Reverence again

Plutarch’s comment on Phaedra’s tricky words about αἰδώς should not really be taken as an interpretation; he quotes the snatch of Euripides as an adornment and exemplum of his own argument, which as far as I can make it out goes something like this: when we are guided by an emotion in concert with reason, all is well, but if the emotion stands alone, it tends to lead us astray. Nonetheless — this is the matter that interests him — the emotion itself is of the same nature, rather than being a separate animal. Now Euripides actually says that there are “two kinds” of αἰδώς, and they are distinguished by the καιρός, if only that were clear. I’m not sure either author’s point would change in substance by taking the question the other way, and it may be a distinction without a difference. Here is Barrett again on the bad αἰδώς:

αἰδώς, which inhibits a man from self-assertion in the face of the claims of others, is properly a virtue; but it can turn easily into a diffidence or indecisiveness which prevents him from taking a firm line at all, and that done it becomes a vice — he αἰδεῖται, cannot bring himself, to do even what he knows to be right … [Phaedra] knows that this indecisiveness, this lack of resolution, is her besetting fault, and she names and dwells on it here because it prevents her from fighting down her love as she knows she should … We can see this same lack of resolution hampering her and leading her astray at every turn: by keeping her from the swift execution of the suicide on which she thinks she is determined, by allowing the Nurse to worm out of her the secret she had meant to keep secret; in a moment, at the very turning-point of her fate, we shall see it immobilizing her when she suspects the Nurse of betrayal and yet has not the strength to hold her back.

p. 230

If the καιρός were clear, there would not be “two kinds” of αἰδώς; so she says. It is not, and how then are we to recognise it? Yet if we spare the sickle in Diana’s sacred grove, the garden will flourish, just as parents might spare the rod, even though believing that to do so is to spoil the child; today we would praise their humanity. The dewy meadow, ungrazed and unshorn, cries out for economic rationalisation, but we will be richer for “not quite liking” that.

I see an example of the meaning Barrett finds in Phaedra’s speech in my own life. There is something I know I must do — really, it is not in doubt, though I could come at it various ways, the hesitation between them alters nothing of substance — but I just can’t bring myself to put it into effect; dither too long though, and I will rue it. One might consider this to be “acratic αἰδώς”, and it feels so different from the caring hand of the gardener. Perhaps what the two forms have in common is that they represent a kind of inertia that goes some way to stop us talking ourselves into things we might come to regret, but which may also prevent us from doing what is necessary. Nor need virtue coincide with right action: for example, we may hesitate to put our parents out to pasture in a “home”, and though the right time might have been sooner, the delay shows the very reverence that is at the heart of αἰδώς.

It might tentatively be said that αἰδώς is always a kind of discomfort, but if it is the virtuous kind, it passes when we renounce the thing it made us shrink from.

These moral concepts are alien to our way of thinking, but the strangeness is only skin deep: if we can recognise how they feel when we try them on for size, then they must match our own experience too. Specifically, though we do not teach it and might not know how to name it, I think the scruple that makes us hold back is naturally recognised as a virtue, just as “assertiveness” arouses distaste; the latter’s prospects of joining the canonical seven are surely low. The result is a conservative tendency in our lives and outlook, namely, in microcosm and macrocosm, from the hearth to the forum. Rather than being ground, the proper place of an axe is by the woodpile, in repose.


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