wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Gilbert Murray

Greek Studies

People were always using terms like 'right' and 'wrong', 'just' and 'unjust', 'beautiful' and 'ugly', 'know' and 'think'; what did they really mean by these words, and what reality lay behind them? It is a turn from judgements of fact, which seem unattainable, to judgements of value in human terms, which can perhaps be attained. The fundamental question is no longer 'What is the world?' but 'How ought man to live?' (In Plato indeed this question is largely made dependent on a theory of knowledge and of reality; it is hard to make out how far the Platonic theories were already held by Socrates, but not hard to see the connecting bridge.) However that may be, the study of ethics developed with amazing success in the four or five generations following Socrates; indeed it may almost be said that no important idea in the sphere of ethics has occurred to mankind since the fourth century B.C. The question 'What is Righteousness?' or 'What is the good life for man?' has of course presented itself to every community of men, however primitive, and generally speaking the answer has come in the form of a system of Themis and taboo, things which 'are done' and things which 'are not done'. If you observed all the taboos you did nothing contrary to Themis: you did not transgress and therefore did not incur punishment. Every transgression of Themis must be atoned for. Dike smote the transgressor and restored the balance. Themis, when analysed, proves to be the tribal custom; the thing that is always done, always, that is to say, by the people who know. Hence Themis is the special subject of oracles: in situations where no ordinary person can say what you ought to do, the god or the ancestral hero in his grave knows, and tells you what is really Themis.

It is noteworthy that Plato, perhaps under the influence of Pythagoras, is greatly inspired by these primitive ideas of Themis, though he develops them almost beyond recognition. In his splendid discussion of justice or righteousness, the Republic, he finds that, both in the macrocosm of the city and the microcosm of the individual soul, righteousness is a kind of division of labour. This seems puzzling until we see that it is really the old primitive conception of tribal organization in a new form. In the primitive tribe every class has its appointed Moira or portion, its Ergon or function, and things go right if each class and each individual fulfils his Moira and performs his Ergon, and does not transgress or trespass on those of others. In modern language each has his social service to perform and his consequent rights. It is the old Themis; but a Themis vastly extended by the imagination and made more positive. A Themis in which you may be called upon not merely to die for your country—the oldest tribal laws involved that—but to die for the truth, or, as he explains in a wonderful passage in the second book, to defy the whole conventional law of your society for the sake of the true law which it has forsaken or forgotten. No one who has read it can easily forget the account of the righteous man in the evil or mistaken society, how he is to be scourged and blinded and at last impaled or crucified by the society that misunderstands him, because he is righteous and seems the reverse, and how after all it is better for him so to suffer than to follow the multitude in doing wrong.

This conception of the good life as the performance of a function or duty by a member in an organism or—to use the later language of the Stoic school—a free will working with God for the achievement of his unknown purpose—shows an incalculable advance over the taboo conceptions, prevalent in antiquity and on the whole usual among most people at the present day. It is a great advance for example on the conceptions of the Old Testament, or of medieval Christianity, both of which, in different degrees, are based on sins and punishments.

One feels the same reasonable and humane atmosphere in Aristotle's Ethics, where instead of a system of sins and punishments he operates with a system of psychological tendencies or ways of behaviour, each of which may be too weak or too strong for the general good.