Ancient Greek Ethical Traditions and Contemporary Liberal Culture

Ethical theory and political theory share roots in the social relations between the individual and others. Together these theories seek to normatively guide the individual toward how best to live one’s life within a shared overarching civic structure. Ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers produced at least three prominent ethical traditions; Plato’s ethical egoism, Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and Sextus Empiricus’ skeptical relativism. For this paper, I will explore each of these ancient ethical traditions, focusing specifically on each theory’s summum bonum, agogē, concept of virtue and relation to political theory.[1] I will begin with an analysis of each theory from within the context of the social and political events surrounding the conception and proliferation of each theory. Next, I will examine the similarities and dissimilarities between each theory. Finally, I will explore how each theory could be viewed from within contemporary culture. I will argue virtue ethics is the most appealing of these traditions to a contemporary liberal culture.

Plato’s[2] ethical egoism emerged from a background of social and political upheaval. The end of the Athenian “Golden Age” began in 431 BCE with a plague and the Peloponnesian War. After 27 years of fighting resulting in massive economic expenditures and fatalities, Sparta won the war and set up the oligarchy of The Thirty Tyrants to rule over Athens. Two years later democrats defeated The Thirty Tyrants and restored a fragile democracy. One response to the turmoil of Classical Greece was to concern oneself primarily with one’s own advantages. Many Athenians had long valued money, power and status because such things could be used to secure one’s own advantages. The value of such tools grew amid the turmoil. In order to gain these tools clever orators, called sophists, were hired to teach young aristocrats how to speak publicly and win debates. The sophist Thrasymachus argues justice is simply what those in power do to secure their own advantages.[3] Injustice is beneficial to those who are powerful enough to do so without incurring any negative consequences; it is beneficial for happiness and living well.[4] Implicit in Thrasymachus’ claim is one should be concerned primarily with, and work primarily toward, one’s own welfare. The implied summum bonum (highest good to which all human acts are directed) is eudaimonia (happiness and living well). The agogē (way of life) in which eudaimonia is achieved is through concern primarily for one’s own welfare. Such concern entails committing injustice when one is powerful enough to reap the benefits without suffering negative consequences. Thrasymachus’ view is a descriptive analysis of the condition of the Athenian democracy in the Classical period.

Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus outlines Plato’s response to the cultural conditions of Athens. Socrates asserts justice is the soul’s virtue; it is its excellence.[5] Performing just actions leads to a virtuous soul, a virtuous soul is a healthy soul and a healthy soul is happy and lives well.[6] Socrates links ethical and political theory together by asserting justice is a necessary condition for eudaimonia individually and socially.[7] In the soul, as in the polis, justice is the harmony of all parts of the whole working together by performing their own function (their purpose given their nature).[8] The virtuous soul is one where the rule of reason uses the spirit to moderate the appetites. The virtuous polis is one where the rational philosopher kings with their wisdom of the forms of justice and the good, use the spirited auxiliary class to moderate the appetitive producer class.[9] Each part of society must perform their function. The philosopher kings would not want to rule, but must because it is their duty given their nature.[10] In order to perform their function well, the auxiliaries’ lives will be highly regimented and they will be unable to pursue wealth or have their own families.[11]

The goal is not to make any one particular group happy, but to make everyone as happy as possible given their own nature.[12] One’s own self-interests are served when the soul acts justly because they are benefited with eudaimonia. Justice requires the rational part rule absolutely over the spirited and appetitive parts, lest one of the inferior parts overtake the others and ruin the entire soul. Each part of the soul exists in necessary relations of reciprocity with the other parts and justice is the harmonious relation of these parts working together per their own function. Living in Greek civilization means to live in relations of reciprocity with other members of the society. Each individual’s own self-interests are served in the polis when they perform their own function in harmonious relations of reciprocity with the other parts of the polis.[13] The best interests of all are served, even if individuals must be manipulated and deceived with “noble lies” in order to induce them to harmoniously perform their functions.[14]

Aristotle’s[15] virtue ethics offers another viewpoint regarding how best to live one’s life within society. For Aristotle, both of the practices of ethics and politics aim for the final end of eudaimonia. The final end of human action is the highest good and as such it must be intrinsically good.[16] The highest good to which all human action is directed is eudaimonia.[17] Humans create and sustain the polis in order to promote the eudaimonia of individuals.[18] The eudaimonia of a society cannot be measured as a sum total of the disparate parts; it must exist as an integral part of every individual.[19]

Aristotle asserts every thing has a function, the activity to which the thing is naturally inclined.[20] Each thing is judged to be a good exemplar of its type based on how well it performs its function.[21] Humans primarily have the function of rationality.[22] Thus, the virtue (excellence) of the human soul is rationality.[23] Rationality is an activity of the soul and eudaimonia is “a sort of good life and good action;” a virtuous life is one directed toward the activity of rationality, and such a life achieves eudaimonia when it is full of opportunities to act rationally.[24] Virtue is required for eudaimonia and virtue is learned through habituation, by acting virtuously repeatedly in various circumstances.[25]

Virtue is the rational activity of the soul. Of the various activities of the soul, virtue is a state of character beneficial for achieving eudaimonia and requires performing the function of rationality well.[26] Virtue is concerned with individual actions in particular circumstances.[27] Too much or too little of anything is unbeneficial or harmful; it’s a vice.[28] Thus, virtue must use rationality to aim at the intermediate action between the extremes (vices) of excess and deficiency relative to the individual’s particular circumstance.[29] Virtue ethics is a study of practical wisdom (phronēsis) used to guide individuals in determining the intermediate relative to their particular circumstance in order to achieve eudaimonia.[30] Political theory and virtue ethics aim at eudaimonia for every citizen within the polis.

During Aristotle’s lifetime, Greece had once again expanded its empire through the conquests of Alexander the Great. Greek culture had spread across the ancient world as far as India and Africa. The skeptical philosopher Pyrrho[31] was witness to the great expansion of the Greek empire under Alexander. Pyrrho traveled on expedition with Alexander’s army into India where he was influenced by Indian philosophers. Two significant events marked the Hellenistic period; Alexander’s death and Rome’s annexation of Greece. With the Roman annexation of Greece, Rome incorporated Greek culture into its own. The spread of the Greek culture throughout Alexander’s reign and the incorporation of the entirety of the Greek speaking world into the Roman Empire marked a significant turn in the Greek mindset. It transformed the once insular Greek mindset, who viewed only the Greek culture as being significant, into a more cosmopolitan mindset.[32]

Sextus Empiricus’[33] form of skeptical relativism is based on Pyrrho. Pyrrho attributed his skeptical approach to Socrates.[34] The skeptic, or “the one who questions,” follows in the philosophical footsteps of the historical Socrates by not forming any dogmatic beliefs.[35] Socrates claimed to know nothing when the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed he was the wisest person in Athens, but Pyrrho took the claim of knowing nothing further in claiming to not know if he knew nothing.[36] Like Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus conceived of his skeptical relativism not as a philosophical doctrine, but as an agogē.[37] The skeptic posits an agogē where all judgment is suspended when equipollence is achieved concerning the matter .[38] When each judgment is just as likely to be true as the others, the rational thing to do is to suspend judgment. Such an agogē is therapeutic.[39] Sextus Empiricus points out how dogmatic value judgments are made in the pursuit of ataraxia (quietude).[40] However, making value judgments leads to disquietude because once a thing is judged good one is either troubled by not having it or is troubled by the possibility of losing it.[41] He argues dogmatists are troubled by the circumstances they find themselves in as well as their value judgments regarding the circumstances; skeptics are only troubled by the circumstances.[42] The skeptic by practicing the epochē (suspension of judgment) regarding matters that could equally be judged contrarily achieves ataraxia.[43] The skeptical therapist seeks to demonstrate how any matter could be equally judged in a contradictory way in order to lead the individual to the epochē, thus to ataraxia.[44]

In addition to being influenced by Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus was profoundly influenced by the cultural cosmopolitanism of his era. He makes use of several examples in order to demonstrate how different cultures judge the same activity in converse ways.[45] Implicitly the claim is: If other cultures have equally compelling reasons to judge an activity in a way contrary to our judgment, then we don’t know if our value judgment is correct and we don’t know if we can know if our value judgment is correct. So, the skeptic suspends judgment on the activity and lives according to appearances. The appearance of a thing may or may not be the same as the thing itself, and thus, we may or may not know if the thing itself is the same as its appearance.[46] However, nature and the polis compel the skeptic to live in accord with certain directives.[47] Thus, the skeptic lives according to what appears without making any assertions about what the thing in itself is.[48] If it appears one is thirsty, then one takes a drink. If it appears the customs and laws of the polis are reasonable, then one follows them. However, one drinks and follows the customs and laws without making any judgments about the objects or acts in themselves.[49]

Each ancient tradition has a concept of summum bonum, agogē, virtue and a relation to political theory. Plato’s ethical egoism parallels Thrasymachus’ implied claim; one should be concerned primarily with and work primarily toward one’s own welfare. Plato agrees with Thrasymachus that the summum bonum is eudaimonia. Where Plato disagrees with Thrasymachus is how to go about securing one’s own welfare and, thus, what will lead to eudaimonia. Plato and Thrasymachus disagree on the agogē. Thrasymachus argues individual acts of injustice, under certain circumstances, would lead to eudaimonia. Plato, through Socrates, argues eudaimonia can only be achieved through harmonious relations of reciprocity within one’s own soul as well as between the individual and other members of society. While Thrasymachus offers an individualized self-interested agogē, Plato offers a communal self-interested agogē. Thrasymachus’ agogē conceives of the individual welfare existing isolated from society, whereas Plato’s agogē conceives of the individual welfare existing within society.

Aristotle asserts the highest good to which all human acts are aimed is eudaimonia, thus, he shares the same summum bonum as Plato. Aristotle could also be said to share with Plato the idea one ought to work toward one’s own welfare. For Plato and Aristotle, to work toward one’s own welfare would be to develop a virtuous soul. On a descriptive level, Aristotle disagrees with Plato regarding what virtue, thus what a virtuous soul, is. Both agree virtue relates to the function of the soul. However, virtue for Plato is justice within the soul achieved by each part of the soul performing its own function; the rational part rules over the spirited and the appetitive parts. For Aristotle, virtue is the rational activity of the soul; it is a state of character directed toward achieving the intermediate between extremes relative to the individual’s particular circumstance.

Aristotle’s descriptive disagreement with Plato leads to a normative disagreement about how one ought to cultivate a virtuous agogē in order to achieve eudaimonia. The disagreement is in each thinker’s psychological conception of each individual soul’s ability to be rational. Plato argues there are individuals who are predetermined to have the ability to be rational; the philosopher kings. The philosopher kings must rule over those who are predetermined to irrationally act on their appetites; it is for the welfare of individuals who are predetermined to be ruled by their appetites to be ruled by rational philosopher kings instead.[50] However, Aristotle argues rationality is a human function; everyone is predetermined to have the ability to be rational even though some may have a better disposition toward acting rationally than others. For Aristotle, humans are not predetermined with a certain character; human dispositions can be altered through habituation, thus humans can learn to act more rationally.[51]

While Plato asserts only some individuals are predetermined to have the ability to be rational, Aristotle asserts all individuals are predetermined to have the ability to be rational. Plato argues the welfare of those predetermined to be irrational is best served when they are ruled by those who are predetermined to have the ability to be rational. Aristotle argues everyone is predetermined to have the ability to be rational. Therefore, individual welfare is served when individuals are habituated to have the disposition of acting rationally. Plato’s ethical egoism posits an agogē where the individual is absolutely ruled because they have an irrational nature that cannot be changed. Aristotle’s virtue ethics posits an agogē where the individual acts more as a participant in ruling themselves because they have a rational nature that can be cultivated.[52][53]

Sextus Empiricus’ skeptical relativism is descriptively and normatively at odds with Plato and Aristotle’s theories regarding the concept of virtue. Plato and Aristotle’s concepts of virtue are value judgments. Virtue means excellence. Both Plato and Aristotle’s conceptions of virtue, as they regard the functions of the soul, are normative value judgments which descriptively imply we can know what the excellence of the soul is. Both thinkers assert the function of the soul is a certain way, thus they assert the soul ought to be disposed in such a way so that it may achieve their conception of excellence. Sextus Empiricus would argue we don’t know if we can know what the excellence of the soul is, thus we don’t know if we can make value judgments on what the excellence of the soul is.

Sextus Empiricus would also disagree normatively with Plato and Aristotle on the best agogē in order to achieve the summum bonum of ataraxia or eudaimonia.[54] He would agree with Plato and Aristotle in questioning the value judgments Ancient Greeks placed on material and physical pleasures. However, Plato and Aristotle assert the best agogē requires making value judgments on actions and claims. Plato’s agogē requires judging appetitive acts as destructive and requiring rule by reason. Aristotle’s agogē requires judging the excess or deficiency of any act as a vice. Sextus Empiricus would assert the best agogē would be suspending value judgments regarding all actions, including the claim that the Skeptic’s agogē is the best.

While Plato and Aristotle’s ethical theories are foundations for their political theories, skeptical relativism’s connection to political theory is not as obvious. However, if one were to define “political theory” as “a normative guide as to how best to organize a civic structure,” one could draw a connection between skepticism and political theory. Skepticism asserts one should suspend judgment on all things that are equally possible of being judged in contradictory ways. Instead, one should do what seems rational based on appearance. For individuals within a civic structure, this would mean making no dogmatic value judgments regarding acts. Instead, individuals would ascertain if the appearance rationally warrants a particular action in response. A skeptic citizen would not hold any fervent beliefs, therefore, would never act vehemently.[55] For a civic structure, this would mean making no dogmatic value judgments, but instead, organizing the civic structure in such ways that seems rational given the particular appearance. The civic structure doesn’t have to form any beliefs about any particular act and it doesn’t have to assert the act is in itself good or bad. The civic structure would just have to assert an act seems by appearance rational or irrational and thus should be un-dogmatically promoted or prevented.

Plato, Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus each offer an ethical response to the culture in which they lived. Each tradition either offers, or can be modified to offer, a guide on how to organize a civic structure. Are any of these traditions an appealing response to the ethical and political culture in contemporary society? Since at least the 18th century with the proliferation of early modern liberal political thinkers, citizens from all over the world have gathered to protest and revolt against their governments for the sake of individual rights. The call for individual rights has been a prominent characteristic of contemporary culture. Liberalism calls for individuals to be regarded as rational agents who are capable of determining for themselves their own conception of the good life, and thus, are due freedom for pursuing their own conceptions of the good life. As such, rational agents must have particular rights; free speech, free assembly, freedom to choose one’s own religion and morality, freedom to participate in the political process, and freedom to own personal property. Many arguments have been given for and against liberalism. But, what can’t be denied is people all over the world are calling for some recognition of themselves as being rational agents with indubitable rights. The question posed is if one of the ancient traditions is appealing to contemporary culture. Such a question requires a descriptive account of what contemporary culture is. Contemporary culture is a culture of liberalism.

Skepticism cannot offer an appealing response to those calling for individual rights. The skeptical practice of suspending judgment seems to be in accord with the liberal claim each individual is rational and thus can decide and act on their own conception of the good life. The skeptic by suspending judgment on different ways of life would be implicitly accepting of individuals deciding for themselves what their own conception of the good life is. Such inclusiveness could be very appealing because it allows for ataraxia. However, liberal ideology posits absolute value claims. Every individual[56] is beyond doubt rational and allowing individuals to decide for themselves what their own conception of the good life is, is absolutely right. Liberalism doesn’t allow for suspension of judgment on such matters. The true skeptic would have to assert they don’t know if anyone is rational and they don’t know if anyone should decide for themselves what their own conception of the good life is. To assert one is due individual rights is to assert an absolute value judgment regarding the claim. The skeptical summum bonum of ataraxia could be appealing to promoting individual conceptions of the good life, but the skeptical agogē of epochē would conflict with claims for individual rights.

Plato’s ethical egoism also conflicts with liberalism. Plato’s conception of the individual having a relation to others in society, and the welfare of the entire society being dependent upon harmonious relations of each to all, is an appealing aspect of the theory. However, Plato conceives of most people as being irrational and requiring an absolute ruler over them for their own good. Plato’s ethical egoism denies many individuals any sort of individual rights, claiming it is for their own good they have no rights. The best agogē for Plato would entail justice. Justice entails individuals performing the function assigned to them and being absolutely ruled because they are deterministically irrational, unable to control their appetites. Liberals would reject Plato’s psychological conception of individual rationality being deterministic and thus would reject Plato’s agogē.

Aristotle’s virtue ethics would be the most appealing theory for contemporary liberalism.[57] The normative guide of aiming for the mean in all acts could incorporate the appealing aspects of Sextus Empiricus’ skeptical relativism and Plato’s ethical egoism. Skeptical relativism is appealing because of the humility of the epochē regarding different conceptions of the good life. Such humility could be seen as a virtue in between the vices of arrogance and insecurity regarding one’s own conceptions of the good life. Plato’s ethical egoism is appealing because it directly ties the well-being of the individual to the well-being of society. Such a concern for one’s relations with society could be a virtue in between the vices of self-centeredness and selflessness. Most importantly, contrary to Plato’s ethical egoism, virtue ethics conceives of individuals as rational beings who can learn to be virtuous. The claim individuals can learn to be virtuous implicitly implies individuals have at least some freewill over themselves and their lives. Liberals would agree profusely that individuals are rational beings who can shape themselves and their lives.

Contemporary society is a liberal society. Plato’s ethical egoism does not allow for individual rights. Sextus Empiricus’ skeptical relativism does not allow for individual rights to be asserted with the absolute conviction required for their implementation and maintenance. Virtue ethics allows for individual rights and allows for individual rights to be asserted with conviction. The appealing aspects of Plato’s ethical egoism and Sextus Empiricus’ skeptical relativism can be incorporated into virtue ethics. Therefore, of the three traditions, virtue ethics is the most appealing to contemporary liberal culture.


[1] An analysis of each thinker’s ethical theory in relation to political theory requires a much more in depth analysis than I am able to do for this paper. Due to the limitations on space, I have limited myself to a very preliminary and simple outline of the correlation between each ethical theory and political theory. My hope is that such a preliminary and simple outline could instigate further conversation on this topic.

[2] Plato lived circa 428-347 BCE.

[3] Republic, 338c

[4] 343b-344c

[5] 353e

[6] 353b-354c

[7] 368e; 435c-444e

[8] 435c-444e

[9] 428-429a

[10] 514a-521b

[11] 416d-417b; 535a-540a

[12] 420a-c

[13] 421b-c; Lamarche, lecture 05/20/13

[14] 389b-c; 415a-c; 421b-c; Larmarche, lecture 05/20/13

[15] Aristotle lived 384-322 BCE.

[16] Nicomachean Ethics, BK I, Chapter 7

[17] Ibid.

[18] Politics – A Treatise on Government, 1252a-1252b; 1280a, online, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6762/6762-h/6762-h.htm

[19] 1264b; Against Plato’s assertion in the Republic claiming happiness of the whole is paramount.

[20] Nicomachean Ethics, BK I, Chapter 7

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] BK I, Chapter 8; BK I, Chapter 13

[25] BK I, Chapter 9

[26] BK II, Chapter 6

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lamarche, lecture 06/03/13

[31] Pyrrho lived circa 365-360 BCE to 275-270 BCE.

[32] Lamarche, lecture 06/05/13

[33] Sextus Empiricus lived circa 160-210 CE.

[34] Larmarche, lecture 06/05/13

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Outlines of Pyrrhonism, BK I, Chapter IV; BK I, Chapter XII

[39] Larmarche, lecture 06/10/13

[40] BK I, Chapter VI

[41] BK I, Chapter XII

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Larmarche, lecture 06/05/13

[45] Throughout Book III of Outlines of Scepticism, from sections 197-237 specifically.

[46] Outlines of Pyrrhonism, BK I, Chapter X

[47] BK I, Chapter XI

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Lamarche, lecture 06/3/13

[51] Ibid.

[52] My argument regarding Aristotle’s conception of the psychological role of rationality would align with his political theory. Fred Miller points out justice for Aristotle means to treat equal persons equally and unequal persons unequally, thus benefits should be distributed based on merit. The end of the polis is “‘the good life’ that is, a life consisting of noble actions (1280b39–1281a4).” Therefore, political rights are assigned to those who contribute fully to the community with, among other things, virtue. It is “the rule of the aristoi, i.e., best persons.” See Fred Miller, “Aristotle’s Political Theory,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/

Adding Miller’s observation to my claim, those who would be considered worthier of political rights, thus afforded more rights to rule themselves, would be those who have (among other things) cultivated through habituation better dispositions to act rationally, i.e. “virtue.” Such individuals would be the “best persons.” Everyone has the ability to act rationally, thus everyone has the ability to rule themselves, some just have better dispositions to actually do so.

[53] It is important to note the term “human” should be taken to mean what Aristotle considered “freemen.” Aristotle draws a distinction between freemen, women, and slaves. He argued while freemen can have more rule over themselves, women and slaves are predetermined to be irrational, thus must be ruled, because women and slaves have the souls of animals whose actions are dictated primarily by the appetites. Aristotle argues women and slaves have a weak faculty of reason, comparable to “tame animals”; “a slave can have no power of determination, a woman but a weak one.” Aristotle extends rationality to all freemen, whereas, Plato extends irrationality, thus the need to be absolutely ruled, to almost all freemen. Politics – A Treatise on Government, 1259b-1260a; 1254a-1254b, online, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6762/6762-h/6762-h.htm

[54] Sextus Empiricus’ skeptical relativism views ataraxia as the summum bonum. If one considers ataraxia as leading to eudaimonia, then it could be argued the summum bonum of skeptical relativism is similar to Plato’s ethical egoism and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. However, it could also be argued ataraxia in skeptical relativism is a quietude and it is this quietude that is the end sought after. Eudaimonia may be a consequence of ataraxia, but it is not the end sought. Therefore, the summum bonum of Sextus Empiricus’ skeptical relativism could just as equally be argued to be similar or dissimilar to Plato’s ethical egoism and Aristotle’s virtue ethics.

[55] Larmarche, lecture 06/10/13

[56] Even those who commit heinous crimes are deemed rational, free agents. This is how liberalism accounts for individuals being responsible for their actions. The only exception is those who are legally deemed to be insane.

[57] Martha Nussbaum, a contemporary liberal, argues Aristotle’s virtue ethics can and has been reasonably incorporated by contemporary liberals into the ethical theories of early modern liberals John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. Cf. Martha Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?” in The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1999), pp. 163-201. Further, Nussbaum herself has incorporated virtue ethics into her own liberal political theory. Cf. Martha Nussbaum, “The Future of Feminist Liberalism,” in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 74, No. 2 (Nov. 2000), pp. 47-79.

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