Greek Campaign. - Page 3 - Myth-Weavers


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Greek Campaign.

Did I not mention Pyramids already? I meant to. Seriously, forget all this philosophy stuff and just read Pyramids.

I think the point CE is trying to make that Greek heroes are often like action movies heroes. "Heroic" there doesn't mean "good" it means "awesome", and they're too busy being awesome to worry about the finer points of morality. This doesn't mean there aren't ever moral quandaries but they're less of the "should I try to disable these henchmen nonlethally because life is sacrosanct" and more "which way to take violent vengeance upon these people is most appropriate" - that might in part be due simply to differing values then and now, but there's definitely an awesomeness over niceness angle.

I seem to remember catching five minutes of one of those really old films, with Nero and the persecution of the Christians. One of them basically says the same thing: it doesn't matter if you are good, so long as you are great. He was arguing that torching a whole city and then playing the fiddle over it is actually a pretty godly thing to do because, OK, some people burned to death and you didn't care, but also wow! It's a work of art of fantastic proportions. So, being a benevolent dictator and feeding the poor, that's OK, but making a Big Art Attack out of people's corpses? You're practically a deity already.

The closest thing the ancients had to benevolence was loyalty and devotion to one's city/tribe/family/etc. A Greek benefactor might very well generously fund projects for the welfare of his city. A benevolent warrior would definitely fight for the sake of his nation. But, while the weak and powerless might benefit from those actions, it wasn't usually the intention. A generous man would be honor bound to support his poor relations, but the beggar outside his family wasn't his problem. Indeed, consorting with such a beggar would be studiously avoided by the wealthy or important—you are who you choose to associate with.

It was that Nazarene who started pitching this crazy idea that we are all one nation and one family, and therefore the well being of every person is our concern.

That’s not really true, in two ways. On the pagan side, here’s an example of that sort of language, from Cicero.

And further, if Nature ordains that one man shall desire to promote the interests of a fellow-man, whoever he may be, just because he is a fellow-man, then it follows, in accordance with that same Nature, that there are interests that all men have in common. And, if this is true, we are all subject to one and the same law of Nature; and, if this also is true, we are certainly forbidden by Nature's law to wrong our neighbour. Now the first assumption is true; therefore the conclusion is likewise true. For that is an absurd position which is taken by some people, who say that they will not rob a parent or a brother for their own gain, but that their relation to the rest of their fellow-citizens is quite another thing. Such people contend in essence that they are bound to their fellow-citizens by no mutual obligations, social ties, or common interests. This attitude demolishes the whole structure of civil society.

Others again who say that regard should be had for the rights of fellow-citizens, but not of foreigners, would destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind; and, when this is annihilated, kindness, generosity, goodness, and justice must utterly perish; and those who work all this destruction must be considered as wickedly rebelling against the immortal gods. For they uproot the fellowship which the gods have established between human beings, and the closest bond of this fellowship is the conviction that it is more repugnant to Nature for man to rob a fellow-man for his own gain than to endure all possible loss, whether to his property or to his person . . . or even to his very soul — so far as these losses are not concerned with justice; for this virtue is the sovereign mistress and queen of all the virtues.
This is not original - it’s directly from Stoicism. In fact, the idea of humanity as “one nation” is a Stoic formulation: the Stoic idea of cosmopolis.

What is true about what you say, I think, is something more specific: that ancient pagans took very little account of the poor in particular, while Christianity makes charity to the poor a central moral obligation. It’s not, obviously, the case that no-one gave money to beggars before Christianity - there were beggars, after all. The Odyssey contains the most famous example of people looking after a beggar, the disguised Odysseus, and it’s clearly something that you’re expected to do.

But Christianity elevated charity to the poor to a major moral principle in a way that was not normal among pagans. I think it’s fair to say that the system of values of pagan Greeks and Romans on that point was formed in the comparatively egalitarian economic world of the early city-state and became increasingly unable to cope with societies that developed large (by the Roman period very large differences) between rich and poor.

So that’s very true, but should be disentangled from the much stronger claim that the only idea of “benevolence” in general that they had was loyalty to one’s group. Not the same thing. They weren’t fantasy orcs - they could feel compassion.

There’s another way in which I think what you say is not true: it wasn’t unprecedented within Jesus’s own moral tradition. Here’s Leviticus 19: 34.

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
The basic idea of looking after strangers would have been instantly familiar to a pagan Greek or Roman, of course. But note that the classic Christian formulation “love as yourselves” is already here, and is very strong. When Jesus uses it at Mark 12: 31, he’s talking within an existing Jewish tradition. Note also “as one born among you.”

And obviously, there’s no shortage of passages from the Old Testament about charity to the poor (e.g. Proverbs 19: 17).

I think we should always bear in mind that we are speaking about generalities, which will always be bogged down by exceptions. Ancient Greek morality, just like Christian or secular morality, could be a mixed bag once you moved beyond broad strokes. That being said, discussion about generalities is necessary if we want to work on a D&D alignment system for this campaign.


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