Polemical topics for polytheists (part 8): Identity

 

First view: Identity is a fully personal matter, and the modern world is improving one’s ability to embrace it. (Folks on the left incline to this position).

Second view: True identity comes from a large group (like a nation or religion), and these are wearing off in the modern world. (Folks on the right tend to say this).

Balanced view: There are identities (like polytheisms), and these are guided both by personal choices as well as the decisions of a moderate group (like a community, tribe, or local region).

 Although identity has become a topic constantly in discussion, it is also in need of an even-minded understanding of human history and societies. No wonder the modern world finds itself (yet again) troubled and disturbed because of the fierce and extreme dichotomy of the individual’s identity as opposed to that of the large group. It is necessary though to point out that the beginnings of this problem lie further back in time: Ancient empires, like modern nations, forged identities for large groups that extended beyond the natural borders of one’s distinct local group. It is true that these smaller communal identities still remained, but the larger group became increasingly important & superior because of the military nature of imperial power; the “glory” that many perceived could result from such “unity”, or the shame that they feared could come if they did not maintain it, propelled and perpetuated the concept of an ever  larger group. This is how national and imperial power (as far back as the Persians, Greeks, and Romans) began its long course of gnawing away regional identities and the unique cultures that accompany them. The concept of the unified state providing an identity for all its people (the second view above), so common nowadays, is derived from the policies that historians had always believed (till now) led to “reforms” in the Athenian government, establishing a term we take for granted, i.e. “democracy”. Under the tyrant Cleisthenes in 507 BCE, traditional tribes were stripped of their identities and people were to live now in artificial tribes (determined by localities) as designed by the state. People were now to identify themselves not by their family name, but rather by the name of their locality. The pretext for these “reforms” was to prevent inner conflict, but anyone who is familiar with Athenian history will know that such conflicts festered even worse after the “reforms”, but only in new forms—i.e. political parties dividing the nobles and common people (the prototype for today’s destructive dichotomy of left and right parties*), and imperial policies that pretended to unite those opposing forces by conquering other states (see first Athenian empire and Second Athenian Empire). Some justify these measures by citing the importance of unity in defeating the Persian invasion of Greece, but although this system did indeed contribute to protection of the “Greeks” (if we are to use that unifying term), it also led to a bloody war between the two great imperial forces of Sparta and Athens, only to be ended by the conquests of Phillip II of Macedon in preparation for an invasion of Persia, which was badly fulfilled by his son. The conclusion here is that a national & imperial identity is always a fragile, contradictory and artificial concept that drives people to larger and larger conflicts, even as it falsely attempts to unify and elevate them. The Romans went through the same journey and all modern states follow this seemingly “civilized” example without questioning it. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the exclusive personal identity, i.e. the sort that opposes the communal group, was developed out of this bad environment of artificially collective unity. The result of removing tribal identities was only that new artificial tribal identities arose; we see this with the philosophical schools (Sophists, Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, etc.) that flourished in Athens during the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries, schools that were later exported to many other imitators of Athens, like the Romans. The concept was then transferred to the Christians and Muslims (hence all the ideological sects) and thus still continues to this day, as the world treads blindly in the footsteps of Athens and Rome. We must oppose this dichotomy of national and personal, of huge and tiny, by seeking a balance and a moderate path. The community, tribe and local region are the natural answers to this problematic question. The model of indigenous peoples (alas, unfortunately declining) once again proves itself to be right-minded and advanced, in the true sense of the word. The modern world loves to smear the concept by calling it “tribalism”, but we polytheists, far more aware of history and the failures of “civilization”, are capable of championing a cause that will help us greatly. History must be revised and re-examined if we are ever to advance ourselves among so many competitors. If they are already declining, why should we follow their same faults? It is a dangerous humiliation to be a pawn in the hands of a large state, a piece of their machine, by making our main identity a national one, and at the same time, it is a sore deprivation to leave one’s ancestral group by pretending that personal or philosophical identity can rise above it. It is my hope one day not merely to call myself a “polytheist”, but to belong to (or at least to prepare for my future descendants to belong to) a communal and ancestral identity. Let us hope (while making a contribution) that the concept of the nation and empire will slowly wear away into confederations that are less centralized & oppressive.

 

__________

*The Athenian dichotomy of nobles and democrats (or sometimes, moderate & radical democrats) was later transferred to Rome, where it became the dichotomy of the optimates (patricians) and populares (plebeian middle and lower classes), a division that led to civil wars & endless problems, but has continued to this very day.

3 thoughts on “Polemical topics for polytheists (part 8): Identity

  1. K

    I have been sick, so I have not been paying attention to things online for a while.

    The Irish were so clannish that the Greeks could have taken lessons from them. To an extent, large Irish families even today form extended clans in their localities; I know a few like that. There are O’Reillys, O’Malley’s, Kellys, O’Neills, and Murphys everywhere. Early Ireland might be something like a regionalist ideal. In the face of hostile outsiders, the Irish petty kingdoms and tuathas often preferred to fight each other. The Vikings and the English exploited this. Christianity was able to enter partly because of this. The system in Ireland did function though, while there was no outside interference. There were between 100-200 kings in Ireland, and the loyalties and alliances were very confusing to keep track of. Life followed the agricultural cycles and the livestock cycles, and everyone had a class or caste. There were no big cities, even medieval Dublin was not all that big. There was still quite a bit of fighting and division, usually over cattle and pastures. Bigger clans fought others for hegemony over regions, or occasionally over all of Ireland. It would be classifiable as endemic warfare.

    As long as there have been cities, they have formed little states that have sought to bring other cities under some degree of control, under a hegemony. This was going on even with the Sumerians prior to Sargon of Akkad, where the big cities competed for hegemonic control. Sargon had the distinction of winning decisively over his competitors, that is all. Power and growth are security for a people. Fear drives expansion as much as energy or ferocity or greed. The general rule in this world is matsya nyaya. The problem is, people get greedy and eventually it all falls down, they expand too much. Often, the original stock of the expanding empire is diluted by its subject peoples. Adding slavery makes this even worse.

    Maybe the people that predict a massive collapse of the modern world are right. In that case, small tribes living in the woods might be the way to go. The current system is an economic hegemony, where financial abstractions are put before anything. I don’t have a lot of nationalist feeling toward America the state. It may as well be renamed First Economic Zone.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Thank you for continuing to be a good contributor of your thoughts. I see that you responding partly to last post & partly to this one. The situation you describe in old Ireland was one of many merits, but this is contrary to the modern and common conception of society. What is negatively described as “tribalism” and “endemic warfare” (two future topics) are very natural to our species, both in a sociological and ecological sense. Males need to fight it out from time to time, and this leads to a stronger stock as well as population control. Saying otherwise is a denial of the function of our Gods of war as well as reincarnation or afterlife. Hegemony is very difficult with tribes but quite possible with cities and civil states, as history shows to this day. You are right about the Sumerians before Sargon and I mentioned the same in one of my posts long ago. On the other hand, while it is true that power & growth are a security for people, how far should expansion go and how can it be controlled? That is a question I’ve been reflecting on lately. In an ideal situation, the endemic warfare and balance of power among tribes would prevent hegemony. Giving women a share of power also drives the warfare forward and controls expansion; the few matriarchies we know in history did not advance or expand much, whereas patriarchies tend to grow more and more. Perhaps then we need both a patriarchy and matriarchy hand in hand to balance each other, just like a husband and wife? This balance was consistent with the Irish you describe, as well as other tribal societies (like native Americans) and also existed in Greece till the rise of city-states, when women lost all power, except in the North and in Sparta.

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      1. K

        The endemic warfare in Ireland was not much in scale compared to warfare outside of Ireland. Warfare usually took place for 2-3 months a year(May to July), and small scale cattle raids were the norm. Often, if a stand up fight was going to happen, it would be arranged by both sides. Compared to large scale warfare and total war, it was nothing. Modern wars for democracy and freedom are far more brutal. They don’t even have any practical ends like cattle and pastures, they just drag on and on.

        The Irish hegemonies were usually 5 or so big ones covering the major divisions of the island. Some historically stretched into Scotland, as it was culturally continuous with Ireland in the Western coastal region. An interesting aspect of the Irish system is that in a tuatha, three people held the top positions with equal honor attached. The king of the tuatha, its chief poet, and the area’s chief abbot. Earlier, it would have been the chief druid, but druids lost their prominence. Though in 9th century Irish legal texts, druids are mentioned as a middle ranking class still existing in society, they were generally confined to roles in certain royal rituals and had little authority. The filid(poets) continued one druidic function, but did not fulfill the ritual function. Irish law also allowed temporary marriage contracts and polygyny, which existed alongside Christianity. Irish tradition justified this by claiming that the Irish laws and customs were derived from a special deal their ancestors had with God after the Flood. In reading lately, I came across a fun little fact in this vein. St. Brigid, who was a cover for the goddess of the same name, was a patron saint of “the man without a cow.” St. Brigid was often appealed to for success in cattle raids, and they would take along her cross amulet for good luck during them. A lot of this does not sound very Christian(or at least Catholic) at all.

        Athens and Sparta were well to recognize themselves as fellow Greeks. They needed some basis to unite against the Persians. In general, identity to me is conditioned by the situation. A foreigner would see me as another American, but I and many Americans see ourselves along regional lines. I have little in common with a New Englander or a Californian compared to with those of my own region. I had an outsider(from New Jersey) comment to me on my accent recently. I just asked them about their accent in response, to which they said “what accent?” They are usually small things, but they are noticed and serious cultural differences come up a lot in politics and the like. Despite this, I would not want to have too much division to the point where we feud with our neighbors while forgetting outside threats.

        It is generally agreed that American regionalism was at its height prior to the Civil War, which had the result of further centralizing power. Robert E. Lee said that he would not raise his hand against his country when presented the possibility of going to war with Virginia. I greatly respect that, and I would not want to do that either, not even for the idea of America or the federal government. I would argue that some sort of hegemony is a protection of regionalism against invasion from other powers.

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