I’m just on the train back from the ESHPT conference on ‘Crisis and Renewal in the History of Political Thought’ in Heidelberg and, as so often happens after an event like this, I’m both completely exhausted but also in good spirits and keen to get back to my research full of new ideas. I also notice that I enjoy those kinds of conferences more as I get older because some of the people there I have known for years and several of them by now have become good friends. What brings us together is our passion for the History of Political Thought as well as our curiosity and love for debate.
In case you are wondering, the ESHPT is the European Society for the History of Political Thought which has been around for roughly ten years now. It was founded at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence by scholars from all over Europe to facilitate communication between people established in the field and the younger ones still trying to find a place in the research community.
‘Crisis and Renewal’ proved a productive subject in the city where Reinhardt Koselleck once wrote his dissertation, ‘Kritik und Krise’, in 1954. While ‘turning crisis into opportunity’ became somewhat of a platitude during the Financial Crisis of 2008, the conference was a reminder that the word ‘crisis’ is not just used to describe a period of intense difficulty, but also a critical moment when a decision has to be made, and this decision can turn things around.
Andrea Catanzaro from the University of Genova analysed the use of the ancient Greek krísis in Plato’s political works (primarily the Laws), where it mainly carries the meaning of choosing, deciding or resolving an issue after due consideration. A crisis can have a positive or a negative outcome. It does not have to be something inherently bad. Thus, George Gallwey from Harvard University showed how economic crisis became the basis for constitutional reform in the early United States, while Erica Benner from Berlin pointed out in her keynote that a certain amount of drama is part and parcel of a functioning democracy.
In fact, Niccolò Machiavelli, who had studied and analysed democratic or popular governments, believed that tumulti were normal and necessary, while it was discordiae that he thought one should worry about because they did harm to a polity. Benner also made the point that citizens – by their lack of action – are often complicit in crisis and that it might sometimes be worthwhile thinking about what the people could do to help the situation.
The papers and discussions dealt primarily with the past, but present-day politics were always hovering somewhere: worries about a decline of democracy in the West, the shenanigans of an unpredictable individual like Donald Trump wreaking havoc on international security, the threats of climate change or even nuclear war.
Part of the reason why past and present talk to each other at political thought conferences is that some things don’t change. There will always be conflicts about power, the distribution of resources, the relationship between religion and secular government. While it is important to read political thinkers in their own context and to relate their ideas to their own immediate environment, there is also a part of political thought that is timeless based on general observations on humankind and that can be transferred and applied to other times and other situations.
It was no accident that about half of the papers I listened to referred to Aristotle, many to Machiavelli, a few to Thomas Hobbes and James Harrington, and others to Karl Marx. They are thinkers who have shaped our world and who can still offer important insights on political life. There is no harm in looking to the past to find answers for the present.