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Response to Richard Ned Lebow

I have known Ned Lebow longer than anyone else who has contributed to this volume. We were PhD students together at Yale in the mid-1960s, both leaving early and without the best of feelings about the place. For many years after that, I saw Ned rarely at professional meetings, our interests having developed in markedly different directions. This changed not long after I retired to southern California and, for several years running, Ned spent two or three late-winter months a year at the University of California, Irvine. We discovered the intervening years had given us much to talk about - our lives, the field, late converging interests.

One of those interests is Classical Greek thought. Ned came to this interest through Thucydides (and I am forever impressed that Ned studied Greek in order to read Thucydides unfiltered). I came to it by virtue of an interest in republican theory as exemplified by Aristotle’s work. In Plato and Aristotle, Ned found the seeds of a cultural theory of international relations (appropriating the title of his magnificent 2008 book) in their tripartite conception of the human soul (psuche). The soul’s three parts are appetite (desires that we always seek to satisfy), spirit (the self-esteem or sense of self-worth that we all need) and reason (the capacity to stand back, have some perspective and exercise self-restraint) (see generally Ch. 2).

On Ned’s account, these are “fundamental drives” (2008, 60). Reason - “not instrumental reason, but reason the drive” - is weaker than the other two and recedes from view. Reason yields to fear. “Fear is an emotion, not a fundamental human drive” (89). Ned might have said more directly what Hobbes concluded: fear is an entirely reasonable response to others’ pursuit of their appetites or need for esteem.

In any event, Ned ended up with three ideal-typical worlds, respectively based on appetites, spirit and fear, and oriented to gratification, standing and security. They populate the historical record in various mixtures. A fourth world based on reason lurks “in the background as a kind of ideal or Platonic form” (94). Ned reproduces his three-worlds model in his essay in this volume. I am pleased that he does so, because I think he got things right.

“Standing, security and wealth are the controlling interests of humanity We recognize them everywhere.” These are my words, not Ned’s (Onuf 1989, 278). I too move from ideal types to mixed societies. We both attach much importance to standing and honor, and especially, but not only, in traditional societies. However mixed with modern features, international society is a deeply, distinctively traditional world in its own right.

Ned’s book applies his tripartite scheme to international relations over several centuries. His essay applies it to the country of which we are both citizens - a country that has experienced a ‘striking polarization’ in the last twenty-five years. Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle also lived in difficult times, and, as Ned points out, they shared a great concern over the breakdown of the social order (stasis) and what might be done to prevent it. This is Ned’s great concern today: “The very fabric of the American social and political order is being stressed.” As that order “unravels,” Aristotle most of all has much to teach us about “what might be done to retard or forestall stasis.”

There are two possibilities here. One foresees breakdown as civil war. The United States experienced a devastating, still-reverberating civil war 150 years ago; it would be foolish to think it can never happen again. The other possibility is not breakdown but the transition from a republican order, a time of “robust hierarches,” to oligarchy, which is the unrestrained, self-interested rule by a privileged few. Superimposed on Aristotle’s abiding concern for stasis is his canonical assessment of the conditions of rule in any political society Oligarchy is aristocracy’s evil twin, the inevitable result of concentrated privilege and its corruption.

Whether societies break down or undergo turbulent transitions is a matter of perspective. Close at hand, we see breakdown. Standing back, we see the displacement and reorganization of rule. As concerned citizens, Ned and I fear the former. As scholars hoping for some measure of detachment, we differ, at least in emphasis. Ned sees appetites run amok, breakdown looming; “two distinct cultures are emerging, characterized by different, and arguably incompatible, beliefs, values and expectations.” I see a republic in decay, rigid hierarchies and the onset of oligarchy - not just in the United States, but globally

Ned can stand back just as well as I can. The difference between us, I think, stems from where we start. His frame of reference is Liberalism (not that he would call himself a liberal), mine Republicanism. Ned holds that “breakdown is the result of imbalance. Reason loses control of spirit or appetite.” When reason succumbs to appetite, the center cannot hold, and the always-fragile balance among interest groups gives way. When reason falls to the demands of self-esteem, the imbalance is more specific: elites take control of everything.

“The most damaging kind of imbalance is at the elite level.” Ned says this emphatically and repeatedly. He is right, and it is happening in the United States. To say as much is to voice a deeply republican fear. Ned is too immersed in liberal noise to hear his own voice, and thus to realize that the problem is not the threat of breakdown but the transition to oligarchy.


Lebow, Richard Ned. 2008. A Cultural Theory of International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Onuf, Nicholas Greenwood. 1989 [2012]. World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press [Abingdon: Routledge].

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