Differentiated Collectivities

Neither in Greece nor in Israel were the full individual and personal results of differentiation reached immediately. Not only was the influence of surrounding or residual early pantheistic cultural patterns considerable and the respective processes of clarification of the significance of differential experience slow in itself. There was with regard to those results also an intermediate stage where the Greek polis and the “chosen people”, respectively, became the primary moral agents who, to a greater or lesser extent, accepted as ordering principles the new insights of philosophical vision or speculation in the one case, and answered the new call of God by entering or keeping the covenant in the other. These conceptions of collectivities as the moral agents, as the objects of judgement by transcendent criteria, have exercised a decisive influence over Western thought and culture.

And both the Greek mode of thought, shaped by the social and historical reality of the polis, and the Jewish self-understanding of a particular historic mission, still continue to do so. The impersonal totality of the polis being the primary locus of value in the immanent sphere, the Greeks established for millennia a pattern for Western political philosophy which was in some respects valuable, but in others problematic. Just as the cultural and historical situation of their thinking precluded a fuller recognition of historicity, it also made impossible the articulation of the coordination or the synthesis of individuality and universality. The general human nature of man was conceived to be separable from and was valorized far above his individual existence, and the social reality of the polis and the pervasive tendency to hypostasize abstract generalizations produced a concept of the state as coextensive or simply identical with society, of the state as identical with the totality of its citizens.

The individual was certainly more independent in the polis than in the cosmological societies, both in so far as there was from early on a new kind of recognition of individuality and freedom in Greek culture – as is evident not least in its poetry and drama, but also, for instance, in Pericles’ famous epitaphios logos as rendered by Thucydides – and in so far as the institutions of the polis were shaped by the differentiated experience and thus open to critical scrutiny to an extent previously unthinkable.

Yet the individual was nonetheless metaphysically and ethically insignificant as such in comparison with his general human nature and his being a part of this political whole, and no less dependent on and subordinate to the latter for the newness of its conception; formally, he was still a cell in an impersonal organic totality which comprehensively unified government, society, morality, and religion. The Israelite collectivity was differently conceived, but in the pre-modern, orthodox Jewish communities it had comparable effects with regard to individual personality.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

Musae

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