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The Ancient Idiot

Thursday, May 14, 2015 16:36
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(Before It's News)

Here’s an excerpt from the next book that I will be reviewing, Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:

“Religious belief shaped the character of ancient ‘patriotism’. Serving the ‘fathers-land’ emerges in the word itself. The defenders of an ancient city under siege were not moved by interest as we understand the term. They were not defending a public institution that had created and guaranteed individual rights. Neither were they inspired by the kind of historical narratives that have been created to celebrate and reinforce the identities of modern nation-states. There was nothing self-serving, abstract or sentimental about ancient patriotism.

The ancient citizen saw himself as defending the land of his ancestors, who were also his gods. His ancestors were inseparable from the ground of the city. To lose that ground was to lose the gods of the family. Indeed, the loss of the city meant that the gods had already abandoned it. That is why, whenever a new city was about to be founded, the first public rite involved its members digging a trench to receive soil carried from their previous city, representing the soil in which their ancestors had been buried. Citizen could then still say this was the land of their ancestors, terra patria. In Plutarch’s account, Romulus, the founder of Rome, did exactly that, in order to establish a new residence for his ancestral gods. The foundation of a cit was not the construction of a few houses, but the assertion of a hereditary religious identity, ‘patriotism’.

when defending his city, the ancient citizen was therefore defending the very core of his identity. Religion, family and territory were inseparable, a combination of which turned ancient patriotism into an overwhelming passion. The enslavement that often followed the unsuccessful defence of a city merely confirmed a truly dreadful anterior fact: the loss of identity that necessarily accompanied the loss of domestic gods.

We can now understand why patriotism was not only the most intense feeling but also the highest possible virtue for the ancient citizen. Everything that was important to him – his ancestors, his worship, his moral life, his pride and property – depended on the survival and well-being of the city. That is why devotion to the ‘sacred fatherland’ was deemed the supreme virtue. In devoting himself to the city before everything else, the citizen was serving his gods. No abstract principle of justice could give him pause. Piety and patriotism were one and the same thing. For the Greeks, to be without patriotism, to be anything less than an active citizen, was to be an ‘idiot’. That, indeed, is what the word originally meant, referring to anyone who retreated from the life of the city.

So it is no accident that exile was the most severe punishment the citizen of a polis could suffer. It was worse than death, or rather it was a living death. To be exiled meant to be separated from the religious rites and relationships that were the source of personal identity. The city-state or polis was not simply a physical setting or place for the citizen. It was his whole life.

Let him leave its sacred walls, let him pass the sacred limits of its territory, and he no longer finds kind. Everywhere else, except in his own country, he is outside the regular life and the law; everywhere else he is without a god, and shut out from all moral life. There alone he enjoys his dignity as a man, and his duties. Only there can he be a man.

This, of course, is why Aristotle later famously argued that the life of the citizen was the only life worth living.”


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