Ancient and modern

How the ancients kept people behaving responsibly

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

The Prime Minister is urging citizens not to throw caution to the winds when lockdown ends on 19 July but to behave ‘responsibly’. But there seems little incentive when legions of psychiatrists, lawyers, counsellors, social workers etc appear to insist you must never blame people (only ‘society’ or ‘the Tory cuts’) for anything. Can the ancients help?

For ancient Greeks, it was the prospect of public shaming that kept people behaving responsibly. In Homer’s Iliad, the first work of European literature (c. 700 bc), the heroes who always feared what other people would say about them if their behaviour did not come up to what was expected of them exemplified that sense of shame (aidôs).

A myth explained all. Early humans, living in communities but lacking social skills, existed by crime and fighting. So Zeus sent Hermes to instil in them aidôs(‘shame’) and dikê (‘justice’): aidôs was the impulse to respect mutually agreed social norms, while dikê was the legal sanction that enforced that respect. By developing and enforcing aidôs-based norms, people were at last able to live in communities.

Aristotle focused on the justice of holding humans to account for their actions. He had no truck with anyone who, having done wrong, said ‘It’s not my fault’, and traced all human actions back to one’s personal responsibility for determining how to achieve one’s ends. If a man acted unjustly, he must have made a deliberate, voluntary choice to become unjust, presumably because of his disposition. So like athletes training to become good athletes, it was man’s responsibility to train to become a good man. That was a voluntary decision which was open to everyone to take. Indeed, if there was nothing voluntary about choosing whether to act well or badly, any argument that absolved the bad of responsibility for wickedness would also deprive the good of responsibility for virtue.

We know that the springs of human behaviour are far more complex than the ancients could ever have imagined. Yet the clarity of their thought is compelling — and the questions they raise well worth asking.

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