Following on from my recent post here is an exchange of letters from the Times which shows how pertinent these issues are today.
Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality
Chief Rabbi - Jonathan Sacks
Do you have to be religious to be moral? Was Dostoevsky right when he said, If God does not exist, all is permitted? Clearly the answer is No. You don’t have to be religious to fight for justice, practise compassion, care about the poor and homeless or jump into the sea to save a drowning child. My doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a committed atheist. He was also one of the most reflective writers on morality in our time.
Yet there were great minds who were less sure. Voltaire did not believe in God but he wanted his butler to do so because he thought he would then be robbed less. Rousseau, hardly a saint, thought that a nation needed a religion if it was to accept laws and policies directed at the long term future. Without it, people would insist on immediate gain, to their eventual cost. George Washington in his Farewell Address said “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Were they wrong? Yes in one sense, no in another. Individuals don’t need to believe in God to be moral. But morality is more than individual choices. Like language it is the result of social practice, honed and refined over many centuries. The West was shaped by what nowadays we call the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lose that and we will not cease to be moral, but we will be moral in a different way. Consider what moves people today: the environment, hunger and disease in third world countries, and the growing gap between rich and poor.
These are noble causes: nothing should be allowed to detract from that. They speak to our altruism. They move us to make sacrifices for the sake of others. That is one of the distinguishing features of our age. Our moral horizons have widened. Our conscience has gone global. All this is worthy of admiration and respect. But they have in common the fact that they are political. They are the kind of issues that can only ultimately be solved by governments and international agreements. They have little to do with the kind of behaviour that was once the primary concern of morality: the way we relate to others, how we form bonds of loyalty and love, how we consecrate marriage and the family, and how we fulfil our responsibilities as parents, employees, neighbours and citizens. Morality was about private life.
It said that without personal virtue, we cannot create a society of grace. Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if it sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution.” Things that once made sense – duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do – to many people now make no sense at all. This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have.
What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving. The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.
Bryan Hammersley London N6
Sir, The Chief Rabbi denigrates the moral philosophy of the Ancient Greeks in extolling the allegedly superior virtues of Judaeo-Christian ethics (“Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality”, Faith, Feb 27). He states that “for the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you.” I expect some Greeks thought in this way, as they would in all societies. It is absurd to imply that they all held this view. Plato, for example, was frequently concerned with the personal conduct of the individual. Sextus the Pythagorean wrote: “Wish that you may be able to benefit your enemies.” How was this merely political?
Lord Sacks describes the Athens of Socrates and Plato as “extraordinarily short-lived”, implying that, unlike Judaeo-Christianity, its ideas had no staying power. Greek civilisation continued through the Roman Empire, until it was violently destroyed by the Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. For instance, the famous library in the Serapeum at Alexandria, which is believed to have contained half a million books, was destroyed on the orders of Theodosius the First, a Christian Roman emperor, as part of his empire-wide destruction of all things pagan. The Christian religion was imposed by force on the populations of Europe over very many centuries, so it is hardly surprising that it continues to have many adherents. Many works of Greek philosophy were destroyed in Europe and are only available now because they were retained in the Islamic world. They continue nevertheless to be admired.
I think it's worth pointing out at this juncture that to house half a million papyrus rolls would require forty kilometres of shelving. Accordingly Mr Hammersley's next task should be to work out why the enormous structure required isn't mentioned in any account of the Serapeum and hasn't turned up in any excavations of the site (after he has finished objecting to his local hospital's planning application of course). He is however right to bring to the fore, the especially relevant teachings of Sextus. This stoic advised that those who found it difficult to practice celibacy should castrate themselves, extolling them to 'cast away every part of the body that misleads you to a lack of self control, since it is better for you to live without the part in self control than to live with it to your peril'. If only this message had got through to Tiger Woods, Ashley Cole and John Terry.
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