Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece: A Sociology of Greek Ethnics from Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics. – book reviews
Richard A. Billows
By Joseph M. Bryant (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. xv plus 575pp.).
Bryant promises a sociology of Greek ethics from Homer to the Stoics and Epicureans, and he certainly delivers on his promise; but this book in fact offers a good deal more than that. Among so many works these days that make grand promises in their titles which are not kept in the actual texts, it is a pleasure to find a book whose scope is wider than its title suggests. Bryant recognizes that a sociological study of ethics needs to be historically contextualized, that is that it must be rooted in an account of the society and societal changes that produced the ethics under consideration. He therefore offers in this book a broad overview of the development of ancient Greek society from the end of the so-called “Dark Age” (ca. 800 BCE) to the high Hellenistic period (ca. 200 BCE), alongside his sociological analysis of the normative values produced and critiqued by Greek society and/or Greek intellectuals at five crucial stages of Greece’s development.
This is a grand undertaking indeed, and it is greatly to Bryant’s credit that he by and large pulls it off. The breadth of his scholarship is certainly impressive, and his analysis is sophisticated and insightful. The book is rich and meaty, offering plentiful food for thought to the reader in every chapter, but though it is generally well written, I cannot pass over the presence of occasional lapses into impenetrably dense jargon that mar an otherwise very readable text: this is particularly the case in the Introduction and Epilogue, but much less so – fortunately – in the body of the work. Organizationally, the book is structured chronologically, around five major periods: the Dark Age, the Archaic Age, Classical Greece (i.e., here, the fifth century BCE), the fourth century, and the Hellenistic Age (i.e. primarily the third century). Chapters 2 and 3, covering the Dark and Archaic ages, are each divided into two parts: a historical review of social structures, and a sociological analysis of norms and values. The same is in effect, though not formally, the case in chapter 6 (the Hellenistic Age). It is a pity that Bryant gave up this division in chapters 4 and 5, choosing there to intermingle historical and sociological/ethical sections. To my mind Bryant’s treatment of the crucial fourth and fifth centuries would have been more coherent had he retained the division found in the other chapters.
The basic point of Bryant’s work is that Greek ethical thought, its genesis and development, cannot be understood without a proper understanding of the society which produced it, and whose practical ethical norms and behavior it reflected and critiqued. This may seem an obvious point, and as stated no doubt few scholars would dispute it; but it is a notion often given only lip service at best. The heart of the book, therefore, is Bryant’s analysis of the way the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and Epicureans on the one hand were influenced by and/or reacted to the norms and values of their times, and on the other hand themselves influenced and altered the ethical ideas and behavior of the Greeks of their own day and later. Overall, Bryant does an excellent job of this.
Of course it is hardly a new idea that the great boost in confidence Greek – and especially Athenian – society received from the victories over the Persian Empire gave rise to the intellectual confidence with which the Sophists subjected Greek social structures and ethical norms to rational criticism, and that the tone of Greek – especially upper-class Greek – political behavior deteriorated partly as a result of the Sophists’ devastating critiques of traditional norms; or that Stoic and Epicurean thought, with their withdrawal from the traditional Greek emphasis on the individual as a subordinate part of the socio-political whole – the polls – so strongly endorsed by Plato and Aristotle, were reacting to the rise of the mass societies of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the consequent dislocation and/or disempowerment of the citizen class of the old city-states. But these ideas have seldom been so thoroughly and effectively established and contextualized, and so well presented as part of an ongoing evolutionary process of Greek social and intellectual development.
Inevitably in so broad a study, there is a certain sacrifice of depth. Bryant cannot hope to be expert on everything he covers, as he acknowledges in his preface, paying due homage to various scholars who have helped him out in the areas he was less familiar with. The bibliography, while impressive, is thin on works published after the mid-eighties, and there is a strong tendency to rely on classic works published in the middle and first half of this century. This is not necessarily a fault: the ideas and insights of such great scholars as Werner Jaeger, Victor Ehrenberg, M. P. Nilsson, E. R. Dodds, or Max Weber remain in many respects more useful, more interesting, and more valid than those of some of their recent critics. However, it is beyond doubt that much has been published in the past two decades that would have been both relevant and useful to Bryant’s enterprise, had he been able to find time for them: Jacqueline de Romilly’s fine book The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens, for example, or Christian Meier’s interesting – if idiosyncratic – Die Entstehung des Politischen bei den Griechen, or Raphael Sealey’s provocative The Athenian Republic: Democracy or the Rule of Law.
A work of this scope is an invitation to nit-pickers, and there are certainly many nits to be picked. I shall just raise a couple that happen to intersect with interests of my own. At page 11 and note 7 Bryant gives an estimate of the number of Greek city – states between 700 and 1,000 – derived from E. Ruschenbusch’s calculations in Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 59 (1985) 253-63, while at the top of page 12 Bryant also acknowledges (rightly!) that in much of mainland Greece the city-state did not develop during the periods he is concerned with, political life in most of central and northern Greece being organized around the ethnos, a tribal or cantonal state form. He apparently does not realize that these two points are mutually exclusive: Ruschenbusch arrived at his enormous figure for the total number of Greek city-states by including hundreds of towns in areas like Phokis, Aitolia, Thessaly, etc., areas where there were in fact no city-states but ethne, overlooking in this the fact that the primary meaning of the Greek word polls was at all times simply “town” or “city” – not “city-state”: see e.g. Liddell, Scott, and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed.) s.v. Any valid computation of the number of city-states in ancient Greece must carefully exclude the vast mass of small towns – frequently called poleis in our sources – to be found in the large regions of mainland Greece in which the ethnos was the dominant political form: the best study of the ethnos, apparently unknown to Bryant, is still Adalberto Giovannini’s superb monograph published in 1971 as number 33 in the Hypomnemata series. The true number of Greek city-states remains to be established: to my mind a figure in the region of 150 to 200 seems likely, but space limitations preclude me from giving my reasons there.
On another, more substantial point, in chapter 4 part iv, Bryant, like many modern scholars, essentially accepts Plato’s separation of Socrates from the Sophistic movement, and his placement of Socrates in opposition to it. It is, to be sure, clear that Socrates objected strongly to many views held by many Sophists – particularly to the anti-nomian ideas expressed by men like Thrasymachos and Kallikles, if Plato’s Republic and Gorgias are to be believed. But it is equally clear that many other Sophists, such as Prothagoras, disagreed strongly with such views too, and that in general the Sophists disagreed with each other on numerous points. The fact is, as scholars like Kerferd have shown (The Sophistic Movement, 55-57), that in all essential respects – his interest in ethical definitions, his eristic dialectical method, his rationalist critique of traditional political and moral ideas – Socrates was part of, indeed at the very heart of, the Sophistic movement. If he chose not to teach for pay, that was incidental; and that Socrates’ ethical and political views differed from those of many other Sophists in no wise sets him apart from what was, in respect to such views, a highly diverse intellectual movement. Separating Socrates from the Sophistic movement leads to a profound misunderstanding of both Socrates and the Sophists, and perpetuates a serious undervaluation of the latter.
There are plenty of other things to criticize or disagree with in Bryant’s book – far more than can be set out in a review of this type. Let me emphasize in closing that this in no way detracts from the value and importance of the book: it is one of its greatest virtues that there is something on almost every page to stimulate critical engagement – whether in agreement or disagreement – in the careful reader. With all its flaws, this is an important book and an outstanding achievement. It will be read with profit by every Greek historian who takes it up, and it should be read by all who have in interest in ancient Greek society, politics, and philosophy. I doubt that there are very many books published in the last few decades of which the same can truly be said.
Richard A. Billows Columbia University
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