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Marcus Garvey

Classical Influences and the Ideal State

Much of Garvey's theory of education---with its emphasis on self-mastery and self-culture as precursors to good race leadership---can be traced to the classical model of education, where the training of the child is the basis of virtue, and virtue in turn is the necessary requirement of statesmanship. "Governing the Ideal State," written by Garvey in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1925, manifests the influence of classical philosophy on Garvey's thought and on his view of contemporary political events. The essay stands also as a propagandistic exercise in self-vindication in the wake of Garvey's recent conviction on fraud charges. It offers an indictment of the behavior of UNIA leaders and staff members whose misconduct Garvey felt had led to his imprisonment. It is also a scathing comment on the American political system at large and on the widespread corruption among government officials and leaders in the era of the Teapot Dome scandal.

Garvey enjoyed using classical allusions to convey to his audiences the concept of greatness and nobility. In his 1914 pamphlet A Talk with Afro-West Indians, he urged his readers to "arise, take on the toga of race pride, and throw off the brand of ignominy which has kept you back for so many centuries." Nearly two decades later he told readers that "the mind of Cicero" was not "purely Roman, neither were the minds of Socrates and Plato purely Greek." He went on to characterize these classical figures as members of an elite company of noble characters, "the Empire of whose minds extended around the world."  The title of his 1927 Poetic Meditations of Marcus Garvey parallels the title of the work of the "philosopher-emperor" of Rome, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121--180). Like the work of Marcus Aurelius, Garvey's meditations included a fascination with the themes of conduct and the moral tenets of Stoicism and Platonism.

In fact, Garvey subsequently described his "Governing the Ideal State" as an abstract exercise to be likened to "Plato's Republic and Utopia." And like Plato and the Greeks, Garvey shared a strong belief, though he applied it to Africa of antiquity, in the notion of historical decline from a golden age. Garvey believed civilizations were subject to an inevitable cyclical process of degeneration and regeneration. In one of his earliest essays, entitled "The British West Indies in the Mirror of Civilization" published in the October 1913 issue of the African Times and Orient Review, he held up the prospect of a future historical role for West Indian black people in relation to Africa on the premise of this cyclical view. "I would point my critical friends to history and its lessons," he advised, then proceeded to draw what was to be one of his favorite historical parallels: "Would Caesar have believed that the country he was invading in 55 B.C. would be the seat of the greatest Empire of the World? Had it been suggested to him would he not have laughed at it as a huge joke? Yet it has come true." The essay is important as an early example of the equation, in Garvey's mind, of history with empire building and decline.

In "Governing the Ideal State," he announced the failure of modern systems of government and called for a return to the concept of the archaic state, ruled over by an "absolute authority," or what Aristotle termed an absolute kingship. The fact that Garvey was well versed in Aristotle is highlighted by his request to his wife, shortly after the beginning of his imprisonment, to send him a copy of A. E. Taylor's Aristotle (1919), a standard commentary. In his essay, Garvey rejected democracy in favor of a system of monarchy or oligarchy similar to the one presented in Aristotle's Politics, the rule of "one best man," along with an administrative aristocracy of virtuous citizens. As was the case in Aristotle's utopia-where those individuals with a disproportionate number of friends would be ostracized from society, while an individual demonstrating disproportionate virtue should be embraced and given supreme authority---in Garvey's ideal state the virtuous ruler would have no close associations other than with his family and, free from the corrupting influences that companionship might bring, would devote full attention to the responsibilities of state.




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