Old notes on W. W. Tarn's classic Hellenistic Civilisation (1952)


Buddhism and Epicureanism exhibit amazing similarities, for instance in their attitudes toward suffering and happiness. As I noted a long time ago, the Epicurean goal, like the Buddhist, is to be free of pain. Pleasure—not active pleasure but passive pleasure, the pleasure of tranquility—“repose, freedom from passions, desires, needs, above all absence of pain; the keyword of man’s effort was [for Epicurus] ataraxia, escape from worry. Virtue was vital, but not, as the Stoics thought, for its own sake—that had no meaning. It was vital because without it happiness could not be. This constituted a doctrine of renunciation, a renunciation of active effort and positive happiness, and [Epicurus’s] followers formed little isles of quietude apart, bound together by the friendship he so stressed. Except that they lived among their fellows and enjoyed family life, one might call them, spiritually, the first monks. They never influenced the great world; they had no wish to.” This is also similar to Taoism, the retreat to nature. Stoicism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Epicureanism were all founded at about the same time, in or around the Hellenistic age, a time of increasing individualism, insecurity, the collapse of the age-old safe community. It was proto-globalization back then. An age of extremes, and of remarkable originality in all areas of culture. Aside from the ferment of philosophy, art, and science, there were, for example, the first attempts at real social revolution. In the third century B.C. the gap between rich and poor was growing wider as trade expanded and prosperity spread across the Mediterranean and western Asia. There was insane misery (e.g. among the slaves working in mines—slavery was the real economic foundation of the age) and obscene wealth. So “the fourth century was already obsessed by the fear of social revolution—one reason why the well-to-do turned to Macedonia as champion of the existing order. In the treaties between Alexander and the cities of the League of Corinth it was provided that Macedonia and the League should repress, in any League city, any movement for abolition of debt, division of land, confiscation of personal property, or liberation of slaves to assist the revolution; the constitution of Demetrius’ revived League of 303 contained similar provisions. The revolution therefore had now a general programme under four heads. The poor desired the land, but with the small men of every type the driving force was debt; simple communities may be patient of rude conditions of life, but they always hate the creditor… From quite another angle, philosophy made its contribution to the subject: the Stoic insistence on equality and brotherhood sank into men’s souls, and inspired visions of something better than the existing order. Some took refuge from civilization in drawing fancy pictures of virtuous barbarians living according to nature, prototypes of Tacitus’ Germania [and Rousseau’s noble savage]; and Utopias began to appear… True modern Utopias [were] located on islands in the Indian Ocean; and in Iambulus’ great Sun-state Communism appears full grown. The people were equal in all respects, even in wisdom; they lived in social bodies or ‘systems’ in which all worked equally and equally shared the produce; they escaped ‘slavery to the means of production’ because the island fortunately bore crops, partly by itself, all the year round; each in turn filled every duty from servant to governor, the governor of each system being the oldest member; there was thus no place for wealth, ambition, or learning, the foes of equality, or for class war, because there were no classes. Above all things the people prized Homonoia and were united in concord and love. What Iambulus and his fellows really aimed at was the abolition of that class war whose horrors many Greeks had seen… [In 279 there was a “proletarian” revolt, when Apollodorus of Cassandreia] made himself tyrant, tortured the wealthy, and gave part of their property to his followers…”. There were short-lived revolutions in Sparta, indeed throughout the whole area, finally ending only under Roman rule.


Here are further useful remarks: “Man as a political animal, a fraction of the polis or self-governing city-state, had ended with Aristotle; with Alexander begins man as an individual. This individual needed to consider both the regulation of his own life and also his relations with the other individuals who with him composed the ‘inhabited world’. To meet the former need there arose the philosophies of conduct [Stoicism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, etc.], to meet the latter certain new ideas of human brotherhood. These originated on the day—one of the critical moments of history—when, at a banquet at Opis, Alexander prayed for a union of hearts (homonoia) among all peoples and a joint commonwealth of Macedonians and Persians; he was the first to transcend national boundaries and to envisage, however imperfectly, a brotherhood of man in which there should be neither Greek nor barbarian. The Stoic philosophy was quick to grasp the concept, and Zeno, in his Ideal State, exhibited a resplendent hope which has never quite left men since: he dreamt of a world which should no longer be separate states, but one great City under one divine law, where all were citizens and members one of another, bound together, not by human laws, but their own willing consent, or (as he phrased it) by Love… Even the practical world was influenced, in spite of itself, by Zeno’s dream, through the insistence of Zeno’s school on certain notions of equality and brotherhood and by the fact that the ‘inhabited world’ or oecumene now began to be treated as a whole. The stranger could no longer be ipso facto an enemy, and Homonoia received perhaps more tributes than any other Hellenistic concept. Certain ideas of the interrelation of states, apart from actual treaties, began to emerge; and the germs of modern international law go back to third century Stoicism.”


Those few centuries in that small area on the globe, from the Mediterranean Sea to India and up into China with Confucius, were the most creative in history—possibly excepting the Western centuries since the 1400s, ending sometime after the middle of the twentieth century, when everything became sick. For it doesn’t seem like there’s much more to say or do, except in science.


Anyway, we see that a rise in trade between different parts of the world is what fosters cultural creativity. Where there is “globalization”, or rather the onset of “globalization” (internationalization), there is creative ferment; and where globalization proceeds too far and the status quo hardens a bit too much, making the world seem too ‘vast’ and the individual too small, there is cultural death. The society may linger, as it did in the later, cultureless, alienated stages of the western Roman Empire and as our own will surely do for at least a few more decades—because what causes societal collapse isn’t a change in consciousness but a dramatic change in material conditions—but culturally there is death.


One can say that a culture has died or is about to die when it seems like there is no longer a clear direction to progress but everything is just a big ocean into which you cast your little contributions—your little books, your little songs, your little artworks—and then watch them immediately drift out to sea and get lost on the horizon, eclipsed by the new contributions of the next moment. The fads. There is no line of, say, philosophical evolution, artistic development, which you can further; there is just a big inhuman ocean of everything, all mixed up with no order. That’s when sophistication has proceeded so far as to become cynicism on a collective scale. And cynicism is the end.


Forerunner of Nietzsche’s “eternal return”: according to the Stoics, “the universe, at the end of every world-period—a recurring cycle of enormous length—was reabsorbed into the divine Fire, and then started afresh to run an exact repetition of its course. Ages hence another Socrates would teach in another Athens, and there was no new thing under the sun; all had happened before, and history merely repeated itself…”.


“Virtue was the central point of Stoic ethics. On this Zeno was uncompromising; the intention to do evil, he said, was equivalent to doing it… Man’s means of getting into harmony with God were wisdom and virtue, and in both these matters progress was possible; the Stoic was thus led to examine the progress he was making, and the idea arose of conscious moral growth. Moreover the Supreme Power had had forethought for men, and they had an aid on the path; there now first appeared in philosophy the conception, heretofore a popular one, of conscience. Conscience and duty were the cornerstones of Stoic ethics. –The influence of those ethics on the world and on Christianity was to be great.” How modern all this is! “The true Stoic was captain of his soul, sufficient to himself. And he was master of his fate; fate could not hurt him, for what it brought him was what he would have chosen. [Amor fati. Whatever happens is necessary. (Determinism.) The Supreme Power is all-wise and all-virtuous, and whatever happens is for the best. You shouldn’t grieve for your son’s death, etc., because everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. So, to be happy you simply have to want and appreciate what you have, and renounce all other desires. Again, Buddhism etc.] But to all people, strong and weak, it had a message, its insistence on the things of the soul. Whatever the world did to you, in one sphere the world had no power: you could withdraw into your own soul, and there find peace; for none could harm you there but yourself.” Given all the philosophies and thought-systems that were circulating in the Hellenistic world, Christianity was not as original as people think. The individual, and even love (to a limited extent), had been discovered long before Jesus came along.


“It has been truly said that in the religious sphere the only vital things in Hellenism were philosophy and the Oriental religions. Twilight was indeed falling on the Olympians, in spite of external show… Many things conspired to decide the fate of the Olympians. They belonged to, and fell with, the city-state; philosophy killed them for the educated, individualism for the common man; he was no longer part of the city, content with whatever its corporate worship might be, but wanted something that spoke to himself.” “A dominant factor of the time was the striving after one god… This might take the form of the national god claiming to be god of the whole earth, as Yahweh in Judaea; but another movement, very typically Hellenistic, was a great expansion of syncretism, the equation or fusion of one god with another as being alike forms of the one divinity behind them. Men would worship any god impartially [since they were merely forms of one deity]…”. An important new god, by the way, was Fortune. That says it all, doesn’t it?


For the common man, as the Olympians faded “a more real religious feeling began to develop, and the appeal of the intimate and confident oriental worships became irresistible. In this sphere the East led its [military] conqueror captive; and though the movement did not perhaps culminate till after the Christian era, it was gathering strength all through the Hellenistic period.” The number of gods from region to region, or city to city, is altogether bewildering—as is the amount of borrowing between cultures, the ten thousand intersections. It was a frenzied time, maybe even more bewildering and confusing (for the participants) than our own time. For nothing remotely like it had ever happened.


Our dating system should really start around 500 B.C.


Astrology spread everywhere, as did, therefore, the idea of Fate (for your fate was governed by the stars), but I won’t get into that. Magic too was very popular in the second century B.C., the sort of primitive magic discussed by Huizinga, which is supposed to give people power over the gods and fate and the elements. “Its root idea was that by employing proper means the hands of gods could be forced; a formula to compel the Moon says, ‘You have to do it, whether you like it or not’. The god or demon could be compelled to alter your fate.” It’s the magical power of the word, that ancient belief and practice. “Your best hold over a demon was to utter his true name…”. Philosophy and poetry themselves were, after all, remnants of ancient word-rituals—riddles especially—so it’s only natural that magic itself would linger from time immemorial. A sort of vulgarized magic was popular among the masses, as a way “to get some material thing you wanted”.


But more interesting are the Hellenistic mystery-religions, out of which Christianity developed. “Magic might alter your fate, but initiation [into a particular religion] lifted you above the sphere of Fate altogether. The god could and would look after his own, and though the stars might work their will on your body, your soul, even in this life, was beyond their reach, and after death would rise above their spheres to the sphere of the divine and dwell with the gods; you were in fact ‘saved’. The universal basis of the mystery-religions was that you sought this soteria, ‘salvation’, by personal union with a savior god who had himself died and risen again. To employ the well-known Orphic phrase, you ceased to be a worshipper, a rod-bearer, and became a Bacchus—you were as the god himself. Mysteries were an old phenomenon in Greece; what was new was the tremendous appeal which, with the breakdown of Greek religion, they now made… These religions brought to the aspirant a new sense of sin, a new conception of holiness; and the rite of initiation, culminating in the knowledge that you were saved, was undoubtedly an intense emotional experience. From the second century onwards men’s religious sense deepened. There were many mystery-religions, each claiming to possess the original initiation and to be of universal force; each claimed that the others merely worshipped its own god under other names. The older forms persisted, and certain phrases of Orphism, with its religious ecstasy and its ideas of purity and the antagonism of flesh and spirit, obtained considerable vogue… In some mysteries the initiates witnessed the death and resurrection of the god, and heard the priest pronounce the message of consolation: ‘Be of good cheer, mystae, the god is saved; even so shall we after our troubles find salvation’.” The Egyptian mystery-religion was the most popular, and Isis was the goddess of the age. The cult spread everywhere, especially, it seems, among women. For “Isis was a phenomenon which had not appeared in the Mediterranean in historical times, but which, having once appeared, has never since quitted it: she was the woman’s goddess. Half the human race had been badly off for a friend at the court of Heaven. Athena was uniquely a man’s goddess; and if women cried to Artemis in childbirth it was largely because there was no one else. To the ordinary decent woman the main facts of life were that she was wife and mother; she had little in common with a virgin warrior who patronized art, or a virgin huntress, cold as her own moon; little with the fertility goddess of an old matriarchal age, and even less with Aphrodite, though doubtless people can spiritualize anything. But now she had a friend, and the greatest of them all; one who had been wife and mother as she was, one who had suffered as she might suffer; one who understood. Isis herself leaves no doubt on the point: she is the ‘glory of women’, who gives them ‘equal power with men’. ‘I am Isis’ runs her creed, the Isis-hymn found at Ios; ‘I am she whom women call goddess. I ordained that women should be loved by men; I brought wife and husband together, and invented the marriage contract. I ordained that women should bear children, and that children should love their parents…’. In that strength Isis swept the Mediterranean. When finally Christianity triumphed, and Zeus and Apollo, Sarapis and the star-gods, were hurled from their seats, Isis alone in some sense survived the universal fall: the cult of the Virgin had been introduced before the Serapeum was sacked, and Isis’s devotees passed quietly over to the worship of another Mother—how quietly sometimes may be seen from this, that various instances are said to be known of her statues afterwards serving as images of the Madonna.”


I’ll quote Tarn’s summary of his discussion. “The interest of Hellenistic religions is that they depict the world in which Christianity arose. That world provided more than the medium of the common civilization in which Christianity was to spread; it to some extent paved the way. Men were seeking the unity which must lie behind the different deities and their worships, even as Alexander had once called all men sons of one Father; while the terrible upheaval of the Roman civil wars greatly strengthened the already strong desire for a savior, for whom many were already looking beyond the sphere of mankind. But though Hellenism supplied the longing, and probably in some a quickened sense of purity (even if only ceremonial) and of faith, there were to be two vital things in the new religion which were not in Hellenism, quite apart from the figure of the Founder, Whose spirit Hellenism did not touch. Plato had declared that all souls were immortal, and a few Jews had grasped the same general idea, while the Stoics gave the soul of the virtuous a limited survival till the end of the world-period; but to Hellenism generally immortality was only for certain benefactors of their kind or the initiates in some mystery-religion. It was not for the mass of men, as their epitaphs reveal pathetically enough. And of all the Hellenistic creeds, none was based on love of humanity; none had any message for the poor and the wretched, the publican and the sinner. Stoicism came nearest; it did transvaluate some earthly values, and Zeno, at least, gave offense by not repelling the poor and the squalid who came to him; but it had no place for love, and it scarcely met the misery of the world to tell the slave in the mines that if he would only think aright he would be happy. Those who labored and were heavy laden were to welcome a different hope from any which Hellenism could offer.”


It isn’t surprising that Ecclesiastes was written in the second or third century B.C., when the world was in flux.


“In one respect the Jew and the Greek had a parallel experience. As the political decline of the self-governing city-state after Alexander made individualism inevitable, so the destruction of the old national State and of the Temple had made it inevitable for the Jew: the idea of a blessed future for Israel was ultimately replaced by that of a blessed future for the Israelite. And as the Greek had his problems of individualism and universalism, so, on other lines, had the Jew: would Yahweh extend the hope of that blessed future to all mankind? Were men indeed to be brothers, not (as the Stoics hoped) in this world, but nevertheless at the end? In the second century the idea of personal immortality, or rather of resurrection from the dead, became firmly established in certain Jewish circles. It is strange that some should have believed that the Jew took his belief in immortality from the Greek, seeing that the Hellenistic Greek had no such belief: certain people might attain to immortality, but certain people only; the normal reward of a man was only everlasting remembrance. The vexed question of what, if anything, the Jews borrowed from Persia cannot be discussed here. More probably they evolved this belief for themselves, though opinions have differed as to their reasons. It has been attributed to Antiochus’ persecution (for unless the dead lived again, the upholder of the Law who suffered martyrdom was worse off than the ungodly who conformed), to the growing consciousness that the Messianic kingdom could not be realized in this world, and to the growing experience of personal communion with God. All these reasons may well have contributed to the new belief.”


The economic system of Egypt under the Ptolemies was “the most thoroughgoing system of State nationalization known prior to the twentieth century, unless conceivably the Peruvian”. But it had a lot in common with feudalism too. Slaves were relatively rare; serfs and poor peasants were far more common. (Labor was so cheap and abundant that there was no need for slaves.) “As regards the fellahin [the peasants], the basis of the system was that each man had his ‘own place’, which he could not leave except by order or permission.” The king, who was also an Egyptian god, officially owned all the land in the country, but he granted some of it to soldiers and officials, and there were temple lands too (which were, however, mostly cultivated by the king). “The entire land was divided into two categories only: King’s land in the narrower sense, i.e. land in hand, and land in grant. King’s land was farmed for Ptolemy by the ‘royal peasants’, the ‘king’s people’. These formed a substantial part of the fellahin population of the villages, and their ancestors had cultivated King’s land for untold centuries. Many were small peasants, but among them were farmers of some substance. …As they could not leave their villages, were compelled to cultivate their land and could be compelled to cultivate more if ground fell vacant (for the State was built up on the maxim that the king’s cultivation must be carried on), could have their animals requisitioned, gave compulsory labor on the dykes and canals, and could be turned out at any time, they differed little in fact from serfs.” The king was in charge of most business too, and reaped the profits. The whole extensively bureaucratized system was quite oppressive, and full-blown labor strikes were not uncommon. Miners, quarry-men, boatman, workers of all sorts, royal peasants, retailers, police, even officials went on strike. “Workmen’s strikes were not strikes for better wages or conditions, for there were none to be got; they were the product of blank despair… The men had one weapon which officialdom feared: they could throw the machine out of gear by leaving their ‘own place’. A strike notice reads: ‘We are worn out; we will run away’; and they usually took refuge in some temple with the right of asylum. Asylum has been called the Egyptians’ Habeas Corpus: Ptolemy’s power ended at the precinct wall, and the worried officials had no weapon but persuasion or some concession with which to get the men back to their ‘own place’.” I could keep quoting but that seems silly, seeing as I have the book.


Incidentally, the social position of women improved during the Hellenistic era. “Women could now get all the education they wanted; many philosophers numbered women among their hearers… Poetesses began to appear again in the third century… Some writers obviously wrote for female readers. Women now received citizenship and proxeny from other cities for the same services as men; and the women magistrates of the Roman period date back at any rate to the first century B.C., when a woman, Phile, held the highest office at Priene and built a new aqueduct and reservoir. The relations between the sexes became less cramped and more natural. Women founded clubs and took part in club life, though naturally to a less extent than men; there were clubs for women only at Athens and Alexandria.”


Infanticide was very common. “More than one daughter was practically never reared, bearing out Poseidippus’ statement that ‘even a rich man always exposes a daughter’.” Except among the Jews, no moral objections were raised against infanticide till under the Empire some Stoics spoke out against it. In any case, the Greek population declined as the age progressed, since more and more families refused to have more than one or two children.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright