Political Thought: Ancient Greek, Part-4

Political Thought: Ancient Greek

the life of people during the last, Iron Age is painted by Hesiod in dark colors. Lamenting over the back-breaking toil of his generation, the region of force and violence in human relation, the degradation of morals, and the contempt of law justice, he remarks:

And I wish that I were not any part
of the fifth generation
of men, but had died before it came,
or been born afterward,

For here now is the age of iron. Never by daytime
will there be an end to hard work and pain,
nor in the night
to weariness, when the gods will send anxieties
to trouble Us…
…when the father no longer agrees with the children.
nor children with their father,
when guest is no longer at one with host,
nor companion to companion,
when your brother is no longer your friend,
as he was in the old days.
Men will deprive their parents of all rights,
as they grow old,
and people will mock them too,
babbling bitter words against them…
…Strong of hand, one man shall seek
the city of another.
There will be no favor for the man
who keeps his oath, for the righteous
and the good man, rather men shall give their praise
to violence
and the doer of evil. Right will be in the arm.
Shame will
not be. The vile man will crowd his better out,
and attack him
with twisted accusations and swear an oath
to his story….’

Powerful Impact

The poems of Homer and Hesiod had a powerful impact on the subsequent ethical and mythological notions of the Ancient Greeks.? The “father of history” Herodotus (fifth century B. C.) wrote: “Whence the gods severally sprang, whether or no they had all existed from eternity, what forms they bore~ these are questions of which the Greeks knew nothing until the other day, so to speak. For Homer and Hesiod were the first to compose Theogonies, and give the gods their epithets, to allot them their several offices and occupations and describe their forms; and they lived but four hundred years before my time, as I believe, (The History of Herodotus, 11, 53). Herodotus also tells us that the knowledge about the gods came to Greece from the Pelasgi who, in turn, had got it from Egypt (The History of Herodotus, 11,52}.

Ethical Rationalization Of Myth

The ethical rationalization of myth, the ascription of human characteristics and weaknesses to the gods, and the unmistakable anthropomorphic trend in Homer’s and particularly Hesiod’s poems aroused serious objections of a number of Ancient Greek philosophers in the later period. For instance, the reputed founder of the Eleatic school (called so after the city of Elaea in South Italy) Xenophanes (the sixth-fifth century B.C) advanced a philosophical idea of One God comparable to mortals neither in form nor thought and criticized Homer and Hesiod for having “attributed to the gods all things that are a shame and disgrace among mankind: theft, adultery, and mutual deception”. Xenophanes’s idea of god, “un generated, eternal and like a ball” marked a further departure from the traditional mythological notions and another step towards the interpretation of the mythological pantheon in rationalistic terms.

Mythological Gods

Homer’s understanding of the mythological gods was also criticized by Plato. His contemporaries still held the poet in high esteem and regarded him as an educator of Hellas whose views ought to be known well and used as a guide in ordering human affairs and regulating one’s life (Plato, Republic, X, 606c). Sharing this opinion and acknowledging Homer’s greatness, Plato nevertheless deemed it necessary to ban his poems in the ideal state: “For if you … allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State” (Plato, Republic, X, 607).

Athenian Democracy

It should be noted, however. That for all its deference to the names of Homer and Hesiod Athenian democracy showed rather a guarded attitude to some of their statements considering them detrimental to the interests of the populace. Significantly, Socrates’s accusers who had him brought to trial and condemned to death in 399 B, G, adduced the philosopher’s habit of quoting “the worst Passages from great writers, particularly Homer and Hesiod” as evidence of his hostility towards the common people (see Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1, 11, 56-58) Indeed, under the conditions of acute political struggle waged by the Athenian populace against the adherents of the aristocratic

oligarchic or tyrannical system of government a number of passages in Homer and Hesiod had acquired a clear anti-democratic ring and evoked suspicion on the part of Democratic leaders.

The general trend towards rationalization of morality and justice in human affairs characteristic of Homer’s and Hesiod’s poems gained even greater prominence in the activity of the Seven Sages.

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