Aspects of Ancient Greek Moral Vocabulary: Illiberality and Servility in Moral Philosophy and Popular Morality

By Volt, Ivo | Trames, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Aspects of Ancient Greek Moral Vocabulary: Illiberality and Servility in Moral Philosophy and Popular Morality


Volt, Ivo, Trames


1. Introduction

This paper deals with some aspects of ancient Greek moral vocabulary against the background of the concept of liberality in ancient Greek society.

The distinction between popular morality and moral philosophy expressed in the title of the paper is to be understood the way that Sir Kenneth J. Dover has put it in his fundamental book Greek popular morality in the time of Plato and Aristotle (Dover 1974, abbreviated GPM): 'morality' of a culture denotes the principles, criteria and values which underlie its responses to various moral experiences; 'moral philosophy' or 'ethics' denotes rational, systematic thinking about the relationship between morality and reason (Dover 1974: 1). In addition, Dover asserts, there are other types of rational thinking about morality, which can be assigned to linguistics, psychology and sociology. The existence of the distinction between popular morality and moral philosophy or ethics should, in fact, be self-evident, and has been considered as such by recent writers (e.g. Taylor 1990:233).

Thus, two approaches are possible in this kind of study: a theoretical and a practical one. Theoretical discussion on ethical subjects from the antiquity is well preserved in the works of philosophers, whereas from the practical side, everyday use of moral language and the so-called popular morality, very little is known (see below, section 2, on ancient sources available). At the same time, the question of how things were functioning in practice is very intriguing, especially when Aristotle, the most important ancient theoretician on moral philosophy, puts practice in the first place (see, e.g., EN 1103b26).

2. Sources

In the preface of GPM, Dover has expressed his surprise on the fact that although there are many books about the history of moral concepts in early Greek poetry and in Attic tragedy, as well as treatises that follow the history of these concepts in the historians and philosophers, "none has treated works composed for the persuasion or amusement of large audiences as the primary evidence for the moral assumptions made by the average Athenian citizen during the years when Plato was writing the Republic or Aristotle the Nicomachean Ethics" (Dover 1974: XI). Although carefully avoiding the use of philosophical works in his treatment of popular morality, Dover agrees that the opinions and statements of the two great theorists whose works have survived, viz. Plato and Aristotle, form an inevitable background of the study of ancient Greek morality and values. Thus, they even appear in the title of Dover's book, although primarily as an indication of the temporal scope of the work.

The reason for this limitation in time is the fact that we are much better informed about the period 428-322 (from the birth of Plato until the death of Aristotle) than about any previous or subsequent period of Greek history. In these roughly one hundred years we find the whole Attic oratory, historians such as Thukydides and Xenophon, most of the surviving plays of Euripides, some of Sophokles, all comedies of Aristophanes, and nearly all the quotations from Old and Middle Comedy. The circulation of Herodotos' work almost coincided with the birth of Plato, and Menander's career began immediately after the death of Aristotle (see Dover 1974:4).

The second limitation is in space. Since the literature of the period is practically all written by Athenians or by participants in Athenian culture, it is reasonable to concentrate on moral phenomena of Athens (see Dover 1974:2, Pearson 1966:2).

Finally, the third limitation is in gender. It goes without saying that all of the moral philosophy of the period is written by men. Even if we would leave aside the philosophers, all other material that would tell us anything about popular morality is also written by men. Thus, we are dealing with the Athenian society in the 5th and 4th century B. …

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