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Workshop Analyzing 2nd millennium Oriental Kingship with Aristotle – The question of ‚Despotism‘ revisited

25.02.2021 - 26.02.2021

Workshop der DFG-Kollegforschungsgruppe 2615: Rethinking Oriental Despotism - Strategies of Governance and Modes of Participation in the Ancient Near East

25. – 26. Februar 2021

Organisation: Sophie Démare-Lafont, Lisa Wilhelmi und Werner Kogge

In his politica, Aristotle describes the rule of the Persian king as comparable to that of a master over his household. In his understanding, this type of rulership lies outside the types of political governance, which comprise the three dichotomous pairs, namely monarchy - tyranny, aristocracy - oligarchy and polity - democracy. When Aristotle describes the Oriental king as a despotes, literally “head of the household”, he resorts to the image of a ”master” in his relationship to his slave. This type of non-political authority is a matter of natural law and not of the laws of the city. Although such an approach might be troubling or at least surprising to a Greek philosopher, it was seen as a power dynamic, deprived of the negative characteristics of injustice, arbitrariness or lasciviousness usually associated with it. As W. Kogge and L. Wilhelmi have shown in a recent article („Despot und (orientalische) Despotie – Brüche im Konzept von Aristoteles bis Montesquieu“) these connotations of the modern term despot go back to shifts in the usees that the concept has known over the centuries in European political theories and that culminate in Montesquieu‘s work De l‘esprit des lois.
The terms despot and despotism are tainted beyond repair in Ancient Near Eastern studies as designations of rulers vested with the very features laid out by Montesquieu. Such a view is prevalent in modern scholarship, especially that of the first half of the twentieth century. However, one might wonder if Aristotle would not have also captured the essence of kingship in Mesopotamia, since the term despotes in its literal Greek sense seems valid for the description of the royal power, especially in second millennium, Mesopotamia and beyond. Therefore, the accuracy of Aristotle’s description deserves further investigation. The lexicon of political power, especially the use of Akkadian words such as bēlu(m) ”master” and ardu(m) ”servant” in administrative or diplomatic contexts, or palāhu(m) ”to fear”, the importance of personal relationship in daily governance, and the lack of counterpower, point to a conception of authority based, at least theoretically, on the sole will of the king. Obviously, things were more complicated on the ground and primary sources show that negotiation was a constant tool in the decision-making process. Other avenues should be investigated, for instance the patrimonial approach to royal authority or the essentialization of the royal figure, both in the Near Eastern and Greek political cultures.
The workshop seeks to address the question whether or not these characteristics are in line with the core of Aristotle’s notion of despotes as the “head of the household” in the realm of the Mesopotamian political life.

Zeit & Ort

25.02.2021 - 26.02.2021

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