Anarchism as we know it today sprang from the Age Of Enlightenment, the period of history where Europe first began to embrace the ideals that underpin its current liberal democracies. It gained traction during the French Revolution and remained a presence in Europe until the end of the First World War. However, anarchism has its roots in philosophical ideas much older than this, with influences stretching back to Ancient Greece and China.
It is now agreed amongst anthropologists that prior to recorded history, humans lived in societies which were more egalitarian in nature in that they eschewed notions of hierarchical structures and political institutions. These early human societies were self-governing and rather than abiding by a formal set of laws, there was a consensus among the members of those societies through which order was maintained.
Taoism is a philosophical school of thought that is crucial to understanding the development of anarchy throughout the years. Taoism originated in ancient China and entirely rejected any notions of a ruling or political class. Its main advocates were Lao Tzu, who wrote the Tao Te Ching, which is considered by many to be the definitive Taoist text, and Zhuang Zhou. In response to many of the ideas they presented to their followers, several Taoist adherents lived anarchistic lifestyles. Taoism is the foundation upon which Eastern anarchism is built.
For the Western world, it was ancient Greek philosophers who first proposed many of the ideas upon which Western anarchistic thought is founded. ‘The Republic’ was written by the philosopher and founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium. In it, Zeno outlines his idea of a perfect utopian society founded upon Stoic principles. The book was written as a counterpoint to Plato’s Republic and although the text itself hasn’t survived, extracts of it were preserved. What is understood from the surviving quotes is that Zeno, like many modern anarchists, believed that human nature would be tempered by self-preservation instincts and that this would be enough to maintain order.
Anarchy remained a branch of political thought, but the term took on pejorative connotations when, following the Peloponnesian war, Athens came under oligarchic rule following their defeat at the hands of the Spartans. Athenians began referring to that year as ‘the year of anarchy’.
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The negative connotations anarchy gained from the Athenians were compounded when the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle also began using the term pejoratively in their works when referring to democracy, which they believed was vulnerable to a slide into tyranny.
Anarchy continues to be a source of fascination in the modern world. Even though it has largely fallen out of favor as a serious political goal, it is still invoked in order to appeal to the notion of total freedom of individuals’ from the state.