Subjectivity: Ancient and Modern, edited by R. J. Snell and Steven R McGuire. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016. $95 cloth.
"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." These modern words of John Stuart Mill loom large in the background of liberal-democratic political debates today. Such debates are often resolved by reference to "dignity" and "rights," which confer on an individual a claim of absolute non-interference from others. After all, modern politics surely exists to protect the subject. But if pluralistic democracies endorse the concept of subjective rights, they disagree about the standard by which these rights ought to be exercised--or whether any such standard even exists. Does this turn liberty into license? Does an embrace of subjective natural rights consign us to a modern subjectivism in which rights simply referee a more peaceful war of all against all? Or, on the other hand, do we mistakenly assume that the emphasis on the subject is uniquely modern? Is it possible that the modern focus on the subject is not a radical break with classical natural Right, but rather the fruition of its latent promise? Such a possibility is the focus of Subjectivity: Ancient and Modern.
In this volume, R. J. Snell and Steven R McGuire have assembled a strong cast of contributors with diverse backgrounds and disciplinary commitments. The lineup includes experts on Voegelin, Strauss, Lonergan, and Natural Law--both traditional and "New." The authors' essays flow out of a conference which lent to the volume not only its title but also its format. Each of the eight chapters is followed by a response that seeks to engage, critique, and develop the chapter theme. Accordingly (and appropriately), the book does not simply read as a collection of essays exploring the topic of subjectivity but as an intersubjective conversation. We hear distinct voices and explore diverse traditions in hopes that the particularity of each will reveal something about the common humanity we share. The volume does not disappoint.
McGuire opens by exploring Aristotle through the eyes of Eric Voegelin. Voegelin famously lauded the ancients, while describing Hegel--that essential modern thinker--as a "sorcerer" who prepared the way for contemporary tyranny. Yet McGuire argues that Voegelin's Aristotle already displays a latent (if perhaps wavering) focus on the subject. Aristotle's virtues of justice, friendship, and prudence are not simply theoretical virtues but existential ones. For example, prudence is not simply an application of objective principles in the realm of subjective persons, but "the truth of existence in the reality of action in concrete
situations" (11). McGuire also points out that prudence cannot be transmitted by information but must be grasped by insight. This coheres with Voegelin's guiding emphasis on symbols over ideas, and his consequent belief that experiences give meaning to terms. McGuire concludes that, as subjects, we...