Paris, November 13: Terror and the Classical Past

Last night’s attacks in Paris left the West once again searching for explanations and context.  European and American leaders appealed to universal values. French president François Hollande described the attack as “against France, against the values that we defend everywhere in the world, against what we are: A free country that means something to the whole planet.”  President Obama followed suit: “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

As the leaders of the West spoke, it became clear that by universal values they meant political values.  Hollande spoke of “a free country.”  Obama praised “the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.” Lliberté, égalité and fraternité, he added, “are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share.” Once again Western, liberal democracy was cast as a universal value. German president Joachim Gauck made it clear: “Europe’s values and Europe’s freedom have been attacked by powerful enemies throughout history. Nevertheless, our Europe is a fortress of democracy and human rights. Even the brutal attacks of Islamist terrorists won’t change this.”

But are these political, democratic values human universals?  Islamic leaders who also condemned the attacks appealed not to political values but to moral ideas grounded in religion. The foreign minister of Qatar called the Paris attacks “against all human and moral values.” The Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s chief religious body, reminded the world that “Terrorists are not sanctioned by Islam and these acts are contrary to values of mercy it brought to the world.”

The universal political values cited by Western presidents are in fact Greek, as Kurt Raaflaub points out in an essay soon to appear in Classical World.* Voting, the secret ballot, the rule of law, the principle of representation, even the very basic idea of citizenship, Raaflaub demonstrates, can all be traced to cultural and political developments in Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries BC.

This local origin at the beginnings of Western culture does not make liberal democracy and its associated values less worth defending, but we need to be clear about ther origins in our long conversation with Greece and Rome. Understanding where our values come from will make it easier to find common ground with men of good will who do not share the political values bequeathed to Europe and America by ancient Greece but instead base their condemnation on moral concepts like mercy and love.

*In volume 109.1, to appear at the end of November. Full disclosure: I edit Classical World.