Western Culture

Biopolitics, Racialism, and Nationalism in Ancient Greece: A Summary View

The following is a brief summary of the ancient Greek theory and practice of biopolitics, racialism, and nationalism. These themes, which are so taboo in the West today, were integral to the Hellenic way of life at the founding of our Western civilization and of our unique tradition of civic self-government. I will also refer to some of the copious mainstream academic literature documenting this.

The Greeks believed that, despite their political divisions, they belonged to a common nation, defined by shared blood, language, religion, and culture. According to Herodotus, the Greeks were“one race speaking one language, with temples to the gods and religious rites in common, and with a common way of life” (Histories, 8.144). Patriotic Pan-Hellenic rhetoric – on the supreme value of Greece and the glory of sacrificing oneself to save Greece – is pervasive across centuries of Greek literature and political discourse.[1]

The Greeks had a primitive and unsystematic racial theory. They believed that peoples gradually acquired characteristics due to their environment (e.g. Ethiopians became black because of the heat) and that these traits became hereditary.[2] These observations certainly prefigure Darwin’s later evolutionary theory.

The Europeans north of Greece were generally considered barbaric and spirited, while Asians inhabiting Persia were considered effeminate and submissive. Barbarians were often thought incapable of civic self-government. The Phoenicians were sometimes perceived as having certain Semitic stereotypes (mercantile, dishonest, greedy, mercenary) but were also sometimes perceived as a fellow advanced people, comparably organized and capable in terms of trade, warfare, and civic self-government.

The Greeks did not talk about anything analogous to racial differences in IQ and it is often unclear to what extent they believed ethnic characteristics to be due to culture, geography and climate, or heredity. The Greeks were however certainly very struck by the physical differences of the few Blacks they encountered, producing pottery contrasting Caucasian and Negroid features, in styles rather reminiscent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Greeks had a primitive theory and practice of eugenics. Following the practice of animal breeding and simple observation, the Greeks understood that human physical and psychological traits were at least partly hereditary. It was often said that men should choose the best women as wives so as to have the best children possible. Due to economic difficulties, infanticide through exposure was a cruel accepted practice, at the parents’ discretion. In Sparta and Rome, the killing of deformed children was mandatory, an exercise in negative eugenics. Read more

Lothrop Stoddard’s “The French Revolution in San Domingo,” Part 2

Go to Part 1.

There were complex combinations of oppositions according to race and class. On one hand, poor Whites and wealthy Whites saw a common interest in opposing the mulattos, some of whom were wealthy. From the standpoint of the poor Whites, the wealth of his perceived racial inferiors was particularly galling. In 1789, when the French Revolution had compromised the power of the Royal government, the wealthy Whites “anxious for poor white support, were not likely to embroil themselves to protect their race opponents [i.e., the mulattos]. By this time the local offices were becoming filled with poor whites, and to the will and pleasure of these new functionaries, the mulattoes were now delivered almost without reserve.”

On the other hand, the lower-class Whites (described by Stoddard as “mostly … ignorant men of narrow intelligence”) engaged in class war against wealthy Whites: They were “too short-sighted to realize the results of white disunion or too reckless to care about consequences.” They excluded upper-class Whites from voting by “violence and intimidation.”

Some observers have argued that the revolutionary ideals of moral universalism were an ingredient in the revolt of the non-Whites. Stoddard quotes approvingly an observer who attributes the fervor for revolt among slaves and mulattos to their being exposed to revolutionary rhetoric.  “To discuss the ‘Rights of Man’ before such people—what is it but to teach them that power dwells with strength, and strength with numbers!”  Stoddard expresses his own view that “there seems to be no doubt that the writings and speeches of the French radicals did have a considerable effect on the negroes.” And he provides the conclusion of contemporary investigations: “Both the existing evidence and the trend of events combine to show that the great negro uprising of August 1791 was but the natural action of the Revolution on highly flammable material.” Read more

Lothrop Stoddard’s “The French Revolution in San Domingo,” Part 1

This is a foreword that I wrote for Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo, published in 2011.

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Lothrop Stoddard on the French Colonists in San Domingo

Historian Frank Moya Pons, writing in The Cambridge History of Latin America, describes Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo as “a book now out of fashion because of its racism, although retaining some interest.” [1]

Interesting indeed, because it reflects the racial views of an important set of American intellectuals in the early twentieth century. There was a time when evolutionary thinking was widely considered to be the key to racial self-defense.[2]  Although it didn’t play a role in the Congressional debates (itself an indication of the rapidly changing intellectual context), evolutionary thinking was prominent among some of the elite intellectual proponents of immigration restriction in the 1920s. This was the heyday of eugenics—motivated by concern about deterioration of the gene pool because modern civilization had increased the moral and intellectual burdens of life at the same time that natural selection had been relaxed because of advances in medicine, hygiene, and nutrition. Lothrop Stoddard’s The Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man exemplifies these trends.[3]

Race is indeed central to Stoddard’s volume. Written at a time when the science of race, race differences, and eugenics were at their height, Stoddard sees the conflict as fundamentally about race. But his view is that of a race realist. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary intellectuals, he sees race for what it is: a gargantuan fault line that separates humans.

However, Stoddard never comes across as a cheerleader for the Whites in their conflicts with Blacks and mulattos. Indeed, the Whites are described in highly unflattering terms—an important corrective to the view one might glean from previous chapters emphasizing the high-mindedness of Whites in the anti-slavery movements. Many are “shady characters”—opportunists out to make money and without any moral scruples. Heavy drinking and gambling are pervasive. The Whites are the consummate individualists. They are not a people but “only a mass of individuals.”  Poor Whites were adventurers, unable to compete with slave labor and therefore forced to make a living by any means necessary. However, we also see strains of moralistic idealism noted in previous chapters as a characteristic of northern Europeans.

It’s difficult to have sympathy for the White planters. They live in a world of “material crudity … intellectual poverty and mental isolation.” They are surrounded by outrageous retinues of slaves, living like an Oriental potentate. Stoddard quotes a contemporary observer, Moreau de Saint-Mery: “That crowd of slaves which hangs upon the master’s lightest word or sign, lends him an air of grandeur. It is beneath the dignity of a rich man to have less than four times as many servants as he needs. The women have an especial gift for surrounding themselves with a useless retinue.”

The rich Whites are unsocial and quarrelsome with their neighbors. Another observer, DeWimpffen describes the “pretensions, either ill-founded or ridiculous; jealousies of each other’s fortune, more ridiculous still; disputes about boundaries . . . and finally trespasses committed by the negroes or the cattle — occasion such a misunderstanding, or such a coolness, that all reciprocal communication is out of the question. Consequently, as nothing is so savage as the recluse who is not so by choice, you must not be surprised that each owl rests in his hole, and that so little sociability reigns among men who have few or no sociable qualities.” Read more

Decline and Empire in Ancient Rome and the Modern West: A Review of David Engels’ Le Déclin, Part 2

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Cato the Elder

Roman Conservative & Imperial Responses

The Roman authorities, whether republican or imperial, did not passively accept these developments. Engels observes that “[f]rom the second century B.C., a large number of conservative politicians opposed with a marked traditionalism the Hellenization of the Roman elite and the Orientalization of the population” (142). This was embodied above all by Cato the Elder, who argued that Greek culture, which had become so rational, skeptical, and cosmopolitan, would mean the end of Rome:

Concerning those Greeks, son Marcus, I will speak to you more at length on the befitting occasion. I will show you the results of my own experience at Athens, and that, while it is a good plan to dip into their literature, it is not worth while to make a thorough acquaintance with it. They are a most iniquitous and intractable race, and you may take my word as the word of a prophet, when I tell you, that whenever that nation shall bestow its literature upon Rome it will mar everything. (Pliny, Natural History, 29.7)

In terms of immigration, as previously mentioned, Gaius Papius had on behalf of the people apparently sought to expel non-Italic foreigners from the city altogether. Augustus later limited the emancipation of slaves, “lest they should fill the city with a promiscuous rabble; also that they should not enroll large numbers as citizens, in order that there should be a marked difference between themselves and the subject nations” (Cassius Dio, 56.33).

The Roman leadership also sought to counter native demographic decline. As early as 131 B.C., the censor Quintus Metellus Macedonicus urged making marriage mandatory. Later, “in order to ensure the biological survival of the Roman elite, Augustus . . . decreed very unpopular laws” (83), including making marriage mandatory for men between 25 and 60 and making divorce more difficult. The emperor is supposed to have justified the measures as follows:

For surely it is not your delight in a solitary existence that leads you to live without wives, nor is there one of you who either eats alone or sleeps alone; no, what you want is to have full liberty for wantonness and licentiousness. … For you see for yourselves how much more numerous you are than the married men, when you ought by this time to have provided us with as many children besides, or rather with several times your number. How otherwise can families continue? How can the State be preserved, if we neither marry nor have children? . . . And yet it is neither right nor creditable that our race should cease, and the name of Romans be blotted out with us, and the city be given over to foreigners — Greeks or even barbarians. Do we not free our slaves chiefly for the express purpose of making out of them as many citizens as possible? And do we not give our allies a share in the government in order that our numbers may increase? And do you, then, who are Romans from the beginning and claim as your ancestors the famous Marcii, the Fabii, the Quintii, the Valerii, and the Julii, do you desire that your families and names alike shall perish with you? (Cassius Dio, 56.7–8)

Tellingly, Augustus himself however was married twice and had a reputation for licentiousness. His only biological child, Julia, was notorious for her licentiousness. Read more

Decline and Empire in Ancient Rome and the Modern West: A Review of David Engels’ Le Déclin, Part 1

David Engels, Le Déclin: La crise de l’Union européenne et la chute de la République romaine—quelques analogies historiques
Paris: Éditions du Toucan, 2016, 3rd ed.

David Engels is a professor of classics at the French-speaking Free University of Brussels (ULB). While most academics and their works languish in relative obscurity, the 38-year-old Engels has already made a name for himself as a conservative cultural critic, known for his op-eds and interviews in the mainstream media, as well as for his best-seller comparing the decadence of ancient Rome and modern Europe: Decline: The Crisis of the European Union and the Fall of the Roman Republic—A Few Historical Analogies.[1]

Hailing from Belgium’s small German-speaking community, Engels writes about Europe from a refreshingly multinational perspective, drawing from English-language, French, and especially German sources, as well as, of course, the vast body of surviving Greek and Roman literature. With over 600 endnotes and numerous graphs and statistics, Engels’ book has been written with Teutonic scrupulousness.

Engels’ thesis is simple and compelling: there are many parallels between the late Roman Republic (the period roughly from the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. to Augustus’ founding of the Principate in 27 B.C.) and today’s European Union: There is above all a general ethno-cultural decline, which makes a shift towards autocratic politics inevitable. Engels frames his provocative thesis in just such a way as to still be considered respectable enough by academia and the media, and thus be treated as a responsible but critical interlocutor.

The parallel between the late Roman Republic and today’s European Union is somewhat forced in places, but really serves as a useful framing device for comparing and discussing the social trends in these two very different societies. Specifically, Engels structures the work by comparing European public opinion on various topics (identity, family, democracy…) as expressed in Eurobarometer polls with Roman developments as expressed in the surviving sources. This somewhat strange structure nonetheless works, and I would say Le Déclin is a fine introduction to late Roman republican history. Engels furthermore recognizes that many of Europe’s symptoms of decadence are also evident across the West in general (255).

Engels’ observations on contemporary EU politics—the hollowing out of democratic processes and civil rights, economic reductionism, a growing chasm between the elite and the people, rising ideological intolerance, and so on—are all on point, and have since almost become received opinion. I will then focus especially on Engels’ analysis of Roman decadence. As will become quite apparent, the Roman experience, one of the truly epic achievements of Western political history, offers many lessons for us today. Read more

The Puritan Intellectual Tradition in America, Part 3: Was the 1924 Immigration Law Too Little, Too Late?

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Go to Part 2

Concluding Thoughts on the Puritan Intellectual Tradition in America

An interesting feature of Puritanism is the tendency to pursue utopian causes framed as moral issues—their susceptibility to utopian appeals to a ‘higher law’ and the belief that the principal purpose of government is moral. New England was the most fertile ground for “the perfectability of man creed,” and the “father of a dozen ‘isms.’”[1] There was a tendency to paint political alternatives as starkly contrasting moral imperatives, with one side portrayed as evil incarnate—inspired by the devil. Puritan moral intensity can also be seen in their “profound personal piety”[2]—their intensity of commitment to live not only a holy life, but also a sober and industrious life. Read more

The Puritan Intellectual Tradition in America, Part 2: The Period of Ethnic Defense, 1890-1965

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The early part of the twentieth century was the high-water mark of Darwinism in the social sciences. It was common at that time to think that there were important differences between the races in both intelligence and moral qualities. Not only did races differ, they were in competition with each other for supremacy. For example, William Graham Sumner was a social Darwinist; he thought that social class and racial divisions as well as competition were part of the natural order of things. Writing in 1903, he noted that “the two races live more independently of each other now than they did” during the slave era.[1] Whereas later in the century, Jewish intellectuals led the battle against Darwinism in the social sciences, racialist ideas became part of the furniture of intellectual life—commonplace among intellectuals of all stripes, including a significant number of Jewish racial nationalists concerned about the racial purity and political power of the Jewish people. Many of them were Zionists who believed in the importance of Jewish racial purity (a Jewish homeland in Israel would prevent assimilation and intermarriage) and Jewish racial superiority .[2] Read more