Ancient and modern

The ancients were defined by actions, not attributes

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

Diversity is ‘about empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education and national origin’. If this means making their differences the most important thing about them, it fails to answer the question about what such empowering will enable them to do. A famous story about Heracles illustrates ancient priorities.

He was on the cusp of manhood and wondering what path in life to take. Vice and Virtue approached him and made their different pitches. Vice (‘but friends call me “Happiness”’) offered a life of endless pleasure, Virtue something very different. ‘Men will get no fine or noble outcomes from the gods without hard work and application… if you desire to be honoured by the state, you must help that state; if you expect to be revered for your admirable qualities by Greeks, you must try to benefit Greece; if you want your land to produce in abundance, you must look after your land; if you expect to profit from your livestock, you must take care of your livestock; if you have an urge to extend your influence by war, and to liberate your friends and master your enemies, you must both learn the arts of war from those who understand them, and practise how to implement them effectively. And if you want to be physically powerful, you must get your body used to being the servant of your mind, and exercise it with hard work and sweat.’


Vice contemptuously dismissed all this as too hard a road to a life of mirth and merriment, but Virtue cut her short: what praise would such a life bring? What but shame in your old age? ‘My company is with gods and admirable human beings: I am an ally to craftsmen and guardians of the home, to house-slaves and those toiling for peace or fighting in war. My followers are dear to the gods, valued by friends and honoured by their native land. They are remembered with pride and their memory celebrated.’

In ancient eyes, that was what made you who you were, not your origin, age, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

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