Jonathan Sacks—Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if that sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution”. Things that once made sense — duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do — to many people now make no sense at all.

This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have. What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the Ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving.

The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judaeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* International News & CommentaryEngland / UK* Religion News & CommentaryOther FaithsJudaism* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

17 Comments
Posted February 27, 2010 at 2:47 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. deaconjohn25 wrote:

Lord Sacks is only partly right in my opinion. He seems to be writing in the individualistic tradition of morality—he seems to believe that in the Judeo-Christian Tradition morality has only been about private life while wider social issues as issues of morality are of modern provenance. But I think the Judeo-Christian ethic has survived for millenia because it struggles to include both “private” and “social” morality.  But he is certainly right in how the Judeo-Christian private (or personal) moral ethic is in steep decline in the West and that the West is in peril because of this.

February 27, 8:33 pm | [comment link]
2. Br. Michael wrote:

Agree, the Judeo-Christian is valid for both public and private morality.  It’s given by God.  You know YHWH.

February 27, 9:17 pm | [comment link]
3. Iohannes wrote:

I agree that our morality applies to both the public and the private spheres. In Lord Sacks’ defense, saying that a purely civic ethics is insufficient does not imply that a purely private ethics is sufficient. His comment in the middle is worth noting: Western morality of the traditional, religious kind “was about private life. It said that without personal virtue, we cannot create a society of grace.” And his conclusion: “If we lose the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.” Those are very interesting claims to read coming from one of Bernard Williams’ students.

February 27, 9:43 pm | [comment link]
4. Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

I have to call his hand on this argument. He’s obviously read very little Aristotle or Plato. Aristotle particularly was into Virtue with a Capital V. He believed that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge but general knowledge. Because Ethics is not a theoretical discipline, he thought a person must have “experience of the actions in life” in order to become good. To Aristotle, if a person could become virtuous, he could not simply study what virtue is, he had to actually do virtuous activities.

For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you.

Yes, the political was all to Aristotle because only barbarians, wild animals, and crazy men lived outside the political realm of civilization. But to claim at your private life was up to you and somehow divorced from your public life is ludicrous. If any action was worth doing, it was worth doing in public because, to the Greeks, only shameful things were done in private. At the end of the day, your public Virtue was the only thing you had.

Likewise, to make the claim that the thought of the Ancient Greeks did not endure is absurd. Patristic theology is laced with Greco-roman thought. The things battled over in the Nicene Creed (ousia and substance, etc) are all Hellenistic philosophical constructs. The whole notion that God is the infinite other to humanity so crucial to various Church fathers is a Greco-Roman concept…that’s not from the Jewish tradition at all.

With all due respect to Lord Sacks, he needs to read more about Aristotle and Greco-Roman thought before making the absurd claim that “What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the Ancient Greeks.” Aristotle believed in absolute Truth with a capital T. He set certain emotions (e.g., hate, envy, spite, etc.) and certain actions (e.g., adultery, murder, etc.) as always wrong, regardless of the situation or the circumstances.

To Aristotle, ethics was about finding the Golden Mean between two extremes, particularly he speaks about wealth. Making money by whatever means necessary is nowhere near the Golden Mean, and yet Sacks asserts that our current society follows this civic ethic? His logic is completely faulty, and premised on a misunderstanding was Greek ethics.

February 27, 10:20 pm | [comment link]
5. Frank Fuller wrote:

Yep, that would be the Aristotle whose most famous pupil was Alexander of Macedon?  Trained the finest mass-killer to that date in his world, certainly one of the contenders for all-time champ.  By their fruits shall ye know them.  I think Lord Sacks’ point has more merit than you allow.

February 28, 1:05 am | [comment link]
6. Laocoon wrote:

@ Frank Fuller, by your logic, Jesus was only 11/12 of a good teacher.  Yes, Aristotle was tutor to Alexander, but he was not Alexander’s only influence.  One imagines, for instance, that parenting has something to do with the way children turn out.  And that the choices the students make have something to do with it as well.

February 28, 1:11 am | [comment link]
7. driver8 wrote:

Very interesting. I suspect that Lord Sacks is, in fact, very knowledgeable about the Greek and Roman thought. He does take for rhetorical purposes an IMO slightly too strong Athens vs Jerusalem line - but it’s a newspaper article not a doctoral thesis. Nevertheless, as our cultures adopt “an entirely different ethical system”, it’s worth considering what is being given up.

February 28, 2:39 am | [comment link]
8. Fr. Dale wrote:

#4. Archer of the Forest,
Would you say then that contemporary morality is neither Greek nor Judeo Christian? To what extent is Greek morality akin to Judeo Christian? To what extent does public morality start with personal ethics and build upon that?

February 28, 10:37 am | [comment link]
9. Charming Billy wrote:

#4 I still think Sacks in on the right track, although it might be more felicitous to replace political with social. As you note, Classical Greco-Roman ethics were inescapably social. Spite, envy etc. were always wrong because these passions made it impossible to practice the all important social virtues. In Judeo-Christian ethics, on the other hand, these passions are harmful because they rupture our relationship with, most important, God, and secondly our relationship with others. This view gives an importance to a private divine/human relationship (although of course this relationship mediated through our membership in the Jewish people or church, but it has an inescapably private character) that is completely absent in Greco-Roman ethics.  So yes, I think Sacks right that “What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the Ancient Greeks.”

Also, Sacks isn’t claiming that the abstract conceptual tools developed by Greek thought didn’t endure; just their ethical concepts. That’s debatable, too, of course.

February 28, 11:53 am | [comment link]
10. Charming Billy wrote:

#4 “The whole notion that God is the infinite other to humanity so crucial to various Church fathers is a Greco-Roman concept…that’s not from the Jewish tradition at all.”

The idea that there’s an unbridgeable qualitative distinction between God and humanity, the creator and the created, came rather late to Greek thought. But was always present in Judaism. The difference between the two traditions is that Greek thought always left open the door to some kind of apotheosis, (you could be Herakles or an ecstatic neoplatonist) whereas Hebrew thought always held that God was fundamentally concerned with humans and open to a relationship with them.

February 28, 12:01 pm | [comment link]
11. Catholic Mom wrote:

Jonathan Sacks is a Jew whose primary audience is Christian.  He almost never speaks about Jewish values or traditions or beliefs without referring to them as “Judeo Christian”—a term very few orthodox rabbis use.  In fact, in orthodox Judaism, the New Testament is referred to as the “Greek Testament” reflecting their view that it is informed primarily with Greek, not Jewish, ideas.  Whether this is true or not, of course, is open to debate among scholars.

February 28, 1:40 pm | [comment link]
12. J. Champlin wrote:

We’re not Greco-Roman; we’re utilitarian.  They’re are not the same;  I’ll take the Greeks any day (the jibe about Greek civilization being short-lived is less than fair).  The political morality he describes is one concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number; and what is private is, in principle, irrelevant.  The whole notion of “problems” getting resolved through utilitarian, political “solutions” is a far cry from Aristotle’s ethics of character.  Political life is sustained by people of character—and the polis in turn nurtures character.  Both politics and character are cultural.

Having said all that, it seems to me Sacks does identify an important difficulty.  “Duty, obligation, self-restraint” are not utilitarian virtues.  Washington’s intuition can be rephrased as, we can only form stable character in relation to a transcendent purpose.  In the recent California arguments, the question was repeatedly asked, “Does same-sex marriage damage heterosexual marriage?”  If the question is asked from a utilitarian, individualist point of view, the answer is clearly, “No”.  The same-sex commitment of the household down the street has no impact on my marriage.  If, on the other hand, the question is asked as a question of character—How do we think about marriage?—then it’s clear that the impact is enormous—in the sense that you have to fundamentally redefine the good of marriage and so redefine the commitment.

February 28, 7:56 pm | [comment link]
13. J. Champlin wrote:

Certainly not the best written post, but “they’re are not”? Oh dear.

February 28, 7:59 pm | [comment link]
14. AndrewA wrote:

sub

March 1, 1:12 pm | [comment link]
15. Contarini wrote:

Archer,
I agree that Rabbi Sacks is not doing justice to the Greco-Roman moral tradition, but you are not quite right when you say:

“The whole notion that God is the infinite other to humanity so crucial to various Church fathers is a Greco-Roman concept…that’s not from the Jewish tradition at all.”

In Greek philosophy, infinity was an imperfection. The idea of God as the “infinite other” is neither Jewish nor pagan, but a Christian development (I believe that God’s infinity was first clearly asserted by St. Gregory of Nyssa) based on the fruitful encounter between the Biblical understanding of God and classical Greek philosophy.

March 4, 4:50 pm | [comment link]
16. J. Champlin wrote:

#15—Right.  Gregory was also the first to frankly accept and state the radical incomprehensibility of God as infinite.  As I remember, Origen had backed away from affirming God as infinite because it is inconceivable.  And, yes, it is the fruitful encounter between Greek philosophy, Scripture, and Christian practice.

March 4, 5:26 pm | [comment link]
17. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

#15 Contarini
“The idea of God as the “infinite other” is neither Jewish nor pagan, but a Christian development”

Check out Isaiah 40 and Job 38-40

March 4, 5:33 pm | [comment link]
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