Virtues In Ancient Greece: Lying, Homicide, Fascism, Brutality, & Betrayal


Rufus Fears, in his course, Famous Greeks, offers a solid and entertaining overview of several hundred years of Ancient Greek history.  He makes the choice to examine the period by focusing on a few especially intriguing men.  He is in good company with this approach to history.  The great Plutarch took the same tack.  “Biography is the soul of history,” Fears enthuses in one chapter, and I can’t argue with him.  No matter how grand the sweep or epic the scale, history is made by individuals.

A few personalities in Fears’ course especially interested me…

Since childhood, one of my favorite legendary characters has been Odysseus.  My greatest heroes are of the wily variety, men such as:  Odysseus, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes… even Hermes and Loki.  I feel the same reverence for Robinson Crusoe, though he’s not considered a “hero” in the sense that Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes are, I guess.  Looking back now, I’m a little surprised that I have not been more bothered by the fact that some of my greatest heroes are liars, cheats, and thieves.  Not sure what that says about me…

So, was there ever a real Odysseus, king of Ithaca?  Who knows?  Another “famous Greek” Fears spotlights is also shrouded in legend… Theseus.  I’ve always thought of Theseus as a man of justice.  He’s the man who traveled through Greece punishing bandits and baddies he met on the road by giving them, as we say, a taste of their own medicine.  My favorite incident in this regard was the one in which Theseus meets a man named Procrustes who has people lie in a bed– and if they’re too short for the bed, he brutally stretches them out, and if they’re too long, he cuts off part of their legs.  I come across references to Procrustes fairly frequently… his behavior lends itself to comparison with anyone who tries to make one size (or solution) fit all.  Theseus is also the guy who went up against the Minotaur of Crete inside the Labyrinth.

But Fears taught me something about Theseus which I had not known before… When Athenians thought of Theseus (Theseus was, eventually, ruler of Athens) they thought of him as the ideal Athenian.  How they saw him was how they saw their best selves.  He was brave and strong, and he stood up for the weak.  [This was the pre- Athenian Empire morality, of course].  Athenians, says Fears, felt that if a person– or a polis— is strong, it is a sin NOT to use that strength—  We should help those weaker than ourselves.  Of course, Theseus was also the same dude who left behind Ariadne, the girl who helped save him from the Minotaur– but hey, no one’s perfect.

If I was ever taught the part about Theseus being overthrown and exiled from Athens I immediately forgot it.  But apparently it’s true.  In the end –hero or no–  he was sent to an island where he was then murdered by the local ruler.  Was it Herodotus who said to never count a man happy until he’s dead?

The tale about King Agamemnon sacrificing his own daughter so that the gods would give his ships a good wind for sailing– that story has always hit me pretty hard.  I felt a similar gut-punch when I read the Book Of Job or heard the sermon about Abraham being willing to sacrifice his own son just because he heard a voice telling him to do so (sure it was God, you crazy old man!).

Fears’ lessons about the Greek way of life got me to thinking about my own view of the world.  I suppose I adopted several, quite Grecian ideals early in my life.  I believe you should “know thyself,” for instance.  And I tend to want to “stay the middle way” (though defining extremes and their resultant middle-grounds is basically subjective, I suppose).  And I was reminded by Fears that I share the Greek belief that “character is revealed by misfortune.”  It is when things fall apart that we discover what holds us together.

When it comes to Sparta, I maintain a mixed opinion.  I applaud the simple lifestyle of the Spartans, but I’m not as fond of the more fascist elements of the Spartan way of life.  I’ve always had a hard time believing in something more important than myself.  I mean, how can it possibly be good for me to save the whole nation if I die in the act?  Is that cowardice?  Well, yes, I am a coward, but that’s beside the point.  I’m talking purely logically here.  Without even considering any pain involved or my considerable dread of death– when it comes to dying, no matter how good the cause, I just don’t see the upside for me, personally.  But of course, for Spartans, one’s individual life meant nothing against the life of the polis.

Even today, I contend that every successful nation still depends upon some noble sub-population of citizens who share this Spartan mindset.  Indeed, probably every community needs them, and even every happy and functional family (if those really exist).  Civilization seems to depend upon people who are willing to put aside personal desires for the sake of the greater good.

Fears spotlights a couple of Spartans in his lessons…  Lycurgus was a semi-mythical (or wholly mythical, perhaps) lawgiver of early Sparta.  Fears states that the idea of a polis having a single lawgiver and bringer-of-order at some time in its history was quite common in Ancient Greece.  For instance, Athens also boasted its own lawgiver– Solon, who restored order after the time of Draco.

Lycurgus was an upright man with what Fears calls “a reputation for enormous integrity.”  One of Lycurgus’s main concerns was to maintain an orderly way of life in Sparta.  Lycurgus felt that social unrest was typically the result of unequal status between different groups within a society.  Therefore, he went to great lengths to make certain that all Spartans were equal.  True, Sparta asked a lot of its people– basically, everything– but it rewarded everyone equally for their sacrifices.

For instance, under the laws of Sparta, all Spartans not only held the same amount of land, but also had the same number of slaves.  Furthermore, since avarice was often lurking behind the causes of social unrest, Spartans were not allowed to possess silver or gold.  I’ve read elsewhere that the Spartans did possess a few coins, but these coins were made of non-precious metal and would have been worthless anywhere besides Sparta.  Sparta also banned all “luxuries”– and remember, we’re talking about Sparta here… shutters were probably considered luxurious.

Apparently, the Spartans never officially wrote down their laws.  They were just known.  What was more important to Spartans than the precise wording of some statute was the attitude of good citizenship.  As Fears says, “the Spartans understood that even the best constitution will fail unless it is vitalized by civic virtue.”  I think this is true on a number of levels.

First, most people, probably unconsciously, rein-in their behavior so that they are not violating social norms.  Social pressure probably regulates behavior far more powerfully than legal codes.  So in this sense, in a highly developed culture, most laws for most people are superfluous.

Secondly, laws are difficult to enforce in even the most totalitarian regime if most of the people are against them.  Even when the people are not violating disliked laws when and where they can, they will tend to look the other way when other people are violating those laws.  Basically, people must WANT to be forbidden certain activities if the laws are to be effectual.  Otherwise– like a speed limit that is too low or a prohibition against drinking in a land full of drinkers– the law will be ignored or circumvented.  Additionally, to cope with such a large number of lawbreakers, the authorities would probably need to adapt some strategy for only SELECTIVELY enforcing the law.  Smoking pot would be an example of this dilemma in certain parts of the country.

The last thing I want to mention about Sparta (there is so much that intrigues me about this interesting civilization!) concerns the children of Sparta.  Spartan children belonged, arguably, more to the community than to their own parents.  First off, according to Fears, when a baby was born to a Spartan couple, a small group of men known as Euphors would come and judge the fitness of the infant.  If the baby was not fit to be a Spartan, the Euphors would have it exposed til death.  If healthy, the infant was accepted as a Spartan and received– at that very moment, according to Fears– his plot of land, along with the appropriate number of slaves (called “helots“) who would work the land on his behalf for his entire life.  I was unclear if girls were treated in precisely the same manner, but according to Lycurgian equality, they should have been.

The child’s education was left to his mother until age seven.  Then he would begin being educated with other youths in a communal band.  At 12, he would leave home and join the communal band for his military and political education.  I’m not sure at what point the boys and girls start being educated differently, but at age 18 I know that each male would be sent on a mission to prove his manhood.  According to Fears, this meant “killing the largest helot they could find.”

This is the first time I’ve ever heard the manhood-proving mission described this way, and it strikes me as quite wasteful of slave labor.  I mean, for EVERY boy to kill– not just a slave–  but the biggest, healthiest one around?  I just can’t buy it.  Until Fears’ description, I had always read simply that the 18-year-old had to go out and prove he could survive in the wild.  If, on the other hand, Fears is correct, then the Spartans are even more callous (not to mention economically stupid) than I had imagined– and I already had a pretty low opinion of them when it came to compassion.  According to Fears’ version, they were obviously not a people psychologically capable of recognizing “the other” as human beings worthy of respect.

My last paragraph on Fear’s Famous Greeks I dedicate to Themosticles.  I feel that Themosticles is not as well known to the common man as he should be.  It was Themistocles who, as Fears points out, “made Athens the supreme naval power in its world.”  Even people who don’t know much about Classical Athens know that, besides being home to some famous philosophers and the birthplace of drama, it was a democracy and a naval power which helped beat back the non-democratic Persians.

Well, Themosticles was a big reason that Greece was able to persevere over the Persians during the second part of the Greco-Persian War/s.  One reason I’m intrigued by Themistocles is that, hero of Athens as he was, he was also jerk.  Fears tells us he was “ambitious, ruthless, and avaricious,” — and jealous of those who achieved more recognition than he did.  In the end, he was officially ostracized from Athens, and– if one believes the story– offered his services to– of all places– Persia!  This may sound terrible, but maybe Themistocles thought no more of switching his country-loyalty than a high-paid manager today would think of taking a job with a competing firm– especially if his original firm had just unceremoniously fired him.


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