Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece

A Sociology of Greek Ethics From Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics

By Joseph M. Bryant

Subjects: Ancient Greek Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in the Sociology of Culture
Paperback : 9780791430422, 575 pages, July 1996
Hardcover : 9780791430415, 575 pages, July 1996

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Table of contents


Preface: The Sociology of Knowledge and Historical Sociology

Introduction: The Polis and the "Spirit" of Hellenism

1. The End of the Bronze Age
2. Dark Age Greece

I. Social Structure: The Oikos and the Community

II. Norms and Values: The Ethos of the Warrior-Aristocracy

3. Archaic Greece

I. Social Structure: The Emergence of Polis Society

i. Social Change in the Early Archaic Age
ii. Hoplites and Tyrants in an Age of Transition
iii. Sparta's Perfection of the Warriors' Guild
iv. Toward Democracy in Athens

II. Norms and Values: The Articulation of the Polis-Citizen Bond

i. Aristocratic Supremacy in the Early Archaic Age: Hereditary Virtue and the Agonal Ideal
ii. The Dêmos in Dependency: Peasant Values and the Cry for Social Justice
iii. The Rise of Hoplite Heroes and Codification of the Polis Ideal
iv. Troubled Aristocrats, Confident Commoners, and the Contest for Status Honor and Self-Affirmation
v. From Myth to Science, and the Occult: The Quest for Knowledge and Salvation

4. Classical Greece

I. Slavery and the Material Foundations of Classical Civilization

II. The Persian Challenge: Military Triumph and Cultural Affirmation

III. The Classical Polis: Institutions and Normative Ideals

IV. The Sophists and Sokrates: Critical Rationalism and the Revaluation of Conventional Morality

V. Democratic Imperialism and the Expansion of Athenian Power

VI. The Peloponnesian War, Civic Factionalism, and the Rupturing of Polis Communalism

5. Fourth-Century Greece and the Decline of the Polis

I. Hegemonial Rivalries, Class Struggle, and the Deepening Crisis of Social Disorganization

II. Mercenaries, Military Monarchs, and the Erosion of Citizen Politics

III. Plato and the Dilemmas of Politics and Reason: The Polis as Philosophical Project

IV. The Minor Sokratics and the Onset of Normative Individualism

V. The Macedonian Conquest and the Suppression of Polis Autonomy

VI. Aristotle's Social Philosophy and the Sociology of Power

VII. Diogenes and Cynic Antinomianism

6. The Hellenistic Age

I. Alexander and the Graeco-Macedonian Conquest of the East

II. Wars of the Successors and the Consolidation of Imperial Patrimonialism

III. Ethics in a New Key: The Retreat from Polis-Citizen Ideals and the Interiorization of Moral Value

i. Epicureanism: Pleasure and Tranquillity in the Garden
ii. Stoicism: The Ethos of "Self-Hardening"
iii. Syncretism Triumphant: External Unfreedom and the Quest for Inner Plenitude and Immunity

Epilogue: On Reductionism, Relativism, and the Sociology of Morals and Philosophy

Glossary of Greek Terms


Selected Bibliography



An exercise in cultural sociology, Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece seeks to explicate the dynamic currents of classical Hellenic ethics and social philosophy by situating those idea-complexes in their socio-historical and intellectual contexts. Central to this enterprise is a comprehensive historical-sociological analysis of the Polis form of social organization, which charts the evolution of its basic institutions, roles, statuses, and class relations. From the Dark Age period of "genesis" on to the Hellenistic era of "eclipse" by the emergent forces of imperial patrimonialism, Polis society promoted and sustained corresponding normative codes which mobilized and channeled the requisite emotive commitments and cognitive judgments for functional proficiency under existing conditions of life. The aristocratic warrior-ethos canonized in the Homeric epics; the civic ideology of equality and justice espoused by reformist lawgivers and poets; the democratization of status honor and martial virtue that attended the shift to hoplite warfare; the philosophical exaltation of the Polis-citizen bond as found in the architectonic visions of Plato and Aristotle; and the subsequent retreat from civic virtues and the interiorization of value articulated by the Skeptics, Epicureans, and Stoics, new age philosophies in a world remade by Alexander's conquests—these are the key phases in the evolving currents of Hellenic moral discourse, as structurally framed by transformations within the institutional matrix of Polis society.

Joseph M. Bryant is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick, Canada.


"This is a challenging reappraisal of major developments in Greek society between the Dark Ages and the flowering of Hellenistic culture. Historians of Greek political life and of Greek philosophy will need to think again about the relationships between social structures and philosophical ethics, between brute economic or material facts and moral ideology. Bryant makes a strong case for the pertinence of historical sociology of a broadly Weberian kind to the understanding of ancient Greek civilization. Anyone inclined to take the historical dimension of ethics seriously will welcome this detailed case study of the interactions between politics, sociology, and moral theory in classical Greek culture. "—Brad Inwood, University of Toronto

"This is as sociologically and culturally deep and thorough a work on ancient Greek life and thought, up through the Hellenistic period, as one can find in the literature. I found it an enjoyable, at times fascinating, work to read. " — Randall Collins, University of California, Riverside