Judgment and Misjudgment in Ancient Greece
Paper delivered to the New Imago Forum, 15 September 2019
There’s a joke about a rabbi who was greatly respected for his judgment. Two neighbours had a dispute and came to him to adjudicate. The rabbi hears the first man present his case, nods gravely, and says, “You’re right.” The man beams with satisfaction. The other neighbour then explains his view of the situation. The rabbi hears him out, nods gravely again, and says, “You’re right.” It’s the second man’s turn to be pleased. The two neighbours leave together on good terms, but the rabbi’s attendant who has been standing by says “Rabbi, surely they can’t both be right?” The rabbi looks at him, nods gravely, and says “You’re right.”
As the joke illustrates, being judicious may not always involve making a judgment. But when should one judge? In the earliest great story of European literature, Homer’s Iliad, questions of judgment play a central part. Agamemnon, leader of the Greek expeditionary force camped on the shores of Troy, initiates a series of catastrophic misjudgments by angering his best fighter, Achilles. In proudly demanding his right to Achilles’ war-booty, the girl Briseis, he leads Achilles to withdraw from the fighting. The result is a terrible slaughter of the Greek army by the triumphant Trojans. This consequence of his action eventually leads Agamemnon to see the error of his ways. ‘The gods stole my wits on that day,’ he laments, ‘and my judgment was clouded’. The Greeks did not suppose that blaming the gods or fate was a cop-out or denial of personal responsibility, but simply a recognition that human beings are not always in command of their responses – or even of their own character. The latter is a key determinant in our judgments. As the philosopher Heraclitus stated ‘A human being’s character is their destiny’. The word for ‘destiny’ here is daimōn, which also means ‘divine guide’ – the unaccountable element that determines a human being’s fate and fortune.
In Agamemnon’s case, he’s destined to be a poor judge of character and of situations. Rather than going himself to apologise to Achilles and to try to appease his anger, he sends a delegation led by Odysseus to ask Achilles to return to the battlefield. But although he’s prepared to offer ample compensation, Agamemnon still insists that Achilles should recognise his superiority. When the wily Odysseus presents the offer to Achilles, he shrewdly omits Agamemnon’s claim to superiority, but Achilles is not fooled. He glowers at Odysseus and memorably retorts ‘I hate that man like the gates of Hell who says one thing with his mouth and hides another in his heart’. Clearly Achilles is a better judge of character than Agamemnon. At the end of the Trojan war, Agamemnon returns victorious to Argos, where his wife Clytemnestra has been plotting with her lover in his absence to kill him on his return. Clytemnestra greets him with false and flattering words of celebration, which he swallows wholesale. This time his misjudgment proves fatal. Too self-regarding to see that Clytemnestra harbours unrelenting hatred towards him, he allows her to lead him over a path of precious tapestries into the palace, where she stabs him to death in his bath.
As the tragedian Aeschylus was to show with unparalleled dramatic brilliance, the killing of Agamemnon is just the culmination of a series of actions stemming from a much earlier judgment that faced the king. Ten years earlier, the Greek forces under his command had assembled at the coastal city of Aulis to cross the Aegean for their expedition to Troy. But the goddess Artemis, who had taken offence at an earlier manifestation of Agamemnon’s arrogance – his ill-judged claim to be a better hunter than she – had becalmed the winds so that the fleet could not set sail. The seer Calchas prophesied that for Artemis to be appeased so that the fleet could sail Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia, his eldest daughter by Clytemnestra. Did Agamemnon really have a choice? Could he have exercised his judgment to save his daughter and abandon the Trojan expedition? For the Greeks the answer was no, since not only was the fall of Troy destined by fate, but in Aeschylus’s depiction it would have been completely out of character for the king to choose to lose face in front of his heroic allies rather over sacrificing his daughter and ensuring his glorious conquest of Troy. But the choice to kill Iphigenia was what led inexorably to Clytemnestra’s plan to wreak her deadly vengeance upon Agamemnon on his return.
The trail of judgments and misjudgments goes back yet further. The reason that the Greeks had assembled their forces under Agamemnon’s control was to avenge the theft of Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, who had been seduced by the Trojan prince Paris and whisked away with him to Troy. The complicity or otherwise of Helen was the source of intense debate among the Greeks. Did it make sense that they had waged all-out war on Troy for her sake? The historian Herodotus reported that the Persians with whom he discussed the matter were dismissive. If the abduction of Helen was the reason for the expedition, they said, the Greeks were sorely lacking in judgment; making off with a women was the act of a scoundrel, but going to war over her would be the act of a fool. In any case, they ungallantly added, no woman could be abducted unless she consented to it; so the judicious course of action would have been to do nothing about it.
On this view the rape of Helen was at least as much her fault as Paris’s. But the fifth-century Sicilian orator Gorgias turned the tables by proposing that Helen should not be blamed at all. In his showpiece speech In Praise of Helen, he argued that she had either been abducted by physical force, or she had been overcome by some other irresistible power such as that of Eros (Love) or of Peitho (persuasion). Gorgias thus argued to exonerate Helen, but of course it was at the cost of denying any kind of judgment or agency to the woman herself, who ends up being depicted solely as a victim of quasi-divine external forces.
Gorgias’ arguments for Helen’s innocence may appear somewhat contrived, but we should remember that the mythical origins of Helen’s abduction lie yet further back in the most famous judgment of all: the Judgment of Paris. The story of the Trojan War stems from that moment when the three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, present themselves to the Trojan prince for judgment. Paris had been chosen by Zeus to decide who was the most beautiful of the three on account of his fair adjudication of a previous dispute. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the myth relates that Paris did not judge the goddesses on their looks, but on the inducements that each had to offer. Hera, queen of the gods, offered him kingly power over Europe and Asia; Athena, goddess of craft and battle, offered him wisdom and skill in war; while Aphrodite, goddess of Love, offered him the pleasure of sex with the world’s most beautiful woman, Spartan Helen. How else could a young man choose? The Greeks, and even the beleaguered Trojans, could hardly blame Paris for judging Aphrodite the winner so that he might enjoy the opportunity of sleeping with Helen. Once again, though, as in Agamemnon’s case, Paris’s choice was seen to depend on his character. In the Iliad Paris is depicted as a vain and self-serving prince, who is prone to put the inducements of sex and physical pleasure before his duty to his city and his comrades.
But if judgment depends on character, how does one acquire one’s character? The Greeks understood inheritance as well as experience played a part, but since one can’t choose one’s ancestors, being born with a foolish or a judicious character is ultimately a matter of luck. This is consistent with Heraclitus’s dictum quoted earlier, that character is an individual’s daimōn or tutelary divinity. Aristotle was later to observe that while character is a natural, inborn disposition, there are ways of educating and improving it, techniques of acquiring practical wisdom through, for instance, study, experience, and the acquisition of knowledge so as to become, in the modern jargon, the ‘best version of oneself’. For the philosopher the question of how to be eudaimōn – a word commonly translated ‘happy’ but literally connoting ‘endowed with a good daimōn’ – was the central question of ethics, and the subject of his most famous book of that title. In fact eudaimonia is better translated ‘wellbeing’ than ‘happiness’, since it describes a state of human flourishing rather than just a state of mind.
In his Ethics Aristotle proposes that the path to eudaimonia is to acquire excellence by acting according to the Golden Mean, the point of moderation between extremes of feeling and behaviour. Courage, for example, is the mean between cowardice and recklessness; generosity is the mean between stinginess and profligacy; friendliness is the mean between obsequiousness and ill-temperedness. In articulating this model for attaining virtue and thence eudaimonia, Aristotle was elaborating a version of the age-old Greek maxim ‘Nothing in excess’. But though the idea of acting and living moderately makes intuitive sense, the doctrine of the Golden Mean falls far short of offering guidance about what is to count as virtuous conduct in practice. In fact, as a guide to making assured judgments about one’s own or other people’s behaviour, it is effectively worthless.
Aristotle himself was clearly aware of the inadequacy of the doctrine, because his treatise on Ethics ends by recommending not the pursuit of the Golden Mean but (rather strangely to our minds) the contemplation of pure mathematical truths. This conclusion reflects an intellectualist tendency that is deep-rooted in Greek thought; but it’s obvious to us that happiness – no less than judgment – is not solely a function of knowledge. However, perhaps the most obvious Greek equivalent to ‘judgment’ (though there are other close synonyms, such as euboulia) is sophia, which means wisdom derived from skill or experience. It was this kind of wisdom that was attributed to the so-called Seven Sages, among whom numbered the natural scientist Thales and the statesman Solon of Athens. It was ultimately impossible for the Greeks to divorce the notion of judgment from that of knowledge, though they had ample understanding that clever people did not always show good judgment. In the case of Thales, whose reputed brilliance made his name equivalent to that of Einstein, he was said to have fallen down a well while studying the stars. He was an early instance of the scientific boffin who knows a lot but is prone to practical mishaps thanks to his single-minded search for knowledge.
Though wisdom was valued, in the religious context of ancient Greece, good judgment tended to be attributed to those who showed a pious recognition of their place in the cosmos, particularly in relation to the power of the gods. This pious outlook is reflected in the other famous Greek maxim, ‘Know thyself’, which was inscribed along with ‘Nothing in Excess’ on Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Greek poetry and tragedy is replete with advice to characters to recognise their limitations, and not to overstep the mark and offend the higher powers. When Hippolytus, for instance, in Euripides’ tragedy of that name, fails to honour the goddess Aphrodite (i.e. among other things, insists on celibacy), his attendant fearfully cautions him – ultimately to no avail –‘you should do as other mortals do’. In Euripides’ Bacchae, when the king Pentheus scornfully dismisses the claims to divinity of the stranger Dionysus whose worshippers have arrived at Thebes, the chorus warns that ‘cleverness is not good judgment, nor is having thoughts in excess of one’s mortal nature’. In the greatest drama of all, Oedipus Tyrannus, the king who is famed for his cleverness as the solver of the Sphinx’s riddle fails signally in judgment, first by supposing he can outwit the oracle that has predicted his fate, then by succumbing to the road rage that leads to his unknowingly killing his own father, and eventually by violently browbeating Creon and the seer Tiresias when they try to confirm to him the truth about his fate as enunciated by the god of Delphi.
But these examples all pose a crucial problem, which is the central issue I would like to consider in this paper. Since the tragic fates of Hippolytus, Pentheus, and Oedipus are inevitable, it surely makes no difference whether any of them were in fact individuals of great judgment or of none. After all, their fate is ultimately sealed not by their judgment, but by their luck – or lack of it. The sobering truth was already recognised and articulated by the 7th century BC wisdom poet Theognis, when he wrote [161-4] ‘Many people have poor judgment and good luck [literally, a good daimōn], and in their case things look unfavourable but turn out well. Others suffer the burden of having good judgment but bad luck, and their end (telos) does not correspond to their actions’. Theognis here draws a clear distinction in principle that allows the quality of good judgment to be attributed to people, even if in the final event they happen to come unstuck. But in practice such figures are curiously hard to identify, because people are most commonly judged on the outcome of their actions. How easily can one attribute good judgment to an investor or businessman who loses money? To a general who initiates and loses a battle? To a politician who proposes a policy and fails to achieve its fulfilment? Retrospect is a harsh judge, and it mainly judges on outcomes. The saying goes that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan; and success is all too often taken to be the sole guarantee of someone’s possession of judgment.
Winston Churchill, for instance, was a notoriously fallible politician for much of his career. Many still doubted his political judgment when finally at the age of 65 he led Britain in his implacable opposition to Nazism, rather than seeking to appease Hitler as Neville Chamberlain had proposed. Imagine in what light Churchill’s judgment in that regard would have been viewed had Britain been defeated, and how judicious Chamberlain’s attempt to do an early deal with Hitler would in retrospect have seemed. The Greek historian Thucydides does occasionally suggest that politicians who possess judgment might not succeed and vice versa. He attributes sound judgment to Athens’ leader Pericles, for instance, even though the latter initiated the disastrous Peloponnesian War. And he clearly thought the playboy-politician Alcibiades had no judgment beyond his zeal for self-advancement, even though the latter succeeded not only in persuading Athenians to attempt a calamitous invasion of Sicily, but in being treated as a hero even though he had signally contributed to Athens’ downfall.
One of those credited by the ancient Greeks as having the soundest judgment of all was the 6th-century statesman I’ve mentioned, Solon of Athens. Solon was said to have enhanced his wisdom by travelling the world and observing people of different kinds and status; a verse of his survives that runs ‘As I age I’m constantly learning a multitude of things’. His most famous advice is reported by the historian Herodotus as the statement ‘Look to the end (the telos)’. This had a particularly poignant significance in the story of Croesus, king of Lydia. Croesus was the wealthiest and, in his own view, the most fortunate man of his time when Solon visited him in his gold-rich capital, Sardis. Croesus was furious with the Athenian for warning him that, as with Oedipus at the height of his fortune, he could not be judged fortunate until his life was complete. However, following Solon’s visit, Croesus proceeded to judge mistakenly that he would succeed in conquering the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Once again it was the Delphic oracle, mouthpiece of the god Apollo, that knew and predicted what the outcome of war with Persia would be. Croesus, however, mistakenly heard the oracle’s ambiguous words – ‘If you make war on Cyrus, a great empire will fall’ – as affirming his own wishful judgment, taking the words to refer not to the downfall of his own empire but to that of Cyrus. Eventually captured by Cyrus and placed on the funeral pyre to be burned, he called out the name of Solon in anguish, berating his own folly for not crediting the wisdom of his erstwhile guest.
For the Greeks, then, judgment was more closely related to luck than we are inclined to suppose, largely because it depended on outcomes which could not be predicted accurately. Secondly, it was seen as the expression of individual character, the possession of which was also to a large extent a matter of luck. But this leaves some vexing questions: is it right, for instance, that a person whose life is marked by positive actions and outcomes should be considered devoid of judgment simply because their life is overturned by a spectacularly unlucky incident towards its close? Surely there are grounds other than the final outcome for judging whether someone has sound judgment or not? If we judge actions only by their consequences and not by the reasons and considerations that lead to their being taken, we would surely have a very impoverished view of judgment. How, then, is one to judge whether others, our political leaders for instance, have good judgment?
One possible approach to squaring the circle – that is, of harmonising the notions of luck and judgment – is suggested by Plato, when he makes Socrates say in Republic Book 10 (604cd) “The way to think about life is how we act with the fall of dice. We must arrange our affairs with reference to how the dice have fallen, intelligently considering the best course of action, and not stumbling around like children, shocked at the outcome and crying over spilt milk. We should prepare our mind for what has happened as quickly as possible so as to redress any failures and disappointments”. This suggests that while good judgment does depend on a host of anterior factors – we might list the experience of dealing with people and events, the educated assessment of a situation, the rational understanding of consequences, and so on – it also somehow needs to be tailored to outcomes, which may be simply a matter of luck, like the fall of the dice. True judgment, like good leadership, requires a constant flexibility of thought and action.
I will end by illustrating the point using a couple of my favourite jokes, since as always there is truth in humour. The judicious rabbi’s attendant would often marvel that his employer had a stock of wonderful stories, and that he always seemed to find the perfect parable for any particular situation. ‘How is it possible, rabbi’, he asked one day ‘that you can find a story to fit every scenario you’re presented with?’ ‘Well,’ said the rabbi, ‘I’ll answer with a story. When he was travelling in Mongolia, Marco Polo came across a village whose residents had supernatural skill at archery. Polo tried to fire an arrow at a bullseye marked on a rock face hundreds of yards away, but try as he might he could barely succeed in touching the outer circle. Yet the rock face was covered with targets, and in every case the villagers’ arrows had landed in the very centre. He approached the village chief, and offered him a sack of gold to divulge the secret of the villagers’ skill. The chieftain took the gold and said: ‘You see, the way we practise archery is different from yours. You create a target and try to reach it. We fire our arrows at random, and wherever they land we draw the target around them so that the arrow sits in the centre’. So it is with my stories, said the rabbi. When I’m presented with a case, I don’t look for the perfect parable to explain it; I simply create stories to fit the case at hand’.
In one such story, Joe goes to his tailor to pick up an expensive new suit for his imminent wedding. To his alarm it barely fits. He tries on the jacket and says ‘it’s too tight’. ‘No, it’s fine,’ urges the tailor ‘you just need to hold your tummy in a bit’. ‘But the sleeves are too long’ Joe says, ‘they cover my hands’. ‘Just push your arms forward a bit’, advises the tailor ‘so your hands are free of the sleeves’. ‘The trouser-legs are different lengths’, Joe exclaims. ‘So bend your right leg slightly’. Joe does as he’s told and leaves. A friend heading to the wedding sees Joe staggering along the street, apparently breathing with difficulty, his shoulders hunched over and his leg askew. He films him on his phone and sends the video to a mutual friend, texting ‘WTF is the matter with Joe?’ The friend watches the clip and texts back ‘Looks like he’s had a stroke. But hey, he’s got a great tailor, that new suit fits him like a glove’.