To the Ancient Greeks, one of the essentials of the good life was keeping everything in proper measure.
As a part of this, Greek tragedies portrayed man’s suffering as a result of him going beyond the proper measure of things. So did Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s noble vice was a quality in his protagonists (Othello, Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.) that went beyond the proper measure; Macbeth was courageous, but disproportionately so, to the point where he killed the king and brought about his own demise. In the Shakespearean and Ancient Greek sense, measure was not utilised as a means of comparing size or distance, but rather, attuned to an understanding of the harmony and essential relations between things.
An insight into measure can be found by way of etymology. The Latin ‘mederi’ means to cure, and is also the root of the modern word medicine, reflecting the view that health is contingent upon a proper measure, or balance, of the inner harmony among parts. Cancer, being a proliferation of cells without limit, is a sickness, because it is growth without proper measure according to the functioning of the body. ‘Moderation’, one of the key virtues of the Ancient Greeks, derives from the same root, again speaking to the rule of ‘not too little, not too much’ and implying an inner harmony among parts; meditation too, is “weighing, pondering, or measuring of the whole process of thought” in order to bring about an internal harmony. So, physically (medicine), personally (moderation) and psychologically (meditation), measure was seen as key for a balanced and harmonious life.
The Greeks understood all human qualities: avarice, cowardice, selfishness, contempt, and violence; as well as generosity, courage, selfless, and kindness as potential human virtues; a worldview that stands in stark opposition to our own. The caveat? Each became a virtue when properly (or ‘proportionately’) measured.
We can better understand words by tracing their lineage. To help understand ‘measure’ it is useful to understand another Ancient Greek term, proportion, or, as they would have said, ratio, a word from which our modern ‘reason’ derives. For the ancients, ratio was relevant to understanding the nature of things and the proportions of relationships. So, to take an earlier example, cancer is problematic because it exists out of proportion to the growth of the rest of the body, and its disharmony results in mismeasure that requires medicine, or ‘remeasuring’ to bring everything back into harmony. Or, courage is fine, but when courage exists out of proportion to context (such as rushing head-on into a battle without a plan), it creates danger and requires a ‘remeasuring’ to be put in its proper place.
The Ancient Greeks, therefore, would have been bemused by questions such as ‘is lying wrong?’ or, ‘is it wrong to steal?’ because for them, lying or stealing; courage and meekness, were not moral absolutes; all morals and virtues existed in a totality proportionate with each other. Sometimes, lying is wrong, but if Germans came to your door in 1943 to ask if you knew any Jews, while you had some hiding under your floorboards, the Ancient Greeks would answer here that lying is not wrong; because the lie is indeed proportionate to the context. They understood that virtue was not predicated on a particular quality (like courage, truthfulness, strength), but on the relationship of this quality to other qualities, and to the context of the human who possesses them.
This notion of measure undergirded many aspects of Greek life. Measure was crucial to understanding harmony in music (measure as rhythm, proportion of sound intensity) to the arts (with ‘the Golden Ratio’ providing the clearest example). Measure went beyond the moral to inform all aspects of daily life; which is something which we have sorely lost, with words like ‘measure’, ‘proportion’, and ‘ratio’ used in a mathematical and strictly external sense.
So, when Protagoras said ‘man is the measure of all things’ we shouldn’t look at him as saying ‘man is the highest form to which all things should be compared’, but rather as saying ‘reality is not independent of man, and his insight should be in harmony with the reality in which he lives’. This implies clarity of perception and seriousness of thought. Measure or ‘moderation’ encapsulates how the virtues should work in harmony with each other to bring about a coherent whole. Man isn’t the measure of all things in the traditional sense, measure is an insight created by man to understand life.
We do, luckily, have modern re-workings of these older concepts. ‘Putting things in perspective’ is one such example. To ‘put something in perspective’ implies nothing less than taking a step back and seeing how one thing relates to another in the hope that, with the new vantage point, we will be able to fit something in, or adjust its magnitude, so that we regain a sense of inner balance or harmony.
To live ‘virtuously’ as the Ancient Greeks would have said, requires us to dissolve the fragmentary nature of our thinking whereby we say certain qualities are ‘bad’ and others are ‘good’. Instead, we must see that our beliefs, values, and ideals are like ingredients for a delicious recipe, and for it to turn out right, we must put add these ingredients in the right proportion. Living well is a balancing act, one we must be constantly attuned to. As Socrates understood, the examined life is the beginning of the virtuous life.