ANCIENT VALUES OF LIFE ?
A brief glance at the Greeks, who invented democracy, and the Romans and virtually all other ancient societies, shows us that we did not get our life values from them.
RESPECT FOR LIFE
The basic right to life seems fundamental. We all want to live without fear of being arbitrarily deprived of life or dignity. As obvious and important as this seems to us today, however, it was not obvious or important in the ancient world.
The ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as every ancient culture we know of, practiced infanticide - the killing of newborn children as a means of population control, sex selection (boys were desired, girls not), and ridding society of burdensome or deformed members.
Babies that appeared weak or sickly at birth, or had even a minor birth defect or imperfection such as a cleft palate or harelip, were killed. This was not done by some Nazi-like baby removal squad, but by an immediate member of the family, usually the mother or father, often using methods that betray a cruelty beyond our modern imagination.
Wrote the great humanitarian Seneca: "Children... weak and deformed we drown, not through anger, but through wisdom, preferring the sound to the useless."
These societies also practiced human sacrifice and - when it came to the Romans - killing for entertainment. The Coliseum, and other circuses of its type, saw a level of cruelty and inhumanity beyond belief. Emperor Trajan, in the year 107 B.C.E., held games where ten thousand gladiators and three thousand wild animals fought to the death - which means thousands of human beings died - watched by spectators who ate, drank wine, and cheered the grisly spectacle.
Instead, Abraham, the first Jew, introduced the idea of one loving God as the Creator of all. We are all God's children created in the "divine image" (Genesis 1:27). Deformed babies, slaves, women, and men - all have this divine image within them, and all have the right, therefore, to life. "Thou shalt not murder," the sixth commandment, is only one of many direct references to the infinite value of life found in the Bible.
The absoluteness of the God-given standard set the Jews apart. And, indeed, for thousands of years no one much wanted to join their club. But eventually their vision and values spread worldwide. British historian Paul Johnson notes (A History of the Jews [Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987], Epilogue):
Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place... To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews the world would have been a much emptier place... It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if they had never emerged.
For two thousand years, from Abraham to the birth of Christianity, the Jewish people alone championed the notion of a just and moral world based on humanity's relationship with a loving God. Then came Christianity and Islam, both spiritual offshoots of Judaism, which converted millions of people to the belief in One God. In modern history, the greatest spreader of Jewish values outside religion has been the growth of Democracy. During the last three centuries the founding fathers of both British and especially American democracy were overwhelmingly impacted by Biblical ethics. The Bible played a central role in the curriculum of the newly founded institutions of higher learning, with both Hebrew and Bible studies being required courses. At Yale, some commencement orations were delivered in Hebrew. The Biblical education of the Founding Fathers colored their attitude toward religion and ethics - and especially politics. America was to be the new place where the old Biblical vision would take root.
Married to a Biblical standard of values, grass-roots democracy took root in America and in the last two hundred years became the fastest-spreading political system in the world. In 1800 there were three liberal democracies in the world: the United States, France, and Switzerland. In 1900 there were thirteen; in 1999, close to seventy.
So that's the story. The values held dear in modern democratic nations are largely a product of Judaism.