December 2019


One of the basic differences between an ancient social imaginary and a modern one is the way that hierarchies work. In an ancient setting hierarchies are presumed and in the modern hierarchies are questioned. It’s not that hierarchies don’t exist in the contemporary world, but moderns tend to question and rebel against hierarchies of various sorts–racial, gender, etc. I’ve been doing some reading in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and found a great example of an ancient perspective. What’s important is that hierarchy in not necessarily always good–so monarchy vs tyrant–but a good hierarchy is better than none–so monarchy better than democracy.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.10

There are three kinds of constitution, and an equal number of deviation-forms–perversions, as it were, of them. The constitutions are monarchy, aristocracy, and thirdly that which is based on a property qualification, which it seems appropriate to call timocratic, though most people are wont to call it polity. The best of these is monarchy, the worst timocracy. The deviation from monarchy is tyrany; for both are forms of one-man rule, but there is the greatest difference between them; the tyrant looks to his own advantage, the king to that of his subjects. For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all good things; and such a man needs nothing further; therefore he will not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects; for a king who is not like that would be a mere titular king. Now tyranny is the very contrary of this; the tyrant pursues his own good. And it is clearer in the case of tyranny that it is the worst deviation-form; but it is the contrary of the best that is worst. Monarchy passes over into tyranny; for tyranny is the evil form of one-man rule and the bad king becomes a tyrant. Aristocracy passes over into oligarchy by the badness of the rulers, who distribute contrary to equity what belongs to the city-all or most of the good things to themselves, and office always to the same people, paying most regard to wealth; thus the rulers are few and are bad men instead of the most worthy. Timocracy passes over into democracy; for these are coterminous, since it is the ideal even of timocracy to be the rule of the majority, and all who have the property qualification count as equal. Democracy is the least bad of the deviations; for in its case the form of constitution is but a slight deviation. These then are the changes to which constitutions are most subject; for these are the smallest and easiest transitions.

One may find resemblances to the constitutions and, as it were, patterns of them even in households. For the association of a father with his sons bears the form of monarchy, since the father cares for his children; and this is why Homer calls Zeus ‘father’; it is the ideal of monarchy to be paternal rule. But among the Persians the rule of the father is tyrannical; they use their sons as slaves. Tyrannical too is the rule of a master over slaves; for it is the advantage of the master that is brought about in it. Now this seems to be a correct form of government, but the Persian type is perverted; for the modes of rule appropriate to different relations are diverse. The association of man and wife seems to be aristocratic; for the man rules in accordance with his worth, and in those matters in which a man should rule, but the matters that befit a woman he hands over to her. If the man rules in everything the relation passes over into oligarchy; for in doing so he is not acting in accordance with their respective worth, and not ruling in virtue of his superiority. Sometimes, however, women rule, because they are heiresses; so their rule is not in virtue of excellence but due to wealth and power, as in oligarchies. The association of brothers is like timocracy; for they are equal, except in so far as they differ in age; hence if they differ much in age, the friendship is no longer of the fraternal type. Democracy is found chiefly in masterless dwellings (for here every one is on an equality), and in those in which the ruler is weak and every one has licence to do as he pleases.

I confess that I enjoy languages, and I’ve always had a had an interest in German because my dad spent time in Germany in the air force and always had a German grammar on a bookshelf while I was growing up. So, learning German wasn’t a task that I found oppressive. That said, I find that it is harder and harder to convince students that the effort is worth the payoff, and I see that more and more PhD theses are engaging German less and less. So is German worth it?

I found it to be so in the last week or so, and so I thought I’d pass along the experience. Chris Eberhart, Matthias Henze, and a couple of others hosted a conference on covenant here in Houston just before SBL. Through the various sponsors, it turned out that about 90% of the conference presenters were German. Of course, they conceded to the current winds  by presenting in English, but some discussion naturally occurred in German. So without facility in German, I’d have been lost. It turns out too that instructions about presenting in English didn’t make it around to all (or were not heeded?), and one of the presentations was in German. Though my listening is not attuned as my reading, I was able to keep up because I still make an effort to keep it fresh. While this example isn’t a common occurrence, this facility allows me to participate at a level not otherwise accessible.

More to the substance of the issue, different types of conversations go on within different language groups. For instance, when I was working on glory in Romans, I found that there was a discussion that took place almost singularly among German-language scholarship about the relationship of glory and righteousness. Of course, you don’t know that that discussion is there unless you have access to it through language facility.

Perhaps in another decade or two English will so dominate that facility in modern research languages will go by the wayside among NT scholars. But until then I’m holding up the banner.

In case you wonder how I keep up my German: I regularly read German novels on a Kindle with the dictionary set to a German-English dictionary so I can click on a word on the fly and get the translation. I don’t look up everything since my focus is more the story, but it keeps me in it regularly.