BMCR 1995.02.17

1995.02.17, Yamagata, Homeric Morality

, Homeric morality. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 131. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994. xiv, 261 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9789004098725 $71.50.

Yamagata’s book attempts to answer two questions: Are Homeric gods concerned with justice? and what mechanisms control the social behavior of Homeric man? As such, Y. conducts a running conversation with A. W. H. Adkins’ classic Merit and Responsibility (Oxford 1960) and H. Lloyd-Jones’The Justice of Zeus (Berkeley 1971), though her book can be read profitably without reference to either.

The book is divided into two parts, the first entitled “Morality of the Homeric Gods.” In Chapter One, “Moral Functions Attributed to the Gods,” Y. catalogues various roles which gods are said to fulfill as moral beings. Y. notes that, though Zeus xeinios is supposed to protect strangers and reward others who do the same, he is indifferent to the Phaeacians’ service to Odysseus and to the outrageous abuse of xeinia by Cyclops and by Heracles. Zeus is also protector of suppliants ( hiketesios) and invoked as protector of oaths, but he shows no interest in the slaying of such suppliants as Lycaon, and Zeus himself incites the breaking of solemn oaths in Iliad 3. Zeus is also said to uphold dike and themis, but when does he do so? In general, Y. observes, men’s expectations about the gods’ roles as moral agents simply do not accord with their behavior.

Chapter 2, “The Fall of Troy,” discusses apparent exceptions. The story of Troy’s fall may, for example, be taken to show how Zeus punishes Paris’ violation of xeinia. Yet in the Iliad Paris himself is never punished for his transgression and nowhere does Homer suggest that he will be; in many asides the gods are blamed for the war (of course the gods stand behind everything). Zeus, protector of xeinia favors Troy and would save it if he could; Hera and Athena prosecute the city’s destruction.

The death of the suitors may seem another example of divine wrath that follows sinful action, and Chapter 3, “The Death of the Suitors,” explores this topic. The suitors have eaten Odysseus’ pigs, slept with the maidservants (Odysseus’ property), bothered Penelope, and been unkind to strangers, and seem ripe objects for divine anger. But Odysseus punishes them quite without divine assistance (though Athena watches), and then must face the suitors’ families who are bent on righteous vengeance. Athena favors Odysseus, true, but not from admiration of just principles, and her sponsorship proves nothing about the gods’ concern for justice among mankind in general.

Chapter 4, “Phoenix’s Allegory,” which appeared earlier in similar form in Classical Quarterly, takes off from the allegory of the Litai in Book 9 to discuss the vexed term ate, prelude to disaster. Y. rejects common interpretations of Phoenix’ allegory as explaining the impending death of Patroclus as punishment for Achilles’ refusal to receive his companions’ supplication; the poet never uses ate to describe Achilles’ behavior. Y. explains Patroclus’ death, rather, as resulting from Patroclus’ own foolish rejection of Achilles’ advice about how to behave on the battlefield. She denies that ate is sent by the gods within a general moral framework.

Chapter 5, “The Rainstorm of Zeus—Dike and Themis,” discusses these central terms in archaic thought. She reviews the meaning of dike as “typical behavior,” perhaps related to deiknumi in the original sense of “pointing out” the boundary stones of a field. dike, then, is custom, a human and not divine sanction. Where there is dispute about dike, Homeric kings decide what really is usual behavior and on that basis make their decisions. Their dikai are pronounced in accordance with what will promote social harmony (a procedure familiar in “shame culture,” thought Y. does not say so). Sometimes, in similes and on the Shield of Achilles, we hear of elders, basilees, who make crooked dikai, for bribery may corrupt a group while a single king is in a better position to stand on principle.

As dike is judgment based on perceived custom, themis is a rule of behavior based on divine sanction. Y. compares at length the use of these terms in Homer and Hesiod and shows how humble characters in Homer—Eumaeus, Philoetius, the beggar Odysseus—speak in the same moralizing terms that Hesiod uses speaking in his own voice. Homer seems to present two separate and parallel systems for the administration of dikai and the endorsement of themistes, rules that enjoy divine sanction: that of just and godfearing kings, who lived in an age of heroes and protected their interests with the power of the sword, and that of his own day, when gift-devouring basilees cannot be trusted and one can hope for true justice only from the righteous gods angered over human misbehavior.

Chapter 6, “Divine Anger and Morality,” discusses other possible incidents of anger from the gods inspired by human misdeeds and reiterates that gods do not respond according to principle but from personal grudges, anger, and other emotions all too human. The gods are particularly sensitive to a loss of time, respect, and such resentments may on occasion transcend the petty spite which usually motivates their action; after all, time due the gods constitutes part of the moira which makes gods gods and men men. Nonetheless, divine anger remains “moira -oriented, not morally-motivated,” as Y. puts it.

Part Two opens the second topic, the “Morality of Homeric Man.” Chapter 7, “Fate, Gods, and Men,” presents a close study of the meaning of the words moira, aisa, and cognates. Rigorous expectations determine the behavior of both men and gods and everyone has his own lot within whose limits one must act. To go beyond one’s portion, hyper moiran, as Aegisthus did when he slew Agamemnon, is to invite personal catastrophe; in this sense at least one’s lot forms the basis for moral decisions.

Chapter 8, “Honour and Revenge,” explores other key concepts. Time, too, is portion—one’s share of respect in society—but unlike moira it can go up and down (like the stock market) and the slighting of time can lead to horrific consequences: the theme of the Iliad. Chapter 9, “Forces that Restrain Human Behaviour,” explores first whether gods punish those who violate convention; again, they do not, though they are sensitive to infractions on their own time. Men’s (false) belief that gods enforce moral behavior has the beneficial effect of persuading men to act correctly, as does the fear of retaliation from other men or the fear of social condemnation. When one acts against dike and themis, the result is nemesis, public disapproval. Aidos, shame, also restrains behavior, but aidos comes from within while nemesis comes from without. Another important force is eleos, pity, which has no public sanction but comes from the human heart and is felt toward persons in extreme want. Rarely do such forces act in isolation, but work together to govern human behavior; aidos mixed with eleos can produce philotes, the warmth of human relationships.

The last two chapters, Chapter 10 , “Good and Bad,” and Chapter 11, “Seemly and Unseemly,” are catalogs of Homerische Wörter that bear on moral themes. Y. analyzes in depth, with citations, the terms arete, agathos, esthlos, ameinon, areion, aristos, aristeus, aristeuo, kakos, kalos, and aischros. The agathoi are the ruling class and the kakoi are everybody else. kaka are the misfortunes suffered by the kakoi or visited upon others, sometimes by the agathoi. The agathoi receive arete, excellence (especially in battle), from the gods, but not because they are observant of dike or of themis. Rather, arete comes to them as their moira, or the gods impart it through favoritism. Arete does not, then, reflect moral excellence; a portion of arete is to visit kaka upon one’s enemies. While things called agathos or kakos are defined by their effects, things called kalos and aischros are defined by their appearance, how they look. The notion underlying that which is aischros is therefore close to nemesis, public disapproval as a response to certain forms of behavior.

Y. sums up her presentation by making the following points. The gods cannot be depended upon to uphold justice in human society because a mortal’s fortune depends on moira, which is assigned independently of moral considerations. The gods will help those who honor them, of course, but unless moira permits even then they cannot save their favorites from disaster: Zeus can save neither Troy nor his son Sarpedon. Humans, however, believe that gods do reward righteousness and punish wickedness, and hence comes the irony of a world in which men are pious and gods indifferent, a contradiction of which later Greek thought was to make a very great deal.

Not only do men live according to moira, but so do gods, and each is expected to remain within the boundaries assigned by moira. Appropriate behavior brings time, which when wrongfully denied will incite revenge.

In peace the agathoi are expected to solve conflicts as judges in accordance with dike and themis, rules for behavior that are unwritten but universally acknowledged, whose violation inspires nemesis. Fortunately aidos can help one to foresee public nemesis and restrain wrongful behavior. Action in accordance with themis and dike is perceived as being kalos (not agathos, which pertains to effects) while contrary behavior is perceived as aischros (not kakos, which also pertains to effects). While the agathoi may resolve minor conflicts as responsible judges, there are no public institutions responsible for restoring balance when someone’s time is slighted, or when dike is grossly ignored. Helen feels aidos towards herself for violating dike in running off with Paris, and feels nemesis from the Trojans, upon whom she has brought much suffering, but no means exist to punish her behavior except the Achaean campaign. At root the Trojan War is Menelaus’ private revenge for slighted time.

Peaceful values of the agathoi are completely reversed in war, where the agathoi become bloodthirsty killers, rapists, thieves, and destroyers of families and property. One may well exercise eleos, pity, toward a poor beggar within one’s own society, but on the battlefront such emotions are likely to inspire nemesis, public rebuke, and aidos, self-criticism (Achilles, who defies many rules, does feel pity for Priam). In battle one also has no necessary regard for Zeus, protector of suppliants, who in the Iliad are always killed. When that part of arete appropriate to battle is transferred to one’s companions at arms, as when Agamemnon takes Achilles’ prize, disastrous consequences are certain.

Homer presents a double-sided morality for the agathoi, one set of rules for peace and one for war, and it is hardly surprising that his characters have difficulty to keep the boundaries clear. There is no world without both peace and war, and t he demands of each bring forth qualities ill-suited to the other.

This excellent book is written in a remarkably clear and easy style. Never dull or otiose, it is in substance a discussion of critical terms bearing on issues of right and wrong in the Homeric poems. Speculation on ethical questions in Homer much be firmly grounded in philology, and Y.’s approach is sound. Anyone interested in the ethical bases for behavior in the Homeric poems will profit highly from Y.’s discussion.