Thursday, October 13, 2011

Development of Societies 1

Some of you may know that I have been dawdling through writing a philosophy textbook for over five years.  I have about 275 pages written.  The situation has gone critical to finish it, so you will probably see a fair bit of philosophy here until the end of the month.  I am currently working on chapter 13, called "Living Together in Society."  I have about half the material written.

I will probably put this section after a section already written called "Ways to Govern Society."
By all accounts, the earliest forms of human society involved extended families, which over time became tribes.  We see this in the account of the origins of Israel in the Old Testament.  The family of Jacob becomes over time the tribes of Israel.  Whether it is true in the case of Israel, tribes often trace their origins to an "eponymous" individual--a legendary, heroic figure from whom the tribe or group took its name.

It may take some difficulty for modern Westerners to get their heads around how recent an invention the nation-state arguably is in human history.  Some historians would argue that nations as we now conceive them are perhaps less than two hundred years old.  The default way of human thinking is local and "tribal," and it takes some effort for diverse social groups spread out over a wide area to think of themselves as a single group with a central point of governance that they embrace as their own rather than as an imposition of power on them.

Which came first, the nation or the people?  Arguably the people always come first, and the idea of a nation is a social construct, a way of looking at a collection of people that is not intrinsically based on who those people are. [1] It is a way of looking at a collection of people that cultures "create" and then put into effect by establishing certain power structures.  It is a set of glasses through which a people views itself, when it is quite possible they might view themselves in a different way.  It is a social construct that does not exist unless a group of people own and thus create it, as opposed to societies where it is clear that their leaders are "other," are different from them, who exercise power over them from the outside.

That is not to say that there are no concrete grounds for nation formation.  Location, language, common customs, common enemies--there are all sorts of concrete reasons why groups sometimes look beyond the local to form larger social groups. Historically, of course, the formation of social groups large enough to be called "empires" has more typically taken place because of war or military conquest, usually led by strong autocratic leaders.

[text box: nation-state, city-state, social construct]

It thus requires some cognitive effort on our part to think of ancient Israel more as a tribal collection, an "amphictyony" than as a nation per se.  For example, we should not think of the judges of Israel as being some kind of centralized leaders over Israel as a single entity.  These are rather charismatic leaders that some portion of the Israelite tribes gathered around in times of military engagement.

In the past, Western history was taught in a way that led many of us to think of Greece and Rome as islands of civilization in the middle of the barbarian, "bearded" world that surrounded them.  Of course this is how the Greeks and Romans viewed themselves.  We even find traces of this way of constructing reality it in the New Testament, such as in Romans 1:14 where Paul follows the convention of dividing the non-Jewish world into "Greeks and barbarians."

The result is that we have a tendency to think of places like ancient Greece and Rome in the same way we look at nations today.  But if we dig a little deeper, we find that the Greek and Latin words for places like Athens and Carthage are plural.  These cities were originally collections of tribes.  The city of Athens was originally hundreds of individual clans, which were combined to form 10 tribes in 508/7BC.  The city of Rome similarly consisted of numerous tribes. [2]  In the year 242BC, there were officially 35 tribes in Rome.

Prominent cities in the times before empires usually had their own kings--thus the idea of city-states...

[1] The classic work on the idea of socially constructed reality is of course, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor, 1966).

[2] In fact, the very word "tribe" comes from the Latin word for three, since three tribes originally made up the city of Rome.

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