A liberal religion

In the third and fourth blogs devoted to the religion of ancient Greece, Nikolaos Markoulakis takes

The whole my life I've been a Greek polytheist, Hellenes, and supporter of the liberal political thought.

Nowadays, it is difficult to conceptualize that a religious faith can be described as liberal in notion.

We understand religion today as a structural organization with sacred books and a professional priesthood.

Liberalism requires a society driven by freedom of thought, there must be limits on power - especially that wielded by governmental and religious institutions.

How can I be both a liberal and a follower of a revived ancient religion? And can we really say that a religion which has derived from such an ancient culture and civilization could be liberal in modern terms? In my view this can be indeed the case when it concerns Greek polytheism.

The modern democracy has a structure which underlines the importance of the individual as part of a greater political organization, the state. Individual rights, as well as responsibilities, make up the political being.

Our contemporary democratic notion incorporates separation of state from religion because otherwise the individual freedoms could easily be suppressed by the most powerful religious group. A secular state is the only solution in a multi-cultural and diverse world to preserve political and individual rights and freedoms. Our free world today, which is liberal in notion derives from a school of thought dating back to the Enlightenment era. It is known that this initial liberal contemplation was ignited by the writings of Ancient Greece.

That world produced such marvellous spiritual works: philosophy and science, political constitution and deliberation, civil law and individualism, art and drama, literature and poetry as we known them today. The ancient Greek nation was tolerant towards new thought and diversity, because it was diverse and liberal at its core, and that core was its religion.

So, Greek thought is in fact a product of the ancient Greek religion. What makes Greek polytheism unique in producing such liberal societal structures? Some would argue that a set of foreign influences draw the minds of Greeks into a high level of contemplation. Indeed, this is partly right, but it is not the whole picture. A society (nation) has to be free of taboos and moral restrictions if it is to be able to easily absorb foreign thought as its own. Greek polytheism had an element so powerful and closely connected with the customs and ethics of men, yet all the while its directives were open to alterations and criticism.

Greek polytheism by its nature generates a variety of religious praxis. This multiplicity was reflected in the communities, the polis (city states), the nation as well as in the minds of men leaving in them. It was a religion for the state, not a religion of the state. The law of men was above the divine. Humility does not appear in Greek Polytheistic worship because the first principle of the Greek religion is the dignity of the individual.

In Greek religion there are no signs of zealotry, because it is part of the natural world, too much a part of the man’s nature. The religion and the gods are accepted as part of Nature’s body and the state’s constitution. Greeks recognized their divinities and religious practises as essential and important, turning to them whenever they felt the need. Greek polytheistic notion was a matter of joy and gladness, leaving no space for absorbed thoughts, empowerment and / or mystic devotion. Liberal thought, therefore, was in fact an element present in Greek polytheistic religiosity.

Nikolaos Markoulakis holds degrees in Social sciences and Social research. He is the director of the Markoulakis Publications, editor-in-chief at the scholarly based, peer-reviewed Journal of Hellenic Religion and the educational periodical Sparta.
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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era