June 9, 2019

1. Jaeger on Ancient Greece

A. Homer

In Homer, morality is more than precepts taught to children, morality is carved into the universe itself. “For Homer,” Jaeger writes, “and for the Greeks in general, the ultimate ethical boundaries are not mere rules of moral obligation, but fundamental laws of Being.” I discussed this moral order in my book of aphorisms:

There seems to be a moral order in the universe. Evil — such as we find in Hitler, Stalin, Macbeth, etc. — eventually comes to grief. On the other hand, evil often brings many innocents down with it; one might say that the moral order punishes evil, but doesn’t always reward virtue. Furthermore, if we look for the source of evil, we find that the universe itself produces Hitlers, Stalins, and Macbeths; in other words, the universe produces the very evil that it later destroys. Evil is almost as much a part of the fabric of the universe as good.

Great literature often touches on this moral order, though it isn’t moralizing in a shallow sense. The moral aspect of Homer’s work is a product of both individual psychology and divine action. Jaeger:

The fact that he holds the gods to be implicated in every human action and suffering obliges the Greek poet to see the eternal meaning of all man’s acts and destinies, to find them their place in a general scheme of the world, and to measure them by the loftiest religious and moral standards.1

In Homer, the gods are always involved, but man is at the center of the action. Like the later Greeks, Homer puts man “front and center,” he has an “anthropocentric tendency.” “Homer definitely places man and his fate in the foreground, although he sees them sub specie aeternitatis, in the perspective of the loftiest general ideals and problems.”

Is Homer’s approach a thing of the past? If we don’t believe in Homer’s gods, does that mean that our imaginative writers can’t create the sort of world that Homer created? Let’s assume that the gods are projections of feelings/drives within human nature. Could an imaginative writer in our time create a unified cosmos as Homer did, create a moral order as Homer did, replacing gods with psychological forces?

Jaeger argues that the Iliad is an aesthetic whole, and its central theme is the wrath of Achilles. Homer doesn’t narrate the history of the Trojan war from the beginning, or the life of Achilles from the beginning.

The Homeric epic is concentrated, vivid, dramatic. It plunges in medias res [into the middle of things].... It presents only the crisis, the one representative moment which evokes the ten-year war with all its battles and varying fortunes, past, present, and future.

Homer creates not only an aesthetic unity, but also a cosmic unity. He depicts each individual within a social environment, he depicts mankind within a natural environment, and he depicts the earth within the greater cosmos.

No day is so full of human striving that the poet forgets to tell how the sun rises and sinks above the turmoil, how the toil and battle of the day is succeeded by repose, and how the night, which loosens men’s limbs in sleep, embraces all mortals.... Physical and spiritual forces are equally real for him.2

In Book 18 of the Iliad, Homer describes the shield of Achilles, a picture of the cosmos that Jaeger calls “the finest expression of the epic view of human life.”

On the shield, Hephaestus wrought the earth, and heaven, and the sea, and the tireless sun, and the moon at its full, and all the signs which crown the sky. And he made two cities of men, beautiful to see.... And Hephaestus made a field, where ploughmen drove their teams up and down: at the field’s edge where they turned, a man came up and gave them a cup of wine.... And a dancing place, where young men and maidens were dancing, holding one another by the hand, while a divine minstrel sang to his lyre — all these completed the vast picture of all the activities of human life. Round the rim of the shield flowed the Ocean, embracing the whole world.

If you want to read Homer, there are highly-regarded translations by Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, and Robert Fagles (all three were poets in their own right, and all three were American).2B

B. Sparta

Jaeger writes about culture, not politics. But he believes that, in ancient Greece, culture grew out of politics, the ancient Greek was a political animal. So Jaeger devotes considerable space to a discussion of the polis, the city-state. He begins by saying that there were two basic types of city-state, the Dorian/Spartan and the Ionian/Athenian.

It’s difficult to say when the Spartans conquered their homeland in the Peloponnesus. Perhaps they came from central Europe around 1,000 BC. The people they conquered became helots (serfs or slaves). The Spartans needed to be armed and vigilant to control their own helots, as well as to deal with foreign foes.

“The free Spartiate master-class... did not work but devoted themselves to the hunt, the practice of war, and their official duties.”3 Sparta had two kings, perhaps because the Spartans were originally two barbarian hordes, each with their own king. The early Greeks (both Spartan and non-Spartan) were probably a blond people; poets like Pindar imagined Menelaus, Achilles, and even Athena as fair-haired.4

Spartan society preserved the original, barbarian traits longer than other Greek regions, perhaps because the Spartans were tied to the land while other Greeks became sea-faring merchants, and lost some of their old customs. Jaeger dismisses the tradition that the Spartan system was created by a “genius law-giver” named Lycurgus. “Actually, it was the survival of an earlier, simpler stage in social life, the stage which is characterized by strong racial and communal solidarity and scant individual initiative.”

In an earlier issue, I mentioned that the Homeric aristocrats fought for their own honor, not for their polis. The Spartan ideal was different; the Spartan ideal put the polis first, the individual second. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus expressed the Spartan ideal; the elegies of Tyrtaeus were the Spartan bible, and their influence extended beyond Sparta. Tyrtaeus has

faith in a new moral and political authority — the city-state, which transcends every individual citizen, and for which every citizen lives and dies. He has recast the Homeric ideal of the single champion’s areté into the areté of the patriot, and with that new faith he strives to inspire his whole society. He is endeavoring to create a nation of heroes. Death is beautiful, if it is a hero’s death; and to die for one’s country is a hero’s death.

The polis wasn’t a social contract, entered into for utilitarian reasons. The polis had “a religious basis.... The polis has become the epitome of all things human and divine.” The early Greeks didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul, they believed in the immortality of the hero, the hero who had sacrificed for the polis, the hero who would be honored both during his lifetime and after his death.5

The culture that emerged from the Greek polis wasn’t art for art’s sake, it had religious and moral significance. The poems of Tyrtaeus tried to inspire, mold, educate — culture as paideia. This isn’t the solitary poet expressing his own feelings and experiences, this is the poet speaking for the polis. Spartan society was about molding, educating; culture played a key role in that process, a more important role than written law. The Spartans believed that “aesthetic culture could form the whole character of her citizens.... Only a few fundamental laws were solemnly passed and fixed in writing.”6 The Spartans believed that a change in musical style was “equivalent to a revolution.”7

Tyrtaeus wrote about 625 BC, about 150 years after the Olympic games began. In his day, athletic prowess was “regarded even by the common people as the highest pinnacle of human achievement.” Tyrtaeus tries to exalt military courage above traditional virtues such as athletic ability, good looks, wealth, and eloquence, Tyrtaeus molds the ideals of his society. His poems were read, his influence was felt, even centuries later, even in Athens. “Plato copies Tyrtaeus’ injunction to honor the fighter more highly than the Olympic victor.”8

The Spartan ideal had considerable influence with philosophers like Plato, and shaped Plato’s conception of the ideal state. Plato viewed the Sparta of his day as narrow-minded, but he respected the Spartan ideal, as did other Greeks. Every Greek city had a pro-Sparta party. Few people today are drawn to the Spartan ideal; we believe in giving greater scope to individuality. But Sparta’s prominent role in history and culture make it worthy of study.

C. Law

After discussing Sparta, Jaeger turns to a different type of Greek city-state, a “constitutional city-state,” a city-state that’s based on a legal system rather than on military training. Primitive societies don’t have written laws, and Sparta had very few written laws. Around 600 BC, many Greek cities began to codify their laws, to develop written legal systems that applied to the common man as well as to the nobleman.

The development of written law, Jaeger argues, is an epochal change in human history, and it sank deep roots in the human mind, it affected how the Greeks viewed the universe in general; it gave rise to concepts like “the law of nature,” “natural law,” etc. The word “cosmos” originally meant a well-ordered city-state, and later was applied to the universe. Isonomia means equal law, the same law for everyone (iso = same or equal, nomos = law). The Greeks felt that isonomia was the chief principle of the polis and of the universe.9

Laws were written in prose, not poetry; the lawgiver was the father of prose. “Prose was originally the medium in which law was recorded.... The constitutional polis was created by logical thought, and therefore had no basic kinship with poetry.”10

The lawgiver was also the father of philosophy. Written law was

the first important step towards the formulation of fixed general rules and norms of life, a process which was to end in philosophy.... Both Plato and Aristotle refer again and again to the existing legal tradition of the Greek people, and even to that of non-Greek nations. Their concepts of human will, of voluntary and involuntary actions, of justice and the various degrees of transgression of the law, are all developed from accurate study of the positive law of their nation.11

When we think of Greece, we think of Athens and Sparta and smaller mainland cities, and we think of colonies scattered around the Mediterranean. In other words, we think of mainland Greece as the center of gravity of Greek civilization. But Jaeger argues that Ionia (in the eastern Mediterranean) was the center of Greek civilization. The new constitutional city-state arose in Ionia; the Athenian reformer Solon was “deeply influenced by Ionian civilization.”12 Homer was regarded as Ionian, and the language of his epics is an Ionian dialect. Ionia produced more philosophers than Athens; Heraclitus was from Ephesus, a city on the Turkish coast, and Thales was from Miletus, another city on the Turkish coast.

Perhaps we should think of Ionian cities not as mere colonies, but as colonizers. “The astounding number of colonies planted by one city like Miletus bears witness to the enterprise, the expansive energy, and the pulsating life which filled the Greek cities of Asia Minor during those centuries.”13

Jaeger says that, while Greek cities were manufacturing and trading, their chief competitors were the Phoenicians. Rome’s chief competitor was Carthage, a Phoenician colony.

Jaeger says that before the transition to written law, there was another important transition in Greek city-states: the transition from monarchy to aristocracy. This transition is apparent in Homer’s works. When Homer describes the shield of Achilles (in Book 18 of the Iliad), he speaks of the elders sitting in a circle, rendering judgement in a dispute, a function formerly performed by the king.

The elders or aristocrats didn’t follow written law, and this made it easier for them to help themselves or help their friends. “As the economic position of the common people improved.... the people demanded written laws.... Laws which are written down mean the same law for all, high and low alike.” The battle-cry of the common people was Diké (Justice). Jaeger speaks of “the long succession of Ionian epigrams and poems which extol Justice as the basis of human society.” In mainland Greece, poets like Hesiod and Solon were also preoccupied with Justice.

The demand for Justice preceded the demand for democracy. “Democracy is not a necessary consequence of the demand for equal justice or for a written law.” Democracy arose long after the demand for isonomia. The new constitutional city-state relied on the knowledge and experience of the aristocracy, the areté of the aristocracy, but it tried to “repress its selfish and unjust misuse.”14

As Diké can be translated “Justice,” so Dikaiosyné can be translated “Righteousness.” Righteousness was the new virtue, the new areté. For Homer, areté was “the strength and skill of a warrior or athlete.” For the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, areté was sacrificing yourself for the polis, a willingness to die for the polis. In the new constitutional city-state, areté was Righteousness, obedience to the law. Jaeger:

One of the most famous poetic utterances of the sixth century BC is the line, often quoted by later philosophers, which says that all virtues are summed up in Righteousness. The line is a close and exhaustive definition of the essence of the new constitutional city-state.15

So the polis evolved from kingship to aristocracy to a society in which Law was king. In the polis, Law not only punishes crimes, it also “issues positive commands in all the spheres of life which had once been governed by individual will and preference.” Law molds character and therefore “every type of constitution produces its own type of man.” Education meant “education in the spirit of the laws.”16 For the Greeks, Law was educational (paideia), as Poetry was educational; they often compared the lawgiver to the poet.

Law was also at the heart of Greek philosophy. Discussing Plato’s Laws, Jaeger says

The culmination of Plato’s work as a philosophical educator comes in his last and greatest book, when he himself turns lawgiver; and Aristotle closes the Ethics by calling for a legislator to realize the ideal he has formulated.

For the ancient Greeks, man is a political being. Man is different from other animals because he lives in a state. Law is the soul of the state. Plato advocated “education in areté from youth upwards, which makes men passionately desire to become perfect citizens, knowing both how to rule and how to be ruled on a basis of justice.”17 The polis is the center of spiritual life and cultural life.

It was felt that Law governed the working of nature as well as the working of society.

The new political ideal of justice and law had become the center of all thought, the basis of existence, the real source of men’s faith in the purpose and meaning of the world.

Jaeger concludes this topic by calling for “the constant creation and regeneration of a governing class; and without such a governing class no nation and no state, whatever be its constitution, can long survive.”18 In the U.S., both Democrats and Republicans are rejecting the governing class, and electing people without political experience.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Ch. 3, p. 52. “Poetry cannot be really educative,” Jaeger writes, “unless it is rooted in the depths of the human soul, unless it embodies a moral belief, a high ardor of the spirit, a broad and compelling ideal of humanity.” (Ch. 3, p. 36) Not only epic poetry but also tragic drama has an “ethical and educational spirit.” (Ch. 3, p. 43) back
2. Ch. 3, p. 50 back
2B. The series called “Oxford World’s Classics” includes a Homer translation by Anthony Verity. “The line-by-line format of [Verity’s] translation is invaluable for those wishing to coordinate it with the Greek text or references in secondary literature.” The series called “Norton Critical Editions” includes a Homer translation by Albert Cook.

Jaeger mentions several Homer critics, such as S. E. Bassett, author of The Poetry of Homer, J. A. Scott, author of The Unity of Homer, and Gilbert Murray, author of The Rise of the Greek Epic. back

3. Ch. 5, p. 83 back
4. Ch. 5, pp. 81, 82 back
5. Ch. 5, p. 92. Plutarch wrote a short biography of the legendary Spartan law-giver Lycurgus. According to Plutarch, “Lycurgus made the citizens accustomed to have neither the will nor the ability to lead a private life; but, like the bees, always to be organic parts of their community, to cling together around the leader, and, in an ecstasy of enthusiasm and selfless ambition, to belong wholly to their country.”(Ch. 5, pp. 83, 84)

Jaeger says that two 19th-century humanists, Fustel de Coulanges and Jacob Burckhardt, were afraid of a polis that was omnipotent. On the other hand, Hegel took the Greek polis as a model for the modern state. Hegel agreed with Machiavelli, who “saw the res publica as the center of human life.” Hegel even tried to endow the state with a moral/religious foundation by “by giving the state the Absolute as its spiritual anchor.” (Ch. 5, footnote 3, pp. 435, 436)

While Tyrtaeus was the first to exalt the polis over the individual, Socrates began a shift toward the individual. In Plato, there’s a “radical change in the relation of the individual to the polis.” For Plato, the highest reward of virtue is personal immortality, the immortality of the soul, not the immortal fame bestowed by the polis. (Ch. 5, footnote 62, p. 440) back

6. Ch. 5, pp. 98, 82. Jaeger says of Tyrtaeus, “Nothing in Greek poetry shows more clearly how the creative activity of the poet begins in the life of the society to which he belongs.” (Ch. 5, p. 88) Tyrtaeus emerged when Sparta was in the middle of a difficult war. “Legend said he was sent by Apollo — a striking expression of the strange truth that when a spiritual leader is needed he always comes.” (Ch. 5, p. 89) His poetry has pathos and urgency because he was trying to save his country by inspiring its citizens.

Sparta had few written laws because “education was all-important in Sparta. The function of legislation was completely taken over by paideia.”(Ch. 5, footnote 20, p. 438) On the other hand, our society has lots of laws, and little moral education. back

7. Ch. 5, p. 98 back
8. Ch. 5, p. 96. Jaeger notes that the same term is used for “the people” and “the army,” “thereby preserving a valuable trace of the origin of what we call free institutions: the political rights of the citizen of an ancient polis originally derived from the part which he took in the defense of his country.” (Ch. 5, footnote 16, p. 437) An assembly of the army is an assembly of the people, a town meeting, a political body.

Christian thinkers couldn’t understand why Plato and Aristotle valued courage. “Since they had no political life, no state in the ancient Greek sense of the word, and no ethics except the purely individual ethics of religion, they could not understand such an idea.” (Ch. 6, p. 107) back

9. In an earlier issue, I discussed Hernando de Soto, who emphasizes the importance of written property rights. “De Soto thinks that ThirdWorld countries need to make the transition that developed countries have already made, the transition to formal, written property rights.... ‘The road to economic development,’ de Soto says, ‘runs through the county clerk’s office at the local courthouse.’” In the evolution of nations, written laws seem to precede written property rights. back
10. Ch. 7, p. 115 back
11. Ch. 6, footnote 38, p. 443, 444 back
12. Ch. 6, p. 99. “The birthplace of Ionian natural philosophy,” Jaeger writes, “is held to be Miletus, the metropolis of Ionian civilization.” The Milesian school of philosophy is represented by Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Miletus was destroyed by the Persians around 490 BC. back
13. Ch. 6, pp. 101, 102 back
14. Ch. 6, p. 112. Perhaps the uprisings known as the Arab Spring also aimed at isonomia. Robert Worth’s book about the Arab Spring is called A Rage for Order. back
15. “The idea that justice or righteousness is obedience to the law is universal in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.” One thinks of Socrates, who said he should be executed in obedience to the law.

We noted before that the opposite of aidos is nemesis (aidos is “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”). The opposite of diké is hubris (sometimes spelled hybris). “Hubris in earlier Greek authors means any concrete violation of the nomos, e.g. stealing horses. That hubris of which modern poets speak so often as something particularly Greek, i.e. transcending the limits of human nature and tempting the gods, is a special use of the word.”(Ch. 6, footnote 18, p. 442) back

16. Ch. 6, p. 109. One thinks of Montesquieu’s famous book The Spirit of the Laws (De l’esprit des lois, 1748). back
17. Ch. 6, p. 113, quoting Plato’s Laws.

Respect for law diminished over time. “The rule of law was later criticized, in the epoch of degenerate democracy, when many rash and despotic laws were hurried into existence.” (Ch. 6, p. 110) The sophists “contrasted nomos with physis” (nomos = law, physis = nature). The sophists regarded law as artificial. (Ch. 6, footnote 40, p. 444) Later Jaeger speaks of, “the philosophical revolution in moral standards which set up ‘nature’ as the sole norm for personal conduct.”(Ch. 7, p. 119) back

18. Ch. 6, p. 114. Jaeger speaks of “the genius of individual political leaders — who are always produced by exceptional conditions.” One thinks of Lincoln and Caesar, who were produced by exceptional conditions. back