Virtue and hubris in Ancient Greece

Nicole asked:

How do I explain moderation and human excellence as it relates to the Homeric tradition and the ancient Greek virtues? How does the concept of hubris relate to the difference between humans and the gods?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Nicole, I think a great deal of the ancient Greek attitude to virtue can be found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Of course, he was writing some time after the Heroic age usually associated with Homer, but nevertheless, he worked with the tradition and refined those traditions for practical use by educated fourth century BC Greeks.

It’s all very different from Christian principles of virtue. The term ‘arete’, usually translated as ‘virtue’ in modern English, meant something quite unique to an ancient Greek. Everything — objects as well as people, had their own specific purpose, the attributes which enabled them to carry out this function were virtues, and performing particularly well in this function was excellence. So the function of a knife was to cut, and its particular virtue or arete was to be sharp. The particular arete of a racehorse was swiftness. Of course, the Greeks would regard a human as more complex than an object or animal, so the arete of a human would be complex and multi-faceted.

An ancient Greek, even a Homeric hero like Odysseus could behave quite unethically from our point of view, yet still be considered virtuous, even to the point of excellence, by the Greeks. Odysseus famously hanged all of his household staff for disloyalty when he returned to Ithaca, in a passage from Homer which makes rather grim reading. Yet Odysseus still has arete because he is performing his function as a human well. For a Homeric hero, mercy and foregiveness, whilst virtues, competed with other characteristics considered as virtues, such as increasing ones honour and status, rewarding one’s friends and punishing ones enemies. Courage and love of honour would be regarded as important virtues by Homer, whilst later Christian virtues, such as humility would puzzle an ancient Greek. Pride, considered as at worst a sin, and at best a doubtful human attribute by Christian thinkers, was regarded as arete by ancient Greeks.

Of course, some of these qualities could be pursued to excess; the man searching for honour might become a vainglorious fool, the man of courage might err in the direction of either undue timidity or rashness. Hence the need for moderation. Aristotle attempted a fairly sophisticated development of this notion of moderation by his ‘doctrine of the mean’, whereby he divided the pursuit of many virtues into three parts;

– too much of the virtue,

– not enough of the virtue,

– an appropriate intermediate position.

A virtuous Greek would arrive at a decision after calm deliberation, whilst a Christian would probably consider herself virtuous only if she arrived at a decision after a considerable inner struggle. To use a phrase lazily employed by journalists today, the Christian virtuous man could only consider himself virtuous after a struggle with his ‘inner demons’. To a Christian, excellence in virtue is only achieved after torment, struggle against temptation, and final suppression of these temptations. To an ancient Greek, excellence in virtue would be arrived at after calm deliberation as to how particular courses of action benefitted ones own personal well-being (or eudaemonia), and contributed to life in the wider society.

Although ancient Greeks had a notion of hubris, it was somewhat different from the idea as developed by later Christian writers. For a Christian the chastisement of hubris is God’s punishment for the sin of pride. For an ancient Greek pride was not seen as wrong. Punishment by the Greek gods was generally reserved for those mortals who strayed onto their territory. If you tried to fly, your artificial wings would burn, and the gods would plunge you to your death. The gods might decide to punish you if you were too beautiful, handsome or noble, or were ‘too good’ at some particular activity. Sometimes, the transgress of humans was entirely unwitting. ‘The Lord thy God is a jealous God’, is a well known phrase in Judeo-Christian morality. For a Christian, this jealousy was directed at those who followed alternatives to the only true God. For an ancient Greek, the jealousy was a rather spiteful dislike of humans who became too godlike themselves. It was mean and capricious, and was a message to humans to keep out of immortal territory.


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