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Acclaiming the Greek Invention of a Civic Identity

The invention of a civic identity was the first magisterial contribution of the Greeks to Western civilization without which their other accomplishments would have been impossible. Citizenship is a form of identity intended to bring unity of purpose, a general will to action, to communities naturally divided along class and kinship lines. But, contrary to the established interpretation, the Greeks did not practice, or originate, a form of citizenship politics “regardless of nationality or race”.

This essay is a continuation of my critique of the European New Right’s view that the contemporary ideology of egalitarianism/universalism is rooted in Christianity. Alain de Benoist writes in Beyond Human Rights that “Christian universalism” — the proclamation of the “moral unity of mankind” according to which all humans belong to a universal community — “contains the seeds of all later developments of the idea of fundamental equality”.1 He traces the modern idea that all humans are born with the same natural rights to the Christian idea that each human being is the equal possessor of a soul that is spiritually transcendent and independent of any racial or cultural identity. Alain de Benoist also attributes to Christianity a fanatical millennialism characterized by continuous moral crusades to remake the world in its own image.

The problems with this explanation begin with the assumption that Christianity was uninfluenced by the rational universalism of ancient Greek philosophy. The problems continue with the complete absence of any contextual appreciation of the way Christianity developed into a universal Church by drawing on, and actually making use of, the worldly reality of Pax Romana. St Augustine conceived his vision of the unity of mankind and the idea of a universal social bond inside the Roman Empire. He could not have done so outside this actual territorial unity. Christianity did develop systematically and consecratedly the vision of the unity of mankind, but this development was not inherent to the New Testament; it took place centuries after within the cultural matrix of Greco-Roman civilization. It is the case, moreover, that the Christian understanding of the “unity of mankind” could not have been about racial unity since Europeans only became intellectual and consciously aware of the reality of race, the first people to do so, with the Enlightenment.

I will address in a future essay the Hellenization, Romanization, and Germanization of Christianity. My aim here is to start arguing that rationalism and universalism are inherent features of the West, intrinsically connected to its creativity and dynamic. The German Max Weber was correct in detecting in Western civilization a “specific and peculiar rationalism” from ancient Greek times on. The West, and “only the West”, fostered ideas and values with universalistic ambitions, rationalizing in the course of time all spheres of life unlike any other civilization, cultivating a methodology for the study of nature that all cultures in the world, however, have come to imitate irrespective of their ethnic and religious identities. But this universalizing logos was, and may still be, uniquely European; it would be a mistake to underestimate its peculiarly ethno-cultural character, which transcends the methods of the natural sciences.

The Invention of Politics

I will start with the Greek invention of a civic identity. We should praise the ancient Greeks for being the first historical people to invent the abstract concept of citizenship, a civic identity not dependent on birth, wealth or tribal kinship, but based on laws common to all citizens. The Greeks were the first Westerners to be politically self-conscious in separating the principles of state organization and of political discourse from those of kinship organization, religious affairs and the interests of kings or particular aristocratic elites. The concept of citizenship transcended any one class but referred equally to all the free members of a city-state. Contrary to the prevailing view, the Greeks did not promote a concept of civic identity “regardless of their lineage and ethnic origin”.

Whenever we talk about the origins of Western universalism and the idea of a common humanity we must avoid projecting to the past developments that occurred much later in history with new origins and new social characteristics.

This separation of politics from other social spheres came with the creation of city states across the ancient Greek world sometime between 1200 and 650 BC, and their subsequent development, in varying political ways, in the centuries after. The city-state or polis was a new type of community dedicated to the promotion of a general will to action among diverse kin groups and classes based on a set of laws, statuses, offices, and institutions (nomos) applying equally to an otherwise socially diverse group. It is believed that by the sixth century the polis had “proved itself as a successful institution… exportable throughout the [Greek] Mediterranean…in Italy [and] the coast of Asia Minor”.2

Much has been written about what led the Greeks to group themselves into city-states; Charles Freeman reasons that it likely came out of necessity, the need to form more cohesive communities in a landscape populated by many hostile neighbors. Bruce Thornton thinks that it emerged “through the growth of a new class of men: those of the ‘middle’, neither aristocratic big men nor serfs dependent on the powerful landlords”. He has in mind small independent farmers associated with a new style of hoplite or armored infantry fighting. These men nurtured a new way of thinking and form of rule that

protected their agrarian interests, ensured equality among land-holding citizens, fostered justice, and avoided the dangers of class alliances and feuds, as well as the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of an aristocratic elite or one man.3

Thornton’s interpretation of the social origins of the polis comes from his excellent book, Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization (Encounter, 2000). In a chapter titled “The Birth of Political Man”, he goes through the writings of ancient Greeks who voiced this new consciousness of moderation and justice between the extremes of wealth and poverty, particularly in opposition to the excessive wealth and unrestrained militaristic behavior of power-hungry aristocrats prone to disrupt the unity of city-states by pursuing the interests of their own clan. He cites the great Athenian statesman of the early sixth century, Solon:

I have made laws for the good man and the bad [noble and commoner] alike,/and shaped a rule to suit each case, and set it down.

Ancient bust of Solon, purportedly
Ancient bust of Solon, purportedly

Solon sought to overcome the endless, divisive squabbling of clannish aristocratic men in the name of harmony, the “middle”, good order, avoidance of extremes, hubris and the insatiable desire for more honors and wealth on the part of tyrannical rich men. He aimed to promote the general (universal) good of the community. To this end, debt slavery was abolished and those who had been sold abroad were allowed to return as free men. The intention was to support a free self-sufficient peasantry against the greed of big landowners. To dilute the particularistic, family-oriented division of the city into aristocratic clans, Solon divided the population into four administrative classes according to the amount of produce yielded by their land holdings. The most powerful political offices were reserved for the wealthiest class, “but this was an aristocracy of wealth rather than one of birth and the old aristocratic clans now had no privileges other than as a result of their wealth”.4

Other offices were open to the second and third classes, and there was a right of appeal against the decisions of the high office holders. Solon is also said to have created a Council of Four Hundred with members chosen from each tribe, creating thereby a form of political rule and unity above clannish norms and interests. Solon discouraged the use of family funerals as a means for aristocrats to parade or display their clan’s power, encouraging instead public commemoration of the city’s dead. Finally, and most important of all, he provided an all-embracing code dealing with the laws of the state, criminal law, family relationships and commercial activity. The citizens of Athens were to be governed in common by this code of laws rather than ruled by the arbitrary tribal whims of particularistic aristocrats.

Although in my book Uniqueness of Western Civilization I barely wrote about the polis, and was uninformed generally about ethnic issues, I criticized Thornton (and Victor Davis Hanson) for overstating the importance of middling farmers in the origins of citizenship, or, ignoring the ultimate origins of this idea in the aristocratic individualism and egalitarianism of Mycenaeans and pre-historic Indo-Europeans with their council of peers where open discussion with kings was customary. The further democratization of Solon’s reforms by Cleisthenes and Pericles later on should not detract us from the lasting aristocratic spirit of the Greeks. As Freeman observes, using the work of Pauline Schmitt-Pantel, the community spirit of the city states was

fostered as a result of the traditional aristocratic values being adopted by the citizens of the polis as a whole. The duty of defense passes from the warrior-hero to the hoplite. The aristocratic feast, hitherto reserved for those of wealth and good birth, becomes a city feast in which all citizens participate after a communal sacrifice and are eligible for equal shares […] Another feature of aristocratic Greece, the idealization of the naked male body. The kouroi [the standing naked males in marble] have to be seen as a statement and it seems to be one concerned with the preservation of aristocratic values…This is a representation of arete, excellence, physical beauty allied to nobility of spirit.5

This is just a glimpse of the aristocratic spirit that permeated throughout Greek life — in the Olympic competitions, the philosophical contests in Plato’s dialogues, the rapid succession of original thinkers breaking new ground against the aura of their teachers, the theater festivals where writers competed for the adulation of the audience and prizes, etc, as I examined in my book. But what I like to emphasize now is something I ignored in my book: the immense novelty of the Greek invention of citizenship, a novelty undergoing much depreciation in current New Right circles where loose talk is common about the “tribal or blood” commonalities of the pre-rational Homeric Greeks.

For Aristotle the highest good of all humans could only be possible inside a polis, a “community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-fulfilling life”.6 Without the creation of the polis, the Greeks would have failed to transcend the barbaric world of contesting tribal families. As Nietzsche also understood, the Greeks achieved their “civility” by re-channeling the destructive feuding and blood lust of their barbarian past and placing their strife under certain common rules within city-states. Everything we have come to identify with the greatness of the ancient Greeks — their invention of the literary forms of tragedy and comedy, their invention of dramatic theater in which they explored deep psychological and cultural conflicts, their invention of prose writing, their discovery of the mind, their invention of logic, and much more — was made possible in-and-through the prior invention of a political order based on rule by laws equally and universally applicable to all citizens. This point is barely, if at all, stressed in discussions of the Greek Miracle.

Scholars have long recognized that the Greek “invention of politics” was unprecedented and of crucial significance to the subsequent development of a political discourse in the West in which politics would cease to be the purview of divine kinship “cloaked in the secrecy of the royal palace”. They are known to have “invented politics” itself — in believing that any citizen could deliberate rationally about political matters in a democratic manner. By the time of Pericles (495–429 BC), one of the main instruments of the government was an Assembly open to rich and poor alike in which the most important issues of Athens were debated and motions approved or rejected. The business of the Assembly was determined by a Council of Five Hundred made up of fifty selected from each of the ten Greek tribes representative of all the males over eighteenth who were free residents of Athens and whose parents were Athenian, which amounted to about 1 out of 10 of all the residents. They also invented politics in opening most of the offices of the state and functions of public life to the majority of citizens.

Many aristocratic thinkers distrusted the abilities of most men to use their rational capacities properly, and questioned the notion that men were essentially rational creatures, but what is unique to the Greeks is the realization that politics should include contested debates by citizens rather than being monopolized by clannish aristocrats lacking an appreciation of the wider interests of the community to which they belonged. They sought unity among the citizen residents, and, to this end, they invented the idea of citizenship capable of deliberating on political matters.

Ancient Greeks were neither Neocons nor Marxists

Current accounts of the polis recognize the undeniable fact that most residents were excluded from politics, but they would have us believe, in the words of Philippe Nemo, a liberal right wing French philosopher, that the Greeks developed “a form of citizenship in which individuals were abstracted from any other form of ethnic lineage.” These words are taken from What is the West? (2006). This book argues the West is different from other civilizations in having nurtured such universal values as democracy, freedom, critical reason, science, and open markets. There is truth to this, but I do question his claim that Greek citizenship contained an “abstract idea of the human person” “regardless of ethnic identity”.7 There was a more abstract idea of the members of the city-state, and the Greeks overall also developed a sense of their own Greekness as a free people ruled by laws in contrast to the Persians, but they did not develop an idea of citizenship in abstraction from their Greekness and from their residency and birth in particular city-states. The Greeks also did not develop a concept of democracy in which citizenship was open to anyone who immigrated to their city-states, since citizenship was open to free residents only.

Bruce Thornton, an American Neocon caught up in the hysteria that “we” are in a global war against Islam, expresses a similar view when he writes

Today, this idea [of citizenship], expanded to include all humanity, regardless of sex or country or race, lies at the heart of all attempts to create a just and free society.8

Clearly, Thornton is not saying that the Greeks already developed the idea of citizenship irrespective of sex and race. He is, nevertheless, drawing a direct teleological line between ancient Greek citizenship and the current idea that the United States is a propositional nation. Nemo is implying the same. They want us to believe that ancient Greece developed ideals of freedom and democracy for “humanity”. Thornton regularly uses phrases about “our common humanity” and the “equality of all men” in relation to the Greeks. This is the same line of reasoning European New Right thinkers employ in the case of Christianity. Both views are mistaken.

Cornelius Castoriadis, internationally known for his garrulous and boring book, The Imaginary Institution of Society (1977), pushes this argument further, as leftists always do, compelling “conservatives” to walk timorously behind them lest they be seen as reactionaries. Castoriadis ascribes to the ancient Greeks the main tenets of radical Marxism. He writes that the Greek concept of nomos, that one can create laws and alter those laws in the course of time, amounted “to explicitly putting into question the established institution of society.” “Nothing” was “sacred” or “natural” for the Greeks, he says; it was all about nomos, conventions and socially constructed identities.9

Not going to get into a long discussion about how wrong Castoriadis is except to say that the Greeks never set up a polar opposition between nomos and nature (or physis) but, in varying ways, believed that human conventions were best when they reflected and sought to perfect, by bringing to fruition, what was potentially already in nature. For Castoriadis the Greeks did not believe in any natural laws; humans could be molded into any imaginary figures. He loves the words “radical imaginary”. Imagine all the people. Greeks, apparently, taught us that we can abolish natural differences between the sexes and races and create a global community ruled by the ideas of Castoriadis.

It is hard to believe, but this is a standard way of reading the Greeks today across all campuses in the West; they are supposedly the harbingers of mass immigration, feminism, and the abolition of ethnic identities.

We must not concede the originality and greatness of our European ancestors to the cultural Marxists and this is why I am criticizing aspects of the European New Right that fall in line with the cultural Marxist take on the West. The West does eventually engender bad ideas, the left is driven by a “Faustian morale”, as I said in another essay, but we need a clear understanding of how this morale was derailed against the identity of European Man. We need to understand historically which developments in Western history are responsible for this derailment rather than ascribing to the West a teleological immanence from Greek (or Christian) times all the way to the present pathological state.

[1] Alain de Benoist, Beyond Human Rights, 2011: 29
[2] Charles Freeman, The Greek Achievement: Foundation of the Western World, 1999: 90
[3] Bruce Thornton, Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization, Encounter, 2000: 111
[4] Freeman: 105
[5] Ibid. 94
[6] As cited in Thornton: 124
[7] Philippe Nemo, What is the West?, 2006: 9, 12
[8] Thornton: 132
[9] See his essay “Power, Politics, Autonomy” in Cultural-Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project of the Enlightenment, eds., Axel Honneth, Thomas MacCarthy, Claus Offe, and Albrecht Wellmer, MIT Press, 1992
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