October 26, 2006 (the date of publication in Russian)

Roman Bagdasarov, Alexander Rudakov


A Russian view from Corfu on the Greece's civilizational mission

The "Russian Week" Forums on the Greek isle of Corfu, in which the editors of Russian Entrepreneur monthly have already taken part for several years, are obviously achieving a special role in Russian-Greek relations. The cultural connections between the two intellectual communities have provided an impetus for a reflexive search for a new formula of comprehensive cooperation of the two nations in the XXI century. Having thus emerged, the new formula, in its turn, requires a new, more adequate mutual understanding among the nations, corresponding with the real contribution of each in the global civilization. The essay below is an attempt to present a Russian view on the historical and cultural mission of Greece, developed for almost three millenniums.



Democracy, civil freedom, advanced medicine, philosophy, development of science, an academic system of education, a humanistic-oriented religion, free arts, and the Olympic movement – all these achievements of the Greek civilization have been closely associated with a general concept of Europe. They are perceived as granted, as initially inherent in the social order to which a modern human has got accustomed. Two aspects, however, are being overlooked.

Firstly, the above mentioned institutions of public being had developed in the European history gradually, stage by stage. Since a certain moment of history Ц namely, the XV century Ц their general blueprint, being permanently before the eyes of the European cultural elite, was quite precisely identified as Hellenism. It was in the ancient Hellas where today's public institutions were originally approbated and where they demonstrated their efficiency.

Since the period of the VII-VI centuries B.C. and until today, Hellas has been serving as a crucial crossroads of civilization for Europe to the same extent as China has served for Eastern Asia, and India for Southern Asia. The influence of Hellenism is immense, and even today, it is hard to evaluate its scale, as Hellenism has given birth not to one but to a whole array of civilizations: to the Greek polises, to the empire of Alexander the Great, to the Bactrian, Parthenic, Roman, East Roman civilizations, as well as the Islamic culture of the Caliphate's period. In the period between the fall of the Caliphate of the Abbasids (1258) and the conquest of Eastern Rome (1453), a supra-civilizational movement of the Renaissance emerged. Since that time, Hellenism has established itself in the role of the general vector in Western culture, serving as a bearing construction of global culture until today. In Russia, it acquires and especially prolific extent.

Today, when a unified Europe is implemented as a political reality, it would be useful to remind of the second circumstance. What precisely had been serving as a custodian of the Hellenistic idea, knowledge, language, medicine, and the tradition of architecture and arts? There are no doubts about that: the Hellenistic transmission has not ceased due to its legitimate custodian Ц the Greek ethnos, its representatives permeating into and often dominating over the governments of the largest nations of the Mediterranean since the IV century B.C. and until the XV century A.D.

Recognizing the role of Hellenistic culture as a global supra-civilizational mediator, we should raise the question on the role of today's Greece, as well as the Greek diaspora in a variety of other European nations. Today, with the EU expansion eastward and southward, the issue of the Hellenistic genius and its universal cultural contribution is significant as never before.



By the V century A.D., the network of Hellenistic city states, the polises, encompassed a large part of the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins. Impregnated with a humanistic essence of culture, the democratic order in the major polises gave birth to a specific kind of personality Ц comprehensively active, and committed for progress in the best meaning of this word.

However, the independent polises, connected only with sea routes and scattered across a huge territory, found themselves helpless before imperial states which inevitably subordinated them to their domination. The crisis which affected the system of Greek polises in the IV century, challenged the genuine Hellenistic character of Greek colonies. By that time, Hellenism had already become a specific ferment of the global civilization. Still, the universal values, brought up by Hellenism, would evaporate with the loss of independence. In the cities of Asia Minor, involved in the orbit of the Persian Empire, democracy was replaced with oligarchic rule, more convenient for imperial supervision. From the west, the polises were challenged by Carthage, the major trade rival of Greek cities.

In these critical conditions, Hellenism could just vanish, being replaced with an alternative design. This role was played by the Phoenician network of cities. It is hard to imagine what the modern civilization would look like if this happened, with sweeping replacement of the democratic ideal with thymocratic pragmatism Ц administrative positions depending on personal fortunes, in a most cynical form being traded in public. This change would also suggest a rather specific kind of moral, justifying sacrifice of the first baby for the sake of well-being of the rest of the family, a collective event of this kind supposed to promise prosperity to the nation.

In order to survive and elevate to the next stage, Hellenism had to acquire a protective cover, also achieving a higher degree of coordination of the cities' policy. The power of Alexander the Great, emerging within a very small time span, represented an empire of a new type, which often used the apparatus of despotism and the army for quite unusual purposes. Annexing Greek cities from the Persian rule, Alexander re-established local democratic bodies, simultaneously guaranteeing their security.

The Hellenistic rule actually implemented the pattern of a network hierarchy. It was based upon trade connections and financial flows, circulating across the system of colonies and polises. Already Philip of Macedon, Alexander's father, introduced monetary bimetallism in order to facilitate this process. In his turn, Alexander transferred his experience of naval colonization to the land, enforcing and correcting land routes and erecting regional capitals, the Alexandrias. In the framework of new statehood, Alexander abolished the earlier division of citizens into Hellenics and Barbarians, conveying equality of rights to the aristocracy and the Greeks.

The view that the rapid collapse of Alexander's empire eliminated the result of his efforts is essentially erroneous.

Consciously or subconsciously, the brilliant sovereign laid the foundation of the Oecumena, the Hellenistic world Ц the common space of the global civilization. This space has far survived the post-Macedonian era and even the Roman Empire. It predetermined the state-building in Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia, extending to India and the Pamirs. Still, its major result was the implementation of the Hellenistic cultural standard, which has eventually enabled the human to elevate to the level of his identity. From a religious viewpoint, this was a threshold for the Christian revelation of the Man's supreme mission. From a secular view, this made the human mind more adequate to perception of the reality and to the capability for an efficient impact on this reality.



The rule of Alexander the Great and his successors has enhanced the development of the design of the connection, emerging among the peoples of the Mediterranean since the Creto-Mycenaean civilization. The common space of the Hellenistic Oecumena intensified the mutual enrichment of cultural modes. The existence of the pan-Mediterranean state has thus become inconceivable without adoption of Hellenistic mentality.

Speaking about Greek culture, we actually imply the principles which are traditionally described as universally human. Thales of Miletus, the founder of the Ionic school, has formulated the famous "Know yourself" principle, which would become a postulate of the whole future Greek tradition. Its specific feature is expressed in its address to common human experience, on the contrary to the appeal to the esoteric ascese, typical for Oriental culture, and to the cryptic knowledge in the case of Egypt.

Humanism and individual orientation, inherent in our mind, were wholly expressed in ancient Greek culture Ц first outlined by its philosophers, and later implemented in the public mind.

After Alexander the Great, other peoples adopted the same principles as well. While the population of the Persian Empire received them as an official ideology, imposed by force by the governments of the Seleucides, Antigonides and Ptolemeians, the Republic of Rome adopted it voluntarily, and pragmatically.



On the contrary to a popular belief, the Great Rome never relied only upon bare military force. Rome was ascending along with the dissemination of Greek ideas of stoicism and epicureanism, as well as construction technologies, implemented in the expanse of a Hellenized Asia Minor. The Roman elite was proud of inheriting the traditions of dramaturgy and sculpture, and eventually, the Hellenistic school of thinking.

The humanistic orientation of the Greek thinking successfully revived in the intellectual tradition of Ancient Rome. The cultural lexicon, including standards of health, the imperative of freedom, the law and the citizen's duty, were efficiently absorbed by this tradition. The Greek natural philosophy, based on a systematic search for truth in every field of knowledge, continuously reproducing it in the following generations, has also found its recipients in Rome. Lucius Anneus Seneca decently continued the line of the great Heraclites; Marcus Terentius Varro may be identified as the Herodotus of Rome, while Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect of the Pantheon and Trajan’s Forum Ц as a successor of Ictinus and Callicrates, the architects of the Parthenon, or Mnesicles, the author of the Propileas. Meanwhile, the Roman law was greatly influenced by Greek jurisprudence, with its balance between the personal and public interest. The same is true about the Greek political thought, which had proceeded as no one else towards recognition of diversity of cultural modes, seeking an integrative approach towards each of them.

All these features made "Roman Hellenism" exceptionally mobile and simultaneously, universal. Its dominating role in construction of a unifying circuit for the advent of the global civilization became obvious.

Quite naturally, Pax Romana reached its peak of its might when the capital was transferred to Constantinople, the city with a Greek name on the eastern coastline of the Dardanelles.

In the Romean power, the Byzantium, the Hellenistic transmission is most natural, obvious, not deserving special comments. The phenomenon of the Arabic Caliphate, rooted ostensibly in a completely different ethno-religious niche, is more indicative.



The Caliphate's Hellenism, particularly its natural philosophy, developed in three directions: 1) accumulation of knowledge; 2) synthesis of Hellenistic knowledge with achievements of Oriental cultures (India, Chaldea, China); 3) correction and innovation of Hellenistic knowledge.

The first line is exemplified with the activity of Caliph Al Mansur, the founder of Baghdad, and his son Haroun al-Rashid, as well as the valor of such translators as Hunayn ibn Ishaq. The direction of the synthesis was determined in Gondishapur, where a center of medicine and astronomy had existed since the Sassanides, while the most impressing implementation was achieved in the half-state society of Beit al Hikma (House of Wisdom). This prototype of a research institution was coordinating the work of more than fifty scientists, rethinking a variety of scientific achievements of the East in a Hellenistic view. The third line demonstrates that the natural philosophy of Hellenism was creatively transformed by Arabic scientists, including the Banu Moussa (Sons of Moussa) in mechanics and geometry, al-Razi in medicine, Ibn Rushd (Averrhoes) in philosophy, and Ibn al-Awwam in agronomy.

The intention to adopt as much Hellenistic knowledge as possible was driving the Arabs into a specific contest with Eastern Rome. The Caliphate, occupying a part of the historical state of Alexander the Great, presented itself as a succession of his civilizational mission. The very figure of Iskander dû-l-Karnayni is regarded as sacred in the Quran. According to the Al-Qahf (The Cave) Sura, Alexander is an ultimate protector, the supreme guard of true faith; he has prepared the humans to the Day of Judgement, erecting a metallic barrier to separate the pious people from the sinister tribes of Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog). Through the figure of Iskander, the space of civilization is equated to an asylum for those who are to be saved.

Certainly, not all of the aspects of Hellenism could be accepted from the viewpoint of Shariat laws. Still, the complementary qualities of Greek culture have brought a prolific harvest in all the aspects of the Caliphate's life. This is a strong evidence of the unique mission of Hellenism as a universal cultural code.

In an Arabic translation, the oath of Hippocrates became a necessary attribute of Islamic physicians. Some fields of medicine, particularly ophthalmology, inspired by the medical experience of Greece, far exceeded the Greek achievements in the Caliphate.

(To be continued. Greece as a Cultural Superpower)

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