Tracing ideas from 2800 years ago to the 1st Century BCE, this is first of a series on the history of natural law, natural rights, and the social contract. This topic includes pertinent ideas from Egypt, Homer, Hesiod, the Upanishads, Guan'Zhong, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Lao'Tzu, Solon, Thales, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Huang-Lao.

Worldwide Foundations of Natural Law
Worldwide Foundations of Natural Law

The First Three Branches of Thought

Somehow, for some reason, three separate branches of thought in theWest, East, and Far East all started at about the same time, in the 8th century BCE. The early ideas in each of these three branches have influenced all subsequent thinking in the many civilizations that followed in each of their continental regions. Of these three branches,only the Western branch was influenced by ideas of afterlife. This has profound significance in the nature of the political systems that have developed.

Earliest Religious Roots

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is generally agreed to be the oldest known morality in existence. Although older writing has been found, all older religious texts are various forms of praise. The oldest writing is from ~5260BCE, in Dispilio, Greece (for complete information, see Facorellis, 2014). The oldest readable sentence is from the tomb of Pharaoh Seth-Peribsen in Egypt, stating "the golden one of Ombos has unified the two realms for his son, the king of Lower and Upper Egypt, Peribsen" (seeSeth-Peribsen Tomb Texts c.2686 BCE). The oldest readable literature is the Sumerian Kesh building hymn from ~2600 BCE, found in Nippur, Iraq:

The princely one, Enlil, came forth royally from the house. Enlil lifted his glance over all the lands, and the lands raised themselves to Enlil. The four corners of heaven became green for Enlil like a garden. Kesh was positioned there for him with head uplifted, and as Kesh lifted its head among all the lands, Enlil spoke the praises of Kesh. Nisaba was its decision-maker; with its words she wove it intricately like a net.
-Kesh Building Hymn (~2600 BCE)

However it is not clear if 'Kesh' is a God, or the name of the building. In the Americas, Olmec writing dated to ~900 BCE was found in 2006 in Veracruz (Mexico), as well as Zapotec symbols on the Dazante stone from ~600 BCE (Oaxaca, Mexico). The first deciphered language is Mayan (~200BCE~800AD). But the American cultures did not continue. Although there were many other sophisticated civilizations when Europeans arrived, there is no written history of them, and so beyond our account here.

TheEgyptian Book of the Dead is distinctive in that it not only is fully readable, but also the earliest existent text stating how people are expected to behave. Found in scrolls in Luxor (Egypt), it is dated to ~1550 BCE.

Judgment in the Afterlife, from Luxor (c.1550 BCE)
Judgment in the Afterlife, from Luxor (c.1550 BCE)

TheEgyptian Book of the Dead describes how the Gods judge humans after death. The dead first pass through gates into caverns guarded by monstrous creatures made of different giant beast and human parts, wielding enormous knives. If the dead recite spells to calm the beasts, the God Anubis leads them to Osiris, before whom they have to swear they did not commit any of 42 sins in their life. (These sins include: killing, aggression, theft, swindling offerings, breaking the law, lies, cursing, adultery, seduction, sodomy, persecution, eavesdropping, false accusation, conceit, insolence, wrongful anger or sorrow, rashness, and destruction of holy property.) After the dead so swear that they committed none of these sins, the goddess Maat of Truth and Justice appears, in the form of a feather, on one end of a pair of scales, The dead's heart is weighed on the scales against the feather. If the scales balance, the deceased led a good life, Anubis would take them to Osiris, and they would find their place in a new afterlife. If the dead person's heart was heavier than Maat, then the horrible Ammit the Devourer eats it, ending the dead person's afterlife in a gruesome manner. However, if the dead are properly educated, and recite a spell while their hearts are on the scales, then their sins are forgiven and they pass the test with forgiveness.

For this reason, the priests hold the only real key to eternal happiness, and one must be obedient to them, or suffer accordingly, because no human being could otherwise pass the test of Maat. In terms of government, the priests defined one heir in the line of pharaohs as an incarnate God, whose will is unquestionable, and whose every desire should be satisfied. In order to assist these powerful people reach the afterlife without intervention of other humans, massive structures were built around them, or later hidden deep in the earth, presumably to keep other people out. Or maybe, considering how most the pharaohs behaved, the priests were really trying to trap the pharaohs in...The bigger the pyramid, the worse they were...In any event, accounts of other beliefs at the time are only known through secondary sources. From that secondary evidence, and tribal beliefs of less advanced cultures at later times, it seems far to assume that religious ideas primarily focused on threats of divine vengeance in order to oppress rebellion against authority.

Learning of this, one might be led to believe that the Jewish idea of judgment in afterlife inherited from Egyptian culture. But this would not be true. Archaeologists have not found any evidence that Israel was a slave population of Egypt, but regardless, Israel did not have a concept of judgment in the afterlife until ~100 BCE, when the Pharisees started to teach about a reward in an afterlife for those that please God. Before then, it appears Israelites believed one simply descends into the center of the earth upon death, to a place called Sheol. However, there were ideas of afterlife in Greece, which is the first of the three branches considered here.

The Western Branch: Hesiod

Although exact dating is uncertain, Hesiod was likely a contemporary of Homer, c. 700 BCE (~400 years after the sacking of Troy). Like Homer, he recorded oral traditions of the Hellenic civilization, some of which were similar to the ancient Egyptians in describing the Gods which control the world. In theTheogeny of Hesiod, he described the origin and relationship of the Gods in the Hellenic pantheon. Although there were other theogenies in neighboring cultures, Hesiod's description remains largely consistent with all other accounts throughout Hellenic civilization, so it is safe to assume this document was very widely circulated, and there is evidence that it later even reached China, influencing theHuang Lao.

Hesiod's Theogeny (8th-7th Century BCE)
Hesiod's Theogeny (8th-7th Century BCE)

Key to later thought was his assertion of aGolden Age in another text,Works and Days. In this old story, there was once a time when everyone lived in perfect harmony, without war or conflict. In transpires thatrestoration of the Golden Age became rather central to Western and Far Eastern political thought. Since Hesiod, most ideas about natural law have derived in some way from this legend, either by regarding the story as an inspiration for imagination, or by retelling it in a new way. So in the study of natural rights, even now, this myth, at least 2,800 years old, remains the conceptual origin from which our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness derived.

Hesiod described how the original state of being, in theEra of Golden Spirits. gradually descended to the current world in five stages, each of which lost some virtue of the past. In theEra of Silver Spirits, the first loss was intelligence, resulting in greater sin, shorter life, and impiety. Then in theEra of Bronze Sprits, people started being violent, and wars commenced. This led to theEra of Demi-Gods, which the epic of Homer describes, for example, as the Trojan war. Some demi-Gods were killed, but the survivors (like Odysseus for example) heralded a new age of peace. From the demigods, civilization passed into theEra of Iron Spirits, who are characterized by all the errors of those before. Because of this, Hesiod states, we should appeal to the Gods Aidos and Nemesis, who are the Gods ofHumility and Retribution. When those virtues leave the earth, there will be nothing left but evil. Here I recount the entire myth, as it is so central to subsequent ideas of justice.

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made agolden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

But after earth had covered this generation—they are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgments and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received;—then they who dwell on Olympus made a second generation which was ofsilver and less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. A child was brought up at his good mother's side a hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honor to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.

But when earth had covered this generation also—they are called blessed spirits of the underworld by men, and, though they are of second order, yet honor attends them also—Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men,a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armor was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, agod-like race of hero-men who are called demigods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven- gated Thebe when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honor and glory.

And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth. Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is arace of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonor their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city. There will be no favor for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.
-Works and Days, ll. 109-201, Hesiod (c. 700 BCE)

Hesiod's original idea of the five ages was adopted in other cultures as thefour ages: gold, silver, bronze, and iron. The demigods of Troy were removed. Sometimes, a prior Golden Age is simply contrasted with modern decadence, as a basis for theories of justice, as inCicero andChina. In Rome, Ovid conflated Cicero's ideas of uncorrupted reason with the Golden Age:

The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc'd by punishment, unawed by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast.
-Metamorphoses, Book the First. Ovid (Rome, 8 AD)

Also in Rome, Virgil substituted Jupiter for the Gods, emphasizing naive innocence (Eclogue, lines 5-8;Georgics, 1:125–28). The name 'Jupiter' appears in a subsequent painting of the 'City of God' (see the section onAugustine in 1550 AD, showing the persistence of the idea). Virgil's emphasis on innocence appears in most artistic renditions, such as this version from Lucas Cranach the Elder (Weimar, Germany. ~1530 AD).

In the West, Artists Conflated the Golden Age with Eden
In the West, Artists Conflated the Golden Age with Eden

However the idea of innocent nudity is newer. Before the restoration, the Golden Age was more considered simply for its virtues. The Old Testament mentions the Golden Age in a dream of Daniel, resulting in the preservation of Hesiod's writing in the Dark Ages, despite its other heretical teachings:

Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue
- an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance.
The head of the statue was made of pure gold,
Its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze,
Its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron
and partly of baked clay.
-the Book of Daniel, 2:31-35 (Israel, c.165 BCE)

In the East, there is also reference to these ages in the Mahabharata, but it is difficult to know when the idea was actually placed within it. Those favoring the Eastern tradition would state the myth could date to before the life of Hesiod. That interpretation would not be at odds with the Western account, as Hesiod states he is merely recording existing stories. But as much as is known, the Mahabharata is thought to have been completed ~400 BCE, and the exact date of origination for each story in it is unknown.

Plato later explained how some people in later ages could still be regarded as members of the Golden Race:

Socrates...I suppose that he means by the golden men, not men literally made of gold, but good and noble; and I am convinced of this, because he further says that we are the iron race.
Hermogenes. That is true.
Socrates. And do you not suppose that good men of our own day would by him be said to be of golden race?
Hermogenes. Very likely.
Socrates. And are not the good wise?
Hermogenes. Yes, they are wise.
-Cratylus, Plato (Athens, c.400 BCE)

Overall, Hesiod's ideas laid the foundation for the Western civilization, mostly believing in all-powerful Gods who have left the earth and rarely intercede, for which reason the wise seek justice and humility while recognizing the limits of that which has already passed: the intellect and peace are no longer valued by the masses, and it is the work of philosophers to understand and restore these values, to regain the pleasures of that which has passed.

The Eastern Branch: Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

From Southern India in ~700 BCE, this 'Honey wisdom' is the oldest recorded metaphysical philosophy, now part of the HinduVedanta. It asserts that the soul exists, and that all organic beings (plants, animals, human beings and gods) are wandering souls, yet one with each other and one with the cosmic soul; it further asserts that inorganic nature (fire, air, earth, water, space) is the field where beings interact, and from the numerous actions, fruits are created that are both separately and unifiably experienced. When one knows all is part of the one soul, all existence is blissful oneness, immanent and transcendent, and the divisions between us are illusory. From this understanding, we should not be proud, but instead be modest of our wisdom, adopting childlike curiosity and simplicity, being silent and observant, meditating on each part we learn of the totality in our journey towards deeper knowledge, where there is freedom from frustration and sorrow. Those who learned how to read this wisdom abandoned all earthly things, living in ascetism, blessing marriage and other ceremonies, asking for nothing but loin cloths and a daily filling of their prayer bowls. But such ascetism was not for everybody. The Brahman taught that each person could find the greatest fulfillment in pursuing their own walk of life. In subsequent recording of ideas, the Brahman created a series of guide books, called 'sutras,' each of which described how to find the greatest joy in the endeavor of any skill, whether it be to be a guard, or a craftsman, or a governor, or even a prostitute. This was the grounds of the caste system in India, which allowed more integration of many different tribes and cultures than previously possible without conflict.

The Brihadaranyaka was the first text to define the idea ofdesire as the root of existence, which became the basis of natural law used byJefferson in the United States Declaration of Independence:

You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will
As your will is, so is your deed
As your deed is, so is your destiny
-Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Iv.4.5 (India, C.700 BCE)

This also provided the foundation forBuddhism. In Eastern thought, Gods are regarded with veneration, and the same veneration is often extended to its greater practitioners, resulting in their deification also. But the there is not any significant concept of judgment in the afterlife, as in the West. Instead, there are ideas oftransmigration, that spirits return to be reborn in different forms. Sometimes, those who are good in one life are rewarded with a better form in the next life, which also led to the idea of reincarnation of authority, as inTibetan Buddhism.

The Far-Eastern Branch: Guan'Zhong

Guan'Zhong (Chinese: 管仲; c. 720–645 BC) was a chancellor and reformer in China. His bookGuanzi is mostly political, but it contains the values later adopted Confucianism, and the earliest known statement of Taoist ideas, later expanded byLao'Tzu:

For the heavens, the ruling principle is to be aligned.
For the earth, the ruling principle is to be level.
For human beings the ruling principle is to be tranquil.
Spring, autumn, winter and summer are the seasons of the heavens.
Mountains, hills, rivers, and valleys are the resources of the earth.
Pleasure and anger, accepting and rejecting are the devices of human beings.
Therefore, the sage:
Alters with the seasons but doesn't transform,
Shifts with things but doesn't change places with them.

-Guanzi, Nei-yeh 7. Guan'Zhong (c. 700 BCE)

As later explained,Confucius found himself obliged to defend Guan'Zhong's ideas against others all too eager to point to inadequacies in his personal ethics, and Guan'Zhong himself has therefore not been regarded so much as the origin of Confucian ideas as of Taoist ideas. However his idea of qi has remained central in Confucian doctrines too.

Far Eastern thought has focused primarily on the nature of thisqi, the life force, without much so much concern for the Gods and their actions, and without any idea of retribution in the afterlife whatsoever. The Far East does have Gods, and priests conduct ceremonies for birth, marriage, death and other significant life events. But the mythology around them has remained something that parents teach children as a way to educate them in the nature of life and ethics. To the the Far East, attempts to derive sources of divine authority for human affairs from some kind of theistic mythology still appears a rather a rather ludicrous and puerile fantasy.

The Demi-Gods of Thought

If we are to agree with Plato that wise and good men are members of the Golden Race, then the thinkers here have become equivalent to Hesiod's demi-Gods. For several hundred years, the wisdom of Hesiod, the Vedanta, and Guan'Zhong spread and influenced the entire world, during which time, there is little record of much significant extension to their thoughts. Then in the 5th century BCE, a number of thinkers appears in the West, East, and Far East who dramatically deepened and transformed the golden ideas. But while their writings spread rapidly, much debate on them also ensued, as a consequence of which, facts about them remained rather uncertain for thousands of years, until the recent advances in archaeology in the last century clarified which accounts are trustworthy. As a consequence, in the intervening eras, they have become somewhat equivalent to demi-Gods, or even transformed into Gods incarnate.

In this account, we consider not so much the people themselves, or whether they should be worshipped, but rather their influence on political philosophy. From this perspective, another analogy could more suitable. The first splits in thought, during the Golden age, were the foundations of three different schools. All following thinkers are cornerstones, building up from the foundation to many different towers.

Gautama Buddha: the Reluctant King

Thought to live c.563~480 BCE, Gautama was a prince who was raised in wealthy isolation from the poverty of his subjects. In his early adulthood he became curious as to the real lives of his subjects, and ventured out into his city in disguise. He saw poverty and sickness. Resolving to serve his subjects better, he renounced his royal life and joined the Brahman ascetics, listening to their wisdom. But in it he found no solution to how to lessen the suffering of his subjects. Retiring to meditate on their words, he conceived theFour Noble Truths (e.g., Norman, 2003): first, that life is full of desire and suffering; second, that living only to satisfy the cravings of desire only results in more desire, and more craving, in an endless and inescapable cycle; third, that detachment from desire results in transcendental enlightenment; and fourth, by cultivating mindful concentration on the needs of others, the attachment to cravings disappears, dissatisfaction ends, wisdom of perspective and resolve strengthens, manifest as rightfulness of speech, action, and livelihood.

The Stages of Desire

The Pratītyasamutpāda (प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद) is the name of the general theory of interdependent causation, which gives rise to the main 12 main stages of cause and effect resulting from desire, which have a rather large number of inter-relationships, so it is difficult to simplify. The following diagram depicts the 'standard model' of ontologically dependent origination, in the center, together with the variations for the Madhyamaka (great vehicle), Theravāda (orthodox), and Dzogchen (Tibetan) variations around it, organized by the sutras which define them.

The Buddhist Laws of Interdependent Causes That Arise from Desire
The Buddhist Laws of Interdependent Causes That Arise from Desire

The above figure is very large, so to read the text,Click Here to open in a new window; or, after left-clicking the above thumbnail, right-click and download the full image.

The revelation to Gautama was that these four truths could be understood and practiced by anyone, and was not restricted to the ascetics alone via his 'middle way,' whereby one seeks moderation, rather that punitive self denial, in order to further one's own practice. He set about sharing his ideas, and soon he became the first great religious leader, known as the Buddha.

When asked about systems of rule, Gautama Buddha indicated how, in his 4 noble truths, that no one should want to tell others what to do, but to let each person find their way themselves. But as someone must make decisions on disputes, that it would best that a royal family do so. For otherwise, others would have to tell someone to take on such responsibility of commanding others, that no compassionate being would desire to take on for themselves. Therefore, the succession of government is best decided by inheritance.

Upon Buddha's death, there was some spiritual competition as to how to best share his ideas, but it was a peaceful competition, and his followers spread his ideas as a new caste. Some 400 years later, at about the time ofAlexander the Great, there was a mighty warrior empire known asMaurya, whose great kingAshoka learned of Buddhism and is said to have converted to it. Much likeConstantine the Great, who was also a warrior emperor supposedly converted to a peaceful religion, his actual conversion is disputed (Fogelin, 2015). But other facts do indicate he was more benign than Constantine in his later life. For example, he ceased all war, and his descendants followed his example. The empire slowly faded, but the ideas continued. As Buddhism teaches peace and desires no control, other political systems took over from it in most places.

But in the more remote reaches of the Himalayas, where hardy people eked out a life in the most demanding and barren realms, Buddhism continued undisturbed, for thousands of years. In the last century, China's enormous population started to spill over into the Buddhist kingdoms, first taking over Tibet, and then Nepal. Bhutan, Kashmir, and Sikkim remain. One even more remote plateau, the Kingdom of Lo, was totally isolated from the rest of the world for some 1600 years. When rediscovered, it was still practicing Tibetan Buddhism in exactly the same way as in the early days of their founding, making it the most stable incarnation of a political philosophy in all of known history (for details, see my article "The Ancient Kingdom of Lo" on this server).

Buddhism also merged with other cultures across China, even reaching Japan, in new forms. Because the ideas of Buddhism are ethical in basis, rather than theological, the Buddhist missionaries incorporated the mythologies of local beliefs in the Far East. And so there are also even a handful of Buddhist countries on the Pacific rim. As time passes, other more aggressive beliefs push aside the legacy of the ancient Khmers in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos; yet somehow Thailand has survived as a Buddhist kingdom with a king and capitalist economy too. There has been dissidence in Thailand, with political protesters cordoned by the police to prevent them interrupting neighboring traffic; and after, sometimes the protesters give the police hugs, just to show there are no ill feelings about it.

Confucius: Protocols of Intellect and Experience

While Buddhism also reached across the North-East of Asia to merge with local theologies into Chinese Buddhism, in the far east it ran into a rather frightful period known as theera of a hundred kingdoms, also known as theage of the warring States. This was a truly awful state of affairs, where neighboring kings routinely invaded each other repetitively, recruiting local villagers for their soldiers. As the borders shifted back and forth, a father could find himself commanded to fight his son, or a brother to kill his own brother. In response to the despondent need of some spiritual recourse, two spiritual leaders appeared, both at about the same time as Gautama Buddha: Confucius and Lao'Tzu.

Confucius (551~479 BCE) advocated, first, withdrawal from the material world into introspective contemplation, practicing music, and seeking to understand 'harmony of the spheres,' whereby our actions in life correspond with the order of universe, discovered by ritual and acceptance of social order. Just as music is a ceremony of sound, and the world is the ceremony of nature, Confucius held that our interaction with each other should be the ceremony of our spirit. After inner contemplation to find harmony with the forces around us, we can then properly conduct the formalities of life with sophistication and artful prowess.

Confucius believed some people are born more gifted than others, and that government was better as feudal than democratic, as otherwise the stupid have too much control. Simultaneously, though, he felt it most important that a ruler seek the virtues of intelligent discourse, honesty, good manners, and in accepting advice of the more experienced. If a king acts properly, others follow in example, and need not be commanded or punished. One result of his ideas was the development of wiser traditions and greater diplomacy in court, which gradually led to the creation of larger and more stable kingdoms, and then empires. Perhaps most importantly, he established the idea of ritualistic protocol in the interaction with authority, whereby the knowledgeable can share their experience, and the rulers can learn from it without loss of face. As to what the wisdom should be in any particular circumstance, Confucius also had much to say, including that it was circumstantial. Some of his ideas still persist in China, most obviously as respect for elders and silent rule. But Confucius is a subtle force; his wisdom works where you think it not.

As one example, a colleague once went to China in an attempt to sell a new digital cable TV system to a city, under the auspices of the Bank of China. Before beginning the negotiations, the bank asked him to dinner, and he was treated to lobster. A live lobster, pinned down on the plate with tiny hooks, and with the shell already cut off its back. The lobster's eyes, on their little stalks, swiveled to look at him as the manager of the Bank of China handed him a fork, smiling colleague, most sadly, found himself thinking for a moment, if he tried to eat without killing the poor beast first, he might lose the multimillion dollar contract—while the lobster's eyes moved on their little stalks to look away from him, at the fork...

Lao'Tzu: the Way through Chaos

Lao'Tzu is thought to have been a contemporary of Confucius (~500 BCE). He wrote theTao Te ching, and a copy from c.300BCE is the oldest surviving written text of Chinese philosophy. These bamboo strips would have been bound into a scroll. Note that the current translation requires much more complex pictograms than the original, because many words served multiple purposes in ancient Chinese, depending on context. For example, the word 'qi', which in philosophy refers to 'life force,' also translates to air, breathing, lungs, and the name of one of the oldest and most powerful States in China, where Beijing is now located.

 Tao Te ching Copy from a Guodian Tomb (c.300 BCE)
Tao Te ching Copy from a Guodian Tomb (c.300 BCE)

WhileLao'Tzu is often falsely accredited with inventing Taoism, it is fair to say he was the first to state it as a complete philosophy. Taoism holds that we exist in a state of continual flux, best by random forces, at the wills of spirits who care nothing for our well being. While Confucianism worked to create wiser rule, Taoism worked to help people live through the violence of their times. It taught that people simply find fulfillment by accepting the natural way, or path, that the universe presents. We let ourselves be flexible in the flow of physical and spiritual movements, via the energy that flows through us, rather than attempting to shape it unnaturally by exerting our own will upon it. There is probably no better way to understand the gigantic population of China than to understand how Taoism has helped people survive the waywardness of life to this current day.

Or fame or life, which do you hold more dear?
Or life or wealth, to which would you adhere?
Keep life and lose those other things;
Keep them and lose your life—which brings
Sorrow and pain more near?
Thus we may see
who cleaves to fame rejects what is more great;
Who loves large stores gives up the richer state.
Who is content needs fear no shame.
Who knows to stop incurs no blame.
From danger free
Long live shall he.
-Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu (China, c. 500 BCE)

From Taoism is derived the idea ofYin-Yang which remains central to all its thinking. Whereas the West has built on ideas of Aristotelian Logic, the Far East considers there to be no such dichotomy. This famous symbol of opposites illustrates that idea, in which some of each opposite exists in the other. Attempts to define absolute concepts are therefore always doomed to failure. Existence consists of a cycle between the yin and yang, which if pursued to perfection, leads to smaller and smaller cycles, until one reaches the center point of Wu Ji.

Taoism Rejects the Possibility of Absolute Dichotomy
Taoism Rejects the Possibility of Absolute Dichotomy

Taoism also led to advances in martial arts, including the graceful dance of t'ai chi ch'uan, which all of China did together in the mornings, under perhaps the most extraordinary of the edicts ofChairman Mao; and the theories of design (Feng Shui), the flowing styles of Chinese painting, and even the art of Chinese writing itself.

Taoist ideas rather oppose those of Confucianism, but Confucius himself refused to dismiss them. Confucius argued that Guan Zhong was not of the power that his ideas should have enabled, because of defects in personal morality, from which he escaped by strict observance of social protocols:

The Master said: “Guan Zhong was quite limited in capacity.”
Someone asked: “Wasn't Guan Zhong frugal?”
Confucius said, “Guan had three sets of wives and his officers never worked overtime. How can he be considered to have been frugal?”
“But then did Guan Zhong understand propriety?” Confucius said, “The princes of the states have a special ritual screen at their door, and so did Guan Zhong (even though he was not of the proper rank to do this). When the princes of state had a friendly meeting, they would ritually turn their cups over on the table. Guan also turned his cups over on the table. If Guan Zhong understood propriety, then who doesn't?”
-Analects, 3:22. Confucius (c. 500 BCE)

Later, Confucius' disciples again criticized Guan Zhong for his lack of personal morality. Confucius then stated the product of his work, which was to enable the benefits of civilization as they knew it, and the cultured person would not persecute a man with such good works, simply because of failures in his personal ethics:

Zi Lu said, “When Huan Gong assassinated Gongzi Jiu, Zhao Hu followed him to his death, but Guan Zhong did not. He had not fully developed his Humaneness, had he?” The Master said: “When Huan Gong unified the nobles, it was not through military force, but by the efforts of Guan Zhong. How about this level of Humaneness?

Zi Gong said: “Guan Zhong was not a truly good man; when Huan Gong executed [his own brother] Gong Zi Jiu, he was not only incapable of dying along with his lord — he became Huan's minister.” Confucius said: “When Guan Zhong served Huan Gong as minister, he made him leader of the nobles and straightened out the disorder in the realm. The people are benefiting from this down to the present day. If not for Guan Zhong, we would all be like unkempt barbarians, wearing our hair over our faces and fastening our clothes on the left. Shall we exercise the sincerity of simple people, who would hang themselves to death in a ditch, with no one knowing about it?”
-Analects, 14:16-17. Confucius (c. 500 BCE)

Recently, the "Yellow Emperor's Four Classics” (Huángdì sìjīng) were rediscovered. The Yellow Emperor is a mythical first emperor, and these texts were known to exist but lost until the 1970s. These copies date to ~160 BCE, but most say they are older. It states:

The Dao gives birth to laws. Laws are the measuring-line of gain and loss and what illuminates straight and crooked. Who holds to the Dao gives birth to laws and dares not contravene them; once laws are set up, he dares not discard them. After one can stretch plumb spontaneously, one can know the world and not be of two minds. Void without form, its axis all dark; it is what the world of things is born from. In their birth-nature there is that which harms, called desire, called not knowing what is enough. By birth-nature they must move: In movement there is that which harms, called untimeliness, called timely but In movement are affairs: In affairs there is that which harms, called opposition, called not balancing, not knowing the practicable. Affairs must have words: words there is that which harms, called unfaithfulness, called not knowing to be in awe of others, called revealing one’s baseness, called vain boasting, taking insufficiency for surplus. Thus alike coming forth from the dark, some dying thereby, some living thereby, some defeated thereby, some completed thereby.

Fortune and calamity share one Dao, none knows whence it is born. The Dao of knowing is merely voidness with nothing. Voidness with nothing, the smallest thing complete within it must have form and name. When form and name are set up then the distinction of black and white is complete. hence he who holds to the Dao, as he observes the world, has nothing to which he holds, has no place at which he dwells, has no action, has no partiality. Hence, when there are affairs in the world none do not spontaneously exhibit form, name, sound, and title. Form and name being already set up, sound and title being already established, then one cannot cover up one’s tracks, or obscure the standard.
-Dao fa, 1.1-1.2, "Huángdì Sìjīng" (<160 BCE)

The ideas of Confucius and Taoism were later merged by theHuang Lao, then split and merged again, as discussed here later.

Solon and Thales, Fathers of Democracy and Science

Penultimate in this account of the earliest great metaphysics, we move entirely back around the world to ancient Greece, where two men defined the ideas that formed the entire Western civilization. Struggling with an irate Athenian population that was totally fed up with rampant despotism,Solon of Athens (c.638~558 BCE) initiated ideas of civilian rights to control government through a majority-rule system, now called democracy. While problems persisted for several hundred years before it reached a stable form, Solon had also created a newcommon area for sharing ideas, the agora, which became the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual, and philosophical life, as well as the location of debates and voting for political decisions. It is said, as a consequence of this new social domain, thinkers were more than able to gather and share thoughts;thinkers were even able to build on each other's ideas in the kind of way that public-domain software now works. In the Hellenic civilization, this resulted in advances in free thought not found anywhere else in the world, and was regarded with deep jealousy by Rome. It is certainly known, due to its long persecution of such free thinkers in its savage but brutally successful origins, ancient Rome was never able to create a similar open space for ideas, and Rome's Forum was never more than a place for political debate. So in Rome, training in the academic ideas remained in the private domain. But Greece somehow was successful in enabling public thought beyond the political. That is usually attributed to Solon's ideas of citizens' authority, even though many of the thinkers lived in other Greek city states besides Athens which did not have democratic systems.

Evolution of Democracy of Athens

the Solonian Constitution was atimocracy: mostly, only land owners could vote, in a senatorial-styled council (Greenidge, 2015):

  • If your land produced 500 bushels/year of agricultural produce, you were in the top tier. You could elect the most powerful officials, and could be a general in the army.
  • For 300 bushels/year, you could be in the cavalry, run for public office yourself, and vote for other responsible officers.
  • For 200 bushels, you could be a Hoplite, a well-armed soldier. You could vote for responsible officers
  • Otherwise you were too poor to vote for officials, but you could vote for general measures, and earn pay for fighting as light-armed troops, or for rowing triremes.

    There was also a council similar to a congress, with 400 members, with 100 randomly selected from each tier. If selected, participation in the council was mandatory.

    The Solonian Constitution
    The Solonian Constitution

    Over the next 200 years, the system broke down and evolved substantially. The following diagram shows the resulting Ekklesia system, which was in place 480~404 BCE.

    The Athenian 'Ecclesia' Constitution
    The Athenian 'Ecclesia' Constitution

    The above figure is very large, so to read the text,Click Here to open in a new window; or, after left-clicking the above thumbnail, right-click and download the full image.

Thalēs of Miletus (c. 624~546 BCE) is now called a pre-Socratic philosopher, although he himself would not have known he was pre-Socratic, and may not have regarded himself a philosopher either. He would have been more likely to call himself asophist (for this and other pre-Socratics, seeKirk, Raven, and Schofield, 1957). Sophists made their living by demonstrating their skills of thought in the public squares, and putting themselves up for hire to teach the children skills such as rhetoric, and knowledge such as history and metaphysics. However, after Socrates ridiculed so many of them as deceiving simpler minds withsophistry, the term has fallen out of favor, and now they are called 'pre-Socratic' instead.

Thales broke with theistic traditions and attempted to understand the functioning of the world by testing hypotheses, which remains the main principle of science (now called theempirical method). Thales is also said to have invented the first mathematical theorem.

One really should note the dramatic difference between Thales' approach to understanding the world and everyone else. Not only the later development of science, but also secular political theory traces back to Thales' entirely different approach to the world.While the first great Eastern thinkers wrote with beauty, insight, eloquence, and style, none of them provided a foundation for empirical exploration of secular political theory that even approached that in Western Thought. That early mindset, created by the first great thinkers, has persisted, and the East today remains almost entirely shaped by them, except insofar as it has adopted the more advanced products of Western science and philosophy, rather than developing their own equivalents.

This is not to say that the cultures of the Far East have not had enjoyed their own developments in Science. Vedic mystics in India, for example, considered whether matter is solid. While watching motes of dust dance in sunlight, they contemplated on the smallest possible solid particle. Even if a particle is infinitely small, it still has an inside area and outside area. Between the inside and outside, there must be some edge between that which is solid, and that which outside the particle. But as the particle is already infinitely small, there is no space for the edge to exist. Therefore, they concluded, matter is comprised of compartments of space, each of which may or may be empty or contain some solid, but it cannot ultimately be known whether any one compartment contains a particle or not, because the compartments are the smallest things that can exist. Strangely enough, Western science confirmed this idea with particle accelerators. The idea thought of by Eastern mystics some 3,000 years ago is now stated mathematically, in particle physics, as the 'Heisenberg uncertainty principle.' Now knowing that, some Indian philosophers gladly point to this success, and consider their method of contemplation superior to Western science. Butother Indian philosophers are disappointed, because they had considered matter to be some amorphous liquid without particles at all. That is to say, the Vedic mystics demonstrated something else: they demonstrated thatwe cannot conceive of a scientific explanation that is beyond our ability to imagine. And one can only admire the imagination and reasoning by which the Vedic mystics reached different explanations of the nature of matter. By reasoning, different possibilities may be construed: for example, whether the smallest parts of matter are like particles, or like water. But with respect to the material world and the science of physics, the best model for reality can only be determined with Thalēs' method of empirical testing of the hypothesis, which determines whether a theory is corroborated, or disproved, in the particular test case. By accumulating the results of many experiments, many theories can be tested with each other, to form anempirical system, whereby each little theory can combine, to build a bigger and more complete model. It is that process that has caused the Western ideas to progress in the realm of science so well.

Similarly, China has its own form of science too. China for example invented gunpowder, by trying many different mixtures of different substances. This is in accordance with Taoist ideas of accepting randomness in the course of life. Thebrute force approach is possible when one has the resources of a large population, but takes longer than thepredictive approach. for example, the astronomer Percival Lowell(1855-1916) observed orbital anomalies of Neptune and Uranus. He deduced that there could be a ninth planet, and used the model of Newtonian gravitational force to predict its position. It transpired there were other as yet undiscovered planetoids and dwarf planets, so Pluto itself was not alone in changing the gas giant's orbits. It took longer to find than expected. But by watching the predicted location over a longer period of time, Pluto was indeed discovered in 1930, when the other causes of the outer planets' orbital anomalies were at a minimum. Pluto is a very small dwarf planet, and being so far from the sun, it is very dark. It would never have been found without the prediction. This example also illustrates that science sometimes makes predictions which are true (in this example, that there was a ninth planet) but which are not at first validated, due to other unknown factors. Sometimes, experiments appear to validate a hypothesis, when in fact another factor is causing a false result. Now knowing that, the experimenters in China can say their approach is superior, because 'brute force' methods test all possible scenarios, and therefore even produce results that could not be predicted. But with the tiny and dark object like Pluto, it probably would not have been found by 1930, even if all the telescopes in the world had been looking for it; which is rather beside the actual point, because they would have had no reason to look for the planet without the prediction. Thus, over time, China has made some astounding inventions, such as the creation of silk from silk-moth cocoons ~5,000 years ago. The process of domesticating the moths, breeding them, and harvesting the silk took an enormous amount of trial and error, and most details are still a closely guarded secret. But as models advance and improve, their ability to produce useful predictions inevitably exceeds that which can be produced from random results from brute-force approaches.

Atoms, Flux, and Forces of Matter and Mind

But matters developed rather differently in Greece, Based on the ideas of Thales, Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535~475 BCE) advocated that the material world continually changes due to the force of a primal and invisible fire, causing tiny particles to move around in unrepeating patterns. Heraclitus is often considered the world's first genuine atheist.

Empedocles (c 450 BCE) first imagined the periodic table, comprised of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire, with forces of attraction and repulsion allowing the elements to interact. Physical matter is made of clusters with more heavy elements, whereas the mind and soul are made of clusters of the lighter elements. Similar material objects might be made of the same clusters of heavy elements, and therefore, similar ideas also might be constructed of similar clusters of lighter elements. Moreover, just as forces of attraction and repulsion move the molecules of physical matter, maybe there are forces which control the interaction of ideas.

Moving on Empedocles' idea, Socrates was able to postulate the nature of ideal form, which allows our minds to recognize the objects we see. Aristotle was able to define the three classical rules of formal logic: [1] The law of identity (for any proposition A, A=A);[2] The Law of excluded middle (for any proposition A, either that A is true, or not-A is true); and [3], the law of non-contradiction (the two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" cannot both be true). Theseaxioms are statements of thought on which no one disagrees, upon which mathematical proofs can be made, as well as Boolean mathematics and digital computation.

These theories work independently of any supernatural spirit or God. Therefore, human reason can properly determine the nature of government. The theories will always run into objections from the other metaphysical schools—whether they advocate divine judgment, or caste systems, or undesiring kings, or manners, or unpredictable chaos as the only guiding principle of politics—but the other systems have already stated all they can in abstract. The mechanisms of empirical and logical reason, however, can still define far more. So now all the basic metaphysical requirements are now in place for the first philosophical definition of a social contract—even if it would take another century for someone to figure out how to state it.

Socratic Justice and the First Social Contract

Defining Terms

Often, naïve speakers use the words 'true,' 'right' and 'good' interchangeably. But In philosophy, there are significant differences between those words. Statements about logic, morality, ethics, and justice can all be true or false, but the method for determination is different:

  • TRUTH and FALSEHOODare defined by logic. In logic, truth is the property of a statement. The truth of a statement is determined by observation, causal deduction, or inference. If a statement is the basis of a causal deduction or inference, it is called a premise. A conclusion is deduced or inferred from a premise, or set of premises. Together, the premise(s) and conclusion form a proposition, for which truth is determined by the discipline of formal logic.
  • GOOD and BADare defined by morality or ethics. When said about religion or personal behavior, they are moral statements. When said about rules of conduct for society, they are ethical statements. For example, an individual can believe profanity is bad from their personal perspective, while simultaneously believing profanity is not unethical. The truth of such statements is logically derived from the value system on which the morality or ethics is based. For example, the statement 'profanity is against the principles of Christianity' is true, but the statement 'profanity is bad' is a value statement without truth or falsehood by itself.
  • RIGHT and WRONGare defined by law. Law is a systematic theory from which propositions may be formulated. A statement that aparticular act is right or wrong is a judgment of the act, which is derived from legal propositions. A statement that someabstraction is right or wrong is a conclusion from a legal proposition, and the legal proposition is derived from an interpretation of law.

To clarify, this article implementsthe model of legal positivism, which is not how people often speak, but which permits clear statements. According to this model, the law defines what is right or wrong. People may have opinions as to whether a law is good or bad, but cannot themselves define the law. An opinion of a law is based on a value system, such as a religion. The opinion can be evaluated as true of false within the context of a religion's value statements, but as far as political philosophy is concerned, the truth of the religion's values cannot themselves be determined with logic.

Plato's Cave

The first extensive work on secular justice was Plato, who in ~380 BCE wrote the dialogues of Socrates. Socrates held that only a few wise philosophers could infer the concept of 'justice' intuitively. The far greater number of people, including lawyers, only know it as tenuous shadows in a cave, over which they bicker as to their shape. But they can never really decide, because the shadows are not only all that they can see, but even more crucially, they themselves think the shadows are all there is.

Only the philosopher knows that the shadows are mere ephemera in a cave of ignorance. Above the cave, in the true light of goodness, ideas are the real natural things, which areideal forms. From the ideal forms, the light of goodness casts shadows as pure ideas, like triangles and squares. But most people never see that, and just sees shadows of artificial things, such as living beings and dead objects, which illuminated by the element of fire. The fire's flickering light casts shadows of artificial things onto the cave wall, which is all that most can see.

Most People can only see shadows of Artificial Things
Most People can only see shadows of Artificial Things

The actual form of the real idea is unknown and unimaginable to those bickering in the caves. If one attempts to show the deluded the actual truth, it is so blinding to them, they can only turn away from it. Instead, they sneer and ridicule those who are able to see the pure ideas and ideal forms from the darkness of the cave, where they shackled like slaves by their own lack of will to seek greater understanding.

"At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? ...

Until the person is able to abstract and define rationally the idea of good, and unless he can run the gauntlet of all objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth, never faltering at any step of the argument—unless he can do all this, you would say that he knows neither the idea of good nor any other good; he apprehends only a shadow, if anything at all, which is given by opinion and not by science—dreaming and slumbering in this life, before he is well awake here, he arrives at the world below, and has his final quietus.
- Republic,Plato (Athens, ~380 BCE).

The problem of Plato's cave is, unless people can understand concepts as existing independently in a domain of mind, it is not only impossible to argue about it, but as Plato writes, painful to do so for both parties. In philosophy, the full issue of the Platonic idea of form is an issue for epistemology (the nature of knowledge) in metaphysics, and too complex for this short essay on the political theory behind the social contract. To those who cannot understand further (or believe that understanding is illusory), philosophy usually remains something like the arcane magic that is the most a Cro-Magnon could understand of an automobile's functioning. So at this point, many people's comprehension ends. They are incapable of understanding something more than the shadows.

When asked to explain how a philosopher knows the true forms of ideas, Socrates stated that some nonetheless strive to see the light, after which the truth is known to that philosopher intuitively, but only some people have the intuition. The ability to express that knowledge is a skill, but no matter how much people work on it, they cannot improve their knowledge if they are not natively endowed with the insight. As such, Socrates stated he knew a concept of natural law exists, but only a few people can understand it. No one at the time could prove him reasoning false. It is thus fair to say Socrates was an intellectual bigot for good reason. That his reasoning was good is an understatement, except in the realm of political government. It is also fair to say, he had very sophisticated opinions, but his conclusions as to how government should function (as a totalitarian state ruled by thinkers) were essentially unworkable, even if just, because no one has ever been able to define whom thephilosopher king should be, or not.

The Socratic Social Contract

When asked to describe his ideas directly, Socrates usually avoided the question. He preferred to ask others to describe their ideas, and then he showed how others were wrong. But on justice, Socrates provided a very clear definition, which was the first written version of the social contract

With respect to political law, Socrates again demonstrated his intellectual superiority by definingthe first social contract. He stated that justice is a pact made between people of different walks in life for mutual benefit. The carpenter needs the blacksmith to make nails, and the blacksmith needs the carpenter to build his house. Therefore it is to their mutual benefit if they agree on a common set of rules for a harmonious relationship. From that, Socrates extrapolated trades, and their interaction, to define an extensive system of law which, through its understanding, createsinner and outer harmony.

The most common objection to thisSocratic social contract is that the laws are not decided by us ourselves, but are imposed on us by authority. As such, we do not actually agree to the social contract, but it is enforced on us whether we want it or not, whether it really is to our benefit or not. Most people believe the social contract is therefore wrong, and therefore justice can be wrong, no matter how wrong they are in making the judgment. As such, Socratic natural law is not intuitively understood by most people—just as Socrates himself said, in fact. Socrates defense—that objectors are taking a vulgar view ofouter justice which is inharmonious withinner justice—certainly does not help either. To Socrates, the natural law was self evident as a harmonious coexistence, extending beyond political law into morals and ethics, creating a unified outer and inner state. The philosophers perceive the ideal forms of those relationships and interpret them for the good of society, for example, by enabling artists to present them in the great Greek dramas (the playwright Euripides, mentioned elsewhere here, was Socrates' friend). But the objectors continue to believe that inner harmony is just 'arbitrary nonsense' and refuse to accept the possibility that natural law really exists at all.

Euripides Presenting Socrates' Ideas to Politicians in Plato's Cave
Euripides Presenting Socrates' Ideas to Politicians in Plato's Cave

However, it is difficult for a philosopher to demonstrate that the Socratic social contract is misunderstood because, by Socrates' own definition, the ability to understand the social contract is only possible to the naturally gifted philosopher. Thus, most people agree with Socrates' opponents. One was Thrasymachus, who argued that might is right, and justice is the fist of the mighty. Another was Glaucon, who held that justice is enforced on the weak, but that the pact of a social contract can exist when a powerful authority confronts someone of equal power (but even then, the authority continually tries to find a way to cheat on the opponent). Whatever one thinks of Socrates' natural law, a person desiring more than a naïve perspective could certainly agree that Thrasymachus and Glaucon were vulgar thinkers, and seek something better.

Nonetheless, this conflict in intuitive views nonetheless persisted for some 2,000 years. And due to the complexity of Western empirical thought, the Socratic version remains the most frequently understood—or misunderstood—version of the secular social contract to this day.

Aristotle's Democracy and Natural Law

Aristotle's Ideal and Perverted Governments

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) defined royalty, aristocracy, and constitutional systems as ideal, from which corruptions cause tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies.

The Aristotelian Governments
The Aristotelian Governments

The extent of Aristotle's thought is truly incredible. Even in months of reading posts on typical social media boards about politics, one can rarely find even one postulate on democratic justice that Aristotle did not already write 2500 years ago. He discussed virtually every issue one still hears. Even today, his observations on political corruption still seem difficult for most to accept as real. Instead angry tirades continue on the latest scandal gossip, as if one should be surprised at something completely novel.

Democracy as the Least-Worse Alternative

Aristotle did not have Socrates' lofty vision. Although he wrote of ideal systems, he was not at all concerned with defending some 'pure idea in the domain of mind.' Instead, he saw the ideals purely in terms of the foundation they could provide for a practical system, within which, no matter how much on strives, corruption will always be inevitable. Therefore, the best one can do is choose the least-worse evil.

Aristotle's Constitution (~350 BCE) was Lost until this Original was Found in 1879 AD
Aristotle's Constitution (~350 BCE) was Lost until this Original was Found in 1879 AD

Others would have to be deeply cynical to dismiss ideals as Aristotle did. But Aristotle himself maintains the best of Greek optimism in the face of inevitable failures. With so much corruption at each and every turn, why did he stay cheerful? Some may say it is because the experience in Athens already had with the even less desirable evil—despotism. it had completely reached the bottom of the barrel before Solon defined the first attempt. Then Athens collapsed into tyrannies and oligarchies several times, with continuous interspersed efforts at democratic reforms. Finally it created a stable system. By the time Aristotle entered on the scene, there was already a very well established history of corruption.

Yet this is not the version of Athenian democracy one encounters in America today. If you would understand why I describe Aristotle's dilemma here, you would only need to see once the innocent smile of an American tourist in Athens talking about the inventor of democracy...and the wan resignation of a Greek citizen attempting to vanquish a hidden reticence, to smile in return. Why the smile? Even current Greeks innately know why Aristotle was cheerful, and remain cheerful themselves for the same reason.

Eligibility to Vote

Out of all of Aristotle's discussions on the practical nature of democracy, I touch on this one only because, perhaps of all naïveties, it is the self assurance which Americans assert on whom should vote that is the most remarkable—especially given the many changes to voting requirements in the USA already. In Greece it is now compulsory to vote—upon hearing which, Americans immediately burst out a raging protest. My personal belief, that people should be required to have passed exams in understanding the democratic system first, is also assailed with rage, though only by a majority. A few with more education agree with resignation that it would be a nice idea—in an ideal world.

this is no ideal world, and any exam as voter qualification would struggle with the same corruptions as all other aspects of political rule. So those who understand the theories, and state their predictions, are still dismissed like the elitistphilosopher kings of Socrates. It is for this reason, Aristotle believes the continuing corruption inevitable. The consequences of naïve beliefs continue to influence the majority more than those of wisdom. As long as knowledge is ridiculed, the fate of such actions remains unavoidable, which Aristotle himself knew as divine natural law.

Aristotle's Natural Law

It may be a real surprise how much ignorance there is of Aristotle's natural law. Even academic communities have trouble recognizing it, because Aristotle was a traditionalist, which is quite obvious from his style in general, but he talks about in specific only occasionally. Consider for example this rare statement, in all his extensive writing, on the natural law. His evidence is not logic, butAntigone's civil disobedience in choosing to bury her brother, in defiance of her king's command (the ancient Greeks believed one would remain in the worst hell if not buried).

Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as everyone to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other. It is this that Sophocles' Antigone clearly means when she says that the burial of Polyneices was a just act in spite of the prohibition: she means that it was just by nature: "Not of to-day or yesterday it is, But lives eternal: none can date its birth."
-Rhetoric, Aristotle (Athens, ca. 380 BCE)

This story, coincidentally, continues to be misunderstood by many who should know better. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, the playwrightjean Anouilh wrote a French play on Antigone's civil disobedience that passed the Nazi censors, who observing how Antigone was killed for disobeying authorities, believed it a good moral warning; and the stage performed to packed-out audiences of the French, who saw Antigone's appeal to higher law as an inspiration for their resistance to occupation.

Just as the Germans could not understand Antigone's higher law, so also most politicians and philosophers read Aristotle without understanding the natural law of which he spoke; but Aristotle found little need to repeat the knowledge offate as it was: nothing to do with human justice, but rather,an unavoidable and persistent tainting of blood, so severe that the consequences of one's immoral actions could even pass to one's own family and be perpetuated across generations. Even heroes of the most virtuous military could not escape the tainting caused by their killing of others. Their best hope was to reach the fields of Elysium in the afterlife, where they could drink from the river of Lethe, which granted forgetfulness of their worldly acts.For heroes in their deeds could be virtuous, but war itself was not.

But Aristotle should not be blamed himself for misleading his audience, because his real ideas on this topic are not found so much in his own writings, but in those that pervaded the culture of his era.

The Greek Concept of Fate

It may be difficult to imagine, but all people living in Athens at the time of Aristotle could describe all the Gods in the following diagram, and tell many stories of what they did to each other. It was taught from childhood stories. They knew these stories as well as children now know about Cinderella, Gandalf, and Harry Potter, but with one important difference: almost all the stories they told children were about these Gods, whereas fiction now has many different origins. So when you think of it that way, it seems more understandable that everyone knew all these Gods.

Many think Zeus most important, but you may have difficulty finding him, because he is only one of the many children of the Titans (who are in green). The deities are arranged in tiers. Those higher up have less interest in normal human affairs, whereas those lower down often intercede. Often the higher Gods have disputes, manifest as natural problems such as storms, diseases, and so on. The lower Gods intervene in normal human life as emotions.

The Greek Gods
The Greek Gods

Not shown in this diagram are a series of lower-order spirits, which include elementals (Naiads, Ourea, Theoi, Nereids, and other nymphs), who are not that intelligent, and sometimes can't even talk, and are bound to the particular locations whose forces they control, such as rivers, mountains, clouds, and oceans. Other lower-order spirits are not bound, including the muses, satyrs, and the Fates (Moirai). Now in most cases humans have no right of appeal to the consequences of the Gods' disputes, unless one person breaks the ultimate law and kills another. If so, humans can appeal to the God of their choice for intercession. After an appeal, the Moirai take over, and determine if the accused should die:

  • Clotho spins the thread of the person's life.
  • Lachesis measures the thread of that life.
  • Atropos is the cutter of the thread of life.

Atropos chooses the manner of death, and if the judgment is against the human, she cuts their life-thread with shears. If properly buried, the person's soul then descends to Hades, where the afterlife judgment occurs. But in most cases, humans have little choice in what happens to them as the result of Gods. We are judged not for our experiences, but for how we respond to them, for the unfortunate events in our lives are, in most cases, only the consequences of disputes in a higher plane. However there is an exception. If another person in our family has committed a terrible sin, then the taint in their blood spreads to our own. We will suffer for it in our life, and there is nothing was can do to change that. If the taint in our blood causes extreme consequences—such as us taking vengeance—We can only appeal to the Gods for clemency after death.

And few who reach this point of study in politics or philosophy learn also of the ancient culture which produced his thought. To Aristotle, natural justice really was not a secular theory, but an ethical system with the same inevitably negative consequences as politics, due to fate. Ultimately, utterly unavoidable fate. It was the eternal yet futile hope of mankind to avoid it, and it is impossible to avoid. So while he writes himself on ethics, even Aristotle himself would prefer you to know what I write below. This is because, to understand the nature of his thought, one has to look far before and beyond Aristotle, 3,000 years ago, when a bard collected a set of stories about the conquest of Troy.

To illustrate their importance, consider here how the ancient Greeks themselves interpreted the story of Troy's subjugation, which despite its widespread recount, is rarely spoken any more as it was:

The Most Horrible Story in History

First, after suitable excuse of abduction (where in fact the damsel Helen wished to leave), the journey to conquest started with Agamemnon, a king so zealous for rapid success that he sacrificed his own daughter for good weather and rapid victory.

A tremendously long account follows of the noble warriors and how they died fruitlessly. Where possible, heroes of each side fought 1-on-1, to avert unnecessarily slaying. Sometimes, even the greatest Greek heroes committing barbaric atrocities beyond redemption, to no avail. The Trojan heroes showed themselves on many occasions far greater and more noble, and were equally admired where due. At each hero's death, whichever side they be, even Gods lamented. But neither side had clear advantage, and the war waged on bitterly. After 7 years of disease, famine, pestilence, and destitution, the siege of Troy was finally won.

The King returned home and was promptly murdered in his bathtub by his wife.

Before the construction of the great amphitheaters, the fate of Troy was handed down from generation to generation through children who learned it phonetically from age 6. The first bards were the 'keepers of the flame.' Greece at that early time did not know how to start fire, and embers had to be nursed when trees were struck by lightning; and the verses were recited to keep them awake over the fires. Forhundreds of years, the stories were learned by rhyme. Sailors learned the stories from the bards because, if they could recite them to pirates as entertainment, their lives would be spared. And with their popularity, people sought to join in a peace where no such abomination would happen again, leading to the greatcity states, reaching all across the oceans from the Crimea to Israel. The city states had many different forms of government, but across the entire federation, the great amphitheatres were constructed, where people learned the myths which joined them together. As important as the Olympics (if not even more important), people traveled vast distances to attend the events, bringing food and drink to share, that they not miss one moment. Over three days of singing and dancing, the woe of Troy was told again, even recounted by new writers. Complete plays about Troy survive by Aeschylus (trilogy, 458 BCE), Euripides (420, 415, 414, 412, 408. 405 BCE), and Sophocles (442, 409, 401 BDE); and there are many dozens of fragments.

"And so to this man here the blessed gods granted the taking of Troy,
and he has come home with the gods' honour;
but now if he is to pay for the blood of those before,
and by his death to ordain vengeance
for the dead in other deaths,
who of mortal men, when he hears this,
would boast of birth to a destiny without harm?"
-Agamemnon, Aeschylus (Athens, 458 BCE)

And so it was thatthe natural law which made democracy successful was not from philosophy, but that written by some of the greatest playwrights in history, first told over the embers of fires, then to the largest crowds as the greatest performances in the world as it was, describing the evil of war and its inevitable consequences for a thousand years.

The Single Greatest Corruption

Part of the reason that modern philosophers cannot easily understand Aristotle's ideas is not only because they derived from his culture, but also because, long since then, the meaning of the myths from which he derived his ideas on fate and the utter pointlessness of war have been almost totally eradicated.

This is because, a THOUSAND YEARS after the siege of Troy, in ancient Rome during the life of Christ, emperor Augustus hired Virgil to write a new mythology for Rome. Virgil wrote the Aeneid, which changed the story so that it ends when his new invention, the Trojan horse. After the contrived deception, there story ends with a bloody massacre of all the remaining citizens in Troy, amid the cries of noble victory. Rome had destroyed Troy yet again. In the Roman rewrite, no king meets his deserved doom at the hands of his long neglected wife, who seeking vengeance for the loss of his daughters, eagerly awaits him to disrobe and put aside his sword before his slashing his neck in his bathtub. The entire story is not about futility and revenge, but the nobility and virtue of war. Instead of being a woeful story of the conqueror's demise, it became nothing but a glorified tribute to the heroic soldier who gives his life and all in the name of those who care little for his life at all.

It remains that way to this day in virtually all telling. Fragments of Virgil may often be heard quoted on speeches on Memorial Day, adulating the magnificent efforts of those who give their life's blood in wonderful duty to the power that spawned them. No more was it a story of horror and warning. Instead it had become a repeated symbol of violent aggression. Even Greece itself lost its greatest homage to Homer. It had called itself "Hellas.' after Helen of Troy herself. Occasionally one still hears of the once greatHellenic Civilization, which sought commerce to unify city states rather than war. yet even when mentioned, it is rarely thought how the name signifies how much they loathed war and sought peace instead. Even now there is little remembrance at all for the horrible tragedy of Troy. Even its golden treasures, discovered again after three millennia, were secretly whisked away to Moscow after World War 2. So ends this sad yet proud tale of ancient Greece, and the natural law of fate, in which Aristotle believed, and for which reason, he sought a better way for all.

For no one chooses to be at war, or provokes war, for the sake of being at war....So if among excellent actions political and military actions are distinguished by nobility and greatness, and these are unleisurely and aim at an end and are not desirable for their own sake, but the activity of intellect, which is contemplative, seems both to be superior in worth and to aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its pleasure proper to itself (and this augments the activity), and the self-sufficiency, leisureliness, unweariedness (so far as this is possible for man), and all the other attributes ascribed to the blessed man are evidently those connected with this activity, it follows that this will be the complete happiness of man.
-Nicomachean Ethics, 10:7, Aristotle, (Athens, 420 BCE)

Aristotle described many corruptions, but none of those he described are any worse. The greatest corruption is the destroyed and forgotten reason why Aristotle designed his system of democracy; the reason why, despite all the impossible ideals, despite all that which others would call cynicism, despite all the failures, despite all the impossibly inescapable fates...The reason why Aristotle remained cheerful: he was designing a practical way to end war forever. But his own vision was itself corrupted by the evils he tried to encapsulate and protect against. Propagandists even use the idealism of democracy itself as a reason for war.

This is not to say that barbaric ideas of conquest and military vengeance did not occur in the Hellenic world. Aristotle himself failed to Alexander the Great not to attempt conquest of Persia. It is true that Alexander the Great was an incredible military commander in both tactics and strategy, but he could not create the synthesis of his conquered peoples with democratic ideals in the empire that he aimed to create; and upon his death, it rapidly collapsed, just as Aristotle predicted. But this was not the greatest corruption of Aristotle's ideas either. The single greatest corruption, which has caused the greatest loss of life, was the rewriting of the history of Troy.The nobilification of war, rather than heroes, causes even democracy itself to be used as an excuse for war against other nations, even after the exemplification of such failure by Alexander the Great, who in his youthful exuberance in the virtues of Hellenic thought, only proved again how Homer was right: no matter how much we can admire the hero's virtues of valor and courage, there is never a justification to instigate the horrific scenarios of war, no matter how much the despots who do so point to its wileful ends.

The Huang-Lao and the Heavenly Law of Li

TheHuainanzi, written in 139 BCE, attempt to define the necessary conditions for perfect socio-political order. Formed during the Second Imperial Dynasty, it is a synthesis of Taoist and Confucian ideas into legalism by a group of scholars known as the Huang-Lao. The Huang-Lao school itself lasted about 200 years, but Neoconfucianists adopted its ideas of natural law into their thought, so the principle still remains at the heart of both political philosophy and law, even surviving the cultural revolution, Maoism, and the Communist Party of China.

Its study is relatively rare in the West, partly because its approach is rather alien to the Western mind. William Ralph Inge (1860–1954), a Cambridge professor of divinity, observed similarities between ideas of natural law in theHuainanzi andthe Neoplatonism of Proclus and Plotinus.

Medieval thought regarded the universe as an articulated whole, and everything in it as both a part and a whole. The world is cosmos, a divinely instituted harmony. And, in accordance with the Neoplatonic philosophy, the higher principle is not divided up when it 'comes down' in its creative power to give life and order to the lower ranks of being. It is present everywhere in its entirety, though enfeebled to a greater or less degree in its operation, from its admixture with lower existences. Therefore, every institution and even every individual is a microcosm or minor mundus (hsiao tien). God, the Absolute One, is above the plurality of the world, the source and also the goal of every living being. Hence thelex eterna>, the eternal law of God, permeates all the apparent multiplicity of the world. 'All multitude', it was said, 'is derived from the One, and is brought back to the One': in other words, all order consists in the subordination of plurality to unity. The heavenly bodies have their unity in the primum mobile. So, in societies, there must be a unum regens in every whole.The State Invisible is the kingdom of absolute values, the kingdom of eternal life.
-Huainanzi, Forward, William Ralph Inge (Cambridge, England. 1933)

This 'State Invisible' is T‛ai Ch‛ing, connects to Western ideas of 'state of nature,' but different in being sublime, rather than simply an imagined state of physical existence without authority, and also derived from the One, as in Plotinus and Proclus:

Felicity of all order in the Cosmic Spirit. The rule of the T‛ai Ch‛ing was in accord with Heaven, and beneficial to creation. Nature (hsing) was constant, the spirit simple and centered, (i.e. not scattered over a multitude of things). The mind had no appetites, (desire): it was quiescent: it was active, not stagnant. Mental activities were inwardly consonant with the Tao, and outward activities were in agreement with right. The activities of the mind worked artistically; action was correct with benefit to things. Words were prized and in accord with reason. Actions were simple and direct, in accordance with nature. The mind was contented and without cunning.Actions were simple and without ostentation. So there was no recourse to horoscopy and divination of the eight signs and the tortoise. There was no thought of where to begin and how to end. (There was no such thing as scheming policy). Action took place when it was demanded. Principles were embodied: the spirit of Yin and Yang were envisaged. All was in conformity with the four seasons. All was bright and clear as the sun and moon: man was a fit mate of the Creator. Hence Heaven overshadowed them with grace, and Earth sustained them with life. The four seasons did not lose their order, nor did the wind and rain fall with violence. The sun and moon were limpid and lucent, shining in their brightness, and the five planets moved in their orbits without error. During these periods the primal fluid was surpassingly glowing (in men of the period) and transmitted its brilliancy. The phoenix and the Lin nestled on the land; the divining grass and tortoise were found. The fattening dews descended; the flowering bamboo came to ripeness; the yellow jade appeared; the vermillion grass showed itself in the palace precincts. Portents of good omen were all these. Men's hearts were free from secret craftiness and the smartness of cunning.
-Huainanzi, Chapter 4: "Natural Law," the Huang-Lao (China, c.139 BCE)

From this origin, the rulers gained a life of decadent abundance, whereas the poor had not even enough to furnish their homes:

Decadent age marked by Luxury and poverty. When we arrive at the decadent age, we find that men dug into the mountains for precious stones. They wrought metal and jade into cunning vessels and broke open oysters in search of pearls: they melted brass and iron; the whole of nature withered under the exploitation. They ripped open the pregnant and slew the young, untimely (in order to get skins and furs). The Chilin, as a result, did not visit the land. They broke down nests and despoiled the birds that had not lain, so that the phoenix no longer hovered around. They drilled wood for fire: they piled up timber to make verandahs and balustrades: they burnt forests to drive out game and drained the waters for fish. In spite of this, the furniture at the service of the people was not enough for their use, whilst the luxuries of the rulers were abundant. Thus, the world of life partially failed and things miscarried so that the larger half of creation failed of fruition.
-Huainanzi, 4.2, the Huang-Lao (China, c.139 BCE)

In response to the exploitation of the land, nature became savage, causing natural disasters. Those in authority divided the land, built walled cities for self defense; and punished those resisting them. From the need to maintain authority, they created soldiers, from which wars and strife arose. This disrupts the natural order.

Cosmic order deranged by human enmity In the course of time, the mountains and streams were divided into boundaries and frontiers: censuses of the people were taken in order to know the population of this place and that: cities were built and moats and dykes dug: barriers were erected and weapons forged, for defensive purposes: officials were created for the departments with various robes and badges and with laws: they differentiated classes and masses and distinguished the worthy from the vulgar: they organized a system of reprimands and approbations, of rewards and punishments. Following these, there arose soldiers; and firearms were made, which gave birth to wars and strife. The untimely death and annihilation of the oppressed people ensued. There was arbitrary murder of the guiltless, and the punishment and death of the innocent. These inequities all sprang up at these times and on such occasions. The harmonious cooperation of Heaven and Earth, the evolution of creation by the Yin and Yang depends on the spirit of man. Hence, when there is an estrangement between the classes and masses or rulers and the people, the very air of Heaven becomes noxious and disorganized: when prince and minister are not in harmony, the crops in the fields fail to ripen.
-Huainanzi, 4.3-4, the Huang-Lao (China, c.139 BCE)

Govern by Ethical Spirit, without Benevolence

From this, it is asserted thatpeople are fundamentally good. The best course of action is thereforewuwei, non-action (as from Taoist philosophy). Dissent can arise from two sources: exploitation by those in authority, and excessive indulgence in pleasures by the subjects. The method to remove dissent is to reassert the divine order, by enforcing the highest ethics. Desires for greater wealth will then not cause insurrection, and the people can enjoy amusements without invocation of avarice, which is the danger to the ruler. That is, the objective of the ruler is allow goodness, prevent dissent by force, and to govern by spirit, rather by than setting any particular rules. With good spirit, the government is successful. With ill spirit, the government fails.

When the spirit which is ordained by heaven is centered on spiritual things and is free from passion, and when this spirit of wu wei is prevalent, the people will be good. People's nature being virtuous, Nature and the Auras are favorable and afford protection. Thus, then, wealth will be enough, and men will be contented; neither cupidity, avarice, strife nor war will arise.

It is clear that, under such conditions, benevolence and duty have no place in the economy. When ethics and moral nature are predominant in the world and the people are simple and unaffected, then it will follow that the eye will not be influenced by beauty nor the ear be ravished by lascivious strains. Amusements, theatricals, merrymaking and jollity, even if they were the allurements of the beauties, Mao Ch‛iang and Hsi Shih, will stir up no desire. Neither will classical music, and dance of Piao Yu and Wu Hsiang give rise to mirth. Being unaffected by lewdness, it is clear that ceremony and music have no place under such a condition.
-Huainanzi, 4.3-4, the Huang-Lao (China, c.139 BCE)

From this, it is deduced that the perfect order is best maintained by a single ruler, the emperor, with kings under him. The kings in turn have autocrats and princes under them, hierarchically. The princes avoids exploitation of natural resources and enforces, by any extent of punishment necessary, the good behavior of his subjects.

Characteristics of good rule. Heaven and Earth and animated with the obligations due to tao and te: his intelligence is clear as the noontide; his spirit is identified with creation: his activity and rest synchronize with Yin and Yang: his joy and anger act in cordiality with the Four Seasons. His virtuous charity reaches the most distant parts, and his name is transmitted to later generations. This is the man, the Emperor, who embodies the principles of the T‛ai I.

The King imitates Yin and Yang; his virtue stands on a par with Heaven and Earth; his intelligence is comparable with the sun and moon; his spiritual character is like the divinities. He is similar to Heaven and Earth (they are the round and square); he maintains the principles of right, justice and truth. Able to govern himself, he obtains the adhesion of men. So there are none in the empire who do not follow and give general assent to laws and commands, as they are issued and promulgated.

The Autocrat copies the Four Seasons and acts flexibly, but not with impatience, firmly, but not with harshness, generously, but not with excess, eagerly, but not refractorily. Leisurely, flexibly, deliberately, persistently he acts so as to nourish the various things and affairs of life. His goodness tolerates the simple, and suffers the reprobates. There is no trace of a baleful partiality.

The Princes use the Six Laws, suppress anarchy, arrest the violent, advance the worthy and degrade the unfit: they brush away the incompetent and forcibly correct them: they straighten out the rough and awkward and bend the crooked to make him straight. These know what to prohibit and permit, what to encourage and what to discourage. Following the spirit of the times and popular ideas, they act so as to command the allegiance of men.

Abuse of the proper order leads to failure.Now, when he who is emperor acts in sympathy with Yin and Yang (and not with God, as he should) he will suffer from the aggression of others. When the king imitates the Four Seasons, he will have his territories sliced away. When the autocrat uses the six laws, he will suffer shame at the hands of his neighbors. When the prince loses his square and line i.e. righteousness and justice, he will see the defection of his people.
-Huainanzi, 4.17-18, the Huang-Lao (China, c.139 BCE)

The Huang-Laos' idea, to merge Confucian and Taoist ideas into legalism, resulted in a syncretic system ofheavenly law, wherein all are held to the highest ethical order. Within this, there is no social contract between the people and authority, and the people have no rightsper se. However, when presenting cases of dispute to authority, the method of justice is not based on actions, but rather on ethical quality. A person who is of good ethical fiber can present a grievance against a less ethical person and expect to win. As for limits of authority,everyone is expected to live to the same high moral standards, so authority itself is under continual and vigilant criticism by the court. One rather might feel that a good emperor has a very miserable life, and a bad emperor a very short one.

When one examines the actual history after the Han Dynasty (or Second Imperial Dynasty, c.204BCE~24AD), it does seem such a feeling has a sound basis. After the Han Dynasty's end, no single dynasty lasted as long until the Tang Dynasty (or the Ninth Imperial Dynasty, 618-907). In between the 2nd and 9th Imperial Dynasties, many debates about varying interpretations of Taoism and Confucianism continued. the debates were further complicated by increasing Buddhism. With no clear resolution, no policies founded on any one of the schools of political thought remained dominant for any significant period of time, and the emperors muddled through in various ways.


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