Ancient Greek Ethics

The ethical problem arose sharply in the fifth century B.C., in the so-called classical period of philosophy.

For the Greeks, ethics encompassed man as a citizen of the polis, therefore, it was strictly connected with politics. Different from today, in which ethics increasingly focuses on individual rights.

It should be noted, at the outset, that ancient Greek ethics is not uniform, it has conceptual variations. However, we can highlight some characteristics of Greek ethics, such as the valuing of virtue and wisdom, the definition of happiness, and the rational mastery over passions and desires.

In this article we will briefly look at the main philosophers who dealt with this issue.

The ancient Greek ethic

Ancient Greek ethics is focused, for the most part, on the question of the human essence: what is man, after all? What does happiness consist of? Where can we find it?

The Greek philosophers believed that by properly defining the essence of man, one could, from there, present the answers to the great ethical questions.

Ancient Greek ethics revolved around the following philosophical concepts:

  • Soul (psyché): The soul is the center of ancient Greek ethics. Ethics does not bring us any physical benefit such as health or beauty, its purpose is to bring benefit to the soul.
  • Virtue (arete): In Greek, it means excellence. It applies to people as well as objects, for example, the virtue (excellence) of a knife is to cut well; that of a builder is to build well. The most common moral virtues among the Greeks are courage, justice, piety, moderation, etc.
  • Happiness (eudaimonia): is man’s ultimate end, that toward which every man tends. The Greek philosophers sought to define what happiness is and how to achieve it. It is important to note that happiness among the Greeks does not refer to that pleasant and temporary feeling; eudaimonia should be understood more as a way of being that perfects human nature.

The Sophists

For the sophists, there were no universally valid rules or truths, consequently, there is no absolute ethics that determines good and evil universally. Therefore, the ethics of the sophists were subjectivist and relativist.


Socrates was the first philosopher to place man at the center of philosophical reflections. His predecessors, known as philosophers of physis, concentrated their reflections on the origin and principle, arche, of the cosmos.

He went into the public places of ancient Greece to debate with citizens about justice, virtue, the good, etc. His main philosophical method, maieutics, was a dialogue based on questions and answers.

Socrates defended a thesis contrary to that of the sophists. For him there is a knowledge that is universally valid, derived from the knowledge of the human essence, by which we can base a universal morality. What essentially differentiates us from other animals is our reason, we are beings endowed with a rational soul, therefore, it is in reason that ethical norms should be based.

For Socrates, the human soul becomes perfect through science and knowledge. For him, knowledge is the main human virtue, which leads us to ethical conduct. By perfecting our reason, we are able to control our passions, emotions and instincts, that is, we have self-control.

Vice, which is the opposite of virtue, is ignorance of good and evil. He claimed that no one can accomplish evil voluntarily. If one knows what is good, one will do exactly what is good. All moral error stems from ignorance.

For Socrates, therefore, knowledge is enough to achieve happiness.


Plato followed the same path as his master Socrates by proposing a rationalistic ethics, emphasizing the separation of body and soul.

Plato believed that wisdom is the most basic virtue, and through it, all the other virtues could be unified. He, like Socrates, identified wisdom with virtue and vice with ignorance. Achieving the good is related to “understanding well.”

Plato argued that the body was the seat of passions and desires, and this could divert man from the path to goodness.

For this reason, he advocated the necessity of a detachment from the material world in order to achieve the idea of good. However, the human being alone could not reach the path to the good, he needs society, that is, the polis.

For Plato, only the philosopher can achieve the highest level of wisdom, so it is his duty to have the virtue of justice and to govern the city. The other members of the polis with the soldiers and the common laborers are required to have the virtue of temperance, moderation, etc.

In his work The Republic, we can observe in the myth of the cave that only the wise man can free himself from the bonds that forced him to observe only the shadows, and by freeing himself, he could contemplate the sun, which symbolizes the idea of Good.


Aristotle also developed a rationalist ethics. In Aristotelian ethics we find the notions of:

  • happiness;
  • virtue;
  • middle ground;
  • justice;

In his ethical investigations, Aristotle determined what would be man’s ultimate end, which according to him, would be happiness. All men seek happiness, but some believe they find it in wealth, pleasure, or honor. Aristotle strongly disagrees with this view. But what is happiness for Aristotle?

According to Aristotle, happiness consists in the contemplative life, that is, in the perfecting of our reason. Our essence is to be rational, so the path to happiness consists in the development of the intellectual virtues.

For Aristotle, virtue is a habit acquired through an individual’s repetition and effort.

For Aristotle, the good individual is one who, in his actions, does not think only of himself, but will guide his actions so as to benefit others.

Justice for Aristotle is to give to each what is due to him, neither more nor less, that is, the notion of a middle ground applies here as well. There must, according to Aristotle, be a proportion between reward and merit.

Aristotle is an advocate of the ethics of the middle ground, of the balance between two extremes (deficiency and excess), for example, courage is a virtue that lies between cowardice (deficiency) and temerity (excess).

Aristotle’s ethical thought is also linked to political life, since the human being is a social being, he needs to live in society to be happy and to reach the perfection of his nature.


According to the hedonistic ethical conception, good and happiness are found in pleasure.

However, for hedonists, it is not just any kind of pleasure. The pleasures of the body, for example, are understood as causes of suffering and anxiety.

Epicurus of Samos claimed that it was necessary to avoid material pleasure and to desire spiritual pleasures, as in wisdom, for example, or the pleasure of a good friendship.


Stoic ethics opposes Epicureanism by stating that pleasures are the cause of many evils. For Stoicism, individuals should avoid the passions, for they only cause suffering.

The Stoics believed in the doctrine of fatalism, according to which we should accept our fate, because everything that happens is a result of the order of the universe. Happiness would consist in the ability to become insensitive to the suffering and pain of our fate.

Human reason, according to the Stoics, should dominate our instincts through the will. For this reason, they said that the virtue of the wise man is to live according to his reason, his nature, and passively accept fate and pain.

The ethics of Stoicism is based on the search for inner peace and personal self-control, outside the hectic environment of political life.

The fundamental ethical concepts of Stoicism are:

  • apathy (apatheia), being a state of mind in which the individual feels free from all suffering or emotional disturbance;
  • love of fate (amor fati): the Stoic philosophers believed that everything was part of a greater plan of universal reason;
  • ataraxia: the imperturbability of the soul;


Epicurean ethics, which is often confused with hedonism, but which has differences, is characterized by the escape from suffering, pain, and in search of self-control, tranquility of spirit (ataraxia), and spiritual pleasure.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ten + 1 =