A History of Ancient Philosophy: From the Beginnings to Augustine

By Karsten Friis Johansen | Go to book overview

23

ETHICS AND POLITICS

'Every practical skill and every methodical inquiry, every action, and every choice apparently aims at some good; hence it has rightly been declared that the good is what all things aim at' (Aristot. Eth. Nic. 1094 a 1 ff.). Aristotle's principal work on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics once again opens with a general statement. It is Aristotle's version of a basic view in the entire Socratic tradition (cf. p. 130). Although he distances himself in many respects from Plato, the Socratic inspiration is at the core of his ethical thought.

Read as a description of human acts, the statement may look like a tautology (cf. 1172 b 35)-that human acts aim at some good, could that mean anything but that human acts aim at something desirable? Yet within the Academy tradition this truism conceals some crucial questions: how to distinguish between the seeming and the truly good; for whom is the good good?

Read as a determination of what moral philosophy is, the statement can-at least in our day-seem more controversial. The ethics of modern philosophy is dominated by a utilitarian tradition, by a Kantian ethics of obligation, and by the view going back to Hume that moral judgements express feelings, not cognition. Both Plato's and Aristotle's ethics cross these lines of demarcation. This is precisely why there have recently been clear tendencies to include Aristotle in the debate. Plato's ethics seems perhaps too rigoristic or utopian. Aristotle's ethical naturalism, on the other hand, appears the more attractive.

Aristotle is in fact an ethical naturalist. As a moral being man is determined by what he is as a natural creature, by what his biological features are. Nature determines man's possibilities for action; ethics deals with how these possibilities are to be used, and therefore ethics is closely connected with a philosophy of action. But, just as little as Plato's, is Aristotle's concept of nature normatively neutral; inasmuch as man by nature is what he is, it follows that something is good for man because it concurs with his nature. Aristotle has no scruples with 'the naturalistic fallacy' and simply concludes from 'is' to 'ought'. To him there is therefore no conflict of principle between obligation and inclination, and it hardly serves any purpose to ask whether he is an adherent of deontological or consequential ethics; the problem is to realize which natural inclinations are 'good'. Man should not follow his duty contrary to nature but cultivate his inner nature so that no conflict arises. Aristotle's is an

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A History of Ancient Philosophy: From the Beginnings to Augustine
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Presocratic Philosophy 9
  • 1 - Myth, Poetry and Philosophy 11
  • 2 - Ionian Natural Philosophy 20
  • 3 - Heraclitus 29
  • 4 - The Pythagoreans 36
  • 5 - The Eleatics 45
  • 6 - Post-Parmenidean Natural Philosophy 59
  • 7 - Medical Science 79
  • Part II - The Great Century of Athens 83
  • 8 - Pericles' Athens 85
  • 9 - Tragedy and View of History 88
  • 10 - The Sophists 99
  • 11 - Socrates 118
  • Part III - Plato 137
  • 12 - Life, Works and Position 139
  • 13 - What is Virtue? Can Virtue Be Taught? 160
  • 14 - Idea and Man 173
  • 15 - The Good Constitution of State and Man 198
  • 16 - The Late Dialogues: Knowledge and Being 213
  • 17 - The Late Dialogues: Nature, Man and Society 236
  • 18 - Plato and the Early Academy 254
  • Part IV - Aristotle 267
  • 19 - Life, Works and Position 269
  • 20 - Logic and Theory of Science 293
  • 21 - Natural Philosophy and Psychology 316
  • 22 - Metaphysics and Theology 343
  • 23 - Ethics and Politics 366
  • 24 - Rhetoric and Poetics 392
  • 25 - The Early Peripatetics 400
  • Part V - Hellenistic Philosophy 405
  • 26 - Science and Philosophy 407
  • 27 - Epicurus 423
  • 28 - Early Stoicism 442
  • 29 - Scepticism 471
  • 30 - Greece and Rome 484
  • Part VI - Late Antiquity 499
  • 31 - Imperial Rome 501
  • 32 - Plotinus 532
  • 33 - Late Neoplatonism 556
  • 34 - Early Christian Thought 569
  • 35 - Augustine 588
  • Abbreviations General 625
  • Bibliography 639
  • Index 663
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