My book manuscript—Luck: The Politics of an Illusion—responds to contemporary discourses on luck and justice by returning to Greek political thought. In particular, I examine the idea of luck (tuchē) in the political writings of Aristotle, Thucydides, and Euripides. I focus on these ancient Greek thinkers because, for all their differences, they approach the topic of luck from a strongly skeptical and psychological vantage point. Whereas many contemporary political theorists argue that democratic societies should seek to neutralize the effects of luck on the lives of citizens (for example, in the literature on “luck egalitarianism”), Aristotle, Thucydides, and Euripides doubt that luck exists “out there” as something to be neutralized. Rather, luck is a psychological phenomenon, which remains politically significant insofar as perceptions of good or bad luck elicit intense emotions and threaten to corrupt judgment. At the same time, each author offers distinctive reflections on phronetic and courageous political agency—reflections intended to guide citizens as they confront circumstances that many people would regard as extremely lucky or unlucky, salvific or calamitous. As soon as I place this manuscript with a university press, I will turn to my second book project, which concerns factional conflict in both classical Athens and the United States.
Below you can find abstracts of my published and forthcoming essays:
The Political Significance of Luck: A Thucydidean Perspective
Daniel Schillinger (Political Research Quarterly, September 2020)
Abstract: Contemporary authorities invoke luck to explain the arbitrariness of economic success, to emphasize our shared vulnerability to disaster, and to urge more generous policy, legislation, and governance. According to Robert Frank, Martha Nussbaum, and Ronald Dworkin, for example, extreme bad luck can befall individuals no matter what they know or do. By reframing the idea of luck as a psychological phenomenon rather than as a constitutive principle of the world, this article challenges the contemporary consensus. My approach to luck arises out of my engagement with the political thought of Thucydides. Whereas influential interpreters present Thucydides as a witness to the crushing power of bad luck, and whereas they criticize Thucydides’ Pericles for being insufficiently deferential to bad luck, I revisit and defend Pericles’ skeptical and psychological approach to luck, and I go on to argue that Thucydides shares this approach. The pathological intellectual and emotional responses to apparent good or bad luck diagnosed by Pericles recur throughout the History and influence the evolution of the whole war. Going beyond Pericles, Thucydides shows that the appeal of luck arises out of a human need to explain, beautify, or lament what is merely haphazard coincidence, natural necessity, or awful suffering.
Political Theory and Political Platonisms
Daniel Schillinger and Liam Klein (6,000-word, refereed “Guide through the Political Theory Archive,” forthcoming in a special online issue of Political Theory)
Abstract: In this Guide through the Political Theory Archive, we examine influential appropriations of Platonic thought for contemporary political purposes, which we call “political Platonisms.” The authors that we feature in our Guide—Arlene Saxonhouse, J. Peter Euben, Dana Villa, Steven B. Smith, Christina Tarnopolsky, and Carlos Frankel—approach Plato as an interlocutor in whose company they think through live political debates on topics such as the demands of democratic deliberation and citizenship, the sources of individual freedom, and the place of women and religion in political life. On the one hand, we show how these authors successfully use Plato to gain critical distance on contemporary politics and political theory, thereby improving our self-knowledge. On the other hand, and inspired by Montaigne, we put to each “political Platonism” two skeptical questions: whose Plato? and to what purpose? In our view, a chief danger for political theorists writing on Plato is that of domestication: when Plato is congratulated for anticipating our own politics, he becomes an authoritative “deep voice” rather than a generative interlocutor.
Aristotle's Psychological Approach to the Idea of Luck
Daniel Schillinger (The Review of Metaphysics, September 2019)
Abstract: My reading of Physics 2.4–6 shows that, for Aristotle, the idea of luck (tuchē) refers to an explanation or a description of action as opposed to a cause of it. More precisely, the idea of luck is invoked when an unexpected outcome appears to have a striking effect on human flourishing in the eyes of some agent or observer. Aristotle’s psychological approach to the idea of luck has important implications for his ethical thought. Viewed as an explanation, luck does not necessarily nullify voluntary action. On my interpretation of Nicomachean Ethics 3.1, Aristotle argues for an expansive conception of voluntariness that encompasses all actions knowingly initiated—even many actions undertaken in lucky or unlucky circumstances or issuing in lucky or unlucky effects. Aristotle thereby illuminates the seriousness of agency and the task of practical wisdom—to deliberate and to act in accordance with circumstance and to take responsibility for one’s own actions without invoking bad luck as an excuse.
Steel or Poison: Machiavelli on Conspiracy
Daniel Schillinger and David Polansky (Interpretation, September 2018)
Abstract: Machiavelli’s life, times, and writings converge on the topic of conspiracy. Yet Machiavelli’s treatment of this topic is both more expansive and more complex than scholars have recognized. Attending to Discourse III.6, among other central passages, we argue that the significance of conspiracy for Machiavelli’s political thought lies in its connection to founding. In his analyses of historical conspiracies, Machiavelli shows what founding requires in practice; at the same time, the ubiquitous occurrence of conspiracies across historical and political contexts reveals the contested and contingent status of political order. Ultimately, Machiavelli depicts and analyzes conspiracies because he aims not only to investigate but also to produce new beginnings. Toward this end, Machiavelli deploys a novel rhetoric that challenges the reader to adopt a conspiratorial outlook, if not to become a conspirator himself.
Aristotle, Equity, and Democracy
Daniel Schillinger (Polis, September 2018)
Abstract: Aristotelian equity (epieikeia) has often been relegated to scholarly discussions of retributive justice. Recently, however, political theorists have recast equity as the virtue of a sympathetic democratic citizen. I build on this literature by offering a more precise explanation of equity’s internal structure and political significance. In particular, I reveal equity’s deliberative dimension. For Aristotle, equitable citizens, statesmen, and legislators correct or go beyond the law, as appropriate, not only when they render retrospective judgments about matters of punishment or distribution, but also when they deliberate about future-oriented questions of legislation or political action. In addition, I show, more concretely, the role of equity in democratic citizenship. Drawing upon the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, I argue that the Athenian demos exemplified equity when it brought about the reconciliation and the amnesty of 403 BC. Attention to this episode clarifies the conceptual linkages between equity, deliberation, sympathy, and democracy.
Luck and Character in Machiavelli's Political Thought
Daniel Schillinger (History of Political Thought, December 2016)
Abstract: Is Machiavelli’s virtuoso responsible for his character? A number of scholarly authorities insist that Machiavelli ascribes to the man of ‘virtue’ the capacity to shape both his own nature and those of his fellows freely and at will. Putting this claim to the test, I show that even a virtuous character is, in Machiavelli’s own view, internally vulnerable to fortune. At the same time, Machiavelli argues that the experience of serious misfortune can, paradoxically, push the princely individual, and a republic led by such individuals, to develop virtue.