Intro to Ethics: The Early Greeks

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 8, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics


Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, we looked at the very earliest ethical systems. Today, we examine the shift to a more rigorous and systematic approach to ethics invented by the ancient Greeks. This approach to ethics remains the strategy of moral philosophy today.

Let’s begin with the Homeric plays. The word ἀγαθός (agathos), the ancestor of our word “good,” means something like “brave, cunning, wealthy and victorious.” This is what is celebrated in a person. Moreover, your character does not make you agathos, only your actions. If you are brave and smart but fail to defeat and outsmart your enemy, you are not agathos. And finally, “in Homer we cannot find ought.”1 This is why Odysseus can blame the suitors for having a false belief, something most people today don’t think we could blame anyone for:

Dogs, you did not think that I would return home from Troy; for you have consumed my possessions, lain with my maidservants by force, and wooed my wife while I was yet alive, fearing neither the gods who inhabit the broad heaven, nor yet that there would be any retaliation from men hereafter; but now the doom of death is upon you all.2

Or consider the word ἀρετή (arete), usually translated as “virtue.” To have arete is to perform your socially allotted function. A king’s arete is in his ability to command, a warrior’s arete is in courage in battle, a wife’s arete is in fidelity, and so on. Few of us think of goodness and virtue like the ancient Greeks did, but this is what they praised and encouraged.

As in many religious systems and in Confucius, ancient Greek ethics focused on that which brought social cohesion and the triumph of one’s own tribe and culture.


But not everybody in Greece spoke of ethics this way. Consider Protagoras’ famous proclamation:

Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.

Plato interpreted this as relativism. When judging a wind that is warm to one man but cold to another, the wind is neither warm nor cold in itself, but rather seems warm to one man and cold to another – and morality is the same way. Thus, what is justice-at-Corinth is different than what is justice-at-Athens, and there is no way to “decide” between them.


But few were happy with relativism. Socrates, whom we “know” mostly through the dialogues of Plato, did not think ethics were relative. Like the Buddhists and Jains, he thought the good life was one of developing one’s character, not the pursuit of material wealth. He advocated wisdom and the pursuit of knowledge.

Next time we look at the first major ethical philosopher (indeed, the first major philosopher on almost every subject), Plato.

  1. Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, page 7. []
  2. The Odyssey, book 12. []

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Hylomorphic June 9, 2009 at 8:16 am

This summary is a bit misleading. The Heroic ethic of Homer was not really in effect at the time of Protagoras and Socrates. As the social structure moved from the scattered tribes and kingdoms to the structured polis, so too the lived principles of ethics changed.  Homer remained a major cultural force in Greek society, but his ethics were not followed uncritically.

Also, it should be noted that there were a number of other pre-Socratic philosophers spoke on matters of ethics. Pythagoras comes to mind.


lukeprog June 9, 2009 at 3:44 pm


Obviously, I never implied that there were not other important pre-Socratic ethicists in ancient Greece, nor did I imply that Protagoras and Socrates were from the same time as Homer. These history of ethics posts are EXTREME summaries, skipping almost everything.


Hylomorphic June 9, 2009 at 8:30 pm

I don’t think you intended to, obviously. But it could easily be misread that way.


Yair June 10, 2009 at 2:20 pm

hmph. I consider Socrates to be the first major philosopher on nearly everything, ethics included, and Plato an unfortunate religious deviation on the way to Aristotle. But I’ll wait for the next installment.


lukeprog June 10, 2009 at 3:10 pm


Unfortunately, we’re not sure how much Socrates actually did or believed, and how much of him is a creation of Plato. Socrates didn’t leave any writings.


Yair June 11, 2009 at 10:56 am

Well, the professors that taught me always insisted that the voice of Socrates can be heard through the rhetoric of Plato – in the early dialogues. For example, in Protagoras, Socrates effectively concludes “To prefer evil to good is not in human nature”; there is no hint of the occult, transcendental, the One, or any metaphysical bullshit – there is human nature, suffering, happiness, practical virtues, and so on, all real-stuff.

I don’t think Socrates’ morals are spot-on, but they’re far better than Plato’s.


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