TCS Daily

The Greeks Had a Word for It: Hegemony vs. Empire

By Lee Harris - February 14, 2005 12:00 AM

The word "hegemony" has become an essential part of the jargon of the anti-American left. Followers of Noam Chomsky, for example, use the word as often as possible. For most of them, hegemony has become a synonym for empire, and its frequent use a badge of intellectual sophistication. Hence the many references to American hegemony in the political discourse of the noveau enlightened: it is a bit like a password or a secret handshake, indicating that its user is a member of a special fraternity. Just say it, and you are instantly recognized as one who is in the know.

But what exactly does hegemony mean?

The word is Greek: it means the leadership of a coalition or an alliance, and it was used in this sense by the Greek historian Herodotus and Thucydides. But since English has a number of perfectly good words to indicate leadership, such as chief, head, principal, boss, manager, organizer, general director, and so forth, few users of the English language felt any need to rescue this word from its moldy niche in the Greek lexicon until the mid 1840's when the English radical and banker George Grote began publishing his monumental History of Greece, a work of immense scholarship that is still wonderfully fascinating.

Curiously enough, in light of its current usage, the reason Grote decided to revive the Greek word hegemony was in order to distinguish it sharply from the Latin-derived word with which it has now become inextricably muddled, namely, the word empire.

Hegemony, according to Grote, was emphatically not empire. On the contrary, Grote used these two different words in order to demarcate between two radically different kinds of political organization, both of which had been illustrated by Athens during two different historical phases of its career. Hegemony had come first; and only afterwards did it degenerate into empire.

Athenian hegemony had first emerged in the aftermath of the Persian wars -- wars in which the colossus of the Persian empire had tried to transform the various independent Greek city-states into tribute-paying colonies, using a combination of bribery, diplomacy, and overwhelming military force. In the course of the struggle against Oriental imperialism, Athens, with its great naval power, had ended up as the Greek city-state that was in the best position to defend against further Persian invasions -- an indisputable fact that became the basis of a post-war defensive coalition developed by Athens and its allies in order to afford protection for the various Greek city-states spread across the Aegean Sea, on islands such as Samos, Chios, and Lesbos, as well as along the Ionian mainland -- all of which had been targets of the previous Persian invasions, and could easily become targets once again.

This defensive confederation was called the Delian League, after the island of Delos where it was first headquartered. Originally devised to keep the Persian Empire at bay, its initial role was not terribly different from the role that NATO played vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Furthermore, like NATO, the Delian League worked: during its existence, the Greek city-states that were its members were free both from Persian invasion and tribute obligations. Indeed, thanks to Athenian naval supremacy during this period, the Aegean Sea was even freed from the eternal maritime pestilence known as piracy.

In the beginning, the members of the Delian League were required to produce ships and sailors capable of rallying to the defense of the Greeks against Persian assault, but over time the various city-states under the protective umbrella of Athens began simply to pay Athens for the services rendered by its huge and extraordinarily competent navy. Athens did not make this happen -- it was the will of the various commerce-minded city-states whose prosperity was more important to them than their ability to defend themselves with their own fleet and crew.

Unfortunately, the payment of money from the confederates gradually came to be seen as a kind of imperial tribute -- analogous to the tribute money that the Persian Empire itself exacted from the various regions over which it governed, and soon what had started out as a coalition under the leadership of Athens became a maritime empire that was operated by the Athenians solely for the profit of the Athenians. Indeed, the day would come when the rule of Athens would become as brutal, if not more so, than the rule of the Persian empire, and city-states that had once been the allies of Athens would revolt from its rule, seeking to regain the autonomy that they had lost. Though the Persian forces of Darius and Xerxes had been repelled, the poison of Oriental despotism had begun to corrupt the egalitarian ethos of the Greeks. The Persian King owed his vast wealth to the huge amount of tribute that he could force his satrapies, or colonies, to pay him. Why couldn't Athens play the same game?

The corrupting of an ideal, brought about by human greed and ambition, is always lamentable; but the corruption does not invalidate the ideal -- and it was the ideal of hegemony that George Grote wanted his readers to focus on. True, we may reasonably argue about whether hegemony inevitably degenerates into empire; but we may not reasonably argue that there is no difference between the two forms of political organization. Democracies have often degenerated into tyranny -- yet no one in his right mind would argue that, because of this melancholy fact, there is no difference between the ideals of despotism and democracy.

Hegemony, as Grote used the word, meant the leadership by a single stronger partner of other less strong, but still autonomous partners, undertaken for the mutual benefit of all parties concerned -- and in the case of the Delian league, a partnership that, as a matter of historical fact, brought peace and prosperity to those who were its members, and which, in addition, gave grave second thoughts to the vast and powerful Persian empire whose seemingly infinite resources perennially threatened the autonomy of each of the individual Greek city-states.

For Grote, the fact that the Delian League worked, and worked so well for so long, was a point that needed to be brought emphatically to his reader's attention. Hence, his insistence on reviving the concept of hegemony. There had to be some simple way of referring to mutually beneficial confederacies led by strong, but not overbearing leaders -- leaders who, while leading, continue to respect the autonomy of their partners -- and what better word to serve this purpose than the Greek word that had originally been intended to refer to precisely such a confederacy?

By a sublime irony, this once useful linguistic distinction has been completely lost in the intellectual discourse of contemporary politics, and lost due to the fact that the world's greatest living linguist, Noam Chomsky, has perversely chosen to conflate the two words as if they were merely synonyms for the same underlying concept. Thus, Grote's precise and accurate revival of the original Greek concept has been skunked forever by Chomsky's substitution of the word hegemony for the word empire, so that nowadays the two are used interchangeably, except for the fact, already noticed, that hegemony sounds so much more sophisticated than empire. Why use a word that ordinary people can understand, when there is a word, meaning exactly the same thing, that only the initiated can comprehend?

George Orwell in his novel 1984 envisioned a world in which the most basic concepts, such as freedom and slavery, had been conflated by an intellectual elite intent on making ordinary people unaware that there was any real difference between them. Chomsky's high priest, Steven Pinker, in The Language Instinct sneered at Orwell's fear as groundless. George Grote might beg to differ with Mr. Pinker. After all, the difference between empire and hegemony is precisely analogous to the difference between freedom and slavery. The nations of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War were virtually enslaved by the Warsaw Pact, and the brutal invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia displayed this fact before the eyes of the whole world. The nations of NATO, on the other hand, were kept free by virtue of American hegemony -- in Grote's and not Chomsky's sense of the word. To permit linguistic sleight of hand to blur this vital difference would be bad enough if it came from a vulgar demagogue; but when it comes from one of America's most respected intellectuals, it is, frankly, disgraceful.

But then there is one thing we need to keep in mind. Both Chomsky and Pinker are professors. George Grote was not. Indeed, he was a banker and a Radical member of Parliament: he was conversant with the nature of things, and how the world really worked. For him, it made a difference that things should be called by their proper name. For our intellectual elite, on the other hand, words mean whatever they want them to mean -- just like in Alice in Wonderland.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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