As an inhabitant in the world of Homeric mythology, unless I were a slave, my moral goal would have been to be αγαθός, which although oft translated as ‘good’, meant something very different than we might think of as good today. In that world, there was no overriding concept of good or evil (Morales, 39), terms that are much bandied about today yet virtually impossible to define (MacIntyre, 257). Might αγαθός offer a refreshingly simpler life than we enjoy today? I argue that it could.
I would be αγαθός by behaving in the way that successfully discharged my allotted social function (MacIntyre, 6). If, for example, I were a married woman, then I would be αγαθός if I were faithful to my husband (MacIntyre, 6). It matters not if the requisite αρετή (virtues) to be αγαθός are otherwise unjustified, dangerous, or even antisocial (MacIntyre, 11). Likewise, I might engage in similarly unpleasant behaviour and still be αγαθός. For example, when dissuading Agamemnon from stealing Briseis from Achilles, Nester tells Agamemnon ‘do not, αγαθός though you be, take the girl from him.’ (MacIntyre (8).
It is irrelevant whether αγαθός is impossible to achieve. In Homer’s mythical world, we encounter an idealised form of life (MacIntyre, 8) in which successful performance – a factual statement – of the requisite αρετή is all that matters. Helen is not faithful to her husband. It matters not why; therefore she is not αγαθός.
In such a world, it would be in my best interest to be αγαθός. If I failed then at best, I would be made to feel αίσχος, or ‘shame’, as was Paris when Hector found him in bed with Helen instead of fighting with the troops– ‘at the sight of him to shame him’, Hector gives him a lecture (Hom. Id. VI:88-91). As MacIntyre (8) reminds us, αγαθός for a warrior requires public display of courage and by being ‘aggrieved in private’, Paris fails the required display. It is through shaming, that Hector forces Paris to acknowledge his failure. At worst, I could end up dead as were Penelope’s hapless suitors upon the homecoming of Odysseus. MacIntyre (7) suggests that however horrible, their slaughter was morally justifiable because they had failed to display xenia, the αρετή (virtue) required of guests. As Odysseus points out, they ‘fleeced my house’, ‘raped my slave girls’, and ‘flirted with my wife’… ‘while I am still alive! (Hom. Od. 22.36-38 – emphasis added). Definitely not xenia.
Offering little personal freedom and allowing for no defense (MacIntyre, 7), being αγαθός may not appear desirable to modern westerners. We are used to something quite different. Nonetheless, aspiring to αγαθός, I would never be in doubt as to what I should do. Likewise, I would take no personal responsibility for the unforeseen consequences of my actions. Helen’s lack of fidelity was a significant cause of the Trojan war. Yet she is responsible for that infidelity and not for causing a war. As Priam tells her ‘you are not to blame, I hold the gods to blame for bringing on this war’ (Hom. Id. III:63-65).
I suggest that by the ‘sloppy shoulders’ standards of a 21st century western citizenry burdened by exponentially expanding complexity and the existential angst of too much freedom and responsibility, αγαθός could offer a desirably simple alternative.
Blundell, Sue. (1995). Women in Ancient Greece. London: British Museum Press.
Homer., Fitzgerald, & Homer. (2008). The Iliad. Oxford. Oxford World Classics.
Homer., Wilson, E.R. & Homer. (2020). The Odyssey. New York; London: WW Norton & Company.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. (2002). A Short History of Ethics. London; New York: Routledge Classics.
Morales, Helen (2013, online). Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; Oxford University Press.