Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy

Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy

by Kojin Karatani, Joseph A. Murphy

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In Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy—published originally in Japanese and now available in four languages—Kōjin Karatani questions the idealization of ancient Athens as the source of philosophy and democracy by placing the origins instead in Ionia, a set of Greek colonies located in present-day Turkey. Contrasting Athenian democracy with Ionian isonomia—a system based on non-rule and a lack of social divisions whereby equality is realized through the freedom to immigrate—Karatani shows how early Greek thinkers from Heraclitus to Pythagoras were inseparably linked to the isonomia of their Ionian origins, not democracy. He finds in isonomia a model for how an egalitarian society not driven by class antagonism might be put into practice, and resituates Socrates's work and that of his intellectual heirs as the last philosophical attempts to practice isonomia's utopic potentials. Karatani subtly interrogates the democratic commitments of Western philosophy from within and argues that the key to transcending their contradictions lies not in Athenian democracy, with its echoes of imperialism, slavery, and exclusion, but in the openness of isonomia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372714
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/14/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Kōjin Karatani is an internationally renowned theorist and philosopher. Previously, he was a professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, Kinki University in Osaka, and Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books, including The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange and Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Ionian Society and Thought


Buddha and Laozi were free thinkers, who appeared at a time when ancient societies were at a turning point. They later came to be regarded as religious founders, but we would do better, rather, to reexamine them as free thinkers. On the other hand, what I would like to attempt here is to take a group of free thinkers roughly contemporary to them in the Ionian city-states, and the set of thinkers who inherited their legacy, and reexamine them as exemplary prophets.

It is common practice today to locate in Ionian natural philosophy forms of thought that anticipate modern science, while disregarding other aspects. It is as if Ionian thinkers dealt exclusively with the physical world and were indifferent to things outside that domain, as are most scientists today. This picture, however, is a prejudice put in place by Athenian philosophers who came later such as Plato and Aristotle. For example, in Phaedo, Plato gives credit to Socrates for shifting the focus of philosophy from inquiry into the external world to the aims of human behavior in society. Aristotle as well characterized philosophers before Socrates as natural philosophers, and claimed that with the appearance of Socrates, philosophy first turned its attention to inquiry into ethics. This is to imply that philosophy in a true sense began in Athens, and whatever existed in Ionia only played the role of foreshadowing.

Their perspective remains with us today and is not easy to overturn, because we have very few surviving documents of the Ionian thinkers other than the accounts given by Plato and Aristotle. As long as we rely on these accounts, we will only be able to see what is selected out through their conception of philosophy. In order to free ourselves of this prejudice, it is first necessary to place this Athenocentric perspective in doubt.

In fact, nearly all of what is believed to be distinctive about Greece began in Ionia. For example, the revision of Phoenician glyphs to produce an accessible alphabet is often posited as a contributing factor in Greek democracy. This process began in Ionia. The works of Homer too, a fount of Greek culture, are written in Ionian dialect. The use of the market, rather than bureaucratic fiat, to regulate prices is also regarded as a contributing factor in bringing about Greek democracy. This too is an Ionian development. It was the Ionians who adopted the technology of coining money from neighboring Lydia and, as a result, Ionia became one of the very first to develop foreign trade and a money economy.

The technology, religion, and thought of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the ancient Near East intersected in Ionian cities. The people of Ionia actively integrated these new ideas and developments, but at the same time never integrated certain systems developed in the Asiatic despotic states, such as, for example, bureaucracy and standing or mercenary armies. Unlike these despotic Asian states, the Ionians did not fix commodity prices according to state bureaucracy, but rather left it to the market. After being developed in Ionia, this system spread to other regions.

The same applies to the principles of the polis. It is typically claimed that, in contrast to older clan societies defined by kinship, the Greek polis was constituted by autonomous individual choice. However, this type of principle did not apply uniformly throughout the Greek poleis. The principle first appeared in the early colonial cities in Ionia, and expanded from there through further colonization from those cities. It was only later that the principle spread to the Greek mainland.

The poleis on the Greek mainland began as tribal confederations. For example, Athens was based on social strata that went from household (oikos) to clan (genos) to brotherhood or kinship (phratry) to the tribe (phylai), of which there were originally four. Athens was no longer a clan society as such; however, its tribal traditions were still alive and well. What dissolved these traditions and made the people into a demos were the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508 BCE. However, that did not prompt the formation of the kind of polis, based on an autonomous social contract by individuals, that would transcend claims of kinship. For example, in the age of Pericles, often regarded as the zenith of Athens, citizenship was determined by kinship, and foreigners (people from other poleis) were excluded.

The Athenian polis in this sense was not fundamentally different from city-states outside the Greek territories, which were in their nature tribal confederacies. The process by which ceaseless conflict among city-states, themselves constituted as tribal confederations, ends up in the establishment of a despotic state is visible throughout Mesopotamia, Egypt, and ancient China. The same process is evident in the tribal confederacy of Israel, which, as I previously outlined, resulted in forming an Asiatic despotic state in the reigns of David and Solomon. It was only after the kingdom's destruction at the hands of Babylonia, and during the captivity in Babylon, that Judaism acquired the principles to reject this path.

The Greeks, by contrast, did not follow this course. It is not enough to point to the semiperipheral position of Greece, or its persistent attachment to tribal customs. The Mycenaeans and the Cretans who preceded the Greeks in populating the region did follow this course, passing through a stage of conflict among many small city-states (small kingdoms) to the formation of an Asiatic despotic state. That is in fact the usual course of affairs. It was certainly possible that the Greek people moving southward into the peninsula after the Mycenaean collapse would follow the same path. However, what happened instead was that a number of autonomous poleis were formed.

Why would that be? It must be because they were possessed of a principle that disallowed the formation of the state. This is a different matter from saying they retained the principles of a tribal society. Certainly, tribal society resists formation of a state. However, once they accept civilization, there is an inevitable turn toward an Asiatic despotic state. At this point, instead of working against the process, tribal principles work to reinforce it. Nevertheless, the Greek peoples' migration anew into the Attic peninsula did not turn in this direction. Rather, while severing the hold of tribal principles, they recovered on a higher level antistatist tendencies inherent in the tribal society.

This phenomenon arose in Ionia, among the large numbers of immigrants from Athens and the Greek mainland. And what happened in this land stands with what happened in Babylon as an experience unparalleled in world history. Neither Ionia nor Babylon is neglected in historical accounts. However, their epoch-making significance has been buried. Without Ionia, the culture and politics of Athens likely never would have been. We would have to say, rather, the Athenians, while undergoing the continuous influence of the politics and thought of Ionia, tried strenuously to repress them. Athenian philosophy, in a word, was an attempt to overcome ideas of Ionian origin while incorporating them. And this attempt was not merely a philosophical problem, but political as well.


The development of democracy in Greece is usually recounted with Athens as its center. This, however, is a mistake. It needs rather to be seen from Ionia. However, in another sense, such a view is right. That is to say, what we call democracy did not exist in Ionia. What existed in Ionia was not democracy but isonomia. Democracy and isonomia are two different things, but typically seen as synonymous. Herodotus's use of isonomia in The Histories is no exception. In my experience, the only person to distinguish the two, and assign this difference its proper importance, is Hannah Arendt:

Freedom as a political phenomenon was coeval with the rise of the Greek city-states. Since Herodotus, it was understood as a form of political organization in which the citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between rulers and ruled. This notion of no-rule was expressed by the word isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government, as the ancients had enumerated them, was that the notion of rule (the "archy" from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in monarchy and oligarchy, or the "cracy" from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in democracy) was entirely absent from it. The polis was supposed to be an isonomy, not a democracy. The word democracy, expressing even then majority rule, the rule of the many, was originally coined by those who were opposed to isonomy and who meant to say: What you say is "no-rule" is in fact only another kind of rulership; it is the worst form of government, rule by the demos.

Hence, equality, which we, following Tocqueville's insights, frequently see as a danger to freedom, was originally almost identical with it.

Arendt seems to understand this principle of isonomia to be present throughout Greece. However, if we accept her position, many contradictions arise. As I discuss later, even according to her own logic, the origins of isonomia have to be assigned to Ionia. Isonomia (no-rule) was not simply an idea but a living reality in the city-states of Ionia. It was only after the fall of the Ionian states to the Lydian empire in the sixth century that it spread to other regions as an idea.

Why did isonomia, or no-rule, arise in Ionia? This is because among the migrants of Ionia, existing clan and tribal traditions were severed, constraints and privileges set aside, and a new type of covenant community (schwurgemeinschaft) launched. The Spartan or Athenian poleis, by contrast, were formed as tribal confederations, and older tribal traditions were still deeply entrenched. These resurfaced as inequality or class antagonisms within the polis. If one were to seek to implement isonomia in such a situation, it could only be through rule by democracy, or the principle of majority rule.

In Ionia, people were free from traditional ruling relations. There, isonomia was not just an abstract idea of equality. People were in fact economically equal in their lives. Although a monetary economy was developed there, this did not lead to disparities in wealth. I will explain its reasons later, but, to put it simply, in Ionia a landless person could simply migrate to a new city, instead of working on someone else's land. Naturally, this left no room for great landowners to emerge. In that sense, we could say freedom gave rise to equality.

By contrast, the advance of a monetary economy brought about serious class disparity in the poleis of the Greek mainland, with a great number of citizens falling into indentured servitude. In Sparta, in order to keep this adverse development in check, trade and the money economy were abolished and economic equality strictly enforced. This equality came at the expense of freedom. In Athens, on the other hand, while preserving their freedom and the market economy, a system was developed whereby the impoverished majority used the power of the state to force a redistribution of the wealth of the minority. This is Athenian democracy.

Aristotle writes, "The basis of a democratic state is liberty ... and one principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn." In this sense democracy might appear to be no-rule. However, people are not equal in wealth. Hence Aristotle continues, "Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and [what the majority decides] is supreme." In other words, democracy is majority rule. Equality, in this case, is brought about by constraints on the liberty of the aristocratic minority. Then the argument cannot be made that Athenian direct democracy, unlike modern representative democracy, escapes the conflict between freedom and equality. Rather, all the problems inherent in the modern democracy are exposed here.

Modern democracy is a composite of liberalism plus democracy, that is to say liberal democracy. It attempts to combine, therefore, two conflicting things, freedom and equality. If one aims for freedom, inequalities arise. If one aims for equality, freedom is compromised. Liberal democracy cannot transcend this dilemma. It can only swing back and forth like a pendulum between the poles of libertarianism (neoliberalism) and social democracy (the welfare state).

It is widely thought that in liberal democracy humankind has arrived at its ultimate form, and there is nothing left for us but trying to make moderate progress within its limitations. Needless to say, however, liberal democracy is nothing of the sort. There remain ways to transcend it. Further, it is possible to discover a key to this in ancient Greece, but by no means are we talking about Athens. Taking Athenian democracy as a model will never allow us to solve the problems of modern democracy. It is more important rather to recognize in Athens the prototype of these problems.

It was Carl Schmitt who observed that modern democracy was composed of a liberalism and democracy that were themselves contradictory. Nowadays democracy is understood to be synonymous with parliamentary democracy; however, democracy is possible without the parliamentary system. According to Schmitt, the parliamentary system is not intrinsic to democracy, but rather to liberalism. "Democracy requires, [rather], first homogeneity and second — if the need arises — elimination or eradication of heterogeneity." Consequently, "Bolshevism and Fascism, as with all totalitarian forms, are anti-liberal, however it does not necessarily follow that they are anti-democratic."

In terms of ancient Greece, Sparta was a kind of state socialism, while Athens was a kind of liberal democracy. In contrast to Sparta, where individuality was sacrificed for the sake of economic equality, Athens recognized a market economy and freedom of speech, but to that degree had to face inequality and class division. Athenian democracy was a system that sought to equalize the people by redistribution of wealth. On the other hand, this democracy was rooted in the homogeneity of its members. It excluded heterogeneity. These are the aspects reinforced in the age of Pericles, taken to be the golden age of the Athenian system.

Athenian democracy was realized not only by relying on the exploitation of slaves and resident foreigners, but on the subjugation of other poleis as well. For example, Pericles used the Delian League to divert monies confiscated from other poleis in order to alleviate economic disparities among Athenian citizens, distributed as a per diem when they attended the assembly. That is to say, Athenian direct democracy was enabled by imperialist expansion. Direct democracy gave rise to demagogues, who inflamed the people. Looked at in this way, while one can discern in Athens the contradictions that vex contemporary democracy today, to seek the key to their solution there would be clearly off the mark.


The cities of Ionia were successively subjugated beginning in the mid-sixth century BCE, first by Lydia (under Croesus) and then Persia (under Cyrus). By the end of the sixth century, most cities were ruled by tyrants appointed by the Persian Empire. Athens, on the other hand, had brought down its own tyranny and, with the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508, was moving toward a democracy. The Ionians were emancipated by Athens through their participation in the Greek victory over Persia. As a result, even in Ionia, Athens had come to be regarded as the shining pioneer of the democratic system. Isonomia remained as a word, but it had lost the sense it once had in Ionia.

As an example, Herodotus in The Histories uses the term isonomia several times, but regards it as synonymous with Athenian democracy. Though Herodotus was himself from Ionia, he was raised at a time when the Ionian city-states had long been under the rule of Persia, and isonomia had become an abstraction indistinguishable from the democracy he encountered in Athens.

By the time of the Athenian Thucydides, almost no interest in Ionia is shown. For example, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, he refers to the Ionian cities as having been formed by migrants from Athens. However, this was a view that arose only after the Persian War, when the Athenian empire had brought the Ionian territories under its rule. In fact, the people that established the colonies in Ionia came not just from Athens but from all over the region. Moreover, the Ionians did not place great importance on ties with their place of origin. This has led to the establishment of a unique culture, free from deep attachment to the traditions of the tribal society that characterized the mainland. By the seventh century BCE, it was widely known even in the mainland that Ionia had developed trade and manufacturing to a high degree, and that something called isonomia existed there.


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Table of Contents

Translator's Note  vii
Map  viii
Author's Preface to the Japanese Edition  ix
Universal Religion  1
Ethical Prophets   5
Exemplary Prophets  7
1. Ionian Society and Thought
Athens and Ionia  11
Isonomia and Democracy  14
Athenian Democracy  17
State and Democracy  20
Colonization and Isonomia  22
Iceland and North America  26
Isonomia and Council  31
2, The Background of Ionian Natural Philosophy
Natural Philosophy and Ethics  35
Hippocrates  39
Herodotus  42
Homer  46
Hesiod  51
3. The Essential Points of Ionian Natural Philosophy
The Critique of Religion  56
Self-Moving Matter  58
Poiesis and Becoming  62
4. Post-Ionian Thought
Pythagoras  68
Heraclitus  80
Parmenides  87
Post-Eliatics  96
5. Socrates and Empire
The Athenian Empire and Democracy  103
Sophists and Rule by Rhetoric  107
The Trial of Socrates  110
The Riddle of Socrates  114
Daimon  118
The Socratic Method  121
Plato and Pythagoras  125
The Philosopher-King  127
Isonomia and the Philosopher-King  130
Appendix. From Structure of World History to Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy  135
Timeline of the Ancient World  141
Notes  143
Bibliography  155
Index  159

What People are Saying About This

Translation and Subjectivity: On Japan and Cultural Nationalism - Naoki Sakai

"A unique and ambitious intellectual project, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy marks a new phase in the history of Marxism and in the career of Kojin Karatani. It should be regarded as one of the radical critiques of Western metaphysics by virtue of its challenge to conventional accounts of the origins of philosophy. This work is of historical importance."

Slavoj Žižek

"In our anti-Eurocentrist era, attempts abound to 'decenter' European legacy, to demonstrate how European ideology borrowed from and simultaneously oppressed other traditions. Kojin Karatani does something very different: he decenters European legacy from within, shifting the accent from the classic Greek idealism (Plato, Aristotle) to its half-forgotten predecessors, the so-called Ionian materialists (Thales, Democritus), the first philosophers who were also the true founders of democratic egalitarianism. Karatani’s book makes you see the entire history of philosophy in a new way; it deserves to become an instant classic."

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