Greek Ethics


Commodus: You wrote me once that the four virtues of a man were wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read this I knew I had none of them. But I have ambition, that can be a virtue sometimes, resourcefulness, courage, maybe not on the battlefield but there are many forms of courage, and devotion, to my family, to you. But none of my virtues were on your list.

– Gladiator

The ancient Greek Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle studied the traditional ethics of their society and came up with a set of virtues or habits of character that were pretty much universally agreed upon. In Hellas, virtue or arete meant excellence, especially excellence regarding the end or goal of a thing. The excellence of a knife is the cutting and how well it did that. The excellence of a human being is the fulfilling of a human’s end or goal. So they looked at what characteristics made someone excellent in their society. The first listing of these were in some early Platonic Dialogues, where Plato recreates some of the debates that his teacher Socrates participated. Laches discussed Courage (andreia), Charmides discussed Temperance (sophrosune), Euthyphro discussed Piety (Eusebia). Later, in the Republic, Plato analyses Justice (dikaiosune), and the whole point of the dialogues was to discover Wisdom (sophia). Those are the five cardinal virtues of the ancient world, at base. The Republic also goes into detail about how Justice is the product of balancing the three parts of the soul (appetitive, spirited, and reason, each with its particular virtue, i.e., temperance, courage, and wisdom) to produce virtue.

Those four, temperance, courage, wisdom and justice become the Four Cardinal or Philosophical Virtues, which are adopted by Cicero and the Stoics as part of their ethical system. From there they are adopted by St. Augustine and others, and to which are added the Three Theological Virtues (faith, hope and charity from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians) to form the Seven Cardinal Virtues, which are contrasted to the Seven Deadly Sins (discussed in the movie Seven).

Plato’s student, Aristotle looked into and discussed virtues in more detail with his Nichomachean Ethics. There he discusses what the ends of ethics are, and concludes it is happiness or flourishing (depending on how one translates eudaimonia — literally “good spiritedness”). In examining the traditional ethics of the time he concludes that virtue is a mean between two extremes, an excess and deficiency. Virtues are also a type of habit and must be incurred from a young age, as one follows role models, advice and actually doing the actions associated with these character traits.

A full list of his virtues and vices can be found here and here. A quick perusal would show that some virtues of that time are strange to us. Such as Pride…Bertrand Russell once noted that the passage about the Proud (the megalopsuchic or “great souled” man) made him shudder. Despite his humanism and atheism, 2000 years of Christianity had permeated his consciousness. Note this is proper pride, pride in one’s character and accomplishment, not mere boastfulness, which is an excess and a vice (hubris or overweening pride). The Christian virtue of humility is a vice, a deficiency. In ancient Greece one expected to have one’s achievements acknowledged fairly…and ignoring or downplaying anothers achievements could lead to revenge. Kaufman in his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist points to the similarity of proper pride to elements of Nietzsche’s Overman, and argues for an Aristotelian influence, along with extended quotes from the Nichomachean Ethics.

Interestingly, Aristotle divides wisdom into an intellectual virtue (sophia) and a practical virtue, phronesis or practical wisdom. Phronesis is the proper matching of means to ends, and could result, in itself in attaining and summarizing the other virtues. Seneca certainly thought so.

Aristotle also acknowledges that one could fail to fulfill a virtue, despite knowing it is the good, due to a lack of will (acrasia). As St. Paul said, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This distinguished him from Plato and Socrates who felt that no one knowingly did the wrong or bad. (The Socratic paradox). On the other hand, Plato realized that virtues of the Aristotelian sort, being habitual tend to fall apart in non-habitual situations.

To use an archery example, the incontinent or weak willed man is like an archer who knows the mark but fails to hit it due to being overcome by, say, pleasure…and the intemperate man who intentionally seeks excess pleasure. The interesting modern, Christianized meaning of temperance is total abstinence. (The Women’s Temperance League sought not moderate alcohol consumption but no alcohol consumption at all). The Greeks acknowledged that some indulgence is a good thing, but going too far is a bad idea.

Aristotle’s concept of the Golden Mean as virtue expresses a common value of Hellenic society, the sense of the importance of balance and moderation. Apollo(n) was thought to have granted this concept to the Greeks as one of the Delphic Maxims: meden agan (nothing too much or nothing to excess, alternately everything in moderation). This sense of balance and moderation was highly esteemed by the Hellenes. It permeates the ethical structure of Aristotle’s thought and even his political thought (in his Politics Aristotle discusses the need for a large middle class to moderate the destabilizing influences of the rich [oligarchy] and the poor [democracy], as well as the need to form a mixed and balanced constitution [politeia], where he presaged Polybius’ discussions of the mixed constiutions or republics of Lakedaimonia and Roma).

Now one thing that will also strike the modern reader as odd, is the lack of moral rules, anything like the Decalogue, Golden Rule or the Kantian Categorical Imperative (or the Wiccan Rede). Nor is there much concern for actions and consequences, such as Utilitarianism. In other words deontological and (modern) teleological ethics didn’t exist. Rather there is a focus on education and character. Education takes up most of the Republic and good chunks of The Nichomachean Ethics and The Politics. If one develops a good character, then one will act rightly without the need to reference rules. At most, one would use maxims and rules of thumb…which is the characteristic of most non-Philosophical ethical texts surviving, such as the Delphic Maxims, Solon’s Precepts, or the Golden Verses of Pythagoras. Take a look at Dr. Kelley’s discussion of base, means and ends here: Key. See his section on aretaic judgments.

Indeed, in the first book of the Republic Socrates (i.e., Plato) shows the limiations of rule based ethics by examining some rules of thumb that other participants provide in answer to the question of what is justice. Context and situation play a role here.

One would also be surprised by the focus on the Good, including of the individual. Happiness is one’s goal, essentially with Aristotle and his successors. The Stoics essentially borrowed large chunks of Aristotle and focused on virtue being its own reward, and how it will lead to apatheia (apathy, or passionlessness) and peace/happiness (ataraxia). This seems to make it a form of ethical egoism. Yet its not entirely self-centered, as concern for and benefits to others fit in well. Some have taken to calling classical ethics “classical egoism” as opposed to both modern ethical and psychological egoism and altruism. It is also not surprising that a modern egoist ethicist such as Ayn Rand explicitly acknowledges the influence of Aristotle on her thinking, and lays out a series of virtues to serve as her philosophy’s ethics.

She’s not the only one. Dissatisfaction with traditional modern ethical theories of deontological and teleological ethics has led to the aretaic turn in modern ethics and an upswing in interest in virtue ethics even outside of Roman Catholicism where it has always been the standard ethical theory since St. Thomas Aquinas’ sythesis of Aristotle and Christianity; and the English Public School System. ;).

Note, since these ethics focus on the end or goal of human existence, they are often called teleological. However to avoid confusion with utilitariaism, scholars prefer eudaimonistic or aretaic as a nomenaclature.

The text of The Nichomachean Ethics is available here In addition to the Four (or Five) Cardinal Virtues, Greek ethics also held other values. The main ones were Eusebia, Kléos, Timé, and Xenia.

One that has already been mentioned is that of Moderation, or keeping to the Mean or the Middle Path. This is, not in itself unique to Hellenismos. One of the Confucian Classics is the Great Mean, and Chinese philosophy traditionally also valued Té or Virtue, (often divided into Five Cardinal Virtues as well); while Buddhism also valued the Middle Path as well.

Eusebia (piety) has been mentioned in the discussion of virtues as one possible Fifth Cardinal Virtue. Like the other virtues, the Hellenes viewed eusebia as a mean between two extremes. At one extreme was aesebia or impiety, which in essence meant failure to participate in or perform the traditional rituals of worship to the Gods, Demigods, Nature Spirits, Heroes and Ancestors. These were usually public rituals, done by the community or the locality or the clan. Rarely was belief contrary to the accepted tradition criticized. Anaxagoras and Socrates both were put on trial by Athens for their teachings. Socrates was also satirized savagly by Aristophanes in The Clouds.

On the other hnad, at the other extreme was excessive piety, which came in for as much criticism as insufficient piety. Those who spent too much time fearing the Gods, or worrying that something they had done had offended the Gods, or spent all their free time praying at the altars, or attending to the divine images constantly, adjusting the offered peploi and the like led some to make the witty remark that “the Gods do not need bodyservants.” This excessive devotion or fear was derided as deisidaimonia, literally “fear of the spirits (or Gods)” which meant, and is translated as superstition (via the Latin equivalent term of superstitio.

So one should be mindful of the Gods and their gifts, and make the appropriate prayers and propitiations. But one should not abase oneself (which is why one stands when praying, rather than kneeling). The relationship with the Gods is not one of ignoring or denying them, nor is it one of excessive and slavish abasement and adoration. One stands in relation to the Gods as a free person, dealing with a free person of higher status.

Another value of great importance was the related values of Timé, Kléos (Honor and Fame) and Aidos (Shame).

The film, Troy did get the desire for fame very well. One tried to do acts that would be remembered by the community and others. The warriors at Troy, to the extent that one believes they existed have won fame that has lasted three thousand years. In the ancient world, people still came, as late as the time of the Emperor Julian to the Tombs and Shrines of those heroes. Even now, people visit (W)Ilios in large part of the enduring fame of Akhilleus, Odysseus, Hektor, Aineas, Agammemnon and the others. Successful people were rewarded by poems in their memory, statues erected by their cities and the like. This classical value still persists in some areas strongly influenced by classical civilization. To this day, if you ask Latin Americans (males, primarily) if they’d rather be written into the Empyrean Lamb’s Book of Life or have a street named after them, or a statue erected to them in Central Park, they will, almost without fail, seek Kléos and Timé over Christian Salvation, if forced to make the choice. How do they seek to gain these statues and fame? By excellence in their actions, demonstrating skill, bravery, etc.

Honor was also an important value. By doing great deeds that helped the community, not only did they win memories for themselves, but also win honors. Until recently, with the rise of individualistic and internalized ethics, honor was not something internal. We can console ourselves today that we acted with honor. And I’m sure to an extent, an ancient Greek could console himself in that manner. But in essense, honor is something granted by the community. It is community recognition for one’s actions and accomplishments and skills. Over and over again, I would read how one sought honors from the community so they could claim honor. Growing up in our internalized guilt-oriented modern world this made no sense, until I examined other modern socieities. Once again, my Latino heritage explained it via a survival of classical values there, and I confirmed this by other studies of the ancient world.

Ancient Greece was an honor-shame society, much as modern Italy, Sicily, Spain and Latin America are (as is China, Japan and the Middle East). Honor is granted by society, and so one is considered honored by the honors granted by one’s community and one’s peers. One is jealous of the honor one gains, as one may lose it based on community reactions. In more modern sense, to lose honor is to lose face. Certain types of action are considered as acting with honor, and society recognizes that and says you have honor, often giving a title.

Hence Akhilleus’ negatie reaction to the claim of Agamemnon to Briseis, espcially as it was done in front of the army entire. He lost face by that action, and Agamemnon’s claim that the army did not need the courage and skill (andreia) of Akhilleus. So Akhilleus sulked in his tent for being dishonored. We normally think of Akhilleus as acting childishly here. But he wasn’t. He states his intention to go on strike and prove how the army needs him, to restore his honor in the eyes of the army, and to have it restored to him publicly. He plans on shaming Agamemnon, and he eventually succeeds. Without Akhilleus, not only can the Akhaiwoi army fail to conquer Wilios, it can hardly defend its own ships.

Aidos, or shame, is also a public thing, granted by the public. People shame you, or expect you to feel shame by their reaction to you. One is then ashamed, and not honored. Rather than an internal (guilt) response, it is a public response often resulting in ostracism and shunning. In Spanish there is the phrase “sin vergüernza” (without shame). To be without shame, or shameless is a bad thing, as a lack of shame means you don’t care what others think and will act in a socially negative manner. Its as if one is guiltless despite of how one acts, i.e., a sociopath.

So the overall effect is to encourage people to engage in socially positive manners, and so gain Timé and avoid socially negative manners and so avoid accumulating excessive aidos or shame.

The last major value that Hellenic society preferred value is Xenia or hospitality. One was expected to offer hospitality (food, drink, shelter) to suppliants (beggars or prisoners), strangers and the like. Offering hospitality created a bond with one’s guest. The guest was expected to behave, and treat the host well, and the host had to treat the guest well, and protect the host. It formed a sacred bond of guest-friendship, as the guest was obligated to reciprocate if the host ever needed anything.

The most dramatic form of this hospitality came in the ritual of hiketeia. If someone grasped one’s knees in supplication, one had to provide protection to this supplicant. Usually this was someone you had bested in battle. It meant one had a duty to protect the person until they were ransomed (if a prisoner). Less extreme versions were more common.

Failure to provide shelter, or protection could be very bad. If one broke the bonds of guest-friendship, by stealing from or abusing one’s host, one had broken a key bond of society, and became an outcast. Paris violated this bond seriously by stealing Menelaos’ wife, Helen, and sparked a war. The suitors were poor guests, and paid for it with their lives when Odysseus returned to Ithaka. On the other hand, poor hosts, such as the Kuklopes could be harmed by their guests in retaliation.

Failure to respect Hiketeia or supplicants could also be very serious. Agamemnon fails to respond properly to Khryses’ petition to return his captive daughter. As a result of the abuse Agamemnon heaps on the old priest, Apollon punishes the Akhaian camp. When Akhilleus refuses to honor the hiketeia a Trojan prince performs on the banks of the Scamander river, the River God attacks Akhilleus to punish his inhospitality and pride. On the other hand, when Priam comes to ask for the body of Hektor, Akhilleus receives the old King graciously and with the proper respect for a suppliant and returns the body. (The Iliad opens with Agamemnon’s inhospitality, and closes with Akhilleus’ hospitality a neat contrast; much as the Odyssey contrasts the poor hosts, the Kuklopes with the good hosts, of Scheria, the good guests of Odysseus’s men versus the poor guests of the suitors).

Thus we can see the importance placed on piety, honor, shame, glory/fame and hospitality in ancient Hellas. We can also see how moral lessons were contained in the Epic poems of Homer which serve as exemplars and cautionary tales.


1 Response to Greek Ethics

  1. Jessye Jess says:

    Amo as máximas Délficas, não conhecia os versos dourados de Pitágoras mas já estou apaixonada.

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