As vicars, traditional or trendy, assert that God is or is not in favour of something, one is reminded that there were cultures for whom divinely inspired scriptures did not exist. Poor old Greeks and Romans! How on earth did they get by?
The 5th C BC thinker Protagoras argued that men must by definition possess a sense of standards, otherwise they could not live in communities at all. In the absence of holy books, tradition played the main role in determining what those standards were, which is why attacks on tradition from radical thinkers like Socrates and Diogenes generated such mistrust. Fables like Aesop’s – which Quintilian, the Roman professor of education, said particularly appealed to ‘country boors and the uneducated’ – popular stories and sayings all reinforced the cultural message.
Taken together, they depicted a society dominated by inequality, hostility and fear, in which hierarchy came naturally, justice was all about maintaining the social order, and harmony was a utopian dream. Their morality focused on the public and social (not private) sphere (in particular, on mitigating conflict) and the importance of the relationship between the human and the divine (especially in ensuring justice). They opened up a world of materialistic glory and opportunity, where wealth was desirable, education could transform your chances and friendship was important. Stories about gods argued that (bad) Fortune could be overcome – courage was vital - but moral responsibility lay with humans, as individuals, groups and states, states in particular. Respect for family, state and ritual (pietas) was of great significance. The general conclusion was that gods were committed to justice and good faith while, with luck, success bred success. But life was still fragile, harsh and short. The ‘good’ life depended largely on making decisions that would enable you to survive, whatever life threw at you, and even (with luck) thrive. Being good at something was usually the key to success.
All strongly reminiscent, in fact, of the Rev. Giles Fraser on Thought for the Day, though with rather more spiritual depth.