What's good, Homer?
Alasdair MacIntyre and Nietzsche on Homer
As I said in the previous post, I wanted to add my two cents on “Homeric ethics.” This post is part exposition of two existing theories of Homeric ethics and part creative re-interpretation on my part. Despite the subject matter, this essay does bring us back to my series on Group Narcissism.
The Catholic Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes in A Short History of Ethics that in Homeric Greece “the most important judgments” are passed about how a man discharges his function. What this means can be explained by analogy to an oversimplified but spiritually honest model of present age morality, where the most important judgment is passed about whether a person is white, heterosexual, and male.
In Homeric Greece, a function like king has a set of expected subsidiary functions like being brave and skillful in war and peace. The king must also be wealthy and have leisure because these are necessary conditions for the king to perform his functions, but importantly they are also rewards for performing his functions, which creates a sort of self-justifying normative logic that can nevertheless be derived from factual propositions (ought can be derived from is). “X is a king, therefore X ought to do and receive whatever a king ought to do and receive” is a valid argument that presupposes a social function.
(For fun, consider my uncharitable but not implausible model of the present age, where everybody has the same function: to not be white, heterosexual, and male. This function supersedes all other functions and therefore judgments about whether those subsidiary functions have been performed. For example, if a ship captain fails to perform as a ship captain ought to perform (navigating the ship, managing the crew, etc.) this failure might not trigger a negative judgment if the ship captain is not white, heterosexual, and male.)
Homer’s word for good – agathos – is not like our word for good. Agathos is just a euphemism for the functions of a king. In the Homeric age, you could never say that someone who is not a king is agathos in the way that we can say today that someone who is not a king is still good. MacIntyre explains:
The question, Is he agathos? Is the same as the question, Is he courageous, clever, and kingly? And this is answered by answering the question, Does he, and has he, fought, plotted and ruled with success? The point of such ascriptions is in part predictive. To call a man agathos is to tell your hearers what sort of conduct they can expect from him. We ascribe dispositions to the agent in the light of his behavior in past episodes.
…Moreover, I fail to be agathos if and only if I fail to bring off the requisite performances; and the function of expressions of praise and blame is to invoke and to justify the rewards of success and the penalties of failure. You cannot avoid blame and penalty by pointing out that you could not help doing what you did, that failure was unavoidable.
This means, in other words, that whether being kingly was possible in a given scenario is irrelevant to passing judgment on someone’s kingliness. Whereas modern morality is often formalized through deontic logic, and deontic logic is almost functionally equivalent to modal logic, Homeric “morality” is bereft of modern deontic, modal, or related operators. This is a nerdy Anglo way of saying that there is no higher set of rules – no metalanguage -- applied in determining whether someone was being good once we know what actions the person has performed and the outcomes they have thereby achieved.
For example, Benjamin Witts at Lawfare Blog qualifies that Obama should not be condemned for accidentally droning civilians, because he lacked perfect knowledge of the facts on the ground and because his droning orders were motivated by good intentions. Thus modern moral language is cluttered with multiple contingent operators and refinements that are simply absent in Homeric ethics, and which helpfully absolve people performing kingly functions of responsibility.
MacIntyre uses the example of Odysseus blaming the suitors of Penelope for acting as if he were dead, fearing neither the gods nor himself. Of course, the suitors could not know whether Odysseus was alive, and we would say the suitors should therefore be forgiven for not behaving as they ought to have behaved had they known Odysseus was alive. But this doesn’t make sense for Homeric Greece, where the judgment of whether someone is being kingly or otherwise performing their function does not admit of any contingent psychological operators like belief or knowledge. If a king takes a loss because he was deceived or because of some unfair disadvantage outside of his control, he was not being kingly.
Further, MacIntyre explains that Homeric shame is just what is felt when a man has “fallen short of that which the socially established description both you and others had applied to yourself had led them to expect.” Feeling ashamed is “to be aware,” MacIntyre writes, “that one is liable to reproach.”
This means Homeric “morals” presuppose “a certain sort of social order, characterized by a recognized hierarchy of functions.” MacIntyre explains that slaves – “those who fall outside the system” – are not part of this moral order, since they cannot, by virtue of their bondage, engage in kingly activities. Slaves are things, not persons.
From this observation it follows for MacIntyre that where this social order falls apart (for Marxists, where the material conditions change), this moral system becomes incoherent.
From here Macintyre goes into how future Greeks ameliorated this problem by providing “better” moral answers to paradoxes and perceived injustices that arose from Homeric morality. For example, in post-Homeric Greece you begin to find that lower types, even slaves, can be wealthy and kings can be poor, suggesting a breakdown in the coherency of Homeric “morality.” Suddenly, being a slave or a king signals a property of inheritance disconnected from what the individual has achieved (being “nobleborn and baseborn”). This further implies that passing judgment upon a person becomes a task which is detached from the person’s function and focused upon the person’s individual qualities, such that a slave could have good or kingly traits and a king could have bad and unkingly traits, all while each remains a slave and king respectively.
MacIntyre goes on to describe how the Persian invasions, experiences with Greek colonization, and related cosmopolitan “forces” render Homeric morality even less coherent. For instance, Greeks start talking a lot about nomos or custom/convention as they are exposed to other moralities and religions (nomos only appears once in Homer) , which introduces at least one set of meta-rules or contingent operators, chief of which becomes the question of whether what is local (nomos) or universal (physis or nature) to men should tell you how to live.
In Homeric Greece, there is a unity of nomos and physis: “moral” judgments about the world can be deduced from facts about the world. X is kingly iff he is kinging or doing-whatever-a-king-ought-to-do or doing-whatever-we-predict-a-king-will-do. MacIntyre’s Greeks run into problems with this unity when they encounter the complexities of an evolving cosmopolitan world, which presents them with conflicting opinions and facts about the world. Sometimes people with small souls have inherited the wealth and other favors we would expect a Homeric king to acquire. Other times people with great souls who have engaged in kingly activities are somehow denied their rewards (often by nobleborn kings).
Philosophy then emerges to fix the confusion caused by the rupture of custom and nature. For example, a later Greek might move from saying what is good is what Homeric Greeks say is good to saying what is good is adhering to the local nomos, and in so doing adhering to universal or natural laws of goodness that cover a diverse range of cities. For MacIntyre, this historical process reflects an evolution toward a higher morality rooted in meta-rules that you discover in nature, which just happen to reflect rules you find in holy scriptures that were written in ancient Palestine and Babylonia.
It does seem curious that this Greek cosmopolitanisation process should produce conclusions that coincide with written rules Revealed by God to non-Greek peoples just as they, too, were undergoing their own ordeals with forced cosmopolitanism. What does this say about the compatibility of MacIntyre’s system with his own faith? That’s a tangent for a different day.
From Homeric Contest Ethics to Hubris and the rise of Cosmopolitanism
There are two parts of MacIntyre’s analysis that are valuable to me. The first is his formalization of “moral” judgment in Homer, which sees a unity of nomos and physis, or what ought to be done and what is done without regard to any nebulous higher level rulesets. This fascinating unity undergirds a lot of 19th- and early-20th-century legal and philosophical investigations. The second is his observation that the shift in the meaning of old Homeric “moral” terms coincides with cosmopolitan changes in Greek life.
What I find lacking in his account is an absence of an explanation for why Homeric Greece had sacrosanct or unquestionable social functions like king and slave in the first place, and moreover why Homeric Greeks desired to instantiate or avoid those functions (and this desire is clearly evidenced in the Homeric poems). Indeed, even if you can prove that one ought to behave or refrain from behaving in a certain way, it does not follow that one must comply. One may comply for any number of conscious and unconscious reasons, be it instinct, desire, fear, conceptual belief etc. This latter deficiency goes into the unanswered question of why philosophers deemed it necessary to overcome the inconsistencies and confusions in systems of morality brought on by the decay of the heroic age and the rise of cosmopolitanism.
For MacIntyre, it just seems natural that people need to come up with rationalizations that solve emergent conflicts about what is right and wrong. The MacIntyrean philosopher is just a nice guy who resolves moral contradictions that are created by changing material conditions through syntheses.
Nietzsche on the Homeric Contest
In 1872, Nietzsche sent a couple of short essays to Cosima Wagner for her birthday, one of which was entitled “Homer on Competition” or “Homer’s Contest.” This seems like a weird birthday present from a bachelor to a married woman. Such a scenario suggests a more appropriate gesture like a gift card to Buffalo Wild Wings.