Credo: Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality

Brilliant essay by Rabbi Sacks in the Guardian today, of which this is just a part:

“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 that 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 Judaeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judaeo-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.”

Read the full article here.

I’m not sure that you can say that Judeo-Christian ethics are the only ethics that can create a lasting society – Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism seem to have done okay for themselves over a couple of millennia or more too. But the point about the Greeks is very well taken.

H/T to Kendall Harmon

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

2 thoughts on “Credo: Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality”

  1. Nick wrote:
    “I’m not sure that you can say that Judeo-Christian ethics are the only ethics that can create a lasting society – Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism seem to have done okay for themselves over a couple of millennia or more too.”
    What makes a moral system “work?” What makes a moral system “fail?”

  2. That’s the big question isn’t Andrew? I know how to adjudicate competing truth claims in science – or at least I do if I agree with Galileo – go to the lab bench.
    How do we adjudicate between competing moral, ethical and religious world views? What constitutes success?
    My short answer, and the best I’ve gotten so far, is that a successful world view has to endure. If the ideas only last a few generations, it’s not terribly successful. If the ideas can endure for millennia, like Judaic thought has, then you’re probably on to something worth taking seriously.

Comments are closed.