No Comment, Quotation — April 18, 2009, 5:39 am

Polybius on State and Religion

david-death-of-socrates

???????? ?? ??? ????? ???????? ????? ?? ??????? ????????? ???? ??????? ?? ?? ???? ???? ????????. ??? ??? ????? ?? ???? ???? ?????? ????????? ?????????????, ????? ???????? ?? ??????? ????????, ???? ?? ??? ??????????????: ??? ???????? ??? ?????????????? ??? ??????????? ????? ?? ????? ???’ ?????? ??? ?? ???? ???’ ????? ????? ??? ?? ????? ??? ?????? ???? ?? ?????????? ?????????. ? ??? ??????? ?? ??????? ????? ?????????. ???? ?? ??? ??????? ??? ??????? ????? ????? ???????????. ?? ??? ??? ?? ????? ?????? ????????? ??????????, ???? ????? ?? ????????? ? ???????? ??????: ???? ?? ??? ?????? ????? ??????? ??? ?????? ????????? ?????????, ????? ??????, ????? ??????, ???????? ???? ??????? ?????? ??? ?? ??????? ???????? ?? ????? ????????. ?????? ?? ??????? ??????? ??? ??? ???? ???? ??????? ??? ??? ???? ??? ?? ???? ????????? ??? ???? ??? ?? ?????? ??? ?? ????? ?????????????, ???? ?? ?????? ?? ??? ???? ??? ?????? ????????? ????. ????????? ????? ??? ????? ?? ?? ????? ??????????? ???? ??? ???? ???????, ??? ???????? ????? ???????????, ??????????? ??????? ???? ??? ????????? ???????? ??? ???????? ?????????? ?? ???????? ?????? ??? ??????: ???? ?? ???????? ???? ?? ??? ????? ??? ????????? ???? ?? ?????? ???????? ??????????? ??’ ????? ??? ???? ??? ????? ??????? ??????? ?? ???????. ??? ???? ??? ???? ?????? ??????? ????? ?????? ?????????? ????? ??? ???????? ??? ??????????? ???? ?????: ???? ?? ???? ???????? ??????? ???? ?? ?????? ???? ??????????? ??? ??????? ??????…

But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State. These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many. My own opinion at least is that they have adopted this course for the sake of the common people. It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry. For this reason I think, not that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such beliefs. The consequence is that among the Greeks, apart from other things, members of the government, if they are entrusted with no more than a talent, though they have ten copyists and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, cannot keep their faith; whereas among the Romans those who as magistrates and legates are dealing with large sums of money maintain correct conduct just because they have pledged their faith by oath. Whereas elsewhere it is a rare thing to find a man who keeps his hands off public money, and whose record is clean in this respect, among the Romans one rarely comes across a man who has been detected in such conduct. . . .

Polybius (????????), The Histories bk vi, sec lvi (ca. 140 BCE)


“The Decline and Fall of Christian America” reads the red-on-black cover of Newsweek selected to circulate during Holy Week. The essay inside, authored by Jon Meacham, noted that the number of Americans who self-identify as Christians has fallen by 10 percent over the last decade. And the special poll that was commissioned for the issue presented an array of statistics relating Christianity to the state.

Still, in the new Newsweek Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a ‘Christian nation’ than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is ‘losing influence’ in American society, while just 19 percent say religion’s influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion ‘can answer all or most of today’s problems’ is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.

The Newsweek piece seems to be a regular staple of the news magazine genre in the United States, guaranteed to push copy by challenging and outraging readers on a topic that might not be accepted as a matter for polite discussion. But the overblown talk about the demise of Christianity strikes me as off the mark. The issue that arises in the wake of the last eight years, in which America had a government with close ties to the religious right, is not the nation’s Christianity quotient (something which is difficult to measure through the tools of a pollster in any event), but rather the relationship between religion and and state. On this score it is of course noteworthy that Christianity—unlike many of its competitors—did not arise as a state religion. It was instead defined by competition with state religions–in the first instance with Judaism and in the second with the state religion of the Roman Empire. After Constantine, church fathers started the process of recasting their theology from one outside the state to one which assumed a more symbiotic relationship between church and state—indeed much of what Augustine writes can be approached and understood as such an exercise.

But is America a “Christian nation?” It is certainly possible for someone to hear that question and understand it in several different ways—for instance, a nation, a majority of whose people are Christian? Or a nation with an established church which is Christian? Or a nation without an established church, but still with a system of essential values based in Christianity?

This text, from Polybius, a Greek historian who was enamored of the Romans, is a significant contribution towards the resolution of this question. As Polybius catalogues the attributes of the Romans which make them great (and, in Polybius’s mind, destined to govern the Mediterranean world), he places a high value on the fact that Rome had and maintained a state religion. The text is susceptible of being read different ways, but I understand it this way: religion can provide part of the core myth of the state and can serve to enshrine and protect its institutions. It therefore serves an essential political function. For this to work properly, religious authority needs to be linked closely to political authority. There may be a detached priesthood, of course, but political leaders should hold and exercise religious office. The Roman political élite may not really believe the religion that they espouse (they may consider it little more than superstition), but they will never betray these prejudices to the public because they value the political utility of religion. It can be used to insulate political decisions (a decision to go to war, for instance) from scrutiny or challenge. For Polybius, the Greeks have grown intellectually arrogant and openly contemptuous of their religion, and that is very foolish. The Romans may be no less cynical than the Greeks, but they understand that religion has a political value in dealing with the less intellectually gifted classes for which political oratory and other political tricks provide no real substitute.

This passage of Polybius was a favorite of Leo Strauss, the man often called the father of the American Neoconservative movement, but in fact it belonged to the standard repertoire of a school of political philosophy which was commonplace in Middle Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries called Caesarism. The Caesarists took the political ideas of the end phase of the Roman Republic and the launch of the Empire as a model. They advocated a strong central government with a single, charismatic leader at its heart vested with political, military and religious authority. Strauss as a young doctoral student focused his work on the famous Spinozastreit, a critical event in the history of the Middle European Enlightenment involving Lessing, Mendelssohn, Jacobi and a number of lesser figures. Shortly before his death, Lessing was supposed to have turned against the idea of a state religion and, under the influence of his reading of Baruch Spinoza, adopted ideas that seem suspiciously pantheistic. The extent to which Lessing in fact embraced pantheism is not clear, but it is clear that, drawing on reports from his friend Georg Forster about the new secular state then arising across the Atlantic in America, Lessing found it inspirational and a compelling new basis for Western society (ideas which emerge in his Masonic Dialogues). But for Strauss, Polybius was right: the notion of a state stripped of its core religious element was an unforgiveable error. Strauss was a Jew, though perhaps not a terribly observant one. But in his view, the question was not Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any particular religion, but rather the necessity that a religion with the power to credibly influence the common people be installed to insure stability to the political structure.

Much of what has transpired over the last eight years in America, in which the religious right was mobilized as a political force supporting the political aspirations of a small group of political actors who themselves had doubtful ties to religion, could be understood as a revival of a Caesarist tactic, or at least it would explain the movement from a Straussian perspective. Was it successful for a while or a failure almost from the beginning? We’re still too close to these events to finally assess that question. But one thing’s certain: if that was the scheme, Polybius would have approved.

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