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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The English word “impiety” derives of course from
the Latin impietas. Our notion of impiety (if we still
have one) is, however, the result of complicated cross-
influences in which we can isolate at least four compo-
nents: the old notion of impietas; the Greek classical
notion of asebeia (which in its turn affected the notion
of impietas from the times of the Roman Republic),
the Greek (mainly Septuagint) rendering of various
Hebrew words indicating “evil”-doers and “evil”
doings, and finally the early Christian transforma-
tion—partly with Jewish precedents—of the classical
notion of asebeia.

No doubt the story of impiety begins much earlier.
The Hebrew notions which contributed to the forma-
tion of the Christian notion of impiety have to be
compared with Egyptian and Akkadian notions. The
question has to be asked whether this comparison
points to Egyptian and Akkadian models for Hebrew
ideas. This question is legitimate because Egyptian and
Akkadian religious hymns and didactic literature, in
which such notions are deeply embedded, have long
been known for their similarities in other respects to
Hebrew texts. But unfortunately Egyptologists and
Assyriologists have not yet made available to other
scholars a clear analysis of the Egyptian and Assyrian
vocabularies referring to the transgression of the
approved order of things. We are left uncertain even
about the existence of a “secular” zone in these civili-
zations, though we have repeatedly been told that
Mesopotamian law is strictly “secular.” The fact that
leading Egyptologists apply the term “heresy” (a
purely Christian notion) to the religious reform of
Akhnaton is evidence of this confused state of affairs.

We shall only note in passing that the Egyptians had
various words to indicate the fool, the ignorant, the
senseless, the man who does not want to be educated,
in situations which recall the actions of the impious
in Jewish-Christian terminology. There is also in
Egyptian a word, usually translated as “abomination”
(bwt), which indicates the religious interdiction of
certain acts; the prohibition affects not only cultual
acts, but rules of behavior, such as lying and displaying
a lack of solidarity with one's fellow citizens (see for
instance the list of interdictions for nome XVIII col-
lected in the Ptolemaic period in the Jumilhac Papyrus).

Similarly, Mesopotamian texts provide an abundant
terminology for the godless, the wicked, the impure,
the blasphemous, etc. A word which is translated by
“abomination” (ik-kibu) can apply both to human ac-
tions and to the presence of a pig in a temple. From
these texts it is possible to fabricate a composite image
of a Mesopotamian anomic man who superficially is
not very different from his apposite number in Egypt.
But confessions of sins and purifications, not to speak
of divination, played a far greater part in the life of
Mesopotamian man (at least in the second and first
millennia B.C.) than in Egypt. The techniques of evok-
ing or re-establishing the protection of the gods in this
life were both more necessary and more developed in
Mesopotamia than in Egypt. The Mesopotamians had
what the Egyptians seem to have lacked—a compre-
hensive idea of sin. The Egyptian was taught how to
proclaim his innocence in the afterlife, but seldom
confessed his transgressions in this life. The confessions
of sins found at Deir-el-Medina, a village west of
Thebes, are those of workers for the kings of the XIXth
dynasty (thirteenth century B.C.) and may be due to
foreign influence. As the Mesopotamian king was nor-
mally not considered to be a god, he was capable of
sins and had to proclaim his innocence every year at
the festival of Marduk. The faults of an Egyptian king,
who was a god, were a far more delicate question. Only
the successor of Akhnaton was in a position to deal
with the religious vagaries of his predecessor.

Two features immediately strike the observer when
he passes from Mesopotamia to Israel. The Hebrews
practiced a collective confession of sins (apart from
the individual one); they never seem to have singled
out the sins of the king as the only sins relevant to
the welfare of the community as a whole. Their reli-
gious life was based on a unique relation to Yahweh,
and this affected everyone. At different times and in
different writers the transgression against Yahweh
might be idolatry (the main theme of the Deutero-
nomic writer) or an offense against the rules of justice
(one of the main themes of prophetic preaching). There
was also a progression from the emphasis on the col-
lective solidarity of Israel to the notion of the individ-
ual responsibility of each Jew. The offense of the sin-
ners might (or might not) be presented in juridical
terms as a violation of the Covenant between Yahweh


and Israel. All these (and many other) aspects of the
Hebrew understanding of the state of anomia are
represented in the Old Testament with very little effort
to harmonize and unify them. What emerges, however,
is the insistence on a proper relationship between
Yahweh and the Jew which is based on the justice of
both. Yahweh is just, and the Jew may be just: in some
writers justice is indeed extended to the non-Jew. But
Yahweh can never be unjust, though questions about
his justice are asked—and seldom rhetorically. Man can
be, and very often is, unjust; there is, however, no
precise suggestion that he is irretrievably unjust by
nature. The Hebrew words we translate by “just”
(zaddik) and “unjust” (rasa') are some of the most
common and central terms of the Old Testament (rasa'
261 times). But there are other terms such as “pious”
(hasid) and “rebellious” which complete the picture.
All these terms were often translated rather indiscrim-
inately into Greek by eusebes and asebes (significantly,
the Septuagint writers do not use the word atheos),
and thus contributed to the Jewish-Christian connota-
tion of asebes and asebeia as impiety involving idolatry
and/or violation of the moral rules imposed by the true
god. The classical notion of asebeia was differently
oriented and, on the whole, more limited in scope.

Post-biblical Hebrew had new words to indicate the
Jewish unbeliever, an indication of a new situation in
which outright skepticism, on the one hand, and
sectarian distinctions within Judaism, on the other
hand, became prominent. One word has a familiar
Greek ring, apikuros, meaning the individual skeptic
or unbeliever (to be found, for instance, in a saying
by Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach which is quoted in the
“Sayings of the Fathers”). The other word is min
(literally “species,” “sect”), indicating the man (plural
minim) who holds opinions at variance with the Jewish
orthodox faith, for instance, the Judeo-Christian or the
Gnostic. Rabbi Samuel the Little, a pupil of Rabbi
Gamliel II, wrote a prayer for the extirpation of the
minim about the end of the first century A.D., which
was inserted in the “Eighteen Benedictions.” This is
also approximately the time in which we meet the
prototype of the Jewish “heretics,” Elisha ben Abujah.
Judaism was engaged in fighting both the spread of
Christianity and internal dissolution. The notion of min
is certainly parallel to the notion of heretic which Saint
Paul found among the Christians of his time. It may
have been provoked by it.

There is a further question about the connection of
these two notions (min, heretic) with the notion of
zandik which appears in Middle Persian to indicate
those who interpret the Zand or commentary of the
Avesta in an unorthodox way and more generally the
unbeliever, the dissident—sometimes the Manichean.
The Iranian evidence seems to be later than the Chris-
tian and Jewish (third century A.D.).


The Greeks did not know heresy: they knew asebeia,
as opposed to eusebeia, which is the proper behavior
towards the gods, the parents (and the native land), and
the dead. The word asebeia first appears in a line of
Theognis (line 1180). Theognis tells his friend Kyrnos
that fear of the gods prevents the doing and the saying
of “impiety.” Thus, in the sixth century B.C., the Greeks
knew that man can either do or say something asebes,
impious, but the term is not explained more precisely.
A fragment of Pindar (132, Schroeder) would be much
more interesting: it says that the souls of the impious
hover between earth and sky. Unfortunately this frag-
ment is almost certainly spurious (late Hellenistic?).
Fifth- and fourth-century evidence about asebeia is
much fuller. It confirms that asebeia was not confined
to offenses against gods. One might be asebes, impious,
in relation to the dead, to one's own parents, to ambas-
sadors of foreign countries, etc. In the criminal law
of Athens asebeia was a technical term. Felling of
sacred trees was probably treated as asebeia just as
much as parody of mysteries. The wrong type of
sacrifice for a given occasion might be asebes. We also
have evidence that the introduction of new gods into
the polis was, at least in certain cases, considered a
crime. On the whole one gathers the impression that
asebeia was an offense against established religious
customs rather than a denial of accepted dogmas.

About 430 B.C. a law was passed that extended the
scope of the crime of asebeia and penalized opinion
in religious matters as such. The decree of Diopithes
which was directed against Anaxagoras penalized both
atheism and the introduction of new doctrines about
celestial phenomena (Plutarch, Pericles 32; cf. [Pseudo-]
Lysias, 6, 10). This was, no doubt, the law that made
possible the prosecution, and in certain cases the con-
demnation, of philosophers living in Athens during the
late fifth century and the fourth century B.C. The list
of names includes Protagoras, Socrates, Stilpo, Theo-
dorus of Cyrene, Aristotle, and Theophrastus. Aspasia,
too, was probably accused of impiety under this law.

Doubts about the existence of the gods had become
fashionable among the Sophists, and this law tried to
cope with the new situation. It is, however, worth
noticing that there are political reasons for all these
accusations. Anaxagoras and Protagoras (not to mention
Aspasia) were accused because they were friends of
Pericles; Socrates was accused because he was a friend
of the oligarchs; the later philosophers were all pro-
Macedonian. Furthermore, it must be observed that
we have no evidence of persecution of philosophers


in Athens after the fourth century B.C. In the Greek
world outside Athens, evidence of persecution for
impiety is limited, as far as we know, to some obscure
allusions. They refer to the persecution of the pessimist
Hegesias in Alexandria; to the expulsion of one or more
philosophers from Thrace under Lysimachus, and to
the expulsion of philosophers in general from Syria,
possibly under Antiochus VI, and from Messene. The
reasons for the persecutions are never given, except
in the case of Hegesias, whose pessimistic lectures
increased the rate of suicides in Egypt (Cicero,
Tusculan Disputations I, 83). The goddess Asebeia, to
whom the notorious admiral of Philip V, Dicaearchus,
is said to have built an altar about 200 B.C., was not
the goddess of freethinkers, but of pirates.

Thus our evidence suggests that the incrimination
of persons for their religious opinions as such was a
peculiarity of Athens. Even there it was used as a
political weapon not earlier than about 430 B.C. and
not later than the end of the fourth century B.C. It
is, however, possible that some of the persecutions of
philosophers during the Hellenistic age were due to
genuine religious motives.

The Athenian prosecutions of the philosophers are
the historical precedent for the penalization of reli-
gious opinions advocated by Plato in his Laws. Plato
proposes to punish a man who believes that the gods
do not exist or that the gods exist but are indifferent
to mankind or that they are to be easily won over by
the cajolings of offerings and prayers. Plato's opinion—
altogether remarkable for a pupil of the persecuted
Socrates—is made even more remarkable by the fact
that he does not uphold the traditional city-state reli-
gion, with its Olympian gods, but his own theological
tenets. Furthermore, Plato elaborates a system of moral
pressure before actual punishment that reminds us of
later ecclesiastical practices. Even in this case we
cannot speak of repression of heresy because the no-
tions of revelation and apostolic tradition are absent.
Yet there is no doubt that Plato helped to keep alive
the notion that opinion on theological matters can and
must be penalized. Though it would be difficult to
indicate the channels through which Platonic thought
percolated—and it would be unjust to make Plato alone
the fountainhead of intolerance—it is certain that he
encouraged uniformity of opinions in religious matters.
Plato contributed to the notion of heresy insofar as
he contributed to the idea of intolerance.

On the other hand, the evidence makes it very
difficult to assume a direct influence of the notion of
asebeia, as defined by Diopithes, on the origins of
heresy. Intolerance in religious matters was not wide-
spread in the Hellenistic age. The difficulties are in-
creased by an internal analysis of the notion of asebeia.
There are certainly analogies between the accusations
against philosophers in Athens and the accusations
against heretics in Christianity. The city claimed an
authority comparable to that of the Christian Church
insofar as it decided who were the people with the
right kind of opinion. But the differences are obvious.
In Athens a man was not incriminated because he
disagreed with the majority about the nature of god,
but because he denied the existence of the gods of the
polis or offended them by introducing competitors or
behaved improperly towards them. The punishment of
unorthodox opinions about heavenly bodies was in fact
the condemnation of doctrines that denied their divine
nature. Furthermore, as the Greeks had no sacred
books—Homer was not one—the problem of deciding
who were their authorized interpreters did not exist.
While the essential feature of heresy is opposition to
the official interpretation of a religious doctrine by a
Church, the essential feature of impiety as described
by Diopithes' decree is either denial of the existence
of the gods of the polis or offense given to the gods
of the polis. It follows that the corporate body primar-
ily concerned with the repression of impiety is not that
of priests or theologians, but that of ordinary citizens.


The oldest meaning of pius, pietas seems to have
been “what is acceptable to the gods.” The archaic
formula about just war—puro pioque bello (Livy I,
32)—reflects this way of thinking, which has parallels
in other languages of ancient Italy. Hence piaculum,
in sacral language. In the ordinary Latin of re-
publican and imperial times, pius characterizes proper
behavior towards gods, parents and other relatives, and
the Roman state, as well as respect for treaties. “Pius
Aeneas” and “Antoninus Pius” got their nickname from
their behavior towards their respective fathers. Impius,
indicated of course the opposite, and normally
expressed strong disapproval, though there are strange
exceptions in inscriptions which seem to use impius
in the sense of “unhappy.” The influence of eusebes
and asebes accentuated the subjective, personal aspects
rather than the ritualistic connotations of pietas and
impietas. Vergil, more than anybody else, made pius
an attribute of the ideal Roman, and thus rendered
impius an un-Roman qualification. Propaganda in coins
and inscriptions broadcasted pietas. Augustus claimed
pietas as one of his qualities (with virtus, clementia,
). But impius, impietas never became important
words of Roman political previous hit ideology next hit. They primarily
remained words of the domestic and religious life.
There was never a crime of impietas in Roman law
(notwithstanding some texts to the contrary, such as
Tacitus, Annales 6, 47); religious persecution was based


on other grounds. Latin-speaking Christians had no
difficulty in using impius and impietas with the new
meanings which Greek-speaking Christians had
attributed to asebes and asebeia: disregard of god,
idolatry, and even heresy.


For Egypt see A. Erman, DieReligion der Ägypter (Berlin,
1934); H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York,
1948); S. Morenz, Ägyptische Religion (Stuttgart, 1960). For
Mesopotamia: Ch. F. Jean, le péché chez les Babyloniens
et les Assyriens
(Paris, 1925); J. Morgenstern, The Doctrine
of Sin in the Babylonian Religion
(Berlin, 1905); A. L.
Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (Chicago, 1964); A. van
Selms, De Babylonische Termini voor Zonde, dissertation
(Utrecht, 1933). For both Egypt and Mesopotamia in rela-
tion to Judaism: Les sagesses du Proche-Orient, colloque de
(Paris, 1963), with bibliography; H. H. Schmid,
Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit (Berlin, 1966). For the
Jews and early Christians: M. Avi-Yonah, Geschichte der
Juden im Zeitalter des Talmud
(Berlin, 1962), pp. 136-45;
W. Eichrodt, Theeologie des Alten Testaments, 5 ed., Vol. II
(Stuttgart, 1964); L. Köhler, Theeologie des Alten Testaments
(Tübingen, 1936); J. Neusner, A History of the Jews in
(Leiden, 1968), III, 12-16; G. von Rad, Theeologie
des Alten Testaments,
Vol. II (Munich, 1962); H. L. Strack,
Jesus, Die Häretiker und die Christen (Leipzig, 1910);
Theeologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart,
1964), VII, 168-95; G. Vermes, In Memoriam Paul Kahle
(Berlin, 1968), pp. 232-40. For Iran: U. Bianchi, Zaman i
(Turin, 1958), p. 160; H. H. Schaeder, Iranische
Vol. I (Halle, 1930); G. Widengren, Iranische-
Semitische Kulturbegegnung in parthischer Zeit
1960), p. 104; R. C. Zaehner, Zurvan (Oxford, 1955). For
the Greeks: J. C. Bolkestein, hosios en Eusebes (Amsterdam,
1936); P. Décharme, la critique des traditions religieuses
chez les Grecs
(Paris, 1904); E. Derenne, Les procès d'impiété
(Paris, 1930); W. Fahr, Theous nomizein (Hildesheim, 1969);
D. Loenen, “Eusebia en de cardinale deugden,” Med. Kon.
Nederlandse Akad.,
N.R. 23, 4 (1960); J. Rudhart, Notions
fondamentales de la pensée religieuse et actes constitutifs
du culte dans la Grèce classique
(Geneva, 1958); idem,
museum Helveticum, 17 (1960), 87-105; W. J. Tergesten,
Eusebes en Hosios in het grieksch taalgebruik na de IV Eeuw
(Utrecht, 1941). For the Romans: M. P. Charlesworth, Jour-
nal of Roman Studies,
33 (1943), 1-10; H. Fugier, Recherches
sur l'expression du sacré dans la langue latine
(Paris, 1963);
K. Latte, Römische Religionsgeschichte (Munich, 1960), pp.
39-40; Th. Mommsen, Römisches Strafrecht (Leipzig, 1899),
pp. 540, 583; Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, Vol. VII (Leipzig,
1934-61), see impietas; S. C. Tromp, De romanorum piaculis
(Utrecht, 1921); Th. Ulrich, ietas(pius) als politischer
(Breslau, 1930). In general: R. Pettazzoni, la confes-
sione dei peccati
(Bologna, 1929-35).


[See also Heresy; Platonism; Prophecy in Hebrew Scripture;
Religious Toleration.]