The Descent of the Public
The Westphalian project and the fate of the Public
Part of the After Westphalia series
The Westphalian moment in European history marked the culmination of what might be called the Greek project: the completion of the construction of a continent-scale consciousness in Europe that understood itself as the Enlightenment. It also marked the simultaneous birth of both the central European conceit and the central European doubt underlying global modernity. The central conceit lay in the self-certainty that to be civilized was to rise to a collective consciousness of a European variety. The central doubt lay in the lingering suspicion that perhaps the European story was that of a fall from the heights of Greece, one that had continued past the Renaissance, rather than a rise to a new and improved consciousness.
The tension between these rise and fall narratives has remained unresolved in the idea of the Westphalian nation-state, and manifested as schizophrenic national identities around the world. So to envision post-Westphalian futures, we must first understand this tension. We must ask: in what sense did Europe rise to the Westphalian moment, and in what sense did it fall to it?
From at least one perspective — that of global antiquity — the conceit underlying the rise narrative was arguably justified. What made Europe in 1648 uniquely civilized (whether or not one accepts it as a superior mode of being civilized) was not a uniquely secular and rational European intellectual sensibility, but the presence of a continent-scale consciousness, and a shared story of its emergence. After 1648, there was something it was like to be a European; something Borg-drone like. And it was something bigger than being merely French, German, or even Christian.
The other prominent cultures of antiquity that had persisted into early modernity — China, India, and Persia — did not then, and arguably still do not, have a unified, native-born consciousness of themselves that is coextensive with their geographies. The civilizational consciousness each of these cultures possesses today is an import — the Westphalian consciousness, in the form of a formalist household-like understanding of nationhood, furnished with contents opportunistically sourced from local history, with a European sense of priorities and significance.
Even the contents themselves are frequently the product of European archaeology and historiography operating abroad, pursuing quintessentially Westphalian curiosities into questions of the origin of shared consciousness.
Take the Mauryan emperor Ashoka for instance. A central figure in India’s account of itself today, he had been forgotten to the point of being essentially unknown in India before the arrival of the British. Colonial archaeologists, primed to seek a civilizing textual consciousness everywhere, in deciphering edicts in forgotten scripts carved on stone tablets and pillars throughout the subcontinent, discovered Ashoka. And in discovering him, they also constructed him as a sort of subcontinental Charlemagne, creating a mythic figure eagerly embraced by nationalists desperate for a European sense of selfhood through which to see and be seen in the emerging community of nations.
As a result, modern India’s idea of itself as a “land of peace” rests largely on the fiction of an unbroken historical tradition of pacifism stretching from Ashoka in the third century BC to figures like Gandhi in modernity, cast into a standardized Westphalian mould of uniquely exceptional nationhood.
Another key modern element of the historical idea of India is the installation of what one might call a Grecian rhyme as an origin myth. In modern textbooks, the otherwise obscure and marginal Vajji confederacy of aristocratic republics (notable primarily for the Buddha having descended from one of them, the Licchavis on his mother’s side) is sometimes cast in the role of a subcontinental Greece, an ancient crucible of something vaguely resembling democracy.
The point of these Indian historical vignettes is that arguably, there is nothing it is like to be Indian that is not in some sense an imported European sense of identity.
While this imported consciousness is not necessarily false (the underlying history is real enough) it is certainly not native. As best as we can reconstruct it today, the elites of non-European antiquities possessed a very different mythologized, quasi-religious consciousness of themselves as ruling classes. And the masses arguably had no meaningful larger consciousness of themselves at all, beyond perhaps the scale of villages.
The elites were Brahmins or Kshatriyas, Confucians or Legalists. The masses were mainly just miserable. And none of them became “Indian” or “Chinese” until the Great Westphalian Operating System descended across the world, making such geographically delimited and Other-referenced identities possible.
In the conventional telling, the story of Europe is the story of a rise. A city-scale consciousness bootstrapped in Ancient Greece, and installed Europe-wide at the Peace of Westphalia, in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. Along the way, national consciousnesses took shape (mainly via the events of the 100 years war).
In the beginning, there was something it was like to be Greek or Roman. Then there was something it was like to be Christian. Then there was something it was like to be English, French, or Swiss. And finally, after the Peace of Westphalia, there was something it was like to be European. There the story sort of ended. Beyond, there was something it was like for non-Europeans to be themselves in a European way, but nothing it was like to be global in any way, for anyone. The Westphalian consciousness hit its upper limit at the scale of a culturally contiguous part-continent.
From another point of view, however, one best laid out by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, the story is the story of a fall from the Grecian ideal of a public of free men to a condition of monarchial subjects confined to societal-scale domesticity. A condition where there are no humans who are truly free, and even the monarch possesses only an impoverished and lonely substitute for freedom: sovereignty. In the Arendtian imagination, the monarch was a degenerate network effect of one node, a pale shadow of the Greek citizen. A lonely fax machine with no other fax machines to talk to.
Past the Westphalian moment, the tale gets even grimmer in Arendt’s telling — the sovereign loses sovereignty, 17th century empiricists and natural philosophers turn into the bureaucrats of 20th century procedural scientism, and enlightenment liberalism, flourishing among pre-democratic elitist states, gives way to mob-like democracies that inevitably devolve into communism or fascism.
The Westphalian European, in Arendt’s telling of the story, was a fallen Greek. His destiny was to fall further into the totalitarian void of twentieth century Europe.
To be sure, he had learned a few things since Greece — the morality elevating calculus of transgression and forgiveness from the Christian tradition, the spirit of empiricism from Galileo and Spinoza, and the spirit of exploratory discovery from Columbus. But overall, the Westphalian European represented a fall of the human from the Greek ideal. In this version of the story, Enlightenment liberalism was a sort of rearguard action by a shrinking class of free humans. It was a case of après nous, le déluge in the face of encroaching democratic domesticity, not a new genius coming alive.
Arendt’s notional history of Europe can also be understood as a secularized, historicized telling of a story that exercises a powerful hold over the European imagination: the Garden of Eden story. In Arendt’s version, as in that of many Europeans, Greece rather than some mythical Middle Eastern location is the garden.
If the mythology of the Old Testament is that of a Paradise Lost, that of the Arendtian reading of European history is that of the Greek Polis Lost, first to a monarchial domesticity featuring petty courtly intrigues and beefs in place of profound philosophical debates, then to a limited intellectual class concerned with narrow questions of empirical science, and eventually to an unenlightened end state peopled by unwashed masses entirely lacking anything resembling freedom or the capacity for it, vulnerable to the Hitlers and Stalins of the twentieth century.
For this version of the story, Twitter feuds passing for discourse is not an avoidable effect of thoughtlessly deployed technology, but a natural terminal state of the public at the end of a millennia-long trajectory of decline. Improvements in mass media technologies merely accelerate an inevitable future. They do not create it.
For Arendt, as for many Europeans, it was the polis, the Greek city as a capital-P Public, that embodied all the specific civilizational virtues of Greece celebrated by European history, such as a spirit of skeptical inquiry, democracy, and republicanism. Without a viable Public, none of these Greek Goods could exist.
The condition of the modern, twentieth century human, living in a bureaucratized, homogenizing cage of nation-state citizenship, is like that of the women and slaves of Grecian antiquity, confined to domesticity, lacking access to the public sphere, and therefore all capacity for free action. A condition in which the meaning of life is reduced to rare moments of blissful relief punctuating the relentless animal labor that life imposes on all.
In a narrow form, Arendt anticipated Francis Fukuyama’s End of History argument, and foresaw the connection, now a commonplace talking point, between the arrival of the Last Man, and the death of the public.
In his fall from the freedom of the Grecian polis, the noble Greek Man not only turns into Fukuyama’s contemptible Last Man, but he also loses the space — the public — to even aspire to something better.
The great tragedy in Arendt’s telling of the tale is the loss of the public as both a physical space, and as a social condition of freedom flowering in mutuality. And with the loss of the public, there is a loss of hope for the human condition. The Last Man is the Last Man because without access to a viable public, he has nowhere to go to discover or construct the next version of himself.
And no, a Slack or Discord peopled by a subculture will not do. In the Arendtian account of history, there can only be one public, and nowhere else to go to be free. It is the only space where humans can be freely and fully human. A space where they can “appear” to have their deeds — true actions, driving irreversible historic events — recognized and woven into history. Just history. Not European history. Arendt’s conception of freedom is pluralistic, but her conception of history is curiously monolithic and totalizing. It does not entertain the possibility of divergent, plural histories, or a condition marked by a distributed network of publics.
The Arendtian public is not merely a space where politicians do their politicking, and poets compose their epics. It is the canonical locus of a universal and totalizing human civilizational story, where the stream of conscious of humanity’s collective experience settles into its collective memory. Ideas by themselves do not belong in this memory, only ideas that weave irreversible events into the story. The only story.
To me, this conception feels curiously incomplete: this idea of a public is not one of a space where consequential events themselves take place, merely one where they are integrated into collective memory as myth and ceremony.
Arendt has little to say about the events themselves, or of the significance of the loci — typically far from the polis — where they occur. Though two of the three major events she recognizes as genuinely historically significant for Europe (Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, and Galileo peering at the skies through a telescope, the third being Martin Luther’s act of religious rebellion) occurred at the frontier edges of the European consciousness, she is concerned only with their impact on the public consciousness within the European civilizational core. By an Arendtian logic, Columbus’ return to Europe with tales of riches matters more than the discovery of America itself. The trial of Galileo and the effect of his work on the Catholic Church matters more than his astronomical discoveries.
Arendtian history is an oddly static and inward-looking history, one more concerned with the memorialization of events at a locus of immutable significance rather than events themselves, in their own settings with their shifting patterns of significance. Warriors win glory on barbarian battlefields and are immortalized when they return and appear in public, by being written into history, and memorialized in public statuary and iconography. That is all that matters. Discoveries on frontiers merely supply positions of leverage from which to impact posterity. They are of no consequence in themselves. If it does not shape the history of the public, it does not matter.
The shortcomings of the Arendtian notion of a public, arguably, are not a feature of her thought per se, but an accurate description of the idea of a public itself, as practiced and performed through European history. For the European across ages, the public was a singular consequential space where a singular canonical history of all humanity was scripted. As one retreated from the public, one passed through civilized lands, and eventually ended up in barbarian lands or on frontiers, there to conflict with the uncivilized and expand the realm of the civilized. One only left the public in order to return to it with something worthy of inclusion in history. The universe beyond the public was merely an instrument for the advancement of the story within it.
The soul of history resided in the public, where the civilizing mission originated, and to which it returned.
It was this understanding of a public, buried deep within the European unconscious, that was recognized and woven into the idea of a state that took shape at the Peace of Westphalia. Notions of freedom, agency, and history were crafted with reference to relationships among monarchs, between monarchs and religions, and between monarchs and citizens. And all of it was crafted with an eye on posterity, as remembered in the public record. The Westphalian consciousness, ultimately, is one rooted in the public record. When it wandered beyond Europe, it sought out public records to interpret and construct every alien consciousness it encountered as civilized or not, to greater or lesser degree.
The Peace of Westphalia was a peace conceived in terms of the future of a specific institution — the court of the early modern European monarch, the fallen Greek polis. The essential commitments of the peace were to the contours of a bureaucratic religious détente; to the scaffolding of what eventually become the modern idea of a nation-state.
The rise of a scientific consciousness that accompanied the subsequent evolution of a nation state, arguably, happened despite the hardening of the bureaucratic, Westphalian household-like state, not because of it.
With the Peace of Westphalia, as we saw in the introductory July 3 essay, a household-like totalizing order descended on Europe. The Greek polis went from model of aspirational future state to wistful cultural memory. Europe retreated indoors to an essentially domestic understanding of itself.
The polis to Arendt, was a fragile space, one that European history progressively undermined and destroyed. The polis required protection from enslaving encroachment by household-like spaces, and as history unfolded, the protection weakened steadily, or was deliberately withdrawn. The public shrank, the private and the domestic expanded, and freedom — The One True Greek Freedom — died.
For Arendt, the purpose of the law is in fact to delineate and preserve the boundaries of the public, and defend it from the private, domestic, and wild. Beyond those boundaries, natural law prevails, inducing the logic of domesticity via the animal constraints of life. Within, it, an artificial law prevails, preserving a fragile freedom and capacity for real, historically consequential action. This artificiality — a function of the engineered durability of the public as a space — was, for Arendt, the only worthwhile thing about the human condition. The rest was just scaffolding.
But despite its hostility to a pluralist conception of publics and histories, its irredeemably gloomy view of private and domestic spaces, and its fundamental indifference to frontier and wild spaces, there is something to Arendt’s story of the decline of the public. To the extent that the specifically European idea of a public has shaped the global idea of the Westphalian nation-state, it animates a larger decline.
So to imagine a post-Westphalian condition, one must necessarily re-imagine the idea of a public (I wrote about some aspects of this in my May 1 essay), and do so by looking beyond the idea of Europe to other sources. In the next essay in this series, we will look at the first of these sources: Islam.