Christopher Gill is Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, following earlier posts at Yale, Bristol, and Aberystwyth. His work is centred on psychology and ethics in Greek and Roman thought, especially ideas about personality and self.
Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (Second Edition) 2012, Pages 529–537
This article offers an overview of ancient Greek ethics. The chronological scope is broad (from early Greek thought to late antiquity); but the main thinkers or theories discussed are Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Epicureans. As well as outlining the main ethical themes in these ancient approaches, the article also considers how far each theory gave scope for applied ethics. The article thus shows that Greek philosophy is important not just as a forerunner of modern versions of virtue ethics but also because of its pioneering work on applied or practical ethics.
Character; Community; Dialectic; Friendship; Happiness; Nature; Pleasure; Psyche; Therapy; Virtue; Wisdom
Greek ethics is taken here to mean the ethical thought of ancient Greece, in the period from the eighth century BC to the end of antiquity (ca. fifth century AD). Greek thought, together with Christianity, has been a key influence on the development of Western ethical thought and is still regarded as being of the highest philosophical importance. This article outlines the main features of Greek ethical thought, focusing on the question of how far this contained what we might call ‘applied ethics.’ For this purpose, we can demarcate four broad phases of Greek thought, in each of which the question of ‘applied ethics’ takes a rather different form: (1) Greek thought prior to the demarcation of ethics as a distinct area of philosophy, including Presocratic thought and the sophistic movement down to the late fifth century BC; (2) the emergence of ethics as a distinct area of thought in the work of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (fifth to fourth century BC); (3) the systematization of branches of philosophy in later Greek (Hellenistic) philosophy, especially Stoicism, and the associated demarcation of ‘practical ethics’ (the closest ancient analogue to modern applied ethics); and (4) ethical philosophy in late antiquity, including Neoplatonism, and the interplay between Classical thought and Christianity.
In modern Western thought, applied ethics is typically understood as an organized communal response to perceived personal and social problems, especially those brought to light in certain professional areas, such as medicine or law. Although we do not find in ancient Greece an exact equivalent for this conception, or for its cultural context, there are two recurrent features of Greek thought that are especially relevant. One is the tendency for social problems to give rise to (more or less public) argument and debate, including debate about fundamental ethical questions and principles. Another is the belief that properly conducted debate, issuing in well-reasoned conclusions, provides an authoritative basis for resolving practical problems and shaping people’s lives. The practical outcome of ethical reflection is conceived either as (sometimes utopian) programs for large-scale social change or as advice to individuals on how to direct their lives.
Early Greek Thought
Traditional Thought: Homer
The first surviving Greek text, Homer’s Iliad (ca. eighth century BC), exemplifies certain general characteristics of Greek thought that also figure in subsequent ethical theory. The wrath of Achilles, caused by the breakdown in cooperation between Achilles and his fellow chieftains, stimulates, especially in Book 9, reflective debate about ethical questions. These include that of the basis of cooperative relationships, the justification for breaking social bonds, the best form of a human life, and the grounds for dying for others. Also characteristic of later Greek thought is that these questions are not taken to be settled by an appeal to authority, whether human or divine. Rather, the ethical status of human (political) and divine authority is one of the questions raised through the medium of this epic poem. There is an obvious contrast on this point with the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially as expressed in the Old Testament, in which the idea of God as an ultimate moral authority, and as the source of determinate moral rules (e.g., the Ten Commandments), is fundamental.
The Iliad also gives rise to an issue much discussed by scholars in recent years, that of the nature and development of Greek ethical attitudes as expressed in literary forms and social practices. Earlier scholars tended to characterize early Greek ethics as based on a socially derived sense of shame and honor, and as developing only later, if at all, a more inner sense of guilt and moral responsibility. Some recent work (notably by Bernard Williams) has argued, by contrast, that, from the Iliad onward, Greek ethics places value on the internalization of social principles (on making shame and honor integral to one’s character); value is also placed on reflective debate about what these social principles should be. A related idea, also expressed in the Iliad, is that emotions and motives are properly modified by such debate, and that they should not, therefore, be rigidly subject to conventional social rules. These poetic ideas prefigure the themes of much later Greek philosophy: that virtue centers on character shaped by one’s ethical community, and that dialectical debate properly determines norms for character as well as action.
Characteristic of the earliest Greek philosophers (whose work survives only in fragments) is that they discuss ethics only as part of their highly speculative accounts of nature and reality as a whole. For instance, Anaximander (ca. 610–540 BC) analyzes the natural world in terms of retribution and injustice, and Empedocles (ca. 493–433 BC) does so in terms of alternating patterns of love and strife. For Heraclitus (late sixth to early fifth century BC), the logos (‘reason’) is at once the basic principle of nature, ideal law, and rationality. Sometimes explicit in their thought (e.g., that of Xenophanes, sixth century BC, or Anaxagoras, ca. 550–428 BC), and sometimes implied, is a critique, or rethinking, of the traditional, anthropomorphic Greek religion to match their rethinking of nature. The application of the principles emerging from their work takes two main forms. The thinkers sometimes advocate (at least by implication) the adoption of the state of mind and character that corresponds to the underlying pattern discerned in nature. This advice is mostly given to individuals (e.g., the named addressees of the thinkers’ works), who are urged to adopt this pattern for themselves. However, Pythagoras (sixth century BC) apparently saw his theory as providing the basis for a political and ethical community (in Croton, South Italy). ‘Harmony’ was conceived both as a cosmic principle (analyzable by number theory) and as an ethical norm for diet, daily life, and social relationships.
A feature of the second half of the fifth century BC, especially in the economically flourishing democracy of Athens, was the growing professionalization of branches of knowledge and education, including the skills of rhetoric (public persuasion) and medicine. Key figures in this process were itinerant teachers of rhetoric and other skills (‘sophists’) who received fees for their teaching. The conflict and debate associated with this process are presented vividly (though from strongly partisan standpoints) in, for example, Aristophanes’ comic play Clouds (423 BC) and Plato’s Gorgias and Protagoras (early fourth century BC). A central issue was whether authority in transmitting ethical beliefs belonged to the family and the community of the city-state as a whole or to experts in, for instance, rhetoric, argument, or natural science. There was also competition between different forms of expertise about which one played the most important role in this process. This debate is analogous with one of those associated in modern times with ‘applied ethics,’ namely, that of the relationship between professional expertise and the ethical standards of the community. In Protagoras, Plato ascribes to Protagoras (ca. 485–415 BC), a leading teacher of rhetoric, what might be called a ‘communitarian’ position on ethics, according to which justice and the other virtues are developed, in any given community, by public and private discourse; the expert’s role is limited to facilitating this process. (For the contrasting status given by Plato’s Socrates to dialectical expertise, see the section titled ‘ Socrates.’) Plato’s Gorgias centers on the related question of whether techniques of discourse, such as rhetoric and dialectic, are value-neutral instruments or whether the techniques in themselves necessarily carry implications about the ends to which they should be used.
The fifth and fourth centuries BC also saw the emergence of the Hippocratic and other schools of medicine, and, in the Hippocratic Oath, one of the first surviving Western formulations of ‘professional ethics.’ Doctors, like other claimants to wisdom, took part in public debates about nature (including human nature), environmental influences on social character (e.g., Airs, Waters, Places), and the status of their expertise. However, the professional status and techniques of medicine in antiquity were too insecure and disputed to generate analogues for the issues about ethics and medical science (e.g., about artificial insemination or genetic engineering) that are central to modern debate. An issue that recurs in different contexts throughout this period (and that also takes up questions raised by the Presocratics) is that of the relationship between nature (phusis) and law or ethical conventions (nomos). Among the positions advanced are (1) that human nature and desires are inherently in conflict with ethical principles and laws; (2) that morality is the product of an implied ‘social contract,’ adopted as a second-best to the pursuit of self-interest; and (3) that human nature, if properly understood, is functionally adapted to develop toward virtue. This debate persists in subsequent Greek ethical theory, in which Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics adopt versions of the third position.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
Socrates (469–399 BC) had a crucial role in the history of Greek ethics in that the scope of his interests defined, in effect, what ‘ethics’ meant in Greek philosophy. His basic question is ‘How should one live?’ More specifically, he is presented as asking what virtue (or a given virtue) is, how it is acquired, how it affects action and feeling, and whether it constitutes happiness. Socrates is presented, especially in Plato’s early dialogues, in Aristotle, and to a lesser extent in Xenophon, as practicing a distinctive method of systematic questioning (dialectic) conducted with one person at a time and designed to produce a logically consistent set of beliefs. By implication, Socrates claimed that ethical virtue depends on expertise in this form of dialectic. The so-called ‘Socratic paradoxes’ that recur in his arguments (virtue is knowledge, virtue is one, and no one does wrong willingly) can be understood as meaning that there is a direct correlation between (this type of) dialectical expertise and ethical virtue.
This approach to ethics (which can be contrasted with the more ‘communitarian’ position associated with Protagoras; see the preceding section titled ‘The Sophists’) was highly controversial, and may have contributed to Socrates’ trial and execution by the Athenian state in 399 BC (on the charges of ‘corrupting the young and not worshipping the gods the city worships’). On the other hand, Socrates seems also to have assumed that such dialectical expertise is, in principle, open to everyone, and that his method consisted simply in articulating ethical assumptions implicitly held by all human beings. Indeed, he claimed that he ‘knew nothing,’ and that his dialectic served simply as the vehicle for this articulation of shared (consistent) human beliefs. Unlike the sophists, he charged no fees and did not undertake to teach a technique. The question of whether Socrates’ dialectic does or does not imply a determinate set of doctrines, and does or does not claim to achieve knowledge, has been a matter of dispute since antiquity. What is undisputed is that his approach represents in an extreme form a position sometimes found elsewhere in Greek thought – that the ‘application’ of ethics is inseparable from reflective ethical enquiry, or in Socratic terms, “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, Apology 38a).
Although Socrates wrote nothing, Plato (ca. 429–347 BC) conducted philosophy (in part) through writing dialogues, combined in later life with dialectical teaching in the philosophical ‘school’ (study or research center) that he founded, the Academy. Plato’s early dialogues represent Socrates’ distinctive method of dialectic. Since all the dialogues are more or less fully fictionalized, and Plato was a highly creative philosopher, we cannot draw a sharp distinction between Socratic and early Platonic thought. In the middle-period dialogues (e.g., Phaedo, Symposium, Republic), Plato is generally supposed to have pursued the implications of Socrates’ arguments and methods further than Socrates himself did. In the late dialogues, Plato seems to have reexamined the theories of the middle period and either extended or modified these, partly as a result of expanding the scope of his philosophy beyond the ethical concerns that are dominant in the early and middle dialogues. Although the middle and late dialogues contain more constructive argumentation than the early ones, Plato’s continued use of the form of the Socratic dialogue raises the question (as in the case of Socrates) of whether his philosophical activity is conceived by him as a continuing search or as achieved understanding.
Central to the middle-period dialogues is the exploration of Socrates’ claim that virtue depends on dialectical expertise. A key idea in this exploration is the contrast between belief/opinion (based on social communication) and knowledge (based on philosophical argument). A related contrast is that between particulars (individual objects and qualities) and Forms (ideal or objective realities). A recurrent theme is that dialectically based understanding provides objective knowledge of what is really or essentially just or good (the Forms), whereas social communication merely provides subjective, localized opinions (that this or that act is just or good). This way of analyzing Socrates’ claim is coupled in Plato’s middle period with exploration of the psychological implications of the claim. The Socratic idea that knowledge carries with it correlated actions and feelings (that no one does wrong willingly) is developed into more complex ideas about the relationship between body and psyche, and between the parts of the psyche. One such idea is that the achievement of postdialectical knowledge depends on (but also enhances) a cohesive, ‘harmonized’ relationship between the parts of the psyche, in which the other parts are persuaded to accept the rule of reason.
The Republic contains the fullest discussion of these ideas; it also outlines the political preconditions for the achievement of these ideal types of knowledge and character. These preconditions center on a two-stage educational program (for the guardians of the ideal state) that combines the Socratic ethical approach with a version of the communitarian one. The guardians’ attainment of postdialectical knowledge and the corresponding psychic state depend on the previous (childhood) shaping of their beliefs and emotions by their community. The second stage of their education converts these prereflective beliefs into objective knowledge, culminating in knowledge of the Form of the Good. The knowledge thus achieved provides the basis for the prereflective belief-structure of the community. Plato’s last work, the Laws, takes this version of a communitarian approach to ethics still further. It pursues the idea that a good community is one in which the beliefs and desires of the whole citizen body are correctly shaped by public persuasion and social institutions, though it retains the idea that a minority of the citizens must also be able to understand through dialectic the truth of the community’s informing beliefs.
Plato’s dialogues offer differing indications about the way in which these ethical and political ideals could be realized. The Phaedo and Symposium, for instance, suggest that it is only by adopting the philosopher’s pursuit of objective truth (the Forms) as one’s overriding goal that one can make progress toward achieving real virtue in character, action, and relationships. The question of how one should try to put into practice the ideas of the Republic or Laws is more open to debate. For one type of interpretation, these dialogues present constitutional blueprints that Plato would have liked to put into political practice (as Protagoras, apparently, drew up a law code in 444 BC for Thurii, a newly founded city-state). Some support for this idea comes from two of the letters ascribed to Plato in antiquity, the Second and the Seventh. For another type of interpretation, these dialogues present normative ideals, which are designed to shape ethical and political debate and life conducted in very different circumstances from those described in the dialogues. At least one passage in the Republic strongly supports the latter view that the ideal state provides an ethical pattern ‘in heaven’ for each of us to establish within ourselves (592b). Broadly similar issues are raised by other ideal constitutions in Greek philosophy, including Aristotle’s Politics 7-8, and two works called Republic by the Stoics Zeno and Chrysippus.
Aristotle (384–322 BC) was Plato’s pupil for 20 years and later set up his own school, the Lyceum or Peripatos; the surviving works, including the Eudemian (EE) and Nicomachean Ethics (NE), are based on his lectures in the school. Although those works seem not to have been available in the early Hellenistic period, his ethical approach was maintained through his school and was influential in determining the general form of subsequent Greek ethical theory. The fundamental issue (derived from Socrates’ characteristic questions) was this: How should we shape our life as a whole; that is, what should we take as our overall goal (telos)? The goal was generally assumed to be happiness (eudaimonia) or (regarded as the same thing) the good (agathon); debate focused on what ‘happiness’ was. For Aristotle, as for Plato in the Republic, the answer was that it was virtue (aretē), or more precisely, “activity according to virtue,” and, more precisely again, “activity according to the best and most perfect [or complete] virtue” (NE 1.7). However, for Aristotle (by contrast with the Stoics) this does not mean that “external” goods such as health, wealth, and social position are without any importance in determining one’s happiness (NE 1.8–11).
Virtue is defined partly in terms of psychological capacities and functions, and partly in terms of modes of action and social behavior. Aristotle distinguishes between virtue of character (ēthos) and that of intellect (dianoia), though seeing these as partly interdependent. Ethical or character virtue (from whose name, ēthikē aretē, the category of ‘ethics’ was derived) is defined by the fact that the virtuous person does virtuous acts because of a combination of correct (and stable) motivation (‘character’) and correct practical reasoning. The virtuous person is motivated to act virtuously ‘for the sake of the fine’ (to kalon) or ‘for its own sake’ (taken to be the same). His or her motivation and action hits the ‘mean’ between defective extremes. The failure to develop ethical virtue results in a character and life that display either defectiveness/vice (kakia) or the ‘weakness of will’ of those for whom virtuous patterns of desire and emotion have not become integral to their character.
Although Aristotle demarcates ethics as a separate area of theory, he also stresses that its ultimate aim is practical: “we enquire not to know what virtue is but to become good people” (NE 2.1). This view is characteristic of Greek ethical philosophy; hence, the modern distinction between ethics and meta-ethics (or between theoretical and applied ethics) goes against the grain of much Greek thinking. The interplay between practical and theoretical aspects of virtue for Aristotle can be defined, in part, by the way in which, like Plato in the Republic and Laws, he combines communitarian and dialectical approaches to ethics. Aristotle stresses that effective ethical reflection needs to be based on the prereflective shaping of dispositions through the beliefs and practices of one’s family and community. (By contrast with Plato in the Republic, Aristotle seems to think that this process can occur in conventional societies, and not just in a community based on ideal knowledge.) Many of the virtues discussed by Aristotle, including tact, generosity, and magnanimity, are those recognized in conventional Greek ethics. This feature of Aristotle’s thought is contrasted favorably by some modern thinkers (including Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Williams) with the grounding of ethics on abstract norms such as rationality and benevolence in much modern theory. Part of the practical outcome of ethical enquiry, for Aristotle, lies in enabling an engaged member of his or her community to gain a better understanding of the conception of ‘virtue’ implied in its belief structure.
On the other hand, Aristotle also sees ethical reflection as revising, rather than simply codifying, conventional attitudes. For instance, his account of friendship does not simply offer a new analysis (in terms of virtue, as distinct from utility) of the conventional ideal (which is that of loving the friend “for the other person’s sake”) (NE 8.3–8.5). He also presents this ideal, controversially, as a means of virtuous self-love and of extending one’s own (virtuous) existence, and thus of contributing to one’s happiness. His most controversial move, in NE 10.7–10.8 (though not in EE), is that of presenting contemplative, rather than practical and ethical, virtue as the highest realization of human (or ‘divine’) happiness. Some modern scholars claim that this move is inconsistent with the presentation of ethical virtue as the chief element in human happiness elsewhere in the ethical treatises. Others, however, argue that it is consistent with the ranking of contemplative wisdom above practical wisdom in NE 6.7 and 6.13, as well as with Aristotle’s metaphysical conception of god. Another area of current controversy is whether the appeal to the notion of ‘human’ or ‘divine’ nature constitutes a move within ethical theory or an attempt to ground ethics on a metaphysical account of reality. On either view, however, Aristotle’s move in NE 10.7–10.8 illustrates both his dialectical revision of conventional thought and the practical outcome of reflection (in that he commends a specific conception of the overall goal by which to shape one’s life).
In the Hellenistic Age (323–31 BC), and under the Roman Empire (31 BC onward), there are two important developments in Greek ethical thought. One is that philosophical debate becomes centered on the positions of the various schools (the Academy, Lyceum, Epicurean, or Stoic) and that ethics is treated as part of the integrated system adopted by each school. The other recurrent idea is that adopting any one of these systems carries with it a distinctive way of life and pattern of character. We can describe as ‘practical’ or ‘applied’ ethics the task of spelling out the form of life implied by each system; this work is also characterized (by the thinkers themselves) as providing ‘therapy’ for the sicknesses which are the outcome of living by purely conventional beliefs. The main ethical positions of the Hellenistic schools are presented in the next three sections; the practical implications of these positions are examined in the two sections following those. Whereas Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s school texts have survived in considerable quantity, the works of the most important and innovative Hellenistic philosophers survive only in fragments and quotations. However, later Greek and Roman writings (especially from the first centuries BC and AD) enable us to reconstruct the main features of Hellenistic ethical theory and their thinking about the application of these theories.
Stoicism evolved as a system under successive heads of the school, especially Zeno (334–262 BC) and Chrysippus (ca. 280–206 BC), though retaining a set of core positions. In ethics, Stoics maintain in a strong form the thesis also adopted by Plato and Aristotle that virtue constitutes happiness. The Stoic claim is that virtue is not just the chief goal of a life, but the only good; by contrast with Aristotle, who allowed that, for instance, health and property count as ‘external goods’ (NE 1.8–11), the Stoics describe these as ‘matters of indifference’ in comparison with virtue. However, most Stoics allow that such things are, at least, ‘preferable,’ and that selection between indifferents (though not the pursuit of them for their own sake) is the only way to make progress toward complete virtue (or ‘wisdom’). The latter is a state of character and way of life grounded on full understanding of what ‘virtue’ is and of the fact that it is the only good.
The Stoics see ethics as closely integrated with logic and physics (study of nature) in a three-part philosophical system. Like Aristotle, the Stoics claim that the life according to virtue is natural for human beings, and that the progressive recognition of the naturalness of the virtuous life is a crucial element in making ethical progress. There is currently dispute among scholars as to how far the recognition of the ethical significance of nature belongs to the sphere of ethical philosophy, and how far it belongs to the integrated understanding of ethics and physics (and logic). The doctrine of oikeiōsis (‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarization’), the idea that humans naturally develop toward the recognition that virtue is the only good, seems to fall centrally within the sphere of ethics. Also part of this doctrine is that human beings develop naturally from wanting to benefit only those close to them (family and friends) to wanting to benefit other human beings as such (as fellow rational animals). However, the understanding of the way in which the universe constitutes a rational, providentially ordered whole seems to require an integrated grasp of physics and ethics. The ideal normative figure in Stoicism, the ‘wise person’ or ‘sage,’ combines this understanding with a recognition of the providential character of all events (including apparent misfortunes), and a correspondingly dispassionate attitude toward such events (see the section titled ‘ Practical ethics and therapy’).
Epicurus (341–271 BC) stands apart from Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics in seeing the goal of life as pleasure rather than virtue. (In this respect, he developed the theory of Democritus, born mid-fifth century, that ‘feeling good’ was the goal, just as he also developed Democritus’ atomic theory of matter.) However, Epicurus’ aim, like that of most other Greek thinkers, was to identify as the goal a certain character and mode of life; the Cyrenaics, by contrast, saw the goal as simply maximizing episodes of pleasure. For Epicurus, pleasure is defined negatively, as the absence of physical pain and emotional disturbance. He also distinguishes between types of desire (natural, necessary, nonnecessary) and types of pleasure (kinetic and static) in order to characterize those desires and pleasures (natural and necessary, static) which are characteristic of the truly pleasurable life. Like the Stoics, Epicurus supposes that an understanding of human nature and the nature of the universe plays a crucial role in producing happiness. Such an understanding can free people from false or empty desires (such as for wealth or political power) as well as from misguided fears (above all, fear of death). The recognition that the universe functions by purely natural causes, without divine intervention (even of a providential kind), and that death is simply the decomposition of a certain set of atoms should free people from fear of divine interference in life or after death.
Epicurus’ positions on virtue, friendship, and justice (central topics in Greek ethics) are more complex, and closer to other schools, than they seem at first. Although virtue is seen as purely instrumental to the overall goal of pleasure, it is also described as ‘inseparable’ from the pleasant life. Although friendship is valued as a way of providing mutual assistance and pleasure, the friendship so valued is that in which we love our friends as ourselves. For Epicurus (by contrast with the Stoics), justice is taken not to be an objective ethical norm, but only “a guarantee of utility with a view to not harming another and not being harmed.” However, the ideal Epicurean community will be one in which “everything will be full of justice and mutual friendship” because a correct grasp of the goal of life makes unjust action unnecessary. Implied in all these points is that a proper understanding of Epicurean philosophy carries with it a revised conception of what virtue, friendship, and justice mean, and of how they contribute to happiness.
This position, attributed to Pyrrho (ca. 360–270 BC), was adopted by leading figures in Plato’s Academy from the mid-third to the first centuries BC, who saw it as an extension of the Socratic conception of philosophy as an unending search for truth (see the section titled ‘Socrates’). Sextus Empiricus (second century AD) provides the fullest surviving statement of the position. Ancient skeptics deny the possibility of gaining knowledge, as distinct from receiving ‘appearances’ about how the world looks or forming beliefs that do not constitute knowledge. The recognition that knowledge is unavailable is thought to lead to ‘suspension of judgment’ and so to provide freedom from emotional disturbance. This is because one escapes from the distress of trying to reconcile the (dogmatic) claim to knowledge with the contradictions that inevitably arise on any topic. Also, one achieves ‘moderate feeling’ through not claiming to have knowledge about what is good or bad and therefore not having the intense emotional reactions that result from this supposed knowledge. Unlike modern skepticism, which is often seen as a purely theoretical position, not affecting practical life, the ancient skeptic maintained that this position (like those of the other schools) changed one’s entire character and way of life.
Practical Ethics and Therapy
A prominent idea in Hellenistic thought is that philosophy should spell out the practical implications of its ethical theories and the kind of ‘therapy’ it can offer both to adherents of the systems and to those not (or not yet) committed to any one system. Much Roman ethical philosophy, which is based largely on Hellenistic theory, centers on this idea. This is true, for instance, of Cicero’s (106–43 BC) On Duties, Tusculan Disputations 3–4 and Seneca’s (ca. 4 BC–65 AD) Moral Epistles, On Benefits, and On Anger. Seneca writes as a committed Stoic, Cicero as an Academic skeptic (or at least an independent-minded thinker), not committed to any one position but strongly attracted to Stoic ethics. It is also true of much Greek work from this period, including the Discourses of the Stoic Epictetus (ca. 55–135 AD) and the moral essays (Moralia) of the (broadly) Platonic thinker Plutarch (ca. 50–120 AD). The analogy between philosophy (for the mind or character) and medicine (for the body) is developed extensively in this connection. For instance, Philo of Larisa (ca. 110–79 BC), a skeptic, subdivides practical ethics into ‘protreptic’ (persuading someone to engage in philosophy), ‘therapy’ (removing the false beliefs which cause distress), and ‘advice’ (giving instructions about how to live), and compares each of these functions to aspects of the work of the doctor. Eudorus (first century BC) and Seneca present comparable typologies of philosophical discourse, based on the idea that there is a close link between the key principles of a given ethical theory and the associated implications for character and action. Epictetus (Discourses 3.2.1–3.2.5) defines a three-stage curriculum of practical ethics by which one can systematically examine one’s desires, feelings, and social actions, and the logical relationship between one’s beliefs, to make sure these are in line with the fundamental principles of Stoic ethics.
There are certain general reasons for the stress on philosophy as therapy and a source of practical advice in this period. By contrast with the communitarian ethical approach noted above, in different versions, in some earlier Greek thought (e.g., Protagoras in the section ‘The Sophists’ and Aristotle in the section titled ‘Aristotle’), Hellenistic philosophy regards conventional ethical discourse as promoting misguided norms for shaping character and action. Stoics stress that the conventional valuation of ethical ‘indifferents’ (e.g., health and wealth) produces ‘passions,’ intense emotions expressing incorrect judgments about what is really valuable. Epicureans, similarly, see conventional thought as promoting misguided valuations (e.g., of wealth and power) and fears (e.g., of divine intervention and death) which cause emotional disturbance and so prevent peace of mind. (See the sections titled ‘Stoicism’ and ‘Epicurus’ above.) The ‘therapy’ offered by these philosophical systems is, primarily, the removal of the false beliefs developed by conventional societies and of the ‘sicknesses’ of intense or painful emotions and desires produced by these beliefs. Like modern ‘cognitive therapy,’ these ancient theories presupposed a belief-based model of human psychology (a connection explored in recent work by Martha Nussbaum). However, the ancient theories laid much greater stress than modern cognitive therapy on the idea that one’s overall conception of the good informs one’s whole pattern of motivation and action. They also stressed that the only complete therapy lies in achieving the understanding of the truth of this conception of the good which (together with the corresponding character and way of life) constitutes complete ‘wisdom,’ as envisaged by each school.
A further question about the application of ethical ideas arises in Hellenistic political theory, especially that of the Stoics. In Stoic thought, emphasis is placed on certain general ideals that go beyond conventional political norms, for example, the brotherhood of humankind, rational or ‘natural’ law, the city of gods and humans, and cosmopolitanism (citizenship of the universe). On the other hand, some Stoics, including Chrysippus, the main theorist of the school, saw ethical development as normally occurring within conventional societies, and apparently offered a theoretical justification for conventional institutions such as private property. Some scholars think there was a shift from an earlier, more radical phase of Stoicism (strongly influenced by Cynicism), expressed especially in Zeno’s Republic, to a later phase in which Stoic ideals were seen as guiding principles for application within conventional societies. Others think that these ideals were always seen as having the latter function. Some later Stoics, such as Musonius Rufus (ca. 30–101 AD), use Stoic principles to argue, against ancient conventions, that men and women are equally capable of developing virtue and of doing philosophy, or to emphasize the conventional basis of the institution of slavery (without arguing for its abolition). However, a more prevalent tendency is to use Stoic ideals, including those already mentioned, as regulative norms to help people to live virtuous lives in any social and political context. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD), for instance, shows a Roman emperor using ideals such as the brotherhood of humankind and cosmopolitanism to reinforce his dutiful (and largely conventional) practice of his role as emperor. Epicureanism is more consistently opposed to any form of conventional political system, as being necessarily based on false conceptions of what is truly desirable. The community of friends sharing their lives in Epicurus’ own Garden served as an ideal model of society, though there is little evidence to suggest that Epicureans succeeded in developing other such communities in antiquity.
A subject of recent debate has been whether the Stoic ideal of rational or ‘natural’ law exercised any significant influence in Roman legal thinking. Cicero, in his Republic and Laws, sometimes uses this ideal to signify a core of universally valid rules (though he fails to specify their content). This is, broadly, the way that the idea of ‘natural law,’ and, subsequently, ‘human rights,’ has been used in modern Western thought. Also, the term ‘natural law’ sometimes appears in the writings of Roman jurists from the second to third centuries AD. Gaius (mid-second century) uses it as a synonym for the ‘law of nations,’ that is, roughly, international law, by contrast with the ‘civil law’ applying only to Roman citizens. At the start of Justinian’s Digest (sixth century AD, but based on earlier material), natural law is conceived as a universal norm going beyond both the other categories of law. However, some scholars have pointed out that, in the moral thinking that is embodied in Roman legal writing as a whole, natural law figures much less as a normative idea than, for instance, ‘fairness’ or ‘good faith.’ Also, within Stoic thought, natural law signifies an objective norm (whose content is only fully understood by the wise person) and not a determinate body of rules that could guide legal decision making.
In later antiquity, we find a tendency to collect, codify, and comment on previous Greek thought (which was already seen as having reached an exceptional, ‘classical’ status). For instance, two important sources for Stoic ethics are Diogenes Laertius’ (ca. third century AD) life of Zeno (in Lives of the Philosophers) and Arius Didymus’ (first century BC) summary preserved in Stobaeus’ anthology (fifth century AD). A related tendency was renewed interest in Plato and Aristotle, and the use of commentaries on their works as a mode of continuing philosophical reflection (by, e.g., Alexander of Aphrodisias, third century AD, and Proclus, fifth century AD). Neoplatonism, one of the more creative philosophical movements in this period is, in effect, a synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which especially develops the idealism of Plato’s middle period. In the Enneads, Plotinus (205–270 AD) defines three fundamental levels of reality that are (in ascending order of being and value): (1) the psyche (conceived as non-material), (2) the intellect, and (3) the One (or Good). Plotinus’ view is that human beings are naturally disposed to aspire toward the highest possible level of reality, that is, toward psychic rather than material being, intellectual rather than sensual or emotional being, and, finally, a state of union with the One or Good.
Another tendency is the interplay between Greek philosophical ideas, especially Platonic, Aristotelian, or Stoic ideas, and Christian thought. This can already be seen in the New Testament (written in colloquial or koinē Greek), especially in John and Paul, and continues in a more fully articulated form through the early Church Fathers to Thomas Aquinas and beyond. The Confessions of Augustine (354–430 AD), an intellectual and spiritual biography, exemplifies this interplay. Augustine was attracted first by Manicheanism, whose worldview centered on a stark contrast between good and evil (seen as cosmic principles locked in permanent struggle). He then turned to Neoplatonism, for which the universe was a combination of (nonmaterial) being and matter, in which matter was at a lower level than being but was not bad in itself. Finally, he returned to a more theorized version of the Christianity in which he was brought up. In Christian thought (as Augustine understands this) evil is explained by the fact that, although God created the universe, human beings are free to reject God’s love, and human sin is redeemed by God’s grace, as expressed in the Incarnation. Augustine used Greek thought as part of the means of achieving and defining this worldview (for instance, Neoplatonic thinking about the three forms of reality helped Augustine to analyze the three Persons of the Trinity). But his final account of the ethical relationship between the human and the divine is significantly different from anything in Greek thought.
As well as playing a crucial role in shaping Western ethical ideas, Greek thinkers, especially Plato and Aristotle, are still regarded as philosophers whose work is of substantive importance to modern thought. Some current thinkers, notably Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Williams, have emphasized the value of Greek, especially Aristotelian, theory as an example of ‘virtue ethics’ (centered on virtue and happiness, not rule following). As noted in the section titled ‘Aristotle,’ they commend the Aristotelian idea that general moral ideas (e.g., ‘human nature’) need to be grounded in dispositions and beliefs developed in ethical communities, rather than treated as foundational without such support, as they are in some modern theories (e.g., Kantian or utilitarian). Recent scholarly work in ancient philosophy has given special attention to Hellenistic ethics and its practical implications. As indicated in the sections titled ‘Practical ethics and therapy’ and ‘Political theory,’ the Hellenistic conceptions of practical ethics and of philosophy as therapy, and the philosophers’ thinking about the role of general norms in shaping social and political life, are complex and sophisticated and are of continuing interest for modern thinking about the application of ethical ideas. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, sees in the Stoic combination of a belief-based psychology and an appeal to universal norms (e.g., natural law) a powerful statement of the idea that philosophy can change attitudes and emotions by revising ideals.