Sunday, May 27, 2012

Conservatism Case Study: the Greeks (Again!)

While Athens’ governance structure reflected the virtues of democracy, its cultural ideals and beliefs corresponded more with traditional values. Why had the Greeks placed great value in traditions? Perhaps it was because of the belief that tradition was a foundation to survival of the Greek Empire.

During the Dark Age of Greece, the time was dismal and people lived in constant fear of war and death. The golden time had passed and chaos now reigned. And to survive, the Greeks needed something to starve off their despair, a reminder that there was hope and everything would be better. Fortunately, the Greeks had some of the best poets during the time before the Dark Age, and it was the poets’ works that kept the hope alive.

Expression of ideologies can arrive in any format, be it words or writings or poems. And from historical evidence, it was the poems that were the most sophisticated and expressive form of writing, since they were written by the most sophisticated and knowledgeable scholars of the age. Hesiod was one of the said scholars, and it was his work that gave birth to conservatism and, to an extent, the Western culture.

Hesiod (Approx. 800 B.C.)
Hesiod’s Works and Days described a mythical Golden Age of the past, before the existence of arts, business, or properties, in a time where there was no evil and everyone lived in harmony. Hesiod divided the Golden Age into five different eras, with the earliest era (the Golden Age) as the best. In the Golden Age, people lived like gods in a world that produced food so abundantly that there was no need for agriculture. People lived free from pain and grief and did not age. And when they died, they simply went to sleep peacefully with ease. The following eras shown decreasing levels of happiness and stability. And the last era, the Iron Age, was described to be the world the Greeks were living in.

Hesiod’s work was indeed a mythical fairy tale. However it enforced people’s faith in tradition. Because of his tale, the Greeks believed in their heritage, and that the best way of life was to attempt to recreate the Golden Age. Trying to recreate the glorious past is one of the conservative goals, since conservatism believes in the wisdom of the past tradition. To resurrect the past, the Greeks must break themselves free of chaos and revive its ancient culture, an endeavor which it succeeded.

The renaissance of the Greek culture arrived at the end of the Dark Age. The next era of ancient Greece saw the development of various forms of arts and performances. The image of seven Muses dancing atop the Parnussus Mountain, the sculptures of the gods, the invention of theaters and performances exploring the lives of the people, and the original Olympic Games were just a few examples of revival. In addition, some of the most famous thinkers, such as Aristotle, emerged in this ear. The significant rise in its culture allowed the Greeks to leap over other nation to become the most sophisticated civilization of the time. The Greek’s ascendant to the world’s top culture allowed people to believe that they were reliving another Golden Age. The belief was not too far from the mark, as the Greek civilization was at its peak at the time, both in culture and war. It had defeated the mighty Persian Empire not long previous, and took control of the Mesopotemia region. The Greek’s journey to replicate its mythical past had been successful, and this achievement would fuel the idea of the glorious past and future conservatism.

Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.)
But the Works and Days is not the only Greek contributor to conservatism, the thinker Aristotle also heavily influenced conservatism through his ideas of the government. Despite Athens’ successful democratic practice (see the case study for democracy), Aristotle believed in the benefits of the proper authority and having ruling elites. Aristotle believed that full democracy could easily turn into a tyranny of the majority (also known today as mob rule), and that the best government would be a mix between democracy and oligarchy (power maintained between ruling families). The fine balance would prevent the mob rule, while at the same time preserve the people’s voice. Aristotle believed that there is natural “laws” concerning distribution of things, such as a natural aristocracy where there is a natural and recurring distribution of power. Aristotle believed the natural laws to be ultimate and recurring, which means the laws would universally apply to every society, thus the people should follow them.

It is not difficult to see the connection between Aristotle’s natural aristocracy and the preservation of status quo. If proper authority (the ruling elites) is believed to be natural and recurring, it would not be useful or beneficial to disrupt the system. This belief corresponds with conservatism’s opinion on natural orders of things, and that changing such orders can be very dangerous, especially if the orders will be restore due to its recurring nature, since that means changes deviate from the natural orders would be wasteful and useless.

The Greek conservatism might not be as distinct as political parties. However, without the Greek’s belief in the glorious past and natural order, conservatism would not have had the foundation it has today. The Greek conservatism also shows that conservatism does not have to be the dominant ideology since it can coexist with other beliefs, even one as polar opposite as ever-changing democracy. This is because conservatism is about setting the goal to preserve the traditional and natural way, not how to achieve the goal. Therefore, using democratic process to achieve conservatism ideals is not only possible, but also perhaps the most effective route (having the consent is always better than forcing the population). The ability to coexist also implies that conservatism is not only a political ideology, since conflicting political beliefs will not be able to coexist. Conservatism is a cultural belief in a specific way of life. And as long as there is culture, there will always be people who seek to protect it against the changing world.

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