On the “Pillars of Hellenism”

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1 Introduction

Although the original page is now down, Timothy Jay Alexander once proposed “seven pillars of Hellenismos” (Hellenismos here meaning revived ancient Greek polytheism), each with his own definition:

  • Ethike Arete – the practice of habitual excellence (ethics)
  • Eusebia – reverence, loyalty, and sense of duty toward the Gods (of Greece)
  • Hagneia – the maintaining of ritual purity by avoiding miasma
  • Nomos Arkhaios – observance of ancient tradition, (religious) law, and customs
  • Sophia – the pursuit of wisdom, understanding, and truth
  • Sophrosune – the control of self through deep contemplation
  • Xenia – adherence to hospitality and the guest-host relationship

(Source: baring the aegis)

Some contemporary polytheists regard these as essential principles of the religion, and I have no qualms with that. However, it strikes me as misleading to use ancient Greek words but not ancient definitions, especially when definitions of ethical terms are quite abundant in Greco-Roman literature. In that case, it would be much more honest to simply use English terminology. To show what I mean, I will use this post to show how any of these terms can be used in a more historically grounded way, and integrated into a net of ethical ideas. The sections are titled:

In , I will also discuss baring the aegis’ pillar of “Katharmos: the act of being ritually clean”. Further, in regard to Kharis, questionably defined on the same page as “the act of giving to the Gods so They might give something in return”, see my own page on Kharis. As Seneca (who wrote the only surviving ancient monograph on the subject) makes quite clear, kharis or ‘grace’ in the first instance describes acts of favor without expectation of repayment, and a sense of gratefulness free of the compulsion to reciprocate.

2 Virtue (aret) and ethics (ēthik), or ethical virtue (ēthikḗ aretḗ)

Ēthikḗ aretḗ can indeed be translated as “the practice of habitual excellence”, but that phrasing is quite muddled. More lucidly, we can compress “practice of excellence” into one word, ‘virtue’, corresponding to the single Greek word aretḗ and the Latin virtūs. Similarly, we can replace the ambiguous “habitual” with the loanword ‘ethical’ or the equivalent Latinate term, ‘moral’ (lat. mōrālis). Thus we arrive at the much simpler translation ‘moral/ethical virtue’, or even simply ‘virtue’, since ‘virtue’ does not have the non-ethical senses that aretḗ did in ancient Greek.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt, and so I can understand the desire to find a more direct translation of the meaning of the Greek words than stale terms like ‘virtue’ and ‘ethics’. It certainly is illuminating to understand that ethical philosophy (gr. ēthikḗ philosophía) is concerned with êthos, that is, with your ‘behavior, habitus, disposition, character’ and with social ‘customs, manners, usages’, not simply with abstract questions of what is right and wrong. In the end, however, the inherited terminology of ethical philosophy and everyday terms like ‘good behavior’ (a good approximation of ēthikḗ aretḗ) are more helpful in the cultivation of virtue than reaching for half-understood ancient Greek words, or peddling translatorese like “the practice of habitual excellence”.

However you land on this, it is clear that “the practice of habitual excellence” falls short of being a definition; it is only a translation or paraphrase. But we can turn to the Platonic Definitions for a whole series of them: “Virtue is the best disposition; a habit (or ‘habitus’, héxis) of a mortal living being that is laudible in itself;* a habit of such kind that what possesses it is called good; a just arrangement of manners (nómoi); a disposition of such kind that what possesses it, and is perfectly consistent, is called principled (spoudaîon); a habit producing good order” (411d). In short, virtue is no more and no less than the good character that shows itself in consistently upstanding behavior.

*The habit in itself, not the living being in itself.

The question is how to cultivate such a good disposition, and here there is no one ‘Hellenic’ answer, but many rivalling positions. That said, I do think that the Greek polytheists (or ancient Greek-speaking polytheists more broadly) had a certain shared framework or path that many could follow to eventually find their individual destinations. I am referring to the following:

  1. Worship of the Virtues, as of other Affects & Attributes, as deities, thereby habituating oneself to a commitment to virtuousness.
  2. Study of Ethical Maxims such as the “Delphic Maxims” or the Pythagorean Golden Verses. These were never canonical in the way that the commandments of the Bible or the injunctions of the Qurˀān are (except, arguably, for some Principal Maxims), but they serve as a good starting point for moral reflection.
  3. Study of Ethical Philosophy, deepening our understanding of the kind of injunctions found in the maxim texts (and leading us to reject some of them). This can consist in any or all of the following:
    1. Reading works of practical ethics (such as those of the Stoics Epictetus and Seneca).
    2. Learning the basic principles of the various schools, such as Platonists, Aristotelians, Epicureans and Stoics, and their respective systems of virtues.
    3. Becoming a committed follower and student of one particular school (or several).

Note that there is no reason to make the ancient philosophies or maxims your only moral guides, or even your principal one. All ancient philosophies were innovations at first, and all fell out of favor at one time or another. A good character can be pursued in many ways.

Note that ethical philosophy, as the pursuit of virtue, is only one of the divisions of philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom (see section 6). Piety (next section) and self-control (section 7) are individual virtues.

3 Piety (eusébeia) in context

The virtue of eusébeia (not eusébia!) – or ‘piety’, as I will translate it – is not best defined as “reverence, loyalty, and sense of duty toward the Gods (of Greece)”.

Firstly, piety is a general concept, and the word eusébeia was used by Greek-speaking Egyptians or Jews as naturally as by Greeks. As such, it does not have any particular connection to a specific group of gods. Nor were ancient writers in the habit of identifying their gods as “gods of Greece”. In fact, I can find no instance of that specific phrase in ancient Greek sources at all – unsurprisingly, since many centers of Greek worship were not in Greece. Even the more sensible phrase “gods of the Greeks” is exceedingly rare outside of Christian writers (who, by the word Héllēnes, do not mean ‘Greeks’ so much as ‘pagans’). Perhaps the only straightforward example is in an execrable rhetorical piece by Plutarch, On the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander the Great, where among many other dubious points, he praises the conqueror for making the people of the Caucasus and of Balkh worship “the gods of the Greeks” (328d). This is decidedly not the usual perspective of ancient writers, and in any case, which gods one worships is less a matter of piety than of nómos (see section 5).

Secondly, piety does not pertain to the gods alone – it also includes filial piety, the duties of children (lat. fīliī) towards their parents. If we wish to clearly exclude parents, we must use another word, theosébeia, ‘piety to the gods’. Proclus gives a good explanation of why: “Parents (goneîs) are analogous to the gods who rule us, since they too are responsible (proestôtes) for our origination (or ‘birth’, génesis) and embody the likeness of the genesiurgic (‘origination-producing’) gods. […] For this reason, people have considered matters of the gods and of parents to belong to the same share, and set down piety and impiety as being as the same for both, because the gods are our fathers, and our fathers are gods to us. […] Fathers are mortal images (agalmata) of gods, and our actions towards both are equally (called) either pious (hosia) or impious (anhosia)” (Proclus, On the Republic, vol. 2, p. 174).

This is not to say that the Principal Maxims which exhort us to worship the gods and honor our parents are equivalent in importance, much less that they are moral absolutes without exceptions. Those who “are the causes of our being, and of our being well, just like the gods” (Simplicius, On Epictetus’ Handbook, p. 86), deserve our reverence – but if parents mistreat us, or would have us do something immoral, they do not deserve it (at least not in that respect). Obedience to the gods, and consequently a commitment to goodness, comes first (Hierocles, On the Golden Verses 4).

So, how are we to define piety, especially that towards the gods? With the Platonic Definitions, on the one hand, as “justice in relation to the gods; a power to serve the gods willingly; a correct judgement of the honor (or ‘reverence’, timḗ) concerning the gods; knowledge of the honor concerning the gods” (412e).

Or, with the Aristotelians, as one of the three forms of justice, “the first concerning the gods, the second concerning people, the third concerning the departed. For when people sacrifice according to the customs (nómoi), and engage in rites (hiera), it is clear that they are pious (euseboûsin) concerning the gods. But when they give loans and deal honestly with deposits, (they are just) concerning humans. And when take care of the tombs, it is clear that it is concerning the departed” (Aristotelian Divisions 4). In short, piety is expressed through honor or reverence in according with custom or nómos (see section 5).

And insofar as piety is a form of justice, it, like sōphrosýnē (see section 7), is a virtue (see section 2).

4 The meaning of pollution (míasma) and purity (hagneía)

Hagneia – the maintaining of ritual purity by avoiding miasma

Katharmos: the act of being ritually clean. baring the aegis

5 “Nómos is the king of all, mortals as well as immortals”

Nomos Arkhaios – observance of ancient tradition, (religious) law, and customs

6 Wisdom (sophía) and the pursuit of wisdom (philosophía)

Sophia – the pursuit of wisdom, understanding, and truth

7 Self-control (sōphrosýnē)

Sophrosune – the control of self through deep contemplation

8 Zeus Xenios (Xeníos) and the meaning of hospitality (xenía)

Xenia – adherence to hospitality and the guest-host relationship