Voyage 2. IT ALL STARTED HERE…
IT ALL STARTED HERE: in the Mediterranean.
Although born in Africa, man was civilized in the Mediterranean, in the Near East, and more specifically, in the arc formed by Mesopotamia, the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) and the Nile valley in Egypt, extending also to Cyprus and Anatolia, as far as the Taurus Mountains: it’s the so-called Fertile Crescent. It was here that man made the first giant leap with the Neolithic agricultural revolution. It took millennia until something similar happened again, with the industrial revolution that began in England in the 18th century.
Man made the first giant leap in the Fertile Crescent
with the Neolithic agricultural revolution
There is, of course, a view that this second revolution marked a return to barbarism. But let us stick to generally accepted ideas for the time being. Even common sense says that the key was the first step; when hunters and gatherers became pastoralists and farmers. The development most probably was brought about by women: gathering fruit was their responsibility together with children, while men hunted. Therefore, agriculture, especially farming, the main aspect of the rural economy emerging then, was an innovation brought forth by women.(a)
As we know, a farmer is much more bound to the land than a hunter-gatherer or a pastoralist. Thus, the transition to farming led to the creation of permanent settlements that gradually grew: they became villages, some of them towns, or even cities. The latter – as the Hellenic and Latin words polis (πόλις) and civitas make clear – brought forth both politics and civilization. Man began his gradual transformation into what Aristotle would much later call a “political animal”, identifying a new distinctive feature of Homo sapiens vis-à-vis the other animal species.
The transition to farming led to the creation of settlements
that gradually grew: they became villages, towns, cities.
The latter brought forth both politics and civilization.
Cities require central authority and hierarchy, imposing monuments, division of labour and specialization. They necessitate the arts and crafts, commerce, architecture, pottery, metallurgy… The Mediterranean periplus began tentatively at that time, in parallel with the caravan routes along land roads that nevertheless remained dangerous. Consequently, so long as man familiarized himself with the sea, he’d rather sail than travel on land. It sounds a bit like an oxymoron that the liquid element is far more “solid” and safe, but that’s how it is.
Of course, the exchange of commercial goods is accompanied with the exchange of ideas, aesthetic patterns, intellectual “goods”, innovations. In this manner the new way of life spread rapidly inside and outside the Mediterranean basin, reaching eastwards as far as the Indian subcontinent and beyond: the Indo-Mediterranean contacts date back to at least the third millennium BCE.
The exchange of commercial goods is accompanied with the exchange of ideas, aesthetic patterns, intellectual “goods”, innovations.
The conditions were already ripe for the next colossal step: writing. Even though the reasons for this great innovation were initially bureaucratic (administrative record keeping, transfer of orders and messages), the invention and subsequent simplification of writing with the alphabet was indispensable as a condition for the systematic transfer of knowledge from one generation to the other and, of course, for the cultivation of literature and the arts – fields where the Greeks excelled.
Anyway, one needs to turn his back to the temptation of nationalist simplifications, although the ancient Hellenes have been a universal point of reference. The “Eastern threat” was there even then: it was the Persians. But Oriental knowledge was there, as well: any self-respecting philosopher wishing to be wise would go there for his “PhD”! It was the Orient where innumerable artifacts and ideas originated, along with the necessary know-how. Everything imported and adopted, however, had to be adapted according to the local needs and tastes; and some went by the wayside…
There are several historical oxymora in this era. One of them concerns the differences between the Aegean and the Orient in their political structures. The decentralized Greek city-states flourishing in the Iron Age, i.e. in classical times, had few Oriental equivalents: the Sumerian and the Phoenician cities. On the contrary, the prevailing state entities in the East were centralized empires of both the Bronze and Iron Ages. Despite all that, the mighty Achaemenid Empire was repeatedly defeated and humiliated by the ‘Amphictyony’ of the Hellenes – except the… Thebans and several other Quislings of the time (μηδίσαντες [medísantes], those who surrendered to the Persians-Medes and fought on their side).(b)
“The neck of the Greek the yoke will not abide,” one could very well say. OK, but this was a result of objective conditions. It was not so much that the Hellenes did not want, but rather did not need an imperial administration. What for them was an extraordinary situation that required collective and comprehensive effort, for the Easterners was an everyday struggle with an opponent much more powerful than the mightiest empire: Nature itself…
It was not so much that the Hellenes did not want,
but rather did not need an imperial administration…
Expanding his presence in an environment of rather great contrasts, which would be barren without the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, with the waters in abundance but also with floods and cataclysms lurking, the Easterner realized the need for coordination of the efforts of all communities. Next to deserts, symbolizing the constantly present absolute evil, these rivers were a blessing from heaven but had unpredictable behaviour: therefore, they should be tamed. Major public works, especially for irrigation, were a prerequisite for human survival; commerce, as well, for the supply of these communities with absolutely necessary raw materials, and also luxury goods.
No need to say these two networks, irrigation and (state-controlled) trade, necessitated centralized power that should inspire fear. Those in power obviously needed law-enforcement agencies: the army and clergy. They needed imposing, majestic palaces, monuments, temples. It is what Karl Marx called the “Asiatic mode of production” and is the key to understanding Oriental despotism. A by-product is the relative – or ostensible, as others say – stagnation and immobility that has characterized these societies for millennia until now.
Irrigation and trade necessitated centralized power that should inspire fear. Therefore, it needed law-enforcement agencies: the army and clergy.
It was absolutely impossible for democracy to grow on Babylonian soil.
Let us not forget, however, that these societies cultivated astronomy, mathematics, geometry – for the same reasons they invented writing; societies that created wonders like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – although hanging by a thread: the infrastructure that had made them great was also their Achilles’ heel. You can realize that with just a look at the ruins of Babylon conquered and pillaged by time.(c) It was absolutely impossible for democracy to grow on Babylonian soil.
The Oriental despots, satraps and tyrants were “necessary evils”. And, as there is always a match between worldly and heavenly powers (the concept of monarchies held “by the Grace of God” is in fact quite ancient), equally almighty and omnipotent, terrible and frightful, have been the Oriental gods; especially since they’ve been left alone with no competition at all, after all their antagonists had been “treated accordingly” by the clergy of the new monotheistic religions.(d)
The Oriental despots, satraps and tyrants were “necessary evils”. Equally almighty, terrible and frightful were the Oriental gods. No comparison with the Olympians, who were full of shortcomings, that is, they were human…
No comparison whatsoever with the Olympians who were full of shortcomings, that is, they were human, made in the image of the mortals that had created them, the Greeks, their way of life and their society – or, rather: societies, for Hellas, its topography, generated decentralization. The land was most beautiful, indeed, but not a paradise on earth. Living standards could improve through conquest, but also through expansion, colonization. Either way, each option contributed to an even greater decentralization.
Life, therefore, was not a “test for some happy afterlife” – an idea that the common people of the “Asiatic mode of production” should necessarily entertain. The Greeks were inspired and shaped by Hellenic Nature. They philosophized and discussed public issues under her beneficial influence. She “dictated” to them the forms of their state and political organizations – regardless if they both fomented discord. Their model was the city-state polis; democracy was their ideal; and freedom the highest virtue – regardless if they lived in a slave and “male” society. It seems contradictory… Moreover, their democracy was pure, direct; today’s so-called “democracy” is the so-called “representative” where power is not exercised by the people anymore but by their so-called “representatives”, contrary to the very definition of democracy (see our next additional Voyage). More and more oxymora and paradoxa…
Living in this environment, the Greeks have not only summarized, but also humanized, the ancient world. They have shown us what measure, proportion and harmony are. They have turned knowledge and culture as every free citizen’s right, and not a closed caste’s privilege. And they have left their invaluable heritage systematized and documented for future generations. Just like their gods, however, they have been full of shortcomings, born out of the same environment that has fostered their virtues, with individualism underlying all. They are called les enfants terribles de l’antiquité. Rather, I would say, of human history…