Ancient Greece and Rome have a heavy influence on the idea of manhood we promote on the Art of Manliness. In fact, this classical conception of manliness was how much of the West defined manhood up until the middle of the 20th century. If you were to ask a man living in 1920 what “manliness” meant, he’d probably give you roughly the same answer as a Greek or Roman man living 2,000 years ago.
My guest on the podcast today is a classical scholar who has spent time thinking and writing about Greek and Roman notions of manliness. His name is Ted Lendon. I had Ted on the podcast awhile back ago to discuss his book Soldiers and Ghosts (episode #231 if you want to check it out).
On today’s show, Ted goes into detail about how the Greeks and the Romans defined manliness. We begin with the Greeks and how the Homeric epics, particularly The Iliad, served as their bible on how to be a man and how Achilles and Odysseus were held up as models of manhood. Ted then explains how the Athenian philosophers tried to tame Bronze Age manliness by making self-control an important element of being a man.
We then shift gears to the Romans and discuss how they borrowed elements of Greek manliness to shape their own culture of manhood, as well as how Roman ideas of manliness differed from those of the Greeks.
We end our conversation talking about why the virtue of self-control pops up in definitions of manliness not just in the West, but also Eastern cultures like Japan and China.
- The Ancient Greek notion of manliness
- The Achilles ethos and the Odysseus ethos
- The language of manliness in the ancient world — arete, andreia, virtus, and more
- How the Greek idea of manliness changed in the age of the great philosophers like Plato
- The shift from emotional manliness to stoic manliness
- How self-control came to be the supreme virtue
- Alexander the Great’s throwback notion of manliness
- The Greek influence on Roman manliness
- Why the Romans don’t quite agree on what virtus means
- What gladitorial combat meant to the Romans
- Why free Roman men volunteered to fight as gladiators
- The rise of Stoicism in Roman culture
- Comparing Stoicism to the more modern Quaker movement
- The Greek and Roman ideas of manliness that are with us yet today
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first podcast with Ted about warfare in Ancient Greece and Rome
- My podcast with Angie Hobbes about Greek manliness
- Hector and Achilles: Two Paths to Manliness
- The Iliad & The Odyssey
- A Primer on Plato
- Every Man Should Have Skin in the Game
- Cato: Lessons From a Self-Made Man
- Man Knowledge: A Primer on Roman Gladiators
- Every Man Should Be Strong
- Ted’s articles on Academia.edu
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Ancient Greece and Rome have a heavy influence on the idea of manhood we promote on the Art of Manliness, in fact this classical conception of manliness was how much of the west defined manhood up until about the middle of the 20th century. For example, if you were to ask a man living in 1920 what manliness meant, he’d probably give you roughly the same answer as a Greek or Roman man living 2000 years ago.
My guest on the podcast today is a classical scholar who’s spent time thinking and writing about Greek and Roman notions of manliness, his name is Ted Lendon. I had him on the podcast awhile back to discuss his book Soldiers and Ghosts which is about battle and antiquity, that was episode number 231 if you want to check that out. Today on the show Ted goes into detail how the Greeks and the Romans defined manliness.
We begin with the Greeks and how particularly the Iliad, served as their Bible on how to be a man and how Achilles and Odysseus were held as different models of manhood. Ted then explains how the Athenian philosophers like Plato and Aristotle try to tame the bronze age notion of manliness by making self control an important element of being a man. We then shift gears to the Romans and discuss how they borrowed elements of Greek manliness to shape their own culture of manhood, as well as how Roman ideas in manhood has differed from the Greeks.
And we end our conversation talking about why the virtue of self control pops up in definitions of manliness not just in the west, but also in eastern cultures like in Japan or China, and also how we’re living in an age of self control. If you want to check out the show notes after the show’s over where you can find links to resources and you can delve deeper into these topics, just go to aom.is/virtus, it’s manliness in Latin. Ted Lendon, welcome back to the show.
Ted Lendon: Delighted to be here.
Brett McKay: We had you on the show about a year ago to talk about your book Soldiers and Ghosts, about the history of battle and classical antiquity and Greece and Rome. When we were talking after the show was over, we were talking about the website, the art of manliness and what the idea of manliness that we’re promoting … And I mentioned how I studied classics and college and that the idea of manliness, I’m kind of tapping into a bit of the ancient Roman idea.
Then you said, “Well I study that, I do that, that’s what I think about and write about and research about.” After I heard that I said I gotta have you back on so we can dig deeper into classical notions of manliness. I think it would be good to start off with the ancient Greeks, because they were before the Romans. How did the ancient Greeks think of manliness? What do they think made a man a manly man?
Ted Lendon: Well, the first time we see the Greeks, of course, is in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Already there, you have at least two conflicting definitions of what you could call the Achilles ethos and the Odysseus or Ulysses ethos. Of course the term we’re looking arete is the term which will, in later Greece, become the word they use for virtue. In Homeric Greek it tends it tends to mean something more like excellence or competitive excellence. And of course Homeric heroes are always competing with each other to be the best, on both sides, competing mostly with the people on their side, not actually with the enemy.
And you have on one hand Achilles, who’s particular excellence is in actual fighting. He is a tremendous warrior, he is the strongest, the swiftest, the most accurate thrower of spears, the most accurate stabber with swords, that sort of thing. On the one hand he is the hero of the Iliad and then you have the hero of the Odyssey, Odysseus, whose particular arete, whose particular excellence is cunning. The Greek word metis being a type of cunning intelligence, which is, at the same time competitive, so you’re competing with everyone else in being more cunning than them.
In war this is manifested by things like organizing ambushes or effective deployments in if you’re trying to make your way home. Like Odysseus it’s tricking cyclops’ and telling lies and things of that nature to advance your case or to advance your progress. These two different conceptions are, as I say, already present in the Homeric poems, although I think it’s fair to say that the Odysseus ethos might have been regarded, if we assume the Homeric poems are historical, which of course they’re not.
The Odysseus ethos is sort of a special case. Most Homeric heroes compete with, and in the fashion of Achilles through bravery and talent in combat rather than with Odysseus in cunning and public speaking, which are his particular things.
Brett McKay: We have the dichotomy of cunning, and I guess Achilles represents andreia, is that the word courage? The Greek word for courage?
Ted Lendon: It is, but andreia is a later word. In the Homeric lexicon you would simply refer to what these guys have as arete. And the basic meaning of arete is courage or success in battle. But then you can also say there are other arete like those which Odysseus has, cunning wisdom and counsel and things like that. Subsequently, Greek will sort out this confusion and will say, okay arete are any excellences and we’re going to use the word andreia, which means literally manliness for what Achilles is particular good at, that is to say, bravery and strength in battle.
And the same will later be true in Latin, and the language permits a large degree of ambiguity for some time, but then kills off that ambiguity by introducing a new word for one particular form of excellent and that would be andreia, as you say, which just comes from aner, so it’s just the quality of being a man but the quality of being a man for these purposes is defined in military terms, basically means courage.
Brett McKay: And what about Hector? Because he’s another character in the Iliad that displays some notion of manliness. Did the Greeks look to him as an exemplar? Or was he ignored because he was a Trojan?
Ted Lendon: No, well of course the Trojans are … There’s not a lot of imagination of other cultures in the Iliad. The Trojans are ethically identical or very similar to the Greeks, to the Acheians. Hector is the chief person on the Trojan side who competes in the same way that Achilles does, that is to say he is incredibly courageous and so forth. He has that particular arete, as it would be described in his period, later he would be said to be the Trojan champion of andreia.
Now he has, and this has always been, there were a series of cross cutting qualities which he has, which make him very attractive to us. He loves his wife, he loves his son, he feels a tremendous degree of actual responsibility to his family, to his nation, these are various things, these are qualities that are quite rare on the Achaean side, so to us he’s much more human. None of those qualities would be described as andreia. They might or might not interfere with andreia, but they’re certainly not part of, in that period, they’re certainly not part of manliness although in later Greek times when the definition of arete widens much further, it would certainly be included.
Brett McKay: Okay. This idea of manliness evolved a bit, because they got more specific, they have words, they came up with it to describe it more specifically, they had arete to describe excellence in totality right? As a general term. I’m curious, how did the Greek notion of manliness change, say, during I guess would be the Axial age? I’m thinking Plato, the golden age of Greek philosophy. Did they change how the Greeks thought of manliness? Did they take that Homeric idea dan tamp it down or try to downplay it or transform it in some way?
Ted Lendon: They include it in a bigger system, and the bigger system is going to be of immense historical significance. And we see this again beginning in the pre-Socratics and then formulated in one form in Plato and formulated in another form in Aristotle by which it’s pretty well mature and doesn’t change much thereafter.
But the Greeks come up with a series of virtues which they consider to be the most important ones, and one of these is andreia, military courage and excellence, that is still allowed its place. But it’s very definitely … Over time and particularly to philosophers, it becomes a junior partner. They are particularly interested in Phronesis or Sophia, which we might describe as intellectual wisdom or intelligence. They are interested in the competitive virtue of self-control or the wisdom of self-control, and they’re interested in justness, you can call it justice but that steals from the fact that it is a competitive quality, everyone is competing to be more just than everybody else so justness is probably a better term than justice.
Because the philosophers are inhabiting a primarily civilian world and trying to offer advice to people who live in primarily civilian circumstances. The result is that they formulate this system of, these are the so-called Canonical virtues or Cardinal virtues which emphasize things that you need in civilian life. But we have to understand and expect that a much more Homeric system continues to operate beside this. If rather than talking to Plato we were to talk to an Athenian general contemporary to Plato and we were to ask him about arete, he might not give us those four Canonical elements, but he might say something very much closer to what was the case in Homer.
Well courage is number one, he would say, and then the cunning, intelligence which is almost completely left out of the philosophical system is also important. Of those four, the one which makes the four Canonical, philosophical virtues, the one which makes most in-roads in actual life of non-philosophers escapes, as it were, from the world of intellectuals, is to our sense surprisingly, self control.
That manifests itself, if you remember in the Iliad and the Odyssey, people cry a lot. There’s a great deal of overt and open emotion, while in classical times in the Axial age, a tremendous emphasis is placed on the suppression of emotion, always appearing absolutely calm, that’s one of the reasons that you will never see a Greek statue from that period from anything that we would describe as an expression on its face, they all look calm because they are trying to demonstrate their self control.
That makes an impact on real people’s sense of what manliness is. I think the great thing one has to track when one is looking at ancient conceptions of manliness is the motion from the highly emotional, violence based Homeric conception to this everyday, living in the city conception, which is not the full philosophical Cardinal virtues, but it heavily inflected with self control and children are brought up and told gentlemen do not show emotion, to show emotion is womanly, when people die women tear their hair out and they shriek and they generally carry on, that’s not how we behave.
Then you start developing heroes, again surprised to us who enact or demonstrate this particular quality. Most famous in Athenian history is Paracles, who we are told never even wept at his son’s funerals, except at the last one when he then had no more legitimate heirs, who would never go to drinking parties because it was impossible to maintain an adequate reserve. We must imagine him as being an exceptionally marmoreal person, never showing any emotion, never smiling, never frowning. And again, this is also reflected in the art at the time, this is what you are trying to be.
What we have is this transformation of manliness from primarily military to primarily a question of personal deportment and particularly, self-control becomes, even in the philosophers, the supreme virtue and it’s weird to us. Because why would self control, of all things, become so important? It’s a great pity, people have traced this motion, people have traced this increasing emphasis on self-control as the most important thing you can be, but no one has ever really explained it.
I guess if I were a Marxist, which I’m not, I would probably look to the existence of a slave society in which you have, particularly if you’re an important person, an enormous amount of completely ungovernable power over other people. And because your power in law over these other people, your slaves, is so absolute, but everyone in society understands that you should not get mad at them and murder them, which did occasionally happen because the power of individual persons of high status was so extraordinary by our standards, it made sense for them to develop a cult of self control, of controlling themselves.
Now that’s an appealing theory, the problem with the theory is that other societies have also developed very similar conceptions, such as, for example, the Spanish in the period of Spanish nobility and the period of the Spanish Armada. Also they developed this habit of impulsivity, the Samurai of the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate similarly, even though they were highly emotional. But in earlier works of Japanese literature they also developed this sense that you show your rank by being absolutely impassive.
This seems to sort of exist across the world in unconnected societies and is therefore, to me, absolutely fascinating. Another theory might simply be that it is a way in which you can show social distinction, which requires a lot of expensive, or at least time consuming training, but at least if you’re brought up in a good family you’re expected to pick this sort of thing up and it’s a social distinction which people who do not have that kind of bringing have a great deal of difficulty imitating.
You can look at, in a Greek and Roman case you can look at it as maybe a question of slavery or in the broader sense, a question of looking for a form of social distinction. I’m not very convinced by any of these things, but it is nevertheless the case that this is how the definition of manliness in Greek antiquity evolves, so that by the time of 400, by the time of Thucydides, Plato and so forth that you are primarily think in in terms of self control and no longer primarily thinking in terms of excellence in combat.
Brett McKay: That raises an interesting point. Around that same time the Axial age, or around Aristotle’s time, Alexander the Great came to power, he was actually tutored by Aristotle. But Alexander the Great was captivated by this Homeric notion of manliness. He wanted to be the next Achilles. Was there a synthesis in Alexander of this self-control, Aristotelian, Plutonic idea of manliness with that more Homeric idea?
Ted Lendon: I think Aristotle would have liked there to be synthesis, but I think, in fact, Alexander is a genuine throwback. He comes, of course, from Macedonia which was a very old fashioned monarchy, where many of the old Homeric values were still very much alive. They did not live in a city state, the assumption is that there’s always been some connection between self-control and living in the city state.
If you’re a king you don’t really have to be self controlled in this way. He really is much more Homeric. What’s funny about Alexander is, of course, that the people who write about him subsequently, and particularly Plutarch, are very anxious to make him self-controlled, because that is the supreme virtue. Plutarch’s life of Alexander is basically a series of attempts to show how self controlled he was.
Which was such a flop because he was not actually self-controlled at all, not only did he kill a number of friends, some of them when he would get drunk and kill people. But he was also very fond of the bottle, or I guess they didn’t have bottles, but of wine, which is another thing that the properly self controlled person is not supposed to be. His being self controlled is a product of the historians after him who think that as the greatest of the Greeks, he has to have been self controlled. But the real guy was pretty solidly Homeric and not self-controlled at all.
Brett McKay: That’s really interesting. Let’s shift gears a bit to the Romans.
Ted Lendon: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: What was their notion of manliness? Did they borrow anything from the Greeks? Or did they start their own idea of manliness from the beginning …
Ted Lendon: There’s a lot of Greek influence, influence particularly when the Romans around Cicero’s day start spending more and more time reading philosophy, and one of the things is that it’s probable that the Roman ruling class around Cicero’s day was the most philosophical, that is to say they read more philosophy than anyone in the history of the world, including the Greeks before them.
And in Greece, philosophy had always been a relatively minority activity, but the Romans around Cicero’s day, their ruling class takes it extremely seriously and we know this because of all of Cicero’s letters in which he continuously mentions the philosophical positions of all of his correspondents, and we keep thinking, “Why is this guy who’s not important, why does he have a philosophical position that Cicero could make fun of?” Or can debate, but they all do appear to have.
If we go back to the original early role, which of course we don’t have good, we don’t have an Iliad and an Odyssey so we’re relying on Roman traditions for the early period, many of them old oral traditions of dubious value. But those traditions not only told the Romans what had happen, but were also exemplary in the sense that they showed the Romans how they should behave.
If you look back there you have a quality which is very, very close to the original Greek arete, which is called virtus or in the new pronunciation, wirtus, but I don’t like the new pronunciation, particularly of that word, so I’m gonna use the ‘V’ even though my classical colleagues will make fun of me. Virtus simply means manliness, from the Roman word for man which is Vir or Wir, and in early time it seems to have been extremely similar to the particular qualities of Achilles, not so similar to the Odysseus part, that is to say cunning, public speaking and things like that are not quite so important.
But there interesting Roman curiosities attached to this. Service to the state is much more important. Of course the Greeks and Homer don’t really have a state even to service. Self-sacrifice, obedience to the authorities settled over you in a military context. If you’re a young man, something called furor, which is a kind of berserker rage, and we think, of crouse, immediately of Iliad…the wrath of Achilles, and of course the Homeric heroes have that uncontrollable wrath but it’s not part of arete, it’s bad.
While the equivalent quality, at least among younger Romans, younger Roman warriors, furor was regarded as part of virtus and was a good thing rather than a bag thing. Although of course it is in conflict with obedient service to the state and things like that in a way they never really managed to reconcile particularly well. The Romans eventually, as I said, learned Greek philosophy, that takes on some aspects of Greek conceptions of manliness and do not take in others.
The most famous one they do not take in is getting naked and exercising, that is to say, athletics. They are willing to watch Greeks do it, but they are not willing to do it themselves if they are persons of good family, you are expected to, of course, if you are a Roman of high family to take military training. But the idea of getting naked and throwing the discus or wrestling or things like that, they just never did that, and what’s interesting is that even when they’re under profound Greek influence in the first century AD, first century BC, first century AD and so forth and so on.
This wall never breaks, Romans never participate in in athletics, although it had become a considerable part of the way in which the Greeks would show off their manliness. What’s weird is your have these figures who are clearly considered emblems of virtus and we can’t exactly figure out in what their virtus consisted. For excampe Cato the Elder is incredibly obdurate. Is that was his virtus consists of? He is incredibly litigious and is continuously sued by everybody around him. Is that what his virtus consists of? He’s virtuous in a sort of mean old fashioned grumpy way and says things like, “Well you know you shouldn’t keep old slaves you should sell them off to starve them to death,” and things like that. Is that what his virtus consists of?
Even the Romans don’t seem to have been exactly clear, but you do have this second set of people, just like the Greeks have their Odysseus’ and their Achilles’. The Romans have mostly Roman style Achilles’, that is to say warriors and generals. But then they have these mean guys Cato the Elder and Cato the Younger and, for example, someone like Manlius Torquatus who executes his own son or attempts to do so for disobedience in war and this becomes a habit in the family so that it’s very dangerous to be a Manlius Torquatus because your father’s always trying to execute you.
Again, these are men of virtus who do this, but it’s not exactly clear that even Romans quite understood what this virtus consisted of. By the time you get down to Cicero you have translations of the Greek canonical virtues, and then these are applied to the Romans. But the translations aren’t great and it is never clear how … Although again, they take their philosophy very seriously, it’s never clear quite the degree to which those translations stick and it’s never clear the degree to which the four canonical virtues which are now Roman virtues under their Roman names really supersede the old military virtues.
Although again, there’s not a lot of question that at least temparantia, which is the Roman translation of, well one of the Roman translation of sophrosyne, self control. It’s an important concept that doesn’t go very well into Latin. That becomes very important for them too, and they develop the same habits of ostentatious public self control that the Greeks possessed, and in fact they may have those quite for back. But the rest of the system they never really quite figured out what something like justness or intellectual intelligence would be, they don’t really quite count them in their sense of virtue.
I guess what I would say is that Roman virtus remains much more military and its major change over time is similar to that of the Greek one, which is taking on an ever strongest sense of self control, but probably that is a little bit weaker on the Roman side and they never lose the sense that ultimately, what a Roman should be doing, is killing people. Which is why, of course, they preserve activities like gladiatorial combat, which are quite idiosyncratic to them because they still admire … They say, this person may be a miserable slave and worthless in every other respect, but by God is he brave, he has virtus.
That’s why a Roman takes his son to watch the gladiatorial combats, to see this old fashioned Roman excellence in action. We, of course, think of gladiatorial combat as gross and a few highly philosophical Romans also thought of it as gross, but most of them thought of it as a display of their ancient and proper excellences, which because we now live in the city of a million people, we cannot demonstrate every day, but at least we can go and watch it.
Brett McKay: That’s really interesting. I think I read somewhere about gladiators, that this admiration, and at the same time disdain, for gladiators, it was really kind of schizophrenic in a way. That ideal of that virtus you were talking about, that bravery, it even compelled some free Romans to become gladiators themselves. They wanted to not just watch it vicariously, they wanted to experience it first hand, this happened, I think, later on.
Ted Lendon: That’s absolutely right. Gladiators are such a strange bunch because they are, of course, legally infamous, that is to say they are legally defined along with other low persons like actors, as having no shame and therefore, for example, they cannot testify in court and there are various crimes that cannot be committed against them because since they have no shame they have no honor and therefore you cannot destroy their honor, actually you can’t really slander a gladiator because, well, anyone can say against him.
But you’re quite right, you get lots of free men who choose to become gladiators before the profit and the glory involved in it. But then also aristocrats who choose to become gladiators, presumably to demonstrate their old fashioned excellence. Gladiators were enormously sexually attractive and this produced a great deal of legislation when the Roman emperors and the Roman state attempted to bar gladiators from access to free born women, which they being infamous were not supposed to have, but nevertheless they had groupies and what are you going to do if the daughter of the senator is following around a gladiator, it’s disgraceful, but everyone understands it, it’s kind of expected and normal.
Yes, they are the most remarkable mix of qualities. One can say, well they were admired but they just have this weird legal quality. Their legal infamy, at the same time represents a real social infamy, which again, very odd to us, what can we say? We don’t understand quite how that would work, but the Romans quite took it for granted, and as I say, it’s something that the Greeks, having been showed it, this is one of the few things that Greeks do take up in the east under Roman rule, they do start having gladiatorial competitions and things like that.
Of course, the greatest ancient doctor, Galen, got his early experience as a gladiator doctor, which is a great thing because they get a lot more wounds than most people so he was particularly good at general surgery, putting people back together. But ultimately it is very Roman and very idiosyncratic and has a very intimate relationship with Roman conceptions of manhood. At some level I guess it’s the idea that manhood is prior to everything else, and that however abject at base you might be, a slave, a convict, because of course you could be sentenced to the gladiatorial schools as a form of capitol punishment.
Nevertheless, if you had virtus, if you have physical courage and strength, it does elevate you and make you a hero by some Roman definition, which they cannot get away from no matter how civilized they get and no matter how reluctant they could individually be to fight either as gladiators or as warriors. Because, of course, after the first century BC or after the middle of the first century AD, Italy is producing very few soldiers for Rome. Almost all Roman soldiers, who are exemplars of virtus, are coming from more recently conquered people, the Spaniards, the Gauls and people like that.
The Italians only contact with virtus is in the gladiatorial arena. But they still continue to like it, they don’t say, “Okay this has nothing to do with us, this is now a barbarian thing, the army’s for barbarians, we’re not interested in it.” No, they don’t do that, they keep watching it and they watch it more and more, the number of gladiatorial, days of gladiatorial combat in Rome increases over time. There’s clearly more and more of a taste for this type of thing as the actual opportunity or expectation of military service for the people of Italy declines.
Brett McKay: That’s really interesting. I’m curious, as the Romans progressed and went to the empire and this idea of temperance, self control took on, did that contribute to the rise of stoicism in Roman culture?
Ted Lendon: Stoicisms fascinating and mysterious. Obviously, it is one of the Greek philosophical schools and it becomes highly popular, particularly under the early empire. We used to think … I mean it’s interesting, we used to think it was, as it were, the major school in the time of Cicero and in the last years of the republic. But people have since gone through Cicero’s letters again and shown that there’s much greater split in philosophical loyalties in that period. For example, Brutus, the Brutus who kill Julius Caesar, Brutus the tyrannicide, turns out to be a … which is interesting and weird because we don’t run into, or we didn’t think we ran into a lot of those.
But then as you get into the first years of the empire, you do get a narrowing, an apparent narrowing of philosophical interests and you do get more and more stoicism. Then eventually, rather surprisingly, stoicism becomes the creed of choice for the philosophical opposition to the emperors, so that you men like who are stoic and who are regarded as stoic saints because they misbehave to such a degree that the emperors are finally obliged to kill them, although being killed by Nero was not all that difficult to do.
What I will say is that stoicism encourages a sort of bland indifference to the outside world, which manifests itself very similarly to Roman temperance. But I’m not quite sure, I think they sort of line up accidentally, one with another, and the existence of temporati may indeed, as an important virtue, may indeed make stoicism more popular. But stoicism itself, the more we learn about stoicism, the more peculiar its Roman imperial manifestations seem to be.
If you go back to, as it were, real Greek stoicism, it’s all about perfecting your own soul and being completely indifferent to anything that happens outside yourself. It’s a, I guess you could call it a quietist breed. It’s sort of the ancient Quakerism, because what you’re interested in is your own spiritual life and you should not be engaged in the search for exterior power, glory, and so forth, so you should not be engaged in warfare, collecting money, politics, and doing all those various other things. Although, of course, Roman stoics do all those things which is a little confusing to us.
Roman stoicism is I think very much … It’s ripe for an interesting re-study because it’s so different from Greek stoicism and in many ways contradictory to Greek stoicism. Most of us know about Roman stoicism, and most of us who do more about Roman stoicism, if we looked at Greek stoicism we’d think, “Wow that’s extremely weird and unattractive,” because the basic position of Greek stoicism is ‘don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with you’.
You’re not supposed to intervene in the world outside yourself. If you see an act of cruelty you’re supposed to just say, “My soul is unaffected by that.” There’s a huge set of definitions of things which have an impact on the soul, which is a very limited number of things, and things which are indifferent, that is to say they don’t desire wealth, political office and things like that.
If you follow that list of things that are actually indifferent, the Romans by and large don’t, but if you do follow that you kind of stay at home and stare at your belly button all day. Roman stoicism is an oddity, very different from Greek stoicism. As I say, it needs another look.
Brett McKay: Interesting. I’m curious, do we still see these notions of Greek and Roman manliness with us today? Particularly in the west?
Ted Lendon: I think there are a number of things. Obviously one can say many of us still believe in courage and it is a very good thing because those of us who believe in courage go and join the armed forces and enact this desire for courage. The old Greek cunning, intelligence, so important to someone like Odysseus, it seems to me that that could be usefully compared to the intelligence that you need to do well on Wall Street and things like that. It’s a pity we tend not to regard that as a virtue in itself, as the Greeks would have done.
But if you look at it in Greek terms it is admired, and it should be admired because it creates wealth for all of us and so on. There’s a nice parallel there, but what I guess I would say to you is something that we don’t notice, which is that since 1600, maybe 1500, the west has been extraordinarily self controlled place. That is, we do not, men do not cry in public. In fact, the accepted, shall we say, volume of or the accepted range of emotion that men are allowed to display in public is limited.
And if you go back before that, to the middle ages, you see kings crying and all sorts of things that we would consider quite off color these days. Of course there have been periods of greater emotional openness, the 1960s, of less emotional openness, all this doesn’t much matter. In practice, since 15, 1600 we have been a society that has defined manliness in large part in terms of self control, to such a degree that we no longer notice.
We notice that it’s no longer, as it were, a choice. It’s not longer something that we strive for consciously. We just take it absolutely for granted, and that is not historically inevitable. It’s true of other societies and it’s one of the things that has made is easy for us to get along with a lot of people, for example with the Japanese who developed a very parallel system of emotional restraint in the Tokugowa Shogunate and keep it to this day.
But it does seem to me that we truly live in, we have been in four centuries of sophrosyne, of temparantia and we take it so for granted we don’t even notice it, but that it is in fact historically exceptional and we should notice it and we should probably, in fact, realize that it is an aspect, an emotional aspect of the renaissance because it comes into Europe, that sort of self restraint comes into Europe with the renaissance so it is, in fact, in its origins it’s a self conscious revival of Greek and Roman virtues, even though … And we keep the habits even now, even though we’ve long forgotten the Greek and Roman virtues or the fact that it was originally a revival of them.
So as I say, to repeat myself, I think we live in a period of the most profound sophrosyne and that is the strongest survival from the ancient conceptions of manliness, that a man should not show excessive emotion.
Brett McKay: That’s fascinating. Well Ted, this has been a great conversation. I think I asked you last time, is there a place people can go to learn about your work? Or just check on Amazon?
Ted Lendon: Well, they can check on Amazon, I publish under JE Lendon, a couple of books there. Also, of course, all my articles are to be found on academia.edu, which is free, all you have to do is sign up. A huge number of academics, of course, have got their stuff up there, so if you’re interested particularly in my stuff on things like Spartan honor, the way in which Spartan conceptions of manliness were different from those in the rest of Greece in their time. That type of material, which was published in obscure places is easily found there. Amazon for the books, but academia.edu for the articles on specific subjects is also strongly recommended.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, we’ll be sure to link to that in the show notes. Well Ted, thank you so much for your time, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Ted Lendon: It’s always lovely and I hope you have me back again, thank you very much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ted Lendon, he’s a professor of classics at the University of Virginia, his professional name is JE Lendon, that’s the name he writes under, so if you’re looking for works by him, search for JE Lendon. He’s got a book on Amazon.com, Soldiers and Ghosts is a great one to check out. It’s all about battle in ancient Greece and Rome, the development of it, the philosophy behind it. Also you find find a full list of his paper he’s published for free on academia.edu, search for JE Lendon. He’s got a paper on there about Spartan manliness as well as Roman honor. Also you can find link to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic by going to our show notes, and that’s at aom.is/virtus.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast, for more many tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and if you enjoy this show and have got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, just take a minute, helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 19, 2017