Timon of Athens: Generous or Intemperate?

It is tempting to view the eponymous main character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as a good man gone bad. Shakespeare seemingly presents Timon as a generous man who finds that others are not as generous as he when he, his resources exhausted from his spree of giving, finds himself in a time of need. As a result of the hardhearted behavior of his ostensible friends, from perspective, Timon turns his philanthropy into misanthropy, retreating into the wildness to nurse his newfound hatred of mankind. It is possible, however, to see the play, rather than as a movement from love to hatred or generosity to miserliness, instead as a commentary on two different but related types of intemperance.

Immediately upon entering the stage in the first scene of the play, Timon’s first actions are to begin giving away money to those around him. He hears that someone he knows has been imprisoned because of a debt he owes and, without another question, offer the money to pay for his release and to continue supporting him even after he has been released. “‘Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after,” claims Timon. Timon then turns to offer more money to help his servant marry the woman with whom he desires to build a household.

Each of these cases appears to be an act of charity performed by Timon out of kindness. Each of them is also, however, an example of intemperate dealings in money. The man whom Timon helps to pay his way out of prison is clearly a man who has not well managed his wealth and so cannot be expected to deal honestly with Timon’s money either. Similarly, the servant Lucilius to whom Timon provides the money to marry is almost certain to end up in debt once again by marrying a woman and beginning a family it is clearly beyond his means to support.

Timon’s intemperance continues into the second scene of the play as he hosts a sumptuous banquet for the men of Athens. The exorbitance of Timon’s banquet is proclaimed by the god Cupid himself, who announces to Timon that “the five best senses / Acknowledge thee their patron; and come freely / To gratulate thy plenteous bosom.”

It is this intemperance, rather than any sort of generosity, that presents a contrast with the sort of person Timon becomes in the second half of the play. After he is denied help by his friends once he himself falls into financial need, Timon leaves civilization behind, going to live a cave. There, he discovers a large reserve of gold which he provides to Alcibiades and two prostitutes with him to help them bring on the destruction of the city of Athens, proclaiming “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.”

Just as Timon’s seemingly generous behavior early in the play was an example of excess, so now is Timon’s reaction to having been slighted by those he believed were his friends. He turns from a philanthropism that lacked temperance to a misanthropism equally lacking in temperance. What has not changed, however, is that deeper aspect of Timon’s personality that has motivated both his love and his hatred, namely, his intemperance.

Knights and Chivalry (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.7)

Medieval people used to say that there are three “orders,” or groups of people, in Christian society. There are, they said, “those who pray, those who work, and those who fight.” Most people, of course, were among “those who work.” The common people were all of the people who farmed, who built buildings, who made art, and did all of the other things necessary for any society to continue. The monks were “those who pray.” It was expected that they would help the rest of society by praying to God to protect them. “Those who fight” were called knights. It was the duty of knights to protect Christian kingdoms and villages from those who wanted to harm them.

Boys were chosen at a very young age to be knights, usually when they were babies. If a father wanted his son to become a knight someday, he would tell the child stories about other knights from a very young age and encourage his son to imitate the heroes of those stories. He would also teach the boy about good manners and courtesy as knights were expected to be very well-behaved. Most of the boy’s toys would be wooden swords and shields and other toy versions of things he would use as a knight.

Once the boy turned seven years old, his training as a knight began. He would be sent to a knight’s castle to be a page. As a page, the boy was expected to spend all of his time either learning or serving the other people in the castle. He was especially expected to serve the women of the castle. A page, for example, might be ordered to walk behind the lady of the castle, carrying the train of her dress, the part of the dress that would otherwise drag on the floor. A page might spent months doing this job in order to learn to treat women with respect. As a page, the boy would also study the great accomplishments of other knights and attend tournaments where knights displayed their skills by playing war games in front of crowds.

If the boy had done a good job as a page, he could be made a squire at the age of 14. As a squire, the boy dedicated more of his time to learning music, dancing, and other arts. He was also expected to perfect his etiquette by interacting with others in a courteous manner at all times. Squires also acted as assistants to knights. They carried the knights equipment around, helped the knights put their armor on, travelled with the knights, and even went into battle with them. In this way, the squire learned all about the how knights fought and the weapons they used to fight.

If the boy had done well as a squire, he would finally become a knight at about 21 years old. A great ceremony was held when a man became a knight. His armor would be placed on the altar of a church and he would stay awake all night in the church to guard it. In the morning, a worship service would be held in the church. After many prayers and blessings for the knight, he would at least kneel in front of a lord, a noble person who owned land, and would be knighted. The lord would swear to support the knight by paying for his equipment and a castle for him. The knight, in turn, pledged to serve the lord by protecting the lord’s lands from enemy invasions.

Once a man became a knight, he was expected to follow a strict code of honor called chivalry. The code of chivalry ordered that knights always observe the virtues. Knights were expected to be compassionate, temperate, diligent, and respectful. They were always to help those who were weaker than themselves and to obey those who had authority over them. The knights, “those who fight,” were expected by all people to keep Europe safe.


Review Questions

 1. What are the steps to becoming a knight?

2. What is chivalry?

Virtues or Values?

Central among the numerous problematic features of education in the United States today is the movement away from the idea of virtue and the embrace of the alternative but decadent notion of values. Although the difference between the two ideas may seem slight at first, the contrast becomes evident upon examination of the respective definitions of the terms. Value, on the one hand, implies an arbitrary and temporary emphasis upon a certain object or activity. The “value” of a dollar, for instance, has declined significantly over the last century. The “value” of gold, however, continues to climb. Value is the worth attributed to something by individuals or some consensus among a certain group. Virtue, on the other hand, refers to moral and ethical standards whose value never fluctuates. A virtue is as good in one place and time as it is in any other. Cowardice, for example, is never virtuous; in other words, cowardice is never the good, right, or fitting thing. Courage, on the other hand, is never not a virtue; it is, in short, always and forever the right thing in all situations in all places.

It can be seen from this contrast why the idea of virtue has been replaced by the notion of value by modern educators. The notion of value fits into the prevalent idea that morals are culturally contingent, that, contrary to logic, a thing can be good in one place and not in another. The very existence of virtue, on the other hand, implies two further theses against which the modern mind rebels. The first implied thesis is that human nature is immutable, meaning that it does not change over time nor from culture to culture. There are, therefore, certain ways of “being human” which conform more closely than others to human nature and are more fitting and right. These necessarily are also more conducive to human happiness and development. The second thesis, even more troubling for the modern mind, is that if virtue does indeed exist there must necessarily be an eternal, transcendent, and objective standard which forms the foundation for virtue and, of course, an eternal, transcendent Standard-Giver beyond this. If virtue is everywhere and always good, good is not merely a matter of taste but a matter of the Good, in what might be called the Platonic sense.

Throughout most of the history of the philosophy of education, the constantly emphasis by wise thinkers has been about the formation of the young through virtue. Early Christian theories of education in particular emphasized the aspect of virtue in arguing for the proper Christian stance toward pre-Christian literature. In his treatise addressed “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” St. Basil the Great launched an extensive argument that the primary means by which Christian “young men” could “derive profit from pagan literature” is in drawing from those writings their lessons in virtue. “Since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours,” he says, “and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more still by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature.” Basil’s near-contemporary St. John Chrysostom, wrote an “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children” in which he exhorts parents first and foremost to “exercise this child’s soul in virtue.” In his “Letter to Laeta,” St. Jerome exhorts a young mother to care for her daughter Paula by centering her education from a young age in exhortations to and exhibitions of virtuous behavior.

One of the most famous examples of liberal learning among the Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, presents some special insight for the current situation of modern education. In his Confessions, Augustine wonders “what did it profit me, that all the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of affections, read by myself, and understood?” The rhetorical question here put has great implications for the modern movement away from teaching virtue in education. Although Augustine was extraordinarily well-educated, he found himself unable to discern what whether what he read “therein was true or certain.” He was unable to differentiate truth from falsehood because his own education lacked in the instillment of virtue. He, like so many children being educated in American schools today, was filled with interesting facts but unable to establish the meaning of these facts for his life. He, like them, was unable to find truth because the nature of the education he had received denied the very existence of truth in the proper and complete sense. Augustine was able to recover from the trauma of his education and discover truth later. How many American schoolchildren today will be able to do the same?


Primary Source: From the “Moralia” by Plutarch (ca. 100 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.9)

Plutarch was a Roman author who lived in 46-120 AD. He is most famous for the many biographies he wrote about important people of the Greek and Roman worlds. The selections below are about Sparta and are from his “Moralia,” a collection of short stories and sayings.

35. [In Sparta], when the time had arrived during which it was the custom for the free boys to steal whatever they could, and it was a disgrace not to escape being found out, when the boys with him had stolen a young fox alive, and given it to him to keep, and those who had lost the fox came in search for it, the boy happened to have slipped the fox under his garment. The beast, however, became savage and ate through his side to the vitals; but the boy did not move or cry out, so as to avoid being exposed, and left, when they had departed, the boys saw what had happened, and blamed him, saying thatit would have been better to let the fox be seen than to hide it even unto death; but the boy said,”Not so, but better to die without yielding to the pain than through being detected because of weakness of spirit to gain a life to be lived in disgrace.

36. Some people, encountering Spartans on the road, said, “You are in luck, for robbers have just left this place,” but they said, “Egad, no, but it is they who are in luck for not encountering us.”

37. A Spartan being asked what he knew, said, “How to be free.”

55. While the games were being held at Olympia, an old man was desirous of seeing them, but could find no seat. As he went to place after place, he met with insults and jeers, and nobody made room for him. But when he came opposite the Spartans, all the boys and many of the men arose and yieldedtheir places.Whereupon the assembled multitude of Greeks expressed their approbation of the custom by applause, and commended the action beyond measure; but the old man, shaking his grey-haired head and with tears in his eyes, said, “Alas for the evil days! Because all the Greeks know what is right and fair, but the Spartans alone practice it.”

69. Another, passing by a tomb at night, and imagining that he saw a ghost, ran at it with uplifted spear, and, as he thrust at it, he exclaimed, “Where are you fleeing from me, you soul that shall die twice?”

71. Another, in the thick of the fight, was about to bring down his sword on an enemy when the recall sounded, and he checked the blow. When someone inquired why, when he had his enemy in his power, he did not kill him, he said, “Because it is better to obey one’s commander than to slay an enemy.”




Review Questions


  1. Why did all of the Spartans at the Olympic Games stand up in 55? Answer in a sentence.


  1. In a paragraph, describe the sort of virtues the Spartans practiced according to these selections from Plutarch’s writing.

Slave Morality and Master Morality

Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that morality and ethical values in general are of the utmost importance for the way people live. Ultimately, one’s morality determines the ends that one seeks to achieve and the means by which one goes about achieving them. Nietzsche took a historical, or “genealogical,” approach to philosophy in which he sought to find the origins of various ideas in order to determine their truth and worth. In his examination of the genealogy of morality, he discovered the origins of contemporary values in a revolt of the weak against the strong. This led him to contrast what he labeled as “master morality” with the “slave morality” which he believed opposed to it.

Nietzsche believed that, earlier in human history, a more natural form of morality had been predominant. He labeled this moral system “master morality,” or “aristocratic morality” (West, 2010, p. 149). This morality had been practiced among the strong, a minority which consisted of those who dominated the weak majority. It included “values such as courage, generosity and magnanimity or greatness of spirit” that “reflect[ed] … strength and vitality” (ibid.). These values, according to Nietzsche, were practiced among the strong and the noble. In demonstration of his position, he drew upon the examples of the heroes of the ancient Greeks as found in Homer’s works and elsewhere. Among them, the strong held a mutual respect for each other and practiced these virtues in their interactions but held a contempt and disdain for the weak.
The weak, according to Nietzsche, had a morality of their own. This “slave morality” saw things as “good and evil” rather than “good and bad” as the master morality posited (ibid.). Whereas master morality was based on a mutual reciprocation among the equally strong, slave morality sought to force all, including the strong, to become equal. The slaves, unable to create their own values due to their weakness, made morality a matter of force rather than freedom, as among the masters, who could create their own values in their strength. In addition, the content of slave morality was such as was of benefit to the weak, including values like “pity, humility, and self-sacrifice” (ibid.). As such, Nietzsche saw slave morality as intrinsically tied to weakness and degeneration as well as inherently selfish on the part of the weak, a symptom of their lowness. Nietzsche saw the rise of slave morality as linked historically to the personages of Socrates and especially Christ. As a result of Christianity, according to Nietzsche, slave morality had become the prevailing moral worldview of Europeans.
Nietzsche did not confine his criticisms of slave morality and its origins to an argument against Christianity. Perhaps his greatest target in these criticisms were those inheritors of the Enlightenment who attempted to maintain Christian values without Christian theology. For Nietzsche, however, “when one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (Nietzsche, 1990, p. 80). Nietzsche followed logic and his genealogical method through to where it led him. As a result, he found that it was absurd to attempt to maintain a set of values while ridding oneself of the philosophical or religious foundations of those values. On the contrary, if “God is dead,” as Nietzsche famously said, all of the values based upon his existence and nature as understood by Christians must also be done away with. The atheists and other non-believers who continued to practice and propound Christian values were, then, just as guilty of continuing slave morality as were Christians.
According to Nietzsche, this slavery morality, forcing servile “virtues” born of the selfishness and jealousy of the low-minded, impeded the greatness of people. Those who were natural aristocrats, the strong and noble, were restrained in their powers by slave morality. As a result, they were unable to practice the master morality that their dignity and strength demanded. Nietzsche saw most of the Western philosophical tradition subsequent to Socrates and especially Christianity as the primary culprits in the propagation of slave morality. Because of this, he saw Christianity and Socratic philosophy as impediments to the human spirit and all of those who continued to espouse those values as impeding the same. Nietzsche saw the greatness of humanity as being prevented by a set of values he saw as beneath human dignity.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1990). The twilight of the idols and the Anti-Christ: or how to philosophize with a hammer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.