'The ancient Greeks and me...'
Published .pdf article (modern Greek)
You can read Prof. Cairns' original English version below.
The Greeks and me
Douglas L. Cairns MA, PhD, FHEA, FRSE, MAE
Professor of Classics, University of Edinburgh
Ever since I started my PhD in 1983 I have been working on ancient Greek emotions. This is inevitably a comparative enterprise: whatever modern culture we belong to, we look at ancient Greek culture from a very considerable historical and cultural distance. But if we acknowledge that distance, we can turn it to our advantage. We learn most about the Greeks and ourselves when we make our modern assumptions explicit and use our findings about the ancient world to interrogate modern beliefs and practices.
This mutual entanglement of self- and other-knowledge is central to ancient Greek culture, as we see already in that culture’s most seminal artefact, the Iliad. The poem begins with a breach of communally respected values, when Agamemnon arbitrarily dishonours Achilles and deprives him of his captive, a mark of the esteem in which Achilles is held by the army. As the poem announces in its very first word, Achilles’ response is anger, of a prodigious and destructive kind. Achilles has been unjustly treated in a situation in which he had a right to expect respect and reciprocity. His anger focuses on his own feelings, on the injustice that he has suffered. But in order to prove to Agamemnon that he is not the sort of man to be treated in this way, he invokes destruction on his comrades. Some of his closest comrades beg him to return to the fighting, but, though he softens his stance to some extent, he does not fully relent. Only when his dearest friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hector does he remember what comradeship really means. Comradeship with Patroclus drives Achilles to savagery towards Hector. Yet Achilles eventually returns Hector’s corpse for burial, out of respect, admiration, and pity for Hector’s aged father. By the end of the poem, Achilles has moved from focus on his own suffering to a realization, prompted by another person’s pain, that all human beings suffer.
The encounter between Achilles and Priam in Iliad 24 is one of the roots of western humanism. Priam appeals to Achilles as a father, and Achilles recognizes that his own father, Peleus, will likewise soon mourn the loss of his only son. A fundamental condition for pity in the ancient Greek imagination – that others’ sufferings should be the kind of thing that we can envisage happening to ourselves – is powerfully activated. But Achilles goes beyond that recognition, powerful though it is: he recognizes that not only he and Priam, but all human beings are united in suffering.
This is the message conveyed by his consolatory parable of the two jars of Zeus. The gods live without care, but to mortals Zeus gives (in the worst case) nothing but evils, or at best a mixture of good and bad. For all of us in the latter category, life is a matter of alternation and change.
The ideas that this passage represents recur again and again in ancient Greek literature and thought – in lyric poetry, historiography, and tragedy, as well as in Aristotle’s account of the nature of εὐδαιμονία and in his theory of poetry. For Polybius, Plutarch, and others, it is how people deal with the mutability of fortune that tells us what kind of person they are. Repeatedly, Greek thought returns to the basic problems of instability and uncertainty in human affairs, and to the bonds that this shared vulnerability creates between us. Progress and achievement are defined with reference to the limits that constrain us all and the inevitability that success will be accompanied by failure. Failure derives both from the things we do, in the blind hope of success, but also from things that happen to us, because our ability to bend the world to our will is severely constrained. We err and we transgress, but we are also at the mercy of fate and fortune. It is how we deal with these things that matters.
Modern scholars often portray the ancient Greeks in agonistic terms, as if only self-assertion mattered. But ancient ethics placed the individual in contexts, both cosmic and social, in which self-assertion is tempered by considerations of one’s place in the world and the claims of others. Dishonoured by Agamemnon, Achilles seeks to re-establish his τιμή. But he is reminded that the τιμή he owes his friends also matters. And when, in the end, Zeus sets up a scenario that will bring Achilles κῦδος, that glory rests not in competitive achievement, but in the respect that Achilles accords a vulnerable old man, a man whose bravery, in kissing the hands that killed his son, rivals Achilles’ own. The idea that the esteem we seek for ourselves is reciprocally dependent on the esteem we owe others is one of the most fundamental of the lessons that the ancient Greeks teach us. Thanks to funding from the European Research Council, it is also the focus of a five-year University of Edinburgh research project on Honour in Classical Greece. As we continue to learn from the ancient Greeks, so we continue to learn about ourselves.
Douglas L. Cairns