It’s All Greek To Me

Herodotus. 4th century Roman sculpture, based on 3rd century Greek.

… I have no doubt whatever that Cambyses was completely out of his mind; it is the only possible explanation of his assault upon, and mockery of, everything which ancient law and custom have made sacred in Egypt. For if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country.

One might recall, in particular, an account told of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was being said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called [custom] “king of all”.

Herodotus, The Histories, book III, section 38. (Transl. by Aubrey de Sélincourt)

This is an absolutely magnificent passage. It was written sometime in the middle of the 3rd century BC by “the first historian”, Herodotus. But it is doing intellectual work to get at ideas which were not easily available at the time. Although we tend to think of the Greek as a globetrotting, sea-faring people, this is a period where exposure to multiple cultures was a very rare thing. And for someone to both be a serious intellectual and a traveler was an unlikely combination. But Herodotus was. Though it’s a phrase I don’t like to use, because it’s completely nonsensical, he was, in this sense, a man ahead of his time. (Which, for a historian, you have to admit is kind of funny.)

The work which is being done here is what the poststructuralist philosophers called “decentering”. It means looking the norms and values which are so normal as to be almost invisible — marxists call this the “hegemonic” values and norms — from an entirely different point of view. A classic example is for a Christian, heterosexual, upper class white man to try seeing the world from the perspective of (say) an atheist, middle class, lesbian black woman. Or of a Romani beggar, or an Islamic terrorist. And for middle class, educated, leftists to think like a conservative Christian.

What changes when you try to see other people’s lives from their point of view? Everything. You see the radical contingency of your life, and of theirs. You see better what similiarities you share, and you see better what things impose on both your lives. It is hard, unfinishing work to see that the other ways of living are valid and meaningful when seen from the position in which it is lived.

Living this kind of decentred life is a constant challenge. It makes you think hard about what is really important and why, and it forces you to rethink your position on values you hold dear. But it also makes it possible to find the values which are really important to hold fast to. The stuff that you should never, ever let slip.

Another word for this way of thinking is relativism. Or sometimes cultural relativism. It is both a practice and a set of beliefs. Relativism has for many reasons — some well-deserved, many not — come to be a dirty word. This post is hemming and hawing and by way of introduction to saying: I want to try to defend that word, and that way of thinking, in a couple of posts, maybe over the next few weeks.


The Pindar fragment that Herodotus refers to is this one:

Custom, the king of all
of mortals and immortals
leads, justifying that which is most violent
by its very powerful hand.

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