Meekness in Discussions on Femininity and Masculinity

In a previous article, I looked at all the New Testament verses that use the Greek noun and adjective which refer to meekness: prautēs and praus.[1] These words are used by the Gospel writer Matthew and by the letter writers Paul, James, and Peter. In Matthew 11:29, for example, Jesus is quoted as saying of himself, “I am meek (praus) and humble in heart.”

In my previous article, I argued that meekness was not an especially feminine virtue despite how more than few people interpret “a gentle (praus) and quiet spirit” in 1 Peter 3:4. But I’ve recently come across some Christians who use their concept of praus to promote a masculine expression of Christianity. These Christians refer to blog posts that overemphasise a nuance of “strength” in the words “meekness” (prautēs) and “meek” (praus).

Dozens of blog posts written by Christians mention warhorses while attempting to explain (revise?) the meaning of praus.[2] The argument in these blog posts is that praus has a military association and has a sense of might or toughness. These ideas appeal to some Christian men.

For example, a website with the name Praus makes these statements.

“The word praus comes from ancient military training. The Greek army would find the wildest horses in the mountains and bring them in. After months of training, they sorted the horses into categories: some were discarded, others were put into ordinary duty. The fewest of all graduated and were put into service. When a horse passed the conditioning required for service, its state was described as praus.”

Does the word praus come from, or originate with, ancient military training? If it does, I can’t find evidence for it.

These thoughts written by Sam Whatley are posted on a website called River Region’s Journey.

“The Greek word praus (prah-oos) was used to define a horse trained for battle. Wild stallions were brought down from the mountains and broken for riding. Some were used to pull wagons, some were raced, and the best were trained for warfare. They retained their fierce spirit, courage, and power, but were disciplined to respond to the slightest nudge or pressure of the rider’s leg. They could gallop into battle at 35 miles per hour and come to a sliding stop at a word. They were not frightened by arrows, spears, or torches. Then they were said to be meeked…. To be meeked was to be taken from a state of wild rebellion and made completely loyal to, and dependent upon, one’s master.”

Other articles on other websites make very similar statements, there’s plenty of plagiarising going on, but doesn’t “to be meeked” simply mean “to be tamed.”

Xenophon on “Meek” (Praus)

None of the numerous blog posts I visited cite sources for the claims about meek warhorses, but a few mention Xenophon’s name. Xenophon (c. 430 BC–354 BC) was an Athenian military leader, historian, and philosopher. He loved all things equestrian and wrote two treatises on the art of horsemanship.

Xenophon lived centuries before the time the New Testament was written and he wrote in Attic Greek, not in Koine Greek which is the original language of the New Testament. Language evolves over time, and how an Athenian used Attic words in the early fourth century BC is not necessarily the same as how Jewish Christians used Koine words in the late first century AD. Nevertheless, let’s look at how Xenophon used praus and its close cognates.

I found several passages where Xenophon uses prau– words. The first three passages are about gently training horses (On Horsemanship 9.3, 9.5, 9.10), the fourth is about gentle farm animals (Economics 15.4), the fifth passage is about taming a growling sheepdog (Memorabilia 2.3.9), the sixth passage is about cosseted, tame fish (Anabasis 1.4.9), and the seventh is about amiability between soldiers and between warhorses (Cyropaedia 2.1.29).[3]

On Horsemanship 9:3 

“Accordingly, at the moment of mounting, the rider should take care to worry [the horse] as little as possible; and when he is mounted, he should let him stand still longer than is otherwise usual, and then direct him to go by the ‘most gentle’ (πρᾳοτάτοις/praotatois) aids. Then let him begin at a very slow pace and increase the speed with the same gentle help, so that the horse will not be aware of the transition to a quicker motion.”[4]

On Horsemanship 9:5

“If you want to correct a spirited horse when he is going too fast, do not pull him suddenly, but quietly check him with the bit, ‘soothing’ (πραΰνοντα/praunonta) him, not forcing him, to a quiet pace.”[5]

On Horsemanship 9:10

“It should also be known that a horse can be taught ‘to be calm’ (πραΰνεσθαι/praunesthai) by a chirp with the lips and to be roused by a cluck with the tongue. And if from the first you use with the cluck aids to calm him (τὰ πραέα), and with the chirp aids to rouse him, the horse will learn to rouse himself at the chirp and ‘to calm down’ (πραΰνεσθαι/praunesthai) at the cluck.”[6]

Economics 15.4

In Xenophon’s Economics, the character Isomachus makes this comment about domesticated farm animals, “As you know, we call those creatures noble that are beautiful, great, and helpful, and yet gentle (πραέα/praea) towards men.”[7]

Memorabilia 2.3.9

“Had you a sheep dog that was friendly to the shepherds, but growled when you [the master/owner] came near him, it would never occur to you to get angry, but you would try ‘to tame’ (πραΰνειν/praunein) him by kindness.”[8]

Anabasis 1.4.9

“After this Cyrus marched four stages, twenty parasangs, to the Chalus river, which is a plethrum in width and full of large, tame (πραέων/praeōn) fish; these fish the Syrians regarded as gods, and they would not allow anyone to harm them, or the doves, either.”[9]

Cyropaedia 2.1.21

“Cyrus also took care that [soldiers] should never come to luncheon or to dinner unless they had had a sweat. For he would get them into a sweat by taking them out hunting; or he would contrive such sports as would make them sweat; or again, if he happened to have some business or other to attend to, he so conducted it that they should not come back without having had a sweat. For this he considered conducive to their enjoying their meals, to their health, and to their being able to endure hardships, and he thought that hardships conduced to their being ‘more reasonable’ (πρᾳοτέρους/praoterous) toward one another, for even horses that work together stand ‘more quietly’ (πρᾳοτέρους/praoterous) together. At any rate, those who are conscious that they have been well drilled are certainly more courageous in the face of the enemy.”[10]

From these passages, we can see that prau– words may be translated into English as “most gentle,” “soothing,” to calm down/be calm,” “gentle,” “to tame,” “tame,” and “more reasonable/more quietly.”

I could not find any ancient source that mentions or alludes to ideas of strength or fierceness in the word praus or a source that indicates an intrinsic, or original, military sense. I could not find these ideas in modern books either, with one exception. In The New Testament Commentary – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, written by Max Anders and published by Holman in 1999, the author makes this comment:

“Warhorses in the ancient world went into battle trained to protect their master. They were under the total and instantaneous control of their rider. War horses were described as being meek. Their strength was under total control.” (Google Books)

Unfortunately, even in this book, a Bible commentary, there is no citation given.
(Update: The meek warhorse idea is also in the book Praus: A Parable for Winning the War Within by Hunter Lambeth.)

Good warhorses are strong and fearless in battle but also compliant and tame (praus) with their riders and handlers. In Cyropaedia, Xenophon uses the word praus for warhorses, but not in connection with toughness or in connection with fighting battles against enemies.[11] Rather the context is horses standing calmly with other horses when not in battle.

Aristotle on Praus and People

Xenophon seems to have used prau– words mostly for animals, for tame and gentle animals, but these words were commonly used in ancient Greek texts, including the New Testament, to describe the mild and gentle nature of people.

Aristotle wrote around the same time as Xenophon and in Attic Greek. In Rhetoric 3.2 (1380a), he uses prau– words several times in a discussion where he contrasts anger with the meekness or mildness of men, and he defines “making mild” as “the quieting and appeasing of anger.”[12]

In Nicomachean Ethics 4.1-5 (1125b-1126a), however, he says that meekness, or a mild temper (πραότης/praotēs), is the mean, or midpoint, between anger and an unnamed opposite extreme. For Aristotle, being praus was not about strength but about humility. Because of this humble element, he did not always regard meekness as a virtue as Christians do, and he thought that meekness had a tendency towards “deficiency.” Nevertheless, he observed,

“Now we praise a man who feels anger on the right grounds and against the right persons, and also in the right manner and at the right moment and for the right length of time. He may then be called gentle-tempered (πρᾶος/praos), if we take gentleness (πραότης/praotēs) to be a praiseworthy quality—for ‘gentle’ (πρᾶος/praos) really denotes a calm temper, not led by emotion but only becoming angry in such a manner, for such causes and for such a length of time as principle may ordain although the quality is thought rather to err on the side of defect, since the ‘gentle-tempered man’ (πρᾶος/praos) is not prompt to seek redress for injuries, but rather inclined to forgive them.”[13]

Jesus somewhat fits with this description. However, unlike Aristotle, Christians see humility and forgiveness as good things, not defects.

“Meek” (praus) does not imply weakness or strength

Gentleness and courage are not mutually exclusive—meekness is not to be likened to weakness—and this is evident in the way the word is used in the New Testament. (See here.) On the other hand, there is no implicit sense of strength in the word praus. And, unlike what the “meek warhorses” blog posts say, Xenophon does not indicate that praus has a military origin or association any more than it has a farming origin or association (cf. Econ. 15.4). And there is not the slightest hint of either association in how the New Testament authors use prau– words.

Prau– words are not uncommon in ancient Greek. They typically refer to a gentle, mild, or regulated temper, and, in the context of animals, including horses, praus typically means “tame.”[14] For Christians, the trait of meekness, like the traits of humility and submissiveness, are positive virtues. And while self-restraint may well be required on occasion, these three traits, plus a readiness to forgive, are essentially about putting aside or relinquishing power in relationships. Praus is not about exerting strength or power in relationships.

Furthermore, people with little or no strength can be meek. Many of the original audience of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, those who heard Jesus say, “The meek will inherit the earth,” had little political power or social clout.

Conclusion

Meekness is a quality of mild-mannered and self-controlled gentlemen and gentlewomen, and it is a quality of animals that are tame or gentle with humans. It is neither a masculine nor a feminine virtue, but is one of many Christian virtues. Being praus is not an expression of manliness or machismo, and it is the antithesis of arrogance, anger, and aggression.

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and a native Greek speaker, understood what praus means. In around 110 AD, while on his way to Rome to face martyrdom, he wrote about meekness, humility, and non-retaliation towards antagonistic unbelievers.

In response to their anger, be gentle (praeis)
In response to their boasts, be humble
In response to their slander, offer prayers
In response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith
In response to their cruelty, be civilized
Do not be eager to imitate them
Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters
And let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord … (IgnEph 10:2-3a).[15]

(I hope to find the exact source, if there is one, of the “meeked warhorses” claim in the blog posts. If you know the ancient source, please let me know so I can add it to this article.)


Footnotes

[1] Prautēs is the noun (“meekness/gentleness”) and praus is the adjective (“meek/gentle”). Prautēs is pronounced “prah-oo-tays” or “prah-oo-tis.” Praus is pronounced “prah-oos.”

[2] The warhorse idea even appears in the Wikipedia entry on Matthew 5:5 here.

[3] Xenophon uses the related adverb in Anabasis 1.5.14: “Clearchus, however, was angry, because, when he had barely escaped being stoned to death, Proxenus was talking ‘lightly’ (πράως/praōs) of his grievance …” (Perseus Digital Library)

[4] “On Horsemanship 9:3” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock, transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)

[5] “On Horsemanship 9:5” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock, transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)

[6] “On Horsemanship 9:10” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock, transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)

[7] “Economics 15.4” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 4. E. C. Marchant and O. J. Todd (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1979) (Perseus Digital Library)

[8] “Memorabilia 2.3.9” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 4. E. C. Marchant (Transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1923) (Perseus Digital Library)

[9] “Anabasis 1.4” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 3. Carleton L. Brownson (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1922) (Perseus Digital Library)

[10] “Cyropaedia 2.1.21” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 5. Walter Miller (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1914) (Perseus Digital Library)

[11] I include the following excerpt that mentions the tractability of warhorses, but Xenophon did not use prau– words here: “… you must see that the horses get enough food to stand hard work, since horses unfit for their work can neither overtake nor escape [in battle]. You must see that they are ‘docile’ (euchrēstoi: serviceable, useful, tractable), because disobedient animals assist the enemy more than their own side.”
“On the Cavalry Commander 1.3″ in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)

[12] “Rhetoric 3.2” in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22. J. H. Freese (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and London: William Heinemann, 1926) (Perseus Digital Library)

[13] “Nicomachean Ethics 5.4 (1125b.25-1126a.1)” in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, H. Rackham (transl.) (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, 1934) (Perseus Digital Library here and here.

[14] Here is the LSJ entry for πραΰς (Attic spelling: πρᾶος). The LSJ entries for the noun πραΰτης (Attic spelling: πραότης) and for the related verb πραΰνω are here and here.

[15] I’ve used The Apostolic Fathers, Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition), edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 190-191, for this quotation but have formated the lines differently.

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Images

1. Excerpt of a grave stele of Dexileus, an Athenian equestrian, who was born in 414 BC and who fell in battle near Corinth in 394. More about this stele on Wikimedia.
2. Marble relief circa 438BC-432 BC from the north frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival. # 613459729 © The Trustees of the British Museum

praus gentle meek war horses

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