Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Golden Rule Among the Ancient Greeks: The Problem of Greek Vergeltungsdenken

THE GOLDEN RULE HAD INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNINGS AND A CHECKERED HISTORY in the land of Hellas. Though the contribution of the Greeks to the wisdom of the world ought never to be underestimated, in the area of the Golden Rule it was markedly backward, especially when compared to the sophistication and maturity of thought displayed in the Confucian regime we have just reviewed. The development of the Golden Rule as a universal, moral principle was hampered in Greece by a number of historical idiosyncrasies. Specifically, the Greeks suffered various historical, cultural or conventional impediments to a full flowering of this concept. First, war was frequent among the Greeks, both among themselves and with their traditional enemies, the Persians. And where there is war, morals will suffer; as Cicero said, and as it is unfortunately the case, laws are silent in the times of war, which is one very good reason why war should be a last resort. In his book on the Golden Rule, Professor Jeffrey Wattles calls this the "ethic of factionalism." Wattles, 27. Second, the Greeks were encumbered by what Albrecht Dihle called called Vergeltungsdenken, what Wattles translates as "repayment thinking" or "repayment ethic," Wattles, 27, 30, a cultural or conventional impediment to the seeding, and certainly the full flowering, of the Golden Rule. The Greeks also suffered from an "us/them" bias, which hampered their ability to universalize their principles of right and wrong. They divided their world between Greek and the barbarian, the βάρβαρος or those rude of tongue and manners, and questionable humanity. In his Politics, Aristotle, quoting it would appear Euripides's play, Iphigenia in Aulis, states the common view of those outside the Greek domain: "It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians," and adds the justification: the poets thought that the barbarians and the slave were by nature one, and together inferior to the Greek.
διό φασιν οἱ ποιηταὶ
“βαρβάρων δ᾽ Ἕλληνας ἄρχειν εἰκός,”
ὡς ταὐτὸ φύσει βάρβαρον καὶ δοῦλον ὄν.
Arist., Pol., 1252b.

Hesiod and Muse from the Palais Bourbon

One cannot imagine, for example, an ordinary Greek helping a barbarian that had been attacked by thieves in the manner that the good Samaritan handled the Jew in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). And to suggest to the Greek that morality required such behavior would have been viewed as madness by them. Associated with their view against the barbarian, was the institution of slavery. As Frederick Douglass observed following the great Socratic tradition, the institution of slavery corrupts the slaveholder, as much as, or perhaps more than, the slave. Without the light of the Gospel, even as great a Greek as Aristotle could not say with the son of farmers, Abraham Lincoln, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."

Good Samaritan by Rembrandt

Aristotle's reference to the poets is not ill-placed, as they were the repository and voice of Greek culture. In fact, a brief turn to them reveals what may have been the greatest impediment to the Golden Rule taking root in any real fashion among the Greeks. It is quite evident from a review of Greek literary corpus that the Greeks were imbued with a Vergeltungsdenken, a "repayment thinking," that ran very deep. It ran every bit as deep as the typical American's belief in free speech, or freedom of religion, or the right to do what he wants with his or her body, all conventional notions that are simply accepted by us as absolutes uncritically. Only few Americans will stop to think that there may be moral restrictions on speech, on belief, and on the use of one's body and faculties. Those few who see that there are moral restrictions on these supposed rights will not be able to convince the many of their error in absolutizing these civil rights. As some of these conventional American views can hamper Americans in recognizing the natural moral law as it may relate to, say, defamation or detraction, the obligation to believe only what is the true and not just that which we find convenient or agreeable, divorce and remarriage, contraception or homosexuality, so likewise were the Greeks hampered by their Vergeltungsdenken. The moral well of the Greeks was severely poisoned, as it were, by the view that the moral law did not forbid, but even required one to do harm to one's enemies. "Ancient Greece was awash with the practice of doing good to one's friends and harm to one's enemies--cardinal virtues of the age." Wattles, 29. Potential citations to this principle are legion, and we shall satisfy ourselves with a few:

In his Work and Days, the poet Hesiod states:
Call your friend to a feast; but leave your enemy alone.
. . .
Be friends with the friendly, and visit him who visits you.
Give to one who gives, but do not give to one who does not give.

τὸν φιλέοντ᾽ ἐπὶ δαῖτα καλεῖν, τὸν δ᾽ ἐχθρὸν ἐᾶσαι:
. . .
τὸν φιλέοντα φιλεῖν, καὶ τῷ προσιόντι προσεῖναι.
καὶ δόμεν, ὅς κεν δῷ, καὶ μὴ δόμεν, ὅς κεν μὴ δῷ.
ll. 342-43; 352-54 (tr. Hugh G. Evelyn White).

Archilochus (ca. 680 BC - 645 BC), perhaps the first Western poet to write lyric poetry, and whose works survive mainly in fragments, left us enough fragments to make it clear that he had pronounced views on the had the handling of friends and enemies:
I know how to love those who love me,
how to hate the enemy.

One important thing I know,
How to repay with terrible evils the one who mistreats me.

ἐπ]ίσταμαί τοι τὸν φιλ[έο]ν[τα] μὲν φ[ι]λεῖν[,
τὸ]ν δ᾽ ἐχθρὸν ἐχθαίρειν τε [κα]ὶ κακο[στομέειν

ἓν δ᾽ ἐπίσταμαι μέγα,
τὸν κακῶς <μ᾽ ἔ>ρδοντα δέννοισ᾽ ἀνταμείβεσθαι κακοῖς.
Arch., 23:14-15, 126 (West).

The famous poet Pindar, equally recites the commonly accepted principle in one of his Pythian Odes:
Let me befriend a friend,
but against an enemy, I shall, as his enemy, run him down as a wolf does, stalking now here, now there, on twisting paths.

φίλον εἴη φιλεῖν:
ποτὶ δ᾽ ἐχθρὸν ἅτ᾽ ἐχθρὸς ἐὼν λύκοιο δίκαν ὑποθεύσομαι,
ἄλλ᾽ ἄλλοτε πατέων ὁδοῖς σκολιαῖς.
Pindar, Pythian Odes 2.83-85 (tr. William H. Race).

The Greek playwrights are no less brutal than the poets--the vengeance ethic of the poets is simply writ in dialogue or in chorus. Thus Aeschylus in his Libation Bearers:
ELECTRA. And is it right for me to ask this of the gods?
CHORUS. How could it not be right to repay and enemy with ills?

Ἠλέκτρα: καὶ ταῦτά μοὐστὶν εὐσεβῆ θεῶν πάρα;
Χορός: πῶς δ᾽ οὐ τὸν ἐχθρὸν ἀνταμείβεσθαι κακοῖς?
Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 122-123 (tr. Herbert Weir Smyth).

Sophocles in his noble play, Antigone, expresses the common notion in the voice of his character Creon:
It is for this that men pray:
to sire and raise in their homes children who are obedient,
that they may requite their father's enemy with evil
and honor his friend, just as their father does.

τούτου γὰρ οὕνεκ᾽ ἄνδρες εὔχονται γονὰς
κατηκόους φύσαντες ἐν δόμοις ἔχειν,
ὡς καὶ τὸν ἐχθρὸν ἀνταμύνωνται κακοῖς
καὶ τὸν φίλον τιμῶσιν ἐξ ἴσου πατρί.
Sophocles, Antigone 641-644 (tr. Sir Richard Jebb).

Indeed, no law, much less a "Golden Rule," stands in the way of harming one's enemy, if Euripides's account of it in his play Ion is to be considered in the voice of Creusa's tutor:
But whenever someone wants to do harm to enemies,
no law stands in the way.

ὅταν δὲ πολεμίους δρᾶσαι κακῶς
θέλῃ τις, οὐδεὶς ἐμποδὼν κεῖται νόμος.
Euripides, Ion 1046-1047 (tr. Robert Potter).

Not only is there no law against harming enemies, the principle may have been viewed as obligatory, or so it would seem in the Greek speechwriter Lysia's (ca. 445-380 BC) speech "For the Soldier":
I considered it ordained that one should harm one's enemies and serve one's friends.

ἡγούμενος τετάχθαι τοὺς μὲν ἐχθροὺς κακῶς ποιεῖν.
Lysias 9.20 (tr. W.R.M. Lamb).

In his great work Republic, Plato initiates the dialogue between Socrates and Simonides by the following definition of the art of justice or righteousness (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosyne):
“ . . . tell me the art that renders what to whom would be denominated justice.”
“If we are to follow the previous examples, Socrates, it is that which renders benefits and harms to friends and enemies.”
“To do good to friends and evil to enemies, then, is justice in his meaning?”
“I think so.”

“εἶεν: ἡ οὖν δὴ τίσιν τί ἀποδιδοῦσα τέχνη δικαιοσύνη ἂν καλοῖτο.”
“εἰ μέν τι, ἔφη, δεῖ ἀκολουθεῖν, ὦ Σώκρατες, τοῖς ἔμπροσθεν εἰρημένοις, ἡ τοῖς φίλοις τε καὶ ἐχθροῖς ὠφελίας τε καὶ βλάβας ἀποδιδοῦσα.”
“τὸ τοὺς φίλους ἄρα εὖ ποιεῖν καὶ τοὺς ἐχθροὺς κακῶς δικαιοσύνην λέγει.”
“δοκεῖ μοι.”
Plato, Republic 1.7.332d (tr. Paul Shorey).

The notion of limiting the Golden Rule to friends, and not to enemies, necessarily meant that the Golden Rule would be used in a utilitarian fashion: that is, the rule is to be applied when it favors me, but not when it does not. This is expediency, the opposite of morality; or it is tribalism, a sophomoric morality. And so Jeffrey Wattles in his The Golden Rule concludes, despite the efforts of the philosophers:
The golden rule had a difficult birth in the West . . . No author used a golden rule maxim as a hub around which to gather great themes. None proposed the rule as the leading principle of morality.
It is within this conventional and cultural view of morality that the Greeks references to a Golden Rule sort of ethic must be understood. That will be the topic of our next blog entries. What we will see is that the principle of the Golden Rule was injected into the Greek mix by the Sophist Isocrates. But the real efforts at overcoming the Vergeltungsdenken to which the Greeks were captive were made by Socrates and Plato (and later Aristotle), who challenged and judged the propriety of that moral principle. Though it was not until centuries later that such a principle was generalized, distilled of its cultural stain, and adopted in a more-or-less rarefied form by the Stoics. Until the Stoic effort, the little there was of the Golden Rule thinking remained "within the technology of self interest," Wattles, 30, and, as a result, culturally stillborn.

The Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell


  1. On the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

    First off, race is not an issue here. The Good Samaritan revovles around Jewish society and its norms. Notice that Jesus does not use the word "Jew" or point to normal everyday Jews in their business. (If one doesn't know Jewish Law, one misses the whole point of the story.) Jesus picked a Priest and a Levite. They were officers of the religion, not normal, everyday Jews. Jewish law stipulates that if anybody comes into contact with blood, they are unclean and have to go thru a ritual to be cleansed. Obviously, these two religious authorities did not go to the help of the man, since he was bloodied up by the robbery and they would be unclean.

    A Samaritan comes by and helps the man. What the two religious officials failed to do, an everyday person who was also a Samaritan, did. "Duty to his fellow man". Samaritans basically were Hebrews, a different tribe than the Jews but not racially different. The difference between Jews and Samaritans was of Religion---not of Race. The moral of the story is that the jobs of the two officials were more important than in the religious duty of helping their fellow man.

    I think it is a big mistake to bring race into the picture. Furthermore, Jesus does not mention the race of the wounded man. It was two religious authorities who refused to help their own kinsmen because of a "ritual" of being unclean. Jesus was in a sense attacking the Mosaic Law where the purity and cleanliness, and acceptance of a man is more important than the real help of tending to a seriously wounded man. There is something disgusting there. Religious notions of cleanliness trumping the helping of someone in need.

  2. I agree with your context of Christ's parable, the reason why the Levite and priest were selected, and the issue of ritual purity, and will address those when I get to the formulation in the Christian religious tradition. And of course, the selection of the Samaritan, essentially a person viewed as a heretic, is also and important choice. I think Jesus was not suggesting racial divides, but religious and ethical ones. I was simply trying to make the point that the Greeks did see their world in a racial sense.