Orienting by "Occident"

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Posted by Bel Suave Bel Suave

“The Greeks had become aware of their own identity as separate from that of the "Orient" when they succeeded in repelling the attacks of the Persian empire. But not until much later, during the crusades, did the concept and the term Orient actually enter the languages of the West.  This fact hardly explains why even today it should be difficult to undertake unprejudiced discussion of connections between classical Greece and the East. But whoever tries will encounter entrenched positions, uneasiness, apology if not resentment.

To a large extent this is the result of an intellectual development which began more than two centuries ago and took root especially in Germany. Increasing specialization of scholarship converged with ideological protectionism, and both constructed an image of a pure, classical Greece in splendid isolation. Until well into the eighteenth century, as long as philology was closely connected with theology, the Hebrew Bible naturally stood next to the Greek classics, and the existence of cross-connections did not present any problems. Jephtha's daughter and Iphigenia were interchangeable models even in the realm of opera; Iapetos was traced to Japheth, the Kabeiroi to a Semitic designation for "great gods," and the "East" was found in the name of Kadmos the Phoenician, the "West" in the name of Europa.  In accordance with the Odyssey and Herodotus, "Phoenicians" were readily accepted as the link between East and West.

 Then three new trends erected their own boundaries and collectively fractured the Orient-Greece axis.

 Philology broke free of theology-Friedrich August Wolf matriculated as studiosus philologiae at Gottingen in 1777"-and at the same time, with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a new concept of classicism, one with rather pagan tendencies, asserted itself and came to attract high regard.

 Second, beginning with the work of Johann Gottfried Herder, the ideology of romantic nationalism developed, which held literature and spiritual culture to be intimately connected with an individual people, tribe, or race. Origins and organic development rather than reciprocal cultural influences became the key to understanding. In his reaction to Friedrich Creuzer's more universal model, Carl Otfried Muller gained considerable influence with his idea of "Greek tribal culture."

 Precisely at the time when Jews were being granted full legal equality in Europe, national-romantic consciousness turned the trend against "orientalism" and thus gave anti-Semitism a chance. Third, linguistics scholars' discovery of "IndoEuropean"-the derivation of most European languages together with Persian and Sanskrit from a common archetype-at that time reinforced the alliance of Greek, Roman, and Germanic and thus banished the Semitic to another world.

 It remained to defend the independence of the Greeks against the Indian relatives within the Indo-European family in order to establish the concept of classical-national Greek identity as a self-contained and self-sufficient model of civilization which, at least in Germany, was to dominate the later nineteenth century.  Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff's scornful assessment in 1884-"the peoples and states of the Semites and the Egyptians which had been decaying for centuries and which, in spite of the antiquity of their culture, were unable to contribute anything to the Hellenes other than a few manual skills, costumes, and implements of bad taste, antiquated ornaments, repulsive fetishes for even more repulsive fake divinities" -is not representative of his work; but even later he maintained that the spirit of late antiquity stemmed "from the Orient and is the deadly enemy of true Hellenism."