Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature

By Douglas L. Cairns | Go to book overview
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Moving from archaic poetry to drama we return to a genre which, like epic, represents the action of human characters in a context in which they possess their own status, function, and motivation, and which involves their interaction both with the events which constitute the plot of the piece and with other characters; we are thus able to observe the operation of aidōs and related concepts in beings who, while they are not accorded the multiplicity of traits and idiosyncrasies which may constitute the personalities of real people, are nevertheless presented for the consideration of real people as representations of human agents. Tragedy may be the representation of an action, as Aristotle insists, but action, if it is to be intelligible at all, requires human agency, and intelligible human agency requires motivation, states of mind, character.1 In Aeschylus and the other tragedians the complex of terms centred on aidōs occurs with some frequency; these terms themselves (like a multitude of others) refer to states of mind, to features of personality, to motivation, and thus it should be one of the great mysteries of scholarship that it was ever objected that concepts of this type, or the concept of character tout court, should not be imported into the study of Greek tragedy. Given the explicit emphasis of the texts on states of mind and motivation, we cannot do other than take these elements into consideration. To be sure, we cannot approach the characters of Greek tragedy as though they possess personality which extends beyond the play as read or seen in performance, nor can we look for characterization behind or beyond what is

As Arist. well knew, at least in so far as he regarded it as normal that tragic action should manifest the ethical character of the agent; see Halliwell ( 1986: 149-67), who is also correct in pointing out (164-5) that Arist.'s emphasis in his discussion of ēthos is on the generic and the normative (very much on the possession of excellence of character and its expression in action), and it may well be that the practice of the tragedians was in this respect more likely to meet his tastes than ours, but it is my impression that the role of character in tragedy itself goes somewhat beyond Arist.'s limits, and in particular that the personae of tragedy evaluate each other and set forth their own motives in language which does more than merely illustrate a significant moral choice (proairesis); it is this impression that I hope to substantiate below by means of the light that study of aidōs, etc. can shed on character and motivation in tragedy.


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Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature


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