THE ancient GREEKS. Where the penny dropped! Why there? Geography mattered.


Big HISTORY – roots of the Modern   

THE ancient GREEKS. Where the penny dropped! Why there? Geography mattered.


  • Two point five (2.5) millennia ago a peripheral Aegean pocket stumbled on Objective Reason, open eyed scrutiny.
  • Fortuitous geography conspired with enterprising souls to:
    • Ditch kings and priests, the traditional ruling elites?
    • Seed a cluster of small, dispersed city-states: republican, open-minded, trading-focussed.
    • Allow competition among the entities.
    • Allow minds to roam freer, free of the self-serving supernatural, hereafter-obsessed state religions?
  • “Western” values? No, everyone’s values. No more “Western” than Kepler’s laws.
  • Even Beckmann’s cross-eyed / one-eyed cat below works here: don’t expect to know all the answers!


ONE painting capture’s modern (generic) Man’s life ethos………………?

Max Beckmann (1884-1950) 1943, Odysseus and Calypso; oil on canvas, 150 x 115.5 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

  • Odysseus, the „wily“ Homeric hero. The Man of Reason, the rational, clever, persistent striver.
  • But crucially a Man who knows his limits, respects the Greek (Delphic) maxim, „Know thyself!“
  • Thus he rejects the entreaty of the „lustrous goddess“ to join her in Immortality.
  • Instead he stays fast to finally returning home, to the family, Penelope and Telemachus, the wife and son.
  • Thus he understands the danger of Hubris, of delusions of faux-divinity.
  • Why do a cross-eyed cat and a parrot spectate? Who needs all the answers?


Life’s poles… Pax et Bellum…. war and peace.


Colin Colahan (1898-1976).1943, London leave; oil on canvas, 46.6 x 38.6 cm, Australian War Memorial


Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), c1933. Sandringham beach, oil on canvas, 55.8 x 50.9 cm, Nat Gallery of Australia



1/ Introduction: why do the roots of the Modern commence with ancient Greece? In Ionia?

2/ Ancient Egypt?

Crackers. A loopy dead-end! Relative isolation & fortuitous Nile-watered economic prosperity allowed an obsessive theocratic autocracy to dominate, survive near two millennia.

3/ Ancient Greece – Ionia?

Where the penny dropped. Launching the Greek Enlightenment.

Why the penny dropped there? A unique confluence of factors triggered the Thought Revolution, including geography.

4/ The humanistic Greek model? The Delphic maxim: Know thyself!!

5/ Beyond Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Rome, Islam, Christian Europe

6a/ BIG HISTORY. The Judeo-Christian contribution? In the emergence of the “West”, the Modern, does it add to the Greek model?

6b/ BIG HISTORY. The biggest challenge of all? Man standing on his own feer! Throw off self-serving delusional religious props!

7/ Later incarnations of quasi-democratic freer thinking. Anglo-Saxon northern Europe; Italian Mediaeval city states; 17th and 18th C England/ Europe / The Enlightenment; American colonies.

8/ China:  Why not China? Why no “Modern” reforms there? Relative isolation, a cohesive geography, and lack of competition allowed traditional autocratic elites to prevail, persist?

9/ BIG HISTORY. “Western” values? No. Everyone’s values. No more “Western” than Kepler’s laws.



1/ Ancient Greece

1.1/ Background history

1.2/ The ancient Greek Enlightenment: the radical Greek contribution, the Thought Revolution. Homer and the Ionian thinkers, Athens and beyond

1.3/ Historiography: the “Greeks first” view is not new, but is out of fashion in today’s relativist, “politically correct”, and China resurgent, world.

1.4/ Ancient Greece: part of the Axial Age? C 8th to C 3rd BC? No. Far fetched. Overstated. Greece was different!

 2/ China

Chinese history: periods of prosperity, but also of very destructive foreign intrusion and widespread domestic conflict.

Recent update: But did old China flirt with “Modern” ideas? This is the apparently radical import of recently deciphered old (c 300 BC) bamboo texts.


1/ Introduction

Why do the roots of the Modern commence in ancient Greece? In Ionia?

Life is a journey, many journeys, to many different worlds, as the enterprising New World Walt Disney discerned, and marketed.

One is wonder world, in one sense the ultimate world.

And in wonder world perhaps the two biggest, most insistent questions are:

1/ Why are we here as conscious, sentient humans?

The immediate (scientific) answer apparently is we are the products of a long (plus billion years) process of evolution from some primeval stellar-related “chemical soup” loaded especially with carbon, also hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, through the Cambrian Explosion (c500 million years ago) to the steady emergence of homo sapiens since about 5 million years ago, a process which recent ongoing investigation shows to be far more complex than thought even 30 years ago.

Though this begs the wider question of what’s behind that “chemical” soup, which is too much, too uncomfortable for many people so out pops religion, and they fashion, fabricate some remedial theological salve, understandably usually anthropomorphic.

2/ Why Modern Man? The second central question is why the emergence of the Modern? Why and how, after a long time in the relevant arena, has (generic) Man finally achieved economic and technological take-off?

Thus Man as a hominid has been around several millions of years in one sub-species or another, and for around 10 millennia as a settled species (for most of the population), ie living in assorted combinations of communities -villages and cities – fed, sustained by farming and grazing.


So why has Man suddenly – in the space of only a couple of centuries – escaped near 10,000 years of (for most) miserable community living, a ragged ebb and flow existence, condemning most to brief lives of poverty, to the Hobbesean lot of the Brutal, Nasty and Short, ruled mostly by arbitrary rapacious coercive elites?

But elites mostly also no less vulnerable than the common man to the deadly vagaries of disease: plague, smallpox etc.

And tooth decay! Afflicting even France’s Sun-king.


In a directly related way, why has Man unleashed an unparalleled Knowledge Revolution?

This started with science, the key ultimate or bedrock driver of the Industrial Revolution, which in turn arguably started in the mid 18th C in backwater England, and now, over 250 years later, still storms on, fuelled by two further massive technological breakthroughs since ww2, ie in biology and electronics.

So why are we now suddenly here, not just as humans, but now as materially blessed humans?

Why after millions of years of chronic Hobbesean misery for the bottom 96.6% (sic) have the lights suddenly come on? Why has disease been belaboured, life spans doubled, and material largesse suddenly spread from the blessed 3.4% to the blessed 35.7% (sic)? Such that now about 21.1% of the world is now obese! All these percentages are indicative guesses only.


Also the economic take off from the 18th C onwards – starting in England and conventionally known as the Industrial Revolution – occurred alongside radical transformative political change, the emergence of effective democratic government allied with independently enforced rule of law, albeit slowly and imperfectly.


Traditionally the ancient Greeks were thought to be involved, and the discussion typically started early in the 6th C BC with Thales from Miletus, an Ionian colony on the west coast of Anatolia, what is now Turkey.

One read about him long ago, circa 1970, like in Bernard Delfguuuw’s (1968) A Concise History of Philosophy, still in the library, inscribed “January 1970, Princess St, Kew”, read more than once, till one understood the main message, that 6th C BC Ionia was a seminal time and place, when finally Man (generic) opened his eyes, regarded the world about him with detached minds, sloughing off self-serving preconceptions, usually supernatural.

The message returned vividly on a recent Sunday evening when one encountered yet another tv documentary on the exotic, colourful, other-worldly and bizarre mindset of long ago ancient Egypt, but while then revisiting Edward Hussey’s (1972) “The Pre-Socratics”.


2/ Ancient Egypt?

Crackers. A loopy dead-end! Relative isolation & fortuitous Nile-watered economic prosperity allowed an obsessive theocratic autocracy to dominate, stagger, survive near two millennia.

Old Egypt remains popularly fascinating, a perennial crowd favourite for the extent and colourful detail of its so old and well preserved surviving art and architecture: the buildings, the tombs, the extensive ornamental goods and the decoration. It is usually billed as a Great Civilisation, so clever in executing all this art so long ago, and in erecting improbably mighty structures like the pyramids.

However visiting today’s Egypt (new and old) near a decade ago did but only confirm a general impression of Old Egypt, that they were crackers.

Yes they built the big pyramids in the Old Kingdom, c2700BC, and later stuffed a valley across the Nile at Luxor (then Thebes) with elaborately decorated tombs for their “kings” / pharaohs, decoration including life scenes familiar to us today, like farmers farming, ducks flying, hunters hunting, tables of fruit and bread etc. And they built temples, some massive.

But this Amazonian artistic output was focussed mostly on their obsession with ministering to kings’ afterlives, and their memory.

And one immediately thought, what a vast waste of resources. You see the amazing paintings and inscriptions in the tombs, on the walls and ceilings, and you hear their story, their belief-system, the ludicrous religious concoction they believed, but all implemented at massive economic cost.

So one thought then they were mad, that within the annals of Man’s long journey old Egypt was a vast, expensive dead-end, financed by the fortuitous natural bounty of the Nile (long as it kept flowing), and fortunate too that comparative geographical isolation enabled it to survive external predators as long as it did. For it was on the periphery of the civilisations spawned by Mesopotamia and the twin rivers. Yes it was bothered time to time, like c1200BC from the north / northwest by the Sea Peoples, then by the Syrians, and later of course by Alexander. And from the south one time too, c750BC? And from the west once? From Libya c950BC? But it survived say around four millennia, till finally Rome closed the door.

That Sunday night the lady (the passionate Professor Joann Fletcher) talked of early in the New Kingdom, in wake of Amenhotep III, and son Ahkenaten, of the rise of the priests, to the extent they commenced robbing the old royal tombs for their benefit! Fancy that. And the penny dropped, again.

The story of old Egypt, of all the old “great civilisations”, was a story of power and available wealth misappropriated by small elites, the secular rulers in league with the religious, the kings / aristocracy / priests in a mutually beneficial alliance, though this arrangement also was unstable, periodically vulnerable, firstly, to the genetic lottery in kingdoms / empires, states effectively ruled by families, so that capable, ambitious individuals would strive to pounce on incompetent leaders; and, secondly, to adverse arbitrary natural change, especially to adverse climate shifts.

And the sources of the wealth were basically natural, underwritten particularly the agricultural bounty available from well watered fertile lands (usually silted river valleys) but also minerals, especially gold and silver, jewels, plus other metals (especially copper, then also tin, then iron), and building stone.

Fertile river basins were great sources of agricultural income, but supplemented by stock grazing lands.

Thus when Climate Change (CC) intervened to meaningfully impair or compromise these resources the cost could be great, dramatic. Thus there now apparently seems little doubt CC killed the Old Kingdom in Egypt, c2200BC, and almost certainly the Bronze Age throughout the western Mediterranean and Levant, c1200BC. Populations had expanded to accommodate resources available, so when these were compromised then dependent societies were by and large totally exposed.


3/ Ancient Greece – Ionia?

Where the penny dropped. Launching the Greek Enlightenment.

So that Sunday night one was presented with the stark, illuminating, “between the eyes” constrast between mad, bad, crazy Egypt, and the rumblings of free-thinking in 6th C Greece, specifically peripheral Ionia.

For yes it was in Ionia the revolution really started. As Mr Hussey, Professor HDF Kitto, CM Bowra et al all explain.

Ionia was a small state, a loose cluster of cities stretching approximately 150km north to south, from Phocaea in the north, down through Colophon and Ephesus in the centre to important Miletus in the south, and including the islands of Chios and Samos. It was only about 60-90km wide, sitting between Greek Aeolia to the north (refugee Greeks settled from Boetia on the mainland), Lydia to the northeast and Caria southeast, and Dorian colonists south, in Halikarnassus and on the islands of Kos (Cos) and Rhodes.

The cities formed a loose confederacy, the Ionian League.

The Ionians were Greek speaking people who settled on the west coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey) from around the 8th C BC, basically as colonists, refugees from the unrest in mainland Greece, perhaps mainly from Achaea in the Northern Peloponnese, displaced by the “austere, militaristic” Dorians who apparently arrived in the 11th C BC. It seems the Ionians were displaced first to Athens in Attica, and thence to Ionia, also where some Myceneans had likely settled earlier.

Herodotus thought Ionia’s population was mixed, which is logical, drawing on various parts west, and united mainly by their language.

Languages help explain broad events. Ionian, Dorian and Aeolian were the three main Greek dialect groups after the collapse of Mycenae.

But unlike the Aeolians or Dorians the Ionians are apparently known in the historical records from Mycenae, c1300BC, from Homer in the Iliad, from the Bible (in Genesis and maybe Isaiah), in Assyrian letters from 8th C BC, and even in Indic and Iranian texts. “Most modern Mid Eastern languages use the terms “Ionia” and “Ionian” to refer to Greece and Greeks.” (Wiki).

The enterprising Ionians also seem too to have helped pioneer Greek colonisation, about 750BC establishing the first Greek colony, Kyme (Latin Cumae) in southern Italy in the Bay of Naples.


Why the penny dropped there? A unique confluence of factors triggered the Thought Revolution, including geography.

Two key related factors crucially underwrote, allowed the Thought Revolution.

First, in particular, politics: no more arbitrary autocratic kings and priests, allowing the emergence of a quasi- or proto-democratic law-based government system.

In some Greek city states (poleis) circumstances conspired after the 7th C BC for the Common Man to gain a meaningful say in the conduct of his collective affairs, some influence on the collective outcome, to overthrow the traditional arbitrary autocratic coercive rule of secular/religious elites. Throw off the kings, nobles and priests.

Cornerstones of this system were first, some formal means of democratic consultation and participation of citizens, and, second, the radical concept of impersonal written laws, the rule of law, with some input from the citizens, not imposed without consultation, thus standing apart from, respected by the “elected” rulers.

A corollary was relatively greater mobility within these states, evidence of greater meritocratic populating of roles than in traditional societies.


Why were kings, then nobles, dispensed with?

Two factors seem important?

First, city living. Many of the poleis, like Miletus in Ionia, became importantly active in trading goods, especially internationally, via the sea, supported to an extent by domestic artisan manufacturing, all of which encouraged urban growth. Most citizens lived in relatively close proximity, as dictated by the commercial basis of their economy. Presumably some still farmed, but now important trading international activity and also some artisan / craft manufacture of goods saw the emergence of important prosperous merchant and artisan classes, which in turn were keen to gain some influence on, say in government.


Second, buying fighters with the vote. Greece was in no way a united political entity, rather an assemblage of competing cities, ruled at first by kings and nobles. Infantry became important in warfare, versus cavalry, but each city could not afford a standing army, instead had to raise forces as they needed them, ie from farmers, urban artisan workers, sailors etc.

But in return for service the citizen-soldiers (hoplites) gained some meaningful measure of democratic rights, some say in decisions and in “electing” leaders. Yes there were slaves and yes the citizen franchise was severely restricted to free adult males (only 10-20% of the population?), but the outcome was still a radical shift from traditional arbitrary, dictatorial rule by an elite.

Classical Athens was initially ruled by archons (chief magistrates) and the Areopagus (an assembly of retired archons), all drawn from the aristocracy. Reforms by archon Solon (c630-560 BC) in 594 BC started Athens on the democratic road but the main reforms occurred later under Cleisthenes (c570-507 BC) in 508/07 BC, establishing Athens’ full blown direct democratic model for its c50,000 citizens, ie free adult males, numbering about 18% of a population of say 300,000.

In Corinth tyrant Kypselos (r657-627BC) effected related changes, taking power off the nobles.

However the experience of proto-democracy was mixed, varied greatly across the Greek cities.


The second factor allowing, accommodating, the Thought Revolution was religion.

The Greeks escaped a debilitating, prescribed state-supervised religion.

Religion obviously existed and was important. Greeks were actively polytheistic, believed in many “gods”, but, importantly, behind the complex panoply of gods (which adapted to, sometimes borrowed from the gods they encountered in trading with foreigners) they saw a timeless single impersonal universal Order, Ananke.

Also religion was practiced privately, by individuals and families, not overseen, administered by a powerful self-interested, state-sanctioned, often coercive institutional apparatus.


So in Ionia these two novel conditions created a ripe environment for freer thinking by interested individuals, in particular unencumbered by a suffocating religious edifice perpetrated by self-serving elites and usually coming with their own fanciful explanations of Nature. So lively Ionian minds were free to roam.


But WHY did the Thought Revolution happen in 6th C Ionia? Geography??

The critical factor seems to be Ionia’s location, perched on the west edge of Anatolia.

It was both a Greek entity, and perched on the doorstep of bordering foreign states and thus was directly exposed through its trading activity to the thinking, knowledge and experience of the welter of countries, peoples, civilisations further east and south.

Thus Ionian philosophers from this vantage point were exposed to a wide range of knowledge from and about other countries and peoples.

In particular they were exposed to emerging scientific knowledge, empirical data, elsewhere, especially to Egyptian mathemtics and Chaldean astronomy.

Crucially these other “civilised” peoples had primarily used this knowledge only for narrow-minded practical purposes, not for wider philosophical enquiry. In particular they used it to… build pyramids! Thus they used it to to implement, express the fanciful belief systems of their theocratic autocracies, to pander to the gods, to support, propagate, impose self-serving preconceived religious thought systems.


4/ The humanistic Greek model? The Delphic maxim: Know thyself!!

There were two key planks in the humanistic Greek model, as bright and shiny and relevant today as when they emerged..


First, on the positive side, Man does the best he can, strives for excellence in all endeavours, strives for all rounded arête , virtue, as individuals yes, but also as individuals within a community, a society, which thus experiences political life, and is thus subject to nomoi, or laws.

Hence Man applies open-eyed, open minded Objective Reason to individual and community life, and to understanding Nature.


BUT, second, on the negative side, crucially the wise Man knows his limits, his imperfections.

So  ideally he acts with moderation, aware of the danger of over-confidence, arrogance, of Hubris! Of meeting the goddess Ate (“moral blindness”), and hence her stablemate Nemesis! Goddess of retribution! Therefore Man remembers he is not divine, not a god.

Greek playwrights’ tragedies were generally about people who did over-step, did not know their limits, and were punished accordingly.

Thus Donald Kagan quotes Aristotle: “As man is the best of the animals when perfected, so he is the worst when separated from law and justice…”

Homer’s 9th C BC twin peaks pioneered in particular because they talked of specific individuals, but indivuals within societies.

And the story of hero Odysseus is a template for everyone. He epitomises Rational Man. He is clever, the wily archer, and he is persistent.

But even more important, he knows his limits, resists the temptation of the offer of the beautiful “lustrous” goddess Calypso, to stay with her, join her in immortality. Instead he stays loyal to wife who hasn’t seen for 30 years? And to his family, his son Telemachus! He resists the delusory trap of divinity.

The later (5th C BC) pivotal “tragic” demise of Athens can be seen as the famous city-state falling victim to Hubris, to irrational over-confidence, thus c430BC being sucked “blindly” into the calamitous Peloponnesian Wars.


5/ Beyond Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Rome, Islam, Christian Europe

“.. the legacies of ancient Greece have been taken up, admired, re-formulated and manipulated by every culture between theirs and ours.. .. the Roman emperor Hadrian loved all things Greek: he completed the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.. The emperor had created a legacy that, in truth, augmented the reality of what the Greek world actually achieved.” (Michael Scott, BBC June 2013).

Rome added little to the progressive fundamental advances in politics and philosophy achieved by, inherited from the Greeks. Perhaps they enhanced where the Greeks arrived in the case of law. But their main concern was applying knowledge for practical purposes.

The single striking difference between old Greece and old Rome was that Rome was always a single discrete political entity – compared to the collection of competing entities in Greece – and beyond its emergence from Latium in the 5th C BC, when it initially subjugated neighbouring peoples in Italy, especially the Etruscans, its informing core mission was simply to keep growing. This it certainly did, though at the expense of whatever early Attic echoing quasi-democratic impulses existed.

Thus the Republic was finally snuffed out by an able but ambitious, ruthless self-serving Napoleonesque soldier (Julius Caesar), then morphed into a full blooded empire which peaked across approximately two centuries, then succumbed to selfish bloody infighting, and finally –crucially – to waves of eastern invaders.

Islam – launched dramatically and with ferocious and rapid early success by its Arab instigators – eventually played some role in advancing the cause of Man’s progressive knowledge, particularly through the Iberian-based Umayyad Caliphate, but basically, in the main, only as a means of transmission of Greek knowledge? They added something through their observations, but basically did not advance the substance of science?

There was important progress on the watch of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, especially within Church sanctioned / sponsored institutions of literacy like monasteries, and sometimes by Church functionaries.

Thus, “, two developments stand out [in the Middle Ages] as being particularly influential on the Scientific Revolution to come. One… discovery of the Mean Speed Theorem by the Mertonians at Oxford and Nicole Oresme (1320-82) in Paris..  later … used by Galileo in his study of falling bodies. The other ..[the] establishment of European medical schools where human dissection became [standard]..  [leading to].. in the 16th C..  the pioneering work by Andreas Vesalius, the founder of modern human anatomy.” (Frederick Seiler (2010).

But progress was basically fortuitous, in no way encouraged by the structure’s leadership. It occurred between the cracks. Church dogma was basically opposed to the cause of scientific advance and where such knowledge infringed, contradicted the Church view, the Church acted, albeit not always consistently?

Thus later, much later, a key step in progressing Europe was the separation of Church and State, meaning the State fending off the Church.




The Judeo-Christian contribution?

In the emergence of the “West”, the Modern, does the Judeo-Christian add to the Greek model?


Some today worry about the decline in adherence to the Christian message, about Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the Death of God, worry that amoral Nihilism will fill the gap, or that exemplars of Nietzsche’s Superman might  Thus “If both religion and reason are removed, all that remains is will and power..” (Don Kagan).

Then these worriers typically cite the 20th C totalitarian nightmares of Hitler, Stalin and Mao (and many other smaller fry) as examples of Nietzsche’s new secular Godless world.

But looked at through Greek eyes these unconfined dictators were simply “irrational” men who crossed a line, who, ironically, effectively marketed themselves (for their own rational reasons) as quasi-divine, just as did of course so many rulers in antiquity. The problem for the nations they ruled – and their benighted populations, and others they predated upon – is that each of these dictators recruited enough people to their cause, whether through self-interest or deluded loyalty.


So this raises the massive issue of how does the Judeo-Christian heritage / Christianity matter for the liberal-democratic “Western” model? Does it add anything to the Greek model?

And hence is the survival of the “Western”model dependent on continued active acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian tenets?

But arguably the Greek model of Objective Reason can be seen as giving us the total model.

Yes you strive to do your best, but also, always aware of the danger for Man of Hubris! So a core outcome of applying Reason is the realisation of the importance of Man knowing his limits.

And a second core outcome is Man confronting the reality that he has no need to invent gods / God, and that, in particular, the invention of institutional religions is rooted in the self interests of the inventors: power and resources (money), occasioning an extensive and manifold occurrence violence.


Two additional specific points are important.


First, there is a strong case for the Judeo-Christian model being based on a fundamentally flawed view of man, a deeply pessimistic view.

From the Judeo-Christian standpoint Man is a sinner, fallen, inherently defective. But interesting, why specifically? Because he transgressed in Paradise’s garden, because of intemperate hubristic pride, because he disobeyed God and ate of the Tree of Knowledge!

This stresses the danger of knowledge!

And that Man above all should know his place!

Anyhow he did transgress, went above his station, and so was punished, tossed out of Paradise.

But – and here’s the good news – he then can later return only through God’s favour, good grace!

The message here is Man should remain humble, timid, not strive, not seek knowledge.

And this message, this Judeo-Christian model, has been propagated, exploited for many centuries by the Christian Church as a business-model, to drive demand for their services, trying to sell the idea that only through their (monopolistic) good offices can you gain God’s saving grace.

The Church did draw on the Greco-Roman Classics, did use Reason, but applied it principally to honing their model.


The second corollary point is that for the Judeo-Christian heritage to somehow be a necessary and essential ingredient in the process of the emergence of the liberal-democratic “Western” model is logically ridiculous –and arrogant – because it implies that this model is thus somehow divinely ordained, prescribed by (the Christian) God!

That will be interesting news for all the non-Christian populations, across the globe.


The biggest challenge of all?

Man standing on his own feer!

Throw off self-serving delusional religious props!

Only two sides, two approaches to addressing, coping with Modernity

Denial, by the Believers. H.Bosch,.. TS Eliot.

Acceptance, by the Realists. [an incomplete roll call].. Homer.. Thales.. Socrates.. Petrarch.. Dante.. Giotto.. Francis Bacon.. Rabelais.. Cervantes.. Shakespeare.. Kepler.. Montaigne.. Newton.. William Hogarth.. Voltaire.. Burke.. Goya.. Courbet.. Baudelaire.. Flaubert.. Manet.. Daumier.. Kafka.. Wallace Stevens.. Otto Dix…Picasso.. Bob Dylan?.


7/ Later important incarnations of quasi-democratic, freer thinking: Anglo-Saxon northern Europe; Italian Mediaeval city states; 17th and 18th C England / Europe / The Enlightenment; American colonies

The progressive old Greek experience of proto-democracy was finally reproduced, but much later, beginning roughly a millennium later.

a/ Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) tribes in north Europe. The competitive decentralised Germanic tribal system in northern Europe, where warrior members of tribal groups apparently exercised some meaningful democratic influence on their leadership by chiefs, seems to be important in the later slow – but crucial – emergence of democracy in England.


b/ City states in Mediaeval / Renaissance Italy. In these small competing republican city-states the Common Man gained some meaningful say, small states centred on cities which (like the old Greeks) traded and also oversaw manufacture of goods, like textiles.


c/ 17th and 18th C England / Europe / The Enlightenment. There is obviously a loose but meaningful analogy between the ancient Greek revolution in politics, thence thought, and that in England and Europe, starting especially in the 17th C, in the wake of the calamitous Thirty Years War, when the scientific revolution took root, and when, in the ruins of war battered Europe – a war launched, and lost, by a reactionary Church and its opportunistic secular supporters – freer thought, Objective Reason emerged painfully for many as the logical optimum approach for Man in managing his collective affairs, and understanding his world.

England, on the periphery of Continental Europe, was importantly different to Europe across the Channel.

Notwithstanding its long monarchical government it had a much stronger quasi-democratic tradition than Continental Europe, arguably going far back to its Anglo Saxon experience (above), then highlighted by 1215’s Magna Carta when the Barons reined in the king.

Then after the Reformation and the buoyant Elizabethan cultural efflorescence (like Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago) in the 17th C the reactionary Catholic English king provoked a bloody Civil War. Parliament and its “liberal” supporters prevailed, and again in the 1688 Glorious Revolution when another refractory king was sidelined.

This political context, conducive to free thinking – Objective Reason – in science and commerce, set the scene for Britain’s momentous 18th C launch of the Industrial Revolution.

Arguably too geography – the English Channel – played a vital role (as it did for ancient Greece) in protecting the British “experiment”. And like ancient Greece Britain was an important seafaring and trading nation.

The advocacy of Reason as a central collective life principle became known during the 18th C as The Enlightenment, a multifaceted phenomenon across Europe.


d/ American colonies from 17th C onwards. This case is of central importance because it speaks of the origins of the United States of America (USA), founded from Britain by colonisation commencing early in the 17th C.

The case is described in the recent important expansive wide ranging text on political economy, Why Nations Fail (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012) in contrasting the different colonial experiences in the Americas by Spain and England.

In central and south America Spain instituted traditional coercive slave-based extraction of wealth (especially gold) while in the north the English settlers – later joined by enterprising aspirational people from many other countries – demanded a say, and a cut – in the organisation and conduct of their economic activity, basically against the intentions of those who had overseen / funded settlements – and they succeeded.

Though this striving in what became the USA for democratic freedoms, self-determination, was driven above all by economic self interest, which for many included slavery.


In each case here the Common Man emerged with some meaningful say, some democratic influence, restraining the power and influence of the traditional elites. And in each case religion basically took a relative backseat.


8/ China

Why not China? Why no “Modern” reforms there? Relative isolation, a cohesive geography, and lack of competition allowed traditional autocratic elites to prevail, persist?

Old China and old Europe: both were large and populous

Old China and old Europe were both large populous areas. China’s population ranged c40-60m till c1400, grew to c400m by 1800, and c600m after ww2.  Greater ancient Greece, encompassing all the colonies, numbered around 5m? The Roman Empire at its peak reached c55-60m? Europe’s population c1000 AD was around 55m, and around 90m by 1500, 100m by 1700? Then on the back of the Industrial Revolution it grew to 300-400m, depending where one draws the eastern border.


China was long large, literate, cultured and periodically prosperous – but it never broke out of a traditional mindset.

China as a large historical entity has a long continuous history going back over say 4,000 years, but this history is also turbulent, violent and complex. There were periods of relative unity and constructive achievement, but also the reverse, two very destructive foreign invasions from the north, 3 significant periods of violent internal fragmentation, finally its costly 19th C engagement with the West.

However what is striking is that although China advanced technologically at an early stage – even during the Han dynasty, around the time of Augustan Rome and Jesus, then again during the 18th C – they never came close to embarking on the kind of Scientific Revolution, and associated wider revolution in applying the rational to Man’s affairs, which eventually took root in Europe.

China’s guiding collective communal philosophies appear to have emerged during the Warring States Period, time of the 100 Schools of Thought, bringing “Confucianism .. [concerning].. hierarchical relationships and obligations in society; Daoism (or Taoism).. its search to unify with the primordial force called Dao (or Tao); Legalism..  advocated strict adherence to laws; and Mohism.. egalitarian ideas of impartiality” (A Revolutionary Discovery in China, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, 21st April 2016).


Why did China remain “traditional”? Not easy to answer? But geographical isolation a key?

The collective circumstances which appear to have triggered the Greek Enlightenment did not, for whatever reason, arise in China. One way or another autocratic rulers remained in charge, sometimes one, sometimes a number. They led large hierarchical, bureaucratic governments run by scholar-administrators, oversaw substantial literate cultures but intellectual activity, while keen, remained introspective, traditional, subordinate to, buttressing the prevailing political regime.

So the two striking differences with the West were, first, no outbreak of rational, open –minded speculation on the nature of the natural world, or optimal organisation and conduct of Man’s worldly affairs (and no related proto-democratic impulses), and, second, no emergence of enterprising private commercial production and trading activity, of a proto-middle class.

Why not? This is not easy to ultimately answer? Geography? Relative isolation?

Curiously geography may be one contributing factor? China’s geography, the geography of eastern Asia is relatively cohesive, not conducive to any smaller freer thinking group trying to seek another way. Just as geography did favour the survival of the different tack taken by some of the ancient Greeks, especially, famously, in seeing off the two assaults the almighty Persian Empire, and just as the English Channel for the most part protected England’s / Britain’s different and pioneering road.

Secondly, China’s relative isolation, lack of competition probably contributed? As it certainly did for Egypt. “Foreign” peoples did of course invade China, but only to be largely swallowed by, merged with, their objective.

But China was not alone. Other than Egypt there were other substantial “civilisations”, empires where there was also no outbreak of open-minded rational, proto-Modern thought, like through Mesopotamia, the Indian sub-continent and Asia.



9/ BIG HISTORY. “Western” values? No. Everyone’s values. No more “Western” than Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

The liberal-democratic politico-economic model:

Political: full franchise, representative democratic government, separation of Church and State.

Legal: rule of law, independent judicial system.

Economic: property rights, governance (declaration of interests, transparency), freedom of contract / employment.

Individual: human rights.


Loubna El Amine (Georgeton University) wrote in Washington Post, 2nd April 2016 ”Are ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ Western colonial exports? No. Here’s why”.

This is the right question, and arguably there is no bigger question in global political economy today.

So yes the liberal-democratic politico-economic model (full franchise, representative democracy, individual human rights, independent rule of law, governance, separation of Church and State) over a long period was uncovered, did emerge and develop in the “West”, but fundamentally that does not make it “Western” any more than Kepler laws of planetary motion, or Newton’s or Einstein’s laws are “Western”.

The analogy with scientific laws (physics etc) is not precise but is nonetheless directly relevant in the sense the essence of the model is indeed universally applicable, give or take its adaptation by and in particular jurisdictions.

But various self-interested authoritarian regimes in non-Western countries like to label the model as “Western” to suit their specific interests, to therefore claim it does not have universal applicability, and that its advocates – in seeking to “export” the model – are interfering in their affairs, even reflect a “neo-imperialist” agenda.



From the ancient Greek‘s Geometric art to its rediscovery by the Modern….


Anonymous c750BC, Oinochoe/ oenochoe (wine jug), Athens, “decorated with hatched triangles, meanders, and dotted lozenges”, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.


Fernand Leger (1887-1935), 1913, Contrast of Forms (Contraste de formes), oil on burlap, 98.8 x 125 cm, Guggenheim Museum, New York.



 1/ Ancient Greece

1.1/ Background history

The Cycladic culture inhabited the Aegean islands, c3500-2000 BC, famous for its curious semi-abstract figurines which sit easily beside modern sculptures.

There appear to have been two early Indo-European “invasions” south into the Greek peninsula and islands: first,  c2100/2000BC, the “Patterned Ware” people, Greek speakers called Achaeans, ancestors of Minoans on Crete, and Mycenae? And the Ionians? And, second, c1950-1900BC?  A larger incursion, and destructive, coming from the lower Danube, who brought sky gods?

The Minoan civilisation flourished on Crete, centred on Knossos, especially c2000-1450BC. The Minoans were of Indo-European origin? Minos was the name of their ruler, regarded as a god-king?

They were finally overrun by the Myceneans (Achaeans) who c1600-1200/1100BC, established a major Bronze Age palace-culture headquartered at Mycenae in the northern Peloponnese, with another palace at Pylos on the southwest coast. They conquered Crete, displacing the Minoans, colonised nearby coasts (eg Paphos on Cyprus), and traded with Egypt and the Hittites. At their Mycenae base their palace was fortified, unlike Knossos.

Reasons for the collapse of the Mycenae palace-culture collapsed c1200BC (Bronze Age collapse), along with other nearby major contemporary empires like the Hittites, are debated but climate change seems almost certainly important. Simultaneously there were violent movements of people about the region, the so-called Sea Peoples, but details are unclear.

About then, c1150/1100BC, the Greek “Dark Age” / Archaic period (c1100-750BC) began when the Dorians invaded from somewhere north, via the Pindos Mountains in northern Greece, but the intervention is not well understood. Were they shunted south by Illyrians? But they were militant and well armed, bringing iron weapons, and Protogeometric pottery (c1050-950BC), later Geometric (c950-700), with human figures reappearing c750BC.

They settled at Laconia (central-east Peloponnese), ie later Sparta, and in Achaea and the Argolid (the peninsula in the NE Peloponnese, including Mycenae) in the northern Peloponnese, and also on Crete.

They thus displaced existing (Indo-European sourced) Greeks: Aeolians (Achaeans) moved from Thessaly to north Aegean islands (eg Lesbos) and the Anatolian coast. And Ionians left Attica, Euboea and Cyclades for the Anatolian coast. Arcadians remained in central Peloponnese. The Archaic communities were like small kingdoms, each ruled by a basileus, or king

Old Greece in the Pre-Classical Archaic (c750-600BC) and Classical (600-332BC) periods emerged as a diverse collection of independent city-states, poleis (singular polis), on or near the edge of the Aegean Sea, generally comprising aristocrats / nobles, farmers, urban craftsmen, sailors and traders, united loosely by a common interest in the sea, and by language and culture.

Government in the various poleis shifted from rule by king (basileus) to aristocrats (archons), thence to republican oligarchies (tyrannies) run not by aristocrats but by prominent people like soldiers, and thence in some cases to proto-democracies. The experience varied significantly across the poleis, and through time for a given polis.

Importantly the relative independence of many poleis was drive especially by Greece’s fragmented geography, including many islands, and by its rugged topography.

Also, starting by early in the 8th BC Greece established many colonies around the Mediterranean, especially in Sicily and southern Italy (like Syracuse, Paestum, and Neapolis, which thus became Naples), but also further west in southern France (Massalia / Marseilles), northeast on the shores of the Black Sea, and south in Egypt (the important Naukratis, near Alexandria, with ties to a number of home cities) such that in due course Greater Greece, Magna Graecia, became a major trading network, an informal trading empire, united loosely by language and culture, with a total population of c5m, far outstripping the aggregate ancestral “home” cities.

The major Persian invasions of 490 and 480BC were successfully, famously, resisted by the Greeks, led by Athens. They displaced the enterprising Ionian Greeks from western Anatolia, shunted them back west to Greece proper.

But the stronger Athens now grew over-confident and aggressive, “imperially” allying with a number of other cities, but then c431BC fell into a disastrous destructive civil war with Sparta (the Peloponnesian Wars), which she finally lost, 404 BC, such that not long later the militarily able Philip of Macedon to the north (and soon to be famous son, Alexander) capitalised on Greek fecklessness and prevailed.


1.2/ The ancient Greek Enlightenment: the radical Greek contribution, the Thought Revolution. Homer and the Ionian thinkers, Athens and beyond

The nub of the Greek contribution was simply a keen appetite to seek the Truth through open-minded rational enquiry, unencumbered by inherited traditional thought, especially by any theological preconceptions.

The radical Greek Contribution, from the Greek “enlightenment”, crossed many boundaries.

  • Literacy / literature The Greek Thought Revolution started with Homer (c850-800??), thence Hesiod (c750-650BC?) from Boetia, who launched the Greek literary achievement. Importantly around 700BC the Greeks learned writing again (lost with Mycenae?), especially through adapting the Phoenician alphabet, probably accessed through the Greek trading post of Poseideion on the Syrian coast, just inside modern Turkey (at Al Mina). Thus the Greek alpha, beta, gamma come from Semite words for ox, house, camel.
  • The 7th and 6th C delivered much lyric poetry, either intimate or public, and in the 5th C the famous tragedies (what little survives of them) arrived, addressing the risks of passion and of abuse of power. Then satirical comedy followed.
  • This study was provoked by effort to understand the reality of life, ie the cosmological reality, especially beyond, behind the smokescreen of traditional myths and gods, seeking to understand the origin and nature of their world. In particular philosophers, in their ruminating, developed a coherent system of rational logic and argument, rhetorical tools.
  • This started in Egypt and Babylon but the Greeks took it beyond practical application, beginning with Pythagoras of Samos (c580-500BC, left for south Italy c530), who apparently was drawn to maths from music. Archimedes of Syracuse (c287-213 BC) in Sicily made big strides.
  • Natural science. They sought to approach understanding reality, the natural world, through open-minded reason, rational processing of observations (though not yet experiment). This method was applied to physics and astronomy (Aristarchus of Samos (c310-230 BC) famously declared the earth orbits the sun) but also importantly to medicine, where the Greeks clearly pioneered, through Hippocrates of Cos (c479-399 BC) in the 5th C BC who appears to be the first to approach understanding the matter of disease rationally, based on careful observation and analysis (some case records of which survive) rather than traditional resort to the supernatural, to magic, spirits etc.
  • History. The “modern” practice of writing an account of history, reporting on linear, chronological sequences of events was launched off by Herodotus (c485-425BC), thence Thucydides (c460-400) and Xenophon (c435-354). Until then there was little apparent interest in such an approach. The past was a soup pot.
  • Politics, government: the Law, ie set of rules for Man’s collective affairs, determined by a democratic process, ie with input from enfranchised “electorate”, albeit a franchise restricted to free adult males. “they had a system where every citizen voted directly on every major issue, and in which approximately two-thirds of the citizen population sat, at some point in their adult lives, on the supreme governing council, the boule, of the city.” The ekklesia was the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient


Thus it was the Pre-Socratic philosophers who opened the purple patch of ancient Greek philosophy, commenced the radical new approach to comprehending the natural world about them, who were later called by Aristotle the physikoi (“physicists”, after physis, “nature”) since they tried to explain, understand Nature, natural phenomena rationally, without recourse to religious or mythological preconceptions, therefore as opposed to the theologoi (theologians).


Thus the three key radical breakthroughs were:

1/ inference that there exists a cosmic natural order. In observing Nature we see not capricious theological intervention but rather some version there of universal Order, expressed, revealed later by certain Laws.

2/ seeking to understand this order, searching for the truth is an exalted mission!

3/ approach to this: not just empirical observation – which by then had a long history in Egypt and Mesopotamia – but in their thinking process, abandoning preconceptions for an open mind. A rational thought process.

Their thought survives only through quotations or comments by later writers, hence the risk of misinterpretation or bias.


The first Presocratic philosophers came from Miletus, in Ionia, starting with Thales (624-546 BCE), “the father of Greek philosophy”. Anaximander (610-546 BCE), the first writer on philosophy, and Anaximenes (585-525 BCE) both sought a driving universal principle.

Pythagoras of Samos (island close to Miletus) (582-496 BCE) saw the world in harmony, explicable through numbers (a powerful intuitive surmising!). He sought to persuade Man to lead a harmonious life. He moved to Croton in south Italy.

Xenophanes of Colophon (in Ionia) (570-470 BCE) “declared God to be the eternal unity, permeating the universe..” He also observed sea shells in rocks inland and reckoned the sea must relate to them somehow.

For Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475BC) all is change, flux, influencing Plato who saw unchanging Reality behind the changing sensory world.

The Eleatic school (from Elea, southern Italy), Parmenides (c515-440 BCE) and Zeno (490-430 BCE), stressed the doctrine of the One, behind the superficial transient unreliable sensory experience. Parmenides, influenced by Xenophanes, is the first Greek philosopher who we read in his own words? He wrote of “the way of truth” where “reality” is timeless and unchanging, and “the way of opinion”, the sensory world, of misleading “appearances”. So we can’t trust our senses, just thought alone. So the Eleatics opposed the early “physicalist” thinkers like Thales seeking to explain existence through speculation about primary matter, an opposed Heraclitus’ notion that existence is perpetual change.

The Pluralist school of Empedocles of Agrigentum (the Greek Akragas, in southwest Sicily) (490-430 BCE) saw four “unchangeable substances”, fashioned into making this world by two “motive forces”, love and strife!

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (Ionian city, north of Miletus and Ephesus) (500-428 BCE) also conceived an “ordering principle”, and the material world which was fashioned from “an infinite multitude of imperishable primary elements” by “divine reason or Mind (nous)”. He “brought” philosophy – from Ionia and beyond – to Athens?

Leucippus (fl.440 BC) and his student Democritus of Abdera (coastal Thrace) (c460-370 BC) famously conceived atomic theory, that the material world comprises atoms, infinite, different “small primary bodies..  indivisible..  imperishable..”, always on the move “through the infinite void… [colliding.. uniting]”.

Thus a common theme for many of these early thinkers was that some kind of timeless Ordering Principle lies behind, drives the apparent transient, sensory, material world we inhabit, observe daily. Which was a profound insight. Later, much later, especially from the 17th C onward, scientific thinking, experiment and analysis, down to today, has slowly revealed this to be true, has indeed revealed an Order, though one still not unravelled.

Many however simply take the leap of faith and call it God! Invest it with divine content, meaning of whatever selfsatisfying construct. Soothing, pacifying “shelter from the storm”.

Striking too is the wide range of topics of interest for the Presocratics, including even medicine.

Meanwhile back in old Greece the Sophists – from around the mid 5th C BC, and in the context of more pressing worldly matters like Athens heading into the Peloponnesian Wars –  now disagreed with, were sceptical of all this speculative theorising beyond the sensory. For them all we have are the senses, “subjective impressions”, and their concerns were more for worldly matters like ethics. Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 BCE) “founded” the “school”. He is credited with Man is the measure of all things”, meaning your guess is as good as mine!? AndAs to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist,”, which cost him remaining in Athens, not least because gods had been invoked by some Greek rulers (like Lycurgus in Sparta) as underwriting their laws.  Other Sophists were Gorgias (487-376 BCE) from Sicily, and Hippias (485-415 BCE), from the Peloponnese.  The Sophists soon became a major target of criticism by Plato.

The Peloponnesian war, to 404BC caused some backsliding in the pursuit of Truth, gave a “new boost to superstition”, but some sense prevailed. It also brought some conflict between science and philosophy. “Yet Greek maths, philosophy and science survived both.. the Peloponnesian Wars and Plato’s counter-reformation.. continued to thrive for.. four or five centuries..” (CM Bowra).


Socrates (c470-399 BC), whose thought is known only from secondary sources, principally Plato, is a famous Athenian philosopher important mainly for his concern for arete (excellence in moral virtue) and thus his contribution to ethics, and also for the “Socratic method”, a way of argument to help understand, penetrate any given circumstantial problem. He argued knowledge is reachable through active debate and thought, which the sceptical Sophists denied. But above all Socrates favoured humility, caution and patience in tackling the hard questions.

He lived through the tumultuous period from the “imperial” Athenian hegemony through its disastrous conflict with Sparta (431-421 and 411-404 BC), and defeat. Thereafter an oligarchy of the Thirty assumed power but democracy was quickly restored, in 403BC, soon after which Socrates (who had fought in the war) was tried and in a postwar atmosphere of recriminatory intolerance was found guilty of “corrupting the youth”. Thus not long before, c411 BC, the Sophist Protagoras was prosecuted for impiety because of his irreverent sceptical treatise “On the Gods“ and fled Athens.


In the cause of detached contemplation by Man of the universal predicament, Plato’s (c427-347BC) role seems basically negative? He was a Bad Man! Picking up from Parmenides he declared the senses mislead, reveal only imperfect evidence of Forms, the Reality behind the senses. But then there is no basis for verifying the Forms. They are whatever people want them to be, thus giving ambitious powerful societal groups an interest in devising self-serving myths. Hence Plato inspired future generations of Bad Men. People who claimed the existence of some self-serving profound Overwhelming Truth – basically pulled out of one or other fundamental orifice, with no corroborating, supporting evidence whatsoever – then proceeded to ram it down the People’s throat, coercing their obedience. Thus like the Christian Church and certain other religions, and like the various calamitous totalitarian platforms of the 20th C.

Thus Plato’s long term impact was negative. Seiler (2010): “.. Plato clearly implies that observational details of nature—being mere shadows of reality—are unworthy of study..  his disparagement of the senses (which deeply influenced Christianity) has led many thinkers to eschew the empirical study of nature..”

Though Plato did like mathematics, cf Pythagoras (fl 6th C).


Aristotle (384-322BC) was constructive, capitalised on the Presocratics musings on Nature, who did value observations by the senses. And as a one-man industry he ranged widely into Physics, geology, physiology, chemistry.  His achievement was taken up in the Hellenistic period, eg in Alexandria, eg by Demetrius Phaleron (c435-283BC), by Herophilus (fl 300BC) and Erasistratus (c304-245BC) (human dissection), thence Galen (130-201AD). Also Ptolemy and astronomy.

However Aristotle also acted as a brake, because once he opined across the many branches of science he declared, that’s all sorted then! Thus he never understood the correct processes for developing scientific knowledge, that knowledge is always incomplete, imperfect, changing, subject to ongoing discovery. It took another two millennia to grasp this?


1.3/ Historiography: the “Greeks first” view is not new, but is out of fashion in today’s relativist, “politically correct”, and China resurgent, world.

There is hot debate over Why Europe first? Why did the most radical shift in Man’s economic / political affairs, and, alongside, in his knowledge, happen in Europe?

One major reason is the thought revolution in Classical Greece from 6th C BC onwards. There was a radical, crucial shift in Man’s approach to understanding his world, towards detached, open-minded thinking, free especially from traditional religious thought structures, imposed by institutionalised political power.

Yes there were major, “advanced” civilisations outside Europe, like Egypt, and especially in China and also India. And China achieved important technology advances.

But the takeoff, the birth of the Modern, occurred in Europe.


1.4/ Ancient Greece: part of the Axial Age? C 8th to 3rd C BC? No. Far fetched. Overstated. Greece was different!

German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1949 book) dreamed up the Axial Age, claiming comparable new ways of thinking – new quest for meaning, open enquiry – emerged approimately 8th to 3rd C BC in four different regions: China (Confucius and Lao-Tse), India (Buddha), Iran (Zarathustra), Israel and Greece/Rome (Homer, Ionians etc).

But this seems far fetched. Greece was different (Diarmid MacCulloch agrees, Guardian, March 2006).


2/ China


Chinese history: periods of prosperity, but also of very destructive foreign intrusion and widespread domestic conflict.


China took shape as a political entity in the first millennium BC, and until the 20th century largely remained a coherent empire governed by scholar-officials after the Confucian vision of a meritocratic, ordered society.” (The Economist 2004).

Yes China’s history includes prominent intermittent periods of sustained prosperity and cultural and economic achievement, but it is also marked by three periods of violent, very costly foreign intervention, and by important periods of very destructive internal domestic fragmentation and conflict (particularly the Warring States Period in 3rd to 5th C BC, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms in the 10th C, and the 19th C Taiping Rebellion).

The third phase of foreign intervention refers to that of the West, from the Jesuit missionaries in the 16th C down to important (though not crucial?) Soviet backing in mid 20th C for the Chinese Communists fighting the Nationalists.


A 4000 year story

Recorded Chinese dynasties begin with the Xia (c2070-1600 BC), then Shang (c1600-1046 BC).

An Aug. 2016 report of new research shows the great flood (in the Yellow River basin) which founded the Xia dynasty occurred c1920BC, not as far back as 2200BC. The dynasty was founded by Emperor Yu, who oversaw rebuilding in wake of the disaster. “..Stories about Emperor Yu laid the ideological foundation for the Confucian rulership system..”

Chinese culture developed extensively during the long Zhou dynasty (c1046-256 BC), but which from the 8th C BC fragmented, fell into violent disarray in the Spring and Autumn Period (722-476 BC), thence to the Warring States period (476-221 BC) when 7 internal “states” battled openly until Imperial China began when Qin Shi Huang, leader of one faction, prevailed and united the conflicting groups and established the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), which also gave China its name. He forcefully imposed a strong central government, a central legal code, promoted literacy, and also arranged a terracotta army for his tomb. And he imposed conformity, allegedly allowed the “burning of books and burying of scholars“, though the extreme interpretation of this is now doubted because it was recorded by the Han.

However the Qin dynasty also soon failed. Liu Bang won a civil war and launched the formidable Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) which successfully consolidated and extended the Qin dynasty’s central imperial bureaucratic rule, and made Confucianism the official guiding philosophy. The Han expanded borders and Chinese art, culture and science all importantly advanced.

But unrest emerged again by the 2nd C AD and by the 4th C northern China fragmented, so c420-589 AD China was divided between Northern and Southern Dynasties.

The brief Sui dynasty (589-618) united China again, after near 4 centuries of instability since fall of the Han, re-established key central government institutions, setting the stage for the great Tang dynasty (618-907), founded by the Li clan, overseen by a strong centralised bureaucracy, the “Three Departments and Six Ministries”. The Tang period, which saw expansion of its borders, was clearly a high watermark for China for its sustained relative peace and prosperity (though mainly in its first half), its cosmopolitan openness and comparative tolerance, and its culture (especially poetry, literature and art). Its population may have grown from c50m to c80m.

Though there was resistance: “Turkic people to N and NW.. Tibetans in SW, the Abbasid Islamic state in W and central Asia..” (ag nsw).

Chinese dynasties claimed a “mandate from heaven” to rule, as “sons of heaven”, ie in much the same way as in Christian Europe, or most traditional political systems anywhere!

One of the Tang emperors was even a woman, Empress Wu Zetian (and who seized the throne, r690-705 entere Emp Taizong’s court as concubine age 13, partnered with Crown Prince who became Emp Gaozong (628-83), he dies, she became nun, till she emerged and took power, ruled 35 years), the only woman to ascend the Chinese throne and who (like Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora) started out as a concubine.

Its capital Chang’an (“long lasting peace” in Chinese!) lay in far west of what is modern China (now modern day X’ian in Shaanxi Province), near the east end of the Silk Road. “For more than two centuries, Chang’an became the biggest and most advanced city in the world, leaving a legacy in urban history that has echoed down the ages.” (Cao Ying, curator Chinese art, AG NSW). Its population was around one million within 84 sq km, or including outskirts probably reached around 2 million, or about double Rome at its peak, staggering for that time, and including perhaps 25,000 foreigners. It was a diverse thriving trading hub, accessing goods from Asia and the MidEast. Buddhism was also imported, became the main faith of Tang emperors.

As John McDonald notes, the openness and curiosity and diversity of Tang time is in marked contrast to later “insular” dynasties, “notably the Ming” in 15th C.

But yes the Tang also succumbed to infighting and fragmentation, partly due to the rise of regional military governors, and a formal period of disunity (the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, 907-960AD) before the Sung or Song Dynasty (960-1279) could re-establish central order, and achieve (during Europe’s Middle Ages) what is regarded as classical China’s peak in science and technology.

ART of the Tang dynasty noted for its “diversity, elaborate designs.. brilliant colours..”, benefited greatly from trade west.

Phrase Chinatown refers back to Tang time? To the cultural diversity? The phrase in China for Chinatown is “Tang peoples’ street”.

The ag nsw show featured 1/ gold and silver wares. These displace bronze and jade, not least because of belief they might prolong life!!

2/ tea culture, big time, eg Lu Yu’s Encyc of Tea in 780. Gifts, ceremonies. Poems to it.

3/ ceramics, influence of Mediterranean glassware?? Famous sancai wares, “three color’ wares.  Though notice the Chinese did not pursue glassware.

4/ clothes, influence of west again?

5/ mbusic, 6/ horses, great prestige because military purpose?  Also camels.

and 6/ Buddhist art. B arrived after Han. Met Daoism (patterns of the universe s guide to behaviour, private and government) and Confucius (moral based obligations to each other). B took root, eg Empress Wu Zetian (624-705). Thus she had great Buddha at Fenguan carved.

But in another decisive and comprehensive setback the Mongols successfully invaded from the north, and prevailed so by 1279 the Mongolian Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) established the Yuan dynasty, now run from Beijing. China’s pre-Mongol era population may have reached c120m, but the invasion, sustained unrest, and outbreak of plague seems to have culled this dramatically by the 14th C, perhaps by 30-40%?

Taking advantage of the unrest, including peasant revolts, the Han Chinese informed Ming dynasty (1368-1644) overthrew the Mongols in 1368. Strong central government returned and the rulers even allowed greater foreign trade and other contact, eg with Japan. For a time they also ventured further abroad at sea, especially under the Yongle Emperor (r1402-24). The economy grew, especially in the south, and Beijing’s Forbidden City imperial palace reached its zenith. But then they retreated again, banned Chinese maritime venturing, and largely (though not completely) resisted contact with the now increasingly active and insistent European maritime explorers, especially the Portuguese, then Dutch.

Late in the Ming period (1556) the massive Shaanxi Earthquake killed over 800,000.

Now China suffered a second destructive foreign intervention, again from the north, when the Manchus exploited major internal peasant unrest and, allied with a lapsed Ming general, overthrew the Ming and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1644. And again the intervention was very costly, over a period of half a century, causing an economic slump and costing as many as 25m lives. The Manchu quickly adopted the language and culture of China, and at least to start, delivered competent long lived rulers like Kangxi (r 1661-1722, ie a close contemporary of France’s Louis XIV) and his grandson, Qianlong (r 1736-95, died at 89), under which China reached a zenith, numbering around 300m and now running the world’s largest economy . The Manchu were also generally more tolerant and open to foreign exchanges, eg even allowing Christian contact (including Jesuits!), compared to the stricter Ming who had stressed the native Chinese traditions of Taoism and Confucianism, and who discouraged Buddhists. European traders and diplomats began arriving in the 16th and 17th C.

The Jesuits were enterprising in their proselytising, adopting local dress and customs, and compiling a Chinese dictionary and grammar book. One Jesuit lay brother (Giuseppe Castiglione, 1688-1766, Chinese name of Lang Shining) arrived 1714 and stayed for good, “became the pre-eminent court artist of Qianlong’s reign and influenced many local painters” (Christopher Allen, 16 May 2015).

Then foreign contact in the 19th C proved disastrous for the large but stagnant country, run by a weak introspective unconfident monarchy.

First, Western imperial intervention stepped up, buoyed by the ongoing transformative European Industrial Revolution. Britain won two Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), compelling the Chinese to open ports, “accept foreign envoys, free movement for Christian missionaries and a British hold on Hong Kong.

Secondly, China was blighted by massive internal unrest, especially the huge Christian-inspired (unlikely “Western intervention”!) Taiping Rebellion which impacted about a third of the country and cost maybe 20m lives. They lost a brief war with Japan (1894-95) then faced further debilitating foreign conflict in the wake of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

Finally the Qing dynasty fell in 1912 when a reformist military uprising succeeded led by the inspirational Sun Yat-sen, seeking to establish a republic. However he was quickly sidelined by the army chief Yuan Shikai who in 1915 declared himself Emperor! But he only provoked fierce opposition, then died 1916 and the country fragmented, fell into civil conflict called the Warlord Era. From a base south Sun yat-sen tried to restore unity, even allying at one time with the fledgling Communist Party of China (CPC), and ironically with support from newly established Soviet Russia, which was keen to export its revolutionary mission. Sun died 1925 and an associate Chiang Kai-shek took over Sun’s Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang) and in a quick military campaign (1925-26) against the warlords he took control of south and central China, and treated with the northern warlords. Then 1927 he attacked the CPC in southern China, until in 1934 Mao Zedong led the remnants to a new base north.

The outcome was then fatefully influenced by the Japanese intervention and WW2, beginning with the Japanese 1931 invasion of Manchuria, turning into hugely destructive full scale invasion of China in 1937. The KMT and CPC joined forces against the Japanese, then resumed their fight in 1945, which the CPC momentously won in 1949, through a combination of: 1/ especially selling themselves to the peasants as Nationalists, and in particular, lying that they would be given their own land, 2/ the KMT being weakened by fighting the Japanese, and 3/ some self-serving Soviet aid for the CPC (especially captured Japanese war materiel). The KMT retreated to Taiwan.


Recent update (1). But did old China flirt with “Modern” ideas? This is the apparently radical import of recently deciphered old (c 300 BC) bamboo texts.

Three batches of recently translated / deciphered ancient Chinese texts on bamboo strips appear to radically revise the history of Chinese political thought.

They date from c300 BC, during the turbulent Warring Period, around the time of death of Confucius’ disciple Mencius, apparently discovered in tombs in the southern state of Chu (near the Yangste valley), one of the then 7 conflicting Chinese states. This was a crucial period, immediately before Qin Shi Huang, leader of one of the warring states, prevailed and established the Qin dynasty, and during which period the core guiding Chinese philosophies like Confucianism were devised..

They are the earliest discovered such texts and reveal a period of keen debate of political ideas, and, in particular, show that some thinkers favoured the radical course of choosing not only officials / scholar administtrators (shi) on merit but rulers too, in the event hereditary rulers happen to prove too incompetent, thus that such rulers should then abdicate accordingly, and the “mandate of heaven” (as Mencius called it) pass to a better alternative.

Today the Communist Party of China claims that China’s best interests are served by it holding the “mandate of heaven”.

  1. A Revolutionary Discovery in China, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, 21st April 2016.

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