In my last posting, I paid homage to my favorite ancient Pagan political sage: Herodotus, author of the earliest true work of history. I noted some attractive features of his narrative, but haven’t yet mentioned the main reason I think he’s important – his political vision that embodies an authentic Pagan ethos.
To a student of political thought like me, the most striking passage in Herodotus’ History is a debate between seven Persian nobles, who – having just killed a usurper of the Persian throne – were considering what kind of government to put in the usurper’s place. Reviewing the good and bad features of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, they elect to stick with what they know, monarchy, and one of them, Darius, then gains the throne by an astute trick. It’s a good story, and notable as the first rational literary discussion of the forms of political rule. It probably isn’t historical, but Herodotus has a reason for including it. I’ll get to that.
The historian’s era, the 5th century BC, was a “globalizing” age in which many previously separated regions and peoples were beginning to come into contact. The historian calls Croesus of Lydia the first “barbarian” (i.e. non-Greek) ruler to threaten the Greek city-states. And when Cyrus the Great later defeated Croesus, the Greeks and Persians were brought together, and began a series of mutual military incursions that didn’t stop for over two centuries.
The Persian Empire included a wide assortment of subject peoples – Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, Indians, and more. Greek soldiers forced to face the Great King’s army might confront Ethiopian spearmen clad in lionskins, or Assyrian lancers sporting plaited brass helmets, or Scythians in conical hats wielding battle-axes, or warriors from any of a myriad of other exotic nations. Herodotus undertook to explain this unsettling, diverse, dangerous world to his compatriots.
He admits, indeed he insists on, the depth of human differences. The reason for this variation isn’t biological. There’s no hint of racism in Herodotus. The explanation is cultural – but “custom … is King,” and there’s no escaping its dictates. The historian gives most of his attention to famous peoples like the Egyptians and Persians, but even small tribes on the edges of the great civilizations are acknowledged and their striking ethnic peculiarities recorded for posterity.
Thus, we learn that the Gyzanytians paint themselves red and eat monkeys; that the Budini eat lice; that Zavecian married couples form a chariot team and go into battle together; that brides at Nasamonian weddings have intercourse with the male guests; and a host of other details about long-gone societies. Herodotus relates this material in a matter-of-fact tone with no sign of condescension or disparagement. These practices are customary, and presumptively entitled to respect.
Ancestral traditions are self-validating and the measure of right and wrong. It was improper for Candaules to show his wife naked to his friend because, as she noted when she arranged for her revenge, this “did break our usages.” The Magi, unlike other priests, personally kill animals, which the historian seems to dislike. But “since this has always been their custom,” he says, “let them keep to it.” Practical considerations are likewise involved. Pisistratus’ government in Athens lasted because he “administered the state according to the established usages.”
And lest Greeks presume their way of life has any special merit, Herodotus tells of some who’ve positively rejected it – the Scythians once killed a king for becoming too Greekified – and I’d say that’s the subtext of the aforementioned debate of the Persian noblemen. The historian wants us to understand that the Persians don’t submit to kings because they’re “natural slaves,” too cowardly to resist despotism, as Aristotle thought. They’re rational individuals who’ve considered the alternatives and – based on custom and the need to maintain an empire – selected a different form of government than most Greeks prefer. This hardly makes them inferior.
Herodotus’ History exemplifies a true Pagan attitude because he locates political legitimacy in the wisdom that’s handed down by tribal elders and valorizes the sacred customs of all peoples, great or small. He’s skeptical of imperial projects and seems to see them as inherently doomed to fail – like Xerxes’ plan to “pass through Europe from one end to the other, and … make of all the lands which it contains one country.” The historian knows that truth comes in multiple forms, and he admits no single standard of righteousness by which every human being can be judged.
He’s a sophisticated man of the world, yet he never rebukes others for holding fast to what they know and love.
Politics today has been greatly affected – corrupted might be a better word – by the Abrahamic religions, with their totalitarian insistence on one God, one Truth, and one acceptable moral code, their own. Most of the conflicts currently roiling our world stem directly from the inability of these faiths to exist peacefully alongside one another, or else from a secularized version of the same black-and-white mindset.
If we mean to resist religious bigotry in the United States and elsewhere, or avoid imposing Western values on indigenous societies, or end the subjection of Mother Earth to a global system of standardized exploitation, we’ll need to invoke the ideals that are embodied in Herodotus’ history.
That’s enough ancient politics for now. Next time, I’ll be getting back to Trump.
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