The Moral Ideal of the Complete Life


B.Contestabile      First version 2008   Last Version 2015





Table of Contents




1.      Introduction

2.      Historical Background

2.1  Cyrus (600-530 BC) and Darius I (550–486 BC)

2.2  Buddha (480-400 BC)

2.3  Socrates (469-399 BC)

2.4  Aristotle (384-322 BC)

2.5  Alexander (356-323 BC)

2.6  Ashoka (304-232 BC)

3.      Hellenistic Philosophies

3.1  Basics

3.2  Cynicism

3.3  Skepticism

3.4  Epicureanism

3.5  Stoicism

4.      Nussbaum’s Critique

4.1  Critique of Hellenistic Schools

4.2  Critique of Hellenistic Virtues

5.      Hellenistic Philosophy as Therapy

5.1  The Reconstruction of Meaning

5.2  Risks by Commitments

6.      Virtue Ethics

6.1  Definition

6.2  Questioning the Complete Life

6.3  Questioning Universalism

7.      Conclusion









Starting point

The passion of anger (outrage) is one of the central factors causing harm. Whereas the Hellenist philosophers promoted the extirpation of this passion, Aristotle created the ethical ideal of a complete life, which includes a controlled model of all passions.

In her 1994 book The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum adopts the Aristotelian ideal and questions the value of Hellenistic virtues [Nussbaum]. Essential traits of the human character have to be suppressed in order to extirpate the passion of anger.


Type of Problem

What is the moral value of non-violence, ethical skepticism and (emotional) retreat?

Is it desirable to extirpate the passion of anger/outrage? Or is the complete life morally superior?

Is it reasonable to promote a universal ideal of the human character?



Martha Nussbaum suggests that the price for giving up emotional social commitments is too high.

There are indeed good reasons for an emotional engagement in family life and politics (Aristotelian ethics), but there are also good reasons for denying it (Hellenistic ethics) depending on the individual constitution and the environment. Virtue ethics is derived ethics; it cannot propagate intrinsic values.

Since Hellenistic ethics is as defensible as Aristotelian ethics, it makes no sense to promote a universal ideal of the human character.






1. Introduction



Starting point

The passion of anger (outrage) is one of the central factors causing harm. Whereas the Hellenist philosophers promoted the extirpation of this passion, Aristotle created the ethical ideal of a complete life, which includes a controlled model of all passions.

In her 1994 book The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum adopts the Aristotelian ideal and questions the value of Hellenistic virtues [Nussbaum]. Essential traits of the human character have to be suppressed in order to extirpate the passion of anger.



Type of Problem

What is the moral value of non-violence, ethical skepticism and (emotional) retreat?

Is it desirable to extirpate the passion of anger/outrage? Or is the complete life morally superior?

Is it reasonable to promote a universal ideal of the human character?




2. Historical Background



2.1 Cyrus (600-530 BC) and Darius I (550-486 BC).


The cultural transfer between East and West – which was decisive for the emergence of Hellenistic philosophy – existed within the Persian Empire before and after the time of Buddha and Socrates.



Cultural transfer

Philosophy has an international and multicultural origin with influences from Indo-Europe (Greeks and Indo-Aryans), Near East (Mesopotamian culture), the Orient (Phoenician trade, Babylonian mathematics and astronomy). All these influences came together in the Persian Empire [McEvilley, 1-6].

In the sixth century BC direct Greek-Indian contacts occurred in the Persian Empire which was erected on the ruins of the (Neo-)Assyrian Empire (…) Almost at once the Persian kings, extended their realm in both directions, mounted wars of conquest against the Greek border on the West and the Indian border on the Southeast. At the time of Cyrus the Great – founder of the Achaemenic Empirethe Ionian Greek city states of Asia minor where the pre-Socratic philosophers would very soon be active were brought under Persian rule. In virtually the same years, Bactria, the area just north of the Hindu Kush, and Gandhara, the area just south of it, were annexed to the Persian Empire. [McEvilley, 6-7].

For about a generation and a half after Cyrus’s conquests the most advanced parts of Greece and India were in the same political entity and for a generation after Darius I, when the imperial court scene got fully underway, this relationship was even closer. During these years Greek and Indian functionaries of various types sat down together at the Persian court, where there was a growing multicultural milieu that promoted diffusion contacts [McEvilley, 6].

In 517 BC the Greek Scylax of Caryanda was sent by Darius I to explore the Indus River valley and his now-lost book Ges Periodos is the earliest known first-hand account of India by a Greek. [Kuzminski, 35-36]

For a period of about a thousand years – from the invasion of Darius I to the sack of Rome by the Goths, India was in more or less constant communication with the West [McEvilley, 1].


This map was taken from the internet (author unknown)




Pre-Socratic philosophy

The period of unimpeded contact through the medium of Persia lasted approximately from 545 till 490 BC. These dates include the heart of the brief moment of pre-Socratic philosophy. The work of Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Parmenides, and others falls between them. Only the work of Thales seems clearly to have preceded this period, and even before the conquest trade routes between Greece and India were open and in use. Due to these circumstances, there is a relationship between early Greek philosophy and early Indian philosophy as clear as that between, say, early Greek sculpture and Egyptian sculpture. [McEvilley, 18].

         Pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales (624 – 546 BC) went to Egypt, Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC) and Democritus (460-370 BC) are said to have gone all the way India. The quadrilemma can be found in both Greece and India before Pyrrho’s time (360-270 BC). [Kuzminski, 46]

         There seems to be a connection between Heraclitus (535 – 475 BC) and the Upanisadic doctrine [McEvilley, xxxi]. Heraclitus uses the same image of a changing river, as the central Buddhist doctrine of impermanence (Heraclitus, Wikipedia)

         Overall more is known about Persian relations with Greeks than with Indians, primarily since the Greeks wrote a great deal about it and the Indians, who basically did not write history in antiquity, did not (…) Pre-Socratic philosophy began at the Persian court at Susa [McEvilley, 7]. At Persepolis twenty-three nations are portrayed in the reliefs [McEvilley, 9].

         In the very heart of the pre-Socratic period there were Indians resident at the Persian court (…) The cities that lay between Greece and India were polyglot [McEvilley, 11].




2.2 Buddha (480-400 BC).


Buddha is important in our context because of his influence on Hellenistic philosophy.




For the traditional biography and legend see Gautama Buddha.

         Christopher Beckwith maintains that Buddha was a Scythian (Saka):

We have no concreted datable evidence that any other wandering ascetics preceded the Buddha. The Scythians were nomads who lived in the wilderness and it is thus quite likely that Gautama himself introduced wandering asceticism to India. [Beckwith, 5-6]. Beckwith argues that Early Buddhism resulted from the Buddha’s rejection of the basic principles of Early Zoroastrianism, while Earl Brahmanism represents the acceptance of those principles [Beckwith, 43].

         A competing thesis, maintained by Johannes Bronkhorst, says that Gotama was born, grew up and taught in areas of the eastern Gangetic basin, which had its own distinctive culture, one that was not influenced by Brahmanical social or religious ideas [Batchelor, 197].




Buddhism regards itself as presenting a system of training in conduct, meditation, and understanding that constitutes a path leading to the cessation of suffering. Everything is to be subordinated to this goal. And in this connection Buddha’s teachings suggest that preoccupation with certain beliefs and ideas about the ultimate nature of the world (i.e. metaphysics) and our destiny in fact hinders our progress along this path rather than helping it. If we insist on working out exactly what to believe about the world and human destiny before beginning to follow the path of practice we will never even set out [Beckwith, 35].

Buddha used the following metaphor to explain ethical priorities:


It is as if there were a man struck by an arrow that was smeared thickly with poison; his friends and companions, his family and relatives would summon a doctor to see to the arrow. And the man might say, “I will not drew out this arrow as long as I do not know whether the man by whom I was struck was a Brahmin, a ksatriya, a vaisya or a sudra …as long as I do not know his name and his family…whether he was tall, short or of medium height…” That man would not discover these things, but that man would die [Gethin, 66].


Buddha did not deny the existence of a soul (psyche) he just denied the existence of an eternal, unchanging soul. Sectarianism and contradicting doctrines were abundant in the times of Buddha [Baus, 36], a fact which may have supported the acceptance of Buddha’s metaphysical agnosticism.




Buddhism may have been influenced by Samkhya, the philosophy of the Indian sage Kapila [Baus, 10]. Kapila – a member of the Ksatriya caste [Baus, 22] – was probably born in Kapilavastu, the home town of Buddha, long time before Buddha’s ministry. Samkhya is a soteriological philosophy which maintains that suffering can be defeated by means of knowledge. In the words of Sariputra, a chief disciple of the Buddha:

“Not knowing the experience of suffering, not knowing the cause of suffering and not knowing the path to its avoidance – that is fatal ignorance”.

Buddha strongly opposed the doctrine of Makkhali Gosala, who claimed that men cannot influence their fate [Baus, 11].

Samkhya – which is the philosophical basis of Yoga – is mentioned in the Arthasastra (ca. 300 BC) as one of the three oldest brahmanist philosophies [Baus, 17].

Buddha opposed the radically skeptic and nihilistic Carvaka philosophy. His anti-fatalistic charisma could have been a major factor for the worldwide proliferation of ancient Buddhism [Baus, 29, 36].




The alternative to the Aristotelian “complete life” has its origin in the sramana movement:

Ascetism becomes more common and systematic in India with the rise of the sramans in the sixth century BC. (…) Sramanism was inspired by a reaction to traditional brahmanist culture as represented by the Vedas and reformed in the Upanishads. One means to respond to the hereditary privileges of the brahmans was to reject completely the customary status of “householder” adopted by males and to resort to a very simple life “in the forest”. Although the brahmans may have responded to the revolution by adding renunciation as a fourth stage of life for all, extreme forms of ascetism, such as those promoted by the Jains, arose and should be compared to the less severe monastic practices of the Buddhists. [Sick, 261]


According to Christopher Beckwith, the original meaning of the term sramana is “Buddhist practitioner”:

         Megasthenes stresses that the Sramanas were divided into two basic forms of practice: the “rural” Sramanas, who lived out in the open, and whom he calls the “forest-dwellers”, and the “urbon” Sramans, whom he calls the “physicians, healers”. Little attention has been paid to this bifurcation, which could have originated only when Buddhism spread outside the South Asian monsoon zone, allowing the more ascetically inclined Sramanas to live in the open all year round. In the monsoon zone the early Buddhist needed shelter during the monsoon season. Such a temporary shelter is called an arama. Individuals who practiced Buddhism, including Buddha and his followers, were called Sramanas, a term that specifically and exclusively meant “Buddhist practitioners”. [Beckwith, 68-69, 94, 102, 104]

         Unlike many Buddhist lay believers and also unlike the Brahmanas, at least some Sramanas did not themselves believe in “Hades”, and therefore did not believe in karma and rebirth. [Beckwith, 80]. The Buddha says not a word about God or about Heaven and going there, he rejects the idea of inherent personal identities (including the “soul”), and he talks about nirvana instead (…) here on earth, in this life. [Beckwith, 105]

         The Sramanas, unlike the Brahmanas, did not exclude women from their “philosophical” studies, they only excluded sex. [Beckwith, 80].

         It is significant that the followers of the suicide cult are never called Sramanas “Buddhists” [Beckwith, 85]

         It must also be stressed that in none of the Major Inscriptions of the Mauryas is the term Sramana used in the generic sense “ascetic”. [Beckwith, 97]



Early Buddhism

         According to Christopher Beckwith the Trilaksana (three marks of existence) is characteristic for Early Buddhism [Beckwith, 26-32]. Exactly as with Hume, the Trilaksana negates the characteristics of God (as well as Heaven) presumably the Early Zorastrian and Early Brahmanist God: an uncaused, perfect, eternal being, in a perfect world [Beckwith, 151-152].

         A competing thesis says that the earliest examples of Buddhist teaching are four eight-verse discourses in the Pali Canon. What is immediately apparent on reading these discourses is that they are strikingly devoid of any classical Buddhist doctrines. They represent a skeptical and pragmatic ethics, in contrast to a metaphysical doctrine [Batchelor, 202-203].



Normative Buddhism

         It is now known that organized monasteries did not exist anywhere – at least outside of Central Asia – before the Saka-Kushan period, and were introduced in India quiet suddenly in the first century AD. (…) The new monastic ideal contrasts very sharply with the earlier ideal, going back to the time of the Buddha himself, of the solitary, wandering “forest” Sramana and of the less ascetic, but still solitary “urban” Sramana, as  described by Megasthenes. [Beckwith, 96]

         Normative Buddhism flowered in the Saka-Kushan period, when the old solitary ascetic ideal was replaced (though not completely) by the communal, organized monastic ideal [Beckwith, 104-105].

         Normative Buddhism says that the Buddha was born a prince, but after witnessing the troubles of human life he left the palace and his family to become a sramana and a bodhisattva. After he finally achieved his goal under the Bodhi tree, he taught the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Chain of Dependent Origination. His followers, members of the Sangha, were monks and nuns who mostly lived in highly distinctive structures called monasteries. [Beckwith, 170-171].



Samaññaphala Sutta

The first literary confrontation of the “complete life” with “retreat-orientation” can be found in an ancient Buddhist collection of discourses. Participants of this confrontation are the Indian king Ajatasattu and Buddha:

The Samaññaphala Sutta is the second discourse (Pali, sutta; Sanskrit. sutra) within the Digha Nikaya of Theravada Buddhism. The title means, “The Fruit of Contemplative Life Discourse.”  In terms of narrative, this discourse tells the story of King Ajatasattu, son and successor of King Bimbisara of Magadha, who posed the following question to many leading Indian spiritual teachers: What is the benefit of living a contemplative life? After being dissatisfied with the answers provided by these other teachers, the king posed this question to the Buddha whose answer motivated the king to become a lay follower of the Buddha.

In terms of Indian philosophy and spiritual doctrines, this discourse:

         provides the Buddha’s own description of the lifestyle, mental, psychic and spiritual benefits (“fruit”) of the Buddhist contemplative life;

         provides one of the most detailed accounts in the Sutta Pitaka of the Buddhist community’s code of ethical behavior

         describes from the Buddhist standpoint the essence of the teachings of several leading spiritual guides in the Buddha’s time (see the table below for more details); and,

         through the narrative of King Ajatasattu’s confessed transgression and his subsequent psychic unrest, paranoia and karmic impediments, the narrative illustrates Buddhist notions of merit and kamma in juxtaposition to those associated with other contemporaneous teachers (who, for instance, are depicted as advocating views of amorality, fatalism, materialism, eternalism and agnosticism).

Thanissaro (1997) refers to this discourse as “one of the masterpieces of the Pali canon.”

(Samaññaphala Sutta, Wikipedia)



Milinda Panha

The Milinda Panha differs from the Samaññaphala Sutta insofar, as the style of the conversation becomes a matter of discussion.

The Milinda Panha is a Buddhist text which dates from approximately 100 BCE. It is included in the Burmese edition of the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism. It purports to record a dialogue in which the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Pali Milinda) of Bactria, who reigned in the 2nd century BCE, poses questions on Buddhism to the sage Nāgasena (Milinda Panha, Wikipedia)

While King Menander is an actual historical figure, Nagasena is otherwise unknown, the text includes anachronisms, and the dialogue lacks any sign of Greek influence but instead is traceable to the Upanishads [Hinüber 2000].


There are several key portions of the dialogue which connect it to the Greek accounts of Alexander [Sick, 271]. The first section of the Milinda Panha is modeled on the Samaññaphala Sutta [Sick, 273].



King Milinda asks questions. Picture taken from the internet (Author unknown)



After the initial discussion between Milinda and Nagasena, the bhikku agrees only conditionally to continue the discussion: the king must change his goal and method of dialectic. Milinda has been using a dialectic which the monk terms “the talk of kings” but in order to continue the discussion profitably a dialectic termed “the talk of sages” must be employed. The seminal difference between these two forms of speech is not found in the approach to dialogue but the effect upon the participants. When pandits discuss and a point is made in refutation, “they do not become angry because of it”. Nagasena claims, however, that if an interlocutor refutes the king, he is likely to receive a fine or even worse. An example is Alexander’s threat to kill the gymnosophists who gave the worst response to his questioning. Yet Milinda exceeds Alexander as a philosopher, in that he agrees to continue the conversation under the rules prescribed by Nagasena (…). The king and the monk meet on the morning after a late-night discussion. The basic tenets of Buddhism have held sound against the questions and logical attacks of the Greek inquisitor, and both discussants spent the remainder of the night alone reviewing the course of the argument. That morning, ther is no resentment nor exultation in an eristic victory, only satisfaction that the right questions were asked and the appropriate answers given. [Sick, 276].


Milinda cannot quite give himself over to the “talk of sages” or follow the Socratic vocation entirely. The Indo-Greek king claims he would be quickly killed by his many enemies if he were to renounce the world and follow Nagasena. The duties and of rule are given priority over the fruits of renunciation. From the perspective of the gymnosophists, the monarchs mistake the nature of true freedom. The analogy which Milinda uses to describe his situation is one of the most poignant in the dialogue:

“Just as …a lion, the king of beasts, trapped in a golden cage is ever staring outward, I … too, although I live as a householder, am ever staring outward.”

Milinda sees the value of the life of the recluse, for it has been proven by argument, but he is constrained to fulfil his role as king. Although kingship has its worldly advantages, it ultimately prevents one from attaining the summum bonum.


Whereas Ajasutta became a follower of Buddha, Milinda at least learned to respect his interlocutor Nagasena. Alexander did not cease feeling superior, but he finally admitted that the gymnosophists are hard to refute. If Aristotle – who was the teacher of a king – would have met Buddha, what would have been the result of such an encounter? We cannot know the result, but there is a good chance that it would have been similar to the one between Milinda and Nagasena: disagreement and mutual respect. Nussbaum’s claim for the moral superiority of the “complete life” demonstrates that the issue is not settled. The goal of this paper is to promote understanding for the Hellenist point of view and to defend the retreat-oriented life as a morally respectable form of living.




2.3     Socrates (469-399 BC)




Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian hegemony to its decline with the defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens sought to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public may have been entertaining doubts about democracy as an efficient form of government. Socrates appears to have been a critic of democracy and some scholars interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting.(…) Claiming loyalty to his city, Socrates clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society. He praises Sparta, archrival to Athens, directly and indirectly in various dialogues. One of Socrates’ purported offenses to the city was his position as a social and moral critic. Rather than upholding a status quo and accepting the development of what he perceived as immorality within his region, Socrates questioned the collective notion of “might makes right” that he felt was common in Greece during this period.(…) His attempts to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice may have been the cause of his execution (Socrates, Wikipedia)




Perhaps his most important contribution to Western thought is his dialectic method of inquiry, known as the Socratic method or method of “elenchus”, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice. It was first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the answer a person would seek. The influence of this approach is most strongly felt today in the use of the scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage. The development and practice of this method is one of Socrates’ most enduring contributions, and is a key factor in earning his mantle as the father of political philosophy, ethics or moral philosophy, and as a figurehead of all the central themes in Western philosophy.

To illustrate the use of the Socratic method; a series of questions are posed to help a person or group to determine their underlying beliefs and the extent of their knowledge. The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. It was designed to force one to examine one’s own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.

An alternative interpretation of the dialectic is that it is a method for direct perception of the Form of the Good. Philosopher Karl Popper describes the dialectic as “the art of intellectual intuition, of visualizing the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas, of unveiling the Great Mystery behind the common man’s everyday world of appearances.” In a similar vein, French philosopher Pierre Hadot suggests that the dialogues are a type of spiritual exercise. (Socrates, Wikipedia)






This diagram was taken from the internet (author unknown).  For a more detailed diagram click here.




Hypothetical relation to Indian philosophy

         Socratic statements like “No one errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly.” And “Virtue – all virtue – is knowledge.” are reminiscent of the rationalist Hindu philosophy Samkhya, which could be at the root of Buddhism [Baus]. Socrates and Buddha both turned away from metaphysical speculations and concentrated on ethics, a turn which is often associated with the separation of theoretical and practical philosophy.

         Buddha – similar to Socrates – was familiar with the social class of the warriors (Kshatriyas) and challenged the class of the priests (Brahmins) by his social and moral criticism.

         Socrates’ public discussions can be compared with the populist approach of the sramana movement. The sramana movement strongly opposed the philosophies which maintained the hereditary privileges of the Brahmans, and they presented their qualms to a general audience [Sick, 269]. An Indian scholar was not respected, if he was not able to contend about his doctrine. Buddha often disputed with belligerent priests of all kinds of sects [Baus, 16].

         There is some reason to believe that Indian ascetics traveled a trade route from Central Asia to the Black Sea and interacted at the northern end of it with Black Sea shamans, ultimately influencing Greek philosophy through Diogenes of Sinope, who seems to have brought India–derived ascetic practices into the Athenian philosophical milieu. It is perhaps through this route that an Indian yogi came to Athens to talk with Socrates [McEvilley, 10]




2.4 Aristotle (384–322 BC)




Aristotle (384–322 BCE was a Greek philosopher and scientist (…). At eighteen, he joined Plato's Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven (c. 347 BCE). His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. Shortly after Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and, at the request of Philip of Macedon, tutored Alexander the Great starting from 343 BCE (…). The fact that Aristotle was a pupil of Plato contributed to his former views of Platonism, but, following Plato's death, Aristotle immersed himself in empirical studies and shifted from Platonism to empiricism (Aristotle, Wikipedia)




Aristotle considered the city to be a natural community. Moreover, he considered the city to be prior in importance to the family which in turn is prior to the individual, "for the whole must of necessity be prior to the part". He also famously stated that "man is by nature a political animal". Aristotle conceived of politics as being like an organism rather than like a machine, and as a collection of parts none of which can exist without the others. Aristotle's conception of the city is organic, and he is considered one of the first to conceive of the city in this manner.

The common modern understanding of a political community as a modern state is quite different from Aristotle's understanding. Although he was aware of the existence and potential of larger empires, the natural community according to Aristotle was the city (polis) which functions as a political "community" or "partnership”. The aim of the city is not just to avoid injustice or for economic stability, but rather to allow at least some citizens the possibility to live a good life, and to perform beautiful acts: "The political partnership must be regarded, therefore, as being for the sake of noble actions, not for the sake of living together." This is distinguished from modern approaches, beginning with social contract theory, according to which individuals leave the state of nature because of "fear of violent death" or its "inconveniences." (Aristotle, Wikipedia)




Aristotle considered ethics to be a practical rather than theoretical study, i.e., one aimed at becoming good and doing good rather than knowing for its own sake (…).  Aristotle taught that virtue has to do with the proper function of a thing. An eye is only a good eye in so much as it can see, because the proper function of an eye is sight. Aristotle reasoned that humans must have a function specific to humans, and that this function must be an activity of the psuchē (normally translated as soul) in accordance with reason (logos). Aristotle identified such an optimum activity of the soul as the aim of all human deliberate action, eudaimonia, generally translated as "happiness". To have the potential of ever being happy in this way necessarily requires a good character (ēthikē aretē), often translated as moral (or ethical) virtue (or excellence).

Aristotle taught that to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character requires a first stage of having the fortune to be habituated not deliberately, but by teachers, and experience, leading to a later stage in which one consciously chooses to do the best things. When the best people come to live life this way their practical wisdom (phronesis) and their intellect (nous) can develop with each other towards the highest possible human virtue, the wisdom of an accomplished theoretical or speculative thinker, or in other words, a philosopher (Aristotle, Wikipedia)



Complete virtue

In his analysis of the human soul Aristotle maintained that emotions should be controlled, but understood and respected at the same time. The structure of the Aristotelian soul is a predecessor of Freuds structure of mind.






Intellectual Virtue





Moral Virtue





Nutritional Virtue




The human soul has an irrational element which is shared with the animals, and a rational element which is distinctly human.

1.      The most primitive irrational element is the vegetative faculty which is responsible for nutrition and growth. An organism which does this well may be said to have a nutritional virtue.

2.      The second tier of the soul is the appetitive faculty which is responsible for our emotions and desires (such as joy, grief, hope and fear). This faculty is both rational and irrational. It is irrational since even animals experience desires. However, it is also rational since humans have the distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of morality.

3.      Aristotle notes that there is a purely rational part of the soul, the calculative, which is responsible for the human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. The mastery of these abilities is called intellectual virtue

(Aristotle, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, chapter 7).


For a detailed list of Nicomachean virtues see Aristotle Ethics.



The complete life

In the Nicomachean ethics Aristotle tells us that happiness not only requires complete virtue, but also a complete life:


Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add 'in a complete life.' For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy (Nicomachean ethics, The Internet Classics Archive)

This sentence makes the distinction between temporary well-being and eudaimonia.


A boy is not happy; for he is not yet capable of such acts, owing to his age; and boys who are called happy are being congratulated by reason of the hopes we have for them. For there is required, as we said, not only complete virtue but also a complete life, since many changes occur in life (…)

(Nicomachean ethics, The Internet Classics Archive)

The notion a boy is not happy means that he does not know life satisfaction, because he has not yet developed the corresponding cognitive component. The sentence clarifies that a complete life is associated with the development of one’s potential (capabilities) under various requirements. The non-existence of passions (in a boy) as well as the extirpation of passions (by a corresponding doctrine) makes a life incomplete.


The complete life also has a social dimension:

         Happiness in life includes the virtues, and Aristotle adds that it would include self-sufficiency (autarkeia), not the self-sufficiency of a hermit (personal autonomy), but of someone with a family, friends and community (collective autonomy). By itself this would make life choiceworthy and lacking nothing.

(Nicomachean Ethics, Wikipedia)

         The ideal of completeness is associated with the political goal of the community [Nussbaum, chapter 3]:

Political science spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character, viz. good and capable of noble acts (Nicomachean ethics, The Internet Classics Archive)




2.5 Alexander (356–323 BC)


At the origin of the Hellenistic culture are Alexander the Great’s Asian campaigns.



During his youth, Alexander was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle until the age of 16. When he succeeded his father to the throne in 336 BC, Alexander inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army. He had been awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch his father's military expansion plans. In 334 BC, he invaded the Achaemenid Empire, ruled Asia Minor, and began a series of campaigns that lasted ten years. Alexander broke the power of Persia in a series of decisive battles, most notably the battles of Issus and Gaugamela. He subsequently overthrew the Persian King Darius III and conquered the entirety of the First Persian Empire. At that point, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River.

Seeking to reach the "ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea", he invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back at the demand of his troops. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, the city he planned to establish as his capital (…). In the years following his death, a series of civil wars tore his empire apart, resulting in several states ruled by the Diadochi, Alexander's surviving generals and heirs.

Alexander's legacy includes the cultural diffusion his conquests engendered, such as Greco-Buddhism. He founded some twenty cities that bore his name, most notably Alexandria in Egypt. Alexander's settlement of Greek colonists and the resulting spread of Greek culture in the east resulted in a new Hellenistic civilization, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century and the presence of Greek speakers in central and far eastern Anatolia until the 1920s. (Alexander the Great, Wikipedia)



Below map was taken from the internet (author unknown)



Alexander and the Gymnosophists

The term gymnosophist was used by Plutarch in the 1st century CE, when describing an encounter by Alexander the Great with ten gymnosophists near the banks of the Indus river in India - now in Pakistan.

He (Alexander) captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas (one of the native Indian princes) to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer, and then the rest, in an order determined in like manner; and he commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest.

The answers were of such a quality, however, that Alexander dismissed the philosophers with gifts.


Diogenes Laertius refers to the gymnosophists and reports that Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of pure skepticism, came under their influence while travelling to India with Alexander, and on his return to Elis, imitated their habits of life.

(Gymnosophists, Wikipedia)

The gymnosophists – the sect Calanus adhered to – was a non-Buddhist sect [Beckwith, 64].


A different source reports that there was a conversation between the king and Indian sages about the nature of wisdom and how wisdom affects the manner of life of the Brahmans (…). As is often the case in this topos, it turns out that the naked, simple philosophers are, in truth, more powerful than the military conqueror, for they have won the battle within while kings are concerned with externals and are often conquered by their desire for such. Brahmans need no clothes, drink only water from the river, eat fruit from the forest, and say very little; kings, on the other hand, are subject to numerous ethical conditions and disease “desires, love of money, love of pleasure, death by deceit, bodily intercourse, avarice, quarreling”.[Sick, 265]




Greco-Buddhism refers to the cultural syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE (i.e. in the Hellenistic age) in the Indian subcontinent, in modern day Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. It was a cultural consequence of a long chain of interactions begun by Greek forays into India from the time of Alexander the Great, carried further by the establishment of the Indo-Greek Kingdom and extended during the flourishing of the Hellenized Kushan Empire. Greco-Buddhism influenced the artistic, and perhaps the spiritual development of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism (Greco-Buddhism, Wikipedia).




2.6 Ashoka (304–232 BC)




Ashoka Maurya was an Indian emperor (grandson of Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan dynasty) who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from circa 269 BCE to 232 BCE. One of India's greatest emperors, Ashoka reigned over a realm that stretched from the Hindu Kush mountains in the west to Bengal in the East and covered the entire Indian subcontinent except parts of present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

In about 260 BCE, Ashoka waged a bitterly destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha). He conquered Kalinga, which none of his ancestors had done. He embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest. “Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations.” Ashoka converted gradually to Buddhism beginning about 263 BCE. He was later dedicated to the propagation of Buddhism across Asia, and established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha. “Ashoka regarded Buddhism as a doctrine that could serve as a cultural foundation for political unity.” Ashoka is now remembered as a philanthropic administrator. (Ashoka, Wikipedia)

Ashoka’s conversion is documented in one of his major edicts [Baus, 163].



This map was taken from the internet (author unknown)




The proliferation of Buddhism

Ashoka embraced the Buddhist faith and became a great proselytizer in the line of the traditional Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism, insisting on non-violence to humans and animals (ahimsa), and general precepts regulating the life of lay people (Greco-Buddhism, Wikipedia).

Ashoka’s engagement for non-violence could possibly build on remnants of the Indus civilization that flourished from about 2600 to 1900 before BC. This egalitarian and pacifist civilization is the most enigmatic of the four great early civilizations. While Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and ancient China gloried in warfare, it seemed absent from the Indus valley [Robinson].

According to the Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, some of them written in Greek and some in Achemenid script, Ashoka sent Buddhist emissaries to the Greek lands in Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. The edicts name each of the rulers of the Hellenic world at the time. Ashoka also claims he converted Greek populations within his realm to Buddhism (Greco-Buddhism, Wikipedia)

The Greeks in India even seem to have played an active role in the propagation of Buddhism, as some of the emissaries of Ashoka are described in Pali sources as leading Greek (Yona) Buddhist monks, active in spreading Buddhism (Ashoka, Wikipedia)


Ashoka used one of his major proclamations (the twelfth edict) to prescribe the manner of discussions to be held between members of different philosophical schools or religious orders (…) He and his government will “honor all sects” and will ask sages to respect each other as well by neither overly praising their own schools nor too harshly criticizing others (…). If one does not so humiliate a discussant or glorify one’s own philosophy accomplishments, continued dialogue and growth are possible. In short, Ashoka asked the learned of his realm to cooperate in the acquisition of knowledge, and the key to cooperation was to be self-control [Sick, 254].



The middle way

There is a mean between kingship and monkhood, a “middle way”, so to speak. One can become a lay follower of a sect and its tenets, (…) “one who sits close by” in the Indian context, and this status is, in fact, the one which Ashoka pursued. Although he displays a close association with the Buddhist sangha, he never foregoes the propagation of a non-sectarian life [Sick, 277]


A role for philosophy among the general public, even among the leaders of that public, may be the largest debt western philosophy owes the East. The explosion of philosophical schools in the Hellenistic period (…) created a society of upasaka (laic followers of Buddhism), in which any generally-educated individual might claim allegiance to one school or another. [Sick, 278]




3. Hellenistic Philosophies


In the following chapters we trace similarities between Hellenistic and Buddhist concepts.

Subsequently we will compare these concepts with the Aristotelian ideal of a complete life.



3.1 Basics




The word "Hellenism" is used in several distinct ways:

1.      The principal meaning is the emanation outward of culture and ideas from classical Greece to the rest of the world, with classical Greek culture and ideas either replacing local culture and ideas, or amending local customs.

2.      The second meaning of the word refers to the intensification of this process during the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) and its continuation as a cultural force up until about 400 A.D: the Hellenistic age or Hellenistic period of Ancient Greek.

3.      The third meaning is the general field of study of ancient Greek, which could include both processes just mentioned, plus scholarship since the time of the Greeks. It is also sometimes used as another word for Hellenic polytheism.

(Hellenism, Wikipedia)


The great centers of Hellenistic culture were Alexandria and Antioch, capitals of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria respectively.

Hellenistic simply means Greek and Asian Culture together (Hellenistic Greece, Wikipedia).


The Western world and the Western civilization must be considered the product of both Greek and Indian thought, both Western philosophy and Eastern philosophies. Trade, imperialism and currents of migration allowed cultural philosophies to intermingle freely throughout India, Egypt, Greece and the ancient Near East (Thomas McEvilley, Wikipedia) [McEvilley]



The Hellenistic Age (322 BC–400 AD)

1.      The period following Aristotle (384–322 BC) until the fall of the Western Roman Empire (about 400 AD) is called the Hellenistic Age, a term signifying the lasting influence of the Greeks, also known as the Hellenes. During the Hellenistic Age, people, both Greek and Roman, wanted ways to live a virtuous life in the face of rapidly changing social conditions (Greek and Hellenistic Philosophy, T.O’Connor).


2.      The Hellenistic period of Ancient Greek history was the period between the death of Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon) in 323 BC and the annexation of the Greek peninsula and islands by Rome in 146 BC. Although the establishment of Roman rule did not break the continuity of Hellenistic society and culture, which remained essentially unchanged until the advent of Christianity (in the 5th century), it did mark the end of Greek political independence (Hellenistic Greece, Wikipedia).


3.      The Hellenistic Age is also characterized by a lasting influence of Indian philosophy on the Greek culture. Nussbaum’s critique is characterized by (indirectly) disapproving this influence. Our critique of Nussbaum’s view in turn aims at upgrading Indian philosophy and questioning the universal validity of the Aristotelian approach to ethics.


For a list of the most important Hellenistic schools and philosophers see Hellenistic Philosophy.




3.2 Cynicism




         Various philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans, had advocated simple living in the centuries preceding the Cynics (…).

         Perhaps of importance were tales of Indian philosophers, known to later Greeks as the Gymnosophists, who had adopted a strict asceticism together with disrespect for established laws and customs.

         However, the most immediate influence for the Cynic school was Socrates (470-399 B.C.) Although he was not an ascetic, he did profess a love of virtue and an indifference to wealth, together with a disdain for general opinion (…)

         The story of Cynicism traditionally begins with Antisthenes, (445-365) who was an older contemporary of Plato and a pupil of Socrates (…)

         Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 B.C.) adopted Antisthenes teachings and embraced the ascetic way of life, adopting a lifestyle of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), austerity (askēsis), and shamelessness (anaideia). He became known as "the Dog" which is the likeliest derivation of the word "Cynic." (Cynic, Wikipedia)




Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies. It offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarized as follows:

         The goal of life is Eudaimonia and mental clarity or lucidity - freedom from “smoke” which signified ignorance, mindlessness, folly, and conceit.

         Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature as understood by human reason.

         Arrogance is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires, and a vicious character.

         Eudaimonia or human flourishing depends on self-sufficiency, equanimity, arete, love of humanity, parrhesia and indifference to the vicissitudes of life.

         One progresses towards flourishing and clarity through ascetic practices, which help one become free from influences – such as wealth, fame, or power – that have no value in nature. Examples include Diogenes' practice of living in a tub and walking barefoot in winter.

         A Cynic practices shamelessness or impudence and defaces the Nomos of society; the laws, customs, and social conventions which people take for granted.

Thus a Cynic has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power or reputation. A life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention.

The Cynic way of life required continuous training, not just in exercising one's judgments and mental impressions, but a physical training as well:

The Cynics are said to have invented the idea of cosmopolitanism: when he was asked where he came from, Diogenes replied that he was "a citizen of the world. Although Cynicism concentrated solely on ethics, Cynic philosophy had a big impact on the Hellenistic world, ultimately becoming an important influence for Stoicism (Cynicism, Wikipedia).

Cynics lived among the people and acted as social critics; insofar they did not retreat from society. But they retreated from all kinds of dependencies.



Comparison with Buddhism

Numerous parallels exist between the Greek philosophy of the Cynics and, several centuries later, the Buddhist philosophy of the Madhyamika and Zen. The Cynics denied the relevancy of human conventions and opinions (described as typhos, literally "smoke" or "mist", a metaphor for "illusion" or "error"), including verbal expressions, in favor of the raw experience of reality. They stressed the independence from externals to achieve happiness ("Happiness is not pleasure, for which we need external, but virtue, which is complete without external"). Similarly the Prajnaparamita, precursor of the Madhyamika, explained that all things are like foam, or bubbles, "empty, false, and fleeting", and that "only the negation of all views can lead to enlightenment”. In order to evade the world of illusion, the Cynics recommended the discipline and struggle ("askēsis kai machē") of philosophy, the practice of "autarkia" (self-rule), and a lifestyle exemplified by Diogenes, which, like Buddhist monks, renounced earthly possessions. These conceptions, in combination with the idea of "philanthropia" (universal loving kindness, of which Crates, the student of Diogenes, was the best proponent), are strikingly reminiscent of Buddhist Prajna (wisdom) and Karuṇā (compassion). (Greco-Buddhism, Wikipedia).




3.3 Skepticism


Within skepticism it has to be distinguished between

         Academic skepticism





         The precedents for Academic skepticism go back even further than Socrates. Cicero tells us that Democritus denied the possibility of finding the truth of things. Perhaps the earliest expression of the germ of Academic skepticism can be found in Xenophanes in the sixth century BC, who writes: “And as for certain truth, no man has seen it, nor will there ever be a man who knows about the gods and about all the things I mention [Kuzminski, 10]


         Since Democritus may have been influenced by gymnosophists, Pyrrho could have joined Alexander’s campaign in order to be able to dig deeper into the origins of what he already saw as his own tradition. On returning to Greece, Pyrrho may have pursued a way of life that reminds us of that of Indian renunciants, but such lifestyles had been adopted among Greeks at least since the time of Pythagoras (ca.570-495 BC) [Batchelor, 213].


         Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BC) went with Alexander the Great to Central Asia and India during the Greek invasion and conquest of the Persian Empire in 334–324 BC. There he met with early Buddhist masters. Early Buddhism shaped the philosophy of Pyrrho, the famous founder of Pyrrhonian skepticism in ancient Greece [Beckwith, 13-21].


         According to McEvilley Pyrrho must have imbibed the main attitudes of his philosophy from Greek teachers, before the visit to India. The position he came to teach was clearly in the Democritean lineage. However, there remains Diogenes Laertius’ unambiguous testimony, which we have no reason to question, that Pyrrho was led to “adopt” his philosophy because of his contacts in India. McEvilley offers no evidence for downgrading Diogenes’ testimony [Kuzminski, 49]. Diogenes Laertius in his book Lives of Eminent Philosophers writes about Pyrrhos encounter with ancient Indian thinkers and mentions even older sources [Kuzminski, 35-36]




         Pyrrhonism is commonly confused with (academic) skepticism in Western philosophy. But whereas (academic) skeptics maintain that there is no truth at all, Pyrrhonists leave the question open. Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory, or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering. [Kuzminski, Preface].


         Ataraxia is not the elation of finding the hidden “truth” underlying experience, nor the security offered by a belief in such a truth, but is instead liberation from the urge to seek such “truths” or beliefs at all. Insofar as ataraxia follows only upon such a suspension of belief, and not upon the adoption of any belief, it could not have been experienced by dogmatists like Epicureans, Stoics, Aristotelians, Platonists, Academic Skeptics, etc. [Kuzminski, 43].


         Whereas academic skepticism, with Carneades as its most famous adherent, claims that "Nothing can be known, not even this", Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry. They disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things. A Pyrrhonist tries to make the arguments of both sides as strong as possible. Then he asks himself if there is any reason to prefer one side to the other. And if not, he suspends belief in either side. According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. They thus attempted to make their skepticism universal, and to escape the reproach of basing it upon a fresh dogmatism. Mental imperturbability (ataraxia) was the result to be attained by cultivating such a frame of mind.

As in Stoicism and Epicureanism, the happiness or satisfaction of the individual was the goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in tranquility or indifference. According to the Pyrrhonists, it is our opinions or unwarranted judgments about things which turn them into desires, painful effort, and disappointment. From all this a person is delivered who abstains from judging one state to be preferable to another. But, as complete inactivity would have been synonymous with death, the skeptic, while retaining his consciousness of the complete uncertainty enveloping every step, might follow custom (or nature) in the ordinary affairs of life. (Pyrrhonism, Wikipedia)

         Given Diogenes the Cynic, Pyrrho’s Indian experiences could have promoted further interest in what we might call “alternative” lifestyles. We see this tradition of eccentric “wise men” continuing in the ancient classical West with popular figures such as Apollonius of Tyana or even Jesus of Nazareth. [Kuzminski, 45]



Academic skepticism

         The term skepticism early on shifted from an emphasis on doubt as a tool of enquiry to doubt as an end in itself. [Kuzminski, 3] The latter is characteristic for academic skepticism.

         Nietzsche and Hume misunderstood Pyrrho’s philosophy as academic skepticism. [Kuzminski, 16]



Comparison with Buddhism

         Christopher Beckwith advances the thesis that Pyrrho based his ideas on the teachings of early Buddhism (the Trilaksana) with which he became acquainted during his time in Bactria and Gandhara [Beckwith, 26-32]. This thesis is not new. It was first suggested by Friedrich Nietzsche who declared: “Although a Greek, Pyrrho was a Buddhist, even a Buddha.” [Batchelor, 196]. The “three characteristics” are said to apply to everything, and are central in Buddhism. But for Buddha, as for Pyrrho, their reference is exclusively to ethical or moral matters. Like Pyrrho, the Buddha did not even mention metaphysics [Beckwith, 31]. Buddha’s state of being without self-identity is equated with extinguishing passions and the peace that results from it. The result of Pyrrho’s program is exactly the same [Beckwith, 33, 93].


         Pyrrhonism bears a striking similarity to some Eastern non-dogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka, a Mahajana school of philosophy founded by Nāgārjuna. [Kuzminski, Preface]


         Concerning any possible Buddhist influence on ethics and epistemology of some Greek-Hellenistic philosophical schools, we may contend that Pyrrho’s method of suspending judgment (epoché) exhibits an amazing congruity with the original Buddhist meditation system (dhyâna)

[Vukomanovic, 164-165]


         Nondogmatic soteriological practices like Pyrrhonism can widely by found in South and East Asia among Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Taoists. There are striking similarities between some of these practices and Pyrrhonism. [Kuzminski, 35] [Soni, 227]. The Buddha, like the Pyrrhonists but unlike the Academic sceptics, took a radically undogmatic stance with regard to metaphysical or speculative beliefs (…) and concentrated instead on practices aimed at easing suffering. [Kuzminski, 37] The goal is achieved by resisting assent to any identification with extreme or dogmatic views or beliefs, whether affirmative or negative, which go beyond what is self-evident. (…) As a practical therapy and antidote to such views, both Buddhists and Pyrrhonists advocate steering a middle course through life, taking experiences at face value  and avoiding unsubstantiated beliefs or conclusions. [Kuzminski, 42]


         Zen asserts, as do other schools in Mahayana Buddhism, that all sentient beings possess a Buddha-nature, a nature of inherent wisdom and virtue, which lies hidden in the depths of their minds. Zen practitioners attempt to discover this Buddha-nature within themselves, through meditation and mindfulness of daily experiences. They believe that this provides new perspectives on their existence, which ultimately lead to enlightenment. Contrary to many other Buddhist sects, Zen deemphasizes religious texts and verbal discourse on metaphysical questions. Zen holds that these things lead the practitioner to seek external answers, rather than searching within their own minds, where Buddha-nature actually resides. In this sense Zen, as a means to deepen the practice and in contrast to many other religions, could be seen as fiercely anti-philosophical, anti-prescriptive and anti-theoretical (Zen, Wikipedia)


         It is not only philosophical concepts that the Zen Buddhist wants to eliminate, and not only concepts of good and evil and the like; he wants to do away with all concepts. One of the most emphatic of the masters who expressed this idea was Huang-po. He said: Do not deceive yourselves with conceptual thinking, and do not look anywhere for the truth, for all that is needed is to refrain from allowing concepts to arise. "Right thinking," is not thinking in terms of good and evil, sorrow and joy, beginning and end, acceptance and rejection, likes and dislikes, aversion and love. More positively, he says: You should know that setting forth the principle of deliverance in its entirety amounts only to this--when things happen, make no response: keep your minds from dwelling on anything whatsoever: keep them forever still as the void and utterly pure (without stain): and thereby spontaneously attain deliverance (Skepticism, ordinary language and Zen Buddhism, Dick Garner).




3.4 Epicureanism




Another early Socratic school, the Cyrenaics, was founded by one of Socrates' associates and admirers, Aristippus of Cyrene, from Libya, North Africa. The Cyrenaics disparaged speculative philosophy and extolled the pleasure of the moment. But, following Aristippus, they maintained that the purest pleasure derives from self-mastery and the philosophic life. The Cyrenaic philosophy, with its understanding of the good life as enjoyment of stable pleasures, led to the development of the Epicurean school (Hellenistic Thought, Forrest Baird).




1)      In contradistinction to the Stoic school, which advocated ascetism, the Epicurean school, which started with Epicurus (341-270 B. C.), advocated pleasure as the supreme good. Epicurus considered pleasure to be directly in accord with virtue. By pleasure he did not mean physical pleasure, but rather having no pain in one's body and giving calm and repose to one's soul. Epicurus called this peaceful state of mind ataraxia, or the state of separation from pain, and regarded it as the supreme state of being

(Axiology, a Theory of Value).


2)      In order to achieve ataraxia, people must scale down their desires, overcome useless fears, and turn to seeking mental pleasures (which have the effect of calming the body; mental health brings about physical health; ideas have consequences). To scale down desires, the Epicureans advocated frugality, living within one’s financial means and needing little. To overcome fear, the Epicureans had two solutions:

a)      Forget about God, as all that exists are an infinite number of atoms arranged without any purpose in the universe. One cannot get free from fear, as long as one doesn’t understand the world and gets worried by myths. It is not possible to become truly happy without knowing nature. (see Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura)

b)      Two, seek out the company of pleasant, decent people like yourself and arrange a social contract to work towards the establishment of just laws that deter those who would harm you and your kind. This idea of a social contract is the first known conception of social contract, an agreement between individuals, or between individuals and a government, to give up some liberties in return for the guarantee of more freedom, personal safety, and a well-ordered society. The invention of social contract thinking on the part of the Epicureans represents one of their greatest contributions to ethical theory.

(Greek and Hellenistic Philosophy, T.O’Connor)



Comparison with Buddhism

1)      The two most influential proponents of hedonism, Buddha and Epicurus made a remarkable claim. They promised that if we adopt the values of the hedonist, and follow certain practical advice, we can achieve an invulnerable form of happiness. We can become happy regardless of our circumstances, and remain happy no matter what happens to us. A promise like that is worth taking seriously! 


2)      Buddha and Epicurus develop an approach to happiness that is largely overlooked in the contemporary Western world.  Roughly speaking, our approach is to take our desires for granted, and strive to accumulate the power and knowledge necessary to shape the world as we want it to be.  In pursuing this strategy, we become hostages to fate, for all too often the world refuses to give way to our demands.  The alternative approach, pursued by Epicureans and Buddhists, is to work in the other direction: instead of conforming the world to our desires, we could conform our desires—and our conception of happiness itself—to the world.  Epicureans and Buddhists equate living well with happiness, but characterize happiness in a negative way.  That is, they portray it in terms of what it excludes, rather than in terms of what it includes: essentially, it is the absence of suffering, the absence of any form of mental turmoil.

(Hedonism: Is the Pleasant Life the Best Life?)


3)      The similarity of the two concepts can be summarized by the following citations:

a)      Suffering can be terminated by ending human desire (Siddharta Gautama, 490-410 B.C.)

b)      If you want to make a man happy, add not to his riches but take away his desires (Epicurus of Samos, 341-270 B.C.)




3.5 Stoicism




         Stoicism arose in the Hellenistic period, the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and became the philosophical preference of many Greeks and non-Greeks. Although there were differences among them, Stoic philosophers shared a common philosophical outlook. The beginnings of Stoicism lie with Zeno of Citium, who came to Athens from Cyprus. For many years a student of the Cynic philosopher Crates, Zeno eventually founded his own philosophical school in 300 BCE.  Because he taught his students in a stoa (portico) in Athens, Zeno's philosophy came to be known as Stoicism, or the philosophy of the Stoa.

         The founder of the Stoic school was Zeno of Citium ca. 334-263 B. C.  He taught in the famous Stoa Poikile (the painted porch) in Athens from which his philosophy got its name. Zeno combined the cynical doctrine with concepts of Heraklit and Aristoteles. Because of this historical development there are many relations between Stoicism and Nicomachean ethics (Zeno of Citium)



Early Stoicism (ca. 340-180 BC)

         Zeno was succeeded as head of the school by Cleanthes and Cleanthes by Chrysippus. According to Diogenes Laertius (not to be confused with Diogenes of Sinope) these three early Stoics wrote many works, but nothing except fragments of these have survived. Their works were still available, however, to Laertius in the third century, who synthesizes the contents of these works in his attempt to provide a brief outline of Stoic philosophy. Laertius’ summary of Stoic philosophy [Laertius, 149, 195, 217, 225] is the best source of information for early Stoicism. (Stoicism, Crandall University)


         Stoicism was generally seen as a back-to-nature movement critical of superstitions and taboos. The philosophical detachment also encompassed pain and misfortune, good or bad experiences, as well as life or death. Zeno often challenged prohibitions, traditions and customs. Another tenet was the emphasis placed on love for all other beings (…). The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason. But the Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles by developing clear judgment and inner calm through diligent practice of logic, reflection, and concentration. (Stoicism, Wikipedia)


         According to Stoicism, Logos (law, reason) dwells in all things in the universe, and the universe moves in an orderly fashion according to laws. Likewise, Logos dwells in people as well. Therefore, we can know the law of the universe through our reason, and should "live according to nature." That was the basic position of the Stoic school. The Stoics held that people feel pain because they have passions. To solve this, people should rid themselves of passions and reach the state of apathy (the absence of passion) or the perfectly peaceful state of a mind that will not be tempted in any way. Thus, the Stoic school advocated an asceticism in which the supreme virtue was apathy (Axiology, a Theory of Value).


         Stoics focus their passion on virtue, right living in harmony with the highest potentials of humanity --- and so they are and should be utterly indifferent in the face of most day-to-day distractions. Strong feelings are simply inappropriate reactions to irrelevant happenstance. The Stoics held that an emotion requires a prior judgment. For example, you cannot feel anger unless you think someone has harmed you, and that this matters to you in some significant respect. Some texts indicate that the Stoics thought that the judgment and the emotion are one and the same thing: that is, your thinking about something in a certain way -- making the judgment -- happens automatically with a specific affect, the emotion. In particular, the Stoic thinks that all judgments that give rise to emotions are false. The Stoic does not so much repress emotions as simply stop making false judgments. The Stoic does not accept that someone insulting them (for example) constitutes a real harm, and so will not be angry (apathy, Zhurnal Wiki).


For details see Values in Classical Stoicism, by Jan Garret



Middle Stoicism (ca. 180 BC-27 BC)

Middle Stoicism is the term used to encompass the work of later Stoic philosophers including Antipater of Tarsus (…-130 BC), Panaetius (185-110 BC), and Posidonius (135-45 BC). (…) It is certainly true that there was evolution in Stoic ideas with these philosophers and disagreements with earlier Stoics. Thus, for instance, Antipater was much more positive about marriage and family than Chrysippus was. (…) Posidonius, (…) he did think it necessary to acknowledge non-rational movements in the human soul corresponding to Plato's appetite and spirit (…) Panaetius hovers in the background of one of the most influential books in moral philosophy up through the late 19th century: Cicero’s On Duties or De Officiis. In one of his letters Cicero says that he based the first two books of his work on Panaetius' treatise of the same name. It is perhaps on this basis that some interpreters have taken Middle Stoic moral philosophy to be more “practical” than that of the Old Stoa, for On Duties concentrates on identifying proper functions in a context where it is clear we are not talking about the infallible Stoic sage. (Stoicism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


According to Cicero (106-43 BC) the quality of a constitution is defined by its respect for justice. Monarchy degenerates to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy and democracy to mobocracy. Cicero thinks that a mixture/balance of the three structures is the best approach to avoid degeneration. Popular religion has to be replaced by philosophy. He also maintains that marriage and community of property hamper self-realization. His appeal for justice does not prevent him from justifying slavery by associating slaves with “well treated employees”. Given the close kinship of all humans, justice is also a major concern in the relation between different nations. War is only appropriate as a matter of defense, after all negotiations have failed [Baus, 159-162].



Late Stoicism (ca. 27 BC-180 AD)

1)      It is likely that the Romans first came in contact with Greek civilization through the Greek city-states in southern Italy and in Sicily (both of which formed Magna Graecia — "Greater Greece"). These colonies had been established as a result of Greek expansion that took place in these two areas beginning in the 8th century BC. (Roman Republic, Wikipedia)


2)      Late Stoicism is characterized by the influence of the Romans, starting with the rise of the Roman empire about 27 B.C. The Roman influence can be described as follows (Stoiker und Epikureer, Peter Möller):

a)      New customs and a new tradition were established. The duty to the partner (marriage), the family (children) and the state became of prime importance:

Second-century Stoicism set the standards for acceptable behavior and provided justification not only for traditional Roman mores, but for Roman rule. This represents a drastic change from the values of the Early Stoa: although Roman Stoicism preached "restraint and conformity," the original Stoa four centuries earlier was a center of "dissident asceticism and social radicalism" [Francis].


b)      The idea of cosmopolitanism became the predominant social vision:

All people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another. In Discourses, Epictetus comments on man's relationship with the world: "Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, where of the city political is only a copy." This sentiment echoes that of Socrates, who said "I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world."

They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Thus, before the rise of Christianity, Stoics advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings (Stoicism, Wikipedia)

The term “natural equality”, however, did not imply equality of opportunity. It only meant that each individual has an equal potential to liberate him-/herself from passion, the slave as well as the emperor.

Stoicism held that external circumstances (such as being enslaved) did not truly impede a person from practicing the Stoic ideal of inner self-mastery (Slavery in antiquity)

a position which contributed to the acceptance of slavery.


3)      The main exponents of late Stoicism were Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius.

Seneca challenged the Aristotelian view (according to which we should moderate, but not eliminate passions) by the remark that he did “not understand how any half-way disease can be either wholesome or helpful.” [Gowans, 23].

The manual of Epictetus is representative for the late Stoicism.


4)      Apatheia does not involve the sage in being insensitive to pleasure and pain. He feels them but overcomes them, recognizing that pain is not to be feared and that pleasure is not a true good. The wise man’s life is consequently smooth-flowing not as a result of external fortune but through his own settled disposition. The state of rational joy experienced by the sage is based on living in accordance with (in harmony with) Nature. What does this involve? First and foremost it is the consistent acceptance of all that befalls him, stemming from a fixed disposition and an understanding of the ways of Nature (…)  This is a complete rejection of the pleasure principle. Only virtue is good and is to be chosen for its own sake (…). The wise man, says Seneca, is like Stilbo who, ‘when his home town was captured, his children lost, his wife lost, was questioned whether he had lost anything he replied, ‘I have all my valuables with me.’(…). The teaching of the Stoa in this respect is essentially that of every religious tradition: that there exists some thing, in this life or another, the value of which is so great that we must be ready to give up all else for its sake (…)


5)      The sage is also to take part in political life, according to his station. He might be a slave, a laborer, a craftsman, a senator or an emperor. ‘Virtue you will find in the temple, in the forum, in the senate house - you will find her standing in front of the city walls dirty and stained, and with calloused hands.’ The choice of part is not the sage’s to make; nor are success or failure within his control. All that is within his power is to perform the part well (…) The Stoic recommendation of suicide is not directed to those who are conquered by life but to those who have conquered life, are able both to live and to die and can choose freely between them.’ [Roots]. The sage has achieved a perfect harmony with the real order of things as they are [Kapstein, 107].


6)      The early Stoics believed that the universe is informed and governed by divine Providence. While we must accept that all things are fated, we can also know that everything is for the good. Although this remained orthodox Stoic teaching and is still to be found in the later writings, we also become aware of an increasing note of hesitancy in the late Stoa (…) Seneca’s nephew, the Stoic poet Lucan, rejected altogether the idea of Fate as benevolent. Fate, or Fortune, is a callous master that destined Romans to lose their freedom in the civil war. (…) There is still in the late Stoic ideal the threefold identification of virtue, freedom and happiness. However, the virtue has become focused on courage and on ‘stoicism’ in the modern sense of self-control and indifference to adversity. ‘If a man can look at flashing swords with eyes unswerving, if he knows that it is of no moment to him whether his soul departs through mouth or throat, call him happy. Call him happy if, when physical torture is decreed for him . . . with mind unperturbed he hears of chains and exile and the empty terrors of mankind.’


7)      In A.D. the Stoic Marcus Aurelius became emperor of Rome. One might expect that this would have been as portentous for Stoicism as the later ascension to the throne of Constantine was for Christianity. In fact, by the year 200 Stoicism was in sharp decline as a separate school of philosophy. Why? To answer this we must return to the question of what is the essence of Stoicism (…) Let us begin by stripping down Stoic anthropology to its barest bones, excluding all elements within it, which were not agreed by both early and late Stoics in the classical period. I think that we are left with the following elements of thought, a tension between

a)      man as a rational part of the Universal Nature, a part of the continuum rather than a separate ‘self’; and

b)      man’s essential aloneness as an individual.

Both elements existed in Stoic thought throughout the classical period but the early Stoa emphasized the former element, the late Stoa emphasized the latter. I believe it was the shift from (a) to (b) that resulted in the decline of Stoicism. Closely linked to this, and partly causing it, was the move from the thoroughgoing cosmological optimism of the early Stoa to the cosmological agnosticism of the late Stoa. The thought of the Stoa was moving towards a complete focus on the ethics, in particular on the ability to stand strong no matter what

(The Stoic Sage, Peter Roots)



Comparison with Buddhism

         Stoicism as well as Buddhism is probably inspired by the Samkhya doctrine of the Indian philosopher Kapila [Baus, 206-221]. In addition Stoicism was influenced by Jain thoughts [Kolm].


         Apatheia is awareness not-caring about things that are unworthy of concern. Stoic sages (theoretical ideals) practice apatheia when they avoid emotional reactions to mundane events. The concept is close to the Daoist wu wei and the Zen mu.


         Unlike Stoicism, though, Buddhism recommends that the meaning of life consists not in restricting desires so as to achieve happiness in this life; rather, the Buddhist claims that life has meaning only if it is understood as a mere stepping stone to an enlightenment in which the self escapes from worldly concerns. Buddhism does not suggest that the answer to possessive individualism lies in restructuring our secular economic systems. Rather, it interprets the concentration on economic matters simply as yet another distraction from the real task at hand, namely, the need to stop wanting or desiring property (individual or communal) altogether (Stoicism, Buddhism and the Meaning of Life, Stephen H.Daniel).


         Stoicism attempts to eliminate irrational desires as well as Buddhism. Similarly to Buddhism the elimination should be reached by insight and not by prohibition. But in contrast to Buddhism transient desires are accepted as long as the transience is a consciously calculated risk. The goal is a realistic estimation of risk and not the avoidance of risk. However, the exposure to risk changed from the early to the late Stoa. Late Stoicism with its emphasis on duty to the family and the state enhanced the realm of risks to be managed. The risks of a retreat-oriented Greek community are hardly comparable with the ones of a Roman troop of soldiers. The elimination of passion eliminates the risk of disrespecting duty, but it also serves risk-taking in the name of duty. Stoicism, which started as a back-to-nature philosophy, became a cornerstone of Roman militarism. The dissident philosophy of the cynic mentors with its affinity to Buddhism was transformed into a tool for imperialistic expansion. However, emotional sacrifices only make sense, if they are imbedded into an optimistic worldview. The loss of optimism, induced by Roman civil wars led to the decline of the Stoa:

The Crisis of the Third Century is a commonly applied name for the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 284. It is also called the period of the "military anarchy".


         Why did Buddhism not decline as well as the Stoa? A possible explanation is the following:

While Mahajana Buddhism determines that we strive for enlightenment that contributes to the liberation of all living beings, the doctrines of Stoicism would seem to entail that this is impossible. For though both strongly affirm principles  of causality and cyclicity in the constitution of the world, Buddhism apparently grants considerably more freedom of human agency than does Stoicism, at least insofar as one can in some sense choose one’s destiny [Kapstein, 104].




4. Nussbaum’s Critique


Nussbaum’s ethical ideal is based on Aristotle’s concept of a “complete life” (see chapter 2.4).

Her critique of Hellenistic ethics is (indirectly) a critique of the Buddhist influence on Greek philosophy.



4.1 Critique of Hellenistic Schools


A life without a family or a partnership without passionate love can be seen as a lack of commitment. The relevant questions according to Martha Nussbaum are the following:

         How far does the attachment of Hellenistic schools to various versions of freedom from pain and disturbance allow their pupils to form commitments to anything outside their own virtue?

         And how complete is the life that results?

[Nussbaum, 499]




The Skeptics divest their pupil of all commitments, including cognitive ones, on the grounds that any commitment to the world, even a commitment to the fact that it is this way or that, puts the pupil at risk. Far less does the pupil have any commitment to loved ones or country or even to his/her own past, character or taste. These things are there, and they exert their causal force – but if they happen not to, the pupil does not go after them. This gives him/her a life of remarkable safety; but it impoverishes the self and makes the self untrustworthy for others [Nussbaum, 500]


Martha Nussbaum notes that “Skeptical practice has a great deal in common (and may be influenced by) Eastern therapeutic philosophies which provide us with many empirical examples of a detached mode of existence like the one Sextus Empiricus recommends”. But precisely those practices seem to be the problem. The complete extirpation of belief can be achieved only at a steep price: “Even those of us who might accept a life without emotion are likely to be disturbed at the degree to which this life lacks commitment to others and to society.” [Kuzminski, 23]




The Epicurean seems to understand ataraxia itself in a more active way than the Skeptic – not just as the absence of disturbance, but, in positive terms, as the healthy and unimpeded functioning of all our faculties, including the corresponding risks:

         the cognitive risk of seeing the world in a definite way, a way that might be falsified by experience.

         the risk of virtuous actions even when it is not advantageous

         the risk of friendship

[Nussbaum, 500]

But the Epicurean life remains incomplete insofar as it excludes marriage, sexual love, children and the political community




Stoicism was the way in which some of the noblest figures in later antiquity have answered the problem of existence and conquered the anxieties of fate and death (Transtheism, Wikipedia)


The Stoics’ dilemma on this point is that apatheia and its cognitive basis would seem to be at odds with the sort of risk-taking loyalty and courage a Stoic hero is said to possess. Stoic friends and spouses must live in such a way that the death or departure of the other will not cause grief. Though pietas may produce much loyal and quasi-committed action, the Stoic goes through the motions like one playing a role. He entrusts no part of his good to any other. This lack of deep love and openness may seem to render that life impoverished and incomplete [Nussbaum, 500].



Hellenism and Buddhism

Reviewing the development of Greek philosophy from the Pre- Socratics to the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, one is struck by the overwhelming concern in the later schools with peace of mind. There is, as a consequence, one quality that preclassical and classical Greeks possessed preeminently and that Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics preeminently lacked: enthusiasm (Hellenistic Thought, Forrest Baird).

Similarly in Buddhism, there is an overwhelming concern for calm:

The “core value” that one finds in the Pali Canon is neither insight nor compassion – though both are corollaries of it. The key is calm [Webster, 205].




4.2 Critique of Hellenistic Virtues


The arguments in this chapter are essentially the same as in chapter 4.1, but the emphasis is on virtues instead of schools.


Aristotle claimed that detachment does not lead to true human happiness and a genuinely fulfilled human existence. A happy life is rich in possibilities for emotions such as love, grief, fear and even anger [Burton, 212].



Extirpate anger

Seneca (a late Stoic philosopher) and Lucretius (an Epicurean poet) have complex and ambivalent positions, in both the public and the private sphere:

         Lucretius’ attempt to describe the bases of community shows and retains the basis for anger on behalf of oneself and one’s own. This legitimate anger is not free of potentially disturbing consequences. It is a difficult balancing act, to create a community in which individuals both protect themselves and cherish their friends.

         Seneca, too, has great difficulty describing a community that is both self-respecting and free from anger. His analysis makes a powerful case against anger and in favor of a medical attitude toward injury and wrongdoing. But in cases where a tyrant damages someone whom one loves, detachment gives way to cursing.

[Nussbaum, 509]

There is a consensus that – given a commitment in the community – the complete extirpation of anger is mistaken, but the difficult problem Lucretius and Seneca are dealing with is to decide between legitimated and undesirable anger.


A different problem springs from the link between passionate love and anger:

Nussbaum suggests that – if one accepts the Hellenistic arguments for the elimination of anger – one must also accept the elimination of passionate love [Nussbaum, 509].



Besiege the fear of death

It is the job of Epicurean argument to remove false beliefs and the desires that causally depend on them [Nussbaum, 195].

One has to distinguish between the fear of being dead oneself and the fear of losing members of the family.

1.      The fear of being dead:

It should be possible to remove false beliefs (e.g. punishment in the afterlife) for both passionate and passionless people.

2.      The fear of losing friends or members of the family:

Stoic friends and spouses must live in such a way that the death or departure of the other will not cause grief (…). The Stoic goes through the motions like one playing a role (…). This lack of deep love may seem to render that life impoverished [Nussbaum, 500].

Deep love and fear are closely tied.



Extirpate Compassion

Where pity and compassion are concerned there are good reasons to approve the Lucretian tendency to leave it in human life as a basic source of communal affiliation, rather than to banish it in the name of self-sufficiency, as the Stoics do [Nussbaum, 508].

Compassion – as described by Nussbaum – is tied to the emotional commitment to friends or members of the family. The arguments against the extirpation of compassion are the same as the ones for the extirpation of fear.



Abstain from wealth, power and luxury

All of the above mentioned schools recommended living in accordance with nature and dropping the frenzied pursuit of wealth, power and luxury. These pseudo-goals are at best highly limited tools of human functioning, mere instruments without intrinsic value. Epicureans and Stoics, by their analysis of connections between these false ends and socially divisive desires, provide a further consequentialist argument in favor of their reform of preferences. If the Hellenistic thinkers are correct, then the behavior of individuals who seek to maximize wealth and other satisfactions – far from being either natural or rational - is the product of a diseased form of social teaching. For Lucretius it is still worse – the consequence of a false and self-deceptive belief that one can defeat one’s own death by accumulation. Such behavior will not be chosen by fully informed human beings, when they have duly scrutinized the alternatives through a process of critical argument [Nussbaum, 500]

Martha Nussbaum – who criticizes Hellenistic virtues in many respects – agrees with Hellenistic thinkers at this point (in line with Aristoteles denial of chrematistics). We will therefore undertake the role of the critic:

         Why should wealth, power and luxury not be a component of emotional richness [Nussbaum, 500]? For most individuals these attributes evoke strong emotions because they are tied to the social status.

         The accumulation of wealth, power and luxury is irrational as a means to defeat aging and death. It is however (in many instances) a means to moderate the power of contingency [Hampe] in the same way as an insurance does.

         Deferred consumption and savings are the basis for investments.

In Hinduism artha is one of the four aims in life.

Artha is the acquisition of arts, land, gold, cattle, wealth, equipages and friends. It is, further, the protection of what is acquired, and the increase of what is protected. Artha should be learnt from the king's officers, and from merchants who may be versed in the ways of commerce (Kama Sutra)

In the context of the Dharma, a part of wealth is spent for religious and social purposes. This leads to a different argument. It is questionable to devaluate wealth and power at all without a context. The usage decides about the morality. A person in a powerful position can do more for the worst-off than a retreat-oriented Hellenist.




Is it possible to accept the Hellenistic arguments about the elimination of anger, while still rejecting their more general attack on passions such as love, fear and grief? [Nussbaum, 509]

Nussbaum’s answer is no. Passionate (deep) love, anger, fear and compassion (for family members and friends) are closely tied. One has to make a choice between:

         denying commitments and giving up an (emotionally) complete life

         affirming commitments and take emotional risks

Hellenistic schools essentially decide for low commitments. In late Stoicism commitment is high, but driven by pietas, not passion.


Obviously the Hellenistic schools propagate ideals which are far from Aristotle’s complete life. But before dismissing these ideals we have to question the normative claim which asks for a complete life. Possibly the differences between the two kinds of ethics can be explained by different environments. The change from Aristotelian to Hellenistic ethics may have to do with the therapeutic function of philosophy [Banicki, 22]:




5. Hellenistic Philosophy as Therapy


For a definition of philosophical therapy see Philosophy as Therapy.


Philosophy as therapy flourishes in situations of political and religious upheavals, i.e. in situations where traditions lose their liability. The Hellenistic age is characteristic for this kind of environment. Philosophy has a certain potential to replace religious ethics by secular ethics:

         It reconstructs meaning (chances) after the loss of religious faith (chapter 5.1)

         It strives for a realistic estimation of chances and risks (chapter 5.2)




5.1 The Reconstruction of Meaning




The ancient Greek world view was life-affirmative and polytheistic. Socrates and Aristotle were pagan believers. Socrates applied his critical-rational thinking rather to the social class of the priests than to religion. Similar to Buddha he turned away from metaphysical speculations and concentrated on ethics. With the ascent of the natural sciences critical-rational thinking became even more important:

Socratic-kind questioning and doubt had undermined the old pagan beliefs. The schools of philosophy inspired by Socrates, such as Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans focused on ethics, for at least two reasons:

         The first is that despite their limited ability to investigate the larger questions such as the origin of the universe, the nature of reality, including that of divine beings, and the ultimate purpose of it all, they still believed that it was possible to fully understand the nature of the good life – morally and in terms of happiness (…).

         The second reason was that in age of thought and insecurity, it was necessary to find a way of living that was morally meaningful, that gave one control over one’s life and offered a way to achieve happiness (…). In ancient Athens thirty percent of the population was slaves.

Philosophers were more like psychotherapists. Unlike priests and ministers today, the priests of the ancient world did not provide pastoral counseling (Frank Kyle, 441). Doing philosophy included contemplative and meditative practice [Hadot].

Stoicism – possibly influenced by Indian philosophers – created meaning by a pantheistic world view.

It is generally regarded that Hindu religious texts are the oldest known literature containing pantheistic ideas (Pantheism, Wikipedia)

Pantheism is easier to reconcile with natural sciences than polytheism.




The Aristotelian ideal of a complete life represents the ethics of a community where each member participates in the political process. It is the ethics of small, manageable societies. But Alexander’s Empire decayed and the city states failed. Hellenistic ethics (except Roman Stoicism) is characterized by the retreat from political engagement. Stoicism has some unique features. Although it started as a back-to-nature movement it proved to have an immense political potential. The Stoic universalism – unlike Skepticism – allows binding self-sufficient individuals and communities together. The fact that universalistic ethics supports large, expanding societies may have been the reason why Stoicism became Rome’s dominant philosophy:

         Rome was a deeply unequal society in which less than one percent of the population owned nearly all the wealth. Rome’s masses were not merely poor but lived in conditions that can only be described as destitution. Twenty five percent of the population of Rome was composed of slaves (…).

         Rome’s basic forms of thinking were derived from post-Aristotelian Greek philosophy, especially the Stoic school which began about 300 B.C.

In the century after the death of Aristotle the basic thrust of Greek philosophy and social thought was to separate the idea of a worthwhile life from the life of the polis (…). While this was an understandable response to the chronic and now transparent failure of the city state, it nonetheless represented a dramatic departure from the symbolic world of the preceding centuries (…).

         Democrats like the sophist Protagoras and aristocrats such as Plato and Aristotle took it for granted that humans were essentially social animals (…). Stoicism, however, proclaimed an individualistic universalism, in which the source of norms lay outside society, they effectively bypassed the tight hierarchic communalism that had been the main tradition in Greek thought (…).

         Stoicism consisted of vague universalistic abstractions that perfectly complemented the power structure of an expansionist society. (Social Theory, Daniel W.Rossides).




5.2 Risks by Commitments


         Risk ethics investigates the general question under which conditions a person is permitted to expose him/herself or others to a risk [Philosophisches Seminar, 4].

         Risk-averse ethics is characterized by sacrificing chances (respectively efficiency) in order to avoid risks. For a more detailed definition see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering.


If the schools discussed in this paper are characterized by their social commitments then we get the following table:




Commitments related to family and politics



Passionate (but controlled)

Early Buddhists, Cynics, Epicureans, Skeptics

Missing or low

Late Stoics


by pietas (not passion)



Risk ethics is a means to evaluate the rationality of behavior. Buddhist and Hellenistic schools developed a strategy to reduce risk by reducing social commitments. Buddha and Pyrrho of Elis, for example, lived as celibate, wandering ascetics [Beckwith, 46, 93].  This reduction of risk has to be paid by the loss of “natural” happiness. Retreat-oriented ethics strives to compensate the loss by meditative and contemplative kinds of happiness.


In the context of Apatheia [Höffe, 101] Aristotle used the argument that insensitiveness is far from human nature. But Buddhists and Hellenists are not insensitive, they are differently sensitive. Buddhists replace passion by meditative happiness and compassion, and even Stoics are not unemotional. If they manage to avoid excessive self-control (and corresponding mental illness) then the Aristotelian (complete) life looks like a questionable risk.





6. Virtue Ethics



6.1 Definition


Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism)

(Virtue ethics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Virtue ethics is based on the thesis, that even in a variable environment (in the long run) some character traits can be detected, which are desirable for everybody.

In Greek philosophy the concept of an ideal character and universal virtues was introduced by Plato (424-348 B.C.), the teacher of Aristoteles (384-322 B.C.), see Konkurrierende Lebensziele.




6.2 Questioning the Complete Life


The Aristotelian ideal of completeness (see chapter 2.4) is associated with the commitment to the family, friends and the community. However, increasing levels of commitment (at some point) allow or even require the use of violence. Passionate attachments also turn accidents, illnesses and death into tremendous emotional risks. Increasing commitments therefore go with increasing risks:


How can the ideal of a complete life (a life with high commitment) justify the corresponding risk?

On what grounds can the Aristotelian ideal be called morally superior?


The criteria used by Martha Nussbaum to claim the moral superiority of a complete life are emotional richness, openness and trustability [Nussbaum, 500]. These criteria cannot be found in Aristotle’s list of virtues (see Aristotle Ethics), but they represent something like “derived” Aristotelian virtues. In the following we question Nussbaum’s criteria and her devaluation of Hellenistic ethics:



Emotional richness

         Contemplative happiness is less intense than biological happiness but normally more durable. If a person is capable to reach a meditative state of ecstasy, then the valuation becomes even more difficult (because of the incomparable nature of this kind of happiness).

         With regards to anger it is far from evident that its loss leads to an impoverished life. Anger may be tied to passionate love but not to all kinds of love. On what grounds should passionate love be morally superior to charitable love or the Buddhist kind of compassion (compassion which is not driven by biological altruism)?  In addition anger is not only linked to passionate love but also to the risk of violence.




         Contemplative happiness is difficult to communicate but that does not make it morally inferior to unveiled happiness.

         Open and direct communication not only solves problems but also creates conflicts. The moral value of openness depends on the context. [Sick, 263-268]

         As far as openness is associated with spontaneity, it is in conflict with control and sublimation. Many professions require a high degree of emotional distance and devaluate spontaneity.




         To deny a commitment is not morally suspicious per se. A person can be perfectly trustable, although he/she denies the commitment to a family.

         Conversely the commitment to a family is not morally superior per se. A family is not necessarily a moral institution.

         The combination of lacking passion and high commitment is characteristic for late Stoicism. But there the predominant role of pietas guarantees trustability.




Obviously – even if we adopt Nussbaum’s criteria for moral superiority – Hellenistic ethics cannot easily be degraded. Hellenistic and Aristotelian ethics serves different interests. If we associate Aristotelian ethics with “survival and procreation” and Hellenistic ethics with the “reduction of suffering”, then both views have their justification. For an analysis of this conflict of interest see Konkurrierende Lebensziele.




6.3 Questioning Universality



Types of ethics

There are reasons for affirming social commitments and reasons for denying them. The reasons for denying commitments can (but do not have to) be therapeutic ones as in Buddhism.

         Affirming social commitments requires a concept for cooperation

         Denying social commitments requires a concept for retreat

In-between these two poles there are countless intermediate forms of ethics, which deny specific commitments in order to avoid risks. We will subsume them under the term retreat-oriented ethics. The late Stoics are a special case insofar, as they affirm social commitments (by pietas) and reduce risk by emotional distance.




Type of ethics



Early Buddhists, Cynics, Epicureans, Skeptics





         Strive for non-violence


Late Stoics



         by emotion

         or pietas


         Legitimate force in the name of justice




Arguments against universality

The therapeutic function of philosophy may have been the decisive factor for the change from Aristotelian to Hellenistic ethics. But in a long-term historical view it is just one of many determinants, which influences the preference for specific character types.


Following some more arguments against the proclamation of universal virtues:

         In a changing environment evolutionary adaptations emanate quickly. New character traits appear or old ones are revitalized. In the 17th century La Bruyère already documented more than thousand types of characters. A rigid character ideal doesn’t fit into a variable environment.

         A culture with its virtues is a successful adaptation to a certain environment and world view, but there is not only one possible successful adaptation.

         Cultures are in competition. The victorious culture declares their pattern of behavior to be virtuous.

         There is also a competition within the same culture. For some people a moral norm is easy to comply, for others extremely difficult, depending on their constitution, environment and biography. The majority declares their preferences to be sound.

         Within a culture there are specializations with corresponding virtues. A family of artists doesn’t propagate the same virtues as a family of sportsmen or intellectuals.

         In the context of a complex culture virtues can rarely be translated into concrete arguments for decision-making.




7. Conclusion


Martha Nussbaum suggests that the price for giving up emotional social commitments is too high. There are indeed good reasons for an emotional engagement in family life and politics (Aristotelian ethics), but there are also good reasons for denying it (Hellenistic ethics) depending on the individual constitution and the environment. Virtue ethics is derived ethics; it cannot propagate intrinsic values.

Since Hellenistic ethics is as defensible as Aristotelian ethics, it makes no sense to promote a universal ideal of the human character.








I would like to thank Michael Hampe for the inspiring conversations in the context of this paper.








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