It’s easy to take things for granted.
It is easy, particularly, in thinking about the moral leaven of the Christian faith in forming societal assumptions. This is due, I should think, partly to an abiding awareness of, and consequent sheepishness about, the failures and foibles of the church through the ages, and partly–and perhaps more significantly–to an abiding awareness of our own daily failures to live in conformity with our ideals in matters both great and small.
But it is also due to a kind of moral and historical myopia: we imagine that our own ideals are so obvious as always to have been widely recognized and shared at other times and in other places. But this is not always so. On occasion, the change in bedrock societal assumptions and ethical goals is due to the unfolding in history of the discipling of the nations.
Jesus famously says in the Gospel of Matthew, ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-5). It is perhaps so obvious as not to need saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Jesus teaches them to act in this way because the principle of helping friends and harming enemies was in fact a staple of traditional ethics in the ancient world and would have seemed obviously right as a principle of action to many people.
Bernard M.W. Knox, perhaps the finest Anglophone critic of Greek tragedy in the twentieth century, shows its “naturalness” for a Greek audience very clearly in his treatment of Sophocles’ Ajax; as he points out, the exposition of this principle forms one of the main themes of the play. Knox notes that it is true that Plato has Socrates reject it in Republic 1, and that Sophocles himself calls it into question through the action of the play; it is even true that Odysseus as a character within the play shows its shortcomings. 1 But that should not blind us to the fact that this principle would have been accepted by very many in the audience, and that the reflexive rejection of it by many in our own society is a result, not of sustained ethical reflection on justice and love by each and every individual in that society, but rather of the permeation of Christ’s teaching. Though many–indeed, all of us–often act in accordance with the Greek principle, there are very many who will acknowledge that, at least in theory if not in practice, there is a better way.
Tous men philous eu poiein, tous d’ echthrous kakws–to help your friends and harm your enemies. A simple, practical, natural rule. From the point of view of a Christian society it is a crude and cynical rule, but for all that it is often followed. But whereas we today pay at least lip service to a higher ideal of conduct, the fifth-century Athenian accepted this simple code as a valid morality.[…] [T]he maxim “Help your friends, harm your enemies” stares out at us from the pages of the poets. It is to be found in Archilochus, in Solon, in Theognis, in Pindar, and was attributed to Simonides. It continued to be a rule of conduct universally accepted and admired in spite of Plato’s rejection of it, and something very like it is rejected by Christ in the first century A.D.: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies.”
This is of course our ideal of conduct, the ideal to which, in our better moments, most of us try to rise. Even if, regrettably, we continue to live by the old rule, we have the vision of a higher ideal. But this was not the case in the Athens of Sophocles. The simple formula, “Help your friends, harm your enemies,” was generally accepted, not just as hard-headed practical advice, but as a moral principle, a definition of justice, a formulation of the arete, the specific excellence, of man. (“The Ajax of Sophocles,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 65 , pp. 3-4; reprinted in his collection Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater)