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
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):
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
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