Key Homeric Terms

The foundational concept of the worthy man is to be agothos. Agothos is an umbrella term that contains in its meaning a number of other concepts from ancient Greek.  These include good, noble, wise, just, strong, brave, useful, appropriate.  Agothos can be an adjective but it can also be a noun.  A man may himself be an Agothoi.

The term is less a reference to an internal state seen in the Christian concept of the good man than a reference to what manifests in the concrete.  Agothos is displayed through Arete.  Arete is translated as excellence.  The Agothoi makes his worthiness visible through the display of arete in his actions.  There are a wide variety of acts and skills suitable for the display of arete.  The most obvious in Homer’s works being martial valour but by no means restricted to that alone.  Arete is described in acts as varied as archery, taming of horses, strategic thinking, athletics, oratory and being a good dinner host.  It is also clear that arete has a competitive quality even amongst friends and allies.  If the good is characterised by demonstrable effectiveness then it stands to reason men will seek to outdo one another in the display of arete.

This is not to say there is no cooperation and friendship.  What binds men together in cooperation is Time (tee-may) translated as honor.  Time is expressed primarily through the fulfillment of obligations incurred.  These obligations and binding ties are generated by kinship ties, oaths of friendship, oaths taken to leaders, giving and receiving gifts and the giving and receiving of guest hospitality.  When Hector fails to rescue the body of Sarpedon from being stripped of armor by the Acheans he is berated.  The main thrust of the criticism is that he should not have retreated and let Sarpedon’s body be stripped of trophies as the man had been Hector’s friend and guest (Sarpedon having come from abroad to aid the Trojans).

The failure to live up to the demands of time is a failure of arete.  It carries with it the suggested stigma of cowardice and/or dishonesty.  It is made clear that one need not always win or succeed in feats of arete to maintain one’s honor but there must be at least an attempt.  No man succeeds every time but he does not lose his honor if he has done his utmost.

Part of time’s obligation is to do what is dikaios. This is doing what is fair and just.  This is not justice in a legalistic sense as law is not really the binding force over these individuals.  It is more a sense of the rightness of things.  One engages in fair dealings because the alternative is unworthy, not agathos. It is important to recognize that the warriors of the Iliad have very few concrete legal restrictions placed upon them.  In the end it is how they are viewed by the gods and their fellow agathoi that matters as a restraint or a motivator.

The not-worthy opposite of agathos is kakos. One who is kakos is base, unworthy, cowardly, weak.  Just as agathos does not mean good in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word or refer to being without sin and guilt so neither does kakos mean “evil” in the satanic sense of the word.  It is less a matter of being immoral than it is being unworthy or ineffective.

One Response to “Key Homeric Terms”

  1. […] their agenda). If the Trojan War had been a swift, decisive and well conceived campaign then the Agathoi would have faced their opponents, Arete would have been displayed, some loot and trophies would have […]

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