“The birth of comparative inquiry in Ancient Greece .”
Page 9 – 28
Despite the designation of foreign peoples as ‘Barbarians’, and contrary to the misinterpretations and the stereotypical way in which this distinction is used very often today, Ancient Greece was the first society to perceive itself as simply different, and not in a superior, nor inferior, place between the other civilisations of the time. The article explores the emergence of the ancient Greeks’ comparative view towards other civilisations, in terms of their ontological understanding of the world, and in terms of the institutions of epistêmê, politics and paideia, which distinguished the life of the democratic polis. The absence of divine anthropogenesis or any absolute truth lies behind the relativisation of the world by the Greeks, and their recognition that each people institutionalises their society in their own particular way.Part of the same ontological position was the limitation of the idea of progress into the fields of material and technical achievements, rather than its application to ethics, culture, and society, in general. In other words, the ancient Greeks believed that although there may be a common trajectory regarding the technical means of material comfort, production, and destruction, progress was not for them a measure by which other peoples are classified and judged. All peoples create their own cultures and traditions, about which the Greeks were curious to learn. This curiosity also arose from the Greeks’ appreciation of intellectual activities and from the ethos of
philosophical critique that characterised the democratic polis. Primarily, they sought to know their own traditions and beliefs, and place them under philosophical research, which gave birth to epistêmê as a form and activity in the field of logos, empirical research, logical argumentation, and the search for truth. As the Greeks examined and questioned their own creations, so they wished to know about the creations of others. In addition, questioning the same laws and institutions, as well as its values and practices, was part of politics, which, in turn, was linked to the attempt of early historians to reflect on their own institutions through studying foreign cultures. The Greeks recognised cultural diversity as they recognised the multiplicity
and equality of views within the democratic polis. Just as there may be different opinions on the same issue between interlocutors, so other societies may have different cultures.
Finally, the development of the impartial comparative perspective of the Greeks towards other societies was at the centre of their paideia, which included philosophical and empirical research, political activity, sophist education, and the artistic life of the polis. Greek paideia developed the curiosity of Greeks to get to explore theirs as well as the others’ institutions, and an impartial attitude that recognised both the universality and the particularity of the human condition. We have to wait until the European Enlightenment to find again this intellectual attitude, which, although it has been registered since then in cross-cultural and comparative studies, has never prevailed.