BMCR 2021.10.03

Early Greek ethics

, Early Greek ethics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 832. ISBN 9780198758679 $145.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In scholarship on early Greek philosophy following Diels, it has been a cliché to consider seriously Cicero’s assertion in Tusculan Disputations (V.10) that Socrates was the first who called down philosophy from heaven to earth, placed it in the polis and initiated ethical inquiry about life, customs, things good and bad; similarly Aristotle’s earlier testimony in Metaphysics (978b2) that Socrates thought extensively about ethical matters. Within this frame of reference, modern scholars usually classify the period prior to Socrates as a philosophical epoch where ethical questions are rarely discussed or at least not systematically treated. Early Greek Ethics, edited by David Conan Wolfsdorf, gets beyond the interpretative limitations of this position, and offers the first study in modern scholarship of Greek philosophical ethics in its formative period, approximately defined from the late sixth century BCE (the archaic era) to the early fourth century BCE (the classical period).

The volume is divided into three parts: “Individuals and Texts”, “Topics and Fields” and a brief “Coda”. It consists of thirty chapters, written by prominent scholars of Greek philosophy, philosophers and classicists, who explore the plurality and divergence of early Greek ethical accounts, from the Pythagoreans, Heraclitus and Democritus to Socrates’ associates Antisthenes and Aristippus and influential Sophists such as Prodicus and Gorgias. As Wolfsdorf explains, each chapter is devoted to one of four things: an ethical philosophical text of the formative period, a philosopher who contributed to early philosophical ethics, an ethical philosophical topic, or a subject or field that was influential for the development of philosophical ethics (p. xxiii). In this framework, the ultimate objective of the volume is to contribute to the comprehensive treatment of philosophical ethics in this period (p. xxiv). The term ethics is treated in light of the recognized interest of ancient ethics in personal wellbeing as the goal of human life, and in how one ought to live with regard to fundamental values, social standards, and cultural qualities. The volume deals with philosophical ethics in light of “dominant concerns”, firstly, with universal or general principles on a specific domain and, secondly, with explicit argumentation about these principles.

The first part of the volume is chronologically organized. It starts with an analysis of the Pythagorean Acusmata by Johan C. Thom. This deals with the distinction between “acusmatic” ethics and “mathematic” ethics as, respectively, literal and rational interpretations of Pythagorean ethics (Chapter 1). Shaul Tor focuses on Xenophanes’ ethics and the epistemology of arrogance as anticipating Plato’s view that epistemic arrogance is a limitation to ethical achievement in human thought and action (Chapter 2). Heraclitus’ ethics is the subject of Mark A. Johnstone’s contribution, on the intrinsic value of wisdom in human life and thought; Heraclitean sophia awakens the human mind to comprehend reality and become like the divine (Chapter 3). John Palmer offers an analysis of the integration of Empedocles’ natural philosophy, dealing with cosmic forces, and his ethics of purification in Plato’s naturalistic ethics (Chapter 4). The fifth chapter of the volume moves to Protagoras: Tazuko A. van Berkel offers a systematic treatment of Protagoras’ Man-Measure statement by offering three ancient ethical interpretations of the Protagorean fragment: an ethical relativist interpretation, a normative-quantitative interpretation, and an axiological interpretation. Kurt Lampe continues in Chapter 6 with a metaethical approach to Gorgias’ speeches Palamedes, On What is Not, and Helen. He argues that these suggest a wider early Sophistic project on ethics with psychological, epistemological and sociological objectives. Joel E. Mann’s chapter moves to Antiphon and offers a reconstruction of the Tetralogies in a contemporary light as rationalization of responsibility for action and intention in the face of miasma (Chapter 7). A contemporary philosophical reading is also found in Mauro Bonazzi’s Utilitarian perspective on Antiphon’s Truth and Concord and the reconstruction of Antiphon’s ethical and political thought (Chapter 8).

David Conan Wolfsdorf offers a key chapter on the ethical commitments of the historical Socrates; the chapter critically explores eudaimonistic and epistemological aspects of Socrates’ ethical philosophy as well as its methodological grounds and the dialectical engagements of Socratic teaching (Chapter 9). In Chapter 10, Richard Bett critically examines Prodicus’ ethics as it is related to his account of the Choice of Heracles (between Virtue and Vice), his reflection on language and ethical terminology, as well as the question of religion and atheism. Monte Ransome Johnson offers a significant contribution on Democritean ethics in an informative analysis of the ethical gnōmai (including their logical and rhetorical elements), as well as the social and political implications of euthumiē in Democritus his concept of autonomy, and the therapeutic aspects of his eudaimonistic ethics (Chapter 11). Critias’ sōphrosynē is the subject of Alex Gottesman’s chapter; it deals with the reception of Critias’ work in Xenophon and Plato and critically explores reformative elements of the old aristocratic ethics (Chapter 12). Philip Sidney Horky offers in the thirteenth chapter of the volume a comprehensive analysis of the fragments of Anonymus Iamblichi, the author of On Excellence, an ethical treatise on aretē from the fifth century BCE preserved in Iamblichus’ Exhortation to Philosophy. Horky presents a complete translation of the fragments as well as a systematic and insightful analysis of the ethical background and the philosophical context of the extant work. David Conan Wolfsdorf’s second contribution to the volume is devoted to the functional and topical unity of Dissoi Logoi. In a systematic treatment of the text, he effectively argues that the antilogical and monological portions of text are related in a unifying way to the ethical grounds of wisdom and excellence in the underlying didactics of the Dissoi Logoi (Chapter 14). Two helpful appendices complete the chapter, the first on the manuscript tradition of the text, and the second on the sections from Marcianus Gr. 262.

The next two chapters of the volume focus on Antisthenes. Susan Prince presents Antisthenes’ virtue ethics in a notable discussion about the association of particular Homeric characters with specific aretai, and the importance of the acquisition of knowledge along with personal freedom for the pursuit of a virtuous character and individual ethical development (Chapter 15). Mikolaj Domaradzki evaluates the controversy over the nature of allegorical interpretations and allegoresis in Antisthenes. Domaradzki argues that Antisthenes’ hermeneutical activity in allegoresis cannot be classified in a single category, either characterized in terms of intentionality, obviousness, or a complete denial of a literal sense (Chapter 16).

Voula Tsouna challenges in her contribution the common view of Aristippus of Cyrene as an ethical hedonist. She succeeds in her criticism by examining in a careful and thought-provoking analysis second-hand testimonies and the Socratic elements of Aristippus’ philosophy (Chapter 17). David M. Johnson focuses on Xenophon’s virtue ethics with special reference to self-mastery (enkrateia) in respect to Socratic intellectualism and epistemology. The chapter also emphasizes Xenophon’s account of piety, reciprocity, and friendship (Chapter 18). Intellectualism and happiness is also discussed in Nicolas D. Smith’s chapter on Socrates’ ethical thought in Plato’s early dialogues. The problem of akrasia is highlighted and explained in terms of Socrates’ motivational intellectualism (Chapter 19). Philip Sidney Horky reappears with Monte Ransome Johnson in a contribution to the volume on the Pythagorean Archytas of Tarentum and the extant fragments of On Law and Justice. The authors provide a complete translation and interpretation of the fragments and aptly stress key themes of early Greek ethics and political philosophy such as the cultivation of virtues, freedom and self-sufficiency, moderation and political equality (Chapter 20).

The second part of the volume is thematically organized into topics and fields. Joseph Skinner explores the connection between ethnographic knowledge and the emergence of popular ethics in the formation of Greek identity (Chapter 21). Early Greek medicine and ethics is Paul Demont’s topic; this author examines the role of emotions, body and character in Hippocratic ethical conduct (particularly in Humors 9, Epidemics, Sacred Diseases, Airs Waters Places, and On Regimen), and medical ethics bearing on the relationship between patient and physician in treatment, assistance and duties. The ethical value of the Hippocratic Oath is also considered (Chapter 22). Radcliffe Edmonds offers a discussion of the ethics of afterlife in Classical thought. He argues that the idea of the afterlife, as a continuation of the soul’s early life, is found throughout ethical accounts about compensation and judgment from the early period of Greek philosophy to the Classical era (Chapter 23). Dimitri El Murr offers a concise but insightful exploration of the concept of friendship (philia) in early Greek ethics from the Pythagoreans, Empedocles, and Democritus to the Sophists and the Socratics. It is aptly argued that accounts of philia in early Greek ethics should not be regarded as merely pre-Aristotelian but as distinctive philosophical attempts to explore the ethical terms and conditions of a good life (Chapter 24). The chapter is complemented with and appendix on “Philos and Philia in the Fifth Century BCE”.

Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson’s chapter returns to the question of the afterlife and its relation to divine justice. Svavarsson observes elements of post-mortem retributive justice in Homer, as well as promises of happiness and salvation in the Hymn of Demeter and fifth-century authors such as Pindar and Aeschylus (Chapter 25). Music and its effect on the human soul is the topic of Eleonora Rocconi’s contribution. Rocconi stresses, in a critical approach, the therapeutic and epistemological value of music in the early Pythagorean tradition, the psychagogic effects of Sophistic epideixeis and the pre-Platonic foundations of musical ethics (Chapter 26). Christopher Rowe completes the second section of the volume with an informative analysis on the question of the teachability of virtue in some renowned figures of the Socratic circle such as Euclides, Antisthenes, Xenophon, Aeschines, and Plato. Rowe surveys in a synthetic but critical manner the teachable elements of aretai in terms of Socratic ethics and epistemology (Chapter 27).

The third part of the volume is a brief coda, consisting of three chapters chronologically ordered. It opens with Will Desmond’s contribution on Diogenes of Synope’s ethical teaching. The author recognizes the interpretative difficulties in reconstructing Diogenes’ original teaching but meritoriously traces the main ethical themes in Diogenes’ philosophy such as Cynicism’s central idea that one should “live according to nature”; the Cynic criticism of customs; parrhēsia and indifference to shame; self-sufficiency and ascetic self-mastery; cosmopolitanism and Diogenes’  treatment of the virtues (Chapter 28). Tim O’Keefe presents Anaxarchus’ ethics and attempts a reconstruction of his ethical philosophy by offering an analysis of his doctrine of the indifference of value with reference to Pyrrhonian Skepticism, Democritean Atomism and the fifth-century anti-conventionalism of Aristippus, Antiphon, and Critias. A helpful appendix with passages about Anaxarchus closes the chapter (Chapter 29). Carl A. Huffman examines the Pythagorean Precepts by Aristoxenus of Tarentum. The contribution completes the discussion of early Greek ethics opened with the Pythagorean acusmata at the beginning of the volume. Huffman argues that Aristoxenus’ precepts advocate a more rational ethical system than the early Pythagorean acusmata and are closer to Democritus’ ethical maxims (Chapter 30). The volume is supplemented with a complete bibliography, an index locorum, and a general index.

In summary, everyone who works in early Greek philosophy cannot but welcome this volume. It is a well structured, carefully organized, scholarly, informative, and original work on the early history and philosophy of ethics. Early Greek Ethics paves the way for the systematic study of philosophical ethics in the formative period of Greek philosophy and widens the spectrum of the philosophical themes and topics discussed in the history of Greek thought. The volume inspires us to reconsider early Greek philosophers not merely as pre-Socratics, pre-Platonists, or even pre-Aristotelians, but as individual thinkers in their own right who contributed in the development, the formation, and the continuation of the Greek philosophical tradition.

Authors and titles

Introduction, David Conan Wolfsdorf

1. The Pythagorean AcusmataJohan C. Thom
2. Xenophanes on the Ethics and Epistemology of Arrogance, Shaul Tor
3. On the Ethical Dimension of Heraclitus’ Thought, Mark A. Johnstone
4. Ethics and Natural Philosophy in Empedocles, John Palmer
5. The Ethical Life of a Fragment: Three Readings of Protagoras’ Man Measure Statement, Tazuko A. van Berkel
6. The Logos of Ethics in Gorgias’ PalamedesOn What is Not, and HelenKurt Lampe
7. Responsibility Rationalized: Action and Pollution in Antiphon’s Tetralogies, Joel E. Mann
8. Ethical and Political Thought in Antiphon’s Truth and ConcordMauro Bonazzi
9. The Ethical Philosophy of the Historical Socrates, David Conan Wolfsdorf
10. Prodicus on the Choice of Heracles, Language, and Religion, Richard Bett
11. The Ethical Maxims of Democritus of Abdera, Monte Ransome Johnson
12. The Sōphrosynē of Critias: Aristocratic Ethics after the Thirty Tyrants, Alex Gottesman
13. Anonymus Iamblichi, On Excellence: A Lost Defense of Democracy, Phillip Sidney Horky
14. On the Unity of the Dissoi LogoiDavid Conan Wolfsdorf
15. Antisthenes’ Ethics, Susan Prince
16. Antisthenes and Allegoresis, Mikolaj Domaradzki
17. Aristippus of Cyrene, Voula Tsouna
18. Self-Mastery, Piety, and Reciprocity in Xenophon’s Ethics, David M. Johnson
19. Ethics in Plato’s Early Dialogues, Nicholas D. Smith
20. On Law and Justice Attributed to Archytas of Tarentum, Phillip Sidney Horky and Monte Ransome Johnson

21. Early Greek Ethnography and Human Values, Joseph Skinner
22. Ethics in Early Greek Medicine, Paul Demont
23. The Ethics of Afterlife in Classical Greek Thought, Radcliffe Edmonds III
24. Friendship in Early Greek Ethics, Dimitri El Murr
25. Justice and the Afterlife, Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson
26. Music and the Soul, Eleonora Rocconi
27. The Teachability of Aretē among the Socratics, Christopher Rowe

28. Diogenes of Sinope, Will Desmond
29. Anaxarchus on Indifference, Happiness, and Convention, Tim O’Keefe
30. Aristoxenus’ Pythagorean Precepts: A Rational Pythagorean Ethics, Carl A. Huffman