Ethics of Ancient Mediterranean Religions

by Tasha Brandstatter

The ethical and moral codes of ancient Mediterranean religions still affect Western culture and behavior today. From the idea of moral judgment after death to loving one's neighbor, the ethics of the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans combined to form the cornerstone of modern European laws and moral philosophy.

Ancient Egyptians

The ancient Egyptian concept of ethical behavior is not entirely understood by scholars. Egyptians practiced "practical ethics," morals tied to situations and social positions taught via lessons called wisdom literature. The only Egyptian terms that can be tied to an idea of right and wrong are ma'at and grg — loosely translated as truth and lie, respectively. An Egyptian's goal was to live in accordance to ma'at, but what exactly ma'at was changed on a regular basis. Egyptians were also judged on their behavior, and had to have a heart lighter than a feather in order to enter the afterlife; but scholars don't know if these final judgments after death had any bearing on Egyptians' day-to-day ethics.

Ancient Hebrews

Ancient Hebrew ethics has a 3,000-year history going back to Moses. Unlike many other ancient ethical codes, Jewish law — there being no separation made between laws, rituals, and ethics in the Torah — focuses on being a good and just person by following the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. While other ancient societies had this axiom, including Egypt, it wasn't tied directly to their religion as is the case in Judaism. According to Jewish belief, one should be just because God is just, not because it benefits oneself or one's society. Another element distinguishing Jewish law from other Mediterranean ethical systems is that Jewish law is based on prophecy rather than wisdom.

Ancient Greeks

Moral philosophy began in Greece and had two components: virtue and reason. According to Plato, the soul possessed three parts: appetite, spirit and reason. Accordingly, each part of the soul had its own virtues: temperance, courage and wisdom. The most important virtue was wisdom because it lent temperance to human appetites and courage to the spirit. Aristotle took a more individual approach with what he called the Golden Mean -- a set of personality traits that could be vices unless moderated, which were different for every person. Aristotle also emphasized the importance of reason, believing it would lead to Eudaimonia, or a state of rational happiness. In both of these philosophers' ideologies, the reward for living ethically was personal happiness.

Romans

In ancient Rome, two new and contradictory ethical philosophies emerged: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Epicureans believed humans naturally pursued certain pleasures — everything from food and shelter to social acceptance — and the key to happiness was moderate indulgence in these needs. Stoics believed that the world didn't obey the will of humans, and therefore happiness could be found only in wanting as little from the material world as possible. Stoics were also the first to introduce the idea of a "brotherhood of man," in which everyone was tied together through logos, or reason.

About the Author

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.

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