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The portrayal of moral evaluation in Greek poetry

  • K. J. Dover (a1)


Anyone who has read my book Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Oxford 1974) (hereafter ‘GPM’) and has also read Professor A. W. H. Adkins' book Merit and Responsibility (Oxford 1960) (‘M&R’) will have noticed that the two books differ substantially in their approach to the history of Greek moral values and in some of the conclusions which they reach. Adkins' critical review of GPM, entitled ‘Problems in Greek Popular Morality’, CPh lxxiii (1978) 143–58 (‘Problems’), explains very clearly why he finds GPM in many respects inadequate or misleading, and it has greatly helped me to understand my own disquiet at the influence exercised by the presuppositions, methods and conclusions of M&R. My purpose in this paper is not to offer a review of M&R twenty years too late, nor to attempt a rebuttal, point by point, of the criticisms of GPM contained in Problems, but to examine one major issue: how should the portrayal of moral evaluation on the tragic stage or in epic narrative be used as evidence for the history of Greek moral values?

A very important proposition is stated in M&R 127: ‘A drama is a practical work; it involves action. People appear on the stage and behave as they do in real life.’ With this proposition I agree, subject to three provisos, of which one limits its application and two amplify it. The limiting proviso is obvious.

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1 I refer also to Moral and Political Values in Ancient Greece (London 1972) (‘MPV’) and Homeric Values and Homeric Society’, JHS xci (1971) 114 (‘HV).

2 I find I disagree with Adkins' interpretation of practically all the individual passages mentioned in Problems; an important exception is his correction of my oversight in discussing Xen., Hell. ii 4.40 f. (GPM 67, Problems 154).

3 Long, A. A., ‘Morals and Values in Homer’, JHS xc (1970) 121–39, contains much valuable criticism of M&R. At one point (127) Long refers to ‘the poverty of Homeric restraints upon the agathos’. Adkins (HV 9) says ‘I take it that “restraints upon” means “sufficiently powerful ethical language to restrain”’. M&R 152, 210, 254 furnish other examples of the transformation of moral issues into linguistic terms.

4 Lloyd-Jones, Hugh, The Justice of Zeus (Berkeley/L.A./London 1971) 6 lays proper emphasis on Il. xvi 384–92 (Zeus sends heavy rain when he is angered by the ‘crooked judgments’ of men), a passage not mentioned in M&R. See below for other instances.

5 Problems 153 points out that ‘such usages do not abolish the possibility that there exists a usage of “good” where the class is no narrower than “human being”’. True, but in what circumstances do we hear the word ‘good’ so used? Rarely, if ever, in my experience, outside discussions concerned with ethical theory; and is nothing to be learned from that fact?

6 Cf. Labarbe, J., L'Homère de Platon (Liége 1949) 249–54 and Lohse, G., Helikon v (1965) 289–91. Their discussions, however, take insufficient account of the fact that Leg. 776c–778a concerns the treatment of slaves by their masters, a matter to which the antithesis between brutal conditioning and rational persuasion is highly relevant, νόου suits the context in Plato better than ἀρετῆς; indeed, after the admission in 776d that some slaves have proved themselves κρείττους πρὸς ἀρετήν than brothers and sons, citation of the Homeric passage in the form in which our Homer texts have it would have been irrational.

7 Hoffmann, Martin, Die ethische Terminologie bei Homer, Hesiod und den alten Elegikern und Iambographen. i. Homer (Diss. Tübingen 1914) 74–8, though he anticipates Adkins in his view of the conduct expected of someone valued as ἀγαθός, concedes (76) that in Il. i 275 the phrase ἀγαθός περ ἐών tones down (mildert) Nestor's admonition. In this connection, Adkins' question (HV 13) ‘Why does Poseidon say that Iris’ words are κατὰ μοῖραν and αἴσιμα?’ is answered by Poseidon's own words in 207: she has shown forbearance and diplomatic skill in suggesting he might reconsider his answer to Zeus.

8 The question posed in HV 11, ‘Now why does Hera take this very different view?’ is answered by xxiv 25–30. For the reason given there, she wishes to cause the gods not to restrain Achilles, and she judges that the best way to do that is to try to implant in them a feeling which may swamp the feeling evoked by Apollo.

9 An example of a persuasive definition may be found (as remarked in Problems 155) in GPM 43, where I am trying to persuade the reader to define a certain term in a certain way. What have come to be called ‘persuasive definitions’ in common practice are not definitions but applications.

10 Cf. Long (n. 3) 126 n. 16.

11 This is what I meant by my reference in GPM 50 to ‘finding the right words’ and to ‘the expressive aspect of the utterance’. Problems 149, to my surprise, takes ‘expressive’ to mean ‘descriptive’.

12 With reference to a stylistic habit which has on at least one occasion given rise to uncertainty (Problem 149), it should be said that Dover borrows from Locke the use of the first-person singular pronoun, with present, future and conditional tenses, in a generalising sense.

13 Cf. Lesky, Albin, ‘Göttliche und menschliche Motivation im homerischen Epos’ (Sitz.Heidelberg 1961.4) 40.

14 Jaeger, W., Scripta Minora (Rome 1960) 322 has some interesting remarks on this exceptional feature of the case of Aigisthos.

15 Yet M. L. West comments on Hes. Op. 330 ‘Another uncommon item. An orphan has to go begging …; sec Il. 22.490–9’, and den Boer, W., Private Morality in Greece and Rome (Leiden 1979) 38 even turns Andromache's vision into a statement of accomplished fact: ‘The little Astyanax was banished from the circle of his friends …’.

16 Cf. Long (n. 3) 123 n. 8 and de Romilly, J., La Douceur dans la pensée grecque (Paris 1979) 16 f., 20 f.

17 E.g. M&R 183 (on Agamemnon's quarrel with Achilles), 231 and 259 (on Socrates) and MPV 55 (on Solon). In MPV 141 the translation of Thuc. vi 39.1 φύλακας μὲν ἀρίστους εἶναι . . . βουλεῦσαι δ᾿ ἂν βέλτιστα . . . κρῖναι δ᾿ ἄν . . . ἄριστα as ‘most agathoi guardians … best counsellors … best judges’ might just conceivably be defended by arguing that ‘be ἄριστος’ does not have quite the same connotations as ‘do ἄριστα’ (cf. GPM 70 f. on καλῶς~καλός), but I do not know how many people would be convinced by such a defence. (I am grateful to Ms Cynthia Farrar for drawing my attention to the example.)

18 Pfeiffer, R., Ausgewählte Schriften (Munich 1960) 17 sees the killing of the suitors as something which the archaic Greek world regarded as ‘natural’ but which das rechtliche Denken of a later age was not so likely to accept. True, but it is feeling, not thought, which is the point at issue in M&R 238.

19 See Dihle, Albrecht, Die goldene Regel (Göttingen 1962), esp. 96 and 101.

20 Ward, Keith, The Development of Kant's View of Ethics (Oxford 1972) 167 remarks that Kant produced ‘a deeply religious ethics expressed in a radically humanistic terminology’.

21 Cf. Hdt. i 159.4, discussed by Gould, John, JHS xciii (1973) 83 f.

22 Walker, R. C. S., Kant (London 1978) 148.

23 This is the kind of thing I had in mind when I expressed reservations (GPM 7) about philosophers' assertions about what ‘we’ say, think or feel.

24 The idea of ‘self-damnation’ is important to many Christians: cf. JHS xciii (1973) 58, on modern attitudes to Agamemnon's dilemma.

25 Punishment without ‘blame’ is not unknown, and a judicial sentence has several determinants other than the judge's assessment of the defendant's responsibility.

26 I find myself in essential agreement with Lesky (n. 13) 41 f. on Agamemnon's admissions and apologies, but where Lesky speaks of ‘two sides of the same coin’ I would prefer to speak of two coins which have the same nominal value but are acceptable social tender in different circumstances. Cf. also Lloyd-Jones (n. 4) 14 f.

27 The immensity of the gulf between the logic of morality and the experience of morality may be glimpsed in Prior, A. N., Papers on Time and Tense (Oxford 1968) 51–8.

28 I invite the reader to consider the reaction of his own stomach to the comment made in M&R 237 on the Athenians under the Thirty Tyrants: ‘The democracy squealed, as democracies will; but it is difficult to see what cause it had for complaint.’

29 Cf. also Gould, , CR xxviii (1978) 287. The statement in Problems 148 about my view of the ‘structure’ of popular morality is incorrect, despite the verisimilitude imparted by inverted commas.

30 Problems 144 confuses the classification popular/sectional/idiosyncratic with the antithesis traditional/innovative. Problems 145 debits me with an ‘apparent’ reason for citing (GPM 10–13) references to philosophy in the orators which is not the same as the reason I actually gave ad loc.

31 Cf. n. 9 above.

32 Cf. Vernant, J. P., Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (Paris 1974), chs 1–2, and Lloyd-Jones (n. 4) 32 f., 35 f. The cursory treatment of Hesiod in M&R 70–3 concludes rather simply that ‘Homeric society’ and ‘Hesiodic society’ are different societies. It would have been more interesting to consider the extent to which ‘Homeric’ and ‘Hesiodic’ evaluations could be uttered not only in the same society but even by the same individual in different circumstances.

The portrayal of moral evaluation in Greek poetry

  • K. J. Dover (a1)


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