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The Virtuous Life in Greek
Ethics will be of possible interest to two overlapping audiences: those
who want to make sense of the ethical writings of the philosophers of ancient
Greece, especially Plato and Aristotle, and those who are invested in the
ongoing project of "virtue ethics," which is an attempt to move
beyond the perennial debate between consequentialists and deontologists by
finding a fresh approach in contemporary ethical theory. In fact, however, this
festschrift for the highly respected classical scholar Dorothea Frede is aimed
primarily at the first of these target audiences, for its various authors are
well-respected thinkers who presume that readers are not only fairly familiar
with the primary texts but also have a decent grasp of the many problems that
occupy the philosophers and classicists who work on them.
After a brief synoptic introduction,
readers are first offered four essays on Plato, each of which engages in a
close and careful reading of a particular passage from one of Plato's dialogues.
All of these essays seriously engage with the literary form of the passage in
question as well as with its philosophical content. In "Dialectic and
Virtue in Plato's Protagoras," James Allen considers the lengthy set
of passages in which Socrates and Protagoras explore the intriguing yet
puzzling idea of the unity of the virtues. Socrates' arguments for the thesis
that the apparently many virtues somehow form a single whole may seem flawed in
various respects. But Allen argues that they are not simply examples of bad
reasoning, for we can discern significant "dialectical progress" in
this succession of arguments.
Interpreters of Plato's dialogues
often distinguish between an "early" Socrates who is largely in the
business of cross-examining people and a "middle" Socrates who is
entirely comfortable expounding positive (and putatively Platonic rather than
Socratic) doctrine. In "Ethics and Argument in Plato's Socrates," Julia
Annas contends that such a simplistic picture of Plato's development cannot
give a satisfactory account of dialogues such as Euthydemus and Theaetetus,
where Socrates is depicted as doing both of these things at once without any
hint of schizophrenia. Annas therefore urges us to consider a more unitarian
reading of the Platonic corpus.
David Sedley, in "The Speech
of Agathon in Plato's Symposium," characterizes this relatively underappreciated
speech as "sub-Socratic." Sedley shows that Agathon's speech is
informed by various Socratic (or Platonic) intuitions and, even more
importantly, that it serves to prepare the reader for Diotima's portrayal of
Platonic love as a fertile union with the Beautiful itself that gives birth to
true virtue. Sedley also locates this reading of Agathon within a broader
interpretation of the dialogue on which each of the several speeches progresses
closer to a genuine understanding of Love.
Mary Margaret McCabe ventures into
the well-trodden but not yet very well-understood territory of the middle books
of Plato's Republic in her "Is Dialectic as Dialectic Does? The
Virtue of Philosophical Conversation." Arguably we cannot understand the Republic's
metaphysics and epistemology without understanding dialectic, for it is the
method by which the philosopher-ruler comes to know the Forms and in particular
the Form of the Good. Does a philosopher passively perceive the Form of the
Good in a kind of intellectual vision, as the famous sun simile might suggest?
McCabe argues not and gives a novel and interesting account of dialectic as a
discursive method, depicting it as a conversation the soul has with itself.
Among other things, she thereby presents a unified account of the philosopher's
cognition, for dialectic is always conversational in its structure.
Four essays on Aristotle follow,
each of which tackles some crucial topic in Aristotelian ethics. In "What
Use is Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean?" Christof Rapp tries to understand
and defend Aristotle's rather infamous and much-criticized doctrine that virtue
is a mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Rapp argues that many
attacks on the doctrine are founded on mistaken suppositions about its nature
and purpose and thus lose their force if it is better understood. Crucially, he
argues that we must reject the assumption that the doctrine of the mean is
meant to supply a practical guide to virtuous action.
Aristotle opens the Nicomachean
Ethics with a discussion of the ultimate end for human beings and the
science that takes that end as its object: politike, or political
science. But in spite of this, scholars have not generally read the Ethics
as a work of political science, nor have they done all that much to connect the
Ethics with Aristotle's Politics. Gisela Striker argues that we
need to reverse this trend in "Aristotle's Ethics as Political Science."
A central plank in her argument is the claim that we should look to Aristotle's
account of justice to supply the general principles that govern the virtuous
agent's ethical deliberation.
Many of Aristotle's ethical notions
have received an extraordinary amount of attention. But others have received
relatively little. One such is epieikeia, usually translated as "equity,"
which is Christoph Horn's subject in "Epieikeia: the Competence of
the Perfectly Just Person in Aristotle." Horn's aim is not only to give
an interpretation of epieikeia that best makes sense of Aristotle's
text, but to use this account to show that it is a mistake to read Aristotle as
a robust ethical particularist. Both Striker and Horn, then, take up the
question of the role of general principles--especially principles of justice--in
Aristotle's picture of ethical deliberation
According to Aristotle, the
ultimate end for human beings is happiness (eudaimonia), which consists
in rational activities done in accordance with the virtues. One of Aristotle's
problems, then, is to show how it is that the virtues contribute to an agent's
own happiness. Interestingly, if Aristotle is able to solve this problem,
modern readers are likely to confront him with yet another problem, for it may
seem that he has given an objectionably self-centered justification of ethical
virtue. Jan Szaif shows how Aristotle might navigate in the space between
these two problems in his "Aristotle on the Benefits of Virtue,"
focusing much of his attention on Aristotle's account of friendship and the
infamous thesis that the most perfectly happy life is the life of contemplation
(theoria), found in Book IX and Book X of Nicomachean Ethics,
The Virtuous Life in Greek
Ethics closes with a trio of essays concerning other ancient ethicists, the
first two of which concern Epicurus. In "Epicurean "Passions"
and the Good Life," David Konstan argues that for Epicurus passion (pathos)
is a much more narrow notion than it is for most other Greek philosophers, for
it encompasses only pleasure and pain and is housed in the non-rational part of
the soul. Other familiar emotions, such as fear and joy, belong to the
rational part of the soul, which explains how it is that our false beliefs get
tangled up with them in order to yield the kind of psychopathology that
Epicurean therapy hopes to diagnose and cure. The most prominent example of
this, of course, is the fear of death, which persists in spite of the fact that
death should be nothing to us, as Epicurus famously says.
Susanne Bobzien's "Moral
Responsibility and Moral Development in Epicurus' Philosophy" takes up the
challenge of showing how Epicurean atomism makes room for moral responsibility
and moral development. If we are composed of atoms, body and soul, and we are
thus embedded in the causal history of the cosmos, how can we be morally
responsible for anything or work to improve our characters? The traditional
answer to this question involves the strange idea that atoms occasionally and
randomly "swerve" in their motions. Bobzien downplays this answer
and instead interprets Epicurus as a compatibilist who believes that we are
free and thus morally responsible when we--rather than something else--are the
causes of our actions. Given that Epicurus describes the soul as constituted
of atoms of different kinds of elements (fire, air, etc.), the causal
mechanisms he discusses will strike modern readers as rather strange, but on
Bobzien's understanding of him, the way he conceptualizes these matters turns
out to be surprisingly familiar.
The final essay, Brad Inwood's "'Who Do We Think We Are?'"
is an examination of the perennially significant notion of personal identity in
the fragments of the poetry of Empedocles. This Empedoclean account of the
identity of human beings assumes a theory of reincarnation, but Inwood argues
that should no more prevent us from appreciating what Empedocles has to say
about the notion of personal identity than does the fact that Locke's
influential account takes for granted the eventual resurrection of human
beings. In fact, it turns out that both Empedocles and Locke think that memory
is crucial to personal identity: both seem to agree that if have memories of
certain experiences, then I am identical to the person who had those
experiences. But Inwood points out that Empedocles also seems to make the more
puzzling claim that I might be identical to a person--or a creature which is
not a person, for that matter--even if I have no memory of its experiences at
The Virtuous Life in Greek
Ethics is a valuable collection of essays that offers new ways of thinking
about important, longstanding, and familiar problems in ancient ethics and that
sometimes manages to break genuinely new ground. Any serious student of
ancient Greek philosophy would be very glad to have access to it.
© 2006 Randall M. Jensen
Randall M. Jensen, Ph.D., is
Associate Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.