BECK index

Summary and Evaluation

This chapter is part of the book ANCIENT WISDOM AND FOLLY, which has now been published.
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Near East
Evaluating Ancient Civilization

Planet earth is a place of ever-changing experience. Yet of all the diversity of living species only the humans have developed artificial civilization that dominates the environment and uses sophisticated means of communication with art, technology, and writing that are passed on to future generations. To discuss the ethics of early humans before the appearance of this evidence is very speculative and uncertain. Nonetheless to understand ourselves better it is useful to have some ideas as to our origins. Readers may disagree or agree about the spiritual aspects of our being and its source in God or a creator, but the long process of evolution is fairly well proven now by the scientific research of the last century or so. What does the nature of our bodies and how they evolved reveal about our values?

The second law of thermodynamics indicates that the physical universe is meant to be used. As warm-blooded mammals our bodies must be constantly fed and protected from cold weather. To do this requires using resources of the environment. In our time excessive exploitation of the environment threatens our very survival, but in the ancient world with a small human population this was only rarely the case. The extension of childhood development and dependence on the mother for longer periods stimulated family values. The enjoyment of sexual relations at any time by creatures with brains large enough to make conscious choices brought greater emotional attachment, rivalry, jealousy, and social customs in mating. Much of human ethics is concerned with the morals of mating and the raising of children to understand the customary behaviors of the social group.

A few million years ago the need to gather more food led a resourceful primate to begin eating the flesh of other animals as other predators do. This led to the aggressive behavior of hunting in which group cooperation was found to be successful. The success of hunters and gatherers in some areas eventually brought about crises, which stimulated the development of agriculture, opening the great source of reliable sustenance that would bring about the birth of civilization in villages, towns, and cities. Instead of following herds, more people began to settle down in one place and tend their own animals as possessions. Animal food could be used especially in emergencies or between crops. Only recently are scientists discovering that eating animal products is less healthy for the human body, but old social habits are hard to break. The domestication of large animals also provided an interim technology to assist human labor and transportation before the industrial age replaced them with machines. Before force was organized for warfare, women were very likely equal partners with men; mothers may even have been worshiped for their ability to bear children and nurture them.

Skill using weapons in hunting animals could be turned against fellow humans in violent social conflicts and so was also valued by many aggressive humans in battles between one group and another even if individual violence within the group was discouraged. As clans of families and eventually tribes joined together to protect developing property such as animals, houses, fields, and irrigation systems, war became an organized activity to defend against marauding raiders. Stronger males naturally became leaders in these aggressive confrontations. Thus patriarchs developed sexist values in a male-dominated society. Cultures where the nurturing skills of women made them equal or superior tended to be those societies which were more "primitive" in the sense that they did not develop as much surplus wealth that needed forceful protection or were in isolated places where they did not have to fear encroachment. Those aggressive bands of raiders, who perverted hunting skills into plundering other human settlements, were surely the most violent and probably the most dominated by men.

The development of language and storytelling increased social cohesion that could now be passed on to other generations through oral tradition. Tribal loyalties gained continuity, and rituals were celebrated to strengthen emotional attachments to the group's cultural values. As population increased with successful agriculture, tribes with a common language interacted in cities and were often united by a social hierarchy headed by kings and priests. The lessons of Atlantean destruction, though attempts were made to pass them on through the Egyptians and Greeks, are controversial and mostly lost.

Outside of the Mediterranean area, Europeans in the ancient world remained tribal and did not leave behind writing. Many, such as the Scythians and Germans, were warrior cultures dependent on hunting or raiding; for them bronze and iron could be made into better weapons. Africa south of the Sahara desert also remained pre-literate and tribal so that little is known about the ethics of their cultures beyond the Nubians, who were influenced by the Egyptians. In the western hemisphere cultures were isolated and independent. Hunting and gathering continued, and farming occurred in some places. In the areas of Mexico and Peru (America) large populations built cities, but little is known of their laws and government in this period. Similarly lack of writing from east Asia outside of China precludes evaluating their early cultures.

Near East

The earliest cities were built in the fertile crescent from Jericho to Catal Huyuk in Anatolia and especially along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Sumer. Here and concurrently in Egypt along the Nile developed the first great civilizations. Agriculture was enhanced with the use of metal, pottery, and the wheel. Writing promoted economic and political development in business, trade, law, government, education, and literature. Sumerian religion was important, and priests gained great power and wealth, while women were exploited as temple prostitutes. Men dominated as kings and governors although women could hold important positions in the temples. The three classes distinguished in the laws of Sumerian society were the nobles (government administrators, army officers, and priests), workers in business, crafts, farming, and education, and slaves who could earn their freedom. The development of written codes of criminal law and civil contracts were outstanding ethical developments for justice.

Governments were organized by city, and conflicts between cities and neighboring cultures led to the organized violence of war that eventually destroyed Sumerian civilization. The earliest historical Sumerian king, Mebaragesi of Kish, attacked and plundered Elam. The epic hero Gilgamesh first became famous as a king who successfully defended Uruk against an attack by Kish. According to the poem his using his office for the primitive sexual exploitation of women was stopped by the other hero Enkidu. The Uruk dynasty was overthrown by Ur's first king Mesannepadda. Ur's Lagash king Ur-Nanshe was constructive, and Ur experienced a century of great wealth. However, his grandson Eannatum fought and won wars with neighbors while killing many. Eannatum's nephew Entemena won back a disputed canal from Umma, made a treaty with united Uruk and Ur, and reigned so well that he was worhsiped for a millennium, as people of Umma were allowed civil liberties in Lagash.

The corruption of greedy priests was reformed by Urukagina, who reduced taxes and stopped religious extortion. Unfortunately his Lagash was invaded by the army of Umma governor Lugalzagesi, who conquered most of Sumer and ruled with fifty governors. Nonetheless he was defeated and captured by Sargon, who built the new capital of Agade and installed Akkadian governors. The Semitic Akkadian replaced Sumerian as the official language. Sargon expanded his empire by conquest of Elam, Mari, and Ebla. The reigns of Sargon, Rimush, Manishtusu, and Naram-Sin from 2390 to 2274 BC were filled with wars for copper, tin, silver, timber, stone, and slaves. Naram-Sin was criticized for bringing on the destruction of Agade by the Guti, because he devastated the temple of Nippur.

The Guti ruled Mesopotamia for a century, during which Lagash governor Gudea was known for building temples and purifying the city. In 2176 BC Uruk overthrew the Guti, but seven years later they were replaced by the third dynasty of Ur that lasted a century. Ur-Nammu rid the land of robbers and established written law codes based on equity and truth. His building projects were continued by his son Shulgi, who also campaigned militarily in the north and used diplomacy by marrying his daughters to governors in the east. His Sumerian government reached its height of power, even subduing the influence of the temples and private wealth, as the state took over land and businesses. Sumerian literature celebrated anthropomorphic gods and goddesses and the divine gifts of civilization. However, in the 21st century BC the empire of Ur broke up, as power shifted in the next century to cities such as Isin, Larsa, Eshnunna, Mari, Assur, and Babylon.

Hammurabi made Babylon the capital of a large empire by armed conquest, and he promulgated a strict law code with much capital punishment and retaliatory mutilation. The three Babylonian classes were the free awelu, the commoners dependent on the state, and slaves. Babylonians adopted most of the Sumerian religion and culture but added the powerful war god Marduk. After the death of Hammurabi, rebellion and wars soon reduced the Babylonian empire. Ammisaduqa reformed economic oppression by canceling debts and back taxes and by punishing officials and creditors who disobeyed. After the Hittites invaded Babylon and left, the Kassites took control and ruled fairly peacefully there for about four centuries, preserving Akkadian literature. Wars and power struggles still occurred in the region with the Assyrians, Mitanni, Hurrians, Hittites, and Egyptians. Babylonian literature emphasized creation stories, conflicts between deities, and the triumph of the new god Marduk. Ishtar (representing the planet Venus) stood for feminine qualities of love and friendship, and some poets expressed the value of justice and of returning kindness even to enemies.

Hittite civilization grew in Anatolia, beginning with much violence but eventually developing law codes and a council to advise the king. A Hittite army pushed back the expanding Egyptian empire at Kadesh about 1300 BC. The Hittites also added Sumerian and Babylonian deities to their own violent storm gods.

Egyptian civilization probably learned the use of seals and writing from the Sumerians. Being more isolated, their wars with the Asiatics in the east, Libyans to the west, and Nubians in the south were infrequent and less threatening. When the north and south was united under one king, a powerful empire arose and continued for many centuries, as people prospered around the fertile Nile. As early as the 27th century BC the kings demonstrated their power by exploiting thousands of laborers in constructing the great pyramids, the largest buildings on earth. These immense projects could not be sustained though, and later kings reduced their ambitions to more modest building. Egyptian religion was obsessed with the life after death, though this did give people an incentive to be just. The Old Kingdom period degenerated into violent strife, turmoil, and revolution until the Theban king Mentuhotep II re-united Egyptians about 2040 BC, founding the Middle Kingdom era. Once again Egypt exploited its Nubian, Libyan, and Syrian neighbors for building materials, and Asiatic nomads were forced out of the eastern Delta. Egypt was stable for about three centuries before the Bedouin shepherds with improved weapons took over Memphis and ruled most of Egypt for a century, a conquest resented by Egyptians for turning their society upside down.

In the 16th century BC the Hyksos rulers were expelled, as Ahmose established the 18th dynasty and the New Kingdom, which expanded the Egyptian empire. Pyramids were no longer built, as temples were separated from tombs, probably indicating more emphasis on life than on death, although the spiritual instructions in the Book of the Dead remained popular. The military leader Thutmose III conquered extensive territory in Asia as far as Kadesh in Syria and even crossed the Euphrates to defeat the Mitanni. Increased Egyptian wealth was based on imported slave labor. Egyptian society reflected a pyramid-like structure headed by the king or pharaoh, who ruled as a god over a militarized state governed by authoritarian administrators. Obedience was the rule unless bribery could corrupt. The needs of the people seem to have been met by their labor, but education was only for the elite. The failed religious revolution of Akhenaten did not seem to affect the ethics of the culture, as the empire continued though perhaps a little weaker; his successors eradicated his reforms, though it can be argued that the weakening of empire was a benefit to humanity's freedom. The military leader Horemheb tried to instill discipline with harsh punishments.

Although Ramses II fought boldly at Kadesh in 1300 BC, the Egyptian empire was beginning to shrink, as he had to accept co-existence with the Hittites in Syria. Invasions by the mysterious Sea Peoples in the 12th century BC not only devastated the Hittite empire but also forced the Egyptians back to their traditional Nile kingdom. Egypt continued as a regional power for several centuries until they were conquered by Assyrian king Esarhaddon in 671 BC, but it revived under Psamtik fifteen years later; they were defeated by Babylonians under Nebuchadressar in 605 BC, fought back under Amasis, and were taken into the Persian empire for two centuries by Cambyses in 525 BC.

Much ancient wisdom came from Egypt, and it probably influenced the origins of Jewish culture more than people realize. Their spiritual view of psychology and recognition of the divine as an invisible God (Amen), who ruled according to justice, must have encouraged ethical behavior. However, its authoritarian monarchy did little to promote human freedom, and their empire was based on military power and slavery. Egyptians excelled in architecture, building, and surgery; yet their belief in magic did little to promote science, although it had some charm in literature. Egypt was a stable though static society with apparently little interest in historical process or the human interactions portrayed in theatre.

The Hebrew Bible has had a tremendous impact on religion and ethics and tells us much about the people of Israel. Genesis combined ancient folktales with a religious message to produce a scripture of great influence. The story of Adam and Eve reflects the increase in awareness that made the human species responsible for its ethical behavior. Violent conflicts between shepherds and farmers are indicated by Cain's killing Abel. The story of the primeval deluge taught obedience to God, as did the account of Abraham's sacrifice of a ram. The tale of Jacob's twelve sons explained how the Hebrews became enslaved in Egypt, and the account of Moses' leading them out of bondage was obviously not written from the Egyptian point of view. In the Torah God comes across not only as a jealous God but a cruel one as well. Nonetheless the ideas of following God's guidance and practicing ethical laws, such as the ten commandments, are great contributions to civilization.

Yet justifying the violent conquest of Canaan led by Joshua is questionable, and the intolerance of other religious beliefs and practices caused many needless conflicts and problems. The attempt to live by God's guidance through prophets had to give way to the traditional monarchy, as Saul and David were made kings. David fought so successfully as a terrorist that he established a kingdom ruled in glory by his son Solomon. The religious poetry of David and the wisdom of Solomon have inspired many. Many precepts of Israel's wisdom literature resembled those of Egypt's. The poignant story of Job attempted with religious faith to resolve the disparity of why the innocent and virtuous sometimes suffer. Yet the frequent wars between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, even though they shared the same faith, indicate serious ethical and political limitations in this violent era. That even exalted prophets like Elijah could try to prove their "holiness" by causing many deaths reveals lack of respect for the value of human life. Not having learned ways of peace, Israel and Judah had to suffer from the greater power of empires like Assyria and Babylon.

Yet the messages of prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah attempted to teach people justice and mercy. Jeremiah suggested they not resist what was inevitable with violence, which would only make things worse; but he was imprisoned for his effort. Taken captive to Babylon, there Jews discovered and edited their religious writings, as Ezekiel and second Isaiah presented them with inspiring visions of redemption and a return, which was fulfilled by the generosity of the Persian emperor Cyrus. After a remnant came back to Jerusalem, conflicts of religious customs still occurred, as Ezra would not tolerate "foreign" wives, though Nehemiah showed charity. Jewish culture clung to its sacred scriptures and survived.

Assyria used the force of military power to establish a large empire in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, but it was also based on slaves captured in war or sold for debt. Armed authorities taxed the people to pay for the military establishment in a society with little opportunity for social mobility; roles of women were especially confined.

Babylonians took over the Assyrian empire in 609 BC; they conquered and deported people from Judah and elsewhere. Although Babylonians tolerated diverse cultures and religious views, their empire was soon overthrown by the Persians as Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 BC. The Persians practiced a religion enlightened by the teachings of Zarathushtra, whose philosophy emphasized the wisdom of learning and following the good truthfully while avoiding the evils of injustice, lying, and harm. After Cyrus had conquered western Asia to the Aegean coast, conflicts developed with Greek colonies in Ionia. Massive invasions of Europe under Darius in 490 and Xerxes in 480 BC were defeated by Greeks fighting on land and sea. Frequent rebellions in the western portions of the Persian empire eventually culminated in the conquest by Alexander's Macedonian army of the entire Persian empire before his death in 323 BC. The great wealth Persians had used for so long to hire Greek mercenaries and interfere in Greek conflicts was eventually captured and appropriated by the Hellenizers.


The pre-Aryan Harappan civilization in the Indus valley seems to have had many feminine and egalitarian qualities, but unfortunately without writing little is known of their history and beliefs. Floods and over-grazing may have made them more vulnerable to conquest. The invasion of white-skinned Aryan conquerors of the dark natives in India is documented in the Vedic scriptures of the Hindus. Powerful religious beliefs similar to the Iranians' were used to justify the establishment of a caste system based on skin color and occupations. Hindu society was dominated by the Brahmin priests and Kshatriya warrior-kings, supported by artisan, merchant, and farming Vaishyas, all of whom exploited the labor of the natives. Aryan ways were patriarchal and violent.

Yet somehow in India the western religion combined with the eastern methods of yoga and meditation to develop a remarkable spiritual philosophy and ascetic way of life based on inner awareness and renunciation of the world. The sages of the Upanishads left teachings that written would inspire millions with their mystical wisdom. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation explained how spiritual justice transcended one lifetime, and the mystical methods offered seekers a path of liberation from the cycle. An ethical life of nonviolence was only the first step in such an awesome endeavor, while renouncing worldly success made the society more inward than other materialistic cultures.

The practice of nonviolence by Parshva was developed into a major religion by the noble Mahavira, whose extraordinary ascetic disciplines and spiritual awareness attracted devoted followers. Adding chastity to the ethical disciplines of nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, and freedom from possession, Mahavira established a religious community that spread Jainism. Yet the extremity of the asceticism, which some believed required nudity, did not become as popular as a similar but more moderate religion founded in the same era by Siddartha the Buddha.

The life of Siddartha Gautama and his teachings as the Buddha have inspired millions of people seeking peace and enlightenment to live more ethically. His renouncing princely wealth and power to become an ascetic only to discover that a moderate path between the extremes of strictness and luxury was the most successful approach to spiritual awareness is an archetypal story of great significance. The four noble truths of the Buddha are: 1) life is painful; 2) pain is caused by craving; 3) stopping craving stops pain; and 4) the way to stop craving is by correct understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, attention, concentration, and meditation. The Buddha by his counseling prevented a war between the Kolyas and the Shakyas. The Buddha refused to discuss speculative and metaphysical questions as irrelevant to ending suffering and finding enlightenment. He overcame attempts by Devadatta to cause a schism in the Buddhist community and refused to harm him even after Devadatta tried to kill him.

The teachings of the Buddha offered a practical way to reduce social harm as well as personal suffering. The Buddha diagnosed the psychological causality of attachment in his theory of dependent origination. Ethical behavior is an important part of the Buddhist quest for enlightenment. The Buddha's leadership of the community that formed around his teachings set an example of wisdom. His teachings were passed on orally and then in writing in numerous dialogs analyzing human consciousness and ethical conduct. One of the greatest Buddhist works on ethics is the poetic Dhammapada, which emphasized compassion, self-mastery, and awareness. The Questions of King Milinda has the Hellenistic Bactrian king, who converted to Buddhism, ask many difficult questions, which are answered by Nagasena. Thousands of people were profoundly influenced by Buddha's teachings in his own lifetime, and Buddhism spread throughout India in the next five centuries, influencing the policies of kings as well as individual seekers. Although the injustices of war and the caste system were certainly not eliminated, there can be little doubt that efforts to practice Buddhist compassion by so many greatly improved the ethics of Indian society.

After he killed his father to become king of Magadha, Ajatashatru was influenced by the Buddha, built a new capital at Pataliputra, and sponsored the first Buddhist council. Nonetheless he was followed by murderous kings, who were eventually replaced by the Nanda dynasty. Although Indian culture developed a rich literature, they were more interested in spiritual truths than historical events. Thus little is known about political history in India except for Alexander's brief invasion in 326 BC, which was described by Greek historians. According to them Indians never marched outside of their country for war. Some kingdoms defended themselves against the Macedonian army, while others who surrendered were killed for refusing to fight fellow Indians. Alexander experienced the fiercest military resistance to his conquests in India and was nearly killed there himself. Indian philosophers and naked Jainas discussed justice and other issues with the aggressive Greeks and influenced Pyrrho, who later founded the Skeptical school. This warfare stimulated Chandragupta to raise an army that enabled him to unite India in the Mauryan empire. The 500 elephants he provided in a treaty helped Seleucus to hold his west Asian empire against other Greeks.

The Mauryan empire was inherited by Ashoka in 273 BC. Though before his conversion to Buddhism he was responsible for many people being killed and deported, Ashoka's implementation of Buddhist teachings made him one of the greatest monarchs of all time. He ruled with wisdom and compassion as he renounced war, promoted justice, and tolerated all religious faiths. The Mauryan dynasty had ended by about 187 BC when Bactrian Greeks invaded and were driven back. After the Greeks took over the Punjab, King Menander was also converted to Buddhism. Aryan conquests had gradually spread south, and Buddhism followed centuries later. The island of Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism and became a stronghold of that religion.

The Hindu Dharma Sutras described the ethical duties of the four castes and the four stages of life as the celibate student, married householder, forest retreat, and the final renunciation. The Laws of Manu offered ethical counsel as well as law codes, such as avoiding eating meat because of the principle of nonviolence. Other principles included truthfulness, non-stealing, purity, and self-control. The main duty of the Brahmin is to teach, the Kshatriya to protect, the Vaishya to trade, and the Sudra to serve.

The Artha Shastra by Kautilya gave political advice and lowered the ethical standards of the sacred traditions. Although Kautilya claimed to teach justice in pursuing power and wealth (artha), he recommended the use of war and the employment of spies and deceit for calculated advantage. Kautilya valued wealth above all, thinking that could be used to buy everything else.

The fourth value of Hindu culture after liberation (moksha), justice (dharma), and wealth (artha) was pleasure (kama). The Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana presented views on how pleasure can be attained, particularly erotically. Sexual morals varied, some abstaining from adultery; others considered it a risk worth taking. The attitudes of ancient India toward sexuality seemed to be quite practical and open-minded.

As a minority view, materialists did exist in ancient India. Although they emphasized worldly pleasures, they did teach ethical values; one Carvaka was even martyred for opposing the violence of the great Bharata war, according to the epic Mahabharata.

Of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy the Nyaya emphasized logic and discerning knowledge. Yet ethical living was important in the process of spiritual liberation. Vaishesika focused on individual responsibility for one's actions (karma). Liberation was achieved by freeing the soul from the body. Progress was mainly by virtue (dharma).

Mimamsa also emphasized dharma and soul transcendence, and they recommended prayers, rituals, and sacrifices as methods. Humans are free, but dharma supports the universe. Mimamsa focused on making one's action (karma) virtuous (dharma). Its complementary school was Vedanta, which suggested meditation and liberation by awareness as taught in the Upanishads, the end of the Vedas.

The Samkhya and Yoga schools also worked as a pair. Samkhya taught how to discern the spirit and soul from nature, the field of knowledge and manifestation, in order to attain independence. Samkhya's ethics differentiated the good (sattva) from the passion of activity (rajas) and ignorance (tamas). Yoga was the practical method used for achieving independence and is brilliantly outlined in the classic text by Patanjali called the Yoga Sutras. The ethical foundation is found in the first two steps of restraint (not injuring, not lying, not stealing, not lusting, and not possessing) and the observances (cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Lord). Physical postures and breath control then prepare one for the psychological steps of withdrawal from the senses by attention, concentration, and meditation. The value of these disciplines is still demonstrated by the yoga many practice in the world today.

In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna also taught various yogas for increasing spiritual awareness, although his justification of the war and urging of Arjuna to fight in battle can be questioned. The wisdom in this famous book is extensive and includes how not to be attached to the fruits of action by practicing ways of action, knowledge, intuition, renunciation, devotion, and meditation. The qualities of goodness, emotion, and ignorance are differentiated, and the liberation beyond all of them is held up as the ultimate goal.

The imaginative literature of ancient India excelled in two great epic poems and in folktales. In the Ramayana by Valmiki virtue is exemplified by the noble couple Rama and Sita. In their adventures every man and woman could find nearly ideal behavior portrayed in challenging circumstances, as Rama survives exile and regains his kingdom in the great monkey war, while his wife Sita endures captivity by the enemy and a difficult reconciliation.

Vyasa's tremendous Mahabharata depicts two quarreling families and culminates in a great war between them for the kingdom. Justice (dharma) is indicated this time by Vidura and the oldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira, whose weakness for gambling though puts the Pandavas in a difficult position. The war is nearly fatal for the entire human race, but in the epilog Yudhishthira and his enemies are reconciled in heaven. Although nonviolence (ahimsa) is exalted as the highest virtue, the heroes of this war epic have difficulty practicing it.

The Jataka tales present Buddhist teachings set in stories of the Buddha's previous lives as humans, spirits, and animals. The lessons illustrate his sermons and show how karma can work from life to life. In them the power of goodness is very uplifting, and virtue always triumphs. The Panchatantra contains animal fables with more worldly messages, demonstrating how creatures can survive the danger of being eaten in a competitive world by cleverness and cooperative friends.


The long tradition of Chinese civilization goes back about 7,000 years. Deforestation may have been a problem near the end of the Xia Dynasty, which was replaced by the warlike Shang Dynasty that developed bronze artistry and lasted about five centuries. The Zhou Dynasty claimed the mandate of heaven in the 11th century BC as they criticized the drunkenness and oppressive policies of the last Shang king. Chinese kingdoms operated as a feudal system under the sovereignty of the Zhou king for centuries.

Several early literary classics indicated a sophisticated culture. The Book of Changes applied philosophy to the art of divination, developing the ideas of yin and yang and other natural symbols, as they sought to live in harmony with nature. Songs and poetry expressing human feelings were collected and passed on in the Book of Odes. Courtesy and manners were precisely delineated in the first of many works on propriety (li). China's early interest in history was recorded in the Book of Documents, which developed a political philosophy of following the will of heaven under hereditary monarchs. Government became bureaucratized under the Prime Minister and the ministries of Instruction, Religions, War, Crime, and Works.

Many wars occurred in China in the half millennium from 722 to 221 BC, the first half known as the Spring and Autumn Era and the second as the Period of Warring States. Small feudal states were taken over by expanding kingdoms; then a few kingdoms struggled for power until the western state of Qin overcame the rest. A commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals made moral judgments and drew political lessons from this ancient strife. Guan Zhong's political skill was later admired by the Legalists. A brief respite from these wars occurred when Heang Seu convened a meeting in 545 BC that was able to organize a league of states to keep the peace for a few years. Cheng prime minister Zichan encouraged open discussions of his government's policies. The state of Wu was militarized by following the advice of Sun-zi, who wrote The Art of War. Yet Wu's rapid rise to power was followed by its even faster decline and destruction in 473 BC.

The intrigues of active advisors caused frequent conflicts between states. Wu Qi was another whose military advice stimulated violence. Legalists later emulated the harsh punishments of Shang Yang, who was killed in 338 BC. His contemporary Shen Buhai was influenced by Daoist ideas and developed subtle techniques of administration. Su Qin and his brothers tried to use diplomacy to form alliances against the powerful Qin, while Zhang Yi negotiated with other states for Qin. Hundreds of thousands were killed in these battles, as warlords like the Lord of Meng-chang (who went from Qi to serve Qin and Wei before going back to Qi), Zhao's Lord of Pingyuan, the Noble Scion of Wei, and Chu's Lord of Chunshen struggled for power. Finally Li Si became prime minister for Qin's King Zheng, enabling him to overcome all the other states and become the first emperor of China in 221 BC.

Amid these troubled and warlike times China experienced its golden age of philosophers. Confucius (551-479 BC) became the first known professional teacher of adults. As a practical humanist Confucius emphasized the goodness and wisdom that produce ethical behavior. An indefatigable learner, Confucius studied the classics, particularly the Book of Changes to which he wrote commentaries. His conversations with his students recorded in the Analects portrayed him as a genial and patient teacher. He would have liked to have been an advisor to kings, but few would listen to his humane ideas.

Confucius did not consider himself an innovator but one who taught the ancient Zhou wisdom of love, justice, conscientiousness, courage, and filial piety. Most of all he sought goodness (humanity), but he never believed that he or others fully attained it. He pointed out the difference between the attitudes and behaviors of superior people compared to small people. Instead of judging people by birth or family, Confucius evaluated them by their character and actions. His thorough and life-long teaching enabled individuals to rise in Chinese society through education. Although he was more philosophical than religious, Confucius did pray and perform rituals sincerely; yet he believed serving people was more important than serving spirits. He taught that we should not do to others what we do not want them to do to us. He recommended we correct ourselves before we try to correct others. For Confucius rectifying language depended on truthfulness and the integrity of matching actions to words. Confucius focused on political reform as well as self-improvement. He believed studying literature could help prevent one from violating the way and that social relations could be harmonized by propriety. Confucius showed that virtue could be attained by the love of learning.

Of the followers of Confucius, his favorite student Yen Hui died before him; the bold Zilu died serving his prince; Ran Qiu was criticized for raising taxes; Zigong became one of the first active diplomats; Zeng Shen emphasized filial piety; the well educated Ziyu gained a position; and Zi Xia became the master of his own school. The grandson of Confucius wrote a book or two and was the teacher of Mencius.

Mencius (371-289 BC) was the next great Confucian philosopher, and his book became a Confucian classic. Mencius advised the aged King Hui to avoid war and improve his kingdom with education and other reforms. Good government would reduce taxes and the violence of punishments and war. The king could become great and make his kingdom great by practicing kindness. The people need to be nurtured and provided with education. After King Hui died, Mencius went to Qi to counsel King Xuan, but he loved money and women and would not listen when Mencius implied criticism of him. Mencius recommended consulting the people in decisions that affected them. Mencius also advised Duke Wen of Teng to do good.

Mencius emphasized goodness and believed that in the heart of everyone there is good. Every human would naturally go to save a baby about to fall into a well. This human goodness can also be applied in government. He recommended a middle path between negligence and too much meddling. For Mencius virtue is more important than profit. People can help each other and live in harmony. Mencius admired Confucius and criticized Yang Zhu for teaching selfishness. Mencius suggested seeking and thinking in order to find the answer. Everyone loves, but the wise love what is more important. Goodness is like water and can overcome the cruelty of fire. If virtue is put before profit, human relationships will be mutually beneficial. Mencius criticized advisors who pandered to the evil desires of rulers. Mencius found no just wars in his era and thought that military experts were grave criminals.

Xun-zi (Hsun-tzu) lived almost a century (310-212 BC) in a violent era. He studied and taught at the academy in Qi but had to flee during the massive invasion of 284 BC. In Qin-dominated Chu Xun-zi was influenced by Daoism and wrote about education, returning to the Qi academy after eight years. Slandered there, in 265 BC Xun-zi traveled to Qin and Zhao to advise rulers that support of the people was most important. He criticized military methods and profit motivations, emphasizing propriety and moral education. Unity is better than deception. Xun-zi believed that war was only justifiable as a punitive expedition and that a good person does not contend for spoil. Li Si, who became prime minister of the Qin empire, and the Legalist philosopher Han Fei-zi both studied with Xun-zi. As a Confucian he recommended the use of virtue over that of force or wealth.

In his native Zhao Xun-zi was appointed magistrate of Lanling by Chu prime minister Lord of Chunshen, but he was removed for doing such a good job that he threatened the ruler's power. Reconciled, he returned to serve there until Chun-shen was assassinated in 238 BC. Xun-zi's book was influential but never became a classic like that of Mencius. Xun-zi also valued education; but he believed human nature is basically selfish and evil, and thus people need to be taught how to behave. He recommended the classics and aimed at self-improvement. The virtuous are not subverted by power or the love of profit. Xun-zi also contrasted the gentleman of moral conduct and the petty person. He taught the Confucian virtues of justice, truthfulness, humanity, courage, and propriety. Xun-zi criticized the utilitarian Mo-zi and believed followers of Mencius were deluded. In government Xun-zi advised promoting the worthy, dismissing the incompetent, punishing the incorrigibly evil, and teaching the people. Xun-zi was admired for teaching moral values in an era when humanity was degraded.

The Classic of Filial Piety ascribed to Zeng-zi emphasized family loyalty and based all love on parental love. Additional books were written on propriety and ceremonies, and one of these collections contained two outstanding Confucian classics - Higher Education and The Center of Harmony, both attributed to the grandson of Confucius. The first described learning as manifesting clear character, loving the people, and living in the highest good. These can be achieved by directing purpose, calm clarity, peaceful poise, and careful deliberation. The eight steps are investigating things, extending knowledge, a sincere will, setting the heart right, cultivating the personal life, making families harmonious, government orderly, and resulting in peace in the world. The Center of Harmony recommended finding one's center through self-observation and harmony through sincere and conscientious reciprocity based on understanding.

During the Han Dynasty Confucian philosophy was promoted by Dong Zhongshu, who urged Emperor Wu to open an imperial university for the study of the five traditional classics. His own Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals combined the yin-yang cosmology with Confucian values. Confucianism had emerged as the dominant philosophy in China and was already greatly influencing government and society, promoting education and humanistic values in all relationships.

Lao-zi in his famous book, Dao De Jing, taught the mystical ideas of the way and its virtue, founding the Daoist philosophy and religion. In the receptivity of the feminine principle (yin) he experienced peace without competing. Valuing simplicity, the natural flow of water, and the mystical source, Lao-zi transcended strife and taught loving people without interfering. Troubles come from being selfish, but those who value the world as themselves may be trusted. Observing the folly of much striving, Lao-zi saw unity in simplicity, and he criticized the destructiveness of war. His way of love and frugality without ambition would be very influential, as his enigmatic book has been translated more times than any other book in history.

Mo-zi lived about seventy years and died about 390 BC. Mo-zi taught universal love and following the will of heaven in his writing. He believed that mutual love would lead to mutual respect. He not only advised rulers, but he and his followers actively attempted to stop wars with counsel and defensive techniques. Mo-zi went from Qi and persuaded Gong Shu Ban of Chu to stop his threatened attack on Song, where 300 of Mo-zi's disciples were prepared in defense. The frugal Mo-zi asked only for necessary food and clothing for his political work. He also advised the leaders of Qi and Lu not to attack each other, and he suggested that the small state of Wei focus on defense rather than luxuries. Mo-zi was imprisoned in Song. In 393 BC Mo-zi persuaded Prince Wen of Lu Yang not to attack Zheng. Several of his disciples gained political positions.

Mo-zi argued that universal love is most useful for everyone. The universal person will feed the hungry, clothe the cold, care for the sick, and bury the dead. Who would not prefer the person of universal love to the selfish person? Mutual benefit is most profitable. He suggested that when the wise rule, they will honor the worthy so that the people will be well served. Mo-zi condemned offensive warfare as the greatest crime for causing so much killing, destruction, and waste of resources. The utilitarian Mo-zi also criticized excessive expenditures on luxuries, elaborate ceremonies, and funerals. The will of heaven is to love people; this will be rewarded, because heaven is just. Mo-zi looked to the wisdom of the ancient sages, the current evidence, and the pragmatic test of future results. Mo-zi criticized the Confucians for their elaborate funerals, social distinctions, and hypocrisy; but after two centuries of rivalry Moism was overcome by the Confucian scholars.

Song Keng also worked to check aggression and proposed disarmament. Zhuang-zi agreed with him but chose not to enter politics; he and Lie-zi were two other Daoists who left charming writings. Their reclusive lives had little political affect, but their humorous stories amused many. Like Lao-zi, Zhuang-zi transcended worldly ambitions, and he satirized the meddling of Confucius.

In the Songs of Chu the poet Ju Yuan expressed his sorrow at being dismissed from government, found consolation in Daoist simplicity and mysticism, and composed beautiful songs before drowning himself. Other poets continued his themes and exalted the shamanistic travels of the Daoists.

In the Han era a collection of writings called the Huai-nan-zi expressed Daoist ideas, condemning militarism and valuing the inner life of joy over outer desires and ambitions. Like the short-lived Qin empire, a state disordered by harsh punishment cannot last long, while the virtue of Han culture resulted in prosperity. These Daoists believed that violence can be prevented by using troops to stop oppressive behaviors, but they should not be allowed to burn crops, destroy property, rob animals, or enslave people. When soldiers are just, there is no war.

The realistic Legalist philosophers based their writings on the reforms of Guan Zhong and Lord Shang. The Guan-zi believed in Confucian virtues but considered the use of force inevitable. The Book of ShangYang tried to reduce everything to agriculture and warmaking, advocating strong government based on strict laws and punishments in an authoritarian philosophy that led to the tyranny of the Qin empire.

Han Fei-zi wrote more elegantly about Legalism and urged Qin to dominate China, but he was forced to take poison before Qin united China under its imperial power. His philosophy made the ruler most powerful and discussed techniques for using ministers to govern the people with clearly defined laws using carefully calculated rewards and punishments. Power and authority are concentrated at the top in the ruler. Han Fei-zi taught how ministers could effectively persuade a powerful ruler to follow their advice. Although his aim was to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, his method of accomplishing that was to make the government headed by one man very strong, a dangerous formula. Ministers should be punished for disobeying orders even if their actions were virtuous and successful. All private interests must be subordinated to public order.

Han Fei-zi thought that even small crimes could be deterred by severe penalties, and he criticized a duke for eliminating some laws that were resulting in too many foot amputations, for he believed that any leniency to criminals harmed the good and the political order. Rewards and punishments must not be delayed and should be dispensed with praise and censure. The coldly logical Han Fei-zi believed that penalties should not be made light out of compassion nor severe from cruelty. These Legalist ideas would be tried out in the Qin empire.

When Qin king Zheng became the First Emperor of China in 221 BC, he divided the empire into 36 provinces with military commandants, confiscated local weapons, and instituted strict laws with harsh penalties. Large building projects used convict labor, and an attempted assassination stimulated a repressive and widespread investigation. A half million men, who had evaded conscription or taxes, were put to work completing the Great Wall. In 213 BC all books not considered practical were ordered burned. Scholars resisting this were tattooed and put in labor camps. The next year the Emperor ordered 700,000 castrated convicts put to work building his new palace complex. The escape of two scholars led to an investigation and the execution of 460 others in the capital.

The First Emperor died in 211 BC, and the intriguing eunuch Zhao Gao controlled power under the Second Emperor. Two years later the leader of 900 convict laborers rather than be executed started a revolution using plow handles and sticks. Zhao Gao contrived the execution of chancellor Li Si, whom he replaced, got the Second Emperor to commit suicide, but was killed himself by his replacement, Ziying. Only 46 days later the Qin imperial armies were defeated by the widespread rebellion. Eventually the governor of Pei, who became king of Han, defeated Xiang Yu to found the Han dynasty in 202 BC as Emperor Gao-zu.

Confucian scholars persuaded Emperor Gao-zu that the Qin empire had failed because of its harsh Legalist policies, and he called for men of virtue in his government, though he made his relatives kings in the provinces. When he died in 195 BC, the Chinese empire was allowed to experiment under the Daoist policies of the Empress Lu while she was busy with violent intrigues in the capital. Emperor Wen reigned 180-157 BC, and he was acclaimed a great exemplar for his benevolent policies that abolished cruel punishments, reduced taxes, and instituted civil service examinations. Emperor Jing (157-141 BC) had to deal with a rebellion after he reduced the size of several kingdoms.

The martial emperor Wu Di began ruling at 16 and often during his 54-year reign had his army fighting the barbarian Xiongnu in the northwest; other military campaigns attacked Korea, Manchuria, and Mongolia. Wu Di established an imperial university for the study of the classics, but in the second half of his reign the Legalists had more influence than the Confucians. Laws became more strictly enforced, and criminals were pardoned if they served in the army. Corruption led to larger and larger bands of robbers; the army attacked them and cut off 10,000 heads at a time. Commandant of justice Du Zhou always had at least a hundred officials in prison and arrested 60,000 people. Even the great historian Sima Qian was arrested in 99 BC and castrated, because he could not pay. Eight years later tens of thousands were arbitrarily executed for witchcraft.

A public debate on the salt and iron monopolies was conducted in 81 BC, indicating a free exchange of ideas. Emperor Xuan reigned using Confucian principles from 74 to 48 BC. Emperor Yuan during his fifteen years also followed Confucian ways, but the emphasis on family led to the problem of nepotism. Emperor Cheng took over in 33 BC and abolished the palace writer so that the eunuchs would not have so much power. Chinese civilization had stabilized in a monarchical empire guided by Confucian ideas, though intrigues would soon bring the fall of the Former Han dynasty.


Preliterate Minoan civilization on Crete seemed respectful to women and probably suffered less violence than most until they had to contend with the warlike Mycenaeans. Greek culture glamorized warrior heroes in their myths and the epic poems of Homer. The brutality of the Trojan War was depicted heroically in the Iliad, and the adventures of Odysseus culminated in his bloody revenge against the suitors of his loyal wife Penelope in the Odyssey. Hesiod's poetic version of the gods' origins was extremely violent, though he urged hard work and virtue in his Works and Days. Hades' rape of Persephone symbolized for the Greeks the death and rebirth of seeds in agriculture, which suggested life after death in the Eleusinian mysteries. Even the god Hermes had to learn not to steal when he was touched by the culture of music, and the promiscuous behavior of Aphrodite and other gods and goddesses was only curtailed with difficulty.

After the dark iron age, tyrants began to spring up in Greek city states as aristocratic oligarchs struggled for power. Poets commented on war, drinking, and love, while early sages attempted to make peace and establish justice by means of written laws. In the Peloponnesian peninsula invaded by the Dorians, the Lacedaemonians subjugated the Messenians as Helot serfs. Lycurgus gave Sparta militaristic laws that disciplined the male citizens for politics and war. Athens took over Attica and with annually elected leaders favored democratic politics. Dracon instituted a severe law code, which was moderated and reformed in 594 BC by the wise Solon, who made popular the Greek axiom of "nothing excessive." However, Peisistratus and his family managed to control Athenian politics until his son Hippias was expelled in 510 BC. Cleisthenes re-organized Athenians into ten tribes and widened participation to include foreigners and ex-slaves.

Much folkloric wisdom was put into animal fables by Aesop. Philosophy began with speculation on the nature of the universe by the astrologer Thales of Miletus, who promoted the Delphi advice to know yourself. Anaximander noted that everyone pays a penalty of retribution to others for any injustice. Pythagoras of Samos started a spiritual community in Crotona in southern Italy based on initiation into esoteric doctrines such as immortality and reincarnation of the soul, the three parts of the psyche as mind, emotions, and appetites, their virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance, and to which were added justice and friendship. Pythagorean practices included vegetarianism, self-examination, music, and mathematics. However, the Pythagoreans were resented for being aristocratic, and the community was attacked and destroyed, though the influence of its philosophy continued, especially through Socrates and Plato. Xenophanes criticized anthropomorphic religious beliefs, and Heraclitus of Ephesus taught a dry wisdom of change, character, and the importance of reason and laws.

Greek cities of Ionia and the eastern islands of the Aegean broke away from the domination of the Persian empire in 500 BC, and with Athenian help they burned Sardis in Lydia before their revolt was put down. Persian emperor Darius sent forces to conquer European Greeks, but they were defeated by the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BC. Ten years later an enormous Persian army led by Xerxes invaded Greece and burned Athens, but a coalition of Athenians and Spartans once again was victorious by sea at Salamis and on land at Plataea. Greeks had defended their independence from Persian imperialist aggression.

Athens was quickly rebuilt and took leadership of the Delian league to protect Greek cities, collecting tribute from their allies until an Athenian empire threatened its rival Sparta. The democratic reforms of Pericles were accompanied by an ambitious building program and sponsorship of the arts. Conflicts between Corinth and its colony of Corcyra pulled Athenian naval supremacy into a defensive alliance, and soon another Corinthian colony at Potidaea revolted from the Athenian empire.

This and Athens' boycott of Megara caused the beginning of the Peloponnesian War that would go on for 27 years between Sparta and Athens. Spartans invaded Attica, and Athenians crowding into the city suffered a devastating plague that also killed Pericles. An aggressive Athenian policy advocated by Cleon killed the men in the cities of Mytilene and Scione and enslaved the women and children, while the Spartan general Brasidas could claim he was only fighting against Athenian imperialism, and Hermocrates of Syracuse wisely kept Sicily out of the war. In 421 BC the Athenian general Nicias made peace with Sparta, but the influence of the bold Alcibiades led Athens to launch an ambitious invasion of Syracuse in 415 BC. Accused of impiety, Alcibiades went over to the Spartans for a while and then negotiated with the Persians; he returned to fight for Athens, won some victories, but was soon dismissed. Eventually Persian aid helped the Spartan general Lysander defeat the Athenian alliance and starve Athens itself into surrender in 404 BC.

Sparta took over the Athenian empire and began forcing cities to adopt oligarchic governments supported by Lacedaemonian garrisons led by a harmost. In Athens the Thirty led by Critias acted tyrannically, executing without trials about 1500 citizens before they were thrown out. For eighty more years Athenians governed themselves with a slave-supported democracy. Yet battles between various Greek cities were frequent. Elis had to surrender to the Spartan confederacy. Ten thousand Greek mercenaries tried to help young Cyrus take over the Persian empire; but after they failed and their generals were murdered, they had to return on their own. Agesilaus became a Spartan king and invaded Asia Minor in 396 BC. The Athenian admiral Conon, supported by the Persians, defeated Spartan mercenaries at Cnidus, expelled Spartan harmosts from Asia Minor, and helped Athens rebuild its walls. Greeks agreed to the treaty of Antalcidas in 386 BC even though it acknowledged Persian sovereignty over Greeks in Asia Minor. Spartans marched against Mantinea and were criticized for taking over the citadel of Thebes for a time. Pelopidas led the liberation of Thebes, and by 371 BC the Boeotian league had gained enough power to defeat the Spartans at Leuctra.

More Greek cities expelled Spartan harmosts, and Arcadians joined together and built the city of Megalopolis. Boeotians led by Epaminondas invaded and raided Lacedaemonian territory. Athens tried to help defend Sparta, which was now fighting many of its old allies. The power of Thebes waned after Epaminondas was killed at Mantinea in 362 BC, and the military adventures of Agesilaus finally ended with his death in Africa. Syracuse was taken over by the tyrant Dionysius in 405 BC, and his bloody rule in Sicily lasted 38 years as numerous battles were fought with Carthaginians and others.

Greeks could learn vicariously about ethical issues by seeing them dramatically presented by actors in the theatre. Aeschylus revealed the folly of imperialist war by showing the consequences on the Persian court in The Persians. The dilemma of whether to offer hospitality to women, who would be forced into marriages, when it could mean war was portrayed in The Suppliant Maidens. The Seven Against Thebes explored the terror of civil strife. The cosmic drama of the suffering caused by invention and the struggle between power and wisdom was played out in Prometheus Bound. In the only surviving trilogy, the Oresteia, Aeschylus demonstrated how the chain of murder and revenge could eventually be broken by a nonviolent judicial system, such as that of Athens.

Sophocles portrayed the madness of foreign war and the folly of military glory in the dark play Ajax. A woman challenged the power of the state with her religious conscience in Antigone, as the arrogant pride of Creon was brought down by her tragic death and his son's. In Oedipus the Tyrant Sophocles commented on the current plague during the Peloponnesian War by showing the tragedy of an ambitious political leader who used murder and marriage to gain power, indicating the need for greater self-knowledge and showing how ignorant violence can pollute a city. In The Women of Trachis, a tragedy of lust and jealousy, the heroic Heracles and his wife Deianeira were portrayed as pitiful victims of these human flaws. Perhaps caught up in war fever himself, Sophocles seemed to make murderous revenge heroic in his Electra as Orestes killed his mother and her husband Aegistheus without guilt. Philoctetes, a complicated play about the intrigues and bitterness of war, ended happily after a resurrected Heracles persuaded the hero to participate in the war, once again indicating the conservative patriotism of the elderly Sophocles. In the posthumous Oedipus at Colonus Sophocles dramatized the last hours of Oedipus amid Theban conflicts and Athenian rescue before his mystical death.

The plays of Euripides explored the psyches of powerful women tested in extremely adverse situations from the cruel Medea and Phaedra, the suffering Trojan women such as Hecuba and Andromache to the adventures of Helen and the Bacchae and the noble sacrifices of Alcestis and Iphigenia. Several of his plays, such as Alcestis, Helen, Iphigenia in Tauris, and Ion had romantic endings. Although early in the Peloponnesian War The Children of Heracles, Andromache, and The Suppliant Women seemed to support the war effort, many others like Rhesus, Hecuba, The Trojan Women, The Phoenician Women, Orestes, and Iphigenia in Aulis exposed the horrors of war. The tragedies of Euripides showed how human folly could produce some terrible situations that could only be resolved by the intervention of a god or goddess.

The hilarious comedies of Aristophanes left little doubt of his opposition to the Peloponnesian War. The Acharnians pleaded for a peace treaty, and The Knights satirized Cleon and his slavish generals Nicias and Demosthenes. In The Clouds philosophers were satirized for their atheism and sophists for using wrong logic; but using Socrates to represent them apparently gave Athenians many mistaken ideas about him. The Wasps made fun of Athenians' economic dependence on the courts and politics. In Peace Aristophanes contrasted the violence of war to the joys of peace in heaven and on earth. A peaceful utopia was called for again in the Cloud-cuckoo-land of The Birds. The bawdiest anti-war play, Lysistrata, showed women using a sexual strike to seduce the men into making peace. Euripides and tragedy writers were satirized in The Thesmophoriazusae and The Frogs. A communist utopia was ridiculed in The Ecclesiazusae, and Plutus debated the advantages and disadvantages of wealth and poverty.

Fragments by Empedocles indicate a mystical poet believing the soul reincarnates until it realizes its divinity. Empedocles described the universe as shifting between love and strife, and he asked people to avoid bloodshed. The atomist Democritus also taught justice and finding tranquillity in the soul.

Socrates was born at Athens in 469 BC, worked as a stone-mason on the Acropolis, fought in the Peloponnesian War, but spent most of his time discussing philosophical issues with friends for no fee. He was guided by a divine spirit, which only warned him what not to do. Socrates refused to cooperate with the illegalities that condemned the Athenian generals at Arginusae and the judicial murder of Leon by the Thirty. In 399 BC Socrates was prosecuted for corrupting the youth and for violating the state religion by teaching new gods; he refused to escape from prison and was the first philosopher to be executed. Although he wrote nothing himself, much is known about his ideas and how he taught because of the extensive dialogs written by his students Xenophon and Plato.

Xenophon wanted to defend Socrates from the calumnies that led to his execution and continued after his death. So he published a version of the speech Socrates gave in his defense at the trial. The Delphic oracle had told his friend Chaerephon that no one was wiser than Socrates. Rather than corrupt the youth, Socrates had done much to improve them by education and urging them to be virtuous. Xenophon explained that Socrates was not responsible for the evil actions of Alcibiades and Critias, the infamous leader of the Thirty. Xenophon also recorded numerous conversations of Socrates counseling his friends, showing his sense of humor and humane wisdom in practical ways specifically aimed at the needs of various individuals. Socrates practiced and taught self-control, and he explained the advantages of virtue and self-knowledge. The pragmatic Xenophon even has him giving an extended discourse on estate management.

Xenophon also wrote of his own adventure fighting as a mercenary in Persia and a history of Greece from 411 to 362 BC. His works on Socrates, the emperor Cyrus, Agesilaus, and Hiero were the earliest biographies, though some would argue they were more encomiums than factual lives, especially the Cyropaedia, one of the first historical novels. A short work on economics made some positive suggestions, although he did not question the injustice of slavery.

Plato's dialogs with Socrates emphasized his interest in philosophical issues and the dialectical process of discussion. The first Alcibiades is an outstanding dialog on self-knowledge, showing Socrates' attempt to educate the ambitious young man. Charmides attempted to define the virtue of moderation without success. In Protagoras Socrates discussed virtue and whether it can be taught with the most famous sophist, and in Euthydemus he demonstrated an exhortation to virtue, while Plato ridiculed the tricky arguments of professional sophists. When asked to advise about fighting in armor in Laches, Socrates turned the discussion to defining courage. Friendship was discussed in Lysis, and Menexenus gave an example of a patriotic speech. Socrates tried to define beauty in a discussion with the sophist Hippias.

Plato's Meno showed Socrates exploring whether virtue can be taught and demonstrating his method of getting the soul to recognize what it already knows by his artful questioning. In the dialog named after the most famous rhetorician of the time, Gorgias, Socrates considered rhetoric not a science but a flattery or pandering perversion of justice, as sophistry is of legislation, cooking is of nutrition, and cosmetics and fashion are of gymnastics. Socrates argued for the importance of justice and declared that he would rather suffer injustice than commit it, though he preferred neither. Phaedrus gave another example of rhetoric on the theme of the lover. Socrates contended that sometimes madness can be inspired by the gods, as in love. Plato presented a myth of how the soul must control the dark side of its animal nature in order to re-ascend to heaven. In the Symposium Plato had several prominent men praise Eros, the god of love. Socrates described love as an intermediary between the gods and humans.

Plato described the trial, imprisonment, and execution of Socrates in four dialogs. On the way to court Socrates discussed piety with Euthyphro, who was prosecuting his father for killing a slave caught for murder. In the trial Socrates described his mission to seek wisdom inspired by the Delphic oracle's pronouncement that he was wisest. When Crito offered to help him escape from prison, Socrates argued that it was more just for him to stay there than to disobey the state when he could have chosen exile earlier. Plato's Phaedo describes the last day of Socrates' life when he discussed death and the immortality of the soul. He concluded that if the soul is immortal, then great care must be taken, because there is no escape from evil except through ultimate justice.

In The Republic Plato seemed to reject a simple and healthy society recommended by Socrates for a luxurious one requiring a military class. Although Socrates eloquently showed that justice is better than injustice, the class society they designed based on a strong military and deceptive myths leaves much to be desired. Plato did advocate equal education for women, as he included that in his Laws too. Analogies and myths describe the good and the philosopher's difficulties in an ignorant society. Political science was inaugurated in an insightful analysis of how aristocracy degenerates into timocracy, plutocracy, democracy, and tyranny. As with the concept of karma, justice was explained by a series of reincarnations. Plato himself tried to advise Dionysius II and Dion in Sicily without much success, but he founded the Academy in Athens for the study of philosophy, probably the first great institution of higher education.

Medical ethics was pioneered by the oath and writings of Hippocrates. He did much to make healing more scientific and wisely used extensive observation of patients and their environment, diet and drugs, fresh air, and rest or exercise as needed. Above all, Hippocrates taught that the physician should do no harm.

Isocrates wrote speeches for the lawcourts and became the foremost teacher of rhetoric and a proponent of liberal education. His Panegyricus praised the culture of Athens and Greece. He urged Athens to give military aid to Thebes. Isocrates believed in being prepared for war while avoiding unjust aggression. He spoke for virtue and self-control and often mentioned the golden rule of treating others as one wishes to be treated.

Isocrates pleaded for the Greeks to stop fighting with each other, as he encouraged them to launch a crusade against the Persian empire. His oration On the Peace to the Athenian assembly in 355 BC was a masterful critique of Greek foreign policy. He showed how the injustice of Athenian imperialism brought great suffering and then how Spartan hegemony failed too. War was expensive and reaped hatreds and trouble; his unpopular speech was needed to cure their ills. Athenian naval imperialism had undermined their democracy and brought their defeat. He brilliantly pointed out that states, even more than individuals, need to be virtuous, because they have no escape from the consequences of injustice in death. Reflecting on these disasters, they must refrain from all wars and abhor despotic rule and imperial power. Isocrates favored the peace with Philip in 346 BC, and he again urged a united Greece to liberate the Asian colonies of Greeks.

Aristotle studied in Plato's Academy for twenty years and then tutored young Alexander in Macedonia before founding his own school at the Lyceum in Athens. His extensive writings were probably from his lectures. Aristotle organized and analyzed human knowledge so comprehensively that his ideas would remain influential for many centuries in disciplines he founded as logic, metaphysics, physics, biology, poetics, rhetoric, politics, and ethics. He discussed the art of persuasion, rhetoric, in terms of character, emotion, and argument and showed the differences of political speeches aimed at beneficial legislation, forensic speeches in the lawcourts concerned with individual cases of justice, and public exhibitions that praise or censure.

Aristotle critiqued the ethical ideas of Socrates and Plato and suggested his theory of the moderate mean between lack and excess. He found that virtue was a choice based on habit (ethos) which depended on practice. He analyzed justice and the traditional virtues but also added intellectual virtue. He considered friendship based on equality very important. Aristotle's Politics revealed his prejudices against slaves (non-Greeks) and women. He further analyzed the various forms of government and their aberrations his teacher Plato had begun, while criticizing Plato's communistic ideas in regard to women, children, and property as contrary to human nature and unworkable. He justified the class system and slavery as inherited from ancient Egypt and Crete. He upheld traditional roles for men and women although he favored education of women. For Aristotle education made a good life possible; thus a teacher is even more important than a parent.

Antisthenes was the most ascetic of Socrates' followers, and his student Diogenes continued the mocking criticism of Plato. Diogenes, famous for searching for an honest person, lived simply and freely in public until he was sold as a slave and became a tutor. He also scorned Demosthenes and Alexander, while considering himself a universal citizen (cosmopolitan).

In Sicily Dionysius II succeeded his father and resisted the efforts of Plato to make him a philosopher king. With the help of some students of Plato, Dion overthrew the tyrant but would not allow democracy either. After much turmoil a Corinthian general named Timoleon helped the Sicilians overthrow the oligarchs, fend off the Carthaginians, and become democratic.

The Macedonian king Philip II rose to power through military conquest and exploitation of gold mines. He fought with Athens in various places, particularly for control of the grain trade from the Bosphorus. After the Phocians took the Delphi treasure and used it for warmaking, Philip's Macedonians punished them in the Sacred War. Macedonia's conquest of northern Greece continued as Olynthus was defeated and enslaved. Athens made a controversial peace with Philip in 346 BC that would be debated by Demosthenes and Aeschines as to which Athenians had been bribed by Philip. Demosthenes continued his warnings against Macedonian aggression in his famous Philippic orations. In 338 BC the Macedonian army defeated allies led by Chares and then captured Thebes. Athens, after failing to stop Philip by its support of Thebes, submitted to his lenient terms. Two years later Philip was assassinated; his young son Alexander III became king of Macedonia and quickly secured his Greek empire in the north and with a devastating defeat of revolting Thebes.

Alexander also succeeded his father as general of a Greek confederation with supreme power for an invasion of Asia. With a veteran army of about 40,000 the bold Alexander was able to conquer the immense Persian empire including Egypt in less than a decade. His invasion of India had to turn back when his soldiers refused to go any farther. Alexander attempted to merge Greek and Persian cultures by training Persians for his army and supporting marriages of his men to Persian women by educating their children. A Spartan revolt against Macedonian rule was crushed. Alexander was about to leave on another military expedition of conquest when he was probably poisoned in Babylon in 323 BC.

After Alexander died, Athens revolted from Macedonian rule and was defeated. The generals succeeding Alexander battled over their portions of the divided empire for about forty years. Eventually after much bloodshed the dynasties of the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Mesopotamia, and the Antigonids in Macedonia were established. The ambitious Agathocles became king in Syracuse and even attacked Carthage. The Ptolemies ruled, continuing Egyptian religion while promoting Hellenic culture by supporting the Alexandrian library and the Bucolic poets. Apollonius found a home in Rhodes, where his violent epic on Jason and the Argonauts was appreciated. The Seleucid empire was too large to be ruled effectively for long and gradually broke into various kingdoms. The ambitious Antiochus III overreached and was defeated by the Romans. Antiochus IV Epiphanes offended the religion of the Jews and set off a revolt that led to an independent Judean kingdom until numerous conflicts resulted in Herod ruling there under the Roman empire. The combination of Hellenic culture with Jewish religion and scholarship produced more wisdom and fine literature.

Frequent wars occurred among the Greeks fighting for independence against domination by Macedonian kings and among each other with the Aetolian and Achaean leagues. Rome began to intervene more actively after the second Punic War ended about 200 BC; they defeated King Perseus of Macedonia in 168 BC and finally crushed the Achaean league and destroyed Corinth in 146 BC. Greek philosophy continued to flourish as Xenocrates headed the Academy, and Aristotle's Lyceum was taken over by Theophrastus. His student Menander wrote elegant new comedies with urbane humanity. Influenced by his experience in India, Pyrrho founded the Skeptical school. Epicurus taught an intellectual form of hedonism in the Garden at Athens that emphasized a calm life free of pain more than pleasure, his main value. Zeno also made philosophy more personal in his Stoicism that concentrated on virtue as the supreme good. Stoics also sought peace of mind but, unlike the Epicureans, were not averse to engaging in politics as a natural process of society.


Early Roman history began with legends of Etruscan and Roman kings. Numa Pompilius was credited with developing religious institutions like the fetial priests, who were responsible for seeing that any wars were just and formally declared. The last arrogant Tarquin caused the expulsion of kings in 509 BC and was replaced by a republican government of patrician senators and two annually elected consuls. However, the people soon organized to insist on electing tribunes as a check on patrician power. The citizen Roman army fought numerous wars with neighbors and incorporated conquered tribes into alliances. With their Latin allies Rome gradually expanded its power over the entire Italian peninsula. Rome's Twelve Tables of law were based on the study of Greek institutions. Roman forces successfully fought off invasion by Gauls and defeated a Greek army led by Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Rome came into conflict with Carthage over Sicily, and having built a strong navy, was able to win the first Punic War, making Sicily one province and Sardinia and Corsica another. The hatred and conquests of Hannibal in Spain caused another war. Hannibal with his mercenary army crossed the Alps and for fifteen years won battles and occupied Italy. After the Scipio brothers were killed in Spain, young Publius Scipio replaced them, won there, and eventually helped the Romans defeat Carthage in Africa, as Hannibal returned, lost, and accepted his terms in 201 BC.

Macedonia's Philip V had sided with Hannibal and was defeated by a Roman army four years later. At the Isthmian and Nemean games Roman officers announced the liberation of Greece, and two years later Rome withdrew its garrisons. They returned a few years later to defeat the invading Seleucid king Antiochus III. The Romans and their allies defeated the Seleucids again, driving them out of Asia Minor and forcing them to pay tribute in 188 BC. A Bacchic cult was suppressed, as many of the revelers were killed. Marcus Cato was elected censor and attempted to restrain the morals of Romans according to his Stoic ideals. The comedies of Plautus and Terence made fun of the shenanigans of slaves, lust of the young, hunger of parasites, vainglory of soldiers, and avarice of the old in Roman society.

The major Roman victory over the Macedonian army led by King Perseus was fought at Pydna in 168 BC. The Roman senate decided the Greeks should be free, though Macedonia had to pay tribute. A third Punic War ended with the complete destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, while a Greek revolt was also put down when Corinth was devastated the same year. Seven years later astrologers and Jews were expelled from Rome. Spanish revolts were defeated when Numantia was destroyed in 133 BC. These wars not only expanded the Roman republic from the Atlantic Ocean to Asia Minor but also greatly increased the number of slaves, and a major rebellion led by captive Asian workers lasted three years in Sicily. Tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to bring about land distribution and other reforms; but Tiberius Gracchus was murdered by Roman senators in 133 BC, and his eloquent brother Gaius was killed in a riot twelve years later.

After becoming wealthy by tax collection, Marius with Sulla's help ended the war against Jugurtha in Africa. Marius replaced Rome's citizen militia with a professional army by hiring proletarians. To meet the crisis of invading Gauls, he was re-elected consul five years in a row. Conflicts over rights of the Latin allies led to a Social War in Italy. Sulla in 88 BC marched his army on Rome; Marius fled, and the tribune Sulpicius was killed. The same year an Athenian bid for independence was starved into surrender with a siege by Sulla's army. While Sulla was fighting Pontic king Mithridates in Asia, Cinna as consul for three years autocratically tried to reform Rome. However, when Sulla returned with his army, many were killed in battles and from a list of his enemies. As dictator, Sulla revived conservative institutions like the senate and then retired and died.

When the consul Lepidus sided too much with reformers, his forces were defeated in battle by Sulla's veterans led by Pompey. A slave rebellion in Italy led by Spartacus was eventually crushed by Crassus. The army of Lucullus won victories in Asia, and Pompey's forces defeated the revolt in Spain after Sertorius was killed. Pompey was then given military authority to eliminate pirates and settle conflicts in Asia. In 63 BC Cicero as consul was primarily responsible for destroying the conspiracy of Catiline. Cato and the senate resisted the growing power of Pompey and Julius Caesar, but these two became stronger by joining with Crassus. After serving as consul, Caesar was appointed governor of Gaul for five years, which was renewed for another five, allowing his army to conquer all of Gaul and briefly invade Germany and Britain, killing one million and capturing another million. Poets like Lucretius, Catullus, and Virgil criticized the wars caused by ambitious men as they pleaded for justice.

Caesar refused to give up his army and face charges Cato threatened, and so a civil war broke out between his army and those loyal to Pompey. Caesar became dictator and consul, won in Spain, defeated Pompey at Pharsalus, and had a child by Cleopatra, whom he made queen of Egypt. Caesar returned to Rome, won in Africa, where Cato committed suicide, and in Spain again. Dictator for life, Caesar was about to be made king before leaving for more military conquests when he was assassinated by senators led by Brutus and Cassius, whom he had forgiven for supporting Pompey. The senate granted amnesty to the assassins but waffled while Antony struggled with Caesar's heir Octavian for power in Italy, and Brutus and Cassius went to Greece and Asia to raise armies. Cicero finally opposed Antony's ambitions and violent methods in a series of orations, but Antony formed a triumvirate with Octavian and Lepidus; Cicero and many others were proscribed and murdered.

The defeat of forces led by Cassius and Brutus at Philippi by the armies of Antony and Octavian doomed the last hope of the republic. Antony ruled in the east, Octavian in the west, and Lepidus in Africa. When Antony came under the spell of Cleopatra and began giving away kingdoms to her children, the senate supported Octavian, whose naval victory at Actium was followed by the suicide of Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. The young Octavian had consolidated power into his own hands by 30 BC.

In the last few years of his life when his political influence had waned under the militarism of Pompey and Julius Caesar, Cicero wrote several books on oratory and philosophy. With the exception of Lucretius' poetic version of the philosophy of Epicurus, these were the main Latin philosophical works of this era to be passed on to the future. Considered by many the greatest orator ever, Cicero's work repeated much of Aristotle's ideas on rhetoric but with a depth drawn from much practical experience. Cicero considered it the most important art and essential in a republic. His works on government and law recapitulated much he found in Plato, though he commented on Roman history and favored institutions similar to Roman ones.

Cicero's ethical works also summarized the main schools of Greek philosophy, namely the Stoics, Epicureans, Academics, and Peripatetics, as his intention was to make Greek philosophy available to readers of Latin. This did provide a service to humanity, as for centuries his work was read by many in western civilization who depended on Latin instead of Greek. Cicero passed on the cardinal Greek virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice along with the value of friendship. His book On Duties synthesized much wisdom on the integrity of justice and honesty and was influential for a long time. His eloquent republican zeal was to inspire the American and French revolutions after centuries dominated by monarchies.

Evaluating Ancient Civilization

Social ethics developed in family life long before civilization. Groups of people enlarged for greater cooperation and protection in settling conflicts. Families helped resolve personal conflicts, as parents settle squabbles between children. Family feuds could be lessened by the clan, which could also be called on for help against outside aggressors. Tribes organized clans together and could be united under a powerful chief. As population grew in regions by agricultural settlements, eventually towns and cities formed. The concept of leadership by a chief led to kingships, but many cities were governed by councils representing the tribes. As far as I can tell, every culture has some concept of justice or right. Larger societies found that laws could be defined and applied, if not equally to everyone, at least according to accepted principles. As these larger societies organized to defend themselves against others or take advantage of others, the problem of massive violence in war became the major nemesis of civilization. Every major civilization has been dogged by this hostility, and efforts to develop awareness and effective institutions to solve this problem still even in our time have far to go.

Civilization developed size and power in the Near East, but the almost continual violence of warfare in societies ruled by kings promoted too much injustice and suffering to be stable and offer many people a good life. The oppression of war was extended by the slaves captured, and economic injustices also resulted in the poor being enslaved for debt. Governments did attempt to achieve justice with laws, and advances were made in many fields of human endeavor. Occasional religious figures like Akhenaten, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zarathushtra, and many others less known to history inspired people with their wisdom, but their teachings were ignored by most amid the massive violence of war and the social injustices prevalent in the ancient Near East.

Civilization in ancient India must have had a worthy beginning in the Harappan culture of the Indus valley to be able to sustain such spiritual values after the Aryan invasion of the subcontinent established a racist culture based on an increasingly rigid caste system. Thanks to Hindu sages, Mahavira, and the Buddha, ancient India offered outstanding ethical and spiritual teachings. Although worldly politicians still exploited people and caused suffering in local wars, the emphasis on the virtue, justice, and duty they called dharma had a profound affect on their religions, relationships, and literature. In methods and teachings that enhance spiritual transcendence in realization of the soul, India is yet to be surpassed. Buddhism, a unique religion without a god, would spread throughout Asia in future centuries and offer spiritual teaching and methods of psychological insight that would benefit hundreds of millions of people, and in the twentieth century many people would turn to the ideas and techniques of ancient India for spiritual wisdom.

In China the word for civilization meant literate rather than a city-dweller, and so the Chinese have a long and rich cultural tradition of learning and education. Their concept of heaven and the divine was more natural than anthropomorphic, and yet the will of heaven is what they believed authorized a government to rule. Like the Greeks, the Chinese had an excellent tradition of philosophy during centuries of frequent wars. Clever men often used their oratory to persuade rulers to form alliances that often resulted in devastating battles. Yet the humane teaching of Confucius and his followers, the peaceful wisdom of Lao-zi, and the universal love of Mo-zi offered alternatives to this strife. Others believed that people could be manipulated by fear of severe punishments and strict enforcement of laws under a supreme authority. As the Period of Warring States culminated in Qin's conquest of the other states, this Legalistic philosophy was applied in the first effective Chinese empire since legendary times. Yet the Qin empire could only last a mere 15 years before it was completely overthrown by a popular revolution. About the same time that Rome overcame Carthage's Hannibal and the Macedonian-dominated Greeks, the Han dynasty established its empire and began applying Confucian and Daoist principles to government. Like the Roman empire, they would still have their problems, but the stability would support a certain amount of prosperity and population growth.

Greeks in admiration of their Homeric heroes were quite competitive and aggressive. Yet at the same time as Confucius, Lao-zi, Mahavira, Buddha, Zarathushtra, and second Isaiah were teaching, Pythagoras had an esoteric school practicing spiritual principles. Socrates developed philosophical ideas with his stimulating dialectic to such a high level of intellectual sophistication that his student Plato and Plato's student Aristotle could formulate philosophies as comprehensive as any ever produced. I have found that the similarities between Greek and Chinese concepts of virtue without any known cultural influence is a powerful argument that these ideas are universal to humanity. Corresponding to the Chinese Period of Warring States was a violent era in Greece beginning with the invasions of the Persians and ending with Rome's conquest. Athenian efforts to defend against Persian aggression with the Delian confederacy led to imperialistic encroachments that stimulated the Peloponnesian War. The solution of Isocrates to unite Greece for an invasion of Persia, though successfully carried out by Alexander's Macedonian army, still spread the contagion of military methods even as far as India.

The Hellenistic world divided by Alexander's successors was one of frequent wars and the domination of Macedonian kings until republican Rome used its military might and moral imperative to attempt to liberate Greece. Yet Greek philosophy, drama, and literature educated many, including the Romans. Attempting to handle a large empire by militaristic methods that demanded tribute (taxes) to pay for itself naturally brought revolts. Yet Rome was so powerful in these that it was the internal conflicts between the privileges of aristocrats and the desperation of the debtors and slaves that brought civil strife. As powerful military leaders gained greater glory and power, they came into conflict with each other. While senators like Cicero and Cato pleaded for republican principles of justice, the ambitions of Pompey and Julius Caesar brought about a civil war. Rome's long republican tradition of hating kings almost seemed to be overcome when Caesar became dictator for life, but resentment of this led to his assassination and another civil war between the conspirators and Caesar's legal and political heirs, Octavian and Antony. When these two united to defeat Cassius and Brutus, the republic was dead. Yet the conflict between the two ambitious men produced one more civil war that defeated Antony and his paramour Cleopatra, enabling Octavian to become the first emperor of Rome. The Romans had the wisdom of Greek philosophy popularized in Latin by Cicero, but they had lost their representative government to a single powerful leader.

There would be a Roman peace (Pax Romana), but freedom would be subject to arbitrary Roman laws, taxes, and their soldiers. The world had been blessed by the ethical wisdom of several excellent teachers; yet folly still abounded in every civilization. Soon from the religious tradition of the Jews would come an obscure teacher, whose inspired ethics would astonish the world.

How long will it be until human beings learn how to treat each other well? This ancient history shows that the folly of exploitation and violence has its consequences. So many times did cities and states fight each other because of previous incursions. Other times they went to the aid of states that had aided them in the past, even when several generations had passed in between. Alexander's conquest of the Persian empire was not accomplished until about 150 years after the Persian invasions of Greece. Yet to me Alexander was not a "great" hero but one of the greatest criminals ever, because he caused so much needless death and destruction. When will the teachings of the sages and philosophers, who remind us of the golden rule, be practiced more universally? The golden rule suggests that we treat one another as we would wish to be treated, but too often politicians and military leaders fight violations with more violence. Even children know that two wrongs do not make a right. Nations and other social entities are affected by the karma of cause and effect, just as individuals are, perhaps even more so, since individuals seem to escape the consequences of wrong in death. I hope that this work has enabled readers to learn from the wisdom of our universal heritage how not to be victims of folly.

Copyright © 1998 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter is part of the book ANCIENT WISDOM AND FOLLY, which has now been published.
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Chronological Index

BECK index