Chapter 3

The ancient West

It should be obvious to any reader that I owe a lot to Hegel for what I am saying. Since I agree with him that the defining aspect of a civilization is its attitude toward human life, then it should come as no surprise if we think alike in large measure.

At any rate, the reason Western civilization is important to study is that it underwent crucial changes, and is in process; and we can't see what we are doing to ourselves unless we understand what is going on in the process. Studying who ruled what kingdom and who conquered what territory has about the same significance as studying those things in China or India; it is something interesting to know, but it does not really tell you who you are and where you are going. "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it" applies only when history is a process of the civilization itself; because otherwise, why would repeating history be a "doom"? That is, repeating history is only a "mistake" if history is headed somewhere, and the repetition takes one back a step instead of a step closer to the goal. But Western civilization seems definitely to be headed somewhere, and the question is where; and the answer seems to be discoverable by extrapolation from how we got from the threshold of civilization to where we are now.

Ancient civilization in the West, as I see it, turned itself outward beyond the self and beyond the family to find the source of authority; and it basically found this in the forces of nature, which had to be obeyed just as much as the ruler of the nation had to be obeyed; and the punishment was just as sure and swift and ruthless if its laws were violated. Authority thus was looked on as an external force imposed on human beings, making them cooperate not only with themselves but with the world around them.

The "we," then, in a certain sense included nature, which was subject to the same laws that human beings were; and so it was natural that as this civilization developed, the gods would take on a human character, like that of human authorities. They formed a little nation of immortals of their own; and the conflict of the forces of nature was portrayed as the bickering of people in a society.

There was in the ancient world no notion of the individual as of any importance; and so if one person sinned, the whole nation was apt to be punished by the gods. Hence, if harm to the nation could be achieved by destroying one person, he was to be destroyed. The citizens of the nation, of course, were the only real human beings, in spite of this solidarity the ancients felt with all of nature; those of other nations were barbarians (this is the Greek word for "foreigner" and it retains today the Greek attitude toward foreigners), and could be enslaved.

Regarding the forces of nature as authorities having human characteristics was not, I think, as Comte would have it, a naive way of looking at things, but an advance, because it lifted what was going on in the world from a mere blind cause-and-effect sequence to something that could be considered to have reason behind it. The gods could know what was going on among the people and could actually wreak vengeance on them for violating their decrees.

There was at this time no notion of history as progress; if anything, things were cyclic, more or less like the seasons, with events only superficially changing but coming round again in due course. No one thought that there was a beginning to everything or a direction to the world; it was accepted, like the gods, as "just there."

But this notion of the gods as personifications of natural forces led human beings to investigate the natural forces themselves, to see if some unifying principle could be discovered for how they worked; and thus philosophy--or better, science--began. The first unifying principle was that of what everything was made of and got transformed out of (one of the four "elements" or something underneath all of them), (Thales, Anaximines, Anaximander, etc.) and then process itself and its underlying dynamism or energy (called "fire") was seen as what unified everything (Heraclitus). This was immediately contradicted by a Western version of the Indian view of the underlying stability of Being (Parmenides).

This led to a new kind of world view in the ancient world; the gods in their personified form were thought to be imaginative ways of presenting the invisible realities argued to by Plato and Aristotle; and the world split into the naive and the sophisticated, with the naive actually believing in gods like the traditional ones, and the sophisticated aware that these were myths for natural forces directed by a hierarchy of intelligent beings who were themselves indifferent to what was happening, but who had an effect on the world nonetheless. (Incidentally, this view with the earth at the center of the universe was thought to put earth in the least important position; it was the universe's garbage-dump, so to speak. The gods and the bodies that followed them were greater and greater toward the circumference.)

Examining the world led to considerable scientific and technological advance, though the technology was not really directed toward making human living easier, because the citizens had their living made easy by slaves--who had to be kept busy if for no other reason than that an idle slave is one who thinks about freedom.

But because of the presence of slavery, the master-slave relation permeated the thinking of the people, all the more because anyone could be made a slave. And this developed into the Stoic idea that everyone is a slave to the gods, from the Emperor to the lowest worker; and therefore that everyone is also free, if he chooses to do what he must do. This, of course, is an anti-love sophistry, since if everyone is free in the only significant sense, no one need bother about slavery; and in fact in those days slavery was thought to be perfectly natural, and Aristotle even said that certain people were by nature slaves.

As to the role of civil society, it was to make people good human beings. There was no clear distinction at this time between morality and legality, or for that matter between morals and customs; both were "what must be done" or what was expected by the society and by nature; and the function of society was to put people in government who knew what human goodness was and would impose it by law upon the masses who knew no better. In China, as we saw, good citizens made a good society; here in the ancient West, the good society made good citizens.

While this implied an orientation toward the citizens, it was not yet a real recognition of the individual citizens as each of importance, but rather of the citizens collectively. Plato had no trouble in proposing that the ideal society would force people into the roles they were most capable of, whether they liked what they would be doing or not. His idea was that they would be happiest if they were doing what they were most suited for, and therefore should be compelled to do it. The Greeks, like everyone else, thought that goodness was something objective, and the wise could discover it and force it upon the foolish--to their benefit, of course, which they would presumably discover once they had had a bit of practice pursuing the good.

Quite early in the ancient period, God intervened to reveal himself to the Hebrew people as the creator and absolute master of everything, and also as the sole and ultimate lawgiver for the world and for everyone; but most of all for his people, with whom he entered into a special treaty-relationship. Note that he did this in the Western world (even though in the eastern part of it), but very early as civilizations emerged. Western civilization with its belief in one God was not, in that sense, a late development; it happened before the Buddha, for instance

But the point here is that God was revealing himself consistently with the general mentality of the people themselves, who were imbued with the notion of citizenship and obedience to authority. This again shows his respect for his creatures.

The treaty God made with Abraham and his descendants involved this: If the people obeyed his laws, they would prosper; if they disobeyed, they would suffer. He informed them of the fall and of his promise, and told them that somehow the fulfillment of that promise would come through them to all mankind.

But in spite of the fact that the revelation was consistent with the people's receptivity, there were several senses in which the Hebrew view of the world and God was far beyond where its contemporaries could reach. First, there was the notion that everything began and had a purpose it was developing towards. Second, that God was invisible and not like anything on earth at all; but personal, not the same as abstract Being; that he was not the ultimate unifying force of nature, like a world-soul, still less the greatest in a hierarchy of invisible beings. Third, that he was wholly benevolent, not something now magnanimous and now malicious. And fourth, there was the insight into the limits of human nature that came from the Commandments. The pagans gradually discovered through their own thinking some of these things; but the Hebrews had it handed to them from the beginning, and spent their history struggling with the implications of it.

They were constantly plagued with the temptation to regard YHWH as the greatest of the gods, not the only one; and when they did this, they suffered plagues and conquests. They also made the mistake of wanting a king like other nations, because they could not bring themselves to be ruled by something invisible; and their kings, having married, led them astray in various ways--until finally the whole people disappeared, led off into captivity in Babylon. It was there that the Law was seen as applying to the individual, and the problem of individual punishment and reward came to the fore.

The exile of the people purified them of many of their paganizing tendencies and restored their faith in YHWH; and it allowed them to glimpse also that the solution to the problem of obedience was not in what happened to the people as such, nor to individuals in this life, but must have to do with the life after death. But the negative side of this was that obedience to the Law became the whole raison d'être of human living, stultifying human development and human relations.

Thus, the attitude of all the peoples at this time a couple of centuries before the Christian era was that humanity meant citizenship in a nation among other nations basically at war with each other, and it implied empires created by way of conquest and subjugation of other peoples. Even the Hebrews themselves conceived of their mission as that of conquest of the other nations under the Prince who was the successor of David, and who, like Alexander, would conquer everyone and make them bow down before YHWH and the King he was to anoint. Needless to say, they more than any of the other ancient lands could not tolerate being under the thumb of a conqueror.

At this point, the organizing Romans stepped into the arena of the developing world. By instituting the concept of the persona, they were able not simply to conquer, but to establish a spiritual bond among the nations, handing out honorary citizenship to foreigners, and thus bringing the concept of "we" beyond mere national or ethnic boundaries. They also let the people keep their own form of worship and government (as long as they acknowledged also the Roman gods, especially the Emperor), and only exacted a tribute in money for their subjection--something which was not excessively onerous. It was basically a recipe for harmony among nations, preserving both nationalism and a common bond among all peoples; and once Augustus had, like Alexander, conquered the whole world, the world was at peace.

There is one other important factor to the attitude prevalent at the time. A slave, apparently, regarded himself as a kind of tool or instrument of his master, since it was the master's will which directed his acts. But since a tool in Greek is an organon, and this was what Aristotle called the functioning parts of the body, there was the implication that a slave was a kind of part of the master's body, or an extension of it. This attitude universalized itself, as it were, in the Stoic notion of the whole universe as one living body, unified by the world-soul, with each of us as an organ in it, with a function in relation to the whole.