Thursday, 26 March 2009

Isocrates on Greek culture and race

In an exchange between an anonymous commenter and Hermes on my post More nonsense about Cleopatra’s ‘black ancestry’, the issue of Isocrates famous statement on Greek culture and race came up.

Anonymous wrote: ‘The Ancient Greeks (or at least the Athenians), as Isocrates famously proclaimed, came to consider Greeks those who partook of Greek education and culture irrespective of ancestry.’

Hermes responded: ‘This inference is absolutely incorrect and is a favourite of those forces of multiculturalism that want to foist on the Greek people their culture-destroying religion. Isocrates, not the Athenians, made this statement, and we cannot know for sure whether the majority of Athenians believed what Isocrates stated. We do know for sure that the Athenians had strict laws of citizenship which made it difficult for even a Greek of another city-state with one Athenian parent to claim citizenship. Also, Athenians were obsessed with the concept of autochthony which again runs counter to Isocrates.’

I want to add a couple of points.

Here’s what Isocrates actually said:

‘Athens has so far outrun the rest of mankind in thought and speech that her disciples are the masters of the rest, and it is due to her that the word “Greek” is not so much a term of birth as of mentality, and is applied to a common culture rather than a common descent.’

The statement appears in The Panegyricus, written in about 380 BC, seven years after the infamous King’s Peace, formulated by Sparta and Persia, had returned rebellious Cyprus and Ionia to Persian control and imposed Spartan hegemony throughout Greece. The Panegyricus is a passionate appeal for pan-Hellenic unity, a call to arms against Persia and a eulogy of Athens, which Isocrates believed the only Greek power capable of leading an expedition against Persia.

Isocrates advocates attacking Persia because it would: ‘exchange internal disputes for external war’, i.e. solve the problem of internal conflict (stasis) that plagued individual Greek states and Greece in general by directing Greek energies against a common enemy and opening the way for ambitious or disgruntled Greeks to colonise the east; ‘transfer the wealth of Asia to Europe’; be revenge for the Persian invasions of Greece in the previous century – ‘exact retribution for the insult done to the Greek race’, as the Greeks had previously accomplished when they destroyed Troy in retaliation for the kidnap of Helen of Sparta; liberate once and for all from Persian authority and menace the Greek states in Asia Minor; and fulfil the destiny of Greeks, which was to subjugate foreigners, who were racially and culturally inferior to Greeks. Greeks were free, belligerent and tough, while Persians were soft, effeminate and servile, according to Isocrates.

Isocrates goes on to argue that his native Athens is the city best placed to achieve pan-Hellenic unity and lead the campaign against Persia. Athens, Isocrates, says, is ‘the most ancient, the greatest and the most universally famed of all cities… But distinguished as is the basis which underlies it, there is closely connected with it an even clearer ground for honour. [Athens’] title to possession is not based upon the eviction of others or the acquisition of an untenanted wilderness, nor on forming a mixed collection of races. The distinction and purity of our line has enabled us to remain in unaltered possession of the land of our birth. We sprang from its soil, and can use the same names for it as for our own blood. We are the only Greek state which can properly call our land by the names of nurse, fatherland and mother. Any justifiable pride, any reasonable claim to leadership, any memories of ancestral greatness, must show some such racial origins to support it.’

Athens, therefore, is the most suitable leader of Greece because of its previous contributions to Greek freedom in wars fought against Persia; its cultural influence on the rest of Greece – here Isocrates echoes Pericles, who asserted Athens’ right to hegemony over Greece since ‘Athens is an education to Greece’; and, most significantly for Isocrates, because Athens’ citizens were, of all the Greeks, the most racially pure and homogeneous – the most Greek in blood. (This last point reveals the importance Greeks attached to parentage and descent).

Bearing all this in mind, Isocrates’ statement on the inclusiveness of Greek culture no longer appears so liberal; instead it becomes a radical assertion of Greek cultural superiority; a call to traditional Greek powers – identified by Isocrates as Athens, Sparta, Argos and Thebes – to recognise that the Greek world – those who share Greek culture and mentality – is much larger than Greece and consists of Greek cities and kingdoms that exist from the Pillars of Hercules in the west to Sinope on the Black Sea and Cyprus in the east; and a plea for this Greek world to be united under Athenian leadership, and such unity would not just be an end in itself but a means to successfully wage war against non-Greeks.

■ In 346 BC, Isocrates wrote another essay – To Philip – reaffirming his belief in pan-Hellenic unity and war against Persia. Spartan and then Theban hegemony had proved disastrous for Greece and disillusioned with the prospect of his native Athens leading a pan-Hellenic crusade against Persia, Isocrates urged Philip II of Macedonia to unite the Greek states and attack Persia. Of course, Philip did unite the Greek states – brutally and causing much resentment – but it was left to his son, Alexander, to fulfil Isocrates’ vision of a Greek expedition to destroy the Persian empire.


Prometheus said...

It is a little hard for me to know what exactly Hermes meant by his statement:

"those forces of multiculturalism that want to foist on the Greek people their culture-destroying religion"

exactly because he left our discussion (under the MacDougall Report) on GREEK vs ORTHODOX unfinished.

Nevertheless, from what Hermes said there, and what he is saying here, it seems to me he is contradicting himself.

Let us see again, and more carefully, what Isocrates said:

"“Greek” is not so much a term of birth as of mentality, and is applied to a common culture rather than a common descent"

He is not saying that absolutely is one or the other, but rather both, with mentality and culture (that is, one's actions), of course, to count much more. I believe i agree with this position.

Consider this: Person X is born in Greece (or by Greek parents), but betrays his country, works in destroying Greek ideals, etc. Should that person count as Greek?
Well, the issue is controversial, even though i am more leaning towrads "NO - X is not Greek", as an answer. Of course, someone could just say that person X is just a Greek traitor, etc.

Prometheus said...

Also, if by "Greek people" Hermes means (see my post below) the Greeks of today, i think he is in danger of being anachronistic.

Because, as i explained in another post, it's extremely difficult to relate today's
(Orthodox) "Greek", with the ancient Greek. I think you CANNOT.

This is not to offend anyone, but to state the facts: Greek ideals (ancient) and Orthodoxy are two positions that point to opposite directions. Also, Christianity oppose and damaged Hellenism as no one else.

So, when Hermes speaks of "multiculturalist that want to foist on the Greek people their culture destroying religion", he has to clarify to who/what is reffering to. Because for many (including myself) that "who/what" is clear, but i am not sure if it is for others, or if Hermes agrees, and that's why Isocrates claim becomes even more relevant today.

john akritas said...

What does Isocrates want to say by stressing Greeks' common culture and not common descent?

Isocrates is recognising that Greeks consist of Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians and that, in the colonies, newer forms of Greek culture and society have developed and that Greeks, through interaction with the colonised, may have lost their racial purity. Racial purity is vitally important to Isocrates (and to Greek society in general) and he casts doubt on the racial purity of other Greeks not because it is a fact but as a means to highlight Athenian autochtony and make the case for Athens to lead a unified Greece. A unified Greece is Isocrates' overriding concern. His definition of Greek culture is narrowly defined as is what he means by common descent. He is saying that even though not all Greeks may be as pure blooded or as culturally advanced as Athenians or Ionians; being of Dorian or Aeolian descent or, in the colonies, having taken in the blood of those you have conquered, does not exclude you from being Greek. He is not arguing that Greek identity be expanded so that non-Greeks be given access to the privilege of being Greek. To assert that Isocrates is somehow the harbinger of modern anti-racism or multiculturalism is to fundamentally misrepresent Isocrates and misunderstand the Greek mentality – which was that Greek culture was superior to all others; foreigners should be subservient to Greeks; Greeks had a right to conquer and exploit non-Greeks. This doesn't sound good to our modern ears, but it is the correct reading of Isocrates and all other readings are disingenuous or politically motivated.

Isocrates shows an interest in two outposts of the Greek world – Macedonia and Cyprus; and what this indicates is how in Isocrates' time notions of what constituted the Greek world were expanding beyond the traditional realms of Athens, Thebes, Sparta and Argos. This context is very important. He is indignant that, because of the King's Peace, Greek troops from Ionia were being used to quell Greeks in Cyprus, who were resisting the re-imposition of Persian rule. Again, Isocrates comments on race and culture can only be understood in this context of wanting pan-Hellenic unity to destroy the Persian empire. To take his comments and apply them to today's Greek context – of how Greece should deal with 1m immigrants – is to invert and distort Isocrates' meaning.

Hermes said...

Prometheus, read my last email on the McDougal post for a response to some of the stuff you have written. But to repeat you are making inferences from a very narrow period of Athenian history (not Hellenic) and applying that across time and space. For example, the sentiments expressed by some thinkers during the Classical period are not the sentiments expressed during the Second Sophistic nor during the period of the last flowering of pagan culture around the tie of Proclus. Also, the sentiments expressed by a small aristocratic elite during the Classical Age are not the same sentiments expressed by the ordinary Greek people living in Egypt around 100AD. For example, have you read some of the findings of letters, marriage documents, funeral inscriptions from the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus. Their hopes and dreams sound incredibly similar to modern Greek people today. Or have you investigated the nature of some of the mystery religions and their similarities to Orthodoxy.

Like I said, read more widely. Drop the mostly German-inspired interpretation of Hellenism.

Prometheus said...

Hermes, with all due respect (as you seem a very knowledgeable person), let's not resort to verbalisms and generalities. What i presented to you, was a specific issue/point, which i backed up with some specific documents supporting my claims. If you are unable (i believe, unwilling) to comment on it (as you haven't said anything substantial about it), then the generalities will not do you justice.

Have i ever said that Hellenism have been "rock-solid", and the same, throughout its history ? Or that Christianity didn't absorb pagan elements, etc? No, what i said is that the main dictum of Orthodoxy (as is TODAY, and before)
is not compatible with core Greek values (such as freedom, inquiry, reason, etc). Do the latter sound to be the Greek traits of a 30 -year period to you? Do many Greeks (and most people) value them still today? Of course. Did (most) Greeks promoted them as highest ideals? YES. Does Orthodoxy promotes them as highest ideals? NO. That's the difference.

On that last one, i provided some evidence that strengthen my point. You didn't, instead you generally say that Orthodoxy complements (or extends, or evolved) Greek culture and ideals. You need evidence for that. And what those could be? The anathematisms and damnation of all ancient Greek thinkers, read in Church, on every Sunday of Orthodoxy (in March)?

Finally, you can't accuse anyone of prejudice, really. Let me remind you some of the things you said in some of your postings:

"And regards to other Christian sects, Orthodoxy is by far the most superior so they should convert. Perhaps subtle pressure is a humane way to get them in line".

"Personally, I will never accept them (Nigerians, and Pakistanis) in my culture".

"It is possible that a person born Greek will ignore paideia and perhaps opt for Hip Hop and Malcolm X for their guides".

"They want to project the American project to the rest of the world which invariably means the destruction of distinctive cultures".

Are you kidding me? Seriously...

As i said in the beginning, you are probably a knowledgeable person. But, let me add also this: Knowledgeable and prejudice. Here is why. Compare your first quote above, with another post of your in which you told me that you basically do NOT follow/agree most of the essential Orthodox points. This is waht you said:

"I find the concepts of sin, mercy, guilt in Christianity ridiculous."

"I agree that Orthodoxy is SOMEWHAT “unrealistic, unnatural, impractical” but not completely."

You can't possibly expect to be taken seriously when on the one hand you believe the two above, and in the other, you think that Orthodoxy is the best, or should prevail, or should describe Hellenes. Can't you?

Hermes said...

Prometheus, I never stated that Orthodoxy complements, extends or evolves Greek ideals. However, Orthodoxy incorporated some elements of Hellenism but what they incorporated was bound by their prior or developing Christian beliefs. The great German historian, Werner Jaeger wrote a great book on this process. As did Jaroslav Pelikan. I think appealing to such academic luminaries is adequate evidence.

In regards to some Orthodox anathematisms, we must also remember that a large part of Orthodox dogma and liturgy was developed between the periods 200AD-600AD when there was sometimes real war between Christians and non-Christians which were often both Greeks by descent which does not mean that these statements are meant for all time. For example, the Classical Greeks made an assortment of "damnations" towards Persians so does that mean that today we do the same?

As to your next points, I did not state Orthodoxy is the best, I stated that Orthodoxy is better than the other Christian sects and heresies. And this view is not based on prejudice but is based on 20 years of study. There is a large difference.

Part of being a Hellene is being able to discern what is worthy and and what is not based on inquiry. Aristotle did this. So did every other famous Hellene. Judging by their writings I am sure they would have similar thoughts about Nigerians, Pakistanis and Hip Hop.