Oikophobia in Greek Antiquity

The first installment in a view of the historical development of oikophobia, which reveals larger issues within political philosophy.


In my very first blog post, of May 8, 2014 (On Two Types of Cultural Decadence), I explained the phenomenon of oikophobia, an obscure term which I want to make more widespread (which is also the reason that I am currently writing a whole book on it). The belief that oikophobia – a very common irrational and generally ignorant hostility to one’s own culture and civilization – is a recent phenomenon, arisen with the cultural relativism of the 1960s, is erroneous. One can see why this is so by surveying oikophobia through history. Once it is established that oikophobia is recurring, and that, furthermore, it occurs during a particular set of circumstances, one can then dissect its particular manifestations.

As a general rule, in the development of a culture or nation, the blindly patriotic type will always develop earlier than his opposite, the oikophobe (in that first post I referred to the former type as “strongly decadent”, to the latter as “weakly decadent”). The strong type tends to arise at the point where the influence and power of his culture are still rising toward their peak. This is understandable, because his realization that his culture is overcoming outside resistance will make him overconfident. He will then insist upon the inferiority of all who provide or provided said resistance, as a sort of ingrained fait accompli, and believe that his own membership of the culture makes him better, often even as an individual. The weakly decadent person, then, will generally arise when the peak of his culture has already come. He will regret the exploits of his nation and the perpetrated injustices and sufferings that will always be part of any rise and fall of a people. He thereby becomes filled with self-disgust – not toward himself as an individual; he is much too proud for that, and therefore more dishonest and occasionally more difficult to spot than the strong type, and he rejects all that belongs to his culture, the good with the bad. Like its opposite extreme, it is an overreaction and an exaggeration, and thereby shows the common truth of humans’ inability to extract themselves from the far movement of the pendulum that will so often characterize their emotional lives, a pendulum that stays for a moment at each extreme but loses no time in the middle.

Self-awareness and then survival, which includes self-correction, is the normal starting point for a community, for a state. It is the sudden appearance of and interaction with the Other that pushes most human beings in the direction of excessive self-promotion or, later, excessive self-critique, whereas in only a few people can the original disposition continue to exist. I am in this context not very much concerned with the original state of man in nature and how he comes to form a state. Various philosophers have attempted to answer that question already, most miserably Rousseau with his noble savage, more accurately Hobbes and Locke, according to whom people are inherently distrustful of each other (Locke is more optimistic than Hobbes, but both are far removed from the dreamy and delusional proto-communist – and thereby proto-fascist – Rousseau). What concerns me, rather, is what happens once a state has already been created, and what trajectory it is likely to take. This interests me because if we can make an educated guess as to what that trajectory might be, we can with some degree of accuracy divine the future and thereby slow – not stop, but slow – our arrival at the ravine to which we will inevitably be led.

The West begins with ancient Greece. Judaism also became part of the West, of course, and was already in existence in some primitive form when the first word of Greek was recorded on a clay tablet in a Mycenaean fortress, but it entered the West only much later, sideways, as it were, through Christianity. So the West begins with Greece, and it is there, indeed, that we find our first case of oikophobia. Leaving aside the aforementioned Mycenaean Greeks, of whom we know too little and who in any case do not appear to have developed into a self-aware people (and as I shall discuss momentarily, self-awareness in a primitive sense is a necessary prerequisite for oikophobia), the ancient Greeks of the Archaic period began in the familiar way. A people awakens and, like a child, is aroused by the sudden understanding of its own influence on the surrounding environment. The Other does not yet feature very strongly at this point, and the Greek mentality is at this stage strongly under the influence of the mythical heroic age, the Homeric naiveté of considering life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (to refer again to Hobbes), with glimmers of glory and joy for those quick enough to seize it. Such a mentality has little time for cultural considerations one way or the other, and simply lives in the moment. It is because there is no time for metaphysics in such a world, but only for the exploits of the individual, that Nietzsche considers the Archaic Greeks the greatest expression of Greekdom. The Archaic Greeks develop rather organically and independently, moving slowly from myth to science through the work of the pre-Socratics, who adopt what is useful from Babylonian and other sources – their position on the peripheries of the Greek world, in Ionia and Magna Graecia, are certainly helpful in this regard – and leave the rest without much concern for whether those neighboring and older civilizations are superior or not.

Herodotus records the Persians' surprise, at the Battle of Marathon, that the Greek hoplites simply charged at them without the support of either cavalry or missile troops. The mainland Greeks were at a relatively early stage in their culture where each man fought with admirable naiveté.

But then the late Archaic Greeks, after their Ionian cities have come under foreign domination, clash with the Persians and, with Athens at the helm, finally emerge victorious from the absolutely crucial civilizational encounters at Marathon, Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale. Subsequent Greek conquests, particularly that of Byzantium, which wrested control of the Black Sea trade from the Persians and almost completely cut off the latter from Europe, ensure the creation of a large and burgeoning Athenian empire, whereas the traditionalist Spartans withdraw to their own borders. At this point, strong decadence and xenophobia among the Greeks in general and the Athenians in particular have developed to their fullest. (For a modern readership it should be noted that Greek xenophobia is purely cultural: the Persians are considered weak, effeminate, and undisciplined; it is in no way racial or ethnic, as xenophobia often is today. Look anywhere in the enormous body of Greek literature for even a hint of racial superiority or disparaging reference to the Persians’ darker appearance. You will not find it. Racism is a more modern invention: To be progressive we must sometimes be regressive.)

At this point, entering upon the Classical age, which by common consent runs from after the Persian Wars to the death of Alexander the so-called Great, the Greeks begin to become aware of themselves. Self-awareness is one of the prerequisites of oikophobia, and this is why the Greeks offer us the first clear example of that type of decadence. What I mean by their “self-awareness” is that the Greeks were the first of all peoples in the world to look themselves in the mirror. Once they had left their mythical past behind, they became aware of their own power and began to analyze it. One of the earliest hints of this in literature is Aeschylus’ play The Persians, the only extant Greek tragedy not based on mythical material but on a historical event – and a recent one at that – namely the battle of Salamis, at which the playwright himself presumably took part. Here, the Greeks are viewed from the point of view of the Other, namely the vanquished Persians, who react with shock and humanity at their lost cause. Euripides, as is often said, almost routinely shatters traditional myth in his dramas, such as by Artemis’ intervention in Iphigenia in Aulis, and questions conventional ways of thinking, such as by the at times sympathetic portrayal of Medea that raises the question of what a woman is supposed to do when suffering injustice in a patriarchal world where there is no higher instance to which she may turn for succor. But it is above all in the more or less historical and scientific treatises that we see what is properly a Greek self-study: Herodotus’ anthropological and sociological comparisons between the Greeks and other peoples he visited, Thucydides’ astonishingly perceptive observations not only on human nature in general but on the Greek and Athenian character in particular, Plato’s mocking of Athenian democracy, Aristotle’s establishment of more scientific disciplines than I could even list, perhaps most importantly, in the present context, of literary theory (by which I mean simply the study of literature, not the fashionable rubbish of “schools”, such as post-structuralism and such, which are generally understood by the term today) in his Poetics, where he examines the literature of his own culture. The self-examination of these works and authors, and many others, has no parallel in any other civilization before the Greeks.

But self-awareness, though often facilitating self-critique, is not the same as oikophobia. Aeschylus wished to be remembered more for his participation in the military defense of Greece than for his dramas; Euripides’ work is full of Athenian patriotic fervor, even though, in the end, he abandoned his native city and headed north upon the invitation of the Macedonian king Archelaus I; Herodotus is happy to travel but happier yet to come home; Thucydides has his Pericles utter some of the most patriotically beautiful words imaginable on the greatness of Athens and the indomitable Athenian spirit; Aristotle considers it quite clear that his compatriots are culturally superior to other peoples. Self-awareness is a good in and of itself, but nothing, of course, exists in a vacuum, and that self-awareness, which eventually becomes the natural outcropping of a cultured people – and the Greeks were the first of all cultured peoples – will have, with time, both positive and negative effects. Oikophobia is of the latter sort. So in order to fully understand the Greeks and the political implications that they have for us, we must follow them all the way to the end. Whereas someone like the sixth century poet Theognis, if asked, would have considered the Greeks to be the best simply because no other possibility was even conceivable, a fourth-century Aristotle considered the Greeks to be the best, not because he could entertain no other possibility, but because he had compared the customs and mores of various peoples and concluded that the Greeks were, indeed, superior. It was this latter posture that enabled them to be the first self-critical people, and that is a remarkable achievement.

Socrates takes a final moment just before his death to remind a group of Athenians how backward they are. (Painting by Jacques-Louis David)

But this development continues even further. In later Classical and in Hellenistic times, the weakly decadent comes creeping, well after the strongly decadent phase that commences upon contact with the Other, but overlapping for a while with that middle, self-aware but not yet self-despising phase. Of course, in Hellenistic times, through the murderous pluralistic crusades of Alexander the so-called Great, the Greeks become supra-national and in that sense strictly speaking no longer “Greek”, but this state is a result not only of military events but also of changes in culture. The first clear traces of oikophobia is still to be found within the Classical era, namely in the individual of Socrates. Socrates was not, as Nietzsche would have it, so much the destroyer of Hellas as he was part of a natural process of self-destruction that cultures in general go through, a process in which Socrates had more than enough accomplices. This thinker, Plato’s mouthpiece in many instances, considered himself cosmopolitan and, though he did not thereby think other cultures automatically better, brought Greekdom down to the level of the Other, where it in no meaningful sense belonged. He is in many ways the archetype of that American and European oikophobe that is such a commonplace today, the person who looks down on his compatriots and their beliefs as backward and considers the people unworthy of him.

And the time frame is clear. Athens had already seen its peak come and go, with various states and islands breaking away from its orbit, and was slowly being supplanted by others (first Sparta, then Thebes), and its past depredations were well known. The Socratic dialogues take place during a war that Athens will lose, a loss from which it will never recover. This weak decadence could not have arisen in any significant measure at the time when Athens, with the other allied Greeks, was fresh from its victories against Persia.

Other examples of the budding rise of oikophobia during classical and late classical times are, arguably, Aristophanes and, certainly, Alexander the so-called Great. Aristophanes cannot be considered oikophobic merely by being a comedian who naturally mocks the things taking place around him – such poets, full of acerbic wit, existed long before, even in Archaic times, such as Archilochus and Hipponax (though it is worth noting, all the same, that Homer could not have been a comic poet: the awakening literature of a civilization is almost always serious) – but rather because his plays contains important socio-philosophical themes that take a stand against his own group as a whole. In The Birds, he attacks Athenian democracy; in Lysistrata, he attacks the Athenian war effort. It is true that consensual societies – and Classical Athens was consensual for most of its history – tend to produce more dissent in times of war, but such dissent is less widespread in the Archaic era, and in earlier eras of civilizations generally, partly because of the early strong naiveté that I have already discussed, and also because cultured societies for the most part are less consensual early in their histories than later on. As the society develops, more and more rights are granted to individuals, which increases the likelihood of dissent, a topic which shall recur time and again, also among the Romans (see my next post), and in modern times. As for Alexander, it may seem odd to claim that someone who led armies across continents to conquer other peoples could have been oikophobic, but in fact he strove to establish a united world empire of different nations and cultures and did not want a small Macedonian clique to rule all. This led him to de-emphasize the accomplishments of Greece and exaggerate those of the oriental world, contributing to the ridiculous adage that something that is older – and the Persian civilization with its Babylonian predecessor was in many aspects older than the Greek – is eo ipso better. It is true that part of the reason Alexander wished to incorporate the Persians and other Asians into his army was that Macedonian manpower itself was limited, which is why there was also a purely practical reason behind his oikophobia, but the fact of his limited manpower arose out of his desire, precisely, to unify the enormous land masses of Eurasia. So Alexander was weakly decadent, even if for obvious reasons not immediately recognizable as such. It was Alexander and his father Philip who by uniting the Greek city-states ruined the competition that made them thrive, a bit like Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871 spelled out the slow decline of the astonishing concentration of cultural genius in the German-speaking states of the nineteenth century, second in world history only to 5th century BC Greece.

In my next post we shall see a similar socio-political development for the second great civilization of Western antiquity, Rome. This will have important ramifications for our understanding of political philosophy.