Virtue Ethics in the Ancient World

Phil. 6396, Greek Moral Theory, 1992

Virtue ethics is an approach to ethics that its adherents see as importantly different from, and superior to, two major modern rival approaches, utilitarianism and (Kantian) deontic theories. From a few sporadic early writers and books in the 1950's and 60's, this approach has steadily grown in popularity until it now claims a number of prominent adherents. Virtue ethics proponents are now even tackling issues of practical and applied ethics, arguing for the workability and plausibility of their approach.

What is virtue ethics? For some useful background, students should look at two survey articles published in the American Philosophical Quarterly: Gregory E. Pence, "Recent Work on Virtues" (APQ 21: 1984)), and Gregory Trianosky, "What is Virtue Ethics All About?" (APQ 27: 1990). Also, for a crucial book that helped launch the new wave of virtue ethics, see Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (Notre Dame: 1981).

Most modern virtue ethicists acknowledge an important debt to the ancient Greek moral tradition, particularly to Plato and (even moreso) to Aristotle. In this course we will study the foundations of virtue ethics in some important texts of these ancient authors. We will read in Plato very selectively, an early treatment of one virtue, temperance, in the Charmides, and the first full account of the so-called unity of the virtues in the Protagoras. We will then read selections from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics focusing on the nature of moral virtue and on specific virtues. Though they are far less frequently cited by modern thinkers, the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics also made extremely important contributions to the theory of the virtues. In recent years, these Stoic authors have been given new and improved translations and have also been subject to increased scholarly attention, highlighting ways in which their approach to the virtues differed significantly from that of Plato and Aristotle. It should prove intriguing to see why and how the Stoics were prompted, relatively early on, to introduce revisions into their predecessors' theories. Perhaps their critical vantage point on Plato and Aristotle can inspire in us some similar critical insights as we consider the enthusiastic modern endorsement of "Greek" approaches to the virtues.

Books Ordered in the UC Bookstore


  • Plato, Charmides, tr. West and West (Hackett)
  • Plato, Protagoras, tr. Lombardo and Bell (Hackett)
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, tr. Irwin (Hackett)
  • Epictetus, Handbook, tr. White (Hackett)
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, tr. Grube (Hackett)
  • Inwood and Gerson, eds., Hellenistic Philosophy (Hackett)


  • Terence Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory (Oxford)
  • Amelie Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (California)
  • Malcolm Schofield and Gisela Striker, ed., The Norms of Nature (Cambridge)

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    February 14, 1996