West vs. East
Ideology and Reason in Ancient Greece and its Near-Eastern Neighbors
It is easy enough in the 21st Century to draw borders between the East and the West. The notion of “Western Civilization” is prominent in social and political spheres: it contributes to political economic models such as modernization theory and dependency theory by defining the trajectory of a nation towards civility and prosperity against the “success” of western nations - in other words, there is an accepted idea of the process of becoming “civilized” that excludes alternative, non-western processes. Furthermore, these models, as I will show, falsely suggest that modern nations function without being informed by ideology, but instead rely on unbiased reason. But where do these ideas of correct and incorrect paths from primitive to civilized stem from? And is dividing the East from the West actually possible, or even necessary?
The answer to the first question is probably a combination of things, but western philosophy’s close ties with Ancient Greece would seem to be one of the largest roots supplying the tree of modernization theory. The western humanities, a discipline began by the humanists of the Renaissance periods in Europe, set out to map the ability of humankind - philosophy, ethics, and reason were core principles that the humanists set out to define and employ. Conveniently, the ancient Greek philosophers Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon had already theorized that the social and political structures of the world was controlled not by myth alone, but by human rationality. Because of this and the discoveries of works from other ancient Greek philosophers, a fascination with the study of what became known as classics was born.
This “shift” from myth to reason seems to suggest that the Greeks were of a different breed than other empires of the Mediterranean and Near East, and as Historians Eric Cline and Mark Graham assert, this is at the heart of the divide between East and West. The Greeks, Cline and Graham say, are less ideologically minded than their Near-Eastern neighbors, and this movement into more political forms of legitimization in Government marks the beginning of power ‘going west’ (Cline and Graham 104). This also suggests that for power dynamics to change and eventually become the largely democratic systems we have today, ideology had to necessarily play second fiddle to other forms of power.
However, this also, somewhat problematically, defines progress in that modernization theory way: by suggesting that progress was made by removing ideology and myth, it implies that societies that do not cannot make progress. But more problematically, it rests on the assumption that the ancient Greeks actually did have a less ideological society. And this, I argue, was just not the case.
Ideology is easy to identify in societies like Egypt and the Neo-Assyrian empire. With concepts like divine kingship in which the king gains his right to rule from the Gods, ideology informs politics in a very clear manner. But it is dangerous to attribute only this kind of mythologization with ideological power, lest you confine ideology to the past. Francis Oakley asserts that in order to understand anceint kingship, one must not forget to look at ideology and religion. “Unless one recognizes the centrality of the sacred to the archaic forms of kingship,” Oakley explains, “wherever and in whatever historical era one encounters them, it will be impossible to make much sense of such singular institutional phenomena” (Oakley 2). But this kind of notion of the past, while helpful, also suggests that ideology is no longer a key part of politics, an assumption in the same vein as Cline and Graham’s argument that the big shift at the dawn of Ancient Greece’s empiredom was leaving behind ideology for reason.
Greece did have some different models of government, perhaps led more by reason. But this did not necessarily negate ideological forms as Oakley, Cline and Graham suggest. Instead of an all-encompassing kingship, Greece had poleis, or “citizen-states” as Cline and Graham call them, most run by an oligarchy with a few kingships and democratic states as exceptions to the rule (Cline and Graham 110). And yes, as our aforementioned philosopher friends suggest, thinking, learning and reason did flourish. But a lot of societal infrastructure was still borrowed and expanded on from Greece’s neighbors in the Near East, and ideology still played a role in the Poleis.
It is important to note that ideology does not necessarily have to be defined in terms of gods. Collective myth, I would argue, can also lie in values. More often in the modern age what we mythologize is not the kind of intersection between man and god that Oakley associates with the ancient world, but what we understand to be societal truths themselves. Oakley seems to suggest that democratic and constitutional societies are exempt from the kind of ideology that shapes a kingship. However, I suggest that instead, it is democracy itself that is mythologized. Our ability to choose, to have freedom, and our understanding that individuation, that we are all each special and valid, is the ideology that informs our politics.
And this kind of ‘secular ideology’ is evident in examining the frieze that adorned the Parthenon in Athens. As Margaret Cool Root suggests, the frieze represents a kind of societal hierarchy (113), and depicts events that are not representative of actual events taking place in the temple, but “impressionistic visions” of events (106). The ideology exists on the temple in an interesting manner - gods are depicted, but so, too, is the social and political hierarchy, a different kind of ideology. Cool Root draws parallels to the Persian Apadana reliefs, which follow very similar thematic paths. This alone suggests that the more Western Greeks and the Near-Eastern Persians were not so starkly divided, but also suggests that ideologically there may have also been similarities. Both the reliefs and the frieze contain “multiple suggestions...of ideal union and unity on spiritual and social planes of the human experience” by depicting festivals that feature all walks of life culminating in one place, brought together by the task of bringing tribute (113-4). Harmony, in this case, is an ideal upheld by both sets of carvings. Whether harmony was achieved or not is irrelevant to the display of values, values that were publicly displayed to the people and disseminated as common ideology. Similar ideology is present in Herodotus the ancient Greek historian’s Histories, as Cool Root Points out - “to Herodotus in the mid-fifth century it was the Persian king Cyrus who epitomized the ideal virtues of rulership. Cyrus offers the closing message of the Histories, suggesting in so many words that empire justly deserved, righteously and piously administered, and untainted by greed and false pride is good” (113). Even without divine kingship, the ideology surrounding the ruling of an empire was held by both the Persians and the Greeks.
The value of harmony, unity, and oneness is in itself an ideal, but I would argue that ancient Greece’s ‘secular ideology’ goes beyond just that. Cline and Graham paint reason as a shift away from ideology, but is it? If ideology is merely the values and beliefs held by a society, then belief in reason and logic is in itself ideological. I argue that the shift was not a shift away from ideology entirely, but perhaps just a shift away from a more direct, divine type of ideology. But why did this shift occur? As is evident in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponesian war, the Greek Poleis were trying to set themselves apart from their neighbors as Hellenes. Thucydides calls the Persians, whom the Hellenes had just defeated, “barbarians” (49). Because of the recent war, the Greeks may have been more motivated to draw lines between themselves and the Persians. It is possible that Thucydides’ writings contributed to the way in which the Greeks became ‘western’ by separating themselves from the people they borrowed from and then defeated.
But ulitmately, the Greeks were not so far removed from the Near East, nor were they removed from ideology. To use a modern example that may have well been at home in the world of the ancient Greeks, The United States’ mythologization of the power of the individual within a democracy is an example of a culturally and politically significant belief that serves as the legitimization of our presidents. Presidential candidates have to not only appeal to groups of people, but also find ways to incorporate the individual. Once elected, the president earns legitimacy from gaining the most overall votes, but more important than that is the notion that so many individuals voted for them. Instead of Gods, the mythology is that everything is fair because every individual gets a say. This is the legitimization for our rulers, and this ideology cannot be separated from our politics. In the same way, Greek ideology, as evidenced by the Parthenon Frieze, the changes in government system, and the embrace of science and reason, was made up of cultural norms and values that still informed their political system.
Eric H. Cline and Mark W. Graham, Ancient Empires: From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam.
Maragaret Cool Root, The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs.
Francis Oakley, Kingship: The Politics of Enchantment.
Thucydides, A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler.