Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.21

Stephen Everson (ed.), Ethics. Companions to Ancient Thought: 4.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. viii, 300.  ISBN 0-521-38161-4.  $64.95.  

Reviewed by Emidio Spinelli, University of Konstanz
Word count: 2089 words

Like the previous ones, this fourth volume of the series "Companions to Ancient Thought" does not aim at offering a mere introduction to ethical matters and solutions in ancient philosophy. Indeed, it is not a neutral survey or résumé of different points of view on a single problem and/or author, although one cannot deny its value as a reference-tool (thanks in part to the final selective -- but actually very rich -- bibliography, 241-283, and useful Indexes of names, passages discussed, subjects: 284-300). Rather, it collects papers, which are in several aspects original, maybe even controversial, in their approaches as well as in some of their conclusions and which surely will act as useful sources of inspiration for anyone who will treat that topic in the future.1

This is true from the outset with Everson's introduction (1-26). He furnishes us with the background according to which we should understand what is typical of ancient ethics in comparison with modern moral theories, without either assimilating it to the latter or emphasizing -- unlike Anscombe or Williams, for instance -- the alleged radical difference between the two. His main goal seems to be that of defining carefully the function of virtue in ancient ethical doctrines, in order to support the general claim "that the ancients focus on character rather than action and that they subordinate moral reasons to reasons of prudence" (15).

Moving to the individual articles, I shall limit myself to summarizing their content, since any critical discussion about their wide-ranging perspectives would be out of place here. They are: "Pre-Platonic ethics" by Charles H. Kahn (27-48); "Platonic ethics" by C.C.W. Taylor (49-76); "Aristotle on nature and value" by Stephen Everson (77-106); "Some issues in Aristotle's moral psychology" by John McDowell (107-128); "The inferential foundations of Epicurean ethics" by David Sedley (129-150); "Socratic paradox and Stoic theory" by T.H. Irwin (151-192); "Doing without objective values: ancient and modern strategies" by Julia Annas (193-220); "Moral responsibility: Aristotle and after" by Susan Sauve/Meyer (221-240).

After listing some key concepts of modern moral philosophy, especially inside the tradition of Kantism and Utilitarianism, which we do not find in ancient ethics, Kahn focuses on two themes: happiness and justice. Firstly, his reconstruction covers different meanings of eudaimonia, from the strong opposition -- well-known after Adkins' studies -- between the heroic code and Hesiod's conception of virtue, to the consideration of external and social virtues as internal goods (or goods of the soul), due -- though to a different degree -- to philosophers such as Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Pythagoras and especially Democritus, who seems to anticipate not only the Hellenistic solution to the problem of happiness, but also Socrates' position (as well as Kant's).2 In the case of justice too, Kahn gives us a lively survey of various theses, which also involve the sharp contrast nomos/physis and which seem to culminate in Socrates -- "the founder of classical Greek moral theory" (48) and the only thinker capable of reconciling happiness and justice. I cannot here examine in detail Kahn's disputable interpretation of Socrates, that is based on a "minimalist" reading of the elements one can draw from different sources of Socratic life and thought.3 Using such a source-selection Kahn refuses to attribute to Socrates the role of ancestor of the theory of Forms or of founder of a refined form of ethical intellectualism and concludes that "Socrates was a powerful moral personality" (46) whose main goal consisted in inviting his interlocutors to care for themselves.

Taylor provides a rich study of Plato's ethical doctrines, that ranges from early dialogues to late works, and purports to show that the different theories of human nature which underlie the Platonic solutions in their historical development. While a too simplistic 'cognitive theory of excellence' seems to be presupposed behind the Socratic -- and paradoxical -- attitude of the first dialogues, a major turn is represented by Plato's effort in the Republic. Here he seeks "to bridge the gap between the individual's good and that of the community" (63), by sketching the theoretical basis for a social conception of the morality of each member of the polis. After examining in greater detail some elements of such a conception and after critically underlining some of its basic features (for instance, the limits of the tripartite structure of the soul and the risks involved in the picture of "the Platonically just agent", 71), Taylor insists on the "non-uniform character" of moral motivation in the late dialogues. In these works the dualism between the rational and irrational sides of the human personality becomes greater and greater, to the point that Plato arrives at suggesting the necessity of a pre-rational training, something similar to Aristotle's theory of moral dispositions and rich in consequences for the future development of Greek ethics.

Everson's interesting paper confronts a difficult topic by focusing on Aristotle's account of happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics. Everson's thesis is that Aristotle's solution is neither inconsistent nor implausible, but rather worthy of constant philosophical attention. In order to support his case, he defends -- against any 'dominant' view -- an inclusive reading of the Aristotelian notion of happiness4 and argues for a complex, dialectical relationship, which should exist in Aristotle's Ethics as well as in his Magna Moralia between eudaimonia as a whole and its parts (the goods that constitute it). All these parts have value per se, since "it is not that something is valuable because it contributes to happiness, rather, something will be a constituent of happiness because it is intrinsically valuable" (103). Such an explanation fits well with the composite nature of human beings, which cannot be reduced to pure theoretical excellence. Everson's reading, which helpfully keeps open the debate rather than closing it, considers Aristotle's ethics as not normative and gives therefore a special role to practical reasoning or phronesis, because whoever possesses it "is able to make correct judgements about what is valuable and what is not -- and the correctness of these judgements is independent of considerations to do with human nature and functioning" (106).

In a detailed discussion regarding the relevant problem of "purposive behaviour", McDowell not only proposes a careful analysis of some basic concepts in Aristotle's ethics (for instance: boulesis, prohairesis, not to mention his final re-examination of the prickly question of akrasia) but dwells especially on the difficulties raised by the application of general rules of conduct to particular cases in the light both of the scope of doing well and of "the importance for Aristotle of situation-specific discernment" (116, n. 22). After exploring some apparent contradictions in Aristotle's theory (such as the impossibility of a formalization of deductive rules in ethics and the perceptual character of the practical wisdom), McDowell concentrates on the double aspect of phronesis ("as correctness of motivational orientation and as cognitive capacity", 113) and concludes by offering a positive evaluation of the power of intellect as well as of the force of educational motivation in determining individual character.

In his penetrating paper Sedley sketches first the central tenets (meaning and function of both kinds of pleasure, katastematic and kinetic; accurate phenomenology of the desires; justice and friendship as roots of the common life) of Epicurean ethics, defined as a form of "enlightened hedonism" (148). He turns then to give a systematic account of his main hypothesis, that of a strict analogy between the argumentative structure of Epicurus' physics and ethics. The latter would be attested by some passages in the first book of Cicero's De Finibus, which does not reproduce Epicurus' ipsissima verba but at least shows the methodology he used. One cannot follow here, step by step, all the convincing explanations Sedley offers of Epicurus' arguments; apart from a thorough final section devoted to the instrumental value of virtue, I shall mention only his powerful suggestion that Epicurus accepts a dyadic ontology both in physics (body vs. space) and in ethics (pleasure vs. pain, where the elimination of any intermediate state is due also to polemical, anti-Cyrenaic, intent).

Irwin's piece is the longest in the volume and its main merit is that it seeks to interpret Stoic ethical principles -- even the most paradoxical -- by taking consistently into account their Socratic as well as Aristotelian background. In doing that, Irwin maintains that they are reliable and internally coherent and in addition that they escape the hardest charges (those of inhumanity or triviality) launched against them both in antiquity and in modern times. Such a justification of Stoic ethics is based on the following presuppositions: 1. the primacy of reason and the consideration of man as a "rational planner"; 2. the rigorous distinction between ends and objectives (used also for throwing light on other controversial aspects of Stoic moral thought, such as the doctrine of adiaphora and the difference between KATHEKONTA/KATORTHOMATA); 3. the correct understanding of the therapy of the passions in Stoicism, grounded in a daily exercise against appearances, as Epictetus suggested, but not incompatible with certain emotional, non-rational attitudes, for instance the so-called eupatheiai, even in the life of the sage. Irwin's arguments are highly respectable and many of his conclusions deserve a fuller critical treatment, because they seem occasionally to approach paradoxical conclusions, as for instance when Irwin asserts: "to give the most plausible account of Aristotle's main claims, we must abandon his theory for the Stoic theory" (192).

Annas provides not only a thorough analysis of the anti-dogmatic strategies put forward by ancient moral scepticism, as attested especially by Sextus Empiricus, but also a careful differentiation of them from modern forms of moral scepticism. Such a comparison highlights several differences, one of which is, in my opinion, of primary importance. While ancient scepticism fights "a total war against the whole range of philosophy" (p. 207) and its moral side is in no way "a bland doctrine that can be held in insulation from everyday life" but rather "is profoundly subversive of everyday life" (p. 211), modern moral scepticism is essentially local and does not question the truth of other beliefs in areas different from ethics. At any rate, Annas' work does not offer solely a comparative approach to moral theories; she seems to take also a definite position on some of their limits. After reconstructing Sextus' arguments based either on a wide collection of conflicting appearances of values or on the dogmatic contrasts about the real essence of good or bad things, and after criticizing them for their lack of clarity and/or philosophical coherence ('guilty' as they are, for example, of a naive confusion between moral realism and moral absolutism), Annas finds it legitimate to conclude: "the ancient arguments are disappointing, then; they give up just where the discussion gets interesting, at the point where the sceptic has to cope with the opponent who thinks that there may well be a right answer in cases of moral disagreement, and that equipollence, and hence suspension of judgement, are not reached so quickly or so easily" (p. 202). Even Sextus' promise of happiness in his Against the Ethicists seems to be scarcely acceptable, since it implies an unpleasant consequence, namely that the agent "becomes the uncommitted spectator of his own actions and his own impulses" (p. 212), completely and passively detached from any involvement in theories or moral motivations, not seen -- as it is by us moderns-- as part of the self.

The theme of Sauve/Meyer's paper has ancient roots and stimulates fierce discussions nowadays too.5 It concerns a difficult task: to give a philosophical account of moral responsibility, or better, to justify the role, function, and extension of those actions which are "up to us" or "depend on us", especially when they are seen against the background of a general theory of causal determinism. Apart from many interesting suggestions about the Hellenistic debate on that topic and its principal 'actors' (the 'compatibilist' Stoic arguments defended from a different point of view by Epicurus or Carneades against the 'incompatibilist' or 'libertarian' theses), the main -- although surely not 'pacific' -- goal of Sauve/Meyer's paper seems to be a radical critique of Alexander of Aphrodisias' interpretation of Aristotle "as a libertarian incompatibilist". In a polemic and revisionist attitude, she discusses specific passages and doctrines (among which the alleged Aristotelian interchange between actions that are voluntary and "up to us" deserves special interest) in order both to show "that Aristotle would find the Stoic position much more congenial than Alexander recognizes" and "to discover affinities between the Aristotelian and the Stoic positions on the question of compatibility, in spite of Aristotle's silence on the question" (p. 225).


1.   The volume seems to have suffered from some editorial difficulties: some of the papers (Taylor, Irwin) were submitted for publication as long ago as 1990 (see p. 76, n. 38 and 151, n. 1), while others are slightly revised versions of papers previously published elsewhere (Sedley, Annas).
2.   Kahn rightly attacks the late and doxographical misrepresentation of Democritus' euthymie in terms of the post-Hellenistic formula of the telos, but he does not seem to take into consideration either the possibility of a coherent link between Democritus' ethics and physics, as Vlastos did -- rightly in my opinion, or the systematic character of his moral thought, recently defended, with good arguments, by Julia Annas, Democritus and Eudaimonism (forthcoming). Useful remarks on that question can be read also in Sedley's contribution: 134, n. 8.
3.   For a different, "maximalist" approach to the problem H. Maier, Sokrates. Sein Werk und seine geschichtiliche Stellung. Darmstadt: Scientia Verlag Aalen, 1964 (orig. publ.: Tübingen 1913) is still worth reading.
4.   For a powerful and highly original defense of Aristotle's happiness as an 'inclusive end' see also now J.S. Purinton, "Aristotle's definition of Happiness (NE 1. 7, 1098a16-18)", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, XVI (1998), 259-297.
5.   The best reference is undoubtedly the recent work of Susanne Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Anyone who wants to think seriously about questions regarding determinism and fatalism, especially in Stoic philosophy, cannot ignore her work, which could also help to illuminate some aspects of Sauve/Meyer's paper.

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