The Wisdom of the Ancients, Part 2: Piety, Aristocratic Values and Necessary Inequality

Guillaume Durocher

Go to Part 1

  1.  Nature & the Gods: Sacred Laws

Greek thinkers often debated the nature of the gods and the universe itself — or nature — and their relationship with the laws. Many Greeks denounced their traditional stories about passionate and violent gods as impious. Some denounced their city’s laws as contrary to nature. The Greeks were typically Western in their willingness to question convention.

The Greeks almost universally believed that anyone who violated the will of the gods or nature, whether out of ignorance or contempt, would inevitably be ruined and destroyed as a result. In a quite literal sense then, to be impious or to do the unnatural meant for the Greeks to be engaging in maladaptive behavior. Homer’s capricious gods and the suffering of his heroes, who may have unknowingly offended a god, reflect the anxiousness of men, facing death and danger at every turn, to respect the inscrutable higher powers that hold sway over their lives.

This point is perhaps made most explicitly in one of Xenophon’s dialogues on the subject of incest:

Socrates: Those who transgress the laws laid down by the gods pay a penalty which no man can escape in the way that some transgressors of man-made laws escape paying the penalty, either by escaping detection or by the use of force.

Hippias: What penalty, Socrates, cannot be escaped by parents who copulate with their children or children who copulate with their parents?

Socrates: The greatest of all, I can tell you, what greater misfortune could happen to human beings in the procreation of their children than to procreate badly?[1]

The prohibition on incest is therefore a divine or natural law. This interdiction is a perfectly adaptive principle, even though the Ancients could know nothing about the genetic reasons for consanguineous diseases or inbreeding depression. In Xenophon’s dialogue, Hippias and Socrates observe two further customs besides incest which, being shared by (virtually) all human societies, likely reflect natural law: “among all peoples the first established custom is to worship gods” and “to honor parents.” I would argue both are fundamental adaptive principles. To honor one’s parents means to know one’s kin, to be in solidarity with them, and, to a certain extent, to inscribe ourselves in their wider plan. Elsewhere, Xenophon observes that a mother’s love for her own children is also a “natural law,”[2] which is self-evidently adaptive.

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Piety, I would argue, represents an in-born drive for obedience and enforcement of group norms, defined by the reigning religion. A religion’s principles can of course by maladaptive (I think especially of universal religions, often promoted and manipulated by rulers of multiethnic empires). However, traditional tribal religions seems to virtually always have adaptive values on the whole. Specific religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, or Shinto clearly have adaptive ethnocentric principles. Greek polytheism, besides promoting the family and values of personal heroism and sacrifice, emphasized loyalty to the city-state, which as we have seen was a kinship group. The universal abhorrence for impiety in traditional societies represents, in my view, an instinctive aversion to normlessness, a society with no direction or ordering is felt to be a revolting sacrilege. Religion can be likened to a kind of social software: it enables both group unity and potentially radical changes in social behavior through various mechanisms (guilt, enforcement), without waiting for invariably slow genetic change—what evolutionists refer to as cultural group selection.

This by no means exhausts the discussion of natural law. I observe however that the usual Greek conception, that what is unnatural and impious is self-destruction/maladaptive, tends to imply duties rather than rights.[3] The Greek conception of natural law means individuals and communities have a duty to not engage in behavior which will ruin them. Conversely, as we Westerners are transforming our societies in utter contempt for the laws of tribalism in human beings and heredity in all living creatures, so we become steadily weaker with every generation.

It follows that for the Greeks, ethics — personal or political — could only be known through knowledge of the natural and divine laws of the universe. The good state would hence seek to harmonize its laws with those of the universe. As Heraclitus says: “all human laws are in the keeping of the one divine law; for the one divine law has as much power as it wishes, is an unfailing defense for all laws, and prevails over all laws.”[4] A possible implication is that if the state’s laws are unnatural and maladaptive for one’s people, one has the right and duty to violate and replace those laws.

The philosophers then had a quest to discover nature’s laws and to inspire their society to live in harmony with them. This however had obvious antidemocratic implications. Democritus, a philosopher famous for his positing the existence of indivisible atoms, believed that it was “wrong to assess the truth by majorities and minorities.”[5] Indeed, by definition, those with the best knowledge of truth are a tiny minority — just as the best sprinters, the best ship-builders, the best doctors, etc., form tiny minorities of their respective fields. Much later, the philosopher-emperor Julian, the last Roman ruler to seek to revive the old pagan religion and Greek philosophy, summarized things thus: “the end and aim of . . . every philosophy is happiness, but happiness that consists in living according to nature and not according to the opinions of the multitude” (To the Uneducated Cynics).[6] Cultural and political leadership was then meant to belong to those who had both the in-born intellect and goodness, and the best training and education, to know the truth.

  1. The Recognition of Inequality: Foundational to Ethics

For the ancients, the recognition of inequality was foundational to ethics. An egalitarian was effectively morally blind. Inequality extended to all spheres. At the individual level of the human soul, reason was considered superior to emotions, and emotions superior to mere pleasure. In the best human beings, those who fulfill our true potential as distinct from irrational beasts, reason rules over pleasure and pain, with the assistance of his emotions. Since reason was not distributed equally among all people, human inequality was a fact of nature — a truth that  has been scientifically shown repeatedly in the literature on the behavior genetics of IQ.

At the level of the universe, species and things were unequal in the same regard: gods were superior to men, men to animals, and animals to inanimate objects. In this schema, humans should worship and serve the gods, while rightly ruling over animals, and finally animals over mere matter.

Between individual man and the universe, there is the city. And here again one finds inequality and diversity everywhere in any human society, much of it inborn. Again, the better — those who are more enlightened, by whatever happy combination of natural ability and good upbringing — should lead those with lesser abilities.

The inequality of all things in the universe is axiomatic for the Greeks. And equally axiomatic is the rule that the better should rule the worse, and not otherwise. As the gentle Marcus Aurelius, another Roman philosopher-emperor, would say: “Is it not clear that inferior beings were made for the sake of the superior, and superior beings for the sake of one another?”[7] And again, with his trademark magnanimity towards the less enlightened, he said: “Try to persuade them, but act even against their will if the principles of justice demand it.”[8]

Emperor Marcus Aurelius

One does not find much of an individualist strain in ancient Greeks politics. But one does find an egalitarian one. Sometimes this was justified, as over time land and wealth had a tendency to accumulate into few hands and the people to became indebted through usury. There were periodic revolutions to spread the land more equally among citizens. However, as so often in Western history, the egalitarian tendency frequently lapsed into self-destructive excess. As Heraclitus observed with damning eloquence:

For banishing Hermodorus, who was the best man among them, the Ephesians deserve to be hanged, every last one of them, and to leave the city to boys. They said, “Let no single one of us be best, or else let him be so elsewhere, among others.”[9]

The aristocratic and antidemocratic strain throughout the entire ancient philosophical tradition cannot be overemphasized. This goes far beyond the understandable frustration of Athenian philosophers at the defeat of their incompetent democratic regime during the Peloponnesian War and their revulsion at the democracy’s execution of Socrates, a man in all respects superior to the mob. Rather, it is a point of principle, as Plato is at pains to emphasize in his Laws: the unequal should be treated unequally, and justice “consists of granting the ‘equality’ that unequals deserve to get.”[10] On this point, Aristotle agreed with his teacher Plato, writing:

[J]ustice is considered to mean equality. It does mean equality – but equality for those who are equal, and not for all. Again, inequality is considered to be just; and indeed it is – but only for those who are unequal, and not for all. (Politics, 1280A7)

Greek philosophers more generally understood that gifted men with the opportunity to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of the truth would be far closer to that truth than the common man, let alone  a fickle mob, whose opinions were at best the product of folk-wisdom and popular culture.

Go to Part 3.

[1]    Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates, 4.4.17-4.4.25, in Xenophon (trans. Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield), Conversations of Socrates (London: Penguin: 1990).

[2]    Xenophon has one of his protagonists say that there is a “natural law which makes it easier for a responsible woman to care for her own children than to neglect them.” Xenophon, The Estate-Manager, 9.16-10.8, in Ibid.

[3]    A “natural right” would then, I suppose, only be a right which if violated would tend to destroy the community. There might then be a “natural right” to a degree of private property, insofar as wholly communist economies, in disregarding individual rationality and the slowness of the state, are invariably failures. I see no obvious relation between the ancient notion of “natural law” and the modern notion of “human rights.”

[4]    Waterfield, First Philosophers, p. 39.

[5]    Ibid., p. 177.

[6]    Julian, To the Uneducated Cynics, in Emily Wright (trans.), The Works of the Emperor Julian, volume II (1920).

[7]    Marcus Aurelius (trans. Robin Hard), Meditations (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2011), book 5, paragraph 16.

[8]    Ibid., book 6, paragraph 50.

[9]    Waterfield, First Philosophers, p. 45.

[10]  Plato, Laws, 756e-758a

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15 Comments to "The Wisdom of the Ancients, Part 2: Piety, Aristocratic Values and Necessary Inequality"

  1. February 10, 2017 - 10:14 am | Permalink

    “Greek conception of natural law means individuals and communities have a duty to not engage in behavior which will ruin them.”

    This was the foundation of Germany’s National Socialism. The National Socialist’s asserted duty was to reject the destructive behaviors imposed upon them by the Jew’s parasitical influence. Instead, they were to devote themselves to the collective, subsuming their personal desires and attitudes for the good of the state’s general population. This is the basis of altruism, sacrificing one’s self for the good of all, an idea that is utter anathema to the self centered Jew, especially in regards to their host population.

    While the Jew traditionally exhibits profound self absorption, evidenced by constant focus on their personal neuroses and self aggrandizing, they have a powerfully inbred religious and cultural self-sacrifice mechanism that shifts into high gear, whenever a perceived threat to the collective welfare arises.

    Notably however, the individual Jew is far more willing to sacrifice his racial brethren first in their god-given duty to the racial collective. The Masada myth presents a classic example of Jewish “altruism.” While even the youngest National Socialist stood and fought to the death for their racial kin in a ruined Berlin, able-bodied, adult male Jews ran off and hid in a mountain stronghold before committing suicide, yet Jews have elevated this myth to a cultural paragon of self sacrifice.

  2. Michael Adkins's Gravatar Michael Adkins
    February 10, 2017 - 8:55 am | Permalink

    “traditional tribal religions seems to virtually always have adaptive values on the whole”


    In the circle of friends, the soul exhibits its features and its strength. The soul is not a thing born with each generation and renewed with each brood of kinsman that steps in. It reaches forward; it will, as surely as anything is sure, flow through those sons’ sons which all good kinsmen hope and expect will follow one another. And it reaches back over the known part of the past, embracing all former kin, and extends behind them into the primeval darkness whence their fathers came.

    Vilhelm Gronbech

  3. Norman's Gravatar Norman
    February 9, 2017 - 9:59 pm | Permalink

    The mainstream of intellectual tradition is exclusively rationalist. This may seem a tautology, but what we see in Plato is partial, viewed through the filter of 17th, 18th and even 19th century rationalism, positivism, atomism, etc.

    “Self” as in “Self-Knowledge” has been misrepresented in modern renderings of Plato. One result of this, among others, is the orthodox, literalized, reductively political reading of The Republic.

    Perhaps this filter is due to Christianity, through which the meaning and role of religion itself fundamentally changed from what had come before it.

    In Greece and Rome, pagan worship was a widely varied, loose arrangement of localized and very public festivals, sponsored by civic-minded local elites. Its emphasis was outward: social, political, agricultural, military, etc. “Olympian” in scope as well as in hierarchy.

    But the Greek philosophers — along with whole of Greek society — were familiar with the highly regarded and respected secret traditions, in the form of mystic initiatory rites. The practices were done in secret, they were not public, not civic, not “Olympian.” They tended toward altered states of consciousness, or manias theas. In such states, the “self” is dissolved. Exclusion based on the usual hierarchies — wealth, social rank, gender, etc. — was not the tradition of mystes. (Murderers and slaves were typically excluded.)

    It was integrated, within and without.

    Such mind-blowing experiences and “experimentation” that today might be devalued or dismissed as purely non-rational (or weird, wrong, indulgent, dangerous or unimportant), were surely not everyday events — likely, it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip! Nor were they seen as subversive. The mystery institutions and ritual form (sacramentum, in Latin) continued for centuries.

    These practices complemented philosophy. Theoria was developed as a means of assimilating and communicating profound insights gained through theurgia, the experience of the mysteries.

    An appreciation of this side of Plato — the myths, the devices, the heirarchies and metaphors which in some way relate to mystic experience — is largely missing from “professional” discussion of his work. But such an appreciation is not missing in Renaissance Hermeticism, in Neo-Platonism, in Origen, in Dionysius the Areopagite, in Paul. (One finds it even in the Stoics, in Philo of Alexandria, and in Thomas Aquinas, of all people.)

    It seems the trend toward materialism in the Reformation and in Enlightenment political philosophy obscures part of our birthright, which is a paradox, since it is also these periods which saw a rapid spread of esoterism and freemasonry. And soon enough, atheism.

    • Seraphim's Gravatar Seraphim
      February 10, 2017 - 5:46 am | Permalink

      The goal of Christian life is the same as of the Mysteries:
      “Theosis or deification, the realization of likeness to or union with God. Theosis is brought about by the effects of catharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria (‘illumination’ with the ‘vision’ of God). The ‘sacraments’ of the Church are called in Greek ‘mysteries’ because they are administered in ‘secret’ only to the initiates (baptized) – the catechumens are removed from the Church and the doors are closed.
      Theoria is a fundamental concept both for Plato and Aristotle. It derives from the root ‘the’=to see, to contemplate, from which derive ‘thea’=the action of seeing, ‘theama’=spectacle, ‘theatron’=theater, ‘theoros’=spectator, ‘theooreoo’=I contemplate.
      From the same root ‘the’ derive also ‘thauma’=’a wonderful thing’, ‘miracle’, ‘thaumazoo’=’I wonder’, ‘thaumasia’=wonder
      And last, but not least, ‘the’ forms the word ‘theos’=divinity, god.
      Theoria was ‘contemplation of divine things’ (by the ‘nous’, the ‘intellectus activus’).
      Philosophia was, in Plato’s (and Aristotle’s) definitions: ‘theoria tes alethes’=the contemplation of the truth, ‘episteme toon protoon arhoon kai aitioon theoretike’=the theoretical science of the first principles and causes, and ‘gnothi seauton’=know thyself.
      Another definition (6th Century AD) was ‘melete thanatou’=the preparation for death’, but also ‘practice of death’ (in relation to the initiatic death in the Mysteries).

  4. Seraphim's Gravatar Seraphim
    February 9, 2017 - 3:42 pm | Permalink

    @no obvious relation between the ancient notion of “natural law” and the modern notion of “human rights.”

    But this relation was established by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the foundational charters of USA:

    “Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.” –Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791.
    “A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” –Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.
    “The principles on which we engaged, of which the charter of our independence is the record, were sanctioned by the laws of our being, and we but obeyed them in pursuing undeviatingly the course they called for. It issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights.” –Thomas Jefferson to Georgetown Republicans, 1809.
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent* inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
    *in Jefferson’s original version of the Declaration
    “[Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, VIII,c.3:] ‘In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal; but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws.'” –Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

    Jefferson wrote together with Lafayette the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ of the French Revolution. He worked hard to undermine the governments of Louis XVI, when Ambassador to France.
    The exact reverse of Platonic hierarchical principles. Jefferson was a hater of Plato and ‘Christian Platonism’:
    “In truth, he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. Yet this which should have consigned him to early oblivion really procured him immortality of fame and reverence.”

  5. February 9, 2017 - 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Some not so disconnected comments …

    The Ancient Greeks hadn’t discovered the idea of a Republic, which is neither an aristocracy nor a democracy.

    Despite all the good ideas in Plato’s Republic in the last analysis it’s a blueprint for a totalitarian state.

    Has God made a distinction between the lower orders and the aristocrats, that the masses deserve to be forced to pay for the aristocrats’ government grants while the aristocrats deserve to receive the money? I think not.

    The opposite of egalitarianism is not aristocracy.

    • Seraphim's Gravatar Seraphim
      February 9, 2017 - 7:19 pm | Permalink

      It was said that “the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. It is equally true that the note takers spent much time in misrepresenting and misinterpreting him.
      Most people completely overlook the fact that Plato talks about the cycle of the succession of five political regimes: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Each one grows, declines and degenerates, being replaced by the succeeding one, until the cycle run its course and revert to the initial point, starting a new but similar cycle.

  6. Weaver's Gravatar Weaver
    February 9, 2017 - 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Religion also allows a people to define what is good and what is bad. From this the concept of “progress” can then be defined. Religion provides man with purpose, allows for membership in something greater than oneself, allows for honour to be won in risking or enduring hardship and ruin in service.

    Religion additionally provides story examples to teach lessons. And they offer bits of wisdom such as Meden Agan. Everything isn’t a commandment.

    Religions allow what has been learned through trial and error to be passed down. Just as evolution (which has no reason) takes place to allow a man to throw a spear very fast and to sweat while running, so too does our learning from trial and error. “Reason” is an extraordinarily difficult thing for political science. We tend to claim we’ve understood all, only to later discover we forgot a variable… or twenty. We’re perhaps right to criticise our parents but wrong in how they were wrong. That pretty much explains why today white demographics are plummeting.

    You seem to believe man’s purpose is to spread his genetics, but this too would be a sort of religious statement and one that can be brought to confusion. Was Genghis Khan successful in spreading his genetics despite breaking racial genetic traditions? Alternatively, if a single race replaced all others, would this loss of distinct nations serve that race’s interests? There’s no answer. We obviously want our groups to survive and in this we seek a sort of immortality in our service to the [more-]permanent things. And obviously what survives and expands replaces what doesn’t. But a genetic orientation does not answer all questions.

    The “individualism” vs. “group-oriented” obsession with some on the Right is an extremely strange thing. Also you write, “typically Western in their willingness to question convention.” This too is strange.

    For multiple reasons, whites seem to me to be the most religious and most group-oriented of races. We, for example, all seem to embrace some religion or ideology, pursuing some higher honour or truth. And whites are more inclined towards altruistic punishment, oft obsessed with honour, and gave dowries to their daughters’ new families, and so forth. So, I break entirely with the relevant group norms that are popular here.

    While I like the more aristocratic Greeks like the Spartans better than the democratic Greeks like Athens, Aristotle did teach how it is important to have a large middle class.

    So, in regard to egalitarianism vs. inequality: Meden Agan. In the past, we’ve seen Social Darwinism and wealth inequality defended by the Right, and this is very dangerous, does not serve group interests.

    Plato: A state should be built for war. Aristotle (as I recall): No component of a state should become overlarge; all should serve the whole. So, while egalitarianism is bad, classical liberalism is also bad. And a good government is defined as one that serves the whole. So, the city-state does not exist to serve the rulers; rather, the rulers exist to serve the city-state, as well the constitution of the city-state which might favour the aristocracy or another class. Also, as Aristotle noted, a city-state can become overlarge.

    Folk-wisdom should not be looked down upon. In this day, folk wisdom is very frequently superior to our managerial masters.

    • Curmudgeon's Gravatar Curmudgeon
      February 10, 2017 - 9:50 am | Permalink

      “Was Genghis Khan successful in spreading his genetics despite breaking racial genetic traditions?”
      Yes he was. Whether Khan or the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, White women were taken as sex slaves. So much the better if they became pregnant. The Khans of the world knew that women would protect their offspring, even though racially mixed. The child would accept that (s)he was a Mongol, and therefore less likely to rebel. Every Khan sired child that went on to have his/her own children would spread Khan’s genetics.
      There is speculation that a large part of the “Slavic” look – high cheekbones and a more almond shaped eye, is due to the tens of thousands of women raped and impregnated by the Mongols.

      • Prester John T's Gravatar Prester John T
        February 10, 2017 - 6:56 pm | Permalink

        The little more than 50 survivors of the Mayflower today have more than 20-25 million descendants in just 400 years. More than many whole countries. The earlier parts of their existences were extremely harsh. They were monogamous Christians and for a long time practiced strict endogamy amongst other Puritans- not marrying even Quakers..
        Today Conservative, old school, Evangelical Congregationalist Christians have the best rates of fertility and marriage for White people – also closeness and vigor.

        After a few hundred more years, William Bradford and the rest of them be giving Genghis Khan a run for his money not through sex slaves but through their legitimate wives.
        They will survive and thrive i think…

        • Prester John T's Gravatar Prester John T
          February 10, 2017 - 7:34 pm | Permalink

          14 females survived. 20-25 million descendants.
          Monogamy is a very Western Tradition. Maybe nearly uniquely Western = white people.

          Our Founding Fathers all were instructed in the Classics. They also were influenced by 4 other strains of thought. At least one of them is uniquely American in Character origin and outlook.

          One of them was one of your own on the Alt-Right- Mr. Tyndale’s ancestor- who is the reason behind and foundation of USA. and the American Character.

          “If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture….”

          That was a very , very big deal in it’s day in more ways than one.

          I have enjoyed Mr. Durochers articles. And because of him I am reading the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.. And because of Ben Franklin i am reading Aristotle Ethics. and the only book he mentions that he liked especially by name- Pilgrim’s Progress.

        • Prester John T's Gravatar Prester John T
          February 10, 2017 - 7:53 pm | Permalink

          * by “American”- I don’t mean American Indian.

          I am advocating for the White Race of people- their various traditions and cultures and history.
          Whites get to be the good guys in thier own stories with us this time around.

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