Jerks 01.C: Immoderation in All Things
A classical education had its advantages. It meant that there was a time when most people who had finished high school had read many of the same books, which they could use as points of reference in a general conversation. A girl who was loyal to her family was another Antigone, a loyal wife was an Alcestis, and a strong but boastful man could be described as a modern Hercules. Sometimes the examples were negative. Some of Homer's heroes are paragons of pride and selfishness who threaten death to anyone who thwarts their will. Achilles, who wants both Greeks and Trojans to exterminate each other so that he and his friend can have all the glory and booty for themselves, is perhaps the greatest Jerk in the history of literature.
More often, Greek and Roman writers extolled self-control and moderation as civilized virtues. "Nothing in excess," "Know thyself," and "measure (or self-restraint) is best," were inscribed at on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where people went frequently to attend festivals or seek advice. The ideal was not Christian humility, which pagans found puzzling if not degrading, but the proper self-respect that encourages to do the right thing and not make fools of ourselves. Not believing, for the most part, in an afterlife (at least, not one that could be enjoyed), ancient women and men believed they had only one lifetime in which to play their part well. As Horace reminded his readers, a grave has lessons to teach: Eram quod es, eris quod sum. (I was what you are, and you will be what I am.)
Horace's advice to maintain the golden mean (aurea mediocritas) goes back to Aristotle, but Aristotle himself drew from a vast body of ancient folk wisdom handed down by the poets. If people today know anything about ancient Greek thought, the Greek word they are most likely to know may be hubris (more properly hybris). In Greek tragedies, we are often presented with a hero who has gained great success only to be tripped up by his own arrogance that leads him to ruin. The formula is used many times: Success (koros, which means having enough) engenders pride, which leads to a destructive folly (ate, which means both foolishness and its consequences).
This wisdom is not peculiar to the Greeks: We say in English, "pride goeth before a fall," but the Greeks worked out the pattern in greater detail and with greater depth. "Hybris gives birth to the tyrant," sings the chorus in Sophocles' Oedipus, "hybris, if stuffed pointlessly with many things that are beyond what is deserved and proper, mounting to the top of the building is forced to leap to a doom from which there is no escape." The reference is to a king who had come to power by his own wits and proceeded to treat everyone and everything, including his own brother-in-law and the local religious establishment, with contempt. Oedipus thought of himself as self-reliant and enterprising—"a child of fortune," as he calls himself—but, in the end, like most of us who think we have made it on our own, he lost almost everything he loved: the people he ruled, the wife he loved, and the very pride that led to his downfall.
The ancient tyrant was not necessarily a bad person or, typically, an evil dictator, but a man who during a crisis rises on popular acclaim to a position above the law. Ensconced in the arrogance of power, he almost inevitably proceeds to alienate the people who once supported him but now conspire to overthrow him. The wisdom does not apply just to dictators but to Hollywood stars, celebrity athletes, and successful CEOs—to anyone, who thinks that he really deserves his good fortune. People who enjoyed unexpected good fortune used to tap on wood to avert bad luck.
Ancient Greeks believed the gods resented excessive human success (and the arrogance it engendered), and Herodotus tells many tales of fortunate men who suffered at the hands of Nemesis. When Polycrates, the wealthy ruler of Samos, was warned by a friend (the King of Egypt) to sacrifice something of value, he threw a prized ring into the sea. When the ring was discovered in a fish served to the Polycrates, his Egyptian friend dissolved the friendship, not wishing to share in his inevitable misfortune.
Many people still feel nervous about taking good fortune for granted. Years ago, after a long flight to Rome and a good dinner, I was on the rooftop of the Hotel Campo dei Fiori with my friend Billy Mills. There was a light misty rain and we were looking out over the city. Billy, sipping his vodka martini, sighed and turned to me, saying, “Fleming, we deserve this!” I said nothing, but I did not agree. Happy moments happen. The sun shines on the just and unjust alike. Be content with what fortune brings. I can feel Horace looking over my shoulder and nodding approval.
Hybris was not one of those high-toned words reserved for tragedies and other formal occasions. It was also an everyday term in the law courts. When, as a young man, the great statesman Demosthenes was walking down the street, he met Midias, the guardian who had defrauded him of his inheritance. Words were exchanged, and Midias slapped his former ward, who promptly sued him for hybris, which in this context means something like "having energy or power and misusing it self-indulgently." Acts of hybris, which are typical of rich young men, include ostentatious displays of wealth, eating and drinking too much, jeering at authority and figures deserving respect. But even slaves or dependent children could be mistreated, in which case their guardian could sue on their behalf. These cases did not necessarily involve physical assault, and a physical assault did not necessarily constitute hybris. The key element was the desire to humiliate the victim by showing one's own superiority.
Our own barbarian ancestors were cut from a different cloth. Celts, Germans, and Slaves were boasters who gloried in victory and were disconsolate in defeat. For them, self-restraint meant passing up an opportunity to get drunk or have a good time pillaging and raping. But under the influences exerted by Roman law, the Church, and Latin literature, the upper classes developed rules of conduct that forbade mistreatment of women, children, and the poor, that encouraged an air of self-possession. As time went on the long forgotten code of the gentleman made its way to the middle and working classes, and there was nothing really strange or comical in the way that most respectable men were called gentlemen and their wives ladies.
In the first half of the 20th century, a poor farmer, when he came to town, put on his suit and minded his manners. It was only the worst people, criminals, hooligans, and wasters, who made spectacles of themselves in public places. That, at least, is what my middle-middle class family taught me when I was growing up, and that perception has been confirmed by virtually everyone, my age or older, with whom I have spoken about the decline of manners. My old boss John Howard, a sterling Midwesterner and combat veteran of WW II, was forever being amazed by the childish antics of successful American businessmen.