Morals of Ancient Greek Literature

Ancient Greek literature is filled with moral lessons.
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Though often regarded as a literary period of compelling tragic and comic figures and stories, Greek literature was, for ancient Greeks, a wellspring of moral guidance. There are countless moral lessons and dicta in the pages of Greek literature. Many of these lessons are interconnected, and some are contradictory. Regardless, Edith Hamilton, author of the comprehensive study of ancient Greek mythology entitled “Mythology,” argues there are four main moral topics or positions in Greek literature.

1 Fate

Perhaps one of the most pervasive moral concepts in ancient Greek literature is that all human actions are bound by a predetermined fate. The moral lesson is that what people do, either to themselves or to others, is set in stone well before their birth. While more contemporary philosophers and theorists argue that this conception suggests a lack of moral culpability (meaning people can’t be held responsible for their actions if they can’t control them), ancient Greeks believed that just as people’s actions were predetermined, so too was their moral worth. Perhaps the best example of this is Sophocles’ play "Oedipus Rex."

2 Karma

Though they didn’t use the term “karma,” ancient Greek’s certainly believed that the actions of a person would be revisited upon that person, whether good or bad. That is, if a person mistreated somebody, he would be mistreated at some point in his life. Similarly, if a person was kind or helpful to somebody, she would be the beneficiary of some future kindness or help. One of the best examples of this is Aeschylus’ play "The Oresteia."

3 Pride

Excessive pride or hubris is an individual's belief that he is somehow unique and more powerful than some overarching, life-governing principle, typically fate. All the moral lessons concerning hubris are essentially cautionary. Odysseus from Homer’s epic poem "The Odyssey" is a prime example of a character suffering from hubris, as he believes he is not subject to the rules that govern other people.

4 Honor the Gods

Similar to the principle of karma, ancient Greek’s desire to honor their gods stemmed from the belief that if they did honor a god, the god would reward them, but if they did not honor a god, bad things would happen to them. The story of Baucis and Philemon caring for a disguised Zeus and Hermes, who in return rewarded Baucis and Philemon and killed all their neighbors, is a good example. Individual examples also exist in "Oedipus Rex," "The Oresteia" and in "The Odyssey."

  • 1 Mythology; Edith Hamilton

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.