Personal glory and allegiance to the polis

Jan 2019
4
Burbank, CA, U.S.A.
#1
I had originally posted this topic on the Ask Historians page on Reddit, with no response.

I have been listening to Donald Kagan's lectures regarding ancient Greek history and I'm confused about what he describes as the conflicting nature between personal arete and the polis. What was more important in a Greek's life in a polis? Individual glory or the welfare of the polis? Did these separate needs create an "inherent conflict" in Greek society? Would heroes like Achilles be good role models for ancient Greeks even though he sought his own glory? How could one translate that desire to doing well by your own city state? Were those two ever shown to be in conflict in any primary source? Did ancient poets or philosophers address this issue?

This is the relevant lecture.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
4,596
Portugal
#3
I had originally posted this topic on the Ask Historians page on Reddit, with no response.

I have been listening to Donald Kagan's lectures regarding ancient Greek history and I'm confused about what he describes as the conflicting nature between personal arete and the polis. What was more important in a Greek's life in a polis? Individual glory or the welfare of the polis? Did these separate needs create an "inherent conflict" in Greek society? Would heroes like Achilles be good role models for ancient Greeks even though he sought his own glory? How could one translate that desire to doing well by your own city state? Were those two ever shown to be in conflict in any primary source? Did ancient poets or philosophers address this issue?

This is the relevant lecture.
I don’t know how to answer to your question, I like Donald Kagan's lectures, so I would like to thank you for the link (and the video – don’t recall to see this one), I will surely see it, even if in this class Donald Kagan seems with a severe problem in his throat. Maybe then I will have something more to say.

By the way, welcome to Historum. Good first (or second) post.
 
Apr 2018
454
Upland, Sweden
#4
I had originally posted this topic on the Ask Historians page on Reddit, with no response.

I have been listening to Donald Kagan's lectures regarding ancient Greek history and I'm confused about what he describes as the conflicting nature between personal arete and the polis. What was more important in a Greek's life in a polis? Individual glory or the welfare of the polis? Did these separate needs create an "inherent conflict" in Greek society? Would heroes like Achilles be good role models for ancient Greeks even though he sought his own glory? How could one translate that desire to doing well by your own city state? Were those two ever shown to be in conflict in any primary source? Did ancient poets or philosophers address this issue?

This is the relevant lecture.
This quite probably touches upon my favourite aspects of ancient Greek history.


To begin with, I think we should ask what is "individual" or "collective" glory? The Greeks were great individualists, but in some ways they were much more collectivistic than we modern Westerners (influenced by Christianity and it's idea of the individual before God as we are) - so perhaps we should not automatically suppose that they saw those ideals being in conflict, the same way we almost intuitively do. I know that you didn't exactly say that, but I'm just putting it out there to clarify my case.

Keeping that in mind, onwards to your question: there are numerous examples of the Greeks being aware of such a division in practice. Achilles sulking when he can't have his slavegirl, thus threatening the longterm survival of the campaign - and despite all of his obnoxious uncooperative individualism, Achilles was very much an ideal. Alexander the Great willfully emulated him, and likened himself to him. Many Greek dramae also deal with this conflict between individual and collective responsibility, but I can't really think of a case where individual and collective glory is the central theme in and of itself... although, the example of Euripides' Medea is interesting, if not right on the money. It's quite short, and your first reaction (being a modern Westerner) might be to dissmiss their language and the whole situation as completely over the top - that is a mistake. Read it three times. Anyway, the point in it is that Medea killes Jason's children largely to harm his kleos, his "immortality" - at least that is my take on it. When she does this she does it to safeguard 1) her own kleos, which she refers to at least three times - very interesting, her being a woman and all. 2) she also comes into conflict with the "glory" of the city, implicitly.


Aristotle addresses the point you make numerous times, how to balance between the individual and the collective. I think the importance of "know thyself" and "everything in moderation" touches upon this same conflict, partially. Why? Well, it all becomes quite clear in the Hellenistic era. Once the Greek city states loose their political importance by being conquered by Philip, Aleander and later the Romans, the Greeks themselves seem to loose their bearings. All sorts of weird things start happening, like some people develop an almost mono-theistic view of Zeus, they start worshipping Godesses like Tyche ("fate") and they come up with lots of new philosophies the content's of which seem to clash very much with the old Homeric and even classical views of "the good life". Read one of the stoics or epicureans and contrast them with some rendering of the older ideal Kagan describes. My favourite crystallization of that ideal is in the story of "Tellus of Athens" (which I believe Kagan refers to also? I binge watched all those lectures a couple of years ago) in Herodotus (1.30).

So, to summarize my points: I think that in the archaic and classical periods the Greeks were very aware of the tension you describe, but I also believe that collective and individual glory ideally reinforced one another, as in the case of the story of Tellus of Athens. The polis is the vehicle which enables individual glory as civic ideal, as it is only in that particular form that competition is meaningful. Once there is a single ruler over everything who wins every fight because he has soul-less professional mercenaries (or even worse, Romans) the old aristocratic ideals and their continuation become obsolete.

Of course this balance was not always achieved even in classical and archaic times, and some Greeks who became too powerful, too wealthy, too succesful etc. found the old social context from which they sprung highly limiting, and had their souls corrupted - at the risk of sounding like Plutarch. There are at quite a few cases in both Herodotus and Thucydides I think of Spartan kings being bribed by the Persians to great effect. Very fascinating, that a people so particularly obsessed with the old Greek virtues succumb so easily when taken from the social confines of Laconia, is it not?


Your question is very interesting, and it raises many questions not just about the Greeks, but about the human condition more generally. I hope you found my answer not too lecturing, and somewhat thought provoking. Ultimately, take everything I said with a grain of salt, and form your own opinion - I am only beginning my educational journey about these matters myself. :)
 
Jan 2019
4
Burbank, CA, U.S.A.
#5
I don’t know how to answer to your question, I like Donald Kagan's lectures, so I would like to thank you for the link (and the video – don’t recall to see this one), I will surely see it, even if in this class Donald Kagan seems with a severe problem in his throat. Maybe then I will have something more to say.

By the way, welcome to Historum. Good first (or second) post.
Thank you! It's been a topic I've been meaning to get an answer to after reading a fair bit.

This quite probably touches upon my favourite aspects of ancient Greek history.


To begin with, I think we should ask what is "individual" or "collective" glory? The Greeks were great individualists, but in some ways they were much more collectivistic than we modern Westerners (influenced by Christianity and it's idea of the individual before God as we are) - so perhaps we should not automatically suppose that they saw those ideals being in conflict, the same way we almost intuitively do. I know that you didn't exactly say that, but I'm just putting it out there to clarify my case.

Keeping that in mind, onwards to your question: there are numerous examples of the Greeks being aware of such a division in practice. Achilles sulking when he can't have his slavegirl, thus threatening the longterm survival of the campaign - and despite all of his obnoxious uncooperative individualism, Achilles was very much an ideal. Alexander the Great willfully emulated him, and likened himself to him. Many Greek dramae also deal with this conflict between individual and collective responsibility, but I can't really think of a case where individual and collective glory is the central theme in and of itself... although, the example of Euripides' Medea is interesting, if not right on the money. It's quite short, and your first reaction (being a modern Westerner) might be to dissmiss their language and the whole situation as completely over the top - that is a mistake. Read it three times. Anyway, the point in it is that Medea killes Jason's children largely to harm his kleos, his "immortality" - at least that is my take on it. When she does this she does it to safeguard 1) her own kleos, which she refers to at least three times - very interesting, her being a woman and all. 2) she also comes into conflict with the "glory" of the city, implicitly.


Aristotle addresses the point you make numerous times, how to balance between the individual and the collective. I think the importance of "know thyself" and "everything in moderation" touches upon this same conflict, partially. Why? Well, it all becomes quite clear in the Hellenistic era. Once the Greek city states loose their political importance by being conquered by Philip, Aleander and later the Romans, the Greeks themselves seem to loose their bearings. All sorts of weird things start happening, like some people develop an almost mono-theistic view of Zeus, they start worshipping Godesses like Tyche ("fate") and they come up with lots of new philosophies the content's of which seem to clash very much with the old Homeric and even classical views of "the good life". Read one of the stoics or epicureans and contrast them with some rendering of the older ideal Kagan describes. My favourite crystallization of that ideal is in the story of "Tellus of Athens" (which I believe Kagan refers to also? I binge watched all those lectures a couple of years ago) in Herodotus (1.30).

So, to summarize my points: I think that in the archaic and classical periods the Greeks were very aware of the tension you describe, but I also believe that collective and individual glory ideally reinforced one another, as in the case of the story of Tellus of Athens. The polis is the vehicle which enables individual glory as civic ideal, as it is only in that particular form that competition is meaningful. Once there is a single ruler over everything who wins every fight because he has soul-less professional mercenaries (or even worse, Romans) the old aristocratic ideals and their continuation become obsolete.

Of course this balance was not always achieved even in classical and archaic times, and some Greeks who became too powerful, too wealthy, too succesful etc. found the old social context from which they sprung highly limiting, and had their souls corrupted - at the risk of sounding like Plutarch. There are at quite a few cases in both Herodotus and Thucydides I think of Spartan kings being bribed by the Persians to great effect. Very fascinating, that a people so particularly obsessed with the old Greek virtues succumb so easily when taken from the social confines of Laconia, is it not?


Your question is very interesting, and it raises many questions not just about the Greeks, but about the human condition more generally. I hope you found my answer not too lecturing, and somewhat thought provoking. Ultimately, take everything I said with a grain of salt, and form your own opinion - I am only beginning my educational journey about these matters myself. :)

That was a very well written answer, thank you! He did actually mention Tellus a couple of times. I haven't actually read the story, so I'll have to dig into that. That as well as Medea. I remember, after reading Kagan's Peloponesian War, that either Archidamus or Agis were bribed to leave Attica alone during one of their summer raids?
 
Apr 2018
454
Upland, Sweden
#6
That was a very well written answer, thank you! He did actually mention Tellus a couple of times. I haven't actually read the story, so I'll have to dig into that. That as well as Medea. I remember, after reading Kagan's Peloponesian War, that either Archidamus or Agis were bribed to leave Attica alone during one of their summer raids?
They're both worth reading! :) Obviously read Thucydides' rendering of Pericles funeral oration too, but I suspect you've had it thrown in your face a dozen times already if you read Kagan - and some modern scholars seem to debate its value as source material (they're just screwing around and trying to be original if you ask me though).

I think that it was Agis (as one of Kagan's books from the non-abridged series are titled the Archidamian War, right?) but I am not sure. The principle should be the same though.

Thank you for your kind words though, and good luck! Please share any findings you may have, I am currently set to write an essay around a very similar theme at Uni. here actually, so if you have any thoughts just PM me! :)
 
Jan 2015
2,784
MD, USA
#7
You may also want to get hold of Jon Lendon's "Soldiers and Ghosts". Been a while since I read it, but he does deal with how the Greeks managed to turn their individual competitiveness into *competing to be cooperative* as the phalanx developed. Homeric heroes were VERY much role models, and that had to be made to fit into the evolution of society and warfare.

Matthew
 
Sep 2014
694
Texas
#8
My college professor said Euripides was paid to make Medea and not Corinth the bad guy in that story.

The Greeks believed they were immortal as long as they were remembered. The Spartans we're big on this. I see no conflict on gaining personal glory in battle as it reflects well on your city.

As for Euripides...he sold his soul for a dollar.