Ancient and modern

Would the ancient Greeks have agreed that children are born evil?

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

The ‘social mobility tsar’ Katharine Birbalsingh has suggested that children, born evil, ‘need to be taught right from wrong and then habituated into choosing good over evil’. The Twitter mob is equally certain that all children are born ‘good’, and it is their environment that spoils them. Ancient Greeks, ignorant of St Augustine, did not think that this was a simple either/or question but that moral capacity was determined in many different ways, depending on e.g. age, sex, status, intelligence, chance, fate (etc.) — and nature.

Greeks thought the gods had little to say about the question, since myth did not suggest they were our moral superiors, though that did not stop gods intervening in a man’s life if they so chose. Best therefore to acknowledge them with offerings. What Greeks did find fascinating was that man-made laws and customs must have originated at some time in the past and wondering how customs/laws/usages/conventions (nomos) related to the all-powerful world of nature (phusis).


Democritus argued that e.g. it was phusis for man to procreate and rear young, but nomos for him to expect some return from it. Herodotus thought that nomos largely determined national differences.

Another Greek suggested that the Scythians’ phusiswas one thing, but had they grown up in Greece, Greek nomos would have remodelled them. Pericles suggested that Athens’s unique man-made culture and constitution gave it its special strength.

On the other hand Greeks were perfectly happy to argue that ‘nature matters most, for no one by giving a good upbringing to what is bad can make it good’; however, ‘teaching is similar to nature: it changes the tenor of a man and so determines the way he grows’ (so teaching can in fact change one’s nature); but ‘it is always grievous when a man deserts his own nature and does what it is not appropriate to it’ (so one’s nature is not an all-powerful controlling constituent of one’s being).

The Greeks could not determine the origins of moral capacity either, but at least they understood its extreme complexity.

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