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A World History of Ancient Political Thought$

Antony Black

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199281695

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199281695.001.0001

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Themes: Similarities and Differences Between Cultures

Themes: Similarities and Differences Between Cultures

(p.227) 12 Themes: Similarities and Differences Between Cultures
A World History of Ancient Political Thought

Antony Black (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The most widespread ideal was sacred monarchy, with very considerable variations. Several cultures produced an idea of the state. Greece, India, and China produced theories of the origin and purpose of the state. Justice was proclaimed everywhere, with widely different meanings, but usually including equal treatment of poor and rich before the law. The well-being of all the people was universally a governmental duty. But only in Greece, Rome, and Israel were the people given a decisive role, and only Greece and Rome valued liberty. Women were everywhere ignored. Only the Israelites identified the state with the nation. Classes were everywhere distinguished, but only China and India gave them moral meaning. Political beliefs were arrived at in different ways, from scientific argument as well as from divine revelation. The conflict between might and right was everywhere a problem; solutions depended on one's metaphysical system.

Keywords:   sacred monarchy, the state, justice, the people, liberty, nation, classes, argument, revelation, might and right

We may now ask what ideas were held in common by several cultures, and what the most significant variations between them were.

Sacred monarchy

The most widespread idea was undoubtedly sacred monarchy. We have already discussed reasons why sacred monarchy appeared in practically all early civilizations (above, pp. 15–19). It was not quite universal: the Greeks and Romans practised and believed in government by the people.1 The Graeco-Roman world adopted sacred monarchy when the Roman empire made Christianity its official creed. The earlier mutation of sacred monarchy in Israel, when royalty was ascribed to god, now mutated back again, to make the emperor the new god's representative on earth. This Christian version of sacred monarchy, inherited by Russia, lasted a surprisingly long time. Indeed in China, Russia, the Ottoman empire, Iran, and Japan, sacred monarchy persisted into the early twentieth century. Its abolition was accompanied by cataclysm. In some cases, the successor regimes still face problems of legitimacy.

Kingship seems everywhere to have been tied into religious belief and ritual, kings having a cosmic status. In virtually every case, sacred monarchy was a part of people's view of the world, nature, and the social order. (Yet religion pre-dated monarchy, and several religions had a life of their own under (and after) monarchy.)

There were major differences in the way the king was perceived. In Egypt, Assyria, Israel, and India he was a warrior; in Egypt he was also chief priest; in China he was chief priest and also sage. In Egypt and Mesopotamia he was a shepherd. The king was most closely identified with gods in Egypt. The most elaborate theory of sacred monarchy, and the most long-lived, was the Chinese. There the supreme divine being (Heaven) was an impersonal and (p.228) impartial force; its ‘Mandate’ was conditional. The king was seen as a sage who, being in harmony with cosmic and natural forces, ruled by inaction through ministers, and by the performance of essential rituals.

One reason for the prevalence of monarchy in the ancient world, and of democracy in the modern world, may be that in pre-industrial civilizations it was far more difficult to channel public opinion to the centre. Pre-modern republics were small.

The state

In Egypt, Sumer, India, and China an idea of the state came out of sacred monarchy: divinity willed a king; when one king died, the gods would provide another. The state was a religious construct, and existed in heaven independently of its earthly office-bearers (see, for example, above, p. 38). The early European notion of the state also had a religious basis (Kantorowicz 1957). Few ancient peoples distinguished between the sacred and the secular. The Greeks detached the state from religion more than any. In Chinese culture, the state—conceived as the Son of Heaven holding the Mandate of Heaven—was more central to religion and philosophy than it was in any other culture.

Kautilya, by contrast, defined the state in more down-to-earth and secular terms; in fact his definition was remarkably similar to that of Cicero and Sallust (above, pp. 75, 176, 199 n. 4). For the Greeks, the state was the polis (the political community); for the Romans, the res publica (public sphere).

In the discourse of the Near and Middle East, the political was framed in religious language. Political institutions and norms were seen as part of the all-embracing domain of the gods. In India, on the other hand, artha (politics and economics) was regarded, at least by Kautilya, as an independent discipline with its own norms and method of enquiry. In China, the political was seen not as a separate sphere but, like the rest of the cosmos and nature, it functioned in ways partly comprehensible to humans. The fact that there was not the same emphasis on the transcendent as in the Middle East perhaps meant that the cosmos, nature, and society were more accessible to human understanding and manipulation.

The most striking feature of sacred monarchy was, in all instances—indeed, in the very nature of the case—the unlimited power of the ruler. However, in every ancient society kings were bound by the religious and moral code of their society. The satisfactory functioning of the forces of nature, and the social order itself, were thought to depend upon the monarch's due performance of his moral and ritual duties.

(p.229) The sacred monarchies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, India, and China were all believed to be world states; the deities which these monarchies represented were held to be universal powers. Sacred monarchy tended to sanction global imperialism.

The Jewish Messiah was also programmed to be a world ruler. The republican city-states of Athens, Carthage, and Rome, on the other hand, though they acquired empires, did not aspire to be universal rulers.2 In practice, Alexander of Macedon (r. 336–323 BCE) (not himself regarded as a sacred monarch by his own people) was the first successful globalizer, paving the way for the Muslim Caliphate.3


The purpose of royal government was, first, to be pleasing to god or heaven, and second, to ensure the well-being of society. These generally entailed are another. Both depended upon the maintenance of justice. Benevolence was universally seen as the essential quality of a ruler. Kautilya gave a uniquely down-to-earth and detailed account of the social and economic responsibilities of a king, arising out of his view that a king's power depends on his tax-base, and that this in turn depends on the socio-economic infrastructure (above, pp. 82–3). In every civilization justice was seen as the central social and political value. But the meaning given to justice varied so greatly across cultures that it can only be treated as a common factor at a high level of abstraction.

In all the cultures we have examined, including Greece, justice referred to a right order of things in both the human and natural domains. It was seen as part of the objective order of reality, inherent in the way things are, championed by the gods. In all cultures, the moral system and its obligations were thought to exist independently of human beings. Disregard of justice would imperil both monarch and realm. Individuals who infringed justice would suffer dire consequences, in either this world or the afterlife, or both. The penalties for infringing justice were most emphatically incurred by whoever was in power or had great wealth (their capacity for injustice being the greatest).

Some Greek thinkers came to the conclusion that the moral law was inscribed in human nature, from which the Stoics developed the idea of a natural moral law. This differed from other views in making justice independent of regime or culture, something common to all peoples and states.

In Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, monarch and morality were believed to depend upon each other: without monarchy, there would be disorder and (p.230) justice would disappear. This was as powerful a statement of the dependence of morality upon the presence of coercive sanctions as has ever been made. In the political theories of India and Israel, on the other hand, the moral code was independent of the king.

The origins of kingship

These considerations were related to theories of the origins of kingship, or of the state, which were put forward in Mesopotamia, India, China, and Greece. These set out to explain how people became socially organized, why government was introduced, and what its purposes were. In China equal importance was attached to ranks and norms as remedies for anarchy. In Greece theories of society and the state were based on the need for collaboration and education.

Part of the king's duty, arising out of the virtues of justice and benevolence, was to help the poor, weak, disadvantaged—the underdog. This is found very early in both Egypt and Mesopotamia and also in India and China. It was emphasized by Confucius. It subsequently appeared in Judaic messianism (‘he shall rescue the needy from their rich oppressors’; Ps. 72: 12–14); and finally, in its best-known version, in the mouth of Jesus. Only there the list of good works has become the set of criteria on which the Son of Man will judge every individual (Matt. 25: 34–40).

Ancient conceptions of justice included the rule of law and procedural justice. The ideas of the rule of law, and of equality before the law, were most fully articulated in Greece. The king was supposed to implement justice through fair trials and effective sanctions. This, as well as sacred monarchy itself, may have been part of the dynamic of passing from tribal to political society. Once tribes mingled, so that disputes could no longer be settled by tribal custom alone, there had to be a new way of agreeing rules and new methods of enforcement.

Tribes are rarely mentioned except in Israelite thought. Rather, it was equal treatment of the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, which was stipulated. Egyptians thought it important that a king and his vizier ‘administer equal justice to all’, regardless of wealth, status, or kinship (Engnell 1967: 12). ‘I judged two trial partners so as to content them. I saved the weak from one stronger than he’, said a funerary autobiography of the late third millenium, perhaps the earliest statement of the rule of law.4 A Sumero-Akkadian hymn said the just king should be like god, who punishes the (p.231) unrighteous judge and rewards those who refuse bribes (ANE 388). The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed equal treatment under the law for rich and poor, redress of grievance for the weak against the strong, as part of Israel's Covenant with her god (Jer. 22: 3–9).

In Israel and India, but not in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Iran, it was said that the law had been revealed by god. In China the code of norms was revered as of immemorial antiquity. The Romans held ancestral custom and the code of laws in great respect, but did not give them religious or metaphysical status.

In all sacred monarchies, kings were urged to appoint ministers on merit rather than ancestry. ‘Do not prefer the wellborn to the commoner, choose a man on account of his skills’ (Egypt, c. 2000 BCE: above, p. 27). In China meritocracy was advocated on all sides. In all these cases moral qualities tended to be emphasized as much as, or more than, intellectual or technical ability.

Peace and reconciliation were a common undercurrent in political thought. This may be seen as a third ideal, alongside sacred monarchy and the rule of law, for societies becoming organized in states rather than tribes. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and also the Mahabharata, all of which celebrated the military hero (West 2007), concluded on a note of reconciliation.

In no ancient civilization, with the exceptions of Greece and Rome, was liberty seen as a political value. This is perhaps the greatest difference between ancient and modern political thought. What was valued was not freedom of choice but making the right choice,5 which usually meant living according to traditional and religious norms. In Greece, especially at Athens, on the other hand, liberty was a fundamental political value. For Greeks, liberty meant freedom from slavery, from foreign rule, and from domestic tyranny. It also meant being able to vindicate wrongs in a fair trial—the rule of law again. It referred both to political autonomy for the state, and to freedom of speech within the state.

The people

The common people were an important factor in the political thought of all ancient societies. In the sacred monarchies they were the objects of benevolence from king and gods. The people's well-being was everywhere conceived as the main purpose of the state. It was particularly emphasized in China, where the Mandate of Heaven depended upon its being achieved. Both Confucius and, in India, Kautilya saw the interests of people and ruler as (p.232) interdependent. Chinese realists saw the satisfaction of people's wants as the ultimate aim of political violence. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China the ruler was supposed to ensure the spiritual as well as material welfare of the people.

There was no suggestion in any sacred monarchy that the people should have a say as to what constituted their happiness, or what should be done to achieve it. Their happiness had been defined long in advance, by sages or gods. In Greece, Israel, and Rome, on the other hand, the people were seen as political actors on their own behalf. In the Greek poleis and in Rome various powers were given to some or all of the people, with elections, consultation, and assemblies. In the Christian church, too, decisions were taken by elders and congregations. In Israel the political community was based on a quasi-contractual agreement between the people and god. This gave all the (male) people the same basic political obligations and rights. At the same time it gave Yahweh unlimited scope and authority. Such were the alternatives to sacred monarchy.

In no ancient political culture or theory do we find a place given to women in politics or public affairs (see Reade 2002). In every single case, women were confined to the private sphere of the household. This applied at all levels of society. The one exception was Plato's Republic (above, p. 153).6

Social categories

Only the Greeks and the Romans thought seriously about humanity at large. This led to the idea of a worldwide community, consisting of all rational and social beings, actually existing here and now, but (only) in the realm of the mind (cosmopolis). This was not a world state. Again, only the Greeks and Romans envisaged a single universal law of nature, giving the same duties and rights to all human beings. In some post-Exilic Jewish texts Yahweh was said to care for all peoples.

What of the nation? In Egypt and China outsiders were viewed as inferior (above, pp. 24, 104). In India it was the lower castes who were inferior. Achaemenid Iran respected subject nations, and allowed them to keep their own laws and religion. The Greeks had a strong sense of linguistic and cultural nationhood; they thought those who spoke Greek and lived in city-states were superior to others. But Greek thinkers saw this as an accidental difference due to climate. For Romans, the fundamental difference was between those who were prepared to be ruled by Rome—whatever their race—and (p.233) those who were not. The extension of Roman citizenship to all of Italy (91 BCE) had the effect of creating a sense of Italian identity.

The only people who identified the state with the nation were the Israelites. Here, race was the basis of social, political, religious, and legal identity. The Jews saw themselves as a nation fundamentally different from all the others; the nation, rather than the monarch, was sacred.

A distinction between upper and lower classes was recognized everywhere, but it was conceived in different ways. Class distinctions were taken most seriously in India; except in Buddhism, castes were central to social, moral, and political thought, at least as important as sacred monarchy itself. The Chinese regarded status differences as necessary for social order. The Guanzi divided society into four categories: scholar-gentry (shih), farmers, artisans, merchants—in that order. These were somewhat similar to the four classes later found in Irano-Islamic literature (Black 2008: 73). Less importance was attached to class in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece, and Rome. In all of these (and in China), it was argued that a talented person should be able to rise from the bottom to the top. Israel was unique in being inimical to class as such (within the chosen people). The principal distinction in Israel was between Jews and non-Jews; in Greece and Rome it was between citizens and non-citizens.

In Israel and Rome a distinction was made between elders (or patriciate) and the people at large, but it had no existential meaning. In Greece and Rome tensions between patriciate and plebs generated constitutional conflicts. It was only in Greece and Rome that such conflicts came to be recognized as a normal feature of political life. The special path taken by Athens began with the attempt by Solon to reconcile the conflicting interests of rich and poor.


There were significant differences between the genres and kinds of argument used. In India and Israel political ideas were expressed in religious texts which had the authority of divine revelation. What they said was incontrovertible though subject to interpretation. Outsiders were excluded from the benefits of the god-given polity. Thus, revealed theology had social as well as epistemological consequences.

During the middle and later parts of the first millenium BCE, individual thinkers and reformers in China, Greece, and Israel initiated new ways of thinking, (p.234) attracted clusters of followers, and circulated their ideas throughout society. They relied on subtle speech and persuasion by argument; rhetoric replaced ritual.7

Political philosophy, using logic and dialectic, was born independently in Greece and China. Here there was public debate with open disagreement. In both cases it died out, following the conquests of Alexander on the one hand, and the unification of China on the other. (Perhaps philosophy flourished only when power was contested.) China produced a greater number of authors and schools, but no political thinker as systematic as Plato or Aristotle.

Only in Greece were the advantages and disadvantages of different constitutions discussed; only in Greece was there a variety of constitutions to discuss. Aristotle examined in particular oligarchy and demokratia, using a mass of empirical data, to which he applied nuanced value-judgements in a remarkably consistent way. Both he and (later) Polybius proposed a ‘mixed’ constitution as the most practicable and enduring option.

Aristotle and Kautilya, independently of each other, developed political science: the systematic recording, classifying, and comparing of data, based on observation. Aristotle focused on different types of constitution, Kautilya on different types of strategy. But no one else followed up what either of these had done.

Theory and practice; ethics and expediency

The new ethical ideals of the ‘axial’ period (from c. 600 BCE onwards) gave rise to new tensions between theory and practice, between what could be done and what should be done, between might and right. Before the religious and philosophical developments of the mid-first millenium, the problem of theory versus practice did not exist in the way it did ever after. Before that, once one understood what the actual state was, one would see that it was the ideal state. This was how the Egyptians seem to have thought. So too did the Chinese, with an acute awareness of historical decline from the ideal, and of the need to restore what had been and should be.

This problem was tackled in different ways. In China there was a head-on collision between Confucian idealists, who taught that the methods one uses directly affect the end-result, and Legalist realists, who justified the use of violence in order to achieve what the people really want. Legalists saw the methods of political enforcement as transcending ethics. ‘Correlative cosmology’ was one way round this: different types of behaviour are appropriate—for (p.235) a Son of Heaven, at least—at different points in the cosmic and natural cycle. In fact, the Chinese empire, having being unified by ruthless force, adopted Confucian ideals.

The conflict between ethics and expediency was the subject of the remarkable debate between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. The answer presented there was that, so long as you follow the obligations of your calling and status group—in Arjuna's case, those of a warrior—karma (the law of moral cause and effect) will sort everything out. Since souls are reborn, the act of killing is not what it seems. Here the solution of the moral problem was wholly dependent on the religio-philosophical context. Kautilya, on the other hand, permitted a wide range of political action, purely and simply on grounds of expediency (above, pp. 81–2). But he did not go as far as Machiavelli: his goal was always an ethically desirable state.

Within Judaism and Christianity (and, later, Shi‛ite Islam), some found a solution in apocalyptic messianism.8 You should behave morally without concern for the overall result because god will bring about true justice in his own good time. Right will triumph by divine intervention, preceded by an apocalyptic struggle at the end of time (which recurred quite frequently). This view led to non-resistance: you fulfil god's ethical demands by accepting whatever horrors unbelievers choose to impose on you, without striking back, in the knowledge that you will be vindicated one day. Stoicism counselled similar behaviour but without the pay-off.

Perhaps the most extreme form of the dichotomy between theory and practice was Plato's Republic, which was also, as it happened, the founding document of social and political philosophy. Both Plato and, still more, Aristotle went to great lengths to reconcile the ideal constitution with what was politically possible.

Cicero, in the final book of On Duties—the last major work of Graeco-Roman political philosophy—took a consistently Kantian line. This was his last will and testament. There was, for Cicero, no ultimate conflict between ethics and expediency. One must adhere to ethical principles through and through, in politics as in everything else. It is never right (honestum) to abandon moral standards in order to achieve political goals. And it is never expedient (utile) either, because what you achieve by immoral means will never be the good that you aim for. Both Stoics and Christians took the view that, if you cannot adhere to your moral principles, then you should abandon politics. Many Confucians, notably Mengzi, said the same.

On Duties was to inform the Western tradition on this issue until Machiavelli, who, reflecting on the very republic which Cicero had been powerless to save, went to the other extreme, insisting that there are many occasions in politics when one has to operate independently of moral principles altogether.


(1.) I avoid ‘republic’ because it is too laden with modern meanings.

(2.) The later Roman empire occasionally did.

(3.) Several Muslim monarchs explicitly modelled themselves on him: EI s.v. Iskandar.

(4.) The same was said on behalf of Ashoka, Buddhist king of India: above, pp. 87–8.

(5.) Hegel's view of liberty looks like an attempt to synthesize pre-modern and modern thought.

(6.) Women played a role in Greek and Jewish mythology.

(7.) Hence the misleading notion of ‘the axial period’: Jaspers 1947. See Antony Black, ‘The “Axial Period”: What Was It and What Does It Signify?’, Review of Politics, 70 (2008), 23–39.

(8.) John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (London: Allen Lane, 2007).