The Meaning of Moral Prototypes

There is no real evidence as to whether Homeros, historically accredited writer of the Iliad and the Odyssey, actually existed. When in the 1930s the American researcher Milman Parry interviewed bards performing epic poems based on the oral traditions of the Bosniaks, in what was then a very underdeveloped part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, he discovered that they all referred to a certain bardic hero. The name of this hero varied by whom was asked, but all agreed that this person was better at the performing arts than anyone else, knew all the old legends and tales better than any other, could memorize them more clearly and present them in a superior manner, and so forth. None of the people involved had ever seen him or knew anyone that had, but they had all heard from various other trustworthy people that he existed or had existed. To any objective outside observer, it seemed clear that this figure was mythical.

Parry, a specialist in the very early period of ancient Greece, was led by this research to propose that Homeros himself had been a mythical ideal figure of this kind. Perhaps he had not even existed at all, or perhaps he had, but had merely been someone to whom a much longer oral tradition had been ascribed, or he might have been the name given to what was really a development in ancient Greek society where the epic tales started being written down rather than further transmitted through their telling. Any of these were a possibility, but in the classical studies of that period this idea was a veritable bombshell. It was much resisted, for it implied that the 150 years or so that classical scholars had just been spending on a scientific approach to studying the meaning of these works as the products of one particular mind had been utterly in vain, for it would much more likely have been a compilation or mixture of various oral traditions from various sources.

This, however, is not all that can be said about this shift in viewpoint. What is interesting about this is that Homeros was nonetheless throughout all of the ancient times, both Greek and Roman (so-called, not to imply that Greece ceased to exist culturally under Roman rule), to have been the absolute ideal in poetry. In his book chronicling the reception of the Iliad and Odyssey through the ages, Alberto Manguel describes very well how for everyone from Greek tragic playwrights in the classical period to Latin-cultured Renaissance writers, Homeros was the gold standard in writing, not just for epic works (such as Vergilius’ Aeneis, a wholesale Romanization of both works in one) but also for other forms of writing, in terms of style, metaphor, structure, and so on. All this although they had no actual proof of his ever having existed, except that tradition would have it so.

Such moral prototypes, people who may not actually have existed, or if they did, not really in the grand manner ascribed to them, but who serve the purpose of being a lived reality of virtue, can also be found most interestingly in the Bible, to be precise the Old Testament. For the Jews living in the Judah and Israel of the post-exile period, the period of reconstruction as a small recently liberated group (albeit under Persian, Achaemenid rule) required a strong sense of norms to give life to the newly reconstructed society and to bind the group together against the many peoples in the surrounding area. This role was not only fulfilled at the time itself by the various prophets mentioned by the Bible to have lived at this time, Haggai and Zachariah, but also by the writing down of those ancient traditions which we know now as the Old Testament. These for the most part, as anyone knows, play the role of establishing the laws and norms for the Jews, to which they ascribe a divine origin. But more interestingly in light of what has been said above, it is clear that it was not enough for these laws and ordinances to merely be known; they must also be lived by example. After all, the content of a law, no matter how precise, is merely a dead letter unless people actually follow it, and all experience shows that the force of example is a much stronger one to enjoin people to do something than the force of codes alone.

However, the obvious problem was that since these laws and ordinances were to have been from ancient times, even from before the exile, and to fit within the known chronology of the Jewish history, the people living these laws also had to be from that time. In an essential move for any society seeking a new foundation to reconstitute itself, they undertook what Hobsbawm has called the invention of tradition; and not just in any specific form, but what is interesting to us here is how it took the form (among other things) of moral prototypes. Joshua is clearly the embodiment of the virtue of leadership in war for the Jews, as Solomon is the embodiment of wise rule. More rounded is the character of David, who embodies on the one hand loyalty to one’s legal ruler even when such ruler goes against the traditional laws and rules (indeed for all the talk of the absolute importance of obedience to God’s laws, the Old Testament chronicles seem to give no indication of any right of Jewish subjects to hold their Kings to these laws, but instead this is undertaken by God alone), and on the other hand the embodiment of the character virtues that a Jewish ruler should have. Where Solomon is the moral prototype of wisdom, David is clearly the moral prototype of leadership altogether, in precisely the sense as in the case of Homeros: he serves as the gold standard to which all in a similar position ought to aspire, he is the yardstick for all measurements of current equivalents, and yet this alone is not enough, for he also needs to have a narrative description of how these rules were lived and obedience to them displayed in practice.

People always have a need to know what a given law or moral norm means for them in practice, and how to apply them in the situations that may occur in their life. The continuing popularity of all forms of exemplary narrative in this regard is sufficient proof, from books with tips on Christian living to fairytales and invented epics like Tolkien’s. The moral prototype, however, seems to be the oldest and perhaps the most enduring of all these forms, for it embeds in our cultural-historical consciousness a human narrative, one that people can relate to in a way that they cannot to mere codes and norms, that describes how those same codes and norms can be lived in practice. Precisely because this is a historical, often epic or romantic adventure-type tale, it can be projected into the very shadows of the origins of that historical consciousness to which it wishes to speak, which maximizes its effect – the time of the Achaeans for the classical Greeks, the time of the early Kings and Judges for the post-exile Jews, the time of the Brythonics for the high Medieval courtiers, and so on. It is important to learn from these cultural phenomena to understand the workings of a new society.