Tagged: Indo-European

The Four Elements of National Identity in Herodotus

181px-3393_-_Athens_-_Stoà_of_Attalus_-_Herodotus_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall'Orto,_Nov_9_2009The Western Classical notion of identity comes to us from Herodotus’ Histories, written in the 5th century B.C.  It’s from Herodotus that we have the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, told in the broader context of the entire Hellenic world’s successful resistance of the Persian invasion.  In order to do that, the Spartans (Dorians) and Athenians (Ionians) had to overcome their differences and join together to defend what was common to both of them as Greeks.

In Book VIII, there is a scene in which the Athenians explain to a messenger from Sparta why the Spartans should side with the Athenians and not the Persians.  (It should be remembered that both the ancient Greeks and ancient Persians were Indo-European peoples.)

“First and foremost of these is that the images and buildings of the gods have been burned and demolished, so that we are bound by necessity to exact the greatest revenge on the man who performed these deeds, rather than to make agreements with him. And second, it would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life.” (VIII:144.2)

In this passage are no less than four criteria for being a Greek, or Hellene: common religion, common blood, common language, and common customs.  (One could argue that customs are almost entirely derivative of religion and blood, but we will stick to the four-part formulation in the text.)  That was 2500 years ago, but in my opinion this is still the best and most comprehensive working definition of national identity.  This is because one can extract it from this particular situation in ancient history and apply it to virtually anywhere in the world at any time.  The four elements of identity are either present or absent, to varying degrees, and a people are correspondingly either strong or weak.

The story of the Greek resistance to Persian tyranny is the story of the self-realization and self-actualization of a people.  When the four elements of identity are in place, they work together synergistically to form a kind of collective body, capable of functioning as an organic whole.  The Persian army was numerically much stronger than the Greek, but most of their soldiers were conscripts from conquered territories who were forced into service.  They were Persians in name only.

It’s interesting to note that the Athenians tell the Spartan messenger that the most important reason for opposing the Persians is their desecration of Greek religious shrines.  (It should be remembered that the Spartans were known as both the fiercest warriors of the ancient world and also the most pious, dividing their time more or less equally between military training and religious ritual.  How Evolian.)  The Classical notion of identity is thus supportive of the Traditionalist view of the primacy of religious faith – that “culture comes from the cult,” as Russell Kirk put it – but it also checks it by including the other criteria.  Common faith alone will not suffice, even if it is ultimately the most important unifying factor of a culture.

It should also be noted that the Classical definition of identity comes to us from a time prior to the reign of Homo economicus.  (Though even then, Herodotus has the Persian king Cyrus mocking the Athenians for having “a place designated in the middle of their city [the agora, marketplace] in which they gather to cheat each other.”) It is a formula for the cohesion of a people and the health of a culture.  It is not necessarily a formula for dominance in the world, particularly economic dominance.

Finally, the Classical definition of identity represents an ideal, a standard.  As with other standards, there are bound to be deviations and variations.  Elsewhere in The Histories, Herodotus tells us that the Athenians were originally Pelasgians – pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Greece – who “learned a new language when they became Hellenes.” (I:57.3 – I:58)  The dominant influence on Classical Greek culture and identity was probably Dorian, the Indo-Europeans who conquered Greece from the north.  But these Pelasgians were apparently able to assimilate and “become Hellenes,” although history shows us that Athens was always culturally and spiritually different from Sparta.  Still, at the time of the Greco-Persian war, the Athenians and Spartans must have had enough in common for the Athenians to cite the four elements of their common identity to the Spartan messenger.

But the further one moves from the quadripartite Classical definition of identity, the more the strength and cohesion of a people is diluted.  This is so because the elements which give rise to feelings of otherness gain in power, and consequently the elements of commonality diminish.  Classical identity works because it’s based on nature, both human psychological nature and larger biological nature.

Applying this model to the history of Western civilization, we can see that the peak of Western identity in terms of cohesion and strength was probably the Middle Ages.  Despite the diversity of European customs and languages, Latin was the lingua franca that united the educated peoples of every European country, and Christianity was the faith of the whole continent.  One could go to any church in Western Europe and partake in the same Latin mass.  The racial identity of Europeans was, I think, a given – an obvious fact of nature that need not even be dwelt upon.  This entire scenario stands in stark contrast to contemporary Europe and North America, where racial, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity are pushed to further and further extremes, with predictable consequences.

The coming together of the greater Hellenic world to resist the Persian invasion offers an inspiration and a model for contemporary Western people who value their identity and heritage.  However, it should also be remembered that ultimately, the differences between Athens and Sparta proved greater than their commonalities, and the two city-states destroyed each other in the Peloponnesian War, a mere fifty years or so after their shared victory over the Persians.

Perhaps the unspoken fifth element of identity is a common enemy.

The Value of Truth and the Virtue of Honesty

Even apart from the value of such claims as ‘there is a categorical imperative in us,’ one can still always ask: what does such a claim tell us about the man who makes it? – Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, Section 187)

I have been reflecting of late on the concept of truth, both as a philosophical concept and as a value.  Growing up, I always took the notion of truth completely for granted.  “Tell the truth,” I was taught from an early age.  Don’t lie – not to your parents, your elders, and above all not to God.  Truth and falsehood was a primary duality, like light and darkness, good and evil.

As I got older, I started to question some of the things I had been taught as a child.  First, God.  Was there really an all-powerful puppet-master in the sky, watching everything I did, said, and thought, and also controlling everything that happens in the world?  I went through my adolescent rebellion against religion, which in the Western world is often caused in part by the incongruities between the Bible – especially the Old Testament – and the innate Indo-European sensibility.

In the course of being an angry young atheist, I lost God and found Nietzsche.  At first I was just attracted to the sheer power of his writing, his philosophizing with a hammer.  But later, I started to actually develop some understanding of his ideas.  In his transvaluation of values, Nietzsche rejected not merely the god of the Bible – something most intelligent teenagers learn to do – but most of the metaphysical underpinnings of the entire Western worldview as I knew it, including the very concept of truth itself.

In spite of my admiration for Nietzsche, I never quite bought his rejection of truth and his embrace of Hassan i Sabbah’s “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”  It wasn’t that I had thought it through and developed a coherent philosophical counter-position; it was just an instinct.  The argument against truth itself always seemed to me an absurdity, because to even assert that “There is no truth” is to say, implicitly, “The truth is that there is no truth.”

The Classical Value of Truth

Herodotus tells us that the ancient Persians taught their children but three things: to ride a horse, to shoot the bow-and-arrow, and to tell the truth.  Among the Greeks, aletheia was a prominent or even dominant concept and goal in philosophy, especially for Plato.  This carried over directly into the New Testament – which I regard as primarily an Indo-European document, in spite of the abundant Judaic themes and references, both because it is written in Greek and because the figure of Jesus Christ, in his essential characteristics and certainly in the esoteric traditions of European Christianity, has deeper roots in Indo-European solar mythology than in Jewish tradition.

Christ as a warrior, 6th century mosaic

In the Jewish Ten Commandments, Yahweh tells the Hebrews that they should not bear false witness in court.  But Christianity re-interpreted this as a prohibition against all lying.  This is because in Christianity, which for better and for worse was the religion of Europe for over a thousand years, truth is actually equated with God. 

Christians often point out that Jesus is unique among religious figures and prophets because, while many men throughout history have claimed to know the truth, Jesus alone said, “I am the truth, the way, and the life.”  Thus the worship of truth becomes a legitimate form of worship of God, just as with beauty and goodness.  As Hans F.K. Gunther notes in his Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans, the Good-and-Beautiful – kaloskagathos in Greek – is an ancient Indo-European concept that pre-dates Christianity, but which was incorporated into Christian theology and to which was added the value of truth, thus becoming a trinity and a kind of analogue to the trinitarian God.

Our high valuation of truth is also related to a high valuation of loyalty.  In the motto of the German SS – Mein Ehre heisst Treue, “My honor is loyalty” – the German treue is cognate with the English true, and we can see the relation in the dual meaning of true as both “not false” and “loyal,” as in “true to his people.”  This loyalty also finds expression as fidelity in marriage, which is uniquely valued by Indo-Europeans, in contrast to the polygamous practices of many other cultures.  For us, all of these values – truth, loyalty, faithfulness – are related, and come from the same source, like Platonic Ideals that all emanate from the Good.


Gunther, in the same book, also notes that honor and honesty may share a common root, if not etymologically, then at least morally, for it is difficult to imagine an honorable man being fundamentally dishonest.  The virtue of honesty is a corollary of the value of truth, and the history of Indo-European moral and ethical philosophy demonstrates a tradition of high regard for this virtue.

The most extreme example of this is probably the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who famously argued that if a murderer knocked at your door looking for someone whom you knew to be hiding nearby, you should not lie to the murderer.  While Kant’s moral philosophy strikes most people, even fellow Indo-Europeans, as absurd, it clearly shows the degree to which we have taken seriously the moral imperative of truthfulness.  It also illustrates how some of our values can be both a strength and a weakness, depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

Years ago, a female acquaintance of mine became enamored with a book called Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton, a therapist who describes himself as “white trash with a PhD.”  Though I haven’t read the book, it seems to advocate a kind of Kantian extremism in truth-telling – to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, always at all times, no matter what.  Or at least, that is how this woman interpreted it.  She managed to convince some of her friends to read the book and attempt to practice “radical honesty” with her in their relations, and they were doing so when I knew them.  It was a well-intentioned enterprise that was supposed to strengthen their bonds of affection and trust, though I thought they wasted an awful lot of time expressing feelings and opinions that were fleeting, unimportant, and which need not be dwelt upon, or even expressed at all.

Of course, this woman and her two friends were White, and also a bit on the hippy side.  What they were attempting to do is, on the one hand, rather laughable – the sort of thing that a non-white comedian might use as material for jokes about “those wacky White people.”  But on the other hand, it’s entirely consistent with our tradition of valuing truth and honesty.  It’s part of the reason why, as Greg Johnson noted, “Western civilizations, White civilizations, tend to be high trust societies, whereas non-Western civilizations tend to be low trust societies.” 

While trust and truth apparently do not derive from the same etymological root, they most certainly share a common moral root, like honor and honesty.  We trust our neighbors and kinsmen because we expect them to be honest and honorable with us, and us with them.  This level of trust and honesty is difficult to maintain even in a small homogeneous group, as my hippy friends learned through experience.  In a larger, heterogeneous group, it is considerably more difficult – some would say virtually impossible.

The West and the Rest

In reflecting on the concept of truth and its role as a value of Indo-European civilizations, I have come to believe that it is not, in fact, a universal value.  While it is not unique to IE peoples as a concept, what is unique is the high value that we place on it.  One of the mistakes that people often make is to assume that all human beings think the same way they do. 

In his book about China, The Hundred-Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury writes:

At first, it seemed impossible to me that any thinking person in China would believe that American presidents from John Tyler to Barack Obama had all somehow learned the statecraft axioms of the Warring States period and decided to apply these little-known concepts to control China.  But then I realized that many in China think of these axioms as universal truths.  They know America is the most powerful nation in the world, and they assume America will act as selfishly, cynically, and ruthlessly as did every hegemon in the era of the Warring States.

In contrast to these Chinese leaders who believe that Americans are as sly and sneaky as themselves, there are the American and European liberals, who believe that inside each Chinese, Arab, and African is a good little White man who is just waiting for the right dose of democracy, feminism and capitalism to bring out his full potential so he can become just like us, only darker.  Indeed, some Leftist critics of Western imperialism and colonialism have addressed this ignorant and false assumption.

The tendency to assume equivalence of perspective and intention amongst peoples is perhaps universal, or at least is not limited to White peoples.  But whereas the Chinese assumption of American duplicity may lead them to reject sincere gestures for want of trust (though more often than not, it’s probably just the smart position for the Chinese to take, given who runs American foreign policy), the Western assumption of universal goodwill leads to gullible and foolish policies like mass immigration, and all its concomitant problems like rising crime and social upheaval.

The Death of Truth and the Decline of the West

The high regard for truth in the Indo-European tradition is directly related to Europe’s subsequent development of science.  What we call science – from the Latin word for “knowledge” – is in fact largely the accumulated knowledge of Europeans about the natural world.  It is universal in its application, but not in its origin.

But this same love of truth, which motivated the Pre-Socratics in their primary investigations of phenomena, and Socrates in his endless questioning, and which reached its apotheosis in Christian doctrine, eventually became its own undoing.  As scientific knowledge developed, truth ultimately came to be seen as being in conflict with religion.  The Christian worship of truth as God and God as truth, incarnated as Jesus Christ, gave way to the terrible realization that truth did not, in fact, accord with Christian teachings on the nature of the world.

For Nietzsche, this progression was a laughable irony – “Christianity ate itself, ha ha ha!”  But he was being glib.  Western man has not even begun to recover from this catastrophe.  After the collapse of European Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only a short time before even the notion of truth itself was then questioned and dismissed, firstly and most famously by Nietzsche himself.  For a people with such a unique love of truth, there may well be no recovering from such a fundamental loss.

Much discourse on the Right concerns being honest about uncomfortable truths, such as racial and gender differences, or the friend-enemy distinction at the root of politics.  I believe that, at its best, this is a further expression of the Indo-European spirit’s love of truth.  But because the contemporary West lacks a comprehensive philosophical and spiritual framework, these little truths lack any connection to notions of higher, permanent, transcendent Truth.  Unless and until the West can establish, or reestablish, that connection, it’s difficult to imagine that we will find the strength of belief that is necessary in order to survive.  One begins to realize why Heidegger’s final conclusion was, “Only a god can save us.”

The Wisdom of the East?

Ornamental Bronze Plaque, Celtic Horse-gear, Santon, Norfolk (Detail)

Ornamental Bronze Plaque, Celtic Horse-gear, Santon, Norfolk

Inspired by the unique revaluation of Alan Watts on Counter-Currents, I want to share my reflections on two decades of studying the “wisdom of the East” which Watts helped to popularize in his lifetime.

Indeed, I remember when I read Psychotherapy East and West, my first Watts book and also one of the first books I read about Eastern philosophy and religion.  It spurred my interest immensely, and from there I was on to the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Dhammapada, and just about anything else I could get my hands on from the Taoist and Buddhist traditions.  In my teens and twenties I was adrift in the sea of postmodern malaise and meaninglessness which is contemporary America, reading philosophy and politics, looking for some kind of direction.  When I discovered the Tao Te Ching, it was like a revelation.

In contrast to the befuddling verbiage of Western postmodernist philosophers like Derrida and Deleuze, here were sparse words that cut straight to the heart of the matter – and the heart of what is beyond matter.  I recall that Joscelyn Godwin once wrote or said of Julius Evola that the conviction and certainty found in his writings were a refreshing antidote to the cowardice and confusion in most contemporary prose.  In the Tao Te Ching (which Evola translated into Italian) each chapter of the book seemed to me like a shining gem of wisdom; elusive, yes, and often obscure, but tantalizingly so.  What it seemed to point at accorded with my intuition that Truth was something that could not be captured in words.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.

Many readers will recognize this famous first line from the Tao Te Ching.  It is the most translated book in the world, probably in part because it is so short, and therefore requires less time and effort.  Indeed, many translations are done by people who don’t even read Chinese – they just read other English versions and compile their own based on them.  The translation I eventually came to favor is the one by Thomas Cleary, a real scholar who can in fact read Chinese.  I liked it not because of its accuracy – I had no way of judging its faithfulness to the original, not being a reader of Chinese myself – but rather because of the spiritual insight I felt it contained.

From reading Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and later many Buddhist sutras and commentaries, I came to feel that Asians, or at least the Asian traditions, really had something that the West lacked.  A lot of people feel this way, and have felt this way since at least the time of Alan Watts.  I’ve known more than a few Western Buddhists and Taoists in my day.  But what I neglected to realize was that I was not in fact reading the wisdom of Lao Tzu – I was reading the wisdom of Thomas Cleary.

The original Chinese text of that first line of the Tao Te Ching, which I’ve since studied along with the Chinese language (although I am not a professional scholar of either) reads, in transliteration: tao ke tao fei chang tao.  There is no way to literally translate Chinese characters, because Chinese is a pictographic written language and does not use a phonetic alphabet like Western languages.  But an approximation would be something like: Tao can Tao is not Tao.

Not quite so pretty, is it?  The whole book is like that, and the Chinese language itself is quite a different animal from any of the European languages.  Of course, there are subtleties and layers of meaning contained in the characters themselves – Ezra Pound wrote some interesting pieces on Chinese characters – but they resist translation, not least of all because they require the entire context of Chinese culture. 

Scholars and translators have long argued about the feasibility of translating between different European languages.  Can you really translate Baudelaire into English?  Etc. etc.  And that is referring to languages in the same Indo-European family, where words often have the same Greek or Latin roots.  When we are discussing translating a work from over two thousand years ago, from an entirely different family of languages and a very different culture, the task of the translator becomes that much more difficult.

Pound also produced some excellent translations of Confucius, but by “excellent,” I mean spiritually illuminating for Western people.  They are so because, although they are inspired by the writings of Confucius and his disciples, they are infused with the wisdom of Ezra Pound and his culture.  The same goes, I believe, for Thomas Cleary, and for all the other translators whose works I admire so much.  This is not to demean or take credit away from the original authors, but rather to give credit where it also due, for reasons that most don’t realize: to the translators of the West who give birth to new works in our native languages.

Every translator brings to his task his own identity, his own self, which is crafted from the particular spiritual, linguistic, racial and cultural milieus that he comes from.  Thus, his translation is always as much a product of his native traditions as of the foreign culture that he seeks to translate – if not even more so.  Furthermore, the readers will have that native culture as their exclusive reference point for interpreting the translated text, and thus the effects of the translation – to the degree that there are any – will be influenced by the native culture even more so.

This, I believe, points us in the proper direction for how to understand and use the wisdom of other cultures and traditions: as a means of better understanding, and perhaps even improving or rectifying, our own.  Indeed, this was how Rene Guenon intended his expositions of Eastern traditions.

For example, when we read James Legge’s translations of Confucius speaking about virtue and piety, we do not hear these words in a vacuum.  We hear them in the context of our own cultural tradition, which has taught us specific understandings of these concepts.  We can and should be enriched by what Confucius/Legge have to say on the matter – but we should not mistakenly believe that we are imbibing pure, unadulterated Confucian tradition.

The field of Eastern studies is interesting for a number of reasons.  Aside from the fact that it is a profound cultural and philosophical tradition in its own right, there is also a mysterious common ancestor between the wisdom traditions of East and West, which is the Sanskrit language.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, European scholars began to suspect that Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, was related to Greek and Latin.  Their suspicions have long-since been confirmed, and decades of Indo-European studies have illuminated some of the similarities between not only IE languages, but IE religions as well.  The pioneering works of Georges Dumezil stand out, as well the short study by Hans F. K. Gunther and, in our own time, the works of Alexander Jacob.

The realization that Europeans had an organic connection to India led to an explosion of interest in Indian religion and philosophy in the 19th century.  Schopenhauer wrote:

We may therefore hope that one day even Europe will be purified of all Jewish mythology.  Perhaps the century has come in which the peoples of the Indo-European group of languages will again receive the sacred religions of their native countries; for they have again become ripe for these after having long gone astray.

Seen in this light, the “journey to the East” which many Western people have made in the last hundred, but especially the last fifty years, embracing yoga and Buddhism and the like, might actually be, in a strange way, an attempt to return home, to a wisdom that is closer to that of their distant Indo-European ancestors.  The danger, though, which is all-too-obviously real, is that this organic connection will remain unconscious, covered over with the xenophilia and self-hatred which has become endemic in Western peoples, and which are too often the main motivating factors in their grasping at the wisdom the East.