Friday, May 20, 2005

Greek Honor

I’ve been reading some of the Greek historians, and am struck by how different the general attitude of the Greeks was compared to that of the modern world’s. What stands out most is the pride they show in living morally. I suppose the contrast is so stark because, while not perfect, their morality was one which was aimed at each individual achieving his own happiness here on earth, and successful life was seen as something both possible and worthy of great respect.
Today, after two millennia of Christianity’s influence, our culture is built on the opposite idea: that to act morally is to act against one’s (“selfish”) life on earth, and hence one must choose between being successful or being moral. A feeling of genuine pride, which comes from achieving one’s physical and spiritual values here on earth, is impossible under Christianity’s ethics (in fact it is a great vice) so one must choose between pursuing material success, at the expense of feeling moral worth; or of living a Christian life, at the expense of being successful here on earth.

I think the following short excerpt from Herodotus’ Persian Wars captures the Greeks’ moral pride and how it differs both from the Persians of their time, and more importantly, from our modern culture:

A few Greek deserters (Arcadians) are brought in front of the Persian King and asked what the Greeks are doing while preparing for war. The Arcadians answered: “They are holding the Olympic games, seeing the athletic sports and the chariot races.” “And what” asked the King’s spokesman, “is the prize for which they contend?” “An olive wreath which is given to the man that wins.”

Hearing the men say that the prize was not money but a wreath of olives, provoked Tritantaechmus, a commander of the infantry, to exclaim: “Good heavens! Mardonius, what manner of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight – men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honor?”

Herodotus, The Persian Wars, VIII, 26
Now obviously the point isn’t that money is bad, but that one’s self esteem is of paramount importance. Fighting for honor, if one has a proper morality, is fighting for all of one’s values, not just a specific (material) one. That the Greeks understood this, and lived by it, is a monumental achievement, and helps explain the success and fertility of their culture.


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