Homogenizing Purges

November 17, 2021

Part 11 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

A few weeks ago, I asked how wide the West was.

I then did an experiment where I followed references in a scientific paper that has been on my mind since I read it in March: “Two types of aggression in human evolution”.

I wanted to see how deep I’d have to dive to wind up in Ancient Athens. It only took two steps from the abstract to get back to Plato and Aristotle, though of course it’s possible this paper is an outlier.

This led me into a long investigation of the Myth of the West.

Is Greek philosophy a cacophony?

Today I want to discuss Biagetti’s claim which I noted few days ago, i.e., that there is little or no consensus in Greek philosophy, and that it’s a constant debate among conflicting worldviews, as a way of looking at what (if anything) unifies “the West.”

Here’s the quote, which is from the podcast I’ve been discussing, Myth of the Month 8: “The West” (2019). I’ve cleaned it up a little bit:

If you read the Greeks, first of all, almost all of their philosophical tracts, like Plato’s Republic, or his other writings, they are dialogues with people disagreeing with each other, advancing conflicting ideas.

And in the mix there are some Greek thinkers that you encounter in the dialogues who are Sophists, they were basically relativist and say there is no real truth, there is no real good and bad. Everything is just the custom of the country, or whatever you can get away with in an argument.

And then even if you look beyond those particular writings, and try to make some sort of summation, this is what Greek thought is all about. Well, you have all these contending conflicting schools. You have Epicureans, who see things completely differently from Stoics who see things completely differently from Aristotelian school. There was no consensus there, there was no shared notion about how life should work or what is true or false or what is good or bad. You can see certain shared values and assumptions in their ways of life, in the way that people lived in their customs. In their rituals, maybe to some degree in their poetry, right? But really not in their philosophy.

The philosophy is cacophony. Likewise, if we go forward into the Roman age, there were Roman Stoics. But they often were dramatically different from their Greek forebears. Not only that, but the way Roman society worked was totally different. Their laws were different. A lot of their deities were the same or close enough to the same, but their laws were different. Their government was different. The Empire centered on Rome was completely different from the small policies of Greece. There’s no coherent Greco-Roman thought it’s just not there.

He makes several great points here:

  1. The Ancient Greek philosophers like to argue.
  2. The Sophists are enemies of the Platonists, and they are apparently relativists.
  3. The Epicureans and the Stoics are bitterly opposed.
  4. The Romans are not the same as the Greeks.

A series of homogenizing purges

Before discussing the Greeks, I want tentatively to lay out my thesis, about the unifying tendency which unifies “the West.”

First, I think it’s a defensible position to say that intense debate recurs throughout what we now call “the West,” always keeping mind that “the West” is, as discussed, only retrospectively connected, i.e., it’s something we construct in the present, not something we observe in the past.

This construction is not limited to what we now construct as “our” heritage; it also resumes a tendency that peoples had in the past to construct a past of their own. The Romans admired the Greeks, the Holy Roman Empire wanted to assert the authority of the Roman Empire, and so on. And in each age, the past is constructed to appear linear, often in writing, as I discussed with respect to science.

But at each stage, there’s also lot of debate over authority. To be clear, I do not think that “debate” or “disagreement” is the defining feature of “the West.” As Biagetti has argued, that’s tantamount to saying “Western culture is a culture of no culture.”

Instead, I think that desire for certainty and consensus is the defining feature. Debate is a side effect. The constant argument is epiphenomenal to an underlying attempt to convert other people to a way of thinking.

People in the Old Testament, in Ancient Greece, Rome, medieval Christendom, the Reformation, the missionaries and colonisers, the French Revolution, or the 20th Century “West” care what you think. They want to change your mind, and they’re willing to kill you if you don’t. This kind of “homogenizing purge” is not present at all periods, but it seems to be a recurrent feature.

I want to think through the idea (hopefully not completely wrong) that most other societies in history care more about what you do than what you believe.

Neither persuasion nor coercion is a “Western” phenomenon. Nor are the construction of a heroic past, nor a history of debates and purges. But I will try to argue that for other places and other times, outside the ones now retrospectively defined as “the West,” action rather than belief is the main way you can get yourself killed.1 In “the West,” there are recurrent homogenizing purges. These are centralizing, not just in the sense of centralizing the cooperation of larger numbers of individuals (as in city-states), but centralizing and homogenizing in terms of beliefs. Because of the intensity of each consensus and the loss of diversity involved in each purge, the retrospective “West” is prone to destabilizing revolutions, in which the old consensus collapses and a new one forms.

To jump ahead a bit, I think that the modern West, by selecting Ancient Greece, Judeo-Christianity, Medieval Europe, and eventually America, creates a mythical trajectory from animism to polytheism, from polytheism to monotheism, from monotheism to Church authority, and from the Church to scientific materialism (whether or not it is aware that this is what it is doing). The strictures on belief can be relaxed only once those resistant to the dominant belief system (I’m tempted to write “paradigm”) are converted, subdued, exiled, or dead. At that point, history is rewritten to exclude and misrepresent them, as well as to make the present look like the telos of the past.

Finally, none of this need be planned or understood by any individual; it seems to be an emergent effect, what Althusser calls an “ideological state apparatus.”

I’ll attempt to contrast this “Western” tendency with China and India before the 19th Century, but not with Islam, since I think the Abrahamic religions all share this tendency. In this context, the USSR must also be considered “Western” for reasons I’ll go into later. To be clear, I absolutely think that there are homogenizing purges in China and India; I just think it’s rare that they ever leave only a single strand of philosophy alive.

Wait, what about Greece?

To summarize my responses to Biagetti:

  1. The Ancient Greeks, like the early/medieval Christian Church, and many other “Western” institutions really want to convert people to their way of seeing the world. Arguments, but also purges, martyrdoms, witch-hunts, and executions for heresy, are all expressions of this underlying impulse. This intensifying impulse is produced by variation and selection, with a few loose rules; no one needs to think about it explicitly, nor is it some Spenglerian spirit of the culture, any more than there is a “spirit of predator” that produces carnivory.2
  2. The Sophists’ writings have not survived; they’ve essentially been purged. We have only one side of the argument, and this is characteristic. Other relativists and non-teleological thinkers are purged (or risk purges) for the next two millennia. Teleology and “Truth” are strongly selected for.
  3. The Epicureans and the Stoics are indeed bitterly opposed to each other, but what they believe is not actually much different in practice (common in the history of “the West”) — and in any case the Epicureans too have largely been purged.3
  4. The Romans are not the same as the Greeks, but in many cases we’ve lost access to the Greeks, and people conflate them with the Romans.

I take up the discussion of the Greek philosophical schools here. You may wish to look at the points Thomas Kuhn made about the diversity of thought before Newton in the post I wrote yesterday.

  1. Possibly identity is the other main way, and though the West also kills over identity, this practice is obviously not restricted to the West. I need to think more about this, as it will likely have similar effects as killing people for their beliefs. One possibility is that by accepting converts rather than a strict policy of killing outsiders, “Western” practices become viral — this would need to be compared/contrasted with the (also viral) policy of the Khans.
  2. Reminder for myself to return to the many times that saber-tooth cats evolved.
  3. Importantly not entirely.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.