Mike Aquilina

Hellenistic

Saturday January 27th 2007, 7:25 am

People sometimes wonder why pagans so often got irritated with the Christians and Jews who lived in their neighborhoods. Rabbi Ken Spiro sheds some light on the matter by contrasting Hellenistic with Jewish ideals. Here’s a slice:

It is easy, while admiring the Greek contributions to civilization — its politics and philosophy — to forget what Greek society was really like. For example, we’ve heard of the “Spartan lifestyle,” but what did that mean in practice? Well, for starters, at an early age, like first grade, Spartan boys and girls were separated from their parents; they lived in military barracks where they were beaten, and not even given food so that they would learn to steal it. To be Spartan meant to be tough. The Athenians, not as tough as the Spartans, were not what you’d describe as “soft” either. For example, they thought nothing of killing infants (a common practice in all ancient civilizations even the “elevated” ones). One of the most influential thinkers in Western intellectual history — none other than Aristotle — argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [i.e. exposed on the trash heap to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.” Note the tone of his statement. Aristotle isn’t saying “I like killing babies,” but he is making a cold, rational calculation: over-population is dangerous, this is the most expedient way to keep it in check.

Read the whole thing.

For further reading, try Jaroslav Pelikan’s Christianity and Classical Culture.