Eric A. Havelock (essay date 1957)
SOURCE: “The Political Theory of Democritus,” in The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, 1957. Yale University Press, 1964, pp. 125-54.
[In the following excerpt, Havelock examines Democritus's political statements and concludes that he was satisfied to leave some problems unsolved.]
The political theory of Democritus has been preserved by antiquity in the form of some twenty-three aphorisms, or programmatic statements, attributed to his name. These are contained in a large ‘chrestomathy’ or anthology of useful statements compiled perhaps in the early fifth century of our era by John of Stobi [4.1 On Polity; 4.2 On Laws; 4.5 On Government]. The reader whose conception of Greek philosophy follows traditional lines will, when he looks at this allegedly Democritean material, be tempted to say to himself: ‘Democritus was famous in antiquity for a materialist metaphysic. He taught the doctrine of a mechanical universe in which infinite atoms moving through infinite space perpetually collided to form combinations essentially fortuitous. Whatever be the precise meaning of these statements about man in society, their doctrine must derive from the general theory of his system. Let us, therefore, in attempting to interpret the political theory of Democritus, first assume that it depends on his atomic principles and reflects the same mechanism and determinism.’
But when we consider the problem of how to connect his atomism with his politics, the testimonies fail us. Democritus clearly had precise views about many matters affecting society and the city state and law and justice. But no writer of antiquity reports where Democritus the atomist stood in relation to Democritus the political scientist. There were writers after him who claimed the Democritean tradition, and who did make the connection for themselves. One thinks, for example, of Lucretius, but this is not the same thing as reporting for Democritus, the man of Abdera. This adopted son of Athens was an intellectual of the Periclean Age. That a connection existed between his politics and his cosmology is virtually certain. Quotation from Democritus conveys the impression of a keen and a coherent mind, thinking structurally. The impression is reinforced by what tradition says of his metaphysics. If we say he was coherent and cogent rather than systematic, it is because the term systematic is better reserved to describe that mastery of the technique of exposition which was achieved in the ideologies of Plato and Aristotle. The style of Democritus is essentially pre-Platonic. It reflects those methods of organizing ideas which were characteristic of the age. We perceive in him an intuitive coherence which we can, if we choose, reformulate and reproduce as a system. But in the absence of any explicit report which defines the connection between his politics and his metaphysics, let us postpone this question. Let us first estimate his statements about man and society in their own right and determine whether they exhibit an inner direction. If they do, then a just estimate of their logic may put us on a road of connection between metaphysics and politics more reliable than any that might suggest itself if we used traditional assumptions about materialism and mechanism.
It is difficult to describe the sayings of Democritus as either aphorisms or proverbs or axioms or maxims. They overlap these categories. To understand them, one has to understand the role of the gnomic method in antiquity. Here it is pertinent to note a historical distinction. The rounded sentence began its career in the preliterate days of oral communication, when indoctrination depended on word of mouth and retention of doctrine depended on the memory. Democritus himself was a writer, but he wrote in a period when readers were still outnumbered by listeners. It is therefore not surprising that he compressed his ideas into gnomic formulations, for he can be pictured, like the poets who were his contemporaries, as composing under what we may call a form of audience-control. Collections of gnomae, therefore, stamped with the hallmark of individual thinkers were characteristic of the first stage of Greek prose writing. But the anthologies of such which were accumulated systematically in the Hellenistic Age and later, and which dominated so much thinking and writing in later antiquity and the Middle Ages, were devoted to the special task of preserving in an epoch of books and readers that kind of material which was still suitable for oral memorization. Fresh thinking was now done on paper in continuous exposition. Thus the province of the gnome (Latin sententia) ceased to be the creative and became the commonplace.
This tended subtly to alter the vocabulary, temper and tone of the ancient gnomic statements as they were preserved. It was as though the chemical thinking of pre-Platonic antiquity, a dynamic creative process, had now been precipitated in crystallized form at the bottom of the glass; and one collected, arranged and packaged the crystals in commonplace books. The historian, therefore, who examines the preserved statements of any pre-Platonic thinker has to fortify himself against two quite different sources of error, the one in the text, the other in himself. On the one hand, there are the ancient compiler and the compiler from whom he may have compiled; they may have edited the material subtly but inescapably out of its archaic and awkward originality, by changes in vocabulary or syntax, by omissions or eclectic additions of commonplaces of other thinkers. The historian, therefore, is all the more thankful when he deals with a philosopher who adhered to metre. But on the other hand, even when an original survives in its archaic stiffness and angularity, the modern mind approaches it half expecting that it will be, indeed, a commonplace, a proverb or maxim with recognizable relation to the accumulated truisms of Western culture. What is specific and original in terminology, what is surprising and significant in syntax, will tend to be glossed over and ignored. The sayings of Heraclitus are notorious for their concentration and obscurity, but are only an extreme example of a method of exposition which is still discernible in Anaxagoras. The sayings of Democritus are stylistically intermediate between these two thinkers. They are little universes in themselves, and yet also they can be said to be flung like the feathered phrases of the epic minstrel from a mind comprehensive in vision, yet intensely particular in formulation. In short, the political sayings of Democritus present themselves both as self-contained units and yet as items in a ‘system’. They can be marshalled and deployed one by one in a sequence which gradually exposes the coherence of their inner logic. They are, so to speak, electrically charged, but the messages they deliver can be monitored because they are transmitting over a consistent wavelength.
1 [FVS6 68 B257]
As to animals in given cases of killing and not killing the rule is as follows: if an animal does wrong or desires to do wrong and if a man kill it he shall be counted exempt from penalties. To perform this promotes well-being rather than the reverse.
According as has been written concerning wild things and creeping things, if they are ‘enemy’, so also [such is my doctrine] is it needful to do in the case of human beings.
If a thing does injury contrary to right it is needful to kill it. This covers all cases. If a man do so he shall increase the portion in which he partakes of right and security in any [social] order.
According to the custom laws of the fathers you kill the ‘enemy’ in every [social] order where custom-law in that order does not prohibit; for the several groups there are prohibitions of local religious sanctions of solemnized contracts of oaths
Right is to perform what is needful and wrong is to fail to perform what is needful and to decline to do so.
If men have wrong done to them there is need to avenge them so far as is feasible. This should not be passed over. This kind of thing is right and also good and the other kind of thing is wrong and also bad.
This group of formulations has a long ancestry. In its curiously stiff archaic simplicity and its participial constructions, it recalls both the syntax and the subject-matter of the Code of Hammurabi, that cuneiform original of the legal systems of the Near East and the West. But the Greek thinker has cast his legalisms in a typically Hellenic and rational context. He is looking at the behaviour of man in a cosmic and historical setting. Why concentrate on such a trivial matter as the ethics of disposing of dangerous animals, the goring ox, the vicious dog? In primitive communities, such issues provoked disputes between neighbours over valuable property, and it is easy to see how their disposition required the aid of regularity in a code. But Democritus is not interested in the custom-laws of a rural economy, not, that is, for their own sake. He is looking at the usage of men toward animals in order to extract a criterion for the usage of men toward other men. He says so explicitly (No. 2). We might expect the reverse line of reasoning. Surely the disposition of hostile animals is an application of the laws of property among men. But this is not the historical genetic approach of Democritus. He is searching less for the principles than for the methods by which human communities have been able to found themselves. He finds the method in law enforcement. This in turn depends for its effectiveness on the application of sanctions, and the essential sanction is the right to kill, legally that is. The power to execute is primary, if societies are to exist at all. He finds the prototype of this power in the right to kill animals. Why? The only answer can be that his conception of human society is based upon an anthropology in which man, himself an animal species, proceeded to organize himself in social orders (cosmoi) in order to protect himself against other species. When Democritus first states the rule of killing and not killing, he speaks of animals as ‘living things’ (zoa). This word could include men; in the ‘zoogonies’, the origin of the animal and human species was described without distinction of kind. In the anthropologies constructed on this foundation, organized war against the animals had been recognized as a necessary stage in man's social advance. Such had been the mythos, the drama in which his early departure from primitivism had been imaginatively conceived. Democritus takes this drama and uses it genetically to establish basic criteria for right and wrong. In the same genetic spirit he cites ancestral usage, not to support some specific party programme in the present, as was often done by practical politicians, but in its most general sense as that pattern of behaviour historically devised and normatively sanctioned in the remote past.
What then do we mean by ‘Right’ and ‘Unright’ (dike and adikia)? This is the question he asks. And his mind (we can see the naturalist, the materialist at work here) argues that to understand them we have to understand the minimum parts, so to speak, out of which they are constructed. In a civilized society they may be symbols for complicated value-judgments or applications of value-judgments; but they had an historical origin. This was essentially simple; nor will they ever lose the quality of their origin. The origin lay in the sanction of protection to achieve security. The sanction itself in its simplest form was negative—the right to kill the ‘enemy’. To forget this is to betray society (as he later argues). It is not verbal looseness on his part when he speaks of animals ‘doing wrong’. He deliberately reduces wrong, and therefore right, to bare essentials by viewing animal as man and man as animal. To make this quite clear, he reformulates the rule in the most general terms possible:
‘If a thing does injury contrary to right it is needful to kill it.’
By ‘contrary to right’ he indicates the violation of another's security, and to make clear that this minimum condition of right and wrong is meant seriously as a definition of their essence, he makes the definition explicit—
‘To do right is to do what you have to do, to do what there is need of …’
—in the most simple and concrete sense.
If we have defined the repulse of injury as self-protection, however, we can begin to mistranslate the direction of his thought, which would seem an apology for modified anarchy, with atomized individuals repelling wrong but otherwise minding their own business. Strictly speaking, Democritus has no word for individual, that is, for individual self-subsistent personality, and he is incapable of thinking of the concept. His terminology baffles us because while viewing groups or aggregates as made up of simple parts he never seems to visualize the laws of behaviour of the parts without automatically visualizing that behaviour as social. He certainly considered the savage condition of man as pre-civic; but he almost certainly never imagined it as wholly atomized into individuals. Just as in the early anthropologies, the killing of ‘enemies’ was rationalized as that condition necessary for protecting organized society, so in Democritus as he warms to his theme and further defines the action taken against ‘the enemy’ the action is discovered to be social (item 4), sanctioned by the social order (cosmos) in which you are living. If you kill, you kill in the name of social security, and your act is sanctioned by this ‘need’. Nay more, in those human groups which constitute social orders, the definition of ‘right’ (dike) now advances to a more complex level: the sanction of killing is regulated. It is qualified by religious provisions and exceptions. These, he observes keenly, are local (item 4). His empiricism here reinforces his historical method. The right of asylum, for example, the protection afforded by temples to wrong-doers, depends upon the validity of local cults. There is no standard pattern for these. But solemnized agreements accompanied by libations (his next example) reflect practices widespread and accepted, and so do the oaths by which host swears to protect guest, or friend defends friend, or tribes and cities ratify their agreements. These also cut down the freedom to kill the ‘enemy’. Democritus in effect argues that no social group ever applies the simple law of self-protection in its total sense. There is a possibility of mitigation, of truce, of agreement in the unending effort to establish security. Is he in effect pointing to the regulation of intergroup relations as requiring a set of rules more complicated than mere outlawry? Is he hinting that societies, as they progress, learn other usages beside that of right and unright? He has not yet reached the polis but he is getting nearer to it.
Thus far, unright and right, respectively, could be described as symbols of aggression on the one hand and repulse or correction of aggression on the other. The first premisses of moral man, if such these be, are disappointingly negative. But when Democritus sums up the rule of the right to kill and states it as a general principle ‘covering all cases’, he significantly describes the wrong-doer not merely as the ‘enemy’ but as the ‘injurer’ (No. 3). He uses the participle of an epic verb. His style still falls short of the prosaic in the technical sense of that term. But, stylistic considerations apart, he adopts a word which in Homer indicated injury, damage, disaster, done in hostile relations between enemies (for example, by Greeks or Trojans). Injured feelings are not in question. He is advancing by implication a definition of unright as the infliction of material damage. This supplies a hint of the direction of his thought, a hint confirmed by his defence (No. 1) of killing the animal who is ‘enemy’.
‘To perform this promotes well-being rather than the reverse.’
Injury or damage on the one hand, well-being or prosperity on the other, are placed in antithesis. You have to prevent or decrease the former, and to assist or increase the latter. He is thinking perhaps in terms of some calculus, for he says:
‘contribute to well-being rather than the reverse’
and it is also symptomatic that when he formulates the right to kill as a necessary law (items 2, 3), his verb of compulsion (chre) symbolizes the need arising out of the inherent situation, rather than that impersonal compulsion (ananke) imposed from some source external to the situation.
This calculus suggests that he is looking for an operational definition of right and unright. Across the intervening centuries we hear an echo of this, of course unpremeditated, in the accents of Jeremy Bentham. But the comparison with English Utilitarianism is no sooner made than it should be withdrawn. The greatest good of the greatest number is a formula built on the conception of units of personality which can be added up to form arithmetic aggregates. No fresh values enter in at the group level which are not present in its atomized parts. Democritus, to repeat what has already been said, shares with his age an inability to reach such a concept of the human ethos. He would have rejected it as an illusion, we suspect, had it been stated to him. His utilitarianism, then, if it be fair to use the term—and it probably is, for the symbols of utility, profit and interest had already been advanced by thinkers of the naturalist school before Plato united them strategically with the form of the good—his utilitarianism conceives of well-being versus ill-being, of profit versus damage, as indicating alternative conditions which affect the person and his community simultaneously, for a person's ‘way of life’ is life in a community. The group and its component parts have a double-acting relationship. The group is a dynamic context. This is not spelled out for us in Democritus' statements. It is reflected, however, in the ambiguity of his terminology. For example, when he surrounds the right to kill with qualifications (No. 4), he says:
‘For the several groups there are prohibitions.’
Here the phrase ‘several groups’ seeks to translate an untranslatable ambivalence. More strikingly, he says of the man who carries out the need for killing the injurer (No. 3):
‘He shall increase the portion in which he partakes of right and security in any society.’
Democritus means that such a man in the first instance increases the security of the community. But to this security he has himself contributed by his act. He therefore feels good because of his service and also deserves well of the community which he has served. His ‘portion’ is not a fraction of the whole, but amounts to a degree of participation.
So far the Democritean theory of right has presented itself in these legalisms as resting on narrow and negative premisses. To argue that human society could only start its ascent toward civilization by strict enforcement of the most primitive laws of security is no doubt true and valuable; but it does not express the hallmark of civilization itself. Seized as he was of the value of security as a positive thing, Democritus was bound to enlarge and advance his conception until it could comprehend action not only narrowly defensive but also helpful and co-operative. This he begins to do by propounding axiom No. 6; that if you repulse injury and punish it, you do not do this for yourself alone. In a community, you do this in the interests of others who are wronged.
‘If men have wrong done to them there is need to avenge them so far as is feasible. This kind of thing is right and also good.’
This carries us beyond narrowly selfish considerations. Such action is therefore always in danger of being ignored or ‘passed over.’ But (if we may fill in his thought for him) a community comes into existence not as a mere sum of private interests, each protecting their own security, but as a complex in which the need of avenging all who are wronged becomes a matter of ‘principle’, we would say. It has to be recognized, regardless of whether or not the particular victims are strong enough to protect themselves without help. He uses the verb ‘avenge’ perhaps to locate the rule far back in primitive society as he has already located the right of self-preservation. It is the prototype of those methods of legal redress which an advanced society makes available as a substitute for direct succour. But the point is that at least some vengeance must always be taken, whoever is wronged, in order to guarantee that a collective system of mutual security will work for all members. If he asks for it ‘so far as is feasible’, he may mean to hint that group protection by members for other members has always had limited efficacy as contrasted with direct action. But when he vigorously defends this vicarious rule as ‘right and also good’, and the opposite as ‘wrong and also bad’, the second adjective in each pair points up the utility and strength which accrue to the community as a whole.
Two-thirds of Democritus' social and political axioms still remain to be considered. They deal with matters of increasing complexity—law and custom, faction and consensus, the polis, its ethos and administration. His thinking in politics seems to have proceeded along organic lines, viewing the human group as founded on a very few simple principles but discovering and then solving more complicated issues in later stages of development. This kind of progress means that the problems formulated for solution cease to be negative and become positive. They advance from mere security to the creative values and enjoyments of a polis type of community.
Faction within the clan is a bad thing for both sides. Those who win and those who lose share impartially in common disaster.
Envious malice between men constitutes the genesis of faction.
The custom laws would not prevent each of us from living his life in accordance with those powers and opportunities which are his own if it were not true that A inflicted injury on B.
It is the desire of custom law to do good to the way of life of men but it is able to do this only when men also desire to have good done to them. If men hearken to it the custom law demonstrates to them that excellence which is its own.
To establish the basis of sociality, human beings must initially recognize sanctions which protect the group from without. This is a simpler matter than maintaining its cohesion within. If right is a value-symbol to be placed on action taken against the anti-social ‘enemy’, then the objective of reconciling tensions within will call into play other terms and different formulae.
These four political axioms focus their attention on the provenance of custom-law. In Greek tradition, Greek law (nomos) came to be viewed as the specific creation of the city-state. The virtual identification of nomos and polis was already implicit in the theory (or the myth) of law-givers who had established ‘polities’, that is, civic institutions. The idealism of Plato and the teleology of Aristotle only confirmed the identification and made it an article of faith. But Democritus true to his genetic method sees law generated as a solution to problems which were already crystallizing in pre-civic conditions. The factional quarrel which threatens to split the civic group and end its existence can be seen already at work in the clan of blood-kindred. Long before Democritus, Solon had phrased it in this way, and his successor in the democratic experiment, Cleisthenes, had set out to solve the problem practically, by breaking up the ancient clans and distributing their members among demes. Perhaps both men confronted an ancient inheritance, handed down from more primitive days, in the form of blood-feud, which dividing a clan of kindred families can decimate its members. Herodotus saw the same danger in a Pan-Hellenic setting: the quarrel over the command of the united forces against Persia at Salamis; and he applied the same phrase to describe it. These examples show that the clan (phyle) did not describe a kin-group of any defined size. Depending on context, it might refer to the consanguinity of a kin-group within a polis, or to all members of a polis as for example Athenians, or to all Greeks as a ‘race’. Democritus, then, in presenting the factions of the clan as a problem in politics, takes advantage of the ambiguity. He wants a term as general as possible in order to view faction historically as a process endemic in the social order at all stages of its evolution. Upon this perennial and now proverbial danger he places a reflective interpretation. Historically, the way of settling a feud had been a conflict which ended in victory and subjugation. This solution is illusory, says Democritus. The victors and vanquished have suffered a common destruction. Of what, we may ask? In any immediate sense, the vanquished lose definite things like life or status or property; and the victors gain corresponding and equally definite benefits. Democritus cannot be defining loss in these terms. Something has been destroyed which was the common property of the two factions before the fighting began.
That common property could be defined as the group's over-all security, or its law. But Democritus does not at once jump, as a more traditional and superficial thinker might, to the necessity of supporting law at all costs—eunomia, the Greeks called it—as a preventive of faction. The enemy from without the group had been simply ‘the enemy’, externally viewed. You do not have to deal with his ethos or motives. You establish the rule of right (dike) on purely positivist lines. Punishment by expulsion or elimination or execution is the first law of group survival. But it is only the first law. For an in-group problem, you are forced to consider the inner ethos and motives of human beings. Thus, still looking at the cause of feud genetically, you discover it in the propensity of the human animal to compete and to conceive and nurse a grudge against his competitor, to make envious comparisons. These connotations are all packed into the Greek noun phthonos and its more ancient verb phthoneo. Competition, primarily envious, secondarily emulative, between fellow-craftsmen had become a proverb before Hesiod. Envious malice describes an emotion not self-generated in isolation but one which ab initio exists between two or more people. The curse of Adam is the way Adam handles his primary relationships with other Adams. Adam the single man never existed. The ‘grudge’ is almost the condition of being a human being so far as our manhood depends on some relationship to other men. Hence Democritus, viewing the growth of morals and politics from an anthropological standpoint, at least implies that within this growth are comprehended two warring principles: an inherent grudge of man against man; and a compulsion nevertheless to live in groups which can co-operate because the grudge is somehow controlled or sublimated. Hebraic analogies even when helpful can often mislead. Did ‘malice’ express the Greek equivalent for original sin? Or was it not more characteristic of Greek realism combined with Greek rationalism to assume that if two men or groups could advance in prosperity at mathematically equal rates, grudge and envy would not arise; but that chance and fortune see to it that they almost never do; and so the envy on one side and the fear on the other that result are reactions of the human material to an emotional strain imposed upon it by the non-mathematical operation of circumstances. This might have been Democritus' complete doctrine. We cannot be sure. In what we have of him, we start with the fact of the competitive grudge as an originating force (arche) which sets in motion...
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