Ancient World Ethics
[Ancient World Ethics]
Ethics, as a part of philosophy, studies the best way for people to live accordingly. This implies studying which actions are right or wrong and the circumstances surrounding them. Ultimately, ethics aims to define what is good for the individual and how can any person achieve such goodness. For that reason, to understand what is good for us as humans, Plato aims to find the highest good, the knowledge of the form to be able to discern thoroughly between right from wrong. However, given the fact that according to Plato not all men are created the same, it will depend on their appetites to discern these ideas. Hence, in Plato’s thought, there are two crucial conceptions of good and what is good for men. The first is in the Symposium when Diotima speaks to Socrates about open nature of the physical beauty, explaining to him that everything that is good lies in the forms, in the essence.
“The very essence of beauty. In that state of life above all others, my dear Socrates,’ said the Mantinean woman, ‘a man finds it truly worthwhile to live, as he contemplates essential beauty.” (Plato: 211d, 1990).
Hence, this means that the contemplation of the forms is the way for men to achieve finally good, and if they do, they will do well to others. The second lies in Republic
“Is it not also true that the sun is not vision, yet as being the cause thereof is beheld by vision itself?” “That is so,” he said. “This, then, you must understand that I meant by the offspring of the good which the good” (Plato: 508b, 1965).
By using the sun as a metaphor, Plato aims to show how the forms are part of the general goodness and that although this good cannot be assessed, once recognized, stays within man forever.
Conversely, Aristotle’s approach is far more empirical and less metaphysical. For the Stagirite, the highest good is living a good life. Only by living a good life can a man be entirely happy. Hence, to Aristotle, happiness is the ultimate goal for any being. Consequently, in Politics, happiness is linked to the community as a man can be happy by itself, but since it lives in a community, it requires to maintain a relation with those who surround him. Hence
“The good life then is the chief aim of society, both collectively for all its members and individually; but they also come together and maintain the political partnership for the sake of life merely.” (Aristotle: 1278b, 1975).
This means that the good life should be a collective goal rather as well as a particular goal. Moreover, in Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle states that the ultimate end must be the good,
“it is clear that this one ultimate End must be the Good, and indeed the Supreme Good. Will not then a knowledge of this Supreme Good be also of great practical importance for the conduct of life?” (Aristotle: 1094b, 1975)
It becomes clear this good does not have an ontological value such as the Platonic good. For that reason, Aristotle links the good with the life and states that a good life is the one on which we conduct our path according to the goodness of the state they live in “Therefore, the Good of man must be the end of the science of Politics.” (Aristotle: 1094b, 1975). In this case, politics understood as the possibility of living in a polis, a city.
Following the teachings of the Cynics, the Stoics considered that the ultimate goal was living a life of internal tranquility. However, it is through reason that the Stoics find the capacity of living a moral life without the intrusion of others. According to Zeno, “Happiness is a good flow of life.” (Stobaeus: 2, 2010). Therefore, by living a life according to the laws of morality, humans will be able to achieve their ultimate goal. Likewise, Zeno believed that our soul is inherently virtuous, rejecting any moral relativism and considering that any individual, regardless of its situation could achieve the harmony necessary to live a good life. Using the idea of nature as the framework on which morality stands, later Stoics such as Epictetus considered that virtue could lead to living a good life. Moreover, he believed that humans are naturally inclined to do good actions given the fact that they are parts of something greater which instantly grant them the ability to be good and achieve happiness by living a virtuous life. “But you are a superior thing; you are a portion separated from the deity; you have in yourself a certain portion of him” (Epictetus: II. 2, 2009). That way, to achieve a life worth living, it only takes to follow the moral rules imposed by nature and stand aside of the quarrels that might disturb their inner peace.
To sum up, the root of all these thoughts regarding how to live a happy life are linked to the belief that by imitating or following certain principles men can achieve stability. In Plato, we found the contemplation of the supreme ideal good. Aristotle considers that the life in the polis can grant humans the happiness they seek, and the Stoics believe that by stepping aside of the human laws and following the nature they could finally achieve peace and live a peaceful life.
Aristotle. (1975). Nichomachean Ethics. In H. Rackham (Trans.), Aristotle in 23 volumes. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Aristotle. (1975). Politics. In H. Rackham (Trans.), Aristotle in 23 volumes (Vol. 21). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Epictetus. (2009). The Enchiridion, or, handbook with a selection from the discourses of Epictetus (G. Long, Trans.). Waiheke Island: Floating Press.
Plato. (1990). Republic. In P. Shorey (Trans.), Plato : In twelve volumes. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.
Plato. (1990). Symposium. In H. Fowler (Trans.), Plato : In Twelve Volumes (Vol. 3). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.
Stobaeus. (2010). Anthologium (C. Wachsmuth, Trans.). Nabu Press.