Written by Vladimir Moss



1. Pre-Classical Origins

     According to Larry Siedentop, following Fustel de Coulanges, the origins of religious, social and political organization in Greece and Italy lay in the absolute power of the head of the family, the paterfamilias, in his own domain. Each family was centred around worship of the gods of the hearth, who were deceased males of the family. The head of the family was both the family’s king and priest; it was his duty to keep the hearth fire alight at all times and to carry out the prescribed rituals and prayers in honour of the family’s gods. Slaves and foreigners were not members of the family. The supreme value of the family was its own immortality - the worship of the past generations, the defence of the family’s members and property in the present, and the provision for future generations. For any son of the family not to take a bride was considered dereliction of duty and impiety, for it threatened that familial immortality. As for a bride who married into the family, she was expected to abandon the worship of her former family’s gods and transfer all her loyalty and worship to her husband’s family and his gods.

     “Other domestic practices in Greece and Rome – the subordinate role of women, the nature of marriage, property rights and inheritance rules – were also direct consequences of religious belief. Let us take the role of women first. Women could participate in the worship of the dead only through their father or husband. For descent was traced exclusively through the male line. But even then religion governed the definition of relationships so entirely that an adopted son, once he was admitted to the family worship, shared its ancestors, while a son who abandoned the family worship ceased altogether to be a relation, becoming unknown…

     “… The father exercised his authority on the basis of beliefs shared by the family. His was not an arbitrary power. The overwhelming imperative was to preserve family worship, and so to prevent his ancestors, untended, being cast into oblivion. This restriction of affection to the family circle gave it an extraordinary intensity. Charity, concern for humans as such, was not deemed a virtue, and would probably have been unintelligible. But fulfilling obligations attached to a role in the family was everything. ‘The sense of duty, natural affection, the religious idea – all these were confounded, were considered as one, and were expressed by the same word.’ That word was piety (pietas).”[1]

     As families came together into larger units, clans, tribes and cities, the exclusive, atomistic nature of each family’s worship was not destroyed. However, every new association of families required the worship of a new common divinity that was superior to the domestic divinities. A gradual movement from the more particular to the less particular, if not yet the universal, took place as the unit of social organization grew larger.

     “Religious ideas expanded with the increased scale of association. Fustel does not argue that religious progress brought about social progress in any simple way, but he does emphasize the intimate connection between the two. Thus, as the scale of association increased, the gods of nature or polytheism became more important – for these were gods who could more easily be shared, gods less exclusively domestic than ancestors, gods associated with the forces of nature rather than with divine ancestors. These were gods who represented the sea, the wind, fertility, light, love, hunting, with familiar names such as Apollo, Neptune, Venus, Diana and Jupiter. The building of civic temples to these gods offered physical evidence of the enlargement of religious ideas. Still, the gods of each city remained exclusive, so that while two cities might both adore ‘Jupiter’, he had different attributes in each city.

     “Particularism was the rule. Even after a city was founded, it was inconceivable for the city not to respect the divine ancestors, the sacred rites and magistrates of the different groups that had attended its foundation. For the souls of the dead were deemed to live under the ground of the cities they had helped to create. The statesman Solon, who in the sixth century BC endowed Athens with laws, was given the following advice by the oracle of Delphi: ‘Honour with worship the chiefs of the country, the dead who live under the earth.’ The city had to respect their authority in matters concerning their descendants. For the city’s authority was all of a piece with theirs. Gods and groups marched hand in hand.

     “This corporate, sacramental character of the ancient city dominated its formal organization. Whether it was a question of procedures for voting, military organization or religious sacrifices, care was taken to represent tribes, curiae and families – and to conduct civic life through them. It was deemed important that men should be associated most closely with others who sacrificed at the same altars. Altars were the bonds of human association. That emerged in the Greek and Roman conception of warfare. In one of Euripides’ plays, a soldier asserts that ‘the gods who fight with us are more powerful that those who fight on the side of the enemy…

     “Kingship was the highest priesthood, presiding over the cult established with the city itself. The king was hereditary high priest of that association of associations that was the ancient city. The king’s other functions, as magistrate and military leader, were simply the adjuncts of his religious authority. Who better to lead the city in war than the priest whose knowledge of the sacred formulas and prayers ‘saved’ the city every day? And, later, when kingship gave way to republican regimes, the chief magistrate of the city – the archon in Athens, the consul in Rome – remained a priest whose first duty was to offer sacrifices to the city’s gods. In fact, the circlet of leaves worn on the head of archons when conducting such sacrifices became a universal symbol of authority: the crown…”[2 

     Just as devotion to the family had been the supreme value in the original form of social organization, so devotion to the city - civic patriotism - now became the supreme value in the Greek and Italian city-states. Religion and politics were inextricably entangled.

     For “in devoting himself to the city before everything else, the citizen was serving his gods. No abstract principle of justice could give him pause. Piety and patriotism were one and the same thing. For the Greeks, to be without patriotism, to be anything less than an active citizen, was to be an ‘idiot’. That, indeed, is what the word originally meant, referring to anyone who retreated from the life of the city.”[3]

     However, the fact that kingship in Greece and Rome was not their original form of organization meant that it had shallower roots than in Babylon or Egypt; it was less absolute, less divine. And from the sixth century BC not only kingship, but even the aristocratic power of the heads of families and clans began to decline.

     “The first major change took place within the patriarchal families. Primogeniture came under attack and gradually gave way, with the consequence not only that younger sons inherited and became full citizens, but also that junior branches of the ancient families or gentes became independent. These developments greatly increased the number of citizens, and reduced the power of the ancient family heads as priests.

     “A second major change followed. The clients of the family were gradually liberated, becoming free men. At the outset the clients could not own property. They did not even have any security of tenure on land they worked for the paterfamilias. They were little better than slaves. ‘Possible the same series of social changes took place in antiquity which Europe saw in the middle ages, when the slaves in the country became serfs of the glebe, when the latter from serfs, taxable at will, were changed to serfs with a fixed rent, and when finally they were transformed… into peasant proprietors.’

     “Fundamental to these changes was a rise in expectations. That rise was, in turn, due to the comparisons that became possible once the patriarchal family was merely part of a larger association, the polis or city-state. No longer was the paterfamilias, the magistrate and priest, the only representative of authority in sight, the only spokesman of the gods. The paterfamilias gradually lost his semi-sacred status through being immersed in civic life. His inferiors now ‘could see each other, could confer together, could make an exchange of their desires and griefs, compare their masters, and obtain a glimpse of a better fate.’

     “Obtaining the right of property was their first and strongest desire, preceding any claim for the full privileges of citizenship. But the latter was bound to follow, for obtaining greater equality on one front only increased a sense of exclusion on the other. Citizenship, in turn, unleashed a process of abstraction which could and did threaten inherited inequalities.

     “No one understood this better than a series of rulers called tyrants. Tyranny was acceptable to the previously underprivileged classes because it was a means of undermining the old aristocracy. Tyrants were so called because ‘kingship’ evoked a religious role, a role that recalled the subordinations based on the ancient family and its worship. The lower classes supported tyrants in order to combat their former superiors. Tyranny was an instrument that could be discarded when it had served it purpose, unlike the sacred authority claimed by the original kings. It was an instrument serving a sense of relative deprivation…”[4]

     Here we find the first manifestation of that distinction that was to become so important in later European history: the distinction between the sacred, God-established power of the true king, and the impious, unlawful power of the usurper, or tyrant. Of course, such a distinction was implicit in the schism between the kingdom of Judah under Rehoboam and the kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam. But here it is associated, not so much with a schism within the higher leadership of the kingdom as with revolution from below, from the dispossessed plebs – that is, with class war.

     Civic society remained intensely religious, and no serious steps were taken without determining the will of gods through religious rites and sacrifices. But the broadening of the membership of the citizen body, and the gradual “plebicization” of public life had profound consequences. Thus “in Athens, the move from aristocratic to democratic government altered the nature of the tribes. They became, in a sense, offshoots of the public assembly, reflecting the claims of citizenship and voting rather than of the sacerdotal family. A similar symptom of social change in Rome appeared when the army was no longer organized simply according to family and gens. Instead, centuries – that is, numbers – became the basis of its organization. Former clients and plebeians had often become rich (the introduction of money facilitating the circulation of property) and they played an increasingly important military role. The original aristocratic means of making war, the cavalry, had declined as compared to expensive, heavily armoured infantry: Greek hoplites and Roman legionaries. Thus numbers and money – introducing a touch of abstraction – came to count for more within the privileged citizen class, supplementing its religious foundation…”[5]


2. Athenian Democracy

     Each of the main political systems is the reflection of a particular religious (or anti-religious) outlook on the world. Greek democracy was no exception to this rule. It was the expression of a particularly human view of God or the gods. Thus J.M. Roberts writes: “Greek gods and goddesses, for all their supernatural standing and power, are remarkably human. They express the humanity-centred quality of later Greek civilization. Much as it owed to Egypt and the East, Greek mythology and art usually presents its gods as better, or worse, men and women, a world away from the monsters of Assyria and Babylonia, or from Shiva the many-armed. Whoever is responsible, this is a religious revolution; its converse was the implication that men could be godlike. This is already apparent in Homer; perhaps he did as much as anyone to order the Greek supernatural in this way and he does not give much space to popular cults. He presents gods taking sides in the Trojan war in postures all too human. They compete with one another; while Poseidon harries the hero of The Odyssey, Athena takes his part. A later Greek critic grumbled that Homer ‘attributed to the gods everything that is disgraceful and blameworthy among men: theft, adultery and deceit’. It was a world which operated much like the actual world.”[6]

     If the gods were such uninspiring figures, it was hardly surprising that the kings (whether god-kings or not) should cease to inspire awe. Hence the trend, apparent from Homeric times, to desacralise kingship. For if in religion the universe was seen as “one great City of gods and men”, differing from each other not in nature but in power, why should there be any greater differences in the city of man? Just as gods can be punished by other gods, and men like Heracles can become gods themselves, so in the politics of the city-state rulers can be removed from power. There is no “divine right” of kings because even the gods do not have such unambiguous rights over men.

     As we pass from Homer to the fifth-century poets and dramatists, the same religious humanism, tending to place men on a par with the gods, is evident. Thus the conservative poet Pindar writes: “Single is the race, single / of men and gods: / From a single mother we both draw breath. / But a difference of power in everything / Keeps us apart.” Although cosmic justice must always be satisfied, and the men who defy the laws of the gods are always punished for their pride (hubris), nevertheless, in the plays of Aeschylus, for example, the men who rebel (e.g. Prometheus), are sometimes treated with greater sympathy than the gods against whom they rebel, who are depicted like the tyrannical capitalists of nineteenth-century Marxism. Even the conservative Sophocles puts a man-centred view of the universe into the mouth of his characters, as in the chorus in Antigone: “Many wonders there are, but none more wonderful / Than man, who rules the ocean…/ He is master of the ageless earth, to his own will bending / The immortal mother of gods.”

     We see the same secularizing and humanizing tendency in the fifth-century historian Herodotus. As Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, “For Herodotus, pride always comes before a fall, but he emphasizes that such failures are not the punishment of the gods, but rather result from human mistakes. This rational approach, in which the gods did not intervene in the affairs of men, was a major innovaion and formed the basis for the tradition of Western history.”[7]

     In about 415 BC the Sicilian writer Euhemerus developed the theory that the gods originated from the elaboration of actual historical persons.[8] This humanist tendency led, in Euripides, to open scepticism about the gods. Thus Queen Hecabe in The Trojan Women expresses scepticism about Zeus in very modern, almost Freudian tones: “You are past our finding out – whether you are the necessity of nature or the mind of human beings”. Euripides’ “gods and goddesses,” writes Michael Grant, “emerge as demonic psychological forces – which the application of human reason cannot possibly overcome – or as nasty seducers, or as figures of fun. Not surprisingly, the playwright was denounced as impious and atheistic, and it was true that under his scrutiny the plain man’s religion crumbled to pieces.”[9]

     If the dramatists could take such liberties, in spite of the fact that their dramas were staged in the context of a religious festival, it is not to be wondered at that the philosophers went still further. Thus Protagoras, the earliest of the sophists, wrote: “I know nothing about the gods, whether they are or are not, or what their shapes are. For many things make certain knowledge impossible – the obscurity of the theme and the shortness of human life.” And again: “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are; and of things that are not, that they are not.” Protagoras did not question the moral foundations of society in a thorough-going way, preferring to think that men should obey the institutions of society, which had been given them by the gods.[10] Thus he did not take the final step in the democratic argument, which consists in cutting the bond between human institutions (nomoV), on the one hand, and the Divine order of things (jusiV), on the other – a step that was not taken unequivocally until the French revolution in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, his thought shows that the movement towards democracy went hand in hand with religious scepticism.

     It is in the context of this gradual loss of faith in the official “Olympian” religion that Athenian Democracy arose. But just as Athens was not the whole of Greece, so Democracy was not the only form of government to be observed among the Greek city-states. In Sicily and on the coast of Asia Minor Monarchy still flourished. And on mainland Europe mixed constitutions including elements of all three forms of government were also to be found, most notably in Sparta.[11]


3. Herodotus on Politics

     This naturally led to a debate on which form was the best; and we find one debate on this subject recorded by the “Father of History”, Herodotus. He placed it, surprisingly, in the court of the Persian King Darius. Was this merely a literary device (although Herodotus, who had already encountered this objection, insisted that he was telling the truth)? Or did this indicate that the Despotism of Persia tolerated a freer spirit of inquiry and debate than is generally supposed? We do not know.

     In any case the debate – the first of its kind in western literature - is worth quoting at length:- “The first speaker was Otanes, and his theme was to recommend the establishment in Persia of popular government. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that the time has passed for any one man amongst us to have absolute power. Monarchy is neither pleasant nor good. You know to what lengths the pride of power carried Cambyses, and you have personal experience of the effect of the same thing in the conduct of the Magus [who had rebelled against Cambyses]. How can one fit monarchy into any sound system of ethics, when it allows a man to do whatever he likes without any responsibility or control? Even the best of men raised to such a position would be bound to change for the worse – he could not possibly see things as he used to do. The typical vices of a monarch are envy and pride; envy, because it is a natural human weakness, and pride, because excessive wealth and power lead to the delusion that he is something more than a man. These two vices are the root cause of all wickedness: both lead to acts of savage and unnatural violence. Absolute power ought, by rights, to preclude envy on the principle that the man who possesses it has also at command everything he could wish for; but in fact it is not so, as the behaviour of kings to their subjects proves: they are jealous of the best of them merely for continuing to live, and take pleasure in the worst; and no one is readier than a king to listen to tale-bearers. A king, again, is the most inconsistent of men; show him reasonably respect, and he is angry because you do not abase yourself before his majesty; abase yourself, and he hates you for being a toady. But the worst of all remains to be said – he breaks up the structure of ancient tradition and law, forces women to serve his pleasure, and puts men to death without trial. Contrast this with the rule of the people: first, it has the finest of all names to describe it – equality under the law; and, secondly, the people in power do none of the things that monarchs do. Under a government of the people a magistrate is appointed by lot and is held responsible for his conduct in office, and all questions are put up for open debate. For these reasons I propose that we do away with the monarchy, and raise the people to power; for the state and the people are synonymous terms.’”[12]

     Otanes’ main thesis is true as regards Despotic power, but false as regards Autocratic power, as we shall see; for Autocracy’s rule over the people is not absolute in that it is wielded only in “symphony” with the Church, which serves as its conscience and restraining power. The theme of “equality under the law” is also familiar from modern Democracy; it was soon to be subjected to penetrating criticism by Plato and Aristotle. As for the assertion that “the people in power do none of the things that monarchs do”, this was to be disproved even sooner by the experience of Athenian Democracy in the war with Sparta.

     “Otanes was followed by Megabyzus, who recommended the principle of oligarchy in the following words: ‘Insofar as Otanes spoke in favour of abolishing monarchy, I agree with him; but he is wrong in asking us to transfer political power to the people. The masses are a feckless lot – nowhere will you find more ignorance or irresponsibility or violence. It would be an intolerable thing to escape the murderous caprice of a king, only to be caught by the equally wanton brutality of the rabble. A king does at least act consciously and deliberately; but the mob does not. Indeed how should it, when it has never been taught what is right and proper, and has no knowledge of its own about such things? The masses handle affairs without thought; all they can do is to rush blindly into politics like a river in flood. As for the people, then, let them govern Persia's enemies; but let us ourselves choose a certain number of the best men in the country, and give them political power. We personally shall be amongst them, and it is only natural to suppose that the best men will produce the best policy.’

     “Darius was the third to speak. ‘I support,’ he said, ‘all Megabyzus’ remarks about the masses but I do not agree with what he said of oligarchy. Take the three forms of government we are considering – democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy – and suppose each of them to be the best of its kind; I maintain that the third is greatly preferable to the other two. One ruler: it is impossible to improve upon that – provided he is the best. His judgement will be in keeping with his character; his control of the people will be beyond reproach; his measures against enemies and traitors will be kept secret more easily than under other forms of government. In an oligarchy, the fact that a number of men are competing for distinction in the public service cannot but lead to violent personal feuds; each of them wants to get to the top, and to see his own proposals carried; so they quarrel. Personal quarrels lead to civil wars, and then to bloodshed; and from that state of affairs the only way out is a return to monarchy – a clear proof that monarchy is best. Again, in a democracy, malpractices are bound to occur; in this case, however, corrupt dealings in government services lead not to private feuds, but to close personal associations, the men responsible for them putting their heads together and mutually supporting one another. And so it goes on, until somebody or other comes forward as the people’s champion and breaks up the cliques which are out for their own interests. This wins him the admiration of the mob, and as a result he soon finds himself entrusted with absolute power – all of which is another proof that the best form of government is monarchy. To sum up: where did we get our freedom from, and who gave it us? Is it the result of democracy, or of oligarchy, or of monarchy? We were set free by one man, and therefore I propose that we should preserve that form of government, and, further, that we should refrain from changing ancient ways, which have served as well in the past. To do so would not profit us.’”[13]

     This to a western ear paradoxical argument that monarchy actually delivers freedom – freedom from civil war, especially, but freedom in other senses, too – actually has strong historical evidence in its favour. Several of the Greek kings were summoned to power by the people in order to deliver them from oppressive aristocratic rule. Darius himself freed the Jews from their captivity in Babylon. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, freed the Romans from civil war. So did St. Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, who also granted them religious freedom. Riurik, the first Russian king, was summoned from abroad to deliver the Russians from the misery and oppression that their “freedom” had subjected them to. Tsar Nicolas II died trying to save his people from the worst of all despotisms, Communism…

     Of course, these men were exceptional: it is easier to find examples of monarchs who enslaved their subjects rather than liberating them. So the problem of finding the good monarch – or, at any rate, of finding a monarchical type of government which is good for the people even if the monarch himself is bad – remains. But the argument in favour of monarchy as put into the mouth of an oriental despot by a Greek democratic historian also remains valid in its essential point. It should remind us that Greek historical and philosophical thought was more often critical of democracy than in favour of it.


4. Socrates and the Fall of Athenian Democracy

     The defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, and the many negative phenomena that the war threw up, led not only to a slackening in the creative impulse that had created Periclean Athens, but also, eventually, to a questioning of the superiority of democracy over other forms of government. The first and most obvious defect it revealed was that democracy tends to divide rather than unite men – at any rate so long as there are no stronger bonds uniting them than were to be found in Athens. The Greeks had united to defeat Persia early in the fifth century B.C., and this had provided the stimulus for the cultural efflorescence of Periclean Athens. But this was both the first and the last instance of such unity. For the next one hundred and fifty years, until Alexander the Great reimposed despotism on the city-states, the Greek city-states were almost continually at war with each other. Nor was this disunity manifest only between city-states: within them traitors were also frequent (the Athenian Alcibiades, for example).

     Evidently, attachment to democracy does not necessarily go together with attachment to the nation, with patriotism and loyalty. This fact elicited Aristotle’s famous distinction between behaviour that is characteristic of democracy and behaviour that is conducive to the survival of democracy. The same dilemma was to confront democracy in its struggle with communism in the twentieth century, when large numbers of citizens of the western democracies were prepared to work secretly (and not so secretly) for the triumph of a foreign power and the most evil despotism yet seen in history.

     This element of selfish and destructive individualism is described by Roberts: “Greek democracy… was far from being dominated, as is ours, by the mythology of cooperativeness, and cheerfully paid a larger price in destructiveness than would be welcomed today. There was a blatant competitiveness in Greek life apparent from the Homeric poems onwards. Greeks admired men who won and thought men should strive to win. The consequent release of human power was colossal, but also dangerous. The ideal expressed in the much-used word [areth] which we inadequately translate as ‘virtue’ illustrates this. When Greeks used it, they meant that people were able, strong, quick-witted, just as much as just, principled, or virtuous in a modern sense. Homer’s hero, Odysseus, frequently behaved like a rogue, but he is brave and clever and he succeeds; he is therefore admirable. To show such quality was good; it did not matter that the social cost might sometimes be high. The Greek was concerned with ‘face’; his culture taught him to avoid shame rather than guilt and the fear of shame was never far from the fear of public evidence of guilt. Some of the explanation of the bitterness of faction in Greek politics lies here; it was a price willingly paid.”[14]

     Another defect of Athenian democracy was that it tended implicitly to identify the state with the assembly of free male citizens in separation from the family[15], whereas Aristotle saw the state as an organic outgrowth from the family, or the family writ large. This led to an emphasis on individualism and competitiveness that we have already noted, and undermined the natural relations of hierarchy and obedience within society. Perhaps, therefore, it is not by accident that the first feminist work of literature was Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrata.

     Certainly, ancient democracy was not notably humane… The Athenians could be as cruel and imperialistic as any despot. Thus they slaughtered the inhabitants of the little island of Melos simply because they did not want to become part of the Athenian empire. [16] All the Melian males of military age were slaughtered, and all the women and children were driven into slavery. Thus in the end the ideal of freedom that had given birth to Athenian Democracy proved weaker than Realpolitik and the concrete examples provided by the Olympian gods and the Dionysian frenzies.

     The Melian episode demonstrates that even the most just and democratic of constitutions are powerless to prevent their citizens from descending to the depths of barbarism unless the egoism of human nature itself is overcome, which in turn depends on the truth of the religion that the citizens profess…

     And there was another event that famously illustrated this point: the execution of Socrates. According to Socrates’ most famous pupil, Plato, democracy had destroyed justice and truth when it executed the finest flower of Greek civilization. Indeed, the words that Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates during his trial make it clear that, for him, the democracy that condemned him was not only unjust but also impious, that is, opposed to God and the search for the truth to which he devoted his life: “If you say to me, ‘Socrates, we let you go on condition that you no longer spend your life in this search, and that you give up philosophy, but if you are caught at it again you must die’ – my reply is: ‘Men of Athens, I honour and love you, but I shall obey God rather than men, and while I breathe, and have the strength, I shall never turn from philosophy, nor from warning and admonishing any of you I come across not to disgrace your citizenship of a great city renowned for its wisdom and strength, by giving your thought to reaping the largest possible harvest of wealth and honour and glory, and giving neither thought nor care that you may reach the best in judgement, truth, and the soul…’”[17 

     The tragedy of Socrates’ death, combined with the fact of the defeat of democratic Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian war, decisively influenced Plato against democracy and in favour of that ideal state which would place the most just of its citizens, not in the place of execution and dishonour, but at the head of the corner of the whole state system.


5. Plato on the State

     Greek philosophy, according to Clement of Alexandria, “was given to them for a time and in the first instance for the same reason as the Scriptures were given to the Jews. It was for the Greeks the same nurse towards Christ as the law was for the Jews”.[18]

     The most famous Greek philosopher was, of course, Plato. Prompted by the failure of the Athenian state in the Peloponnesian War, he undertook the construction of the first systematic theory of polithe relationship of politics to religion. And his and his pupil Aristotle’s teaching is indeed a nurse, or preparation, for the Christian teaching on the state that we find in the Bible and the Holy Fathers…

     According to Plato in The Republic, the end of the state is happiness, which is achieved if it produces justice, since justice is the condition of happiness. Democracy was not only not the ideal form of government according to this criterion: it was a long way from the ideal, being the penultimate stage in the degeneration of the state from the ideal to a meritocracy to an oligarchy to a democracy, and finally to a tyranny.

     The process of degradation is approximately as follows. A meritocracy – the highest form of government yet found in Greece, and located, if anywhere, in Sparta - tends to be corrupted, not so much by power, as by money (Spartan discipline collapsed when exposed to luxury).

     This leads to a sharp division between the rich and the poor, as a result of which the poor rise up against the rich and bring in democracy, which is “feeble in every respect, and unable to do either any great good or any great evil.”[19] For democracy’s great weakness is its lack of discipline: “You are not obliged to be in authority, however competent you may be, or to submit to authority, if you do not like it; you need not fight when your fellow-citizens are at war, nor remain at peace when they do, unless you want peace… A wonderfully pleasant life, surely – for the moment.”[20] “For the moment” only, because a State founded on such indiscipline is inherently unstable. Indiscipline leads to excess, which in turn leads to the need to reimpose discipline through despotism, the worst of all evils. For Plato, in short, democracy is bad is because it is unstable, and paves the way for the worst, which is despotism or tyranny.

     Plato compares the democratic state to a ship: “Suppose the following to be the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it studying it; indeed they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can [i.e. Socrates, who recommended the study of wisdom]. They spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drink or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship; and they think that it’s quite impossible to acquire the professional skill needed for such control (whether or not they want it exercised) and that there’s no such thing as an art of navigation. With all this going on aboard aren’t the sailors on any such ship bound to regard the true navigator as a word-spinner and a star-gazer, of no use to them at all?”[21 

     David Held comments on this metaphor, and summarises Plato’s views on democracy, as follows: “The ‘true navigator’ denotes the minority who, equipped with the necessary skill and expertise, has the strongest claim to rule legitimately. For the people… conduct their affairs on impulse, sentiment and prejudice. They have neither the experience nor the knowledge for sound navigation, that is, political judgement. In addition, the only leaders they are capable of admiring are sycophants: ‘politicians… are duly honoured.. [if] they profess themselves the people’s friends’ (The Republic, p. 376). All who ‘mix with the crowd and want to be popular with it’ can be directly ‘compared… to the sailors’ (p. 283). There can be no proper leadership in a democracy; leaders depend on popular favour and they will, accordingly, act to sustain their own popularity and their own positions. Political leadership is enfeebled by acquiescence to popular demands and by the basing of political strategy on what can be ‘sold’. Careful judgements, difficult decisions, uncomfortable options, unpleasant truths will of necessity be generally avoided. Democracy marginalises the wise.

     “The claims of liberty and political equality are, furthermore, inconsistent with the maintenance of authority, order and stability. When individuals are free to do as they like and demand equal rights irrespective of their capacities and contributions, the result in the short run will be the creation of an attractively diverse society. However, in the long run the effect is an indulgence of desire and a permissiveness that erodes respect for political and moral authority. The younger no longer fear and respect their teachers; they constantly challenge their elders and the latter ‘ape the young’ (The Republic, p. 383). In short, ‘the minds of citizens  become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable, till finally… in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws…’ (p. 384). ‘Insolence’ is called ‘good breeding, licence liberty, extravagance generosity, and shamelessness courage’ (p. 380). A false ‘equality of pleasures’ leads ‘democratic man’ to live from day to day. Accordingly, social cohesion is threatened, political life becomes more and more fragmented and politics becomes riddled with factional disputes. Intensive conflict between sectional interests inevitably follows as each faction presses for its own advantage rather than that of the state as a whole. A comprehensive commitment to the good of the community and social justice becomes impossible.

     “This state of affairs inevitably leads to endless intrigue, manoeuvring and political instability: a politics of unbridled desire and ambition. All involved claim to represent the interests of the community, but all in fact represent themselves and a selfish lust for power. Those with resources, whether from wealth or a position of authority, will, Plato thought, inevitably find themselves under attack; and the conflict between rich and poor will become particularly acute. In these circumstances, the disintegration of democracy is, he contended, likely. ‘Any extreme is likely to produce a violent reaction… so from an extreme of liberty one is likely to get an extreme of subjection’ (The Republic, p. 385). In the struggle between factions, leaders are put forward to advance particular causes, and it is relatively easy for these popular leaders to demand ‘a personal bodyguard’ to preserve themselves against attack. With such assistance the popular champion is a short step from grasping ‘the reins of state’. As democracy plunges into dissension and conflict, popular champions can be seen to offer clarity of vision, firm directions and the promise to quell all opposition. It becomes a tempting option to support the tyrant of one’s own choice. But, of course, once possessed of state power tyrants have a habit of attending solely to themselves.”[22]

     Plato’s solution to the problem of statecraft was the elevation to leadership in the state of a philosopher-king, who would neither be dominated by personal ambitions, like the conventional tyrant, nor swayed by demagogues and short-term, factional interests, like the Athenian democracy. This king would have to be a philosopher, since he would frame the laws in accordance, not with passion or factional interest, but with the idea of the eternal Good. His “executive branch” would be highly educated and disciplined guardians, who would not make bad mistakes since they would carry out the supremely wise intentions of the king and would be carefully screened from many of the temptations of life.

     Plato had the insight to see that society could be held together in justice only by aiming at a goal higher than itself, the contemplation of the Good. He saw, in other words, that the problem of politics is soluble only in the religious domain. And while he was realistic enough to understand that the majority of men could not be religious in this sense, he hoped that at any rate one man could be trained to reach that level, and, having attained a position of supreme power in the state, spread that religious ideal downwards.[23] Thus he wrote: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, - no, nor the human race, as I believe, - and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”[24]

     This represents a major advance on all previous pagan political systems or philosophies. For while all the states of pagan antiquity were religious, they located the object of their worship within the political system, deifying the state itself, or, more usually, its ruler. But Plato rejected every form of man-worship, since it inevitably led to despotism. Contrary to what many of his critics who see him as the godfather of totalitarianism imply[25], he was fully aware of the fact that, as Lord Acton put it much later, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.[26] But he was also enough of a “Platonist”, as it were, to know that the end of human society must transcend human society.

     Having said that, one cannot deny that there are elements of utopianism in Plato’s system. Thus his approach to statecraft presupposed either that existing kings could be educated in the Good (which Plato tried, but failed to do in Syracuse) or that there was a rational method of detecting the true lovers of wisdom and then promoting them to the height of power.

     However, as Bertrand Russell noted, this is easier said than done: “Even if we supposed that there is such a thing as ‘wisdom,’ is there any form of constitution which will give the government to the wise? It is clear that majorities, like general councils, may err, and in fact have erred. Aristocracies are not always wise; kings are often foolish; Popes, in spite of infallibility, have committed grievous errors. Would anybody advocate entrusting the government to university graduates, or even to doctors of divinity? Or to men who, having been born poor, have made great fortunes?… It might be suggested that men could be given political wisdom by a suitable training. But the question would arise: what is a suitable training? And this would turn out to be a party question. The problem of finding a collection of ‘wise’ men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one…”[27]

     As Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky) writes: “Society is always more willing to run after the fanatic or decisive opportunist than after a great-souled dreamer who is unable to convert words into deeds. The philosophers to whom Plato wished to entrust the rule of his ideal state would more likely be very pitiful in this situation and would inexorably lead the ship of state to shipwreck. Political power that is firm, but at the same time enlightened, rational and conscious of its responsibility, must be the object of desire of every country, but such happiness rarely falls to the lot of peoples and states.”[28]

     To be fair to Plato, he was quite aware of the difficulty of finding a man fit to be philosopher-king. He emphasised training in character as well as intellect, and acknowledged, as we have seen, that such a man, if found and elevated to power, could still be corrupted by his position. What his philosophy lacked was the idea that the Good Itself could come down to the human level and inspire Its chosen one with wisdom and justice.

     The problem here was that the scepticism engendered by the all-too-human antics of the Olympian gods revealed its corrosive effect on Plato, as on all subsequent Greek philosophers. Greek religion recognised that the gods could come down to men and inspire them, but the gods who did this, like Dionysius, were hardly the wise, sober and rational beings who alone could inspire wise and soberly rational statecraft. As for the enthusiasms of the Orphic rites, these took place only in a condition that was the exact opposite of sobriety and rationality. So Wisdom could not come from the gods.

     But what if there was another divinity higher than these lechers and buffoons, a divinity that would incarnate the eternal ideas of the Good, the True and the Beautiful? Now Plato did indeed come to some such conception of the One God. But this was an impersonal God who did not interfere in the affairs of men. Man may attempt to reach the eternal ideas and God through a rigorous programme of intellectual training and ascetic endeavour. But that Divine Wisdom should Himself bow down the heavens and manifest Himself to men was an idea that had to await the coming of Christianity… So Plato turned to the most successful State known to him, Sparta, and constructed his utopia at least partly in its likeness. Thus society was to be divided into the common people, the soldiers and the guardians. All life, including personal and religious life, was to be subordinated to the needs of the State. In economics there was to be a thoroughgoing communism, with no private property, women and children were to be held in common, marriages arranged on eugenic lines with compulsory abortion and infanticide of the unfit. There was to be a rigorous censorship of the literature and the arts, and the equivalent of the modern inquisition and concentration camps. Lying was to be the prerogative of the government, which would invent a religious myth according to which, as J.S. McClelland writes, “all men are children of the same mother who has produced men of gold, silver and bronze corresponding to the three different classes into which Plato divides his ideal community.”[29] This myth would reconcile each class to its place in society.

     It is here that that the charge that Plato is an intellectual ancestor of the totalitarian philosophies of the twentieth century is seen to have some weight. For truly, in trying to avert the failings of democracy, he veered strongly towards the despotism that he feared above all. Plato’s path to heaven – the ideal state of the philosopher-king - was paved with good intentions. Nor was this ideal just a pipedream – he tried to introduce it into Syracuse. But it led just as surely to hell in the form the despotism that all Greeks despised.

     Plato’s political ideal was put forward for the sake of “justice” – that is, in his conception, each man doing what he is best fitted to do, for the sake of the common good. But, being based on human reasoning and human efforts alone, it failed, like all such rationalist systems,  fully to take into account the reality of sin, and therefore became the model for that supremely utopian and unjust system that we see in Soviet and Chinese communism. Moreover, it anticipated communism in its subordination of truth and religion to expediency, and in its approval of the lie for the sake of the survival of the State.

     Justice is indeed the ideal of statecraft. But political justice must be understood in a religious context, as the nearest approximation on earth to Divine Justice. Thus St. Dionysius the Areopagite writes: “God is named Justice because He satisfies the needs of all things, dispensing due proportion, beauty and order, and defines the bounds of all orders and places each thing under its appropriate laws and orders according to that rule which is most truly just, and because he is the Cause of the independent activity of each. For the Divine Justice orders and assigns limits to all things and keeps all things distinct from and unmixed with one another and give to all beings that which belongs to each according to the dignity of each. And, to speak truly, all who censure the Divine Justice unknowingly confess themselves to be manifestly unjust. For they say that immortality should be in mortal creatures and perfection in the imperfect and self-motivation in the alter-motivated and sameness in the changeable and perfect power in the weak, and that the temporal should be eternal, things which naturally move immutable, temporal pleasures eternal, and to sum up, they assign the properties of one thing to another. They should know, however, that the Divine justice is essentially true Justice in that it gives to all things that which befits the particular dignity of each and preserves the nature of each in its own proper order and power.”[30]


6. Aristotle on the State

     Aristotle avoided the extremes of Plato, dismissing his communism on the grounds that it would lead to disputes and inefficiency. He agreed with him that the best constitution would be a monarchy ruled by the wisest of men. But since such men are rare at best, other alternatives had to be considered.

     Aristotle divided political systems into three pairs of opposites: the three “good” forms of monarchy, aristocracy and politeia, and the three “bad” forms of tyranny, oligarchy and democracy (or what Polybius was later to call “ochlocracy”, “rule by the mob”).[31]

     Aristotle appears to have favoured aristocracy, but at the age of forty-two he returned from Athens to his Macedonian homeland to teach King Philip’s thirteen-year-old son, Alexander, who became the most powerful monarch of the ancient world. Observing Macedonian politics may have influenced him to believe that there could be a good kind of monarchy. For King Philip had taken advantage of the perennial disunity of the Greek city-states to assume a de facto dominion over them. So monarchy at least had the advantage of creating a certain unity out of chaos… “Monarchy, as the word implies,” wrote Aristotle, “is the constitution in which one man has authority over all. There are two forms of monarchy: kingship, which is limited by prescribed conditions, and tyranny, which is not limited by anything.”[32] This distinction is similar to the later Christian distinction between autocracy that submits to God and His laws and despotism that submits to nobody and nothing outside itself…

     Like Plato, Aristotle was highly critical of democracy. He defined it in terms of two basic principles, the first of which was liberty. “People constantly make this statement, implying that only in this constitution do men share in liberty; for every democracy, they say, has liberty for its aim. ‘Ruling and being ruled in turn,’ is one element in liberty, and the democratic idea of justice is in fact numerical liberty, not equality based on merit; and when this idea of what is just prevails, the multitude must be sovereign, and whatever the majority decides is final and constitutes justice. For, they say, there must be equality for each of the citizens. The result is that in democracies the poor have more sovereign power than the rich; for they are more numerous, and the decisions of the majority are sovereign. So this is one mark of liberty, one which all democrats make a definitive principle of their constitution.”

     The second principle was licence, “to live as you like. For this, they say, is a function of being free, since its opposite, living not as you like, is the function of one enslaved.”[33] The basic problem here, Aristotle argued, following Plato, was that the first principle conflicted with the second. For licence must be restrained if liberty is to survive. Once again, history was the teacher: licence had led to Athens’ defeat at the hands of the more disciplined Spartans. Not only must restraints be placed upon individual citizens so that they do not restrict each other’s liberty. The people as a whole must give up some of its “rights” to a higher authority if the state is to acquire a consistent, rational direction. Not only liberty, but equality, too, must be curtailed – for the greater benefit of all. Aristotle pointed out that “the revolutionary state of mind is largely brought about by one-sided notions of justice – democrats thinking that men who are equally free should be equal in everything, oligarchs thinking that because men are unequal in wealth they should be unequal in everything.”[34]

     What is most valuable in Aristotle’s politics is that “in his eyes the end of the State and the end of the individual coincide, not in the sense that the individual should be entirely absorbed in the State but in the sense that the State will prosper when the individual citizens are good, when they attain their own proper ideal. The only real guarantee of the stability and prosperity of the State is the moral goodness and integrity of the citizens, while conversely, unless the State is good, the citizens will not become good.”[35] In this respect Aristotle was faithful to the thought of Plato, who wrote: “Governments vary as the dispositions of men vary. Or do you suppose that political constitutions are made out of rocks or trees, and not out of the dispositions of their citizens which turn the scale and draw everything in their own direction?[36]

     This attitude was inherited by the Romans, who knew “that good laws make good men and good men make good laws. The good laws which were Rome’s internal security, and the good arms which made her neighbours fear her, were the Roman character writ large. The Greeks might be very good at talking about the connection between good character and good government, but the Romans did not have to bother much about talking about it because they were its living proof.”[37]

     However, the close link that Aristotle postulated to exist between the kinds of government and the character of people led him to some dubious conclusions. Thus politeia existed in Greece, according to him, because the Greeks were a superior breed of men, capable of reason. Barbarians were inferior – which is why they were ruled by despots. Similarly, women could not take part in democratic government because the directive faculty of reason, while existing in them, was “inoperative”. And slaves also could not participate because they did not have the faculty of reason.[38]

     A more fundamental criticism of Aristotle’s politics, voiced by later Christian theorists, was his view that “the state is teleologically autonomous: the polis has no ends outside itself. A polis ought to be self-sufficiently rule-bound for it to need no law except its own.”[39] For Aristotle it was only in political life that man achieved the fulfilment of his potentialities – the good life was inconceivable outside the Greek city-state. Thus “he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god; he is no part of a polis.”[40]

     This highlights perhaps the fundamental difference between almost all pagan theorising on politics (with the partial exception of Plato’s) and the Christian attitude. For the pagans the life of the well-ordered state, together with the happiness of its citizens understood in a purely secular sense, was the ultimate aim; it did not exist for any higher purpose. For the Christian, on the other hand, political life is simply a means to an end that is other-worldly and transcends politics completely 

     This is not to say that Aristotle’s politics was irreligious in a general sense. As M.V. Zyzykin points out, when Aristotle wrote that “the first duty of the State is concern over the gods”, he recognised that politics cannot be divorced from religion.[41] But Greek religion, as we have seen, was a very this-worldly affair, in which the gods were seen as simply particularly powerful players in human affairs. The gods had to be placated, otherwise humans would suffer; but the accent was always on happiness, eudaimonia, in this life. Even Plato, for all his idealism, subordinated religious myth to the needs of the state and the happiness of people in this life. And Aristotle, for all his philosophical belief in an “unmoved Mover”, was a less other-worldly thinker than Plato.

     However, Classical Greek democracy, though less religious than the earlier, monarchical period of Greek history, was not as irreligious or individualistic as modern democracy, which, as Hugh Bowden writes, “is seen as a secular form of government and is an alternative to religious fundamentalism, taking its authority from the will of the human majority, not the word of god or gods. In Ancient Greece matters were very different… Within the city-state religious rituals entered into all areas of life… There was no emphasis in the Greek world on the freedom of the individual, if that conflicted with obligations to larger groups… Religion was bound up with the political process. High political offices carried religious as well as civic and military duties. Thus the two kings of Sparta were generals and also priests of Zeus...

     “Plato was no supporter of democracy, because he thought it allowed the wrong sort of people to have access to office. However, in the Laws he advocates the use of the lot as a means of selecting candidates for some offices, specifically because it is a method that puts the decision in the hands of the gods. Furthermore, where there are issues which Plato considers beyond his powers to legislate for, he suggests that these should be referred to Delphi. For Plato, then, the use of apparently random selection, and the consultation of oracles was a preferable alternative to popular decision-making, because the gods were more to be trusted than the people. This view was not limited to anti-democratic philosophers…

     “Greek city-states took oracles seriously, and saw them as the mouthpieces of the gods who supported order and civilisation. Although it was the citizen assemblies that made decisions, they accepted the authority of the gods, and saw the working of the divine hand where we might see the action of chance…”[42]


7. Alexander, the Stoics and the Demise of Democracy

     Classical Greek Democracy, undermined not only by the disunity, instability and licence highlighted by the critiques of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle, but also by its narrow nationalism and pride in relation to the “barbarian” world, ended up by succumbing to that same barbarian world – first, the “Greek barbarism” of Macedon, and then the iron-clad savagery of Rome. And if the glittering civilization made possible by Classical Greek democracy eventually made captives of its captors culturally speaking, politically and morally speaking it had been decisively defeated. Its demise left civilized mankind dazzled, but still thirsting for the ideal polity.

     When the West turned again to democratic ideas in the early modern period, it was to the Greek classical writers that they turned for inspiration. Thus Marx and Engels turned to Aristotle’s description of democracy when they planned the Paris Commune of 1871[43], while Plato’s ideas about philosopher-kings and guardians, child-rearing, censorship and education found a strong echo in the “people’s democracies” of twentieth-century communism…

     In the intervening period, only two major ideas made a significant contribution to thinking on politics. One was Christianity, which we shall discuss in detail later. And the other was Stoicism, which extended the notion of who was entitled to equality and democracy beyond the narrow circle of free male Greeks to every human being.

     Copleston has summarised the Stoic idea as follows: “Every man is naturally a social being, and to live in society is a dictate of reason. But reason is the common essential nature of all men: hence there is but one Law for all men and one Fatherland. The division of mankind into warring States is absurd: the wise man is a citizen, not of this or that particular State, but of the World. From this foundation it follows that all men have a claim to our goodwill, even slaves having their rights and even enemies having a right to our mercy and forgiveness.”[44]

     Another important element in Stoicism was fate. Stoicism took the idea of fate, and made a virtue of it. Since men cannot control their fate, virtue lies in accepting fate as the expression of the Divine Reason that runs through the whole universe. Moreover, virtue should be practised for its own sake, and not for any benefits it might bring, because fate may thwart our calculations. This attitude led to a more passive, obedient and dutiful approach to politics than had been fashionable in the Classical Greek period.

     The political event that elicited this broadening in political thought was the rise of Alexander the Great and his conquest of the Perisan Empire in 332 BC. Alexander, writes Paul Johnson, “had created his empire as an ideal: he wanted to fuse the races and he ‘ordered all men to regard the world as their country… good men as their kin, bad men as foreigners’. Isocrates argued that ‘the designation ‘Hellene’ is no longer a matter of descent but of attitude’; he thought Greeks by education had better titles to citizenship than ‘Greek by birth’.”[45]

     Alexander’s career is full of ironies. Setting out, in his expedition against the Persians, to free the Greek democratic city-states on the Eastern Aegean seaboard from tyranny, and to take final revenge on the Persians for their failed invasion of Greece in the fifth century, Alexander not only replaced Persian despotism with another, hardly less cruel one, but depopulated his homeland of Macedonia and destroyed democracy in its European heartland. Moreover, according to Arrian, “he would not have remained content with any of his conquests, not even if he had added the British Isles to Europe; he would always have reached beyond for something unknown, and if there had been no other competition, he would have competed against himself.”[46]

     In spreading Greek civilisation throughout the East, Alexander betrayed its greatest ideal, the dignity of man, by making himself into a god (the son of Ammon-Zeus) [47] and forcing his own Greek soldiers to perform an eastern-style act of proskynesis to their fellow man.[48] He married the daughter of Darius, proclaimed himself heir to the Persian “King of kings” and caused the satraps of Bithynia, Cappadocia and Armenia to pay homage to him as to a typical eastern despot.[49] Thus Alexander, like the deus ex machina of a Greek tragedy, brought the curtain down on Classical Greek civilisation, merging it with its great rival, the despotic civilisations of the East.

     Alexander’s successor-kingdoms of the Ptolemies and Seleucids went still further in an orientalising direction. Thus Roberts writes: “’Soter’, as Ptolemy I was called, means ‘Saviour’. The Seleucids allowed themselves to be worshipped, but the Ptolemies outdid them; they took over the divine status and prestige of the Pharaohs (and practice, too, to the extent of marrying their sisters).”[50]

     Classical Greek civilisation began with the experience of liberation from Persian despotism; it ended with the admission that political liberation without spiritual liberation cannot last. It was born in the matrix of a religion whose gods were little more than super-powerful human beings, with all the vices and frailty of fallen humanity; it died as its philosophers sought to free themselves entirely from the bonds of the flesh and enter a heaven of eternal, incorruptible ideas, stoically doing their duty in the world of men but knowing that their true nature lay in the world of ideas. It was born in the conviction that despotism is hubris which is bound to be struck down by fate; it died as the result of its own hubris, swallowed up in the kind of despotism it had itself despised and in opposition to which it had defined itself.

     And yet this death only went to demonstrate the truth of the scripture that unless a seed falls into the earth and dies it cannot bring forth good fruit (John 12.24). For, in the new political circumstances of empire, and through the new religious prism, first of Stoicism and then of Christianity, Greek political thought did bring forth fruit. As McClelland perceptively argues: “The case for Alexander is that he made certain political ideas possible which had never had a chance within the morally confining walls of the polis classically conceived. Prominent among these is the idea of a multi-racial state. The idea comes down to us not from any self-conscious ‘theory’ but from a story about a mutiny in Alexander’s army at Opis on the Tigris, and it is a story worth the re-telling. Discontent among the Macedonian veterans had come to a head for reasons we do not know, but their grievances were clear enough: non-Macedonians, that is Persians, had been let into the crack cavalry regiment, the Companions of Alexander, had been given commands which involved ordering Macedonians about, and had been granted the (Persian) favour of greeting Alexander ‘with a kiss’. The Macedonians formed up and stated their grievances, whereupon Alexander lost his temper, threatened to pension them off back to Macedonia, and distributed the vacant commands among the Persians. When both sides had simmered down, the soldiers came back to their allegiance, Alexander granted the Macedonians the favour of the kiss, and he promised to forget about the mutiny. But not quite. Alexander ordered up a feast to celebrate the reconciliation, and the religious honours were done by the priests of the Macedonians and the magi of the Persians. Alexander himself prayed for omonoia [unanimity] and concord, and persuaded 10,000 of his Macedonian veterans to marry their Asiatic concubines…

     “The plea for omonoia has come to be recognised as a kind of turning point in the history of the way men thought about politics in the Greek world, and, by extension, in the western world in general. The ancient Greeks were racist in theory and practice in something like the modern sense. They divided the world, as Aristotle did, between Greeks and the rest, and their fundamental category of social explanation was race. Race determined at bottom how civilised a life a man was capable of living. The civilised life was, of course, only liveable in a properly organised city-state. Only barbarians could live in a nation (ethnos) or in something as inchoate and meaningless as an empire. The Greeks also seem to have had the modern racist’s habit of stereotyping, which simply means going from the general to the particular: barbarians are uncivilised, therefore this barbarian is uncivilised. The race question was inevitably tied up with slavery, though is by no means clear that the ancient Greeks had a ‘bad conscience’ about slavery, as some have claimed. From time to time, they may have felt badly about enslaving fellow Greeks, and that was probably the reason why thinkers like Aristotle troubled themselves with questions about who was most suitable for slavery and who the least. Low-born barbarians born into slavery were always at the top of the list of good slave material. Most Greeks probably believed that without ever thinking about it much.

     “The Macedonians may have lacked the subtlety of the Hellenes, but Alexander was no fool. Whatever the Macedonians may have thought to themselves about the races of the East, Alexander would have been asking for trouble if he had arrogantly proclaimed Macedonian racial superiority over conquered peoples, and it would have caused a snigger or two back in Hellas. What better way for the conqueror of a multi-racial empire to conduct himself than in the name of human brotherhood? Imperialism then becomes a gathering-in of the nations rather than the imposition of one nation’s will upon another and this thought follows from the empire-builder’s real desire: secretly, he expects to be obeyed for love. This was Alexander’s way of showing that he was not a tyrant…”[51]

     In Alexander’s empire, therefore, something like a creative fusion of the despotic and democratic principles took place. It was an empire in form like the pagan empires of old, with a god-king possessing in principle unlimited power. But the Greek idea of the godlike possibilities of ordinary men able to direct their own lives in rationality and freedom passed like a new, more humane leaven through the old despotic lump, bringing rulers to a more humble estimate of themselves, while exalting the idea that the ruled had of themselves.

     Conversely, the eastern experience of many nations living in something like equality with each other under one rule - we remember the honour granted to the Jewish Prophet Daniel by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, and the Persian King Cyrus’ command that the Jews be allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple - expanded the consciousness of the Greeks beyond the narrow horizons of the individual city-state or the one civilization of the Greeks to the universal community of all mankind (or, at any rate, of the oikoumene, the civilized world as they knew it), and from the worship of Athene of Athens or Diana of the Ephesians to the One God Who created all men, gave them all reason and freewill and brought them all together under one single dominion. And so, writes McClelland, “polis had given way to cosmopolis. Henceforward, men were going to have to stop asking themselves what it meant to be a citizen of a city, and begin to ask what it meant to be a citizen of the world…”[52]

     And so the Greek political odyssey ultimately prepared the whole of the Mediterranean world to receive Christ, in Whom “is neither Greek nor Jew, neither circumcised nor uncircumcised, neither barbarian nor Scythian, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is all, and in all”(Colossians 3.11).


8. The Greeks and the Jews

     However, the union of Greek and Jew in Christ was still some centuries ahead. Until the coming of Christ, the relations between the two nations went through several distinct phases.

     Alexander was good to Judah. As Simon Schama writes, “Josephus describes the Jews of Jerusalem, gratefully faithful to the end to the collapsing Persian Empire, trembling before what they imagine will be a terrible Macedonian retribution. But their high priest Jaddua is visited by a dream in which he is told ‘to take courage, adorn the city and open the gates’. The people were to assemble before the Greek conqueror clad in the white of humility, while he and his Temple priests should dress themselves magnificently as befitted their sacred station. A combination of purity and majesty: how could the Greeks not be won over as Alexander’s triumphal progress halts before ‘a place called Sapha, meaning “prospect”? So it is with that view of the towers and walls and the Temple on its hill that the victorious general encounters the white-garbed multitude, at their head the high priest attired in ‘scarlet and purple and his tiara sewn with a gold panel on which was inscribed the tetragrammaton name of God’. Greetings are exchanged…”

     Then comes one of the most striking encounters between the God of Israel, His people and the rulers of the pagan world. Alexander says that “he ‘adores’ this God, for, as he explains to a surprised aide, he too had a vision in which the high priest, dressed exactly in this manner, would bestow divine blessing on his conquest of the Persians. Alexander then ‘gives the high priest his right hand’ and makes sacrifice to YHWH in the Temple ‘according to the high priest’s direction’. The next day, after being shown the Book of Daniel prophesying his triumph,… he repays the confidence by guaranteeing, as all good Greek rulers did, ‘the laws of their forefathers’. Alexander waives Jewish tribute in the sabbatical year and promises (since the Jews were such accomplished soldiers) that those who joined his army would be undisturbed according to their traditions’.”[53]

     Alexander even gave equal citizenship to the Jews of Alexandria. The trouble began only after Alexander’s death, when “his servants [the Ptolemys and Seleucids] bore rule every one in his place. And… they all put crowns upon themselves. So did their sons after them many years: and evils were multiplied in the earth…” (I Maccabees 1.7-9). The image of “putting crowns upon themselves” reminds us of the difference between the true, autocratic king, whose crown is given him by God, and the false, despotic king, who takes the crown for himself in a self-willed manner.

     However, not all the Greek kings were evil despots or enemies of the Jews. Thus in about 270 King Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt invited the great high priest of Jerusalem, Eleazar, to send 72 scholars to Egypt to translate the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek for the benefit of the Hellenized Jews (or Judaized Greeks?) of Alexandria. The resultant Septuagint (meaning “70”) translation became the basis both for the transmission of the Old Testament to the Greek-speaking world; it was this translation of the Scriptures that the Evangelists and Apostles used.

     But a later king of Egypt, Ptolemy IV Philopater, who came to the Temple towards the end of the third century, was less benevolent. He, like Alexander, offered a sacrifice and made thank offerings for his victory over the Seleucid king. However, he then conceived a desire to enter the Temple, which was forbidden to pagans.

     The high priest Simon prayed that he would be prevented, and his prayer was fulfilled: “Then God, Who watches over all… heard this lawful supplication and scourged the man who raised himself up in arrogance and audacity. He shook him on one side and the other, as a reed is shaken by the wind, so that he lay powerless on the ground. Besides being paralyzed in his limbs, he was unable to cry out, since he was struck by a righteous judgement. Therefore his friends and bodyguards, seeing the severe punishment that overtook him, fearing the would die, quickly dragged him away. Later, when he recovered, he still did not repent after being chastised, but went his making bitter threats…” (III Maccabees 2.21-24).

     Later, it was the Seleucid kings of Syria who became the persecutors of the Jews. In 175 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne. As Senator Joseph Lieberman points out, “The ruler’s name hinted at imminent struggle; Antiochus added the title to his name because it meant, ‘A Divine Manifestation’. That underscored the primary difference between the ancient Greeks and Jews: The Greeks glorified the magnificence of man, while the Jews measured man’s greatness through his partnership with the Creator. For the children of Israel, man was created in the image of God; for the ancient Greeks, the gods were created in the likeness of man.”[54]

     Johnson has developed this distinction: "The Jews drew an absolute distinction between human and divine. The Greeks constantly elevated the human – they were Promethean – and lowered the divine. To them gods were not much more than revered and successful ancestors; most men sprang from gods. Hence it was not for them a great step to deify a monarch, and they began to do so as soon as they embraced the orient [where, as we have seen, kings were commonly deified]. Why should not a man of destiny undergo apotheosis? Aristotle, Alexander's tutor, argued in his Politics: ‘If there exists in a state an individual so pre-eminent in virtue that neither the virtue nor the political capacity of all the other citizens is comparable with his... such a man should be rated as a god among men.' Needless to say, such notions were totally unacceptable to Jews of any kind. Indeed, there was never any possibility of a conflation between Judaism and Greek religion as such; what the reformers [the Hellenising Jews] wanted was for Judaism to universalize itself by pervading Greek culture; and that meant embracing the polis.”[55] 

     With the agreement of King Antiochus, the Hellenizing Jews removed the lawful high priest Onias, replacing him with his brother Jason, a Hellenist. Jason then built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, at which athletes competed in the nude contrary to Jewish law. Many Jews then underwent a painful operation to hide their circumcision. In this way, as the chronicler writes, “they made themselves as the uncircumcision. So they fell away from the holy covenant…” (I Maccabees 1.15).

     Antiochus was soon acting, not as “Epiphanes”, “divine manifestation”, but as his enemies called him, “Epimanes”, “raving madman”. After conquering Egypt, he returned to Jerusalem in 168 and pillaged the Temple. “Then the king wrote to all his kingdom, that they all were to be as one people, and that each one was to forsake his customs. So all the nations accepted the word of the king. Many from Israel also thought it good to serve him, so they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath” (I Maccabees 1.41-43). Antiochus led many of the people away into slavery, banned circumcision, Sabbath observance and the reading of the law, declared that the Temple should be dedicated to the worship of Zeus, that pigs should be sacrificed on the altar, and that non-Jews should be permitted to worship there with Jews. Those who resisted him were killed.



[1] Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, London: Penguin, 2010, pp. 12, 15.

[2] Siddentop, op. cit., p. 21-22, 23.

[3]Siddentop, op. cit., p. 25.

[4]Siddentop, op. cit., pp. 30-31.

[5]Siddentop, op. cit., p. 34.

[6] Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon Publishing, 1992, p. 139.

[7] Montefiore, Titans, London: Quercus, 2012, p. 33.

[8] C.S. Lewis, “Religion without Dogma?” in Faith, Christianity and the Church, London: HarperCollins, 1002, p. 165, footnote.

[9] Grant, The Classical Greeks, London: Phoenix, 1989, p. 130.

[10] J.S. McClelland writes: “The Greeks did understand that one of the ways of getting round the problem of the vulnerability of a constitution on account of its age and its political bias was to pretend that it was very ancient indeed. That meant mystifying the origins of a constitution to the point where it had no origins at all. The way to do that was to make the constitution immortal by the simple expedient of making it the product of an immortal mind, and the only immortal minds were possessed by gods, or, as second-best, by supremely god-like men” (A History of Western Political Thought, Routledge: London and New York, 1996, p. 11).

[11] Sparta has been seen as one of the earliest models of socialism in the western world. See Lev Karpinsky, “S ‘Sotsializmom’ napereves’” (“In a horizontal position with socialism”), Moskovskie Novosti (Moscow News),N 21, May 27, 1990; Vladimir Rusak, Svidetel’stvo obvinenia (Witness for the Prosecution), Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1989, part III, p. 102; Montefiore, Titans, pp. 27-31.

[12] Herodotus, History, London: Penguin Books, III, 80.

[13] Herodotus, History, III, 81, 82.

[14] Roberts, op. cit., p. 157.

[15] Jean Bethke Elshtein, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, New York: Basic Books, 2008, p. 8.

[16] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II, 37. London: Penguin books, V, 89, 91-97.

[17] Brian Macarthur, The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, London: Penguin, 1995, p. 9. See also Melissa Lane, “Was Socrates a Democrat?” History Today, vol. 52 (01), January, 2002, pp. 42-47.

[18] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis.

[19] Plato, The Republic, London: Penguin books, 1974, 488.

[20] Plato, The Republic, 557.

[21] Plato, The Republic, p. 282.

[22] David Held, Models of Democracy, Oxford: Polity Press, 1987, pp. 29-31

[23] “The true Philosopher-Ruler,” writes McClelland, “is a reluctant ruler. His heart is set on the Good, and he accepts the burdens of rulership because the Good can only survive and prosper in a city which is ruled by just men. Rule by guardians is an attempt to universalize justice in so far as that is possible…” (McClelland, op. cit., p. 36).

[24] Plato, The Republic, 473.

[25] See Sir Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, part I, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.

[26] Thus he wrote in The Laws (691): “If one ignores the law of proportion and gives too great power to anything, too large a sail to a vessel, too much food to the body, too much authority to the mind, everything is shipwrecked. The excess breaks out in the one case in disease, and in the other in injustice, the child of pride. I mean to say, my dear friends, that no human soul, in its youth and irresponsibility, will be able to sustain the temptation of arbitrary power – there is no one who will not, under such circumstances, become filled with folly, that worst of diseases, and be hated by his nearest and dearest friends.”

[27] Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Allen Unwin, 1946, pp. 127-128.

[28] Gribanovsky, Besedy s sobstvennym serdtsem (Conversations with My Own Heart), Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1998, p. 40.

[29] McClelland, op. cit., p. 39.

[30] St. Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, VIII.

[31] McClelland, op. cit., p. 57.

[32]Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1366a.

[33] Aristotle, Politics, London: Penguin books, 1981, p. 362.

[34] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, volume I, part II, p. 97.

[35] Copleston, op. cit., pp. 98-99.

[36] Plato, The Republic, 544.

[37] McClelland, op. cit., p. 84. Again, we find this characteristically Greek connection between good government and good character drawn by the French historian and Prime Minister, François Guizot, who wrote in his History of France (1822): “Instead of looking to the system or forms of government in order to understand the state of the people, it is the state of the people that must be examined first in order to know what must have been, what could have been its government… Society, its composition, the manner of life of individuals according to their social position, the relations of the different classes, the condition [l’état] of persons especially – that is the first question which demands attention from… the inquirer who seeks to understand how a people are governed.” (quoted in Sidentop’s introduction to Guizot’s History of Civilization in Europe, London: Penguin Books, 1997).

[38] McClelland, op. cit., p. 57.

[39] McClelland, op. cit., p. 117.

[40] Aristotle, Politics, I.

[41] Quoted by Zyzykin, Patriarkh Nikon, Warsaw, 1931, part I, p. 7. Other ancient writers said the same. Thus Lactantius in his work On the Wrath of God: “Only the fear of God keeps men together in society… With the removal of religion and justice we descend to the level of mute cattle deprived of reason, or to the savagery of wild beasts.”

[42] Bowden, “Greek Oracles and Greek Democracy”, The Historian, N 41, Spring, 1994, pp. 3,4,7,8.

[43] Held, op. cit., p. 21.

[44] Copleston, op. cit., p. 143.

[45] Johnson, A History of the Jews, London, p. 101.

[46] Arrian, Anabasis, 7.1.

[47] “Only sex and sleep,” he said, “make me conscious that I am mortal”.

[48] E.E. Rice, Alexander the Great, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997, pp. 63-65. At the same time, it must be remembered that Classical Greek religion’s confusion of gods and men implicitly raised the possibility of men becoming godlike.

[49] Roberts, op. cit., p. 173.

[50] Roberts, op. cit., p. 175.

[51] McClelland, op. cit., pp. 76-77.

[52] McClelland, op. cit., p. 82.

[53] Schama, The Story of the Jews, London: Vintage, 2014, pp. 94-95.

[54]Lieberman, “Hanukkah”, Orthodox Christian Witness, vol. XXXIII, N 10 (1483), January 17/30, 2000, p. 5.

[55]Johnson, op. cit., p. 102.

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