A couple of years ago I blogged about one of the more captivating notions to have been passed down to us from the ancient Greeks, the notion of moira. It is usually translated as “fate” or “destiny,” but it meant a great deal more. It suggested to the Greeks that there are laws, both physical and moral, that are binding on all humans (and even the gods). In the play “Iphigenia in Tauris” by Euripides, for example, Athene appears at the end of the drama while Iphigenia is escaping with Orestes from the wicked king Thaos and she tells Thaos to let the pair go in safety. He reluctantly agrees and Athene says “In doing as you must, you learn a law binding on gods as well as upon men.” Now, the “must” here does not suggest physical necessity, but moral necessity.
The Greeks were convinced that there are things humans can do and things they cannot do — such as leap unassisted off a cliff and fly like a bird or give birth to a reindeer. And there are things, many things, that humans ought not to do as well. These proscriptions translate into laws, physical and moral. Both are inviolable. Breach of the laws results in death of either the body or the soul. In the latter case the only hope is that suffering will bring wisdom, which may forestall spiritual death. But not always.
Generally speaking those breaches involved an excess of passion over reason — such as the notion of hubris, which is not pride, as such, but an excess of pride. Reason will aid us in avoiding this excess. Aristotle thought virtue was a mean between extremes, a mean discovered by reason. Courage, for example, is a mean between foolhardiness and cowardliness. The failure to find the measure, to act in a restrained and controlled manner, resulted invariably in tragedy. Reason struggles with passion in its attempt to find the mean between extremes, to act virtuously rather than viciously. This does not mean that human emotion is somehow a bad thing, it means that, in the eyes of the Greeks, it must be controlled. Plato used the image of a charioteer (reason) guiding two powerful emotional horses.
The Greek historian Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens in order to convince his readers and listeners that Athens lost the war because of an excess of pride. Toward the end of the long war they stupidly risked a battle with the enemy by sending their remaining troops far away from home and reinforcements; they were virtually wiped out. In the discussions preceding the expedition the historian makes clear that the Athenians were not thinking clearly and were swept away by the vision of easy success and great wealth resulting from the taking of spoils from the enemy. It was not to be. The result was inevitable.
All of this is interesting to me because of the fact that the Greeks, despite not being a deeply religious people, struggled with these moral precepts and sought to do the right thing. They regarded moral laws as binding on all alike, rich and poor — and divine. For centuries Western teachers have sought to pass along those lessons to subsequent generations. Writers such as Plutarch wrote the parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in the first century after the birth of Christ. His goal was to teach young readers about true heroism and courage, how to avoid deception and lies and not to violate the laws of moira — though the latter concept was becoming somewhat cloudy by that time. His writings provided guidance for the young for generations to come.
Needless to say, we have lost touch with much of this ancient wisdom. As T.S. Eliot has said, we have forgotten about wisdom in a glut of information. We are also in the process of losing sight of what Martin Luther King called “the moral high ground.” In our conviction that we can make America “great” again, we forget that greatness is due to adherence to moral laws and not about power and about vilifying those who differ from us or who refuse to agree with what we have to say.
Perhaps this helps to explain why, along with civil discourse, we seem to have lost our moral compass: our sense of right and wrong has been taken over by bombast and a lust for power and wealth. In our “commodified culture” where business is our main business and businessmen (even unsuccessful ones) are elected to high office we find ourselves confused and morally disoriented. Gone completely is any sense that there are laws, both physical and moral, that we must obey: we are convinced we can defy them all. Gone, it would appear, are the lessons learned painfully by King Thaos.
In today’s context of the politically incorrect, wisdom is knowing that perhaps you should not utter every inane and hateful thing that comes to mind. Or, said differently, it is better to let people think you are a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.
Good point, Keith … I always did like that expression!
Indeed. There are a lot of fools out there!
Good post, Hugh! I particularly liked the term “commodified culture”. Some of us still live by our morals, our values, simply because we have to live with our own consciences, but others … I don’t know how they sleep at night. If I yell at the cat for using my chair as a scratching post, I lie awake feeling guilty … but others can perform all manners of evil and still live with themselves. It is one of life’s great mysteries.
It is a mystery. I suspect it is defective genes! — or defective jeans?