Bonnie MacLachlan ends her fascinating The Age of Grace (p. 147) by suggesting that the starting point for the Greek idea of charis is that it is a “social pleasure.” In some of the poetry she examines, though, “the accent was placed on the element of reciprocity, on the obligation created by the giving of social pleasure to give social pleasure back, in return. The element of reciprocity sometimes takes such prominence, in fact, that the notion of social favors retreats and charis comes to mean vengeance (and its pleasures).” Through its link with reciprocity, charis becomes “a cardinal item in the moral system of the Greeks of the archaic and early classical age: It was the moral glue of their society, linking such other central moral ideas as time, dike, themis, xenia, and aidos.”
Even charis as charm and beauty fits into this social ethic of grace, since charming words and beauty “remove the natural barriers that separate people who are unknown to each other, who might be experienced as a threat. Charis induces a social softening between strangers, friends, lovers, mortals, and gods.”
MacLachlan observes the difference with “our own ethical system in which grace and graciousness are laudable but not altogether necessary moral qualities – icing on the cake of rights and duties – belonging to manners rather than morals.” Part of the social history of charis, then, is precisely this detachment of morals from etiquette.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm
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