Joseph R.


January 16, 2001

Janus-Faced Universalism and Rosy-Fingered Dawn


Universalism is said to be a wonderful thing. It brings to mind Alexander the Great, widely praised by historians earlier in this – I mean the late – century, as a heroic founder of 'universalism.' The praise came because he made his officers take Persian brides, as did he, to cement the ties between conquerors and conquered, etc., etc. He also knocked over the Achaemenid treasury. Naturally, the victors began spending the Persian king's money, setting off one of the few inflationary cycles in history involving a metal-based money supply. The only other one, ever, of which I can think offhand, arose from Spanish conquests in Mexico and Peru. I should think these are clear-cut cases of state intervention in the economy.

In Keynesian terms, the Persian, Aztecan, and Incan treasurers were 'hoarders' and needed to learn the wisdom of the serpent, or at the very least, the wisdom of Alan Greenspan. Alexander, Cortez and Pizzaro were public spirited fellows whose activities created effective demand and made the economy boom.

But there is more. Alexander's conquests, while they did not create a lasting and unified Greek empire stretching from Macedonia in the west, Bactria in the east, and Egypt in the south, did leave behind a set of clunky successor states. These included the Seleucid and Macedonian states, as well as the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt. The latter, of course, is justly famous for Cleopatra. In reaction to Greek intrusion, Chandragupta Maurya went on a binge of state-formation in northern India, which I'm sure made everyone much happier. I should add that Bactria, as such, has little to with bacteria.


The exploits of Aristotle's most famous pupil made for far too many cities called Alexandria. The Hellenic successor states, hereinafter called 'Hellenistic,' had Greek-speaking ruling classes (bureaucrats and soldiers) and attracted Greek merchants, professionals, and hangers-on to the new states. This was a massive frontier movement of Greeks seeking new opportunities. The Greek Horace Greeley, if there was one, was crying 'Go east, young man' at the top of his lungs.

Politically, the new states were a departure from Hellenism proper, which had rested on the small-scale city-state or republic. The Hellenistic states were large, territorial operations, and oppressive ones. The Loeb Classical Series volume of documents from Hellenistic Egypt underlines the Ptolemaic bureaucracy's program of state-mercantilism, undertaken for revenue and control.1 This included a very early oil monopoly – PTOLEO – which, I admit, only involved olive oil. I mention in passing that the famous Rosetta Stone – key to the early 19th decipherment of hieroglyphic Egyptian – was actually the text of a decree granting tax relief. (And you thought Rosetta Stone was an English rock singer.)

So where's the universalism? you might well ask. (John Lennon would have.) Well, each conquered region got a Greek-speaking ruling class, Greek-speaking professionals and merchants, Greek-speaking teachers and intellectuals…. You get the idea. Everyone was united on Greek terms. A real case of sharing, even if was a bit one-sided.

Don't get me wrong – I have nothing against the spread of Hellenism as such. At this late date it's a bit hard to sort out the right and wrong of it. I sentimentally prefer that cultures be spread by peaceful means such as trade and the like. But what's done is done, and even the current Left can't realistically demand that we tear down the Hellenistic statues and rename all the Hellenistic schools, highways, and cities. Or can they? Probably not. Time itself has torn down most of those oppressive objects and deconstructed their texts; the remains are now the province of the archaeologists. Besides, who now knows what the oppressed natives' name for Alexandria was? Very likely it was 'potentially lucrative seashore location with no city on it yet,' whatever that might be in ancient Coptic (Egyptian).

So while I'm quite certain it's no big job to right all the wrongs and reverse all the oppressions dating from 1492 through verbal legerdemain, it is doubtless technically unfeasible to do so for the third century B.C. Too bad, really. If we had the world-improvers working on that, they might overlook a monument or two at home. And flags.


At the height of British power – that is, right around the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1903) – a number of well-placed British scholars ransacked Greek history for useful lessons. Equating democratic, commercial Athens with Britain, they saw a warning in the short-lived Athenian Empire, which preceded our pal, Alexander, in time. Its heavy-handed methods led to unnecessary wars, the collapse of Athenian power, and the rise of Macedonia. Thus, Britain must convert its empire into a commonwealth, granting self-government (where appropriate) to its colonies, to prevent dissension and the triumph of barbarous forces. For 'barbarous forces' we can read Germany.2

There was another analogy on hand, perhaps not so popular, which equated Britain with Carthage, a commercial empire, in conflict with Rome, which doubtless stood in for the Germans again. Fortunately, the pro-Carthaginians did not call for a return to the most famous Punic cultural practice. That was left to American jurists.

American sociologist Lewis S. Feuer was responsible for a strange entry in the pro-imperial sweepstakes in 1986. His book, Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind, was a sustained attack on critics of British imperialism as crazed neurotics. This was an extension of the questionable psycho-smear method which the American center-left had wielded against the 'radical right' from the 1950s onwards. Feuer was at pains to distinguish good empires from bad ones. The good ones were the Roman, British, and American empires. They were so 'inclusive.' All others, presumably, were bad.

A very fashionable Cold War reading of classical history equated the United States with the lovable, open Athenians. This meant the Soviets were Sparta. Unluckily, this analogy had some flaws. Upon further investigation, the serious student of history was likely to find the backward, authoritarian Spartans less aggressive than the prosperous, democratic Athenians. Prosperous societies could better afford imperialism, something New Left critics of the American empire seldom failed to point out.

Naturally, readings of classical history 'proving' the necessity and rightness of US imperialism can still be met with. This good work keeps many a Neo-Conservative off the streets and gets him home in time for supper. I won't mention any of these writers, but their name is legion.


So let us flee from these present-minded analogies and summarize what 'actually happened.' Very briefly, the Macedonians' universalist project failed. Alexander's empire of conquest hardly survived his own death. In the end, it fell to the aggressive Roman Republicans to inflict unity and 'good government' on the territories previously Hellenized by the political and commercial efforts of the Greeks.

Some say that the heart was already gone from Hellenistic civilization well before Romans brought order to the Greek world. The term Late Hellenistic Despair sometimes comes up. The Greeks' ideal balance between reason and emotion had broken up, with the Stoics and Epicureans pursuing a rather sterile rationalism while various mystery-and-salvation religions took up the emotional side of things. Christianity, it could be said, reintegrated reason and emotion, but it would take us far afield indeed to look into that.

What of Rome itself, the bearer of the imperial 'universal mission'? Some, like the renegade Celt Virgil, extolled the imperial people and their achievements. Great poetry often goes with bad politics. Think of our own Walt Whitman, who just couldn't get enough Yankee aggression. Not every Roman embraced Rome's mission. Writing of the first century or so under empire, Henry Bamford Parkes noted, "The greatest energy was displayed by those Latin writers who still clung to the tribalistic traditions of the republic and hated the principate not only because of its suppression of Roman liberties, but also because of its universalist tendencies."3


I suppose someone could say that with trade and communications 'uniting' mankind as never before, universal values exist, or are emerging, or something. Westernization of nonwestern societies – superficial or otherwise – contributes to this notion. Today's phony-baloney international law, cobbled together out of US imperial rescripts, UN resolutions, and decrees from Brussels, adds to the illusion.

And yet major differences between state-level societies persist in basic world outlook, as well as felt interest. This sort of thing unhinges Oxford dons, leads them to despair of the 'liberal project' of universal rights and the like, and drives them into the arms of Tony Blair and all those Third Way guys. We cannot resolve such high matters today in this space. Suffice it to say that, whether or not universal rights exist, one should regard with utmost skepticism the claims of any imperialist power which sets about 'enforcing' them – with or without depleted uranium.


  1. Luigi Einaudi, 'Greatness and Decline of the Planned Economy in the Hellenistic World,' Kyklos, II (1948).
  2. Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment (New York: Books in Focus, 1981), pp.133-37.
  3. Henry Bamford Parkes, Gods and Men: The Origins of Western Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), p. 344.

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