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Philosophy, Religion, and Politics in Ancient Afro-Asian Mediterranean
By Lil Joe
This essay reviews the political nature of religion and philosophy in class society, especially in the early Afro-Asian-Mediterranean cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Israel, and Persia. In these societies, class politics assumed the form of political religion. In the Greco-Ionian polis philosophy arose, in the 6th century BCE, as an alternative world-view. We note, in addition, a movement from kinship (clan-tribal) structures to class structures in which the most powerful, economically dominant class is the most powerful, politically dominant class and thereby its ideology dominates, rather than the religious perspectives of the old privileged clan-tribe.
Religion posits gods and devils as the basis of material existence and the justification for the dominant relations of production, family, morality, politics, and so on. It is therefore conservative and reactionary where changes threaten the status quo.
Every person is a social individual and member of a society. This society is a social whole in which individuals are functional parts based on the level of development of productive forces inherited from preceding generations, distribution of labor, work, production, class, family, and political system.
Cultural world-views in human society are the product of a manifold experience of socialization of individuals resulting from material (economic) and spiritual (social, ideational) conditioning. Religion or/and philosophy is the self-conscious effort to understand and act correctly in this world.
The traditions of the previous generation, result from the sociopolitical realities faced by a people. Where there are class cultures, it is the most powerful, economically dominant class that is the most powerful, thus politically dominant class that determines the dominant religious culture in their economic class interests. Over time – and in Egypt, Babylonia, and Israel, for example, we are talking thousands of years – this class culture penetrates the whole of society, and anchors within. It’s a complete world-view, internalized by the exploited classes, and as such oppressed masses.
By their situation the exploited classes and oppressed masses in the ancient cultures become accustomed to exploitation and oppression as natural or/and the will of god, fate and what have you as preached by the religious castes century after century. The traditions established by the religious caste and the state internalized by the masses becomes their inner jailer which prevents not only acting against the ruling classes and castes, but fear to even think critically for fear of offending clairvoyant gods.
The Political & Spiritual Purpose of the
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As Marx once said: the traditions handed down by previous generations are a dead weight on the shoulders of the living. The problem is that these traditions seem natural, and preserve the existing society – its economic activities, classes, and political institutions from one generation to the next.
There are times, however, when fundamental changes in technology, and, consequently, in economic behavior (mode of appropriation) and corresponding changes in socio-economic relations of production undergo rapid and fundamental changes. It is only then that the traditional beliefs no longer explain the world, as the old world passing makes the institutions and ideas characteristic of the old world appear not just outmoded, but wrong.
It is during such times, historically, that things, institutions and ideas once held permanent and sacred are challenged, tossed aside by the new techno-class forces. The old class politics, political institutions and ideologies, property-relations, and such are regarded as inadequate if not decadent, and wrong. Consequently the changes in technology, the productive forces were at once incremental and accelerated throughout the economy, sooner or later result in the new social forces challenging the ancient regime.
New ideas evolve from the critique of the old. But the information that directs these new ideas are the product of the new, evolving productive forces, modes of appropriation and changing relations of production engendered by contact, especially conquest by or conquests of foreign peoples, with other cultures coming into contact and blending. These advances in science and human reasoning explain adequately the new realities of the changed situation.
Consequently with the changes in material conditions, the functions of the shaman also changed – from doctors divining cures of patients into priests representing the “will” or “commandments” of god or the gods, demanding that the people obey the war-chiefs, who by territorial expansion changed into kings. The function of the medicine man and the war chief was to serve the people. But the agricultural village settlements evolved into cities. A power shift occurred which reversed the function of the king – the role of the people was to serve both the gods and the kings and the role of the king was to rule.
These animist religions regulated sex, marriage, and mating, family and lineage, reproduction (procreation) – all politically authorized as the will of the gods or god through anointing the power of the king. In the early Mesopotamian city-states the kings appropriated at the same time the function of high priest. The rule of these priest-kings was sustained by lineage; privileged clans also engendered the authority of elders. The kings of Egypt declared themselves gods descended from the god Horus.
But that's just it! Before a group of intellectuals, politicians, priests can live from the produce and products of the labor of others, the labor productivity of the laboring classes must have reached the level of surplus so that further division of labor or specialization enables those not engaged in material or manual labor to appropriate the labor or products of the labor of others. Inherent in these relations of production are therefore conflicts of economic interests that become conscious class struggle.
Every class struggle is a political struggle, in that the laboring classes and toiling masses struggle to gain control of their labor, and the products of their labor and will inevitably confront the political organization of the ruling classes – that is, the State. In the clash of class interests in battle of class against class the existing ruling class has state power and the laboring classes want to take state power, elevating its position from ruled to rulers by destroying the existing ruling class and state.
Under such conditions the old tribal bonds break down, and class divisions appear in the society itself. The more productive, fertile land yields higher produce output than less fertile lands. The greater the output the more surplus is produced for the market, commodity production, and the owners of those more productive farms become wealthy in contrast to the poorer farms engaged only in subsistence farming.
The farmers engaged in surplus produce and trade, consequently, sell his surpluses on the market or else to merchants and become wealthy whereas those who are engaged in subsistence farming remain poor.
With surplus produce and handicraftsmen locating into towns together with merchants, and artisans engaged also in commodity production, merchants become a relatively independent class. They purchase from local farmers and artisans and travel to distant lands to trade for articles produced in those distant lands and return to their own land to sell those foreign products. The merchants accumulate wealth and power, along side the wealthy farmers who also come to live in the towns.
On the other hand, the poorer farmers come to depend upon credit to obtain implements of production from artisans or merchants, and generally it is the merchants who buy-up the surplus handicraft products and sell them to farmers or to distant customers. The use of money as a medium of exchange becomes the standard of value, and measure of value in the form of coins. Thus the debtors that borrow money with which to purchase other goods become debtors whose land can be lost, by foreclosure, or compelled by economic straits to sell their children into slavery to satisfy debts.
The wealthy farmers accumulate more and more land, which is more and more worked by an ever-increasing quantity of slaves, including prisoners of war sold into slavery. The wealthy farmers turn management of their country estates over to hired brains, while they and their families acquire relatively lavish residences in the towns. With greater and greater prosperity, these towns quickly become major cities in these empires.
The old social organization become politicized, as the former tribal warriors become a standing army to protect both the towns and farmers from foreign raiders and also become dependent upon the wealthy for food or money. The old war chiefs become kings, with their base of operation being in the cities they protect.
In political society, religion is transformed from a cultural to a political function. The high priest and the priesthood are part and parcel of the wealthy, which places its high temple in the capital, working hand and hand with the palace. The high priesthood works hand and glove with the bureaucracy in the political government. In such political societies religion cannot avoid the political.
The political function of religion in class relations is to provide the status quo, the ruling class and the state government with a spiritual justification. The power of religion is its spiritual authority, supposedly derived from gods. Religion predates civilization, by which I mean political class society, in which the wealthy do not work and those that work are not wealthy. The most powerful of the wealthy classes determine the politics which control society.
The pre-political religion cemented a tribal communal people on the basis of common held beliefs, rituals, and taboos. But this religion transforms into a political party that provides by its historical authority ordination of the economic order which inheres in extremes of wealth and poverty and uses its authority to sanction, to authorize (if you will) the political state, which is an apparatus of violence and of oppression representing the general interests of the ruling classes. Thus this politicized religion joins with the state to engender a culture of domination, authority and subordination, obedience.
Religious laws came to reflect the material interests of the proprietors
against the propertyless. The chief-priests or priest-king, or “prophet” or
“messenger” of gods thus by invoking god's ordinance declares divine authority
of the courts protecting property rights.
From the "priest-king" Hammurabi's "Code":
The Torah's "Thou shalt not steal" is stated in the Qu'ran chapter 5 verses 38-9: "As for the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands, but those who repent. After a crime and reform shall be forgiven by God for God is forgiving and kind."
Thus the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses presuppose societies comprised of property-owners and non-owners, rich and poor, patriarchal families, and classes – poor peasants, and rich landed aristocrats, slaves and slave owners, and so on. Thus, those laws were written in the economic interests of the rich against the poor, of men against the women, of slave-owners against the slaves, and so on.
Moreover, the court system in class society is a class court. By attributing the laws that defend the economic interests of the economic dominant classes to the “will of god,” the priests and prophets articulate and give divine sanction to the laws, and its penalties for breaking these laws. Political religious authorities represent class power, whether that authority be sacred texts or ordained priests.
Just as the tribal warriors are displaced by a disciplined, authoritarian professional army, managed by a leadership core which has economic connections, wealthy priests displace the gentile warriors as the religious authority of the elders or priestly caste is supplanted by a disciplined cadre of professional priests, a hierarchy which culminates in a political “chief priest,” or “high priest.”
In natural religion tribal shamans or priests were medicine men or medicine women who served a practical function as doctors. In class societies, the traditional role of such religious figures is supplanted and separated from the masses. The politicized priests become responsible to the hierarchy which provides and defends their authority with legitimacy so long as they say and do as they are told.
The politicization of religion in the early political societies, Mesopotamia and Egypt occurred 6,000 years ago, a thousand years before Moses and two thousand before St. Paul. With St. Paul the political function of religion is systemic and complete.
To the Ephesians, in the 6th chapter Paul wrote:
In his instruction to his disciple Titus, in chapter 2, Paul wrote that as part of his ministry, preaching to servants and slaves, Titus should:
The political function of religious priests and doctrines serves the interests of the wealthy classes, the property owners and slave owners, landlords and capitalists and slaves are told to be obedient and go an extra mile of servitude with gladness of heart, rather than motivation by fear of punishment. This includes obeying the laws of the state, to regard the police and the courts and jailers as agents of god, and thus acknowledging their power to imprison or/and execute “criminals” as ordained of god, doing god's will.
The presupposition of the materialist critiques, on the contrary, by coming into play when there is a sociopolitical schism that undermines the authority of priests and rulers, represent the new, rising class forces in challenging that authority, therefore the gods and their laws.