Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Human value in the ancient world

As a result of Christian dogma, the distinction between moral and other merits has become much sharper now than it was in Greek times. It is a merit in a man to be a great poet or composer but not a moral merit; we do not consider him more virtuous for possessing such attitudes or more likely to go to heaven. .......When we come to compare Artistole’s ethical tastes with our own, we find in the first place an acceptance of inequality which is repugnant to much modern sentiment. Not only is there no objection to slavery or to the superiority of husbands and fathers over wives and children, but its is held that what is best is essentially only for the few—proud men and philosophers. Most men are mainly means for the production of a few rulers and sages.

Bertrand Russell

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Jesus of Nazareth

The staunch enlightenment rationalist Thomas Jefferson, once wrote of Epictetus, Seneca, Socrates, Antonius and Epicurus, that the ‘ancient moral philosophers were really great’ in teaching people to govern ‘those passions which unrestrained, would disturb our tranquillity of mind’. But they were ‘short and defective in developing our duties to others’. They taught ‘benevolence in the circles of kindred and friends’ and stressed ‘love of country’ but they had neglected ‘peace and charity towards our neighbours...and still less the whole family of mankind’. Accordingly, and despite his distaste for religious superstition, Jefferson turned to Jesus of Nazareth for his moral precepts, because ‘ his moral doctrines..inculcated universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, but to all mankind, gathering into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids’. Of course he could only do so after having produced a special Jeffersonian version of the New Testament with the miracles edited out. Jefferson’s assessment of the deficiencies of his classical heroes was remarkably honest. There has been a tendency amongst certain scholars and commentators to idealise the classical world and project our Judeo Christian derived values back into an alien moral landscape. Yet it is imperative that we get into the Classical mindset if we are to understand why their conceptions of morality were so different to ours.

It has been a subject of some debate as to whether the classical world ever had a religious or a philosophical basis for the concept of human dignity (dignitas humana) which could apply to all mankind. Most studies have concluded that this idea cannot be found in classical Roman or Greek authors, two influential examples being Den Boer’s ‘Private Morality in Greece and Rome: Some historical Aspects’ and J Rist’s ‘Human Value, a study in ancient philosophical ethics’ . The ancient authors whose writings have been passed down to us appear to have believed in the dignity of man, but it was only the dignity of the virtuous man which mattered, the man who possessed arĂȘte (excellence, virtue). Only a man who held a balanced and controlled personality could exhibit the necessary virtues could be deeded as possessing dignity.

The Romans appear to have had a concept of humanitas, a set of virtues which applied to educated people, but these were only thought to characterise a small group in the higher echelons of Roman society. There was no concept of inherent human dignity, nor any concept of inherent human rights. Such rights as there were defined judicially and they fundamentally depended on the membership of a societal group – for example a family, kinship group or state – which granted them. Those which lay outside these groups, the enslaved, foreigners and foundlings, had no claim to any such rights, although they might end up being granted certain privileges. Among the Greeks the rights of the dependents and human possession were developed with a view to protecting the rights of the adult males on who they depended. This idea prevailed in Roman society, although with various if limited rights issued to a broader spectrum of society. As Rist observes:

‘Instead of starting with a consideration of human rights, or of basic rights, the ancients start with theories of power and of how power should be tempered by justice. As their thought proceeds, the come to recognise that certain types of people, for various reasons, are in fact possessed of rights...the moral problem is not viewed in terms of enlarging or protecting the rights of the weak, but of controlling and rationalising the power of the strong.'

Inequality was deemed a natural feature of life in the classical world and it does not appear to have engendered any surprise or regret. In ancient texts we find many examples of the lack of recognition that basic human rights belonged to those who lay outside the protection of society. With only a few exceptions the Greek states did not recognise any obligation to care for orphans, who were left to look after themselves as best they could, by begging in the streets or performing menial jobs. The enslaved continued throughout antiquity to be tortured when giving evidence in trials on the assumption that only by means of torture could they be expected to give truthful testimony. Little sympathy can be detected in early Greek literature for the deformed or the oppressed, an attitude that seems to have characterised popular and official opinion in virtually every period of classical antiquity. These attitudes were based on the belief that health and physical wholeness were essential to human dignity.

Life without them was not thought to be worth living. For example, King Croesus of Lydia did not consider his son who was deaf and dumb to be a real son (Herodotus 1.38.2) and the Persians were ashamed to be ruled by a governor whose ears had been cut off (Herodotus 3.73.1). Their physical defects diminished their dignity. In the classical world therefore, citizenship, kinship, merit or virtue were the basis for claiming to possession of human rights or human worth. Those who lacked them (e.g orphans, slaves, foundlings, the deformed, prisoners) had no claims to any rights and were not entitled to any recognition of their human worth.

The classical attitude to human value is perhaps seen most starkly in the treatment of the newborn. The care of defective babies was simply not a medical concern is antiquity; the morality of killing sickly or deformed infants appears not to have been questioned very much, either by medical or non medical authors. John Rist notes that:

‘It was almost universally held in antiquity that a child has no intrinsic right to life in virtue of being born. What mattered was being adopted into a family or some other institution of society. Both Plato and Aristocle, as well as the Stoics and Epicurus and presumably Plotinus, accept the morality of the exposure of infants..on eugenic or sometimes on purely economic grounds..we see here further clear evidence of the ancient view that somehow value is acquired, either by the development of intelligence or by the acceptance into society. There is no reason to think that the philosophers made substantial advances on the assumptions of the general public in this regard.'

Nor was this always for eugenic or economic reasons, often religious factors played a role. For example, the first century BC historian Livy writes:

‘Relieved of their religious scruples, men were troubled again by the report that at Frusino there had been born a child as large as a four year old, and not so much a wonder for size as because..it was uncertain whether male or female. In fact that soothsayers summoned from Etruria said it was a terrible and loathsome portent; it must be removed from Roman territory, far from contact with the earth and drowned in the sea. They put it alive into a chest, carried it out to sea and threw it overboard. The pontiffs likewise decreed that thrice nine maidens should sing a hymm as they marched through the city’.

Musonius Rufus, a contemporary of Epictetus, provided a work which asks the question, ‘Should every child that is born be raised?’ but this was not the real subject of the essy. Musonius does not articulate a principle that parents are responsible for every child born to them and his concerns are largely civic. Romans, he argues, should strive to have large families according to the law of nature. This seems to have been a minority opinion. Hierocles a second century stoic states that:

‘The rearing of all or at least most children born to one is in accord with nature and proper respect for marriage. But the majority of people appear to ignore this advice for a reason which is not particularly laudable: out of love of wealth and the conviction that poverty us the greatest evil’

It has been suggested by some that the philosophical sects that arose in the Hellenistic age did provide a basis for the belief that all men are endowed with value and therefore possess basic rights. Roman stoicism was marked in its first two centuries by a cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism that affirmed the brotherhood of all men and the necessity of kindness, beneficence and the humane treatment of everyone, civilised, barbarian, slave or free, all of whom were possessed of a divine spark. This theory was based on the natural attachment which parents feel for children and which newborn infants and animals feel for their own persons. But this element of Stoicism never developed, perhaps could never have developed into an explicit claim that all individuals possessed human rights, because there were characteristics of Stoic doctrine that were far from hospitable to the idea of an intrinsic human worth that applied to all people.

The influence of stoicism on Roman law was extensive in ameliorating, for instance the treatment of slaves. But the Stoic's indifference to suffering prevented them from actively seeking the protection of the weak. The net result of Stoicism was to act as a reinforcer of traditional values because it regarded traditionally given roles as natural. A person’s moral progress lay in the order and coherence of their words, thoughts, and actions with Nature. Epictetus for example, lists roles associated with appropriate actions, including natural ones like father, mother, old, and young and social ones like ruler, citizen, general, and soldier. However he also includes “slave, cripple, and beggar.” All these roles are customary ones in Hellenistic-Roman society and there is little incentive to change matters; all these exist under a state of cosmic determinism. Stoicism was fundamentally a cosmic metaphor positing a Divine Economy in which every thing and every person had its proper place. It's cosmopolitanism is really not more than a formal unity of men as beings possessed of reason. The Stoics fundamentally identified with the cosmopolis or world-city, conceived as the city of gods and (especially wise) humans, but there was no conflict in their minds between this ideal and allegiance to the Roman imperial system with all its attendant cruelties. One also finds in Stoicism and classical thought a profound scepticism about human nature that led to quietism. The stoics were reluctant to attempt radical change in society or the amelioration of human institutions, believing that they were incapable of improvement.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in Stoic thought was the severe view that nothing matters except character and rationality. The rest, life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, functioning sense organs, wealth, reputation and their opposites for ourselves and loved ones, only qualifies as 'indifferent''. As Richard Sorabji explains:

The good Stoic, out of justice, would energetically seek to save others from starving. But what if, through no fault of his own, his efforts failed and the others died of starvation? The important thing as far as the Stoic was concerned would have been achieved, the exercise of good character. And the only question that would matter about those who died would be whether they died bravely, with gratitude for efforts made and other virtues of character....If we believe in human rights, we think it important not only that people should do their duty, but, at least as much, that those with human needs should have those needs met. The satisfaction of human needs is precisely not a matter of indifference.

The Stoics also cultivated an apathy to suffering because they believed that pain sickness and suffering were categorised as indifferent things (adiaphora). Its unlikely that a philosophy which teaches that the father should look on with perfect indifference on the death of his child or wife and that the philosopher, although he should shed pretend tears for his friends, should suffer no real emotion, would have had great difficulty becoming a lasting religion of benevolence. As Lecky observes of the Stoics:

‘friendship rather than love, hospitality rather than charity, magnanimity rather than tenderness, clemency rather than sympathy are the characteristics of ancient goodness’.

Hence one finds a hardness in stoic teaching which has no place for the gentler virtues. Although stoicism aimed at a high standard of moral excellence, its suppression of the emotions and elevated morality aimed too high for the ordinary individual. As a result it had little influence on the masses. Furthermore the pantheistic theology of stoicism prevented the uniqueness of the individual from being fully recognised. The idea of cosmopolitanism and natural moral laws discoverable by reason would have a great future ahead in Christian thought but it did not produce any very startling consequences. Both the range and the effects of Stoicism were very limited. It was an aristocratic creed which could appeal only to the elect of mortals. It held no message for the outcasts and lower classes, that it was cold and stern, it lacked--as Seneca felt--the inspiration of an ideal life.

Honourable mention however, should go to Musonius Rufus for his heroic but misguided attempts to preach peace to the Flavian army before
the battle of Bedriacum on the 2th of October 69CE :

'he mixed among the soldiers, and, reasoning much concerning good and evil, began a dissertation on the blessings of peace, and the calamities of war. Many were moved to ridicule by his words, more were bored; and there were some who would have jostled him and trampled on him, if he had not listened to the warnings of the quieter individuals and the threats of others and given up his ill timed maxims of wisdo

Outside the thought of the Stoics, some have sought to proclaim Epicurus as an egalitarian and one does find that he negates the conventional lines of division within polis society. But what he proposes is not revolutionary as can be seen in his expressed exclusion of the great mass of humanity from his philosophy. Epicurus writes:

‘It was never my intention to be appealing to the multitude; for what appealed to them, I did not know, and what I did know was far removed from their perception’.

His apolitical hedonism did not seek any progressive political transformation. instead it was a route to personal escape. Those few who joined in his secession were accorded value whereas those outside the garden remained of no account. In that respect Epicurus’s position was even more elitist than that of Plato.

Yet the conception of human value we see in the classical world would eventually come to be challenged from an unlikely source. As Darrel Amundsem notes

The strongly held idea that human value is acquired rather than inherent was nearly pervasive in classical antiquity. It was so central to ancient conceptions of value that a fully developed principle of sanctity of human life was never achieved in pagan society...apparently no pagan raised the question whether human beings have inherent value, or possess intrinsic rights, ontologically, irrespective of social value, legal status, age, sex and so forth. The first espousal of the idea of inherent human value in Western civilisation depended on a belief that every human being was formed in the image of God’.

See also:

The Birth of Human Rights part one
The Birth of Human Rights part two
A Universal Declaration?

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


my random thoughts said...

Hey James I think you mean the Battle of Bedriacum.


Humphrey said...

Hey thanks for that.

I copied the name of the battle (along with the quote) out from Martin Goodman's 'Rome and Jerusalem' and I trusted him to have his facts straight!.

Humphrey said...


Looks like he did get it right. It was my mistake in getting my Cremonas mixed up and referring to a battle in the wrong century.

The Battle of Bedriacum refers to two battles fought during the Year of the four emperors (69) near the village of Bedriacum (now Calvatone), about twenty miles from the town of Cremona in northern Italy. The fighting in fact took place between Bedriacum and Cremona, and the battles are sometimes called "First Cremona" and "Second Cremona".

Unknown said...

the link to J Rist’s ‘Human Value, a study in ancient philosophical ethics’ goes to a different article- about muslim ethics.

michael hemmings.

your blog looks fascinating.