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.