Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Distinguishing Charis

“Some think that reciprocity is without qualification just, as the Pythagoreans said; for they defined justice without qualification as reciprocity. Now 'reciprocity' fits neither distributive nor rectificatory justice-yet people want even the justice of Rhadamanthus to mean this:
Should a man suffer what he did, right justice would be done
-for in many cases reciprocity and rectificatory justice are not in accord; e.g. (1) if an official has inflicted a wound, he should not be wounded in return, and if some one has wounded an official, he ought not to be wounded only but punished in addition. Further (2) there is a great difference between a voluntary and an involuntary act. But in associations for exchange this sort of justice does hold men together-reciprocity in accordance with a proportion and not on the basis of precisely equal return. For it is by proportionate requital that the city holds together. Men seek to return either evil for evil-and if they cannot do so, think their position mere slavery-or good for good-and if they cannot do so there is no exchange, but it is by exchange that they hold together. This is why they give a prominent place to the temple of the Charites-to promote the requital of services; for this is characteristic of charis-we should serve in return one who has shown charis to us, and should another time take the initiative in showing it.Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5
Some 600 years after Homer describes charis of Achilles in the Iliad, Aristotle declares the distinguishing characteristic of charis is reciprocity.  Today we would know this process as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  But how could this Greek society operate under such a clearly “biblical” order?
Consider that Greece is comprised of a main land and many islands which “in the day” were primarily agricultural.  Each of these islands were inhabited by clans that were fiercely independent and yet socially dependent upon each other.  Whenever a conflict would arise which would draw the men capable of fighting away from their homes, as a matter of social discourse, those that remained behind would tend to the estates of those that had gone on their behalf.  This would create a bond within the societal order to insure the protection of the community not only in the present circumstance but also for future conflicts that might arise.  Future generations were expected to fulfill their duty in honoring the sacrifices of those that had gone before them as an obligation to their own family’s commitment to protect the interests of a neighbor.
This honoring of the obligations of a “charis-event” would be the glue that held the Greek society together for so many centuries.  Some scholars even speculate that the reason that Greece never rose to a great economic power in the world was because of the rule of charis even in their business dealings. 
What, you might ask, would happen if charis was not honored? In a societal structure so tightly interdependent upon one another, not honoring the charis that was extended to you by a neighbor was grounds for public humiliation and disgrace.  It was acceptable practice to “call out” the offending party at any public gathering so as to insure that the community would be fully aware of the nature of the individual and how they conducted themselves with regards to commitments.  In small communities this would be devastating to the person and their family for many generations afterwards since it would adversely affect their daily transactions within the community as well as virtually deprive them of any ability to protect their resources in any future conflict.
So we see here that charis has a specific nature associated with it that is evident in the actions of reciprocal exchange.  This exchange process created a mechanism of honor which was passed down from generation to generation as reciprocal exchanges occurred within the social and economic fabric of each community.  Eventually this pattern would become tarnished in the larger urban areas through the mechanism of political advantage and the buying of “favors” to extend and secure ones influence in the community.  Yet in the rural areas, the operation of charis as it first developed would remain the law of the land.

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