truths staking out territory and hoping,
thereby, to create facts. They are due also to the nature of stereotyping: the characterization of the
East as the “other”, or merely as the negation of all that was being claimed for the West, by
polemicists knowing, in fact, very little about it.130

the following: Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1988); Mary
Lyndon Shanley, Feminist Interpretations and Political Theory (University Park: Pennsylvania
State University, 1991); Diana Coole, Women in Political Theory: From Ancient Misogyny to
Contemporary Feminism (Boulder, CO: L. Rienner, 1993); Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (ed.),
Feminists Theorize the Political (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Some publications that immediately come to mind include: James Farr, “ ‘So Vile and Miserable an
Estate’ The Problem of Slavery in Locke’s Political Thought,” Political Theory 14 (1986): 263–89;
H. M. Bracken, “Essence, Accident and Race,” Hermathena CXVI (1973): 81–96; Emmanuel C.
Eze (ed.) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997); Leon
Poliakov, “Racism from the Enlightenment to the Age of Imperialism,” Racism and Colonialism,
ed. Robert Ross (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982) 55–64; Lewis R. Gordon, Bad
Faith and Antiblack Racism (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1995); Charles W. Mills, The Racial
Contract (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), see also the critical commentary on
this book in Small Axe 4 (September 1998); Susan E. Babbitt and Sue Campbell (ed.), Racism and
Philosophy (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1999); and the many writings of Sylvia Wynter, see
her interview with David Scott, “The Re-enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia
Wynter,” Small Axe 8 (2000): 119–207.
Said (1978); Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London and New York: Vintage, 1993); Mills
Springborg (1992): 20.


Springborg’s position still seems to reflect a belief that these distortions were part
of a series of highly problematic, but historically understandable, falsifications in
Western thought. Certainly in the case of Africa, Valentin Mudimbe has pointed
out, the project of creating knowledge of Africa had little to do with Africa itself
at all, and in the European concept of Africa “the will to truth [. . .] seems to
espouse perfectly a will to power.”131 The question becomes whether these distor-
tions are not better conceptualized as a general reflection of the nature of the order
of knowledge itself. This is a critical part of the terrain of Western political thought
that anti-colonial thinkers, and “third world liberationists” need to continue to
interrogate, if we are to effect an epistemological break with what I term the
abduction systems of Western civilization, a tradition of critique of the West which
includes among its most prominent members C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, Aimé
Césaire, and Sylvia Wynter. My purpose here has been to show that this critique
can be deepened by a muse into ancient history, which demonstrates the incon-
sistencies in the “evidentiary” bases of the tropes of Eurocentrism, Western
Civilization, and the canon of Western political thought.

University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus

Valentin Mudimbe quoted by Ioan Davies in his essay “Negotiating African Culture: Toward a
Decolonization of the Fetish,” The Cultures of Globalization, ed. Fredric Jameson and Masao
Miyoshi (Durham and London: Duke UP, 1998) 125–45.