Morality. To what ends in modern times?

About the modernistic aspects of antique and renaissance morals

Academic Paper, 2013

25 Pages

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Table of contents

0. Introduction and definition of the problem

I. Morality in ancient times
1.1 Plato and Aristotle
1.2 Summary
1.3 Stoicism and Epicureanism
1.4 Summary
1.5 Eclecticism and Scepticism
1.6 Summary

II. Renaissance authors
2.1 The adaptation of Plato and Aristotle in the Renaissance
2.2 Summary
2.3 Stoicism and Epicureanism in the Renaissance
2.4 Summary
2.5 Eclecticism and Skepticism in the Renaissance
2.6 Summary

III. Morality: to what ends in modern times?
3.1 Some general conclusions
3.2 The traces of different forms of morality in our times
3.3 Modern Western societies: a lack of shared morality?


0. Introduction and definition of the problem

In modern times, there seems to be a strict division between personal and public life. In ancient Greece, it seemed to be the other way around: only citizens who were able to act as ‘good men’ could also be responsible citizens. Michel Foucault has described this in his seminar cycle Hermeneutics of the self [1], where he examines the life of a Greek Prince, Alcibiades, who is not ready for state affairs, because he has not yet attained the just balance in his self-control. Self-control was considered as a condition for strong leadership.

With Plato and Aristotle we see a kind of ‘ontological morality’, which is based upon the thought that there is some kind of predisposition in one’s nature and that it is possible to adjust one’s moral behavior to that more or less fixed ‘nature’. In Hellenism, we see a shift to the practical aspect of moral philosophy: practical wisdom gets in reach for everyone, unless one is unable to use his rational faculties.

In the Renaissance, morality is placed in a context of Christian faith – in which religion is a binding factor, but not always the most important one. Since the enlightenment, there has been a radical shift towards the liberation of the Self. Though it seems that the emancipation of the modern citizen and his proclaimed self-liberation turned into narcissism; no one wants to be responsible for the shared values in society, since we all have to live up to our own high standards. Leading a good life has become a burden, rather than a tribute to the freedom of choice, as for example in Immanuel Kant’s moral system.

At first – in the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century – personal beliefs were still embedded in political and somewhat dogmatic positions like communism and fascism. Nowadays, we see no binding factor in morality, due to the fact that as a result of globalization financial and economic markets have become more important than a general sense of morality. On the other hand, it would be too easy to state that this could be the only reason for a shattered ‘intelligible’ morality, there are after all no mono-causal explanations for this development towards secularization and individualization in western (and some non-western) societies.[2]

In this paper, I want to show that the emancipation of the Self did not just start in the eighteenth century with the enlightenment, but earlier – even in Hellenism. Basically, my research revolves around the question, to what extent moral standards still have a binding nature; are they useful to let people participate, because they appeal to a personal sense of morality, or are they solely based upon an alleged sensus communis ?

And above that: what did morality mean in Renaissance culture for the individual? Was Jacob Burckhardt right when he interlinked greater political freedom in the Italian cities to a greater personal freedom?[3]

The course of history seems to endorse Burckhardt’s hypothesis. For example humanism and reformation could be seen as an attempt to free oneself from the chains of an overloaded Christian morality, which was Platonic in its nature, as well as ‘ontological’[4]. No proof is indeed needed, when you suppose there is a God who has created life and gave mankind clear guidelines how to live.

I want to conclude this introduction by repeating the main questions: what is ‘modernistic’ in the different ways of thinking about morality that we will investigate? With ‘modernistic’ I mean the tendencies that could turn into narcissism and indifference in our times. And what are the cleavages in respect to a shared morality? These will be the most important questions of my essay. I want to show the oscillation between the private moral demands and the public requirements in order to be a good citizen. I will discuss some philosophical schools concerning these questions in a chronological view, and methodologically, I want to compare every time two succeeding positions with each other. Every paragraph contains a summary of the described ways of thinking with respect to the questions stated above.

I. Morality in ancient times

1.1 Plato and Aristotle

Although Plato has been the most read and quoted philosopher from ancient Greece, as Whitehead stated[5], his work is also anti-democratic in a modern sense with regard to personal freedom. Gerard Koolschijn, a Dutch author, published a book with the revealing title Plato, the attack on democracy [6], in which he tries to expose the dark side of Plato’s moral beliefs, resulting in an anti-democratic political view. It would exceed the limited space I have, to give an extensive description of Koolschijn’s arguments, but I would like to discuss one of them, which he uses to describe Plato’s view on ideal leadership, because it will be very useful to illustrate the role of intellect and wisdom in a personal and thus political sense. It shows that personal morality for Plato is always intertwined with an extrapolation on a higher level, the polis is merely a reflection of the individual’s state of being. About the role of the wrong (democratic) politicians in ancient Greece Koolschijn writes: “With desire as bait, they hunt for stupidity to enrich themselves”.[7] And in another instance: “The ideal, rational society starts to degenerate, when by mistake (…) the wrong people are selected for the education that gives access to political functions. The silver people, who by that mistake will share in the power, want to compensate their own lack of mental gold by introducing also for the leading class private property, and that is the beginning of all misery. The ideal state was based upon a division of political and economic interest. When that foundation disappears, no decent political building can rise. Within the reigning group will sprout disagreement, which leads to compromises, whereby private possession is allowed. Many rational people will lose their purity.”[8]

Plato’s rational division of society overrules personal interest, but on the other hand it excludes large masses of people, who will not be allowed in political functions. The tri-partition of the soul is directly converted into a divided society; the latter must be led by intellectual motives and not by personal interest.[9] In opposition to these anti-democratic tendencies, there is a strong plea for a greater good: the individual must uphold an ideal greater than what is good for him personally. And the tool for that utopia is reason.[10]

Another important feature of Plato’s worldview is the constant training of the rational people, who are determined by nature and nurture to lead the state, which is a reference to the philosopher-kings, because they are able to make the difference between wrong and right. For Plato the Good, the True and the Beautiful are interlinked with each other and are stereotypes which serve as an axiomatic pattern for the best leadership possible.

Within the scope of this work, we can conclude that Plato uses imperative demands for the subject: the individual must comply to the needs of his nature and upbringing. De facto, this means that there is a binding morality, which excludes a moment of choice; the private persona is always seen as a chain in a social web of determined roles or functions. Morality is linked to reason and reason itself has merely a functional meaning: it can produce the truth and wisdom, that are necessary to lead the state in a just way. The citizen is like a bee in a beehive, in which every bee has its own function and meaning.[11] Rationality for the individual has the same structure as the preferred rationalized social system. To achieve this, the state must be divided in three categories: the counsellors (the philosophers as the rational principle), the traders (which is the desire) and the auxiliaries (an equivalent of the noble spirit or passion). By determining these social roles or functions, the state can be ruled by the same natural order, that applies for the individual’s wellbeing. The moral sensus communis in Plato’s view is a social one.

Plato’s spiritual descendant, Aristotle, introduces another form of morality which lacks the transitional component of his mentor. The Platonic ideas are replaced by a mainly naturalistic point of view: a good man is characterized rather by his actions than by his rationality.[12] On the other hand, the actions of men must be rational to be ‘good’. What is considered ‘good’ is placed in a context, the context of one’s nature and development. Essential meanings seem to be ‘fluent’ in Aristotle’s practical moral philosophy. A similarity to Plato’s moral system is the ontological claim for moral behavior which is based upon a person’s nature and predisposition. But in Aristotle’s view, this is not automatically linked to social status but to individual temperament and virtue.

In Aristotle’s anthropology, there is one common aspect for all human beings, which is their rationality. On the other hand, no conclusions can be drawn from this ‘sameness’. To see the essence of things (and of men), we have to separate them. As Aristotle says, no general statements can be made about individual facts. He also emphasizes the dynamic nature of human kind: becoming a better man includes the possibility of change as a major cause of human action, in finding a perfect equilibrium in the human faculties. Aristotle defines a dynamic ethics which can only be generalized in types of different virtues.[13]

The naturalistic elements of Aristotle’s writings are in a certain way still a dedication to his mentor, Plato. Because the function of nature is ambivalent in Aristotle’s ethics, he makes a difference between ‘pleasures’ (not natural) and ‘ noble activities’ (natural). Here again, there is a difference between what we want according to our own nature and the things beyond that nature. Life is not about adventure, it is about exploring what best fits one’s nature. So we have to recognize our own vices (nature) to become better men, but in the process of perfecting one’s nature a choice has to been made. This can or must even go against our nature. Nature is here in an odd way equivalent to rationality, to the capability of developing an insight in one’s own shortcomings. Man is an ‘animal rationale’.

Similar to Plato, Aristotle founded his morality on the idea of functionality. The functionality is individualized but it still involves the thought that there is a coherence between individual behavior and what is needed in general. Contemplation is a means to recognize the true meaning of life. For the truth, we do not need anything other than the truth itself. Just like happiness, truth has no further end. Furthermore, truth brings us closer to the Gods.[14] In contemplation, no contradiction seems allowed (because everything is perfect). There are no antinomies in happiness and contemplation. The following quote about justness and temperateness in the Ethica Nicomachea is an illustration of the closeness of Aristotle to Plato as well as for their difference: “(…) in the first place he (the wise man, the auth.) must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. These are not reckoned as in conditions of the possessions of the arts, except the bare knowledge; but as a condition of the possession of the virtues, knowledge has little or no weight, while the other conditions count not for a little but for everything, i.e. the very conditions which result from often doing just and temperate acts.”[15]

1.2 Summary

It seems that Plato’s and Aristotle’s ways of thinking have similarities regarding the social impact of their ideas about morality; for both it is important to offer the right means for a better society. In Plato’s view, society must be structured according to rational principles which overrule economic interest or personal needs. Aristotle’s rationality revolves around the question, in how far we are able to fine-tune our personal ‘set of capacities’. As a matter of fact, the latter uses a far more personalized concept of what is considered ‘rational’. It is not only about gaining knowledge about us and the world through ideas, but on the basis of praxis: we find also knowledge in our deeds. In Aristotle’s concept, perfecting oneself is a way to contribute to a better society.

This important difference involves their conception of ‘happiness’: the highest happiness in Plato’s moral beliefs is abstract, it is centered on the capability of getting access to eternal ideas. Aristotle considers Eudaimonia a goal in itself, without the link to a reality above the physical world. In a way, an abstract ideal of goodness has been ‘materialized’ within two philosophic generations. However, any person has to obey certain rules in private life to be able to be a good citizen, the Self is always regarded being part of a greater ‘good’.

1.3 Stoicism and Epicureanism

The keywords in of the stoic Epictetus[16] are self-control and temperance. Rationality in the (Hellenistic) Stoic tradition is converted into a generalized and universal notion of what ‘the good’ means without the idealistic characteristics of Platonism. While individual actions are more or less based upon the free will in the classic Platonic and Aristotelian view, for the Stoics everything is governed by the Gods, necessary as well as contingent actions and incidents. The Stoics live by strict rules they have to live up to. For the desired tranquility, they strive for a kind of mental transformation. Rationality is rather a tool than a goal[17] as this following fragment shows: “With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.”[18]

The way to attain the proclaimed mental transformation is to get detached from concrete objects of desire. Epictetus lays a strong emphasis on an amor fati, a kind of mental attitude by means of which you can give a reversed meaning to things happening. Peace of mind is more important than misfortune, the only thing one can control is one’s own emotions in order to put things that occur in another perspective. Methodologically, Epictetus represents a radical position about the just way to behave in every situation by laying stress on the relativity of the occurrence for the individual. Things around us do not give us the tools to change the course of life, which is why we have to change ourselves.

Achieving a mental equilibrium becomes a goal in itself and the effort to attain apatheia creates a great distance between the individual and the outer world.[19] Plato’s and Aristotle’s notions are being vulgarized, because detachment of the surrounding objects and events seem reachable for everyone.


[1] Michel Foucault, Hermeneutics of the subject, Picador New York, 2005, first chapter. The text, to which Foucault refers to, is a Socratic dialogue (also known as Alcibiades I) and it is not proven that it really written by Plato.

[2] Even in the 18th century J.J. Rousseau warned against the dangers of upcoming modern society, in which there could be an incongruent proportion between personal and public interest.

[3] He did this in Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860).

[4] Again, I use this term only as a reference to the alleged ‘natural’ status of morals; morality has always been seen as a part of a natural (and according to Plato and in the Renaissance: higher) order.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) wrote about Plato: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (Process and Reality, Free Press New York, 1979, p.39).

[6] Gerard Koolschijn, De aanval op de democratie, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep Amsterdam, 2005.

[7] Ibd., p. 35.

[8] Ibd., p.84.

[9] Plato, Republic 434 c – 445 b, p.1.

[10] Koolschijn’s argument can also be read in another way, because in his description of the ideal state, there is a resemblance to Marx’ perfect society in the refusal of private property in combination with political power. The difference is that Marx strives for no property at all, whereas Plato declines the mixture of political and economic power.

[11] This platonic metaphor is also used by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in his essay On Kingship.

[12] Aristotle, Fragments from Ethica Nicomachea, p.3.

[13] Ibd.

[14] Ibd., p. 12.

[15] Ibd., p. 6.

[16] Epictetus, Euchiridion, translation by Elizabeth Carter.

[17] Or in the words of Seneca: “The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind.” From: Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, letter 8.

[18] Epictetus, Euchiridion, p. 1 and 2.

[19] Although it would go too far to presume that apatheia means a total disconnection with the outer world or that it would exclude happiness in everyday life; feeling happiness is not the problem, but the attachment to that particular feeling.

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Morality. To what ends in modern times?
About the modernistic aspects of antique and renaissance morals
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Moral Philosophy
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ISBN (Book)
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morality, about
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Ralph Wallenborn (Author), 2013, Morality. To what ends in modern times?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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