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The Virtuous Life in Greek EthicsReview - The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics
by Burkhard Reis (Editor)
Cambridge University Press, 2006
Review by Randall M. Jensen, Ph.D.
Dec 12th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 50)

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, respectively.

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 all.

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.


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