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.   

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    On a related matter of satire but not that of the jerk, I was wondering if you recommend Juvenal as a Roman poet to be read by college students?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Traditionally, the satire on women was NOT given to students, but the rest were. A poet who had two poems put into English versions by Dr Johnson was felt to be safe and appropriate, though his observations on how Middle Eastern immigrants were destroying Rome–the Orontes, as he said, flowed into the Tiber–would scarcely be acceptable today. Older generations of teachers liked Juvenal because he raised satire above the colloquial approach of Horace and gave it weight and dignity.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    To appreciate the ancient ideal of dignity and humanity one has only to reread Xenophon’s account of the illegal arrest and execution of the moderate aristocrat by Critias and the more radical oligarchs of the 30.

    “And so Theramenes was dragged through the Agora, in vehement and loud tones proclaiming the wrongs that he was suffering. One word, which is said to have fallen from his lips, I cite. It is this: Satyrus, bade him “Be silent, or he would rue the day;” to which he made answer, “And if I be silent, shall I not rue it?” Also, when they brought him the hemlock, and the time was come to drink the fatal draught, they tell how he playfully jerked out the dregs from the bottom of the cup, like one who plays “Cottabos,” with the words, “This to the lovely Critias.” These are but “apophthegms” (23) too trivial, it may be thought, to find a place in history. Yet I must deem it an admirable trait in this man’s character, if at such a moment, when death confronted him, neither his wits forsook him, nor could the childlike sportiveness vanish from his soul.”

    Kottabos was drinking game in the simplest version of which the player flung the last drops out of the cup to make it ring. Here, Theramenes’ ironic toast to “the fair Critias” has great resonance. If serious, it would be a tribute to both the good looks and gentlemanly manners of a friend. The Athenians expressed the idea of the gentlemean with the expression Kalos kai agathos–something like fine and brave. Greek aristocrats very much admired “grace under pressure” but, unlike our misleading ideas about the Romans, they also valued the preservation of youthful high spirits. A beloved anecdote, told by Herodotus, highlights this quality in the young Hippoclides, who was among the wooers of Agariste, daughter of the wealthy tyrant of Sicyon. At the final banquet of the formal wooing, Hippoclides, enjoying himself and drinking wine, began to dance. Then he jumped on the table and finally somersaulted to his hands and danced, causing his himation to fall down, revealing his privates. The great tyrant, exasperated, exclaimed, “Hippoclides, you are dancing your bride away,” to which the young Athenian replied, “Ou phrontis Hippocleidei–Hippoclides doesn’t care”, which became a proverb among Athenian aristocrats. The girl was married to another Athenian, an Alcmaeonid, and was mother to Cleisthenes the so-called reformer and ancestress of Pericles. The story always reminds me of story Chesterton tells in his autobiography. Belloc showed up one afternoon after one of his adventures and the two drank a bit too much. GKC, nothing daunted, brought his pal along on a scheduled visit to Henry James, who was appalled by their high spirits.

    Neoteny–the prolongation of developmental periods–increases as we go up the Linnaean ladder. Dogs are fully mature at an early age, and, as we know, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Chimpanzees are happy to learn sign language and other things the day comes–age of 12 or so?– when they are grumpy power seekers and rip your face off if you get too familiar. Primitives are fully mature, that is, resistent to learning anything new, by 20 or so, whereas Sophocles retained his vivacity until very old age. It was another Athenian who said “I grow old learning many things.” Solon did not mean what my teacher Douglas Young used to say, in jest, “From learning much I grow old,” but Solon, like Douglas Young, stayed alive until he died, and I cannot think of a better human fate.

  4. Raymond Olson says:

    I think of the relatively Horatian remark of Kenneth Rexroth,

    “The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, takes responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and avoids it. Without the hidden conspiracy of goodwill, society would not endure an hour.”

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    One cannot but agree that Achilles was a prime jackass in many ways, but one scene in the Iliad stood out to me. Odysseus and one or two others come to Achilles hoping to reason with him. Achilles welcomes them declaring his quarrel to be primarily with Agamemnon (although, as Dr. Fleming mentions, he would gladly see them all dead) and orders a sheep to be slaughtered which he butchers, prepares, cooks and serves to his guests himself. Such knowledge of the rules of proper hospitality is almost completely gone from our society and trying to retrieve its precepts without good example, as I have found myself (I couldn’t carve my way out of a paper bag with Saladin’s razor sharp scimitar), is extremely difficult. No doubt Achilles sense of pride was wrapped up in this as well, but here I go letting my Christian sensibilities regarding pride get tangled up in a good classic anecdote.

    I have a great love for the memory of my wife’s uncle, a simple, poorly educated man who took great joy in learning anything new especially in regard to anything agrarian and who delighted in hearing about and advising us in our own agrarian efforts. He was also very willing to learn from us. He was like this until he died in his mid-eighties.

    I am grateful to Mr. Olson for his comment, which is very pertinent to us here in Soviet New York where many feel that they will overturn the newly imposed mask mandates by entering establishments in a spirit of confrontation and abusing staff, including youngsters. Such people are the worst enemies of any cause that they espouse. We have yet to be asked to leave anywhere we have gone this week, maskless, because (I think) we treat everyone with common courtesy and try to be cheerful. The season demands it.