Friday, November 02, 2018


No Common Ground

Euripides, Phoenician Women 499-502 (tr. Robin Waterfield):
If everyone found the same things acceptable and sensible, there would be no disputes. But as things are, nothing is similar or the same for people except at the verbal level, which does not correspond to reality.

εἰ πᾶσι ταὐτὸ καλὸν ἔφυ σοφόν θ᾿ ἅμα,
οὐκ ἦν ἂν ἀμφίλεκτος ἀνθρώποις ἔρις·        500
νῦν δ᾿ οὔθ᾿ ὅμοιον οὐδὲν οὔτ᾿ ἴσον βροτοῖς
πλὴν ὀνόμασιν· τὸ δ᾿ ἔργον οὐκ ἔστιν τόδε.

502 ὀνόμασιν Markland, Porson: ὀνομάσαι C
A.C. Pearson ad loc.:
There is no such thing as ὁμοιότης or ἰσότης: they are only ὀνόματα. In other words, there is no common standpoint to be found in human beliefs: any such principle of identity (τοὔργον τόδε) is non-existent. This is exactly the spirit of Antisthenes: see Zeller's Socrates etc. Eng. tr. p. 297 ff. The best commentary on the present passage is to be found in Herod. 3.38.
Herodotus 3.38 (tr. Robin Waterfield):
If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group would, after due consideration, choose its own customs; each group regards its own as being by far the best. So it is unlikely that anyone except a madman would laugh at such things. There is plenty of other evidence to support the idea that this opinion of one's own customs is universal, but here is one instance. During Darius' reign, he invited some Greeks who were present to a conference, and asked them how much money it would take for them to be prepared to eat the corpses of their fathers; they replied that they would not do that for any amount of money. Next, Darius summoned some members of the Indian tribe known as Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them in the presence of the Greeks, with an interpreter present so that they could understand what was being said, how much money it would take for them to be willing to cremate their fathers' corpses; they cried out in horror and told him not to say such appalling things. So these practices have become enshrined as customs just as they are, and I think Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all.
G.E.M. De Ste. Croix, "Herodotus," Greece & Rome 24.2 (October, 1977) 130-148 (at 133-134):
The Greeks, coming into contact through their commerce and colonization with many other peoples, all having different beliefs and institutions, began to realize—some of them began to realize—that the nomoi, the manners and customs and ideas and laws (the 'way of life', if you like) handed down to one by one's own ancestors are not necessarily the best of all possible ways of life, and that even if one eventually concludes they are, that is no reason for disregarding the ideas and institutions of other peoples, or regarding them with disgust or contempt. The perfect illustration of this is the little story told by Herodotus (3.38) to give point to his observation that everyone naturally prefers his own ancestral institutions, his own nomoi. (The tale was certainly made up by some other Greek.) King Darius of Persia, says Herodotus, asked some Greeks for how much money they would be prepared to eat their fathers' dead bodies. The Greeks, who of course burnt their dead, declared that nothing would induce them to do such a thing. Darius then turned to certain Indians called Kallatiai, who were accustomed to eat their dead, and asked them what they would take to burn the bodies of their fathers: they begged him not even to speak of such a horror. What is remarkable about this story is that it holds the scales evenly between Greeks and barbaroi: the moral which Herodotus proceeds to draw is not that there are non-Greeks who are disgusting enough to eat their dead, but that everyone will naturally prefer the customs in which he himself was brought up, however queer they may seem to other people. Just imagine how differently the authors of First and Second Kings would have treated such a story, if they had been telling it of the Israelites and the Philistines or the Phoenicians. What, eat your dead? Well, doesn't that just show that if you begin by worshipping Dagon or Baal instead of Yahweh, you end up with cannibalism?
Related post: Autre Pays, Autres Moeurs.

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