A Basic Primal Need

“In one important respect, Jews, Greeks, and Romans resembled each other and differed from the other peoples of antiquity – a resemblance and a difference that gave all three of them a crucial role in shaping the civilizations that were to follow. In the Middle East as elsewhere in the world, it was the universal custom of human groups to draw a sharp line between themselves and others – to define the group and reject the outsider. This basic primal need goes back to the beginnings of humanity and beyond them to most forms of animal life. Invariably, the distinction between insiders and outsiders was determined by blood; that is, by kinship or by what we would nowadays call ethnicity. The Greeks and the Jews, the two most articulate peoples of Mediterranean antiquity, have bequeathed two classical definitions of the Other – the barbarian who is not Greek and the gentile who is not Jewish. The barriers expressed by these terms were formidable but – and herein lay an immensely important innovation – they were not insuperable, and in this they differed from the more primitive and more universal definitions of difference based on birth and blood. These barriers could be crossed or even removed, in the one case by adopting the language and culture of the Greeks, in the other by adopting the religion and laws of the Jews. Neither group sought new members, but both were willing to accept them, and by the beginning of the Christian era, Hellenized barbarians and Judaized gentiles were a common feature in many Middle Eastern cities.”

What was it about the Greeks and the Jews that enabled this shift? The degree to which they had become “civilized”? Evolution in the human brain that permitted this kind of thinking? The triumph of the logical realization that nothing concrete truly separated the barbarians or gentiles from us, over the emotional, instinctual human impulse to discriminate?

There is another respect in which Greeks and Jews were unique in the ancient world – in their compassion for an enemy. There is nothing elsewhere to compare with the sympathetic portrayal by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus – himself a veteran of the Persian wards – of the sufferings of the vanquished Persians, or the concern for the people of Assyrian Nineveh expressed in the Biblical book of Jonah.

The Romans carried the principle of inclusiveness an important step further, by the gradual development of a common imperial citizenship. The Greeks had developed the idea of citizenship – the citizen, that is, as a member of a polity with the right to participate in the formation and conduct of its government. But membership of a Greek city was limited to its original citizens and their descendants, and the most that a foreigner could aspire to was the status of resident alien. Roman citizenship was originally of the same kind, but in gradual stages the rights and duties of a Roman citizen were extended to all the provinces of the Empire.”

And then it evolved further? Putting aside for the moment the Romans’ brutality and imperialism. I guess that America is the contemporary Rome in yet another way, having to a certain extent abandoned the idea of blood- or ethnicity-based citizenship altogether.

I understand that it’s human nature to discriminate and separate “the other.” I see the impulse in myself.Yet I can’t help but feel that it’s possible for us to progressively move past it.

Quotes from The Middle East by Bernard Lewis, pages 31-32


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