Are America's Ideals Rooted in Ancient
Athens or Jerusalem?
Is America a Christian nation? Are the American ideals of "equality before the law" and "the rule of law" products of Christianity, or are they products of "the Enlightenment," which restored principles of the Empires of Rome and Greece, "lost" during the Christian middle ages?
On Fri, 11 Jul 2003 10:43:35 -0700, Libertarian Party Congressional Candidate Joe Cobb wrote:
|"The philosophy of the ratifiers of the Bill of Rights" does not lie in their view of supernatural powers or the long-traced connection
between the philosophy of individual rights, which they espoused, and natural law ("the higher law"). As Jim Powell points out in his masterly book, The Triumph
of Liberty (New York: Free Press, 2000), perhaps the first voice in favor of the higher law was Cicero in republican Rome. He was not a Christian, and the Greco-Roman
pagan religion was not constructed around the idea of a "law giver" as the Mosaic religion is.
The truth of a higher law, identified by F.A. Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973) is essentially the concept of "the rules of just conduct," which the Greek philosophers identified as "nomos." The fact that the monotheistic religions absorbed this idea is no surprise, but it is completely wrong to say the monotheistic religions invented it.
The idea of an "Enlightenment" is wrong on all counts. The Christian middle ages were not devoid of Greco-Roman influence. In fact, Athens pervaded the middle ages. Thomas Aquinas is well known for his efforts to synthesize Aristotle and Christ. Medieval Christians were converts to Christ from Rome, and brought Rome into the Church. It was Christian scholars who preserved the writings of the "classical" age.
But there were some parts of Rome that could not be synthesized into Medieval Christianity.
Greco-Roman philosophy was homosexual and fascist.
- • The word "Fascism" comes from a Roman symbol of authority
- • Homosexuality and anti-Christian immorality were pervasive in the Greco-Roman world
- Biblical Sources of Western Sexual Morality
This philosophical conflict has long been described as the conflict between Jerusalem (Christianity) and Athens (the Enlightenment).
Undergirding American capitalism and American prosperity are "family values" which are antithetical to Enlightenment thinking. America's Founding Fathers drew from the Bible and Christianity far more than they drew from Rome. Clinton Rossiter notes that even when they mentioned Rome,
The Roman example worked both ways: From the decline of the republic Americans could learn the fate of free states that succumb to luxury.
Dinesh D’Souza adds,
|Though the American founders were inspired by the examples of Greece and Rome, they also saw limitations in those examples.
Alexander Hamilton wrote that it would be “as ridiculous to seek for [political] models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome as it would be to go in quest of them among the
Hottentots and Laplanders.” In The Federalist Papers, we read at one point that the classical idea of liberty decreed “to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues
on the next….” And elsewhere: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” While the ancients had direct democracy
that was susceptible to the unjust passions of the mob and supported by large-scale slavery, we today have representative democracy, with full citizenship and the franchise
extended in principle to all. Let us try to understand how this great change came about.
A New Morality
In ancient Greece and Rome, individual human life had no particular value in and of itself. The Spartans left weak children to die on the hillside. Infanticide was common, as it is common even today in many parts of the world. Fathers who wanted sons had few qualms about drowning their newborn daughters. Human beings were routinely bludgeoned to death or mauled by wild animals in the Roman gladiatorial arena. Many of the great classical thinkers saw nothing wrong with these practices. Christianity, on the other hand, contributed to their demise by fostering moral outrage at the mistreatment of innocent human life.
Likewise, women had a very low status in ancient Greece and Rome, as they do today in many cultures, notably in the Muslim world. Such views are common in patriarchal cultures. And they were prevalent as well in the Jewish society in which Jesus lived. But Jesus broke the traditional taboos of his time when he scandalously permitted women of low social status to travel with him and be part of his circle of friends and confidantes.
The rest of his article shows that it was Christianity that transformed the ancient world into the modern world.
Everything that was good about classical philosophy had been set forth centuries earlier, in "the Law and the Prophets."
The Greek idea of nomos was preceded by several centuries in the Hebrew concept of Wisdom, which undergirded King Solomon's advice to his son in the book of Proverbs, notably chapter 8, in which Wisdom speaks throughout:
14 Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have understanding and power.
15 By me kings reign
and rulers make laws that are just;
16 by me princes govern,
and all nobles who rule on earth.
By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.
If a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will always be secure.
. . . and in other political verses too numerous to mention, verses which are "Hayekian" to the core.
The Christian concept of "logos" was found in the Septuagint, the 3rd century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the baton was passed to John who wrote that this Wisdom existed before the foundation of the earth (John 1:1) -- certainly predating the Greeks.
It's certainly true that some philosophers in the Greco-Roman tradition warned against the excesses of power, and America's Founding Fathers often quoted them, as did John Calvin and the Puritans, but on the whole it was a debauched slave-state, and the Founders more often referred to Rome as a warning of what would happen if America abandoned its Biblical quest to be "a City on a Hill":
Clinton Rossiter: The Religious Foundation of Government
Thomas Paine quoted the Bible (1 Samuel 8) in his revolutionary pamphlet against British Monarchy, Common Sense. Tyranny violated a higher law, he said. When Samuel warned Israel of the consequences of seeking a king "like all the nations," he spoke around the year 1000 B.C., and had not "absorbed" anything from Greece or Rome. (Plato wrote his blueprint for tyranny around 360 B.C.)
The Prophetic Critique of Monarchy: 1 Samuel 8
Tom Paine and 1 Samuel 8
For libertarians to reject the Hebrew-Christian logos in favor of Greek philosophers is truly suicidal. Plato's Republic is a blueprint for dictatorship, while the Bible is a sustained critique of messianic Statism and a blueprint for anarcho-capitalism.
Polis: The Empire of Man vs. the City of God
How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and the Success of the West
Western Civilization is Christian Civilization
Christianity and Liberty
John Lofton has compiled some telling quotations from scholars in a previous -- more Christian -- century. What follows is from his essay:
And make no mistake about it. Regardless of what you’ve heard regarding the alleged greatness of the ancient, Greco-Roman, pre-Christian world, there was no real, true freedom and/or liberty during this era. None. In his book The Ancient City: A Study On The Religion, Laws And Institutions Of Greece And Rome (1889), Fustel de Coulanges spells out in detail the darkness of this Christless world:
The citizen was subordinate in everything, and without any reserve, to the city; he belonged to it body and soul. The [pagan] religion which produced the State, and the State which supported [this] religion, sustained each other; these two powers formed a power almost superhuman, to which the body and soul were equally enslaved. There was nothing independent in man; his body belonged to the State and was devoted to its defense.
For example, Aristotle and Plato incorporated into their ideal codes the command that a deformed baby son was to be put to death. And in his “Laws,” Plato says (and this sounds very familiar today): “Parents ought not to be free to send or not to send their children to the masters to whom the city has chosen [for their education]; for the children belong less to their parents than to the city.” And in ancient Athens, a man could be put on trial and convicted for something called “incivism,” that is being insufficiently affectionate toward the State! Coulanges says (emphasis mine):
The ancients, therefore, knew neither liberty in private life, liberty in education, nor religious liberty. The human person counted for very little against that holy and almost divine authority called the country or the State…. It is a singular error, among all human errors, to believe that in the ancient cities men enjoyed liberty. They had not even the idea of it.
Commenting on our Lord’s God/Caesar distinction, Coulanges says:
It is the first time that God and the state are so clearly distinguished. For Caesar at that period was still the pontifex maximus, the chief and the principal organ of the Roman religion; he was the guardian and the interpreter of beliefs. He held the worship and the dogmas in his hands. Even his person was sacred and divine, for it was a peculiarity of the policy of the emperors that, wishing to recover the attributes of ancient royalty, they were careful not to forget the divine character which antiquity had attached to the king-pontiffs and to the priest-founders. But now Christ breaks the alliance which paganism and the empire wished to renew. He proclaims that religion is no longer the State, and that to obey Caesar is no longer the same thing as to obey God.
Christianity … separates what all antiquity had confounded…. It was the source whence individual liberty flowed…. The first duty no longer consisted in giving one’s time, one’s strength, one’s life to the State … all the virtues were no longer comprised in patriotism, for the soul no longer had a country. Man felt that he had other obligations besides that of living and dying for the city. Christianity … placed God, the family, the human individual above country, the neighbor above the city.
Because of this hideous tyranny, it is no surprise that self-murder (suicide) was so rampant in the ancient world. As Dr. Gerhard Uhlhorn tells us in his The Conflict Of Christianity With Heathenism (1899):
Heathenism ended in barrenness and sheer despair, and at last the only comfort was that men are free to leave this miserable world by suicide. Patet exitus! The way out of this life stands open! That is the last consolation of expiring heathenism.
And he quotes Seneca, who said that “the aim of all philosophy is to despise life,” as saying, concerning the suicide option:
Seest thou yon steep height? Thence is the descent to freedom. Seest thou yon sea, yon river, yon well? Freedom sits there in the depths. Seest thou yon low, withered tree? There freedom hangs. Seest thou thy neck, thy throat, thy heart? They are ways of escape from bondage.
To which Dr. Uhihorn adds:
Can the bankruptcy of Heathenism be more plainly declared than in these words…? With what power then must have come the preaching of this word: "Christ is risen! The wages of sin is death: but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
And in a little noticed and seldom quoted passage from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville says:
The most profound and capacious minds of Rome and Greece ... tried to prove that slavery was in the order of nature and that it would always exist. Nay, more, everything shows that those of the ancients who had been slaves before they became free, many of whom have left us excellent writings, themselves regarded servitude in no other light.
All the great writers of antiquity belonged to the aristocracy of masters, or at least they saw that aristocracy established and expanded before their eyes. Their mind, after it had expanded itself in several directions, was barred from further progress in this one; and the advent of Jesus Christ upon earth was required to teach that all members of the human race are by nature equal and alike.
The historian Arnold Toynbee saw, accurately, the great failing of the ancient Greeks, that they “saw in Man, ‘the Lord of Creation,’ and worshipped him as an idol instead of God.” And this rejection of the true God —- which similarly threatens modern Western civilization —- led to Hellenism’s breakdown and disintegration. Rejecting Gibbon, Toynbee says neither Christians nor barbarians destroyed the Roman Empire; they merely walked over a corpse.
And in his book Religious Origins of the American Revolution (Scholars Press, 1976), Page Smith points out:
The American Revolution might thus be said to have started, in a sense, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. It received a substantial part its theological and philosophical underpinnings from John Calvin’s Institutes Of The Christian Religion and much of its social history from the Puritan Revolution of 1640- 1660, and, perhaps, less obviously, from the Glorious Revolution of 1689.
Put another way, the American Revolution is inconceivable in the absence of that context of ideas which have constituted radical Christianity. The leaders of the Revolution in every colony were imbued with the precepts of the Reformed faith.
Indeed, he adds, in early America, the Reformation
left its mark on every aspect of the personal and social life of the faithful. In the family, in education, in business activity, in work, in community and, ultimately, in politics, the consequences of the Reformation were determinative for American history.
As remote or repugnant as Puritanism may be to some, Smith says “it is essential that we understand that the Reformation in its full power was one of the great emancipations of history.” He says the passage in the book of Micah about “every man…under his vine and under his fig tree” was “the most potent expression of the colonist’s determination to be independent whatever the cost,…having substantial control over his own affairs. No theme was more constantly reiterated by writers and speakers in the era of the Revolution.”