Saturday, 31 October 2020

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.