Domestic Faction in a Republic, Part I

George Seaver

Editor’s note: The following article is a research essay by one of our members, George Seaver, a former Teaching Fellow and postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is the second of a series of three essays on the key elements of stable republics: public virtue, the control of factions, and religion. In this essay Dr. Seaver emphasizes that factions—groups united by common beliefs—may be beneficial to a republic when properly checked, but they can become poisonous if given too much political license. He illustrates this by examining the various ways factions have been treated from the ancient republics to the United States today.

NAS is publishing this essay in three daily installments:

Part I: Factions in Sparta, Athens, Plato’s Republic, and Rome
Part II: Factions in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the United States Founding
Part III: Factions in the Postmodern United States

The opinions expressed in this guest article do not necessarily reflect the official position of the National Association of Scholars.

Domestic Faction in a Republic
From the Invisible Hand to Postmodern Poison

Philosophers, historians and political scientists describe three characteristics of stable republics that have been transcendent over 2500 years: public virtue, the control of factions and religion. My previous essay investigated the importance of public virtue, and I will discuss religion in a later essay. In this essay the irrepressible role of factions will be described over the long history of republics, with the perilous nature of such ideologies as Sophism and postmodernism, carried forth by public education, becoming evident.

Over this considerable period, faction has varied: in the Athenian republic they were based largely upon class and political loyalty; in Rome they were based on class, immigration status and political loyalty. At the beginning of the U.S. republic James Madison defined them:

By faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.1

Today, poisonous faction is generated by postmodern ideology, which began in higher education. Its doctrine of social justice singles out selected racial groups, cultural groups and women for preferences, groups that have a "common impulse of passion." What is termed the "era of civil rights," beginning with President Lyndon Johnson's equality-of-outcome in 1965, could equally be termed the "era of the rise of faction."  This essay will first consider the role factions played in the ancient republics of Sparta, Athens, Plato and Rome. Then it will discuss factions under the Renaissance from Machiavelli and under the Enlightenment from Montesquieu to John Adams. I will then consider the unique configuration to control the effect of factions developed by Madison and the founders from 1776 to 1788. Finally, I will describe the inversion of these concepts by the academic postmodernists, their "poisonous nature" and their similarity to the Sophists of Athens.

Throughout recorded history the control of the destructive nature of faction has been a central concern in structuring republics. Even before the Roman republic of 500 BC, confederation of republics were used in the Tuscan and Lombard regions north of what was to become Rome. This was to allow different peoples, different factions, to cooperate in their mutual defense, but these republics eventually fell to the better organized one that developed in Rome. We will begin with the ancient Greek republics.

I.  Factions in Ancient Sparta and Athens

The first recorded attempt to deal with factions structurally in a republic occurred in Sparta in 650 BC. It was successful in this respect for 500 years, but at a great cost to individual liberty. Its laws prevented immigration, population growth and citizen travel, as well as wealth, the arts and individual initiative. As John Adams noted, "Human nature perished under this frigid system."2 The government structure in Athens was quite different during this same period; popular government exercised power without balance, where individuals frequently pursued their own passions. The Greek historian Thucydides provided an account in 431 BC of the terrible effects of the resultant factions that had spread throughout Greece:

Words lost their significance: brutal rashness was fortitude; prudence, cowardice; modesty, effeminacy; and being wise in every thing, to be good for nothing: the hot temper was manly valour; calm deliberation, plausible knavery; he who boiled with indignation, was trustworthy. Connection of blood was less regarded than transient acquaintances: associations were not formed for mutual advantage, consistent with law, but for rapine against all law: truth was only communication of guilt: perjuries were master-pieces of cunning; the dupes only blushed, the villains most impudently triumphed. The source of all these evils is a thirst of power, from rapacious or ambitious passions… Such things will ever be, so long as human nature continues the same. 3

Also during this period, the time of Plato and Socrates in the 5th and 4th century BC, were the Sophists, who amplified the factious nature of Athens. They were traveling political and cultural teachers who professed cultural relativism, surprisingly similar to what the academic postmodernists would offer 2500 years later. Plato in his Sophist Dialogues written about 350 BC introduces the Sophist, "...for he is a professor of a...many-sided art." Reminiscent of the later postmodernists, Plato relates that "...the Sophists compelled us to search...the opposition of a part of the other, and of a part of being, to one another, is, if I may venture to say so, as truly essence as being itself, and implies not the opposite of being, but only what is other than being." The unmistakable aura is that of Derridian deconstruction and Foucautian discursive practices; but, as Plato observed, "The Sophist is not easily discovered,...runs away into the darkness of not-being, in which he has learned by habit to feel.., and cannot be discovered because of the darkness of the place." Finally, Plato concludes, "...the Sophist...who, belonging to the...dissembling section of the art of self-contradiction, is an imitator of appearance,...[of] the juggling of words, a creation human and not divine."4 It appears that Plato had a similar difficulty with the Sophists that some, for example the National Association of Scholars, now have with the postmodernists, discussed in section V.

The result at Athens, as Machiavelli would later frame it, is that their republican structure simply could not "...maintain the government against the insolence of the nobles and the license of the populace."5 John Adams observed that "this want of an equilibrium...spread through the whole extent of Greece: factions raged in every city"3; they "produced a never ending fluctuation in the national councils, massacres, proscriptions, banishment, death of the best citizens: the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides will inform us how the raging flames at last burnt out."6

Control of Faction in Plato's Republic

With this factious result as the backdrop, it is not surprising that Plato turned elsewhere and away from the popular government structure in 380 BC to inform his ideal republic. The government of Sparta was "generally applauded" by Plato, and termed a "government of honor" by Socrates.7 It is important to present in detail the structuring of Plato's ideal republic in regard to faction, as it demonstrates what is entailed when government seeks to control factions by restricting them directly, rather than by controlling their effects. This will become important later when the challenge of faction is resolved in a different manner by the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787. Sparta's success in eliminating faction led Plato to structure his ideal republic by formally segregating the guardian class (the rulers and soldiers) from the workers. The central statement of Plato's republic is that citizens should not covet or wish to go beyond their original condition in life. This would eliminate the 'poisonous nature of faction.' As Plato framed it:

And the shoemaker was not allowed by us to be husbandman, or a weaver, or a builder...; but to him and to every other worker was assigned one work for which he was by nature fitted, and at that he was to continue working all his life long, and at no other6… But when the cobbler or any other man whom nature designed to be a trader, having his heart lifted up by wealth or strength or the number of his followers, or any like advantage, attempts to force his way into the class of warriors, or a warrior into that of legislators and guardians, for which he is unfitted, and either take the implements or the duties of the other,…this meddling of one with the other is the ruin of the state…This then is injustice; and on the other hand when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their own business, that is justice, and will make the city just.8

In order to accomplish this limit on "the nature of man,"1 Plato structured his republic with particular policies and laws regarding family and children:

...the guardians of either sex should have all their pursuits in common...The law which is the sequel to this and of all that has preceded, is to the following effect: That the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, not any child his parents…the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible; and that they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first rate condition. Now these goings on must be a secret which the rulers only know, or there will be a further danger of our herd, as the guardians may be termed, breaking out into rebellion…the number of weddings is a matter which must be left to the discretion of the rulers, whose aim will be to preserve the average population.9

Education and the arts (music, poetry, culture) are also configured to support the basic structure of Plato's ideal republic. Socrates asks "And shall we just carelessly allow the children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we would wish them to have when they are grown up?" He answers his question:

Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only.  Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mold the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded.10

Education, music, poetry and culture were intended to support the republic. As Socrates framed it:

Then the lying poet has no place in our idea of God...These are the kinds of sentiments about the gods which will arouse our anger; and he who utters them shall be refused a chorus; neither shall we allow teachers to make use of them in the instruction of the young, meaning as we do, that our guardians, as far as men can be, should be true worshipers of the gods and like them.11

Socrates goes on to similarly criticize drama, music and sculpture that are frivolous, ignoble or sensuous. He wishes to incorporate these sentiments into law to prevent these artists from "practicing their art in our state,"

...lest the taste of our citizens be corrupted by him. We would not have our guardians grow up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul.11

At the time, Socrates' proposals startled his fellow conversationalists, as they do most modern philosophers. Allan Bloom greatly admired Socrates, and wrote that Plato's Republic "really explains to me what I experience as a man and a teacher." However, Bloom also "used it to point out what we should not hope for, as a teaching of moderation and resignation."12 There was a better way to control faction, which gradually developed into the law and the spirit of the laws, beginning with the Roman republic in 500 BC. With the exception of a brief dalliance with it in Florence in 1501, it was not until the 1960's and postmodern social justice that factions in a republic were again actually encouraged by government. We first turn to the Roman republic beginning in 500 BC with the development of the balance of factions, in this case of class, length of citizenship and, finally, political loyalty which developed in that order.

II. The Balancing of Faction in the Roman Republic

The conflict between the Roman Senate and the populace (the assemblies and tribunes), between the patricians and the plebeians was called the "Conflict of the Orders" and continued for 200 years, with the Tribunes slowly gaining more power. The constant tension, although at times disruptive and contrary to the successful example of Sparta, prevented either side from becoming a poisonous faction to the whole for some 400 years.

Rome's liberal policy of granting citizenship to strangers was also contrary to the successful practice of Sparta, but was necessary if Rome was to expand beyond her original population and geographical area. This "gave to the people greater power and infinite occasion for disturbance,"13 as Machiavelli observed. This tendency towards faction was controlled by developing the authority of the Tribunes, while retaining a balance with the senate. When the electoral influence of new citizens in Rome began to change the principles and institutions of government, Quintus Fabius in 230 BC, as keeper of the census, then enrolled these new citizens in separate assemblies (tribes), which narrowed their influence and prevented the corruption of the rest of Rome's institutions. This principled success met with widespread approval, and he was given the title Maximus.

Machiavelli summarized the choice that Rome made to begin its republic:

I believe it is therefore necessary rather to take the constitution of Rome as a model than that of any other republic, and to tolerate the differences that will arise between the Senate and the people as an unavoidable inconvenience in achieving greatness like that of Rome. Besides the other reasons alleged, which demonstrate the creation and authority of the Tribunes to have been necessary for the protection of liberty, it is easy to see the advantage which a republic must derive from the faculty of accusing, which amongst others was bestowed upon the Tribunes.14

'Accusing' in this sense means the authority of the Tribunes to investigate, formally hear and charge if necessary any citizen, magistrate or council of misdeeds. This structure that Rome included in their constitution was instructive to John Adams and was the prelude to James Madison's control of faction in his Federalist #51, as will be seen in section IV.

John Adams had great admiration for the Roman republic, and looked carefully at its structure to inform his efforts in structuring both the Massachusetts and the federal constitution. He cautioned that, towards the end of the republican era in Rome:

Citizens contended for offices in the state, as the road to lucrative appointments abroad; and when they had obtained this end, and had reigned for a while in some province, they brought back from their government a profusion of wealth ill acquired, and the habit of arbitrary and uncontrolled command. When disappointed in the pursuits of fortune abroad, they became the leaders of dangerous factions at home; or, when suddenly possessed of great wealth, they became the agents of corruption, to disseminate idleness and the love of ruinous amusement in the minds of the people.15

Late in the republic these consequences of distant colonies and their concomitant military service began to effect the balance of factions in Rome. The resultant political factions were not a problem earlier during the time of Cincinnatus, but became so when distant Spain became an important military theater. The lack of constitutional structure to lend balance to this larger republic, such as with federalism, and declining public virtue led to the instability. This was precipitated by Tiberius Gracchus in 134 BC and, then the collapse of the republic under Julius Caesar. It was not Tiberius' demand for land reform that caused the collapse, but rather the violent mob reaction against him and the inability of the Senate to control it that led to authoritarian rule.

To be continued...


1.     Madison, J. 1787: Federalist Paper Number 10, editor Isaac Kamnick, Penguin Books, London.

2.      Adams, J., 1787: A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Da Capo Press, NY.1971. pp. 257.          

3.    ibid., pg. V.

4.  Plato, 350 BC: Dialogues, Sophist. Encyclopedia Britannia, Inc. Translated by B. Jowett. Pgs. 554/55, 573/74, 571, 579.

5.     Machiavelli, Niccolo, 1513: The Discourses. The Modern Library, 1940, New York. pg. 115.

6.      Adams, John, ibid., pgs. 284, 285.

7.     Plato, 380 BC: The Republic, 8th Book. Walter J. Black,  Classics Club, NY. pg. 430.

8.     Plato, 380 BC: The Republic, 4th Book. Walter J. Black,  Classics Club, NY. pg. 324.

9.     Ibid., 5th Book, pg. 343.

10.  Ibid., 2nd Book, pg. 279.

11. Ibid., 2nd Book, pg. 286-288.

12.  Bloom, Alan, 1987: Closing of the American Mind. Simon&Schuster, NY. pg.381.

13.  Machiavelli, Niccolo, pg. 127.

14.  Ibid., pgs. 129, 130.

15.  Adams, John, ibid., pg. 357.



Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domains

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