Ancient Ethics in a Modern World

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric largely surrounding laws, moral codes, and the treatment of women and outsiders in both Jewish and Muslim holy texts.  The detractors of these religions seem to be taking the texts far more literally than most practitioners of these religions do.  Now, this post is not meant as a defense of governments that deny their citizens freedoms and choices that are considered to be basic human rights in many countries around the globe.  Those countries are not, and should not be, representatives of either of these religions.  Judging an individual Jew or Muslim or their religions as a whole by the conduct of any government, any religious ruling body, or any religious leader is an error.  These religions both have books that were written a long, long time ago.  Most rational practitioners of these religions have learned to adapt certain teachings to fit their modern environments and legal systems, and they don’t find this to be in conflict with their core religious beliefs.  They aren’t lurking outside your home waiting for a chance to stone you.

In Hellenismos, we don’t have such books.  There is no written word of the gods full of laws to be followed and beliefs and practices to maintain.  We are largely reconstructing and reviving our religion based on archaeological research and extant texts that were largely meant for entertainment.  I am sure there are things that we are getting wrong.  However, we are not trying to revive or reconstruct the cultures of any ancient Greek city-states in their entirety.  My love for the gods does not extend to a belief that ancient Athenian society and social customs, especially as they pertained to slaves and women, are something to strive for.  Why, then, do so many assume that someone of a different faith strives for the very worst (by our 2017 American moral and social standards) to be found in their holy texts?

In terms of moral code for Hellenismos, many people will point you toward the Delphic Maxims.  I love that they still exist and that we are able to read them and consider them, but I don’t believe that following all of them will make us better people or bring us to better service for the gods.  For example, the ninth maxim is “Γαμειν μελλε,” or “Intend to marry.”  It may seem harmless or even good advice on the surface, but what about our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?  In many places, including modern Greece, same-sex marriages are not legal.  Therefore, many people are legally unable to fulfill this maxim.  Should they be judged for that?  In antiquity, people didn’t marry for love.  Marriages were arranged, and sexual orientation didn’t matter as your marriage had nothing to do with who you loved or were attracted to.  It was a duty.  Should it still be a duty?  Should I marry the man my mother (I have no father, grandfather, or uncle) chooses for me regardless of my opinion on the matter?

The 44th maxim is “Υιους παιδευε,” or “Educate your sons.”  On the surface, there is no fault to be found here, but if you look at the entire set of maxims as a whole, you will find no such directive regarding the educations of daughters.  I would hope that most if not all modern Hellenic polytheists would look at this maxim, understand that it was written in a different time, and apply the directive to value and pursue education as something that is equally important for their daughters.

The 95th maxim is “Γυναιχος αρχε,” or “Rule your wife.”  This is the very idea that I often hear slammed when people discuss Judaism and Islam.  Both religions have fairly well-defined gender roles that are more adhered to the more orthodox one is, but what no one seems to remember is that we have this idea, too.  This idea, no matter where you find it, started a long time ago.  The feminist battle for equality is not a new thing, nor is it just a monotheist or Abrahamic thing.  In addition, a very important aspect of the feminist ideal of equality is that women get to choose for themselves.  If a woman chooses to take on a practice that other people view as oppressive, if it is her own choice (not a choice made under duress by family or government), she is not being oppressed.  To deny her the opportunity to make that choice would be oppressive.

In fact, there are a few maxims that I think we could all do well to remember.  Ξενος ων ιςθι.  If you are a stranger, act like one.  If you have never been a part of a Jewish or Muslim family or community, you are an outsider.  You don’t know everything.  You haven’t walked in those shoes.  Accept that there are probably things that you do not know or understand, and listen to the people who are a part of those communities when they have something to tell you about themselves, their practices, their beliefs, or their communities.  Do not assume that you know better than they do about who they are.  Ψεγε μηδενα.  Find fault with no one.  It isn’t your place to judge the religious beliefs or practices of anyone else.  You do not have to adopt someone else’s way of life for your own, but we ought to accept that they live the life that they have chosen to live.

I was going to choose just one more maxim to leave you with, but there are many more that apply.  Instead, I’ll just say this.  If we want to be accepted and have our religious views accepted rather than mocked and ostracized, we need to extend that same favor to others.  We cannot gain the respect that we do not give to others.

2 thoughts on “Ancient Ethics in a Modern World

  1. I’d like to address one part of this because while I agree we ‘should’ be able to respect each other’s decisions to follow whatever path we choose, I think it’s a naive and overly simplified way of looking at the issue.

    The idea of no one ever being judgmental or being judged sounds good, it even feels good, but it’s not realistic, practical or even helpful. Sometimes it’s appropriate and even necessary to judge. If my child wants to play at a friend’s house and one of the friend’s parents is a registered sex offender, you bet I’m going to judge and make a judgment call that my child can not play at that friend’s house. That judgment serves to protect my child from harm and predatory influence.

    I do believe we have the right to judge others in certain circumstances. ‘Judgmental’ has become a dirty word. Promoting a ‘live and let live’ and a ‘love everyone’ model just isn’t practical. We don’t apply this to abusers, for example. If a person is being harmed by their domestic partner, we don’t say ‘well, live and let live!’ or ‘she should still love him and not judge him for beating her’. When you hear folks caution against being judgmental, it seems to only pertain to the bad stuff, like being negative. It seems OK to judge the good stuff. We don’t say ‘You’re being judgmental’ to being told we are smart, or kind, or beautiful. And the argument to never judge falls apart from there. Some judging is used to feel superior, which is not helpful or OK, while helpful judging allows us to be discerning, which is very helpful and should be encouraged.

    If your religion seeks to deprive any human of their rights, education, personal autonomy or freedoms, then yes, I am going to judge you. I’m not going to respect your right to believe those things, because frankly it really isn’t a choice when you’ve been conditioned or brainwashed into believing giving up your freedom, power and rights (based on what someone somewhere says god wants you to do) somehow serves a greater good, will make you a batter person, will save your soul or will bring you some reward in the after life. Here’s my test for whether I respect your religion or even your right to practice it- If you risk being ostracized, abused, jailed or put to death for not following your religious doctrine, then it is not a choice. My respect ends where your lack of choice begins. My judgment begins where your freedom, human rights and empowerment ends.


  2. Personally, Wendy, I agree with you that what people should be judged on is their actions. Therefore, like in your example, if someone is a convicted sex-offender, we have every right to take that past action into account when planning our own actions – like not letting a child near them. Absolutely! I think the difference, however, comes into when we judge people for things that aren’t their personal actions. There is a difference between judging someone for what they have done and for something one of their co-religionists has done. There is also a difference between judging someone for what they have done and for what you think they might do or approve of based on what we know about their religion.


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