Friday, February 26, 2016


Mogens Herman Hansen, Political Obligation in Ancient Greece and in the Modern World. Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica, 8, vol. 10. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab / The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2015. Pp. 75. ISBN 9788773043912. DKK 80.00 (pb).

Reviewed by J.J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania (

Version at BMCR home site

In the opening section of this short monograph, Professor Hansen distinguishes an obligation to obey the laws from a duty to obey the laws, explaining that a duty is "imposed by others" while an obligation is "a requirement which one has consented to fulfill (9)." The question then is how one can know that anyone has consented and thus incurred a political obligation.

In the next three sections, Hansen considers the social contract as the source of political obligation. In Glaucon's or Hobbes's version, "when people . . . realise that the damage they suffer by being treated unjustly by others exceeds the benefits they enjoy from treating others unjustly they enter into a covenant about not maltreating one another, whereby they avoid being maltreated themselves (10)." In Locke's version, Hansen identifies an original unanimous consent and a subsequent majority consent, both of which require one to obey the laws, though one whose consent is only tacit is at liberty to leave the society (11). Hume, Bentham, and Hegel rejected the social contract as the basis of political obligation (13).

The next three sections are devoted to describing the treatment of political obligation by more recent writers and in the Crito. Without the social contract, the question is whether citizens incur a political obligation by an explicit or an implicit acceptance. Absent explicit acceptance sworn by all inhabitants, which Hansen finds "is not practised in any modern state (15)," the question shifts to whether tacit acceptance suffices for political obligation. In the Crito, it is argued "that Socrates not by word (logô) but by deed (ergô) has showed his acceptance of the laws (16)." Hansen infers from this statement that Socrates had not taken the ephebic oath and that therefore this oath may have been instituted later than his coming of age (25-26). Hansen finds that the arguments of the Crito overlap those in the modern discussion of political obligation, of which there are five: gratitude to the state, membership in the state, fair play, tacit consent, and avoidance of collapse of the state (Hume's argument). Hansen further distinguishes tacit consent, where there is an opportunity for disavowal which is not taken, from implied consent, where no opportunity for disavowal is offered (21). Hansen will observe later that, apart from the dialogue with the personified laws in the Crito, "political obligation was not an issue in ancient Greek political thought (68-69)." The reason is that civic oaths taken by all citizens "solved the problem (69)."

The next five sections are devoted to these civic oaths, of which Hansen discusses six kinds, each with four components —the oath proper, the divinities invoked, regulations about taking the oath, and the sanction (32). The six kinds are the ephebic oath, the oath of allegiance to the politeia, the oath of allegiance to a party, the oath of reconciliation after a stasis, the oath after the merger of two cities, and the oath taken by both colonists and metropolitans upon the founding of a colony. Hansen offers examples of each.

In the four remaining sections, Hansen addresses the limits of political obligation in ancient Greece, discusses stasis, offers concluding remarks, and presents an epilogue. In the first of these sections, Hansen observes that there were requirements to rebel and break the law if necessary to defend the democracy. Thus political obligation insofar as it required keeping the law was conditional. In his section on stasis, Hansen points out that, in the Archaic and Classical periods, there is evidence for "279 outbreaks of stasis in 122 different poleis (63)"—evidence which may be incomplete. Hansen's concluding section brings out clearly the inefficacy of oaths for putting an end to stasis, which is consistent with more recent experience of the inefficacy of official actions such as writing a new constitution for putting an end to serious political differences;1 and it underscores the point that "the main purpose of the civic oaths was to protect or restore homonoia," though that was "endangered" by social tensions (69). The epilogue briefly addresses a different view of political obligation which goes beyond obeying the laws to active political participation. Hansen leaves the different view to a separate treatment, which it is to be hoped will be forthcoming. A select bibliography is supplied.

This volume succinctly brings together a large amount of information from material and literary sources. The reader will derive fresh insight from many of the pages, especially those in the treatment of oaths. Looking to the ancients to help us understand what we think we know about political obligation, as Hansen has done, is a revealing exercise. The book delivers on its promise "to combine a philosophical discussion of political obligation in the modern world with a historical study of the various forms of civic oath in the ancient Greek city-state culture (7)."

Although Socrates may not have sworn the ephebic oath, Hansen points out that Socrates "must have sworn" the oath of 410 to protect the democracy (26). His having sworn this oath might lead one to ask whether the all' ou in ergōi all' ou logōi at 52D5 ( ergōi alone in 51E3) should be taken as contrasting "permanent opposites"2 or perhaps otherwise. Burnet observed that some would bracket all' ou logōi but that the whole phrase "is a standing formula, and must not be too closely analysed."3 Comparatively recent work on the Crito may suggest caution in using the deed-word contrast here as a source for history or political theory.4

In his treatment of the moderns, Hansen gives the Plymouth Combination (Mayflower Compact) of November 11, 1620 as an example of a Lockean original contract (12, n.26), or perhaps compact,5 observing that neither Locke nor Hume mentions it. Hansen does not give a reason for their silence. Had Locke and Hume known of this combination, they still might have found it difficult to conceive of it as an original compact which would remove the signatories from the putative state of nature, since the signatories, even though they covenanted and combined themselves together by oath "into a civil body politic," also described themselves as "the Loyal Subjects of our dread Soveraign Lord King James" and acknowledged their king and country. The Plymouth colonists who identified themselves this way likely were not thinking of themselves as living entirely in a state of nature when this combination was made, since they acknowledged a sovereign. Under these conditions, the combination would have been more in the nature of by-laws than of a Lockean original compact, as would have been also, for example, the Exeter agreement of July 5, 1639 and the General Laws and Liberties of New Hampshire of March 16, 1680.6

The typographical or editorial failings (for example: 33, a missing period; 34, a missing reference; 64, a dummy reference) are of little consequence for Hansen's argument.


1.   Former Canadian MP Edward McWhinney, echoing the Abbé Sieyès, observes, "A pre-condition for any politically viable exercise in constitution-making is a prior political consensus" and "No constitutional charter can save a sick society!" Constitution-making: Principles, Process, Practice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), 134 and 136.
2.   J.D. Denniston, The Greek Particles, second edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 2.
3.  John Burnet, Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 206.
4.  For example: Melissa Lane, "Argument and Agreement in Plato's Crito," History of Political Thought 19,3 (1998), 313-330; Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato's Crito. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; Verity Harte, "Conflicting Values in Plato's Crito", Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 81,2 (1999), 117-147.
5.   Peter Laslett, John Locke: Two Treatises of Government, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 112: "We may notice that the word 'contract' does not occur more than about ten times in his book [the Treatises], and it is hardly ever applied to political matters at all. It is 'compact' or often mere 'agreement' which creates a society," etc. These different words apparently were intended in different senses, with 'contract' being comparatively narrow and legalistic—apparently too narrow for Locke's purpose. Hansen correctly gives "compact or agreement (11)."
6.   For these and other early American documents, see Donald S. Lutz, Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), especially 31-32, 3-4, 5-30.

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