Four antiquities

When talking about antiquity, everyone thinks of the period before the birth of Christ, in Greece and the Roman Empire. In that case of course there is only one antiquity. But within that antiquity four forms of society can be distinguished, all four of which belong to that historical period. And that in distinction from the time thereafter, the calendar starting with the birth of Christ. Is there a reason for that? Of course, historians always construe distinctions in historical periods and this might be just another one.

There is a more substantial reason to do so in this case. The time after Christ belongs to a different category. Something has happened that leaves a mark, whether welcomed or not, on all history thereafter. That is the self-sacrifice for a future to come. That self-sacrifice is expressed in the cross of Christ. Resurrection means that people are struck by that event and are also put on a different track. That sacrifice, living for one another and for another future, has now been discovered as the core of humanity. And in this way death no longer comes at the end, but at the beginning. You no longer live for yourself, not even at the start.

In this way man is stripped of all fixed forms. If you can free yourself from all fixed shapes you can take on any new shape when necessary. That was not possible before that time. In ancient times, there were four forms of society that were isolated from each other. All four of them in themselves wanted something good, but nevertheless they got stuck and became detached from their original inspiration.

The tribe

The Empire



The tribe lives with an orientation to the past. The tribal elders, the ancestors, have authorized a social order to which the present generation obeys. That determines who is friend and foe, how marriages are arranged (and that there is such a thing like marriage at all!), and so on. The spirits of the ancestors live on, and the now living must pass those spirits on to posterity. This is how peace is preserved.

The Empire represents a different social order. The Empire does not worship spirits, but gods. Gods are heavenly powers that regulate how things are done here on earth. Their will is written in the stars and a pharaoh or emperor who is son of the gods speaks with the authority of all the cosmos. That’s how he puts everyone to work in a stratified society of labor division. An emperor or pharaoh is therefore himself part of the family of gods. He is God on earth.

Greece is actually a mixture of tribe and empire, because the Greek cities have emerged from tribes that became sedentary and constructed a kind of second divine layer above their tribal spirits and ancestors. Those were the gods of the city and of agriculture, derived from Egypt. But Greece also had some characteristics of its own and that is what this is about. The Greeks were less fixed to one particular form because they could compare different forms of society. People are very different and yet you can have sympathy for all of them. That is the message of Homer and of the tragedies and even of philosophy. That has turned the Greeks into humanists: comparing things to one another, understanding everything, curious about the other, sympathetic. That innovation has not completely disrupted its attachment to the form of tribe and of the empire, but it has made them milder.

Israel is even less fixed to one particular form. Israel has broken with the tribe (Abraham gives up his intention to sacrifice Isaac, as a good tribal chief should have done) and with the Empire (a people of slaves have departed from Egypt, into the wilderness). If the tribe lived oriented to the past, and the empire to the present, Israel will live looking forward. It is focused on the commandments and the justice to come! And therefore it is not under the leadership of a chief or emperor, but it relies on the common people. It is precisely for that reason that Israel separated itself from other forms of society, but in this way Israel also in the long run unwittingly becomes a particular solid form. The rabbis have created a fixed arrangement for life consisting of the 613 commandments that has to be followed by devout Jews in order to be Jews.

Now one may maintain that all these four forms of society were populated by people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the future. And that is true. But usually such a sacrifice was to the benefit of the survival of a certain form of society. When Jesus Christ sacrificed himself, it became clear to people, who became his followers for that specific reason, that love can change in any form. Most clearly, this discovery is articulated by Paul: love is most of all. And it is always in search of a different shape to find expression.

Therefore antiquity is left behind. That is to say: people still fight for the particular social form that shapes their lives. And it is also true: our human existence must somehow take shape, because we cannot exist without rules and without any repetition. Nevertheless, any form, including the form that Christianity itself may take in a particular historical period, becomes now like a garment that does not really fit. Again and again the insight breaks through, that love, the sacrifice of everything you are and have for a peace of which you even do not yet know the form, carries more weight. From now on, the dissatisfaction with any fixed form drives history forward. Antiquity is over.