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1. Early History, 2. Later History, 3. Philosophers,
4. Appendix: Values, 5. Appendix: Geography.

Content created: 2019-09-26

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Ancient Greece

A Brief Introduction for College Students (4)

Appendix: Keywords & Greek Values

In the separate discussion of The Iliad on this site, the synopsis of the first book carried the title "Book 1: The Mēnis of Achilles," and the summary began by explaining that mēnis (μηνις) referred to god-level rage. A pop-up box provided more detail and showed how the word functioned in the full first line of the work. (Link)

But there are several additional "keywords" that appear in college discussions of ancient Greek thought and which remain of special interest today partly because they turn up in the myths and other "stories" that ancient Greeks told themselves. They center on (1) fate and (2) prophecy (which I will argue are closely related), (3) honor and (4) shame, (5) glory, (6) arrogance, and (7) conflict. Here is a quick overview:

  1. Fate (moíra μοίρα)
    The Greek word moíra originally referred to a part or portion of something. It could mean an army division, a setting at dinner, or one's share of an inheritance or in the spoils of a war raid. By extension, it could refer to one's lot in life, and even came to be seen as what one was entitled to in life. It was personified in the three Fates (Moirai Μοῖραι, literally "apportioners"), old women who measured out people's life-spans. In art they were shown as spinning, measuring, and cutting thread or yarn. (Note for the precociously curious.) Associated with this is the idea of fore-knowledge of fate, or prophecy.

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  1. Prophecy (proféteuma προφήτευμα)
    & the Gift of Prophecy (profeteía προφητεία).

    The possibility of knowledge of things yet to happen was an integral part of Greek religion. The roots of these two words mean "before" (pro) and "tell" (feti), in other words, to foretell. (Cross-cultural definition.)

    Some argue that the Greeks were fervent believers in predestination, and thus disbelievers in free will. An oracle could predict your future because your future, like everything else, had been established at the dawn of time; you had no control over it, no "agency."

    A contrasting, minority view (but mine) is that they were fascinated by the logical implications of the hypothetical situation of an effect (the foretelling) preceding its cause (the event foretold) and therefore potentially being partially or wholly self-causing. (A comparable feature of our own culture is the interest in time travel, and the logical conundrum posed by going back in time and interfering with one's own past, or bringing back knowledge from the future by which to manipulate the events that will cause it.)

    Interest in causes and effects is evident in much of ancient Greek thinking. An example would be Greek historians like Herodotus or Thucydides considering history to be more than just lists of "maps and chaps" or "battles and boys" (as Confucius tended to see events in his chroncile of the State of Lǔ), but rather trying to see how one event led to another. Greek religion, with its oracles, kept throwing up the prospect of an effect coming before its cause, and thus causing the cause itself, a logical contradiction. Effects, everybody knows, do NOT actually precede their causes. But what if …?

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  1. Honor (timē τιμη) &
  2. Shame (aidōs αἰδώς).
    Honor was the public recognition accorded to a person by others. As noted in the The Iliad Guide, back in Mycenaean times timē had an unfortunate tendency to mean booty gained in raids on innocent coastal towns. By classical times it was (again?) more simply public acclaim, but usually acclaim won over an opponent. Shame was what the opponent/loser had. Honor and shame were seen as a zero-sum game: my honor (timē) was the shame (aidōs) of my enemy. Not surprisingly, people actively in quest of honor were not usually sweethearts.

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Battle Scars on the Skull of a Winning (and Hence Glorious) Iron-Age Warrior. Important Life Lesson: Being glorious can get you hurt.
  1. Glory (kleos κλεος).
    Glory referred to awesome coolness enduring to the end of time. For Homer, as The Iliad makes clear, this coolness was won on the battlefield, and the Greeks never really abandoned that idea.

    (Indeed, until the age of photography, the idea that war was glorious was still widespread except among people who actually had experience in battle. The skull shown here with healed gashes in the bone and the probably fatal shattered left cheek is from an Iron Age warrior thought to have been triumphant. One of the great accomplishments of modern times is probably the realization encapsulated in the American proverb, "War is hell!")

    Contributing to one’s kleos was one’s arete ͗αρετέ, variously glossed as "perfection" or "excellence" or as " physical fitness," or as " bravery," " valor," or " manliness."

    But coolness obviously can have a basis in other things than warfare, and at least for modern people it is hardly limited to men. (After all, lots of college students are pretty cool —just look around you— and it has nothing to do with warfare.) Essentially, coolness is based in admiration. You can't be cool by yourself. You are cool when people admire you.

    Unfortunately, being the constant recipient of adulation for one's unparalleled coolness has the occupational hazard that it easily engenders arrogance.

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  1. Arrogance (hybris ὕβρις)
    Hybris was overbearing, self-satisfied pride. The word tended to be applied especially to arrogant people's deliberate degradation of other people through wanton violence (originally especially through rape), but the word could be used to express general revulsion at, say, a conceited and self-serving public official. Dictionaries tend to define the modern word hybris as over-confidence, condescension, excessive pride, insolence, contempt, and excessive violence.

    Importantly, Greek historians and rhetoricians alike tended to see the fall of people and nations as rooted in this "pride that goeth before a fall." (Note for the linguistically fanatical.)

    An ancient Greek looking at our world would probably have tried to predict the rise and fall of modern states based on their arrogance.(I have heard Europeans predict the fall of the United States because of its arrogance, or Chinese retrodict the collapse of the Soviet Union based on its arrogance. The argument seems to be one that keeps being reinvented and is not peculiar to ancient Greeks.)

    Many of these senses carry over when this word is borrowed into modern English. (Nobody uses "hybris" to refer to rape, but the word — usually spelled hubris — is surprisingly frequently used by politicians in American political campaigns to refer to the abuse of power, especially by office-holders who disagree with them.)

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  1. Conflict/Competition (agon ̓αγών); eris ̓έρις; stasis στάσις.)
    Greeks observed of themselves that they loved competition. This included athletic competition, of course, and various games, but it extended to contests between poets, potters, and dressmakers and of course to political factions and the more or less constant warfare among Greek states. The inability of southern Greek city-states to cooperate is often cited as the main reason they were unable to resist the incursion of Philip of Macedon in 338, setting the stage for the empire of his son Alexander the Great, and the birth of the Hellenistic world.

    agon ̓αγών. Competition in general could also be called agon ̓αγών, which referred to an arena or meeting-place or law court, but also to what went on there: combat, struggle, lawsuits as well as meetings and art contests. English gets the word “agonistic” from this source, referring to contests and combat. (This is the word used by animal behavior specialists for aggressive behavior between individual animals.)

    eris ͐έρις. Another word used for this was eris ͐έρις, usually glossed strife, discord, contention, animosity, quarrel, or combat. Eris appears as a goddess is the story of her throwing out the “apple of discord” that ultimately brought on the “Judgement of Paris” and the Trojan war, made famous in Homer’s Iliad. (English inherits this as the rare word “eristic,” applied to people who like to stir up dissention, usually using specious arguments.)

    stasis στάσις. Civil or factional strife was more often called stasis στάσις, which could also refer to one's condition or social standing. (We get words like “static,” “stationary,” “stature,” “station,” and “stasis” itself from it.) All-pervasive as it was in Greek local politics, stasis was often considered to be generally a bad thing, something to be feared, somewhat as Chinese political philosophers dreaded “chaos” (luàn ). The willingness to turn their affairs over to local strongmen (bullies? warlords?) is often associated with a fear of continuing stasis.

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Go to 1. Early History, 2. Later History, 3. Philosophers.
Go to 4. Appendix: Values (this page), 5. Appendix: Geography.

Background Design: Linear B Script, Greece, about 1200 BC
(based on a tablet from Pylos)