Durocher’s Ancient Ethnostate

The Ancient Ethnostate: Biopolitical Thought in Classical Greece by Guillaume Durocher (Kindle Direct Publishing Edition 2021, currently only available as paperback via Amazon) examines ancient Greek authors, from Homer to Aristotle, regarding their ethics and customs concerning biological and cultural relationships: whether families and clans, city-states with their colonies, or the entire Greek nation. Highly readable and quite thorough given its less than 300 pages, it is an excellent overview on the subject. As the chapters are organized by primary sources, so is the rest of this review, giving a brief summary of the material covered.

Note: My copy has erroneous page numbers in the table of contents. The author is aware of the matter, so it should be resolved in future imprints and e-books.


The chapters on Homer, Iliad and Odyssey, are best represented by this conclusion on the Iliad which sets the tone of the book and will return in many variations elsewhere:

The values of the Iliad […] are highly adaptive, being focused on pride in one’s lineage, kinship as central to identity and entailing reciprocity and solidarity, subordination of individual interests to those of the community, the intertwined loves of family and fatherland, and finally the glorification of conquest and honor. These values, though often brutal, enable one’s people to triumph, and surely that is also part of the tragedy Homer was trying to tell. [p.37]

The Iliad contrasts this ideal with corrupt mercantile Troy whose army mostly consists of undisciplined mercenaries, and the Odyssey presents various alternative fantasy societies that also fall short of the ideal. Of course, so did Greek reality itself. The Iliad tells of the bitter feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, and Odysseus returns to a home plundered by his own nobles, suitors to his wife. Authority was highly personal; Telemachus complains about his men refusing to help the family in the absence of the lord:

It is the rest of you [the people] I am indignant with, to see how you all sit dumbly there instead of rebuking them and restraining them; you are many; the suitors are few. (2.239-41) [p.41]


Hesiod’s Works & Days contains practical everyday advice rather than heroic tales, yet the pattern remains the same:

One should give only to those who reciprocate, not to others (353-54). One should be kind with visitors, the traditional pacifying Greek view; however, Hesiod affirms that kinship especially demands responsibility and solidarity. The goddess Hecate blesses the winner of athletic contests, “conferring glory on his parents” (Theogony, 435-38). One should not sleep with a brother’s wife “in breach of all propriety” (327-28). One should not “make a friend on a par with a brother” (706). [p.59]


The Histories feature many accounts of nations and their struggles, not just Greeks and Persians. Durocher notes that the values already mentioned and again emphasized by Herodotus are quite in line with Charles Darwin (Descent of Man, pp.157-8):

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. [p.66]

Beyond these basic values, any cohesive society will also have specific customs it deems superior. Widely-traveled Herodotus “is extremely impressed by the social power of culture and ethnocentrism:”

If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group regards its own as being by far the best … There is plenty of other evidence to support the idea that this opinion of one’s own customs is universal. … Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all. (3.38) [p.68]

At least rhetorically, the Greeks were certainly aware of what must be called a common Greek nation, notwithstanding frequent internal conflicts and external ethnic intermarriage:

Herodotus famously quotes a speech in which the Athenians pledge to never surrender to the Persians on the grounds of their duty to the Greek people, which is defined as “one race speaking one language, with temples to the gods and religious rites in common, and with a common way of life” (8.144). [p.74]

Durocher takes the opportunity to offer his definition of a nation:

The birth of a nation, ethnogenesis, occurs when linguistic, cultural, and possibly genetic drift leads a particular population to acquire an ethnic identity distinct from its neighbors. Cultural chauvinism and ethnic sentiment work together in this, magnifying one another: cultural traits such as language and customs become more and more similar within the in-group, while differences with out-groups become more and more marked. Thus, a point on the genetic cline is hardened into a more-or-less discrete ethno-cultural node and genetic cluster: a nation. The degree of nationhood is defined by the population’s level of genetic and cultural commonality, and distinctness from other groups. [p.76f]

Still there was always plenty of potential for infighting among the Greeks:

[I]f one looks at the sweep of ancient Greek history, one is struck by the disconnect between a pervasive rhetoric expression of Greek sentiment and the political reality of division and often brutal wars among Greeks. Pan-Hellenism, however powerful emotionally, was often political inoperative. […] The polis’ demand of total loyalty from its citizens meant that there were few qualms about annihilating fellow Greeks, if this was in the city’s immediate interest. [p.110]

Subnational units also existed in the form of confederations:

Though far less discussed than the polis, the Greeks did have a quite venerable tradition of confederalism, that is to say, of forming leagues of city-states. The league – combining joint temples, a common council, arbitration, military alliance, and coinage, with greater or lesser degrees of central authority – was a common feature in Greek political history. Shared ethno-regional identity was a common basis for the formation of a league of cities, as in Arcadia, Boeotia, Crete, and Ionia. Sparta and later Athens each led their own military alliances as hegemonic cities. [p.111]

Like Greek life in general, the concept of freedom was defined through the community rather than the individual or abstract values:

The Greek conception of freedom was fundamentally communitarian, ethnocentric, and virile. For Herodotus, Sparta as a military aristocracy was as “free” as democratic Athens, for the Spartans adhered to a holistic rule of law. […] The Greek notion of freedom was fundamentally ethnopolitical: civic life did not mean defending mere ‘values’ as such, let alone imposing them on outsiders. Rather Hellenic freedom meant participating in the collective flourishing of an organic community defined by shared blood and gods. [p.118]


In his numerous works, Aristotle further defines the concept of citizenship:

Citizenship meant not rights, but participation in the setting and enforcement of duties. As Aristotle eloquently puts it, citizenship is “to rule and be ruled in turn.” In the Greek city-state, this meant varying degrees of participation in the Assembly, the courts, and political and military office. For Aristotle, as for the Greeks in general, citizenship was incompatible with egalitarian excess, decadence, and effeminacy. [p.120]

The overarching goal of any community must be the pursuit of excellence:

Aristotle’s is a remarkable holistic and biological view of human flourishing. [Health, beauty, reason, virtue, …] Aristotle’s unabashed ethics are typically Hellenic: there is no egalitarian consolation for the ugly and the misbegotten, there is no pretense that all human beings can be happy and actualized. Rather, Aristotle, like the Greeks in general, celebrates excellence. […] For Aristotle, human societies should not be organized for ‘individual happiness’ but rather must be organized so as to achieve collective excellence. [p.124]

That pursuit cannot be universal but requires the confines of a city-state:

Though nature and reason are universal, human beings can only exercise that reason in particular communities, which must have both the natural endowment necessary for reason and have sufficient kinship ties and identity to enable the solidarity necessary for reciprocal citizenship. Insofar as a cosmopolitanism ignores the diversity and inequality of men, this undermines both the real foundations for the solidarity necessary to active citizenship and the achievement of the highest human potential. This for Aristotle would have been unnatural and unethical. [p.136]

Excessive diversity within one community also presents the danger of factional conflict:

As a good empiricist, Aristotle meticulously documents all the instances in which diversity and a lack of common identity led to conflict and a loss of the much-cherished friendship (philia) among the citizens. The philosopher writes that one of the most common causes of “faction” and civil war was the unhappy consequences of unassimilated immigration and the consequent loss of identity and solidarity. [p.142]

On the other hand, diversity is great for tyrants:

If identity and community made a people better able to defend their freedom, conversely Aristotle argues that a diverse population with no common identity is easier to enslave. If one has a population of slaves, Aristotle pragmatically argues that these should be ethnically diverse so as to be easier to subjugate. [p.145f]

Durocher’s concluding remarks on Aristotle:

Aristotle’s eudaimonic ethics and politics, grounded in the biological realities of human nature and aimed towards collective survival and flourishing, are eminently compatible with a Darwinian worldview. The ancient philosopher’s system can be readily updated, if need be, with the discoveries of modern genetic and behavioral sciences […] His politeia shows that there is no contradiction between a muscular and holistic biopolitics and a civic politics characterized by the rule of law and open debate. [p.150f]


After an excurse on the politics of Athens and Sparta which I omit here for brevity, Durocher closes with Plato. Here is his summary from the introduction:

As we shall see, the Platonic corpus offered a comprehensive cultural and biopolitical program for Greece: a great reform of convention grounded in reason and expertise, to transform Greece into a patchwork of enlightened, non-grasping city-states cultivating themselves intellectually and culturally, reproducing themselves in perpetuity through systematic and eugenic population policies, avoiding fratricidal war and imperialism among themselves, and working together against the barbarians, under the leadership of the best city-states. Taken together, I dare say we can speak of a Platonic Group Evolutionary Strategy for Greece. [p.196]

Callipolis, the ideal city imagined in the Republic, is founded on Plato’s notion of natural inequality between people:

Callipolis as a bio-meritocratic regime is entirely oriented towards a cognitive and moral sorting of people, with the best (defined as the most intelligent, courageous, and moral) being selected to form the ruling elite of guardians. Failing to recognize inequality and in particular the excellence of the moral elite means the latter “end up living a life which is inappropriate for them and which isn’t true to their natures” (495c) […] Given all this, it is no wonder that Plato is contemptuous towards egalitarians. These are undiscerning and undiscriminating people who have bad taste, poor judgment, and low or no standards. [p.200f]

Given the importance of in-born biological inequality and its heredity, it follows that even reproduction should be regulated for the public good, just as breeders seek to improve the quality of their animals:

Plato’s hereditary observations strikingly prefigured modern biological science. […] Starting from the common observance of heredity in human beings and other animals, Plato was forthright and rigorous in drawing out the eugenic ethics which logically flows from this, even if these might often be impractical. [p.204]

Finally, Plato also reproduces the familiar hierarchy of social relationships:

Of great interest from an evolutionary perspective, Plato’s Laws are founded on kinship, both familiar and ethnic. We find in Plato’s thought concentric circles of kinship and reciprocity: to the family, to the city, and ultimately to the Greek nation as a whole against the barbarians. Furthermore, Plato is emphatic on the duty of ensuring the biological and cultural quality of the citizenry, to be achieved notably: by an initial wholesale purge of bad elements, strict immigration policies, and the careful regulation and promotion of childbearing marriages. [p.211]

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