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The desire to belong to something greater than one’s self is simply human, transcending time, place, and space. It’s as natural as our need to breathe. In this sense, Aristotle put it correctly when he noted that man is meant to live in community…

When the polis of classical Greece collapsed brutally in the final years of the fifth century and the beginning of the fourth century BC, the Greek population had to turn away from its given loyalties to one community and find citizenship in another. This was nothing less than one of the most important and critical catastrophes in Western civilization—one of many still to come. Prior to the defeat of Athens by a joint Spartan-Persian force in 404, the polis (roughly 150 different ones existed in classical Greece at its height) served as the center of a citizen’s life. As Socrates and Aristotle each argued—in serious if unknowing contrast to Hebraic teaching—the polis remained the supreme institution, not just higher than the family, but that very thing which enabled the family to exist. Socrates believed that the polis was superior to his mother and father, and Aristotle argued in his Politics that it was the highest and best association, the one to which the family pointed. Thus, when the polis fell, a crisis of purpose and justice came into being. After all, how could one know his proper place or receive his proper due (justice) if one did not know the ultimate end of human life or the institution to which one must give his loyalty?

In the modern and post-modern world, of course, we look to nation-states and their colorful symbols as a means to understand citizenship. In the ancient world, though, nation-states did not exist. Nation meant little more than tribe, usually mobile. It is thus impossible to judge the ancient world by modern or post-modern standards.

The desire to belong to something greater than one’s self, however, is simply human, transcending time, place, and space. It’s as natural as our need to breathe. In this sense, Aristotle put it correctly when he noted that man is meant to live in community. To be outside of community (if such a thing is even possible) is to be, as the Philosopher explained, either a beast or a god.

Several centuries after Athens murdered Socrates, another soon-to-be martyr, St. Paul, detailed his thoughts on citizenship in his complex and nuanced letter to the Christian community of Rome. From the beginning to the end, his letter deals with the complexities of citizenship: citizenship in the natural law; citizenship as a Jew; citizenship as a gentile; citizenship in the Body of Christ; and citizenship in the various political and secular realms of the world. The question plagued the ancient world after the fall of the polis.

Those living during the five hundred years between Socrates and St. Paul, though, had to find answers. As such, they turned to a number of philosophies, all of which suggest a form of cosmopolitanism, either in support or in reaction. Hedonism, cynicism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism represented the four most prominent of these new philosophies, each of which has lingered—in a variety of forms and to greater or lesser degrees—to the present day, permeating our Western culture in ways much broader and much deeper than, say, Platonism or Aristotelianism have. This is not, for the most part, a good thing, but it is a true thing.

Hedonism, then and now, has focused on the self. At base, it derives from the nihilistic idea that life itself is meaningless. Whether it ever possessed meaning or not seems irrelevant. It only matters that life has no meaning. With no purpose and no direction, the human person finds himself liberated from past, present, and future. He should, then, experience everything and without any restraint of limits. Why not drop LSD? Why not get drunk? Why not be a depraved fool? Why not sleep with everyone in sight and then maybe then some? Nothing holds us back from action except our own hesitation.

As with hedonism, cynicism (from the Greek for “dog”) argued that life possesses no inherent meaning. We come into the world, age, decay, and die. The cynic, then, must tear down those who have placed themselves in positions of power—politically, economically, culturally, or religiously—reminding them that life serves no purpose. The most famous of cynics, Diogenes, became a gadfly, modeling himself after this one aspect of Socrates, though ignoring the Socratic embrace of objective ethical standards and timeless virtues.

Though derived from a mere chance coming together of atoms and, at the end of one’s journey, returning to such dispersed atoms, the human person must always seek excellence and, if only in this world, the good, the true, and the beautiful, according to the Epicurean. Exactly because life is short and purposeless, the Epicurean argued, one must pursue excellence in all that he does as this will be the only contribution one can make in the chaos of life. The Epicureans believed temperance—the use of the created goods for the good—to be the highest of the cardinal virtues. If one has $100 for wine, for example, it is better to purchase one fine bottle rather than to purchase ten bottles of $10 wine. And, when enjoying the $100 bottle, one would savor two glasses but no more. Of modern Epicureans, no person better represented the movement than the founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs. From his father, Jobs learned that one never does anything without absolute excellence. To do anything with only partial effort—from building furniture to sweeping the hall—one must give everything he has for it. Even things that one will never actually see (for example, the back of a chest of drawers) must be made with the same standards as those parts facing the room.

The final philosophy to emerge during the period, Stoicism, has pervaded almost everything good in Western civilization since it first emerged. Due to the good graces of the editors of The Imaginative Conservative, I have had the chance to write extensively on the philosophy, its nuances as well as its successes and failures. For the purpose of this essay, though, it is worth remembering that the great Greek ethicist, Zeno, and his right-hand man, Cleanthes, borrowed the ethics of Socrates and the Logos of Heraclitus, combining them to create a way of life centered upon a universal understanding of the human person, tying each person—regardless of skin tone, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, etc.—to the universal understanding of the Logos, the fire of imagination and reason. Though the impersonal Logos little resembled the personal Logos of St. John, it still demanded a recognition of dignity and liberty in each person. Like the Epicureans, one must pursue excellence in all things as a form of prayer and thanksgiving to the god. Unlike the Epicureans, the Stoics did believe in a god, though he was rather distant, intellectual, and amorphous.

Much like our modern whirligig, the West of the Hellenistic period sought everywhere to find its answers. Some were true and good, but most were not. Chaos replaced order, and the tyranny of the few, as always in times of trouble, dominated the insecurities of the many.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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