Oriental Political Thought. The Oriental empires Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia were prevented by the general conditions of their social environment from creating a systematic political philosophy. A simple and predominantly rural economic system, superstitious and inflexible religious dogmas, social classes crystallized into castes, and minute regulation of everyday life gave a fixity and sanctity to established institutions which discouraged speculation concerning their origin, nature, or possible improvement.
Oriental social life was undifferentiated. Family, church, state, and industrial organization were inextricably bound together. Consequently political thought was not separated from religion, ethics, philosophy, and economic doctrines. The dominant influence was religious in character, and the ideas that prevailed were created, preserved, and handed down by the priestly class.
Morality and law were not clearly distinguished; ideas were based on tradition and dogma rather than on reason; and political liberty sufficient to permit questioning was never allowed. A certain amount of individual]ism seems necessary to the development of political theory.
Oriental thought was paternalistic. It exalted the institution, glorified political and religious despotism, and denied the personal worth of the individual. Discontent, which has played such a large part in modern progress, was of little influence.
Happiness was generally arrived at by decreasing one’s desires rather than by demanding increased satisfaction of growing needs. Passivity and fatalism, resulting in political stagnation, logically resulted. Static ideals dominated. The general aim was to maintain the social equilibrium; and modern ideals of progress and reform were unknown.
The Oriental-had no right to question, in thought or in word, the ethical basis upon which his political institutions were founded. His belief in the perfection of existing institutions, and the fixity of all customary political obligations, prevented any real inquiry into the nature and source of authority, any discussion of the best form of governmental organization and administration, or any conception of individual liberty.
Eastern peoples have generally held a less materialistic view of life, not striving so eagerly as the peoples of the West for industrial progress or personal prosperity. Moral and religious codes have played a more direct and practical part in shaping their ideas. The fulfillment of the law has always been an essential idea in Oriental thought, the law consisting of an elaborate code which included religious ceremonies and observances and moral precepts as well as rules of human conduct.
Fragmentary sentences and aphoristic sayings upon political matters may be found in the early writings of Brahmins, Buddhists, and Confucians. They were, however, confused with religious and ethical principles and were never worked out into any system of political philosophy.
Some Oriental peoples engaged extensively in speculative thought, but their inquiries resulted mainly in the formulation of elaborate cosmologies or in schemes ta justify the existing regime as being in accordance with the sanctions of a revealed religion or of the superior ancestral wisdom of the past. The Hindus and the Chinese alone seem to have reached doctrines of human equality and ideals of political democracy.
The general form of state that the Oriental world created was a theocratic, despotic monarchy, with conquest or religion the sanction for authority. Monarchs either were, as in Egypt, worshiped as being themselves gods, or, as in Assyria and Persia, were considered the agents of the gods. The monarchs were aided by an elaborate body of administrative officials and supported by a priestly class that controlled men’s minds and sometimes, as in Egypt, exercised the real governing power in the state.
The unity of the Oriental state was based not upon race and language, as in the modern world, but upon the worship of common gods. These supported the authority of the rulers within the state and gave aid to their worshipers in wars of aggression and defense.
The gods, except in the case of the Hebrews, were associated with particular places, and a people emigrating or transported to an alien land were obliged to abandon their gods and adopt the worship of the gods of their new home. Similarly, a conquered people, while continuing the worship of their own gods, were compelled to acknowledge the supremacy of the gods of their conquerors.
The Orient contributed to political thought the imperial idea. Its empires were, however, collections of loosely united states rather than well integrated political units. Weaker states sometimes placed themselves under the protection of stronger states by formal alliance, bringing gifts as a token of their good will.
More often, empires were built up by conquest, the defeated peoples acknowledging the suzerainty of the victorious monarch and paying him tribute and military aid. Subject nations that were not rebellious were allowed to retain their national identity and their peculiar customs and laws.
If they tried unsuccessfully to revolt, heavier tribute might be required, or their autonomy might be destroyed by placing them under officials sent out from the central state, or in extreme cases deportation-or wholesale slaughter might threaten their national existence.
These loose-jointed Oriental empires never developed a well-organized administrative system, such as was later built up by Rome. Where conquered peoples retained their own political institutions, national aspirations were encouraged and revolt occurred whenever opportunity offered.
Even when imperial officials were sent out to rule the subject provinces, their obligation to the central authority was limited to the customary yearly tribute and aid in war. The temptation of the officials to make themselves independent rulers, with the support of the people they governed, was always present; and the most advanced system of centralized control consisted in the sending of royal emissaries to spy upon the officials-and report concerning their loyalty. Distance and the absence of effective communication were serious obstacles to unity in the ancient world.
The Oriental peoples whose ancient writings contain the greatest amount of political thought and whose political principles exhibit the most advanced ideas were the Hindus, the Chinese, and the Hebrews. While none of these peoples distinguished political from ethical ideas, as has been done in the western world, their contribution demands further consideration.