HOMERIC GREEK IDEALS
HOMERIC GREEK IDEALS
The cornerstone of ancient Greek values was reciprocity, or mutual exchange between two or more people. In Homeric Greece, there was no "national", formal system of government or trade. Greek-speaking people relied on reciprocity, a simple system of transaction. For instance, if I offered you a jar of olive oil for your spear, and if you considered this a fair trade, then both of us would benefit from this reciprocal transaction. On the other hand, if I was not a very nice person, I could hit you over the head and take the spear. This kind of trade is called negative reciprocity. Negative reciprocity only works if the victim cannot retaliate. Negative reciprocity took place because there were no national or local laws (or police) to govern behavior. The raiding of cities became an acceptable, allowable behavior.
However, there may be times when I may want to give a gift, not expecting something in return immediately. Suppose that something terrible happens to my home like a fire, or someone has stolen all my belongings. I might come to you and ask for some provisions. Since I have nothing to repay you, there is no question of an exchange. A long-term loan is not really practical because there is no writing at this time. So you reason that if you give me some food, I may not repay you, but some day if something terrible happens to you, I could help you out as you did me. You do this because you would like to rely on the kindness of others at some future date, which is still an act of belief in reciprocity. You are simply not expecting reciprocity at the moment. This is known as deferred reciprocity. This sort was used extensively by travelers (especially in The Odyssey). Deferred reciprocity, indeed any form of positive reciprocity, relies on the honor and good will of all participants. Honor, or areté, became an essential value for the ancient Greeks.
The idea of areté is perhaps the strongest and clearest value of Homeric Greek culture. Translated as "virtue", the word actually means something closer to "being the best you can be", or "reaching your highest human potential". From Homer’s time onwards, areté was applied to both men and women. Homer applies the term to both the Greek and Trojan heroes as well as the female figures such as Penelope, wife of Odysseus. In Homer’s poems, areté is often closely associated with bravery, but even more often with effectiveness. The man or woman of areté is a person of the highest effectiveness. They use all their faculties – strength, bravery, intelligence and deceptiveness – to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, areté involves all of the abilities and potential available to humans. The importance of areté implies that the Greeks saw their universe as one in which human actions are of extreme importance – that the world is a place of conflict and difficulty, and human value and meaning are measured against how effective each individual is in the world. In many ways, the Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are celebrations of areté. In Homer, even non-human beings such as noble horses and powerful gods may possess areté.
Areté became the ideal of human excellence, and quickly became fused to the ideal of leadership. The Greeks believed that the qualities areté and leadership were inseparable. Unusual or exceptional strength, and bravery or wit were seen as natural manifestations of both areté and leadership. Odysseus’ clever escape from and defeat of Polyphemus are examples of his natural areté, the qualities that make him a leader.
Two other values became intertwined with those of areté and leadership. Those values are kleos, or glory, and aidos, the sense of duty. A noble’s areté, in Homer, is illustrated by his skill and strength as an soldier in war, and as an athlete in peace. War provided the opportunity for the display of areté and the winning of kleos. Achilles is probably the Greek hero most closely associated with kleos as an aspect of areté – though Achilles often displays characteristics that the modern person may consider negative, the ancient Greek would recognize him as clearly possessing areté. The second important aspect of areté is aidos. In his personal conduct as a leader or noble, a Homeric heroine such as Penelope displayed this sense of duty as evidence of areté. Penelope remains true to her absent husband and cleverly avoids her impatient suitors (the old weaving trick – more evidence of her areté!).
Ultimately, areté meant the union of intellectual and physical excellence – the realization of a person’s full potential. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles is reminded by his tutor Phoenix to seek the aristocratic ideal of areté – he must be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.
Xenia means guest-friendship or hospitality. In Homeric Greece, Xenia was practiced with great enthusiasm. The idea of xenia is closely linked to the idea of aidos – it was one’s duty to be hospitable. Xenia is also a form of deferred reciprocity. Both guest and host were expected to act with respect and courtesy. It was expected that a guest would be treated to the finest a household had to offer. Poor treatment of a guest could bring down the wrath of Zeus, protector of travelers and guests. The Odyssey is filled with examples of bad hosts (Polyphemus) and bad guests (Penelope’s suitors). According to the traditions of xenia, a guest of any social class must be treated with extreme respect. As if to test this value, many Greek characters, human and divine, often travel in disguise.
Xenia evolved from the simple fact that if a lone traveler is turned away from a house, he or she could die from starvation or exposure. Xenia ensured that a traveler would not be turned away from any house. The poet Hesiod illustrates the importance of the guest-friend’s relationship to the host by placing the murder of a guest-friend on a level with the most heinous crimes he could think of:
Has there not abounded in them murder of brothers and fathers and guest-friends; matricide and incest and begetting of children by sons with their own mothers; feasting of a father on the flesh of his own sons, plotted by those nearest of kin; exposure of infants by parents, and drownings and blindings and other iniquities so many in number that no lack of material has ever been felt by those who are wont each year to present in the theatre the miseries which transpired in those days? (Hesiod, Works & Days)
This society also valued ergon, or good hard work. Without it, no society can exist. The value of ergon became associated with areté, as Hesiod explains:
...work...so that Hunger may hate you, and venerable Demeter richly crowned may love you and full your barn with food...Both gods and men are angry with a man who lives idle, for in nature he is like the stingless drones who waste the labor of the bees, eating without working; but let it be your care to order your work properly, that in the right season your barns may be full of victual. Through work men grow rich in flocks and substance, and in working you will be much better loved both by gods and men; for they greatly dislike the idle.
Work is no disgrace: it is idleness which is a disgrace. But if you work, the idle will soon envy you as you grow rich, for fame and renown attend on wealth. And whatever be your lot, work is best for you, if you turn your misguided mind away from other men's property to your work and attend to your livelihood as I bid you. An evil shame is the needy man's companion, shame which both greatly harms men; shame is with poverty, but confidence with wealth. (Hesiod, Works & Days)
Even for a kings like Odysseus and Priam, manual labor was seen as a sign of virtue. Priam built the palace at Troy with his own hands; Odysseus is an accomplished carpenter (I couldn't build a bed around the trunk of an olive tree, could you?)