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The Anti-Individualistic Ideology of Hellenistic Culture1

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Historical generalizations are invariably shaped by modern cultural values. One of the dominant values of modern Western culture is individualism, the origins of which tend to be claimed by historians for their own domains of research, with examples extending from sixth-century B.C. Greece through modern Europe. The generalization about a Hellenistic period of history, first made in the nineteenth-century, clearly reflects this value of individualism which became, consequently, part of the scholarly convention about the culture of this period. With reference to the thought, religious practice, and material culture of the period, this article argues to the contrary that neither Hellenistic idea nor ideal can be held to value in any way an individualistic view of the self. Alexander the Great and the Athenian general Alcibiades were typical examples of individualism taken to task by philosophers. Hellenistic ethics seem, rather, to have been dominated by a social principle of "Socratic care". Similarly, Hellenistic religions, including the early Christian associations, defined their raison d'être on the basis of distinctive social claims. One Christian tradition even explicitly employed the Hellenistic ethical principle of "Socratic care" as its distinctive criterion. Finally, the well-known Hellenistic terracotta figurines, often adduced as examples of Hellenistic individualism, were, in fact, mass-produced and were employed in ritual, i.e., collective, contexts. Whereas the socio-political transformations that characterize Hellenistic culture did challenge traditional collective bases for identity, the intellectual, religious and artistic expressions of this culture all confirm an anti-individualistic character for the alternative social strategies of identity produced during this period.

Affiliations: 1: The University of Vermont Department of Religion 481 Main Street Bington, Vermont 05405-0218, USA


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