Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Ethics of Ancient Greece

Alice C. Linsley


Thales             624 BC - 546 BC
Heraclitus        535 BC - 475 BC
Gorgias           483 BC - 375 BC
Protagoras      480 BC - 411 BC
Socrates         469 BC - 399 BC
Democritus     460 BC - 370 BC
Plato               428 BC - 347 BC
Aristotle          384 BC - 322 BC
Zeno               333 BC - 264 BC

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Aristotle regarded Thales of Miletus as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.  Bertrand Russell believed that "Western philosophy begins with Thales." Thales attempted to explain natural phenomena without reference to mythology, an approach that was not typical of his time. His interest in astronomy was such that he reportedly fell into a ditch or well while contemplating the stars. Plato wrote of how he was mocked for this by a servant. "Just like Thales … while star gazing and looking up he fell in a well, and some gracefully witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a jest at his expense—that in his eagerness to know the things in heaven he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.” (Plato,Theaetetus 174a, Seth Benardete translation)

The philosophers before Socrates were largely concerned with discovering universal principles which would explain the whole of nature. Thales believed that all things derive from a single first cause or source which he called arche or archai. Anaximander (c. 611-546 BC) held that the basic substance of the universe is an eternal and imperishable apeiron from which all things are born and to which all things return. Heraclitus, who believed that all things are in a state of change, used the word logos. We might regard these views as metaphysical attempts at a “unified field theory.”

The Greek City State

The Greeks were organized politically by principal cities which had oversight of the surrounded region. Each city state (polis) was autonomous and self-governing. This corresponded to a similar system of organization along the Nile called "nomes." There were no nations as we know them today. There were dominions or empires under the control of great kingdom builders such as Darius the Great. Often the conqueror permitted the ruler of the city state to remain in power after swearing an oath of loyalty and agreeing to pay tribute.

The Greeks were proud of their culture and were suspicious of outsiders (xenophobia). Although they shared a common language and culture, each city state had its own customs, deities, money and army. A citizen’s first loyalty was to his city state and to the deity to whom the local temple was dedicated. Many of the festivals of the city states were religious in nature. The populace enjoyed processions through the streets much as Americans enjoy Fourth of July parades. Temples were the centers of much daily activity, with priests offering sacrifices and libations, and people coming and going to fulfill their sacred duties. Life was generally good since everyone knew his or her place in the hierarchical social order, and the communities were small enough to sustain economic prosperity in spite of Greece's rocky farm land.

The primary foods sources were lamb, fish, bread, cheeses, yogurt, grapes, figs, dates, olives, olive oil, and wine.

The Influence of Nilotic Thought

Much of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was received from the priests of the Nile Valley. The four most famous temple universities were Onn (Heliopolis), Inbu Hedj (Memphis), Ipet Isut (Karnak) and Waset (Thebes). The Greeks recognized the wisdom of these places to be very ancient and venerable.

Cultural contact between the Greeks and the Egyptians on the island of Crete has been verified from at least 2600 BC. There was artistic and iconographic exchange between Minoans and Egyptians around 1700 BC.

Thales visited Egypt and calculated the height of the pyramids from the length of their shadows. Hippocrates, called the father of medicine, studied the healing arts in Egypt. Democritus visited Egypt and wrote on ancient Nubia or Kemet. He praised the Egyptian mathematicians.

According to Iamblichus, Thales insisted that Pythagorus study in Egyptbecause the priests there were esteemed for their knowledge and wisdom. Plato studied in Egypt for thirteen years under the priest Sechnuphis. It is likely that Plato’s conception of the eternal Forms was based on Horite Hebrew binary metaphysics.

Priests and Oracles

Temple priests and oracles were part of the Greco-Roman ethical heritage and continued to exercise influence even after the emergence of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. Those devoted to the local temple supported the priests through their offerings of food, money, oil and wine. Priests responded by seeking the deity’s favor upon their supporters. Priestly practice in the ancient world was more cultic than pastoral. Priests sacrificed animals, offered libations of wine or oil to the deity, and performed rites of purification. While it is likely that they also provided advice to individuals, it was not their primary responsibility to provide guidance about specific situations.  For this, people turned to the sibyls or oracles. Sibyls were seers who consulted animal entrails, fire pits, and pools of water for answers to questions. The sibyl at Delphi was called “Pythia” and she was consulted by rulers and priests.

While priests and oracles provided guidance and influenced ethical decision making, they did not fully satisfy human curiosity about the nature of the world. Nor did they offer a satisfying response to those who thought that the gods seemed too human and fallible, as did Democritus and Socrates.

The Pre-Socratic Worldview

To grasp the significance of Socrates’ contribution to ethics it is necessary to understand how the ancient Greeks viewed their world. We gain insight into their worldview by reading Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. This bloody account of the battles between the Trojans and the Greeks seems a strange tale to modern readers because it weaves together history, religion and mythology. Yet this was an aspect of the Greek worldview in Homer’s time.  People believed in a world in which the gods regularly intervened in human affairs, sometimes whisking away heroic warriors in their chariots and often joining in the battle themselves.  Some heroes were regarded as semi-divine beings.  Priests sacrificed animals and made other offerings in the temples to gain the favor of the gods, and oracles were consulted for the most auspicious days on which to wage war or make peace. People did not choose who they would marry. They married within their social class or caste.  Nor did people select their line of work. They inherited the work they did from their fathers.  If one’s father was a metal smith, his sons would be smiths also. This was especially the case with firstborn sons.

Before Socrates, people were losing confidence in the old order of gods and in their leaders. The social order was changing from one in which each person’s social status and line of work were fixed according to a rigid caste system to one in which nobility of character or special gifts sometimes opened opportunities that were not available to earlier generations of Greeks.  In the old order, a good citizen was someone who fulfilled his role in the caste system. A street sweeper was a good sweeper if he rose early and efficiently cleaned the streets assigned to him. A nobleman was a good ruler if he ordered his household well, spoke persuasively in public, and participated in the forums. As the old social order began to break down, it became necessary to re-think what it meant to be a good citizen and what constituted a good life. Social change and political disruption stimulated ethical conversations and began to lay the foundation for philosophy and ethics in Western Civilization.

Transition to the Classical Period

Before the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greek citizens were defined by their place in the hierarchical caste system that was typical of the ancient Mediterranean world. Because one did not marry outside one’s caste and continued in the same work as one’s father, the pre-classical social order was stable and Greek citizens shared common ideas of good and evil, and right and wrong.

With the emergence of the Greek city-states, Athens being an example, the social order began to change. Each city-state developed a social and political order independent of outside political authority. Each established foreign trade that brought an influx of non-Greeks into the cities, introducing different customs, ways of life and moral attitudes.What was acceptable in one city might be offensive in the next. Law codes differed from city to city, and traditional Greek values and beliefs were found to be incompatible with those of other cultures. In this new order the Greek citizen was presented with many conflicting truth claims. It was a social landscape ripe for the proliferation of many ethical philosophies.

The Sophists

The period of the Sophists was one in which people had doubts about whether the social order of their fathers should to be regarded as the best order and divinely appointed. People believed that attempts to rise above one’s caste would bring the wrath of the gods upon them, since the social order was regarded as having been established by the gods. This is one reason that the lower classes didn’t rebel against their rulers. If the hierarchical castes of the ancient Mediterranean world were not divinely appointed, then how was one to live as a good citizen in this new world? The Sophists attempted to provide practical answers to this question.

The Sophists came to prominence in the 5th century, B.C. Unlike Socrates and Plato, they were not philosophers, but teachers of “rhetoric” which is the art of public speaking and persuasion. Sophistry was a school of thought that emphasized how to be successful in the new order. The Sophists did not claim to be philosophers, but teachers of socially useful skills such as how to order one’s household, how to keep good accounts, how to speak persuasively and how to dress for success.

A Sophist about whom we know a good deal through Plato’s writings is Protagoras (480-411 BC). He said that, “Man is the measure of all things.” By this he intended that everyone should “measure” or decide matters according to his own nature and needs. When applied to ethics and morality, this idea leads to “moral relativism.”  Relativism doubts the possibility of discovering absolute truth. If there is no absolute truth for all people, at all times, and in all places, why waste time trying to teach truth?  Instead Sophists trained students for worldly success. You might say that Protagoras was the head of the school of “how to make a good impression.” Students who studied Sophistry gained social, political and economic power in Athens, because they were trained to win oral arguments and to conduct their personal affairs so as to achieve status. Many Sophists claimed they could teach anything and its opposite (thesis and antithesis) and could win debates by making the weaker argument the stronger.

Another Sophist was Gorgias (483-375 BC), a great cynic. He said, “Nothing exists, and if it did, no one could know it, and if they knew it, they could not communicate it.” Gorgias’ view is called “nihilism,” from the Greek word “nihil” which means nothing. Nihilism denies that there is any truth and therefore rejects all truth claims. When a person claims to have discovered something that is true, they also claim that truth as an authority for themselves. However, if no truth exists, there is no ground for authority. When applied to ethics and morality, nihilism leads to a philosophical dead end. If, in the end, there is really nothing, there is nothing to discuss. When applied to politics, nihilism leads to anarchy. If, in the end, there is no authority, there is no basis for trust in government.

Socrates questions morality of the art of persuasion

The Sophists believed that moral goodness consists of public recognition and success. They were not especially interested in questions of Good and Evil. Instead, they sought to prepare young men to become successful in Athenian society by knowing how to conduct their affairs, dress as a ruler, and speak eloquently.  They sought to perfect the art of rhetoric. By becoming a persuasive public speaker, an individual could impress audiences and sway opinion in the public forums held in the Greek city-states.  Many aristocratic young men were attracted to Sophistry, hoping to gain recognition and status.

Socrates viewed Sophistry with suspicion. He believed that it wasn’t enough to teach a man how to dress for success and how to persuade people to your side. In fact, Socrates thought this was quite dangerous. What if the most successful and persuasive man were to lead the people unwisely, being ignorant of how to life a good life?

Although Socrates lived before Zeno, he anticipated the danger of apathy among the citizens of Athens. His method was to ask well-formed questions that placed a burden on people to think about their actions and attitudes. Socrates left no writings, so we cannot consult primary sources to discover exactly what he taught.  What we do know comes from three sources: the historian Xenophan, his student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle.

Xenophan portrays Socrates as an ordinary man interested in developing good citizens.  In his writings Memorabilia and Symposium, he characterizes Socrates as a popular ethical teacher who had little interest in logic or metaphysics. Plato portrays Socrates as more complex. He presents him as a teacher who denies having disciples, as a lover of beauty who disdains sensual pleasures, and as a man of reason who listens to the divine.

For ethics, Socrates’ greatest legacy is his consistent and steadfast belief in the importance of good citizenship. This is exemplified in the events surrounding his last days.  He had made enemies in Athens by pointing out the hypocrisy of various prominent figures. Eventually he was falsely accused of morally corrupting the youth. He was brought to trial and found guilty. What is known of these final events comes from Plato’s Dialogues, and from his Apology, a record of the speeches that Socrates delivered at his trial. According to Plato, Socrates admitted that he could have avoided trial by abandoning philosophy and minding his own business. After his conviction, he could have avoided death by escaping with the help of friends, but to Socrates this would have been a denial of everything he had tried to teach. He cooperated with the State because this is what a good citizen does. The people of Athens believed that Socrates was unjustly condemned and this created a problem for Socrates. If he allowed the State to take his life unjustly, it would undermine the people’s confidence in government, so rather than permit the State to execute him, he chose to take his own life. Plato describes as a first hand witness how Socrates drank a cup of deadly hemlock and laid down and died.

Plato (428 BC - 347 BC)

When Socrates died in 399, Plato gave up all political ambitions and left Athens, traveling to Italy and Sicily. Soon after his return to Athens, he established his Academy outside the city. It is often stated that the western university system is based on Plato’s Academy, but that is to overlook Plato's experience in Egypt. The Nile shrine-cities were recognized by the Greeks as great center of learning.

Plato was a prolific writer who kept Socrates ideas alive in over 24 writings called “dialogues.” The dialogues range from 20 to 300 pages and their titles are usually the names of the interlocutor who Socrates questions.  Plato focused Socrates’ moral arguments in the early dialogues and built on his ideas in the later dialogues.

It is evident from Plato’s writings that he shared Socrates’ preoccupation with clear and precise definition of ethical concepts, and with knowing how one should live. Plato’s main disagreement with Socrates has to do with the definition of virtue as knowledge. Socrates insisted that before we can say anything about justice we must first answer the question “What is justice?”  Plato recognized that asking what justice is only leads to considering examples of justice and examples of the opposite of justice. Socrates’ approach never seems to bring us to a substantial definition of justice. Plato wondered how we are able to recognize justice when we are unable to define it.  He came to the conclusion that an unambiguous example of justice must exist in the metaphysical (non-material) sense, and that we must once have known justice as an eternal and unchanging “Form” or we would not be able to recognize examples of it.

Plato’s Theory of Forms is based upon his belief that we are born into this material world from an ideal world where our soul was acquainted with the Forms of Justice, Goodness, Beauty and Love.  We are able to recognize justice, goodness, beauty and love because our souls have innate knowledge of these non-material entities.  Plato goes on to explain that the examples we see are only reflections of the Forms, not the Forms themselves. In other words, justice and goodness are eternal Ideas that exist whether or not humans recognize them.

What does this mean for ethics?  It means that philosophy’s main objective is to seek knowledge of the true Forms. Plato said that not everyone would do this. He used the allegory of the cave to explain that some would always be locked in darkness where they are able to see only shadows. Others will escape to the world of sunlight where they will see the true form of things. 

According to Plato, societal evil is the absence of Good and can be averted only by enlightened rulers or “Guardians.” The ideal society requires censorship by the Guardians to protect the weak minded cave dwellers who are unable to discern the difference between shadow and Form. Plato maintained that a man cannot do Good unless he recognizes the Good through his soul. The ethical person judges justice by the measurement of justice known in the eternal soul.

Plato taught that the soul, like the ideal society, has three parts or levels. The good person is one who ascends from the lowest level of the soul governed by appetites (what we want and feel) to the rational level governed by the intellect. The middle level is the “spirited” level which undertakes whatever the intellect determines to be best. These levels of the soul correspond to the levels of Plato’s ideal social order. The workers provide all the material needs, the soldiers ensure that the rulers’ dictates are carried out, and the rulers discern wisdom and justice through philosophical conversation and inward contemplation.

In the empirical age, Plato’s metaphysics are largely rejected and with this comes the rejection of the possibility of a soul as a reservoir of innate knowledge.  Through the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the West has been more influenced by the thought of Plato’s student, Aristotle.

Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)

Aristotle produced a large number of writings and from these we are able to recognize his important contribution to Ethics. His contributions are evident in his understanding of the human as a political creature, and in his understanding that the chief good is “eudaimonia” (“you-DYE-mon-ee-ah”). The Greek word Eudaimonia (Eudaemonism) refers to a state of having a good indwelling spirit or daemon. This Greek word has been translated as happiness, pleasure, and prosperity, but is better understood as the flourishing of the individual in every area of life. Aristotle regarded individual happiness as the highest good, and eudaimonism continues throughout the history of ethics, with some philosophers building on Aristotle’s idea and some arguing against it.

The Human as Political Creature

Aristotle regarded Man is the only creature capable of abstract reasoning. Man can be said to resemble the Unmoved Mover and higher reasoning should be a first priority for humankind. The exercise of intellectual and moral capacities is essential in order for mankind to flourish as a species. However, capacities such as just action cannot be exercised outside the context of the state. The state provides everything necessary for the good life and it exists in nature exactly for this purpose. Aristotle teaches that the state accords with human nature. He writes that “that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature” (Politics I. 2). For Aristotle, humans will always live in relationship to the state because human beings are essentially political creatures.

This leads Aristotle to speak of the state as something supremely superior to the individual, as an entity with individual parts that are in themselves of little worth. He even says that the citizen belongs to the state (Politics VIII.1.) This has led to charges that Aristotle advocates totalitarianism, but that would be to miss the larger picture. Aristotle is not speaking of the restriction of citizen’s rights, but of the ontological relationship of citizen and state.  We know this is the case because, unlike Plato, he opposes censorship. Aristotle's view of the state cannot be isolated from his understanding of the human as a political creature.

Personal Happiness as the Highest Good

In Nicomachean Ethics, his chief work on ethics, Aristotle defines happiness as “an activity of the soul in accord with perfect Virtue.” For Aristotle, happiness is not a Form, but a process involving decisions about many goods.  He argues that we are motivated to pursue the good life in order to find personal happiness. Happiness is not something we arrive at, but something which accompanies certain activities and choices. Since happiness means something different for every person, there can’t be a single true Form of happiness. Aristotle’s primary argument with his teacher Plato is over this question of Forms. Aristotle doubts their existence.

For Aristotle a flourishing life consists in pleasure, honor, and virtue.  Aristotle argues that it is virtue that corrects our superficial attraction to pleasure.  He also argues that when we want honor what we really want is to deserve honor. He regards personal happiness or flourishing as worth pursuing for its own sake. Anything else that we might regard as “good” will ultimately bring us back to the goal of happiness. Aristotle believes that it is meaningless to speak of having a good life when one is unhappy or not flourishing. He is not suggesting that we behave selfishly.  In fact, achieving happiness in our lives may involve personal sacrifice at times, but if we must constantly sacrifice, we are not going to be happy.  This is what Aristotle intends by his famous statement: “No man can be happy on the rack.”

Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”

If everyone is capable of living the good life, why do we fail to do so?  Aristotle tells us that the good life requires balance, and balance is different of each person.  For example, if eating brings me happiness, I must discover through experience how eating makes me happy.  If I eat too much and become sick or uncomfortable, I have actually caused myself unhappiness. This is why Aristotle says, “People ought to behave so as to achieve happiness.”  No one can tell me exactly how to achieve personal happiness.  A 125 pound office worker and a 200 pound farmer will not find happiness by eating the same amount of food each day, because their physical needs are different.  To us this seems like common sense.  That is why Aristotle is regarded as the first great philosopher with a common sense approach to ethics.

Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” is not only about avoiding extremes, it involves discovering what is morally neutral.  We might agree that moderate drinking of alcohol and only when one intends not to drive is morally neutral.  None would agree that drinking alcohol to excess and driving drunk is morally neutral. For alcohol consumption to contribute to personal happiness a person must discover exactly how much and under what circumstances he or she can consume it. Consuming too much alcohol could leave one feeling sick, which is not a state of happiness or pleasure. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is about taking personal responsibility for one’s life and actions.

Implications of Aristotle’s Mean

In The Republic, Plato proposes that all citizens’ fundamental needs can be met by having people specialize in the kind of work for which they are naturally gifted, rather than requiring them to continue in the profession of their fathers.  He believes that the grouping of citizens into specialized functions and the prudent leadership of philosopher kings will produce a just society.  This view of justice requires that I bring my personal happiness into harmony with the best interests of others.  This involves some sacrifice.  It is difficult to achieve the golden mean for my life when I must subordinate my happiness to the general welfare of the state.  Further, since the options of a worker would be much more limited than the options of a ruler, workers would have less freedom to discover what brings them happiness.  In other words, in Plato’s ideal society it would be difficult to discover one’s golden mean because some activities would not be lawful.

Here is where we encounter one of the most significant implications of Aristotle’s golden mean for social ethics.  Plato requires that the ideal society impose censorship to protect the weak minded, and Aristotle believes that censorship hinders moral decisions by limiting people’s lawful choices.  This is consistent with Aristotle’s view that well-being consists in virtuous actions that stem from a virtuous character. A virtuous character can only be developed by making wise choices.

Plato and Aristotle hold irreconcilable views on censorship, and the question of censorship continues to be a point of disagreement even today. As we will learn in a later lesson, John Stuart Mill’s view of liberty will be closer to Aristotle’s and Thomas Hobbes’ view will be closer to Plato’s.


Before concluding this lesson, we must consider the influence of Zeno (333 BC - 264 BC), a student of the great Cynic Crates, and founder of Stoic philosophy. He was persuaded to the philosophical life by reading Xenophan’s description of Socrates in Memorabilia.

Zeno proposed an answer to doubts about the gods and concerns about the growing instability.  He did not accept the Cynics view that the world is fundamentally evil and that the only virtue is to find peace within oneself by rejecting worldly things. Instead he taught that everything is determined by God’s good order in the universe and that we have no power to change what happens.  Therefore whatever happens to the individual, whether good or bad, should be accepted without desire or strong emotions.  Zeno said that “man conquers the world by conquering himself.”

In the most often quoted explanation of his stoic viewpoint, Zeno wrote: “God is not separate from the world; He is the soul of the world, and each of us contains a part of the Divine Fire. All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature. In one sense, every life is in harmony with Nature, since it is such as Nature’s laws have caused it to be; but in another sense a human life is only in harmony with Nature when the individual will is directed to ends which are among those of Nature. Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature. The wicked, though perforce they obey God’s law, do so involuntarily; in the simile of Cleanthes, they are like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes. In the life of an individual man, virtue is the sole good; such things as health, happiness, possessions, are of no account. Since virtue resides in the will, everything really good or bad in a man’s life depends only upon himself. He may be poor, but what of it? He can still be virtuous. He may be sentenced to death, but he can die nobly, like Socrates. Other men have power only over externals; virtue, which alone is truly good, rests entirely with the individual. Therefore every man has perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires.”

This is the basis of Stoicism, a philosophical viewpoint that had profound influence even to the first century of Christianity.

The problem with Stoicism is that it encourages indifferent acceptance of injustice by making the one true Virtue detachment from the fortunes of the world.  While it is wise to control strong emotions and to intellectually detach so as to evaluate more objectively, Stoicism does not stir one to act against injustice and to attempt to right social wrongs.


As philosophers debate the differences between Plato and Aristotle through the centuries, those differences come into focus.  Today we see Plato as the “father” of Platonism and Idealism, and Aristotle as the “father” of Empiricism, which defines reality on the basis of what can be verified through the senses, observation or experience. Here we can see the contrast between the viewpoints of Plato and Aristotle:

Plato regards evil as the lack of knowledge of the Good.
Aristotle regards evil as something people do in violation of their happiness.

Plato regards morality as intellectual discovery, similar to mathematics.
Aristotle regards morality as a dynamic exploration of what brings happiness.

Plato maintains that there is but one Good for all people at all times (Absolutism).
Aristotle says that the good life will have different expressions, since what brings happiness is different for all people (Relativism).

Plato believes that only the leisure classes who receive training in intellectual and moral virtues are capable of knowing the Good.
Aristotle believes that all people have a responsibility to discover what constitutes the good for them.

Plato believes that the ideal society requires censorship to protect the weak.
Aristotle believes that censorship hinders the individual’s moral decision making.

Plato’s ideal king is a ruler who philosophically contemplates the Forms.
Aristotle’s ideal king is one who seeks the Golden Mean in both personal and public life.

Plato doubted Socrates definition of virtue as knowledge. Socrates insisted that before we can say anything about justice we must first answer the question “What is justice?”  Plato recognized that asking what justice is only leads to considering examples of justice and examples of injustice, but examples are not the same as the justice itself. Plato wondered how we are able to recognize justice when we are unable to define it.  He concluded that an unambiguous Justice must exist in the metaphysical (non-material idea) sense, and that we must once have known justice as an unchanging “Form” or we would not be able to recognize examples of it.

Plato’s theory of Forms is based upon his belief that we are born into the material world from an ideal immaterial world where our souls were acquainted with Justice, Goodness, Beauty and Love. We are able to recognize justice, goodness, beauty and love because our souls have innate knowledge of these non-material entities. This being so, none is justified in claiming that they do not know or cannot recognize justice, goodness, beauty and love. For Plato the good life requires philosophical reflection on these Forms and taking responsibility for fulfilling one’s proper role in accordance with one's potential and nature.  He supported censorship in society because he believed that the citizen’s preoccupation with the trivial and mundane posed obstacles to philosophical contemplation of the Forms. In other words, Plato believed that there are pursuits and behaviors that can cause us to miss the good life. One such action was gossip or being a busybody. Plato wrote, “To do one’s own business and not to be a busybody is justice.” (Republic 433b.)

Aristotle rejected Plato’s definition of the good life as contemplation of the eternal Forms.  He was not convinced that Forms have a real existence. Instead he argued that what is to be known can be discovered from the study of nature. Our powers of observation and critical reasoning can bring us reliable knowledge upon which to base ethical decisions.

Aristotle did agree with Plato’s definition of virtue as knowledge, but the knowledge that mattered to Aristotle was not the knowledge of Forms, but self-knowledge of what brings one happiness or what causes one to thrive.  This is the basis for eudaimonism, an ethical approach that holds personal happiness as the highest good. This view will find different expressions in the centuries that follow, most especially in the hedonism of Renaissance humanism.

1 comment:

  1. This helped me with my moral and ethics of ancient Greece essay