May 21, 2019

1. Jaeger on Ancient Greece: Homer

I’d like to continue my discussion of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Jaeger suggests that we use the word “education” to mean training — learning to read, learning math, etc. He suggests that we use the word “culture” to mean something more — aspiring toward “an ideal of man as he ought to be.... Culture is shown in the whole man — both in his external appearance and conduct, and in his inner nature.”1 In England, this was the ideal of the “gentleman,” in Greece the term kalos kagathos was used. In both England and Greece, this was the ideal of the nobility, but when the middle class rose to power, it became a universal ideal.

Culture begins in the nobility. “The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation’s culture.... Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.”2 Can culture survive in a time like ours, when there’s neither a nobility nor a lingering respect for the nobility?

Jaeger discusses the concept of areté — excellence, courtly behavior, strength/courage. “The idea of areté is the quintessence of early Greek aristocratic education.” In the early books of Homer, Jaeger says, areté means “the strength and skill of a warrior or athlete.” In later books, Homer occasionally applies the term to “moral or spiritual qualities.”3 “It was natural that, in the warlike age of the great migrations, men should be valued chiefly for their prowess in battle: there are analogies for this in other countries.”

Jaeger also discusses the concept of aidos — the reverence or shame that keeps you within the bounds of right conduct. If aidos is flouted, a feeling of nemesis is aroused in others. “Both aidos and nemesis are essential parts of Homer’s ideal of aristocracy.” The nobleman isn’t he who does what he wants, the nobleman is he who is bound by a sense of duty, by aidos.

The aristocrats are continually competing with each other, trying to prove their areté, striving for victory in war and sport. “The hero’s whole life and effort are a race for the first prize, an unceasing strife for supremacy over his peers.”4 Be the best. Excel all others. “This motto, which teachers of all ages have quoted to their pupils, modern educational ‘levellers’ have now, for the first time, abandoned.”

In my view, striving to be the best, and win first prize, is a recipe for stress. Better to aim at personal growth, at balance and wholeness. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re satisfied with mediocrity. If one has an ideal, one is naturally inclined to make one’s best effort. Imagine you’re a pianist. Wouldn’t you want to make your best effort out of love for the music, as well as love for first prize?

Jaeger says that the reward of areté is honor. The Greek hunger for honor is evident in the names they gave their children; many Greek names end in “cles” (kleos = honor, fame). “Pericles” means “widespread fame”; Themistocles, Sophocles, and Damocles are also derived from kleos.5

In Homer’s day, your worth was measured by the opinion of your society, by the praise/blame of the people around you, by your honor. In Aristotle’s day, “the philosophic man... could dispense with such external recognition, although (as Aristotle says) he might not be entirely indifferent to it.” In general, the early Greeks, like other early peoples, were judged by society, not by conscience. “Nowadays we must find it difficult to imagine how entirely public was the conscience of a Greek. (In fact, the early Greeks never conceived anything like the personal conscience of modern times.)”6

Honor lives on after death, the hero’s glory lives on “in that very ideal of his areté which accompanied and directed him throughout his life.” After his death, the hero is remembered on the “scroll of honor” that motivated him when he was alive. Even the gods seek honor, and “jealously avenge any infringement of it.”

The greatest tragedy is to deserve honor but not receive it. This is the tragedy of Achilles in the Iliad. “A preeminent areté has been denied its honor.” Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ battle prize, a girl named Briseis. Achilles’ comrades can’t appeal to his patriotism; “patriotism is strange to the old aristocratic world.” So Achilles sits out, and broods on his offended honor, and hopes that the Greeks are defeated.

Meanwhile, his mother, Thetis, pleads his case to Zeus:

“Honor my son, who must die sooner than all others. Agamemnon has robbed him of his honor; do you honor him, Olympian!” And the highest of the gods is gracious to Achilles, by allowing the Achaeans, deprived of his help, to be defeated; so that they see how unjustly they have acted in cheating their greatest hero of his honor.

Another Greek hero, Ajax, is also deprived of the honor due him. Among the Greek warriors, Ajax is second only to Achilles. When Achilles dies, Ajax and Odysseus both plead for his armor. The wily Odysseus persuades the Greeks to give him Achilles’ armor. Ajax is furious, broods on his offended honor, and in a fit of madness, kills a flock of sheep. Dripping with blood and doubly disgraced, he falls on his own sword.

The pursuit of areté and honor inspired not only Homer’s heroes, but also later Greeks like Plato and Aristotle. “In many details, the ethical doctrines of Plato and Aristotle were founded on the aristocratic morality of early Greece.” Like their ancestors, Plato and Aristotle advocated the pursuit of the noble, the beautiful, the heroic, even if that pursuit ended in death.

Aristotle praises the megalo-psychos — the proud or high-minded man. Aristotle “admires self-love, just as he prizes high-mindedness and the desire for honor, because his philosophy is deeply rooted in the old aristocratic code of morality.” This self-love is love of one’s ideal, it drives one to strive for areté, to achieve the beautiful, even at the expense of one’s life. The great-souled man, according to Aristotle, is “he who thinks himself worthy of great things and really is.”7

And what does Aristotle regard as beautiful, noble?

He was thinking chiefly of acts of moral heroism. A man who loves himself will (he thought) always be ready to sacrifice himself for his friends or his country, to abandon possessions and honors in order to [achieve the beautiful].

For Aristotle, “the utmost sacrifice to an ideal is a proof of a highly developed self-love.” Achilles was a great-souled man (megalo-psychos) because he was prepared to sacrifice his life for a heroic ideal, he was prepared to confront Hector, who had slain his friend Patroclus, though he knew that confronting Hector would ultimately lead to his own death. Achilles made a “deliberate choice of a great deed at the cost of his own life.”

Plato says that a culture-hero resembles a Homeric hero, a culture-hero is willing to sacrifice his life for his ideal.

The speech of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium draws a parallel between the struggles of law-giver and poet to build their spiritual monuments, and the willingness of the great heroes of antiquity to sacrifice their all and to bear hardship, struggle, and death, in order to win the prize of imperishable fame.8

One thinks of Proust telling his maid, “Last night I wrote ‘The End.’ Now I can die.”

So the old ideals of the aristocrat, the warrior, the Homeric hero, survived and evolved, and can still be traced in the work of Plato and Aristotle.

Aristotle himself wrote a hymn to the immortal areté of his friend Hermias... who died to keep faith with his philosophical and moral ideals; and in that hymn he expressly connects his own philosophical conception of areté with that found in Homer, and with its Homeric ideals Achilles and Ajax. And it is clear that many features in his description of self-love are drawn from the character of Achilles. The Homeric poems and the great Athenian philosophers are bound together by the continuing life of the old Hellenic ideal of areté.

Since we live in the age of the suicide bomber, we have a different view of dying-for-an-ideal than Aristotle had. We’re inclined to advocate living for an ideal, rather than dying for an ideal. In general, however, I think that these Greek ideals are still fresh, still applicable. It still makes sense to pursue a high ideal, take pride in that pursuit, and even risk one’s life in that pursuit.

2. Miscellaneous

A. Problems often come in bunches: you have a neighbor problem, then you get a lawyer problem, too; you have an ankle problem, then you get a knee problem, too; you have a medical problem, then you get a financial problem, too. Problems spawn other problems.

B. I saw the new PBS drama Les Misérables (it’s a drama, not a musical). It’s a powerful work, I recommend it. One senses immediately that there’s a great novelist behind it; there are many gripping scenes. It’s made up of six one-hour episodes.

I mentioned in the last issue that Elizabeth Gaskell, author of Cranford, isn’t part of the “core canon,” she’s part of the “extended canon.” The same might be said of Victor Hugo. When you watch Les Misérables, you can understand why Hugo would be very popular. But you also notice some vulgar tricks, like a protagonist with enormous physical strength. And you notice a tendency to glorify the downtrodden (les misérables); Nietzsche called Hugo a “theatrical demagogue.” Discriminating critics never have a good word for Hugo, but millions of readers have enjoyed his work. I almost regret seeing the video because now the book would be less enjoyable.

C. I saw an Oxfordian film called Nothing Is Truer Than Truth (2018). It focuses on Oxford’s travels, and how they correlate with Shakespeare’s works. It wouldn’t be suitable as an introduction to the Shakespeare controversy, and it has few new insights. It features British actor (and Oxfordian) Derek Jacobi. It argues that Oxford was bi-sexual, and that, when he was in Italy, he had a 16-year-old page-boy, whom he brought back to England. It also argues that Oxford visited Cyprus, and spent time at the port of Famagusta, which is alluded to in Othello.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Ch. 1, p. 3 back
2. Ch. 1, p. 4. “It is a fundamental fact in the history of culture that all higher civilization springs from the differentiation of social classes.”

Kalos kagathos is a combination of kalos (beautiful) and agathos (good). Jaeger describes it as “the chivalrous ideal of the complete human personality, harmonious in mind and body, foursquare in battle and speech, song and action.” back

3. Ch. 1, p. 6. Jaeger views the Iliad as older than the Odyssey.

Jaeger says that Homer’s similes sometimes tell us much about the poet (Shakespeare scholars make the same argument about Shakespeare). “Homer’s similes, in contrast to the rigidly stylized heroic narrative, often show traces of the real life of the poet’s own time.”(Ch. 4, footnote 45, p. 434) back

4. Ch. 1, p. 7 back
5. See Ch. 1, footnote 24, p. 419 back
6. Ch. 1, p. 9. In a recent issue, I discussed how the Chinese are affected by the feeling of shame, while people in the West are affected by the feeling of guilt. Shame is a public emotion, guilt a private emotion. back
7. Ch. 3, footnote 24, p. 429. The baseball player Dizzy Dean made a similar point: “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” back
8. Ch. 1, p. 13. The legislator was originally a moralist, and early legislation laid down “rules of respect for gods, parents, and strangers.” (Ch. 1, p. 3) Perhaps Moses is an example of an early legislator who was also a moralist. back