Theseus and Virtue

“Theseus was a champion and helper of [men in need] during his life, and graciously received the supplications of the poor and needy.”

During this year of ancient history at Mount Hope, many students have learned about Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens. Theseus is perhaps most famous for his adventure in the Labyrinth, where he slew the Minotaur and saved Athens’ youth from their terrible fate as tribute to Crete. Yet this is but one of Theseus’ daring escapades—a read through Plutarch’s Life of Theseus clearly demonstrates all the ways he earned his reputation as a “second Heracles.”

It might be repetitio ad nauseam to point out that historical biography is great teacher of virtue and vice. The life of Theseus is no exception. Plutarch readily admits that Theseus had his share of disgraceful crimes, such as seizing various women for himself or (albeit by negligence) causing his own father’s death. In other cases, Plutarch praises Theseus’ great deeds of virtue. Let’s look at a few of these more closely. What can we men and Christians learn from Theseus?

First, Theseus showed a great zeal for justice against evil. In fact, when traveling to Athens from his home city, he insisted on taking the more dangerous route by land in order to hunt down various villains who terrorized travellers. Plutarch writes that he was “determined to do no man any wrong, but to punish those who offered him violence”—and that he fit the punishment to the crime. Theseus used the giant Periphetes’ own club to kill him; he snapped Sinis the Pine-bender in two just as Sinis had done to others; he threw Sciron down the cliffs after Sciron’s own practice. Theseus’ retaliation satisfies our natural sense of justice—that wicked men deserve a wicked end. On the other hand, it also leads to reflection on the justice of God—justice indeed accomplished in His punishment of sin, but shown first and foremost in the pouring of that punishment upon His own innocent Son in order to justify sinners. Our cheers for “just deserts” are inevitably tempered by humble acknowledgement of the mercy we’ve received.

Another lesson in virtue is found in Theseus’ emulation of a hero. According to Plutarch, Theseus was all but obsessed with the great Heracles (who also happened to be his relative), and he sought be just as valiant and glorious. While Theseus’ motives included a proud desire for personal glory, much can still be said for the value of imitation. Theseus had pegged a man of courage whom he admired, and “his ardour led him along and spurred him on in his purpose to achieve the like.” Especially as Christians, we do well to follow suit: to admire and imitate others who are godly, wise, and virtuous.

Finally, throughout his life Theseus displayed compassion and selflessness. Plutarch records that as founder of Athens, “Theseus was a champion and helper of [men in need] during his life, and graciously received the supplications of the poor and needy.” Before the voyage to Crete, Theseus volunteered himself apart from the drawing of lots, such that “words cannot depict such courage, magnanimity, righteous zeal for the common good, or yearning for glory and virtue.” These qualities are certainly worthy of our aspiriaton. They are also a shadow of Christ, who has true compassion on us and willingly gave himself up for us.

The life of Theseus is only one a great array of Plutarch’s biographies of ancient Greeks and Romans. This year promises to be full of fascinating stories and discussions! May God bless us and our students as we strive after virtue, putting all our trust in Christ our Righteousness.

In Christ,
Miss Anna Hahn

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