26 Ocak 2011 Çarşamba

From Iliad and Gilgamesh to Antigone and Republic: Changing Ethics in the Ancient World

Ethics as a dictionary definition means “a set of principles of right conduct” or “a theory or a system of moral values”[1]. Starting from the emergence of life on earth, human beings have always tried to create rules, norms to determine the right and wrong actions, thoughts from each other. When we look at the world history, we can easily notice that rules and norms of different time periods were very different from each other and there are many examples of behaviors which were first thought to be wrong but later approved by most of the people. In this assignment, I aim to make an analysis of changing ethics conception between ancient texts like Iliad and Gilgamesh versus Sophocles’ Antigone and Plato’s Republic in order to show the differences taking place between different time periods concerning ethics and settled thinking patterns. I will first shortly summarize each work and try to find some analysis that can be useful for us. Later, I am going to compare and contrast these works in order to show the differences in their conception of ethics. I will conclude my paper with my own ideas related to the topic.
It is accepted that famous Sumerian epic Gilgamesh was written around 2000 BC. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, is a creature of two-thirds God and one-third human. Gilgamesh is a hero and a strong king in the eyes of his people but he does not hesitate to oppress his people. In order to get rid of Gilgamesh’s despotism, people complain about his behaviors to God Anu, the chief god of the city, to help them. In response, Anu creates a wild creature called Enkidu who has the power of dozens of animals. Although Enkidu is very powerful, he lacks humane qualities. They decide to send a beautiful woman to seduce and weaken Enkidu. Enkidu enters to city during a festival when Gilgamesh was about to use his first-night right to have sexual intercourse with new brides on the first day. Enkidu opposes to Gilgamesh and they start to fight in a very violent way. Finally, Gilgamesh was able to beat Enkidu. They embrace each other after the fight and become good friends that respect each other. Later, Gilgamesh proposes Enkidu a great adventure to go to Cedar Forest and to kill “Humbaba the Terrible”, the guardian of the Cedar Forest. They finally find Humbaba and begin to fight. They continue to fight and finally beat Humbaba. Humbaba begs for his life but Gilgamesh kills him. Before dying, Humbaba curses Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to their village with success and huge reputation. Gilgamesh’s widespread fame attracts the sexual attention of goddess Ishtar. She asks Gilgamesh to become her lover. However, Gilgamesh refuses this proposal by insulting her and listing her human lovers. Ishtar goes to his father, Anu and begs him to let her have the Bull of Heaven in order take revenge from Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh by fighting together again kill the Bull and save the city. Enkidu begins to insult Ishtar and threatens her with death. After all these insults and violence, Gods decide to punish someone. A great demon is sent to kill Enkidu. After suffering 12 days, Enkidu at last dies in pain. Gilgamesh becomes so sad after Enkidu’s death, he orders all Uruk citizens not to become silent and mourn after Enkidu’s death. Gilgamesh in pain begins to think of death. He decides to find Utnapishtim, the only immortal human in the world who was a king before the Flood, in order to learn the secret of immortality. However, his efforts fail and he returns to his city without finding the secret of immortality.
From the historical documents we know that the famous Trojan War between the Myceneans (Greeks) and the Trojans took place around 1200 BC. Around 750-675 BC, the famous ancient Greek writer Homer composed his masterpieces the Iliad and the Odysseus. In the beginning of the book, we see a dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon over the return of Chryseis to her father. Later, Zeus sends a dream commanding Agamemnon to attack Troy. At the same time, Paris runs out with his love beautiful Helen and Menelaus gets very angry to him since he plans to marry with her. Helen becomes the Helen of Troy and Menelaus convinces Agamemnon to declare a war against the Troy because of his anger. Agamemnon accepts this request with pleasure since he wants to expand his territories and leave an unforgettable name. Achilles is the best fighter amongst the Greeks. He is unbeatable except for his weakness at his heels. Hector on the other hand, who is the son of Troy’s kind Priam and the elder brother of Prince Paris, is a very strong warrior. Achilles does not like Agamemnon but he accepts to fight since it would be the greatest war ever made and he incredibly wants his name to be remembered as the best fighter even after centuries. At the beginning of the war, Achilles and his Myrmidons easily invade the Trojan beach since they are great warriors. Zeus forbids the gods to take part in the battle and the battle goes on for years with the death of many people. Achilles falls in love with enslaved Trojan royal family member Briseis. He argues with Agamemnon over the subject of Briseis. Achilles’ decision not to fight with the Trojans affects the morale of Greek soldiers badly and the Trojans begin to resist. However, one day in the battle Hector kills Achilles’ cousin Patroclus by thinking that it was Achilles. Achilles gets very angry and swears to kill Hector and destroy the Troy. Finally, the big moment comes and Achilles and Hector, two greatest warriors, begin to fight. Achilles beats and kills Hector. The dying Hector had begged that his body be given back for burial: Achilles drags the corpse to the ships behind his chariot. Later, Thetis is sent to Achilles to ask him to return the body of Hector. Iris persuades Priam to face a visit to the Greek camp. Priam returns with Hector's body and the promise of an armistice of twelve days. Priam teaches Achilles that even enemies can respect each other. With the death of Hector, Greeks show their superiority and gain morale. Odysseus comes up with the plan of Trojan horse, a large hollow wooden figure of a horse (filled with Greek soldiers) which Greeks would leave it outside of Troy. Since Greeks’ problem is to pass over the great walls of the Troy, everybody understands that this plan might help them to go inside. Greeks deliberately act like they will withdraw from the Troy. Trojans take the horse inside as thinking it was a gift from Greeks to their Gods. At the night however, Achilles, Odysseus and other soldiers go out of the Trojan horse and destroy the city of Troy. Both Agamemnon and king Priam die in the battle inside the city walls. Paris first time shows courage and kills the invincible Achilles by shooting him with arrows from his heels. Achilles dies in the hands of his beloved Briseis.
An important work in the ancient Greek literature is with no doubt Sophocles’ Antigone. Sophocles (496-406 BC) is a Greek dramatist known with his masterpieces like Ajax, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. In Antigone, the protagonist of the tragedy is a woman named Antigone. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, sister of Ismene, Eteocles and Polynices. Antigone is about a woman’s desperate search for justice and her courage against the laws of the state for her family honor and love. In the story, we see that Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices fall down in a war but the king of Thebes, Creon, does not allow a funeral for Polynices whom he accuses as being a traitor. We see Antigone in great pains in the beginning of the story[2]. Antigone talks with Ismene about this injustice taking place and says that they should do something. Ismene however, gets afraid of transgressing the law. “New we two left; and what will be the end of us, If we transgress the law and defy our king? O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us to fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we, And we must obey in this…” (Sophocles, pg 128). Antigone unlike Ismene thinks that she could oppose to the decision of the ruler if it is wrong and then decides to bury his brother Polynices’ corpse without Ismene’s help. Antigone successfully does this and the sentry later explains the situation to Creon. “She was burying the man with her own hands, and that’s the truth” (Sophocles, pg 137). Antigone, after being captured, admits what she has done and accepts the punishment. She thinks that the order did not come from God and it is not justice what Creon is doing. Antigone bravely challenges the laws of the state and uses her right to objection which we see in today’s democracies. “What law of heaven have I transgressed? What god can save me now? If this is God’s will, I shall learn my lesson in death; but if my enemies are wrong, I wish them no worse punishment than mine” (Sophocles, pg 150). Antigone character is very important since we can accept her as the first feminist character in world history, who resisted against inequality between men and women and like other men tried to use her right to oppose to the decisions of the government.
Lastly, I want to talk about Socrates and Plato in the light of Plato’s Republic. Plato (427 BC-377 BC) was one of the earlier and most important philosophers of the world and is also known as the founder of “The Academy”. The son of wealthy and influential Athenian parents, Plato began his philosophical career as a disciple of Socrates. Socrates was both the tutor and the hero of Plato and he played a great role in Plato’s formation of ideas. Plato used Socrates as the main figure in his works and expressed his views from the mouth of Socrates. We can claim that Socrates represents Plato in his works. Plato’s most famous works are “The Republic” and “Five Dialogues”. Plato, in his famous work The Republic, develops his view on justice (dikaiosuné) on the level of individual and state. He also draws us a picture of his utopian state and the ideal man. In Plato’s ideal state there are three main classes: the first class is the class of Guardians (Rulers, Auxiliaries), the second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers, businessman and the third class refers to slaves who are not accepted as citizens. Guardians are the golden class of Plato’s ideal society. In his idea, rulers should exercise the supreme authority and deal with the philosophical aspect of political life whereas auxiliaries should deal with military, police and executive duties. Plato believes in the supremacy of “true” knowledge and his dream is to live in a society ruled by philosophers who have the greatest capacity of producing knowledge. Plato thinks that after an effective education starting from a young age, selected and trained Guardians can achieve control over themselves and think of the welfare of the community instead of their self-profit. In the case of the individual, we see again the importance of harmonious functioning. As I said before, Plato completely believes in the rule of reason. So, his ideal just man is a person who always makes rational decisions and suppresses his instincts and emotions. He claims that there are three important parts in our minds: reason, spirit and the desire and appetite. Plato believes that we have to use these three parts with harmony in making decisions. His ideal justice requires always the use of reason before spirit and desire. With Plato we see the dominance of elitism over democracy. We know that Plato witnessed to the execution of Socrates because of his non-conforming views to the Athenian democracy.
When we analyze Gilgamesh and Iliad on the one side against Antigone and Republic, we can notice many differences between these two sides considering their mentality. Iliad and Gilgamesh portray warriors and kings as heroes and deal more with the power side of the politics. War for them is a natural thing which must be welcomed for glory. Achilles for instance is a brave and charismatic character who fights for reputation. Gilgamesh is a cruel king but since he is a great and powerful king being able to defeat everyone, people respect him. Two kings Priam and Agamemnon do not consider war like a disaster and see this as a natural outcome of rival politics. The ethics conception is based on courage and military skills rather than justice. We still see humane feelings such as friendship (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and love (Achilles and Briseis) but these were portrayed as weakness rather than virtues. All the main characters in these two works are great warriors or kings who are powerful man. In a sense, ethics is identified with being strong and brave.
However, in ancient Greek works like Antigone and Republic we see a great difference. . Antigone also tells us a very important thing for the nature of politics in the ancient Greece. Although there were kings, at least some people had a democratic understanding of resistance similar to passive resistance which became famous with Mahatma Gandhi and they were aware of the fact that whether the legitimacy of rulers comes from God or elections, citizens should have the right to oppose to the decisions of the government in a democratic way. However, similar to some democratic countries of today, there was capital punishment in ancient Greece in the time of Sophocles and Antigone was sent to death in the story. Moreover, Antigone is a clear proof of ancient Greek understanding of individual liberty and the nature of the state. State is nothing but an institution established by people to facilitate their lives by ruling themselves and state should work in the favor of citizens. Sophocles’ tragedy can be considered as a criticism towards the statist ideology which forgets that the state is nothing but an institution organized by people. So, we can say that in ancient Greece at least for intellectual people like Sophocles, the protection of individual liberties was important and there were reactions against the authoritarian state. In Antigone, ethics is more related with democracy and human rights in addition to courage. Courage is reflected not as a military success but rather as being able to object to the state for own rights. Thus, there is a fundamental difference between these two period’s works. In Plato too, we see that ethics is formed around the concepts like knowledge and virtue. Plato openly claims that the society should be ruled by people who have most knowledge because in democracy the majority could take wrong decisions since they have less knowledge. Plato believes in the supremacy of wisdom and the rule of wise people who are virtuous. Thus, his ethics conception is derived from these two criterions: wisdom and virtue. For Plato, the hero is Socrates who accepts the death penalty because of defending his views which are rejected by the system. Thus, we can find a parallel between all works considering the aspect of courage. Gilgamesh does not fear from anything and he engages in fights courageously. Achilles is a great warrior who never escapes from a fight and loves challenging other people. Antigone and Socrates are brave enough to accept the cruel punishment for their ideas and deeds. All important characters have the notion of courage.
However, considering Iliad and Gilgamesh we see that courage is thought as a soldier type action which is related to wars. Achilles kills Hector and Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba for instance. However, in Antigone and Republic, courage is thought as being courageous enough to oppose to the state for thoughts and rights and have a more democratic, libertarian understanding. Courage has always been a part of ancient ethics and cowardice was seen as a defect. However, we see that in changing ethics courage finds new meanings over time. Moreover, a war in the ancient text was considered as outside of the ethics conception like a very normal thing. Politics is considered as a power game which is played in that way. Ethics are considered as the rule of the stronger, norms of the side who won the war. However, in Antigone and Republic although wars are still admitted, there are no phrases showing that war is great thing that should be welcomed. Rather, writers like Sophocles and Plato focus on reason and democratic rights. Justice is something that we should find with reasoning and philosophizing rather than defeating our enemies. This type of ethics is criticized by Sophocles and Plato rather than being exalted.
In my opinion, it is very normal that ethics conception differs over time. For instance, although for ancient Greek civilization slavery is natural thing, today it is seen as a very immoral thing and it is banned. Likewise, in the future many things that exist today would be considered as harmful and unethical in my opinion. Human beings and ideas always develop although we do not always go progressively. For instance, although European civilization was highly developed, they did not prevent Hitler to start a world war in the 1940’s. That is why we see that there can always be some turning backs. But, now we have such things as Universal Declaration of Human Rights who can be accepted as a valid source in all countries. Ethical norms develop and some conditions are now seen as objective in everywhere. However, we can still find many differences between different countries and cultures in ethical formation. Cultural factors like education and religion I think contribute a lot to the formation of ethics. In the time of Gilgamesh and Iliad, since there were huge wars and mythology considered war as a normal thing, writers judged this as a normal part of the life. However, with the developing mentalities and ethics conception in ancient Greek democracies, we can notice that ideas and ethics have changed and become more democratic. Finally, in my opinion, it is normal that we see a change in the ethics conception between these works since they were written in different time periods. Although people in the 1930’s were talking about social Darwinism, now we talk about positive discrimination rights. Ideas and humanity are always in motion…
- Homer, 1995, “The Iliad”, New York: Penguin Books
- Plato, 1992, “The Republic”, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company
- Sophocles, 1974, “The Theban Plays”, London: Penguin Books
- The Epic of Gilgamesh”, 1989, California: Stanford University Press
- Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com

[1] Definition from Dictionary.com (http://www.dictionary.com)
[2] “O Ismene, what do you think? Our two dear brothers… Creon has given funeral honors to one, And not to the other; nothing but shame and ignominy. Eteocles has been buried, they tell me, in state, With all honorable observances due to the dead. But Polynices, just as unhappily fallen – the Order, Says he is not to be buried, not to be mourned…” (Sophocles, pg 127).
Ozan Örmeci