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A History of Ancient Greece

The Glory That Was Greece

Date:        1992


 

Ancient Greece and Ethics

Early Greece was the birthplace of Western philosophical ethics. The ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who flourished in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, will be discussed in the next section. The sudden blooming of philosophy during that period had its roots in the ethical thought of earlier centuries. In the poetic literature of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, there were, as in the early development of ethics in other cultures, ethical precepts but no real attempts to formulate a coherent overall ethical position. The Greeks were later to refer to the most prominent of these poets and early philosophers as the seven sages, and Plato and Aristotle frequently quote them with respect. Knowledge of the thought of this period is limited, for often only fragments of original writings, along with later accounts of dubious accuracy, remain.

Pythagoras (c. 580-c. 500 BC), whose name is familiar because of the geometrical theorem that bears his name, is one such early Greek thinker about whom little is known. He appears to have written nothing at all, but he was the founder of a school of thought that touched on all aspects of life and that may have been a kind of philosophical and religious order. In ancient times the school was best known for its advocacy of vegetarianism, which, like that of the Jainas, was associated with the belief that after the death of the body, the human soul may take up residence in the body of an animal. Pythagoreans continued to espouse this view for many centuries, and classical passages in the works of such writers as Ovid and Porphyry opposing bloodshed and animal slaughter can be traced back to Pythagoras.

Ironically, an important stimulus for the development of moral philosophy came from a group of teachers to whom the later Greek philosophers--Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle--were consistently hostile: the Sophists. This term was used in the 5th century to refer to a class of professional teachers of rhetoric and argument. The Sophists promised their pupils success in political debate and increased influence in the affairs of the city. They were accused of being mercenaries who taught their students to win arguments by fair means or foul. Aristotle said that Protagoras, perhaps the most famous of them, claimed to teach how "to make the weaker argument the stronger.

"The Sophists, however, were more than mere teachers of rhetorical tricks. They saw their role as imparting the cultural and intellectual qualities necessary for success, and their involvement with argument about practical affairs led them to develop views about ethics. The recurrent theme in the views of the better known Sophists, such as Protagoras, Antiphon, and Thrasymachus, is that what is commonly called good and bad or just and unjust does not reflect any objective fact of nature but is rather a matter of social convention. It is to Protagoras that we owe the celebrated epigram summing up this theme, "Man is the measure of all things." Plato represents him as saying, "Whatever things seem just and fine to each city, are just and fine for that city, so long as it thinks them so." Protagoras, like Herodotus, was an early social relativist, but he drew a moderate conclusion from his relativism. He argued that while the particular content of the moral rules may vary, there must be rules of some kind if life is to be tolerable. Thus Protagoras stated that the foundations of an ethical system needed nothing from the gods or from any special metaphysical realm beyond the ordinary world of the senses.

The Sophist Thrasymachus appears to have taken a more radical approach--if Plato's portrayal of his views is historically accurate. He explained that the concept of justice means nothing more than obedience to the laws of society, and, since the strongest political group in their own interests makes these laws, justice represents nothing but the interests of the stronger. This position is often represented by the slogan "Might is right." Thrasymachus was probably not saying, however, that whatever the mightiest do really is right; he is more likely to have been denying that the distinction between right and wrong has any objective basis. Presumably he would then encourage his pupils to follow their own interests as best they could. He is thus an early representative of Skepticism about morals and perhaps of a form of egoism, the view that the rational thing to do is follow one's own interests.

It is not surprising that with ideas of this sort in circulation other thinkers should react by probing more deeply into ethics to see if the potentially destructive conclusions of some of the Sophists could be resisted. This reaction produced works that have served ever since as the cornerstone for the entire edifice of Western ethics.

 

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