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Greek Manly Virtue in Epic Literature & Philosophy Essay

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Updated: Dec 30th, 2021


The world of ancient Greeks is full of mythological implementation that is described in the cultural peculiarities and beliefs of these people. The meaning of arête (manly virtue) is also significant for ancient Greeks, as warlike people. On the other hand, the works of ancient imaginative literature are full of scenes of manly deeds of brave heroes. Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, and other ancient writers and playwrights tried to manifest the real virtues of a man. It was their destination. Moreover, such philosophers as Plato tried to estimate manly virtue by looking at the ideal society described in his works. Moreover, Plato insisted on the tripartite unity of a man in his courage and brevity. All these points along with some glimpses of other ancient writers are described in this paper. Thus, the manly virtue of ancient Greeks was an attribute of the male and female parts of the society that was implemented since childhood and related to the norms of ethics and aesthetics.

The concept of arête (manly virtue) appears in Ancient Greece with the emergence of the aristocracy (800-700 BC) and with Homer’s creation of The Iliad and Odyssey (750-700 BC) (Inyang 51). In this respect, it is vital to admit that the concept of manly virtue was considered not solely with men. It concerned also women. Sophocles and Euripides attempted to illustrate the moderate attitude of women in the ancient society of Greeks. Such general strokes need more evaluation from the artistic, philosophical, and historical viewpoints.

Greek Mythology is an Important Part of World Culture

First of all, it is vital to mention that Greece is fairly considered to be a cradle of philosophical, ethical, aesthetical, and cultural thought. Ancient Greece is graceful for its moral coloring of the society. It is here that civilization appears and impacts further generations of people living in Europe and across the world. Thus, an observer should pay more attention to the heritage of Ancient Greece. Multiple artifacts and historical data point out the highest role of social and moral virtues according to ancient Greeks. Their role for modern humanity is viable due to so many features and norms that the Western world loaned from the ideals of Ancient Greece. It is no wonder that science, art, and philosophy were interwoven in Greek society serving for making progress in it. That is why the reason was above all for ancient Greeks. Their tries and their efforts were directed to securing their attainments in art, social affairs, philosophy, and warfare. That is why the concept of arête was rather significant, as an innovation of Greeks.

Manly virtue (arête) is known to etymologically have grown out of two words Andreia (courage or manliness) and Andres (men) (Kochin 19). This notion identifies the excellence of men in their everyday life. It is not considered to be an automatically acquired virtue. It should have been demonstrated in practice. Manly virtue was rather a gorgeous virtue that was related to what Homer depicted in his brilliant works. Hence, the participation of gods in a man’s life is apparent when a person possesses manly virtue.

The winged words that came to Diomedes in Pallas Athene illustrate a behest coming to him from above, namely: “Be of good courage now, Diomedes, to fight the Trojans: for in thy breast I have set thy father’s courage undaunted” (Homer 53)… This episode directly outlines the main virtue that a man needs to prove his devotion and patriotic love to the country where he lives. On the other hand, it points out the straightforward destination of a man in warlike affairs. This is why Homer wanted to emphasize the feelings of the Greek nation due to his works.

Xenophon, one of the outstanding soldiers and writers of his time, considered manly virtue to be the main peculiarity of a man. The question is that at that time there was no point in the disorientation of what it was like to be a man. Physical attributes did not characterize manliness. Only practical deeds and heroism in war could describe a person, as a real man. Hence, turning to Xenophon, he was known to adore hunting, as “the best school of warlike prowess and manly virtue” (Grant 163). In this exercise, Xenophon saw some prerequisites for making a man out of a boy. There are some similarities between war and hunting. However, the difference is rather apparent while talking about killing people for the survival of Greece.

Polybius describes the similarity between two kings Philippe II and his son Alexander the Great. He states that arête was shared between them equally, but in the case of Alexander, it had manifested itself more graciously (Walbank 133). The concept of manly virtue was also made out as referring to kings. Its royal and noble characterization were discussed not only in literature but also in philosophy. However, it is about time to admit that arête had two explanations as a feature of a man. The first one concerns, as it has been mentioned already, the warlike participation, and the second feature surpasses the civic activity of a man (Kochin 19). It means that a man should represent his mastership in the social affairs of society. In other words, the mastership in rhetoric and oratory skills was also considered with manly virtue.

Oratory skills are greatly illustrated in episodes from The Iliad when Menelaus gathered his army. It is also distinctively illuminated in the philosophical observations by Aristotle. This philosopher tried to implement the idea that in an eloquent speech there are points on personal experience (Cummings 23). Thus, the conception for masculinity in Ancient Greece was divided into two: civic and heroic (Kochin 19). However, one should not think of the civic feature for manliness, as related categorically to being an orator. It is a conception that insists on man’s taking control over his desires and any bursts of emotions that might lead to shame. Plato comments on arête as coming through a long process of punishment and reward. Thus, the philosopher even remarks that manly virtue is the only way for men to be united: “…manly virtue – if this is the quality of which all men must be partakers, and which is the very condition of their learning or doing anything else” (Plato 170)… Such observation of a man bears in mind that it is not that easy to be called a real man with manly virtue. It is for those who can afford it at any time and under any circumstances. This is possible only when a man does not make transgression.

Aristotle highlights the meaning of arête as being a feature for the highest layers of Greek society in ancient times. The philosopher also makes remarks on a king’s devotion o his people: “…for injustice will not be done to the superiors, if they are reckoned only as equal to those who are far inferior to them in arête [manly virtue] and political capacity” (Cited in Cummings 60). Hence, the artistic implementation of arête should also touch upon the political and social affairs serving for particular improvements in the shape of the society. This task is paramount for aristocracy and kings, as a superior. The examples of the main characters in the works of Homer are thought of as the most appropriate to underline the significance of a primordial king’s possession of arête. His (king’s) example should stimulate subjects and people around to follow the principles of manly virtue.

While a part of a man is considered to have roots in civic and heroic conceptions, women were also described in their ability to possess arête. However, in the case of women, arête was concerned with moderation (sophrosyne) (Kochin 19). The figure of a woman plays a significant role in understanding the lives of people living in Ancient Greece. The thing is that women were helpers or assistants to men in Homer’s Odyssey. The example of Penelope is the most brilliant. On the other hand, one should rally thoughts over the concept of the play Antigone by Sophocles.

The idea of the play delineates and makes clear that the significance of century-long traditions is above the king’s command or decision. Creon, the king of Thebes, showed a personal irrational and inhumane attitude to Eteocles’s body putrefying outside. Antigone was rather moderate to all principles of living in Theban society, but her being moderate ended when having confronted such unfair decision of Creon. Her reply to Ismene justifies her, as one possessing arête. It is seen in the very beginning of the play:

Ismene: You’re too rash.

Has Creon not expressly banned that act?

Antigone: Yes. But he’s no right to keep me from what’s mine (Sophocles and Johnston 8).

Another example of a woman’s arête described in the literature is that of Medea by Euripides. Her being disgraced by Jason was the sticking point that made her revenge on him. The main objective that claims for Medea’s righteousness is that she, as a barbarian woman, left her people for Jason. She is described as a devoted and loving mother of their with Jason children. She followed the principles of living within the society of Ancient Greece. However, she was betrayed. This point Euripides points out to be the greatest disappointment of an honest woman. It is a cry of Medea who fairly admits to her children: “May you be blessed, but not here! What here was yours, your father stole” (Euripides 61). All in all, the examples of Medea and Antigone were also outlined by outstanding men of the time in terms of philosophy.

Plato straightforwardly blames the deed of Jason and glorifies the temperance of Medea while he admits: “As to adultery, let it be held disgraceful for any man or woman to be unfaithful when they are married, and called husband and wife” (Plato 193). In this respect, arête considers a man’s responsibility for the family and his manliness to secure faithfulness to his wife. The same is for women as well. Again the example of Odyssey and Penelope illustrate manly virtue in its ideal outlook.

On the other hand, Aristotle tried to lay more emphasis on the figure of a woman as one deserving special feature of character and physical state. Hence, the philosopher points out in a woman such features as “excellences of body, beauty, and stature; of soul, moderation and a love of activity that is not illiberal” (Cited in Kochin 19). The whole reasoning on the place of a woman in the society of ancient Greeks considered direct relation to goddesses. A figure of Athena is especially demonstrative for arête. She is always described with a sword in her hand. Her manly virtue goes together with her being a protector for heroes on battlefields.

Xenophon in his writings underlines a woman, as a “good partner” in every deed of a man (Xenophon 50). One more touch considers the fact that moderation is the main feature that should characterize a woman as having manly virtue for sure. Xenophon did not hesitate to describe a woman in her moderation. It is especially seen in his work Oeconomicus when the young bride says to her destined husband: “What would I be able to do together with you? What is my ability? Rather everything is up to you. My work, my mother said, is to be moderate” (Cited in Kochin 19). Plato provides an opinion that a woman ought to have such virtues, as being “temperate, brave and just” (Plato 19). This makes the whole discussion concentrated on the divine features of a woman who follows such standards of moderation.

The concept of the manly feature was greatly developed in the epic literature of ancient Greeks. Its roots are now thought of as having an applicable character for ancient society. Works by Homer tended to educate society and show how courage and moderation can be shared by men and women respectively. Homer showed the ideal picture of traits of character that should be proper to men. His artistic thought found continuation in plays by Sophocles and Euripides. The character of Antigone illustrates devotion and moderation to traditions. The character of Medea is an example of a woman’s temperance under the circumstance of betrayal. Both stories point out peculiarities of living within Ancient Greece.


To conclude, it is necessary to note that the concept of manly virtue (arête) defined a norm of being courageous and moderate for men and women. Manly virtue of ancient Greeks was an attribute of the male and female parts of the society that was implemented since childhood and related to the norms of ethics and aesthetics. In this respect, one should keep in mind that there were two types of arête among ancient Greeks: civic and heroic. For women, there were conceptions of moderation and temperance. The concept of arête had educational and behavioral functions that were developed in works by Homer. The next stage touched upon philosophical observation of arête in the literature compared to the reality of Ancient Greece. Works by Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon illustrate authors’ seriousness to manly feature, as the most necessary for civilized society. In this respect, the role of a king should have a regulatory character. All in all, manly virtue was absorbed not solely in literature but in philosophical reasoning on social affairs.

Works cited

Cummings, Lewis Vance. Alexander the Great. Santa Barbara, CA: Grove Press, 2004.

Euripides The Medea Or Euripides. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009.

Grant, Alexander Xenophon. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2008.

Homer. The Iliad. New York: Wilder Publications, 2007.

Inyang, Benjamin James. “Nurturing Corporate Governance System: The Emerging Trends in Nigeria.” Journal of Business Systems, Governance and Ethics 4(2), (July, 2009): 1-62.

Kochin, Michael Shalom. Gender and rhetoric in Plato’s political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Plato. Dialogues of Plato: Containing the Apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo, and Protagoras. New York: READ BOOKS, 2008.

Sophocles and Johnston, Ian C. Antigone. New York: RicherResourcesPublications, 2007.

Walbank, Frank William. Polybius, Rome, and the Hellenistic world: essays and reflections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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