The Construction of a European Identity

European cultural identity came to be intimately tied to its purported foundations in ancient Greek culture and values not only during the Middle Ages but even more so during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period the ancient world was intensely re-investigated as the inspirational source of a number of key contemporary issues. Perhaps the most prominent of these concerned how emergent national states understood the possible range of legitimate constitutions and their respective relations to citizens and subjects. Scholars declared Greece to have initiated something peculiarly European: a tradition of 'legitimate' government. Consequently, they separated ancient Greece from its actual cultural ties to its geographical neighbours in the Semitic Middle East and Asia Minor. But they were not the first to insist that Greece stood out as different from those supposed 'non-European' traditions of autocratic, indeed often tyrannous government, despite their awareness that there had been Greek tyrants too.3 Learned men during the medieval and Renaissance periods of Western European history also acknowledged the Greeks, and their heirs, the Romans, as superior to other civilizations. They lamented the loss of the traditions of Greco-Roman culture in their own times and nostalgically sought to revive and pass on the traditions of their illustrious forebears, however inadequately.

Important recent but controversial studies have emphasized, however, that ancient Greek cities displayed more affinities with the contractual trading republics of the oriental societies of the Levant and Mesopotamia and with the cities of the medieval and modern oriental (Arab) world which are their heirs than with anything that developed in Western Europe.4 It is beyond doubt that European political institutions were, in fact, derived far less from ancient Greek practices than from Roman law and Canon (Church) law supplemented by an extensive knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, and from an indigenously developed feudalism and a common law that was based on immunities from monarchical powers during the European Middle Ages. Ancient Greece contributed little to these practices. Indeed, certain ancient Greek practices, like direct democracy, for which they are honoured today, were subject to severe criticism (by the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle), if not to 'editing' early on (for instance, by the historian Polybius in the second century bc, by the Roman Cicero in the first century bc and by Plutarch in the first and second centuries ad), as the legacy of ancient Greece was reconstructed by later self-proclaimed heirs who wished to favour a society based on differential rank rather than one based on the ancient Athenian acknowledgement of the equal potential of all free men to take turns in ruling and being ruled. During the Middle Ages, northern European nation-states did not see themselves as the legitimate heirs of the historical ancient Greek jw/15/city-state of which they knew little, but of that ancient polis reinterpreted by moral and political philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and thereafter, the Roman Cicero and other Roman historians, by the fifth-century ad Christian

3 J. F. McGlew, Tyranny and Political Culture in Ancient Greece (Ithaca, NY, 1993); G. Giorgim, La Citta e il Tiranno, il concetto di tirannide nellagrecia del vii—iv secolo a.c. (Milan, 1993).

4 M. Bernal, Black Athena, the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1 (London, 1987); P. Springborg, Royal Persons, Patriarchal Monarchy and the Feminine Principle (London, 1990) and P. Springborg, 'The Contractual State; reflections on orientalism and despotism', History of Political Thought 8 (1987) pp. 395-434.

theologian St Augustine and the thirteenth-century medieval scholastic theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Furthermore, even if some of the most distinctive features of Plato's and Aristotle's preferences for monarchical or aristocratic constitutions can be shown to reveal 'eastern' influences,5 the eastern sources, none the less, came to be ignored early on, indeed much earlier than during the early-modern period and for important reasons. The point is that although some have argued for examples of democracy prior to the Greeks (for instance, the tribal democracies of early Mesopotamia), their impact as well as the impact of actual Athenian direct democracy on later European society was to be virtually null.6 If ancient Athenian democracy was itself to play virtually no role in the forging of Roman, medieval, Renaissance and early-modern political institutions, a history of political thought must try to explain why this was so. What was the reason for the most distinctive of ancient Athenian practices, a practice of direct democracy or rule by the demos or mass, not surviving into later periods while ancient political theories did survive?

There is no doubt that the 'idea of ancient Greece' was exploited — in what today we may regard as historically inaccurate ways — to serve medieval, Renaissance and early-modern Europeans' prejudices about themselves and others. None the less, ancient Greek culture was at the heart of a constructed European identity and this identity was in the process of being formulated well before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Through the descriptions, often critical, of the workings of its political institutions, and even more so through the doctrines of its various schools of philosophy, through its sciences including medicine, its drama, architecture and sculpture, and its tradition of historical writing concerned with narrating events in Greek history and explaining why they happened as they did, ancient Greece played a foundational role in the development of the Roman and Christian civilizations which chronologically succeeded it. Even when the writings of the Greeks were later misread, awkwardly translated into other languages or deliberately misconstrued in order to serve prejudices and beliefs the Greeks could not or would not have shared (and they had plenty of their own, as we shall see), educated men took them to have set the agenda for the ongoing debates in almost all fields of intellectual endeavour, not least concerning the principles and practices of good government and government's service to men of principled behaviour. Ancient Greece educated ancient Rome in a selective way, or rather, the Romans took the lessons they 'chose' and with the development of Christianity, both theologically and institutionally, the Greek legacy as it came to be construed by various Church Fathers with the Bible dominating their thoughts, was not forgotten.

Instead of calling the ancient Greeks the first Europeans we could say that educated Europeans have thought of themselves as having inherited a range of values and a variety of institutions from ancient Greece. But it is even more accurate to say that educated Europeans have thought of themselves as having inherited ways of thinking about and discussing values and institutions from that extraordinary culture that flourished in several centres in the Aegean, on the western shores of modern-day Turkey and in southern Italy, most notably during the sixth to fourth centuries bc. The Romans and then various 'schools' of Christian thinkers interpreted Greek values and institutions in a variety

5 Springborg, Royal Persons, p. 405.

6 M. Finley, Democracy, Ancient and Modern (London, 1973).

of ways and then applied these interpretations to their own historical experiences during subsequent centuries.7

Furthermore, Plato and Aristode, who more than any other ancient Greeks set the norms for the subsequent tradition of political philosophy, often tell their audience that they mean to criticize and provide a hostile commentary on some of the most revered values and practices of the city in which they lived — Athens. But when we read these philosophers and recognize that at times they are hostile witnesses, we cannot be certain that they are telling us how institutions actually operated nor what ordinary people thought of the values and systems of rules by which they lived their daily lives. Indeed, the history of political thought comprises the voices of a selection of men who, in their own times, were anything but ordinary themselves, nor (more importantly) were they considered such by future readers of their works. They were taken to be 'simply' the best of their age. Therefore, we can examine to what extent Plato and Aristotle appear to have shared or rejected their contemporaries' values by reading what they tell us are the opposing positions to their own. From these accounts we try to build up a picture of what it must have been like to be an ancient Greek and participate in their discussions. But we must be careful not to assume that we arrive at certainty in these matters, for the following reasons. The voices from the page are today presumed to give accounts that, on the one hand, are taken to be normative for their societies and, on the other, stand out as atypical in being perhaps more reflective, synthetic or critical than would be those of many of their ordinary contemporaries, were the latters' views preserved for us to examine. Only through a comparative examination of all surviving voices could we come to some view on the degree to which Plato or Aristotle, for instance, were representative of ancient Greek attitudes on a range of issues. But in the construction of a European intellectual tradition, representativeness of the 'ordinary' lived life of the culture from which these philosophers came was not seen to be an issue because it was assumed that their voices were exemplary of the best of their tradition and therefore, the ones worthy of being heard.

It is also important for us to realize that what we can uncover to have been ancient Greek attitudes in general — to slaves, to women, to non-Greeks, to honour, birth, leisure, to politics and society, even to democracy, freedom and equality (whether they were attitudes that were rejected or modified by contemporary political philosophers or were apparently accepted by them and even justified philosophically and logically) -were attitudes with which we now may have no sympathy. Furthermore, the meaning of Athenian values in their ancient contexts did not survive unchanged in later periods of history and in different cultures that, none the less, can trace their intellectual roots to ancient Greece. For instance, in translating from Greek to Latin, Romans often referred to what they took to be the same virtues in Greek society as in their own, but it can be established that they often meant rather different things by 'the virtues' than the Greeks appear to have meant. Nor did the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, massively influential though they were on later European culture, survive unscathed in subsequent interpretations. Later thinkers believed themselves to be followers of Plato or Aristotle but, in the process of writing commentaries on these works and making these philoso

1 See Andrew Sherratt's review of Alain Schnapp, La Conquête du passé, aux origines de l'archéologie (Paris, 1994), Times Literary Supplement, 21 October 1994, p. 6.

phers' theories their own, they changed them. It has been noted to be the fate of great persons who have put their mark on the ages that commentary very soon comes between their work and posterity. The commentary qualitatively goes beyond the works upon which it is commentary. 'More seriously yet: it becomes autonomous and generates a superimposed tradition which, driven by its own logic, obliterates the work from which it has issued, masks it, distorts it, and makes it disappear.'8 A study of the history of political thought can show us that the historical contexts in which certain ideas became dominant, the dominant ideas themselves changing through commentaries and reinterpretations undertaken in different contexts, can answer some of the questions that philosophy cannot.

In general, then, we shall need to come to some decision concerning the degree to which the Greek legacy - ways of thinking about and discussing values and institutions — is affected by specific historical and cultural milieux: ours, theirs, and those cultures intervening between them and us.

Furthermore, we must try to assess whether we can apply any of the values argued for in earlier political theory to our own situations, or to the world as we think it is. This can be decided only after we have come to some decision about whether we believe that there is a possibility of our understanding what earlier political theorists meant at all, given that they lived in conditions that are not those of Western post-industrial modern society and we, of course, do not live in societies that are like theirs. To what extent do we have, as it were, other things on our minds of which the Greeks, indeed any earlier political theorists, had not the slightest conception? And to what extent did they similarly have things on their minds with which we may have no sympathy and, worse, no comprehension at all? To say that Europeans have constructed their histories and their identities, taking the Greeks as their beginnings, does not at first help us to understand how we can be certain that when we read their texts, we grasp what they meant. Is there a method by which we can read the political theory of past authors without imposing our current agenda on them, without confusing our interests with theirs?

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Quiet Mind Meditational Therapy Life

Quiet Mind Meditational Therapy Life

This is an audio book collection all about quiet mind meditation therapy. This is a great audio course that will teach you everything about meditation therapy.

Get My Free Audio Book


Post a comment