The gray moral world of the Greeks

Listening to the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast on The Iliad was very interesting. As some readers know, I came across Greek mythology as a child. Though I began with Bulfinch’s Mythology, I did not stop there. Soon enough I moved beyond the juvenile material, and read darker, more violent and sexual material that to be entirely frank I was not prepared to comprehend.

Of course, Greek myths are not the only literature from the ancient world which contains adult material. Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible highlights those stories passed down from Hebrew tradition which are perhaps glossed over. The young David’s defeat of the giant Goliath is known to all schoolchildren. Less well publicized to the religiously illiterate American public is his adultery with Bathsheba (though obviously more observant people are quite aware of this aspect of his biography).

In the podcast above there is extensive discussion of the fact that the Trojans are not depicted as evil in The Iliad. As someone who came to maturity at the end of the 20th century, this struck me as somewhat strange as a child. I grew up on a diet of films about evil Nazi and Communist adversaries. The game of great powers for me was also fundamentally a moral one. We were the good guys. They were the bad guys.

In reading The Iliad it was difficult for me to understand why the Trojans were often depicted as such noble characters. And it wasn’t clear that the Greeks were good and moral. I particularly recall the vicious brutality of Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son.

This comes to mind because of late due to the popularity of George R. R. Martin’s work there has been a rise in popularity of gritty and morally gray works of speculative fiction. And when I read histories of World War I, it is also not entirely clear to me that the Central Powers were truly malevolent and dark forces. I do wonder if the second half of the 20th century was a world of exceptionally stark blacks and whites, of an almost Manichaean vision of conflict which emerged out of World War II, and continued with the rise of global Communism.


16 thoughts on “The gray moral world of the Greeks

  1. The Iliad was used recently to argue that our stories only recently shifted from amoral to moralistic, though Scott Alexander submits that argument to some checks here.

  2. i’ve thought a bit about this. i don’t think the greeks were as amoral as *the iliad* makes them seem to be. that is, the gods are particularly juvenile in that set of poems. there are other areas where they enforce oaths, abhor incest, and punish cannibalism.

  3. When you came across Ramayana, Mahabharata etc. didn’t you find greyness? Ekalavya, Karna, frequent praise of Duryodhana and Ravana etc.?

  4. I read the Three Musketeers a long time ago, but I remember being surprised of how nicely the bad guys are shown, from the foot soldiers acting in quite chivalrous ways, to Milady behaving honourably at some points. I guess that my expectations at that point were driven by Hollywood baddies being a bunch of cheating, lying, stupid cowards.

  5. Perhaps with “mass communication” (radio, television, centralized newspapers), multiplied by post-agrarian Industrial Society loss of isolated-idiosyncratic thought, mid-20th century was Peak Propaganda.

    Now we have post-industrial interweb fractionated info-landscape, ergo no competing ‘whole-continents’ unified Social Visions. A return to villager-style idiosyncratic localized-to-self-and-clan reality-models.

  6. Iliad is way more gray than the Mahabharata. And Ramayana is straight up Manichean. Karna this and Karna that, but at the end of the day one side is led by the literal son of dharma and the other is led by the reincarnation of Kali.

    When I taught this book to Chinese teenagers it was an interesting experience. Homer makes a point of–just when he is about to have someone killed off–telescoping out and devote two or three line to this guy was in normal times, how is wife or mother will miss him, etc. I would ask them to imagine something similar happening in one of the many Sino-Japanese war films that litter Chinese TV.

    I also think you can make a strong argument that in the Iliad the only characters who truly can be moral are the mortals. For the gods, actions have no consequences. Their hierarchy is defined solely by power; their decisions are guided almost entirely by caprice. For the mortals things do not work that way. Agamemnon, Hector, and the rest must be judged by more than their strength. But more than, their decisions *matter* in a way that the gods’ decisions do not. For them the Trojan War is an amusement. Life or death of those below means nothing to them. In contrast, to the humans life and death means *everything.* The decision to participate in the war or to flee from it are thus imbued with incredible meaning. I have always thought that part of the reason the gods are included in the story is to emphasize this theme.

  7. When I first encountered it I was actually quite persuaded by the article refered to in TGGP’s link, but actually yes, thinking again, probably a bit of a risk to rely heavily on The Iliad as a source to the moral stances of Hellenic Civilization on the reality and centrality of good and evil. Even more so about Bronze Age or pre-modern societies in general.

    When we consider what the Iliad is, it seems to me, closest to a hybrid of heroic adventure, a war epic and epic tragedy (the last as perhaps invented by and unique to Greek civilization, in their time).

    By heroic adventure stories, I mean works like The Three Musketeers as referred to upthread, or the Conan stories of Robert Howard and generally the classic “pulp” adventure stories. Those don’t always emphasize the absolute moral supremacy of the hero, in favour of presenting honorable, respectable adversaries.

    War epics also tend to often emphasize the destructiveness and brutality of war irrespective of the moral character of participants, and the frequent honor of the enemy, particular where the conflict is centuries old. For example, in the US by the early 20th century the cultural descendants of the North were open to the idea of the South in the Civil War as an honorable, noble adversary, or at least its soldiers and generals (to recent backlash!).

    Finally, heroic tragedy (which the Greek invented or placed an unusual degree of emphasis on) focuses on the undoing of heroic figures by being caught up in events beyond their control, or by a simple mistake, however great they are. That doesn’t work if we start from the proposition that most of these figures were knaves without redeeming qualities.

    And The Iliad perhaps isn’t either intended to offer a moral guiding light to its society, or a moral justification for supremacy of the societal context; instead if anything (if it has any societal “purpose” at all) it’s perhaps more about supporting the socializing and instructing the elite and mass of the Hellenistic world society into realities of war.

  8. A comparison to the Odyssey with all its talk about justice and Zeus and Zeus’ justice is illuminating.

  9. IIRC, the Hays Code the major Hollywood studios operated under, and similar standards at the TV networks forbid depicting villains in an overly sympathetic light (or showing heroes as being overly conflicted).

  10. Re: T. Greer:

    “Homer makes a point of–just when he is about to have someone killed off–telescoping out and devote two or three line to this guy was in normal times, how is wife or mother will miss him, etc. ”

    Shifting to a, ah, rather more lowbrow mode, one of the things that is striking to me about the original Gundam (a giant robot cartoon from the 70s, in which the antagonists are a bunch of space colonists who have declared independence from Earth and are now trying to conquer it) is how it does this with almost every named enemy character who dies. Almost every time, you have a short follow on arc where their grieving lovers or relatives try and take revenge on the protagonists, or at minimum a scene of them weeping. The antagonists are reminiscent of the Axis powers, and the creators are Japanese, so it isn’t entirely surprising, but it is pretty “grey” for a kiddy TV series designed to sell toys.

  11. The amorality of the Greek world is what Nietzsche based his “Genealogy of Morals” on. It makes them supermen in his ideology because they determine the moral code by which they choose to live. He rails against the Jews and Christians for having enslaved men to an absolute inhuman (divine) morality.

    Crossing into the axial age, the Greeks, like other civilizations (China: Confucius, India: Buddha, Persia: Zoroaster, Jews: Prophets) discovered that a transcendent moral code is necessary to maintain a civilized order, and their philosophers tried to craft one, E.g. Plato ends “The Republic” by describing divine judgement on the souls of the dead and counsels morality:

    “Wherefore my counsel is, that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.”

    Going from that to Christianity was not such a great leap.

  12. It’s funny, because I made a related observation on Facebook (and elsewhere) a few weeks back. Basically that there is something of a popular culture backlash right now against “gritty” stories which involve flawed protagonists, with critics often desiring main characters who are more relatable with less negative traits. The implication seems to be that this is only a modernist invention. However if you look at how Odysseus is depicted by Homer – as a man often blinded by his own hubris – or the arcs of say Macbeth and Hamlet – it’s pretty clear that flawed protagonists are foundational to the very idea of fiction. The idea of the pure and uncomplicated “hero” seems to be more the modern invention.

  13. “The young David’s defeat of the giant Goliath is known to all schoolchildren. Less well publicized to the religiously illiterate American public is his adultery with Bathsheba (though obviously more observant people are quite aware of this aspect of his biography).”

    Portugueses and Brazilians from my generation probably learn about that (not only the defeat of Goliath but also the adultery) in.. a children’s TV show.


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