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Hoffmans, Stella, and Reis, Burkhard, editors. The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics.

HOFFMANS, Stella, and REIS, Burkhard, editors. The Virtuous Life in Greek Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. ix + 277 pp. This collection of essays on the virtuous life in Greek ethics is meant to be a celebration of the 65th birthday of Dorothea Frede, one of the outstanding scholars in the field of ancient philosophy and the president of the German Society of Ancient Philosophy. In the tradition of the continental philosophy, in which she belongs, Professor Frede has put Greek and Hellenistic philosophy in a dialogue with modern and contemporary moral philosophy. Through the years, this dialogue has become increasingly interested in the issues of the role and formation of moral character and its link to moral responsibility, issues that are peripheral in post-Enlightenment moral philosophy due to its rationalistic vocation, naturally more attentive to calculating inferences (utilitarianism) and assessing a priori formal criteria of evaluation (Kantianism), yet almost deft to "virtue ethics." As we may recall from Immanuel Kant's work, issues concerning character and the formation of moral sentiments belong to anthropology and psychology, not the discipline of morals whose scientific foundation demands that empirical questions and issues are left to practitioners, not theorists. Hence, whereas to the ancient Greek philosophers ethics should set out to teach human beings the good life as a whole, to modern post-Enlightenment philosophers moral philosophy's task is to justify moral principles or values and be an aid to the solution of moral dilemmas in a society, like modern democratic society, that is based on individuals' equality, reciprocity and a dialogic exchange of reasons and opinions.

This volume is composed of eleven contributions, of which eight are devoted to Plato and Aristotle, two to Epicurus and one to Empedocles. Articles by James Allen, Julia Annas, David Sedley and Margaret McCabe explore a series of arguments as they are discussed by Socrates and his interlocutors in some Platonic dialogues. Through an examination of the arguments on virtues in the Protagoras, Allen argues that Plato intends to depict a progress in moral argument from the stage of mere dialectic to that of demonstrative and didactic assertion. In her discussion of Euthydemus, Annas approaches the issue of the classification of Plato's dialogues according to whether Socrates plays the role of a negative examiner or of a positive expounder; yet this dialogues would show that Socrates adopted both perspectives. Annas' goal is not to claim for any unitarian reading of Plato--but in her mind both strategies can be seen as "mutually enriching for the person spurred to pursue wisdom and virtue" (p. 46). Sedley analyses the position Socrates plays in the Symposium in his attempt to persuade Aristophanes (who believes love is at root a quest to enhance the self) and Agathon (who links love to the goodness) and concludes that Socrates unifies at the end both positions by amending the former of its amoral implications and strengthen the intuition of the latter that love is not simply promotion of the serf but of self's good. McCabe's last contribution on Plato brings us into an analysis of dialectics, Plato's preferred method of moral discussion: how it works, what it does, and whether its process is dialectic. The article discusses and dissects five features of conversation as they emerge from an analysis of Book 7 of the Republic (logical, psychological, sequential, epistemological and normative), five avenues by which means dialectic transforms the soul of the dialectician so as to put it in relation to the good.

The four articles dedicated to Aristotle focus more directly on the ethical issues of character and virtues. Christof Rapp discusses the intriguing idea that virtue is a middle state ("the mean relative to us"), which forms an important component of Aristotle's definition of ethical virtue. Save few exceptions, the moderns have either neglected or severely criticized this topic, which was meant to on the one hand, make moral inquiry sensitive to the actor's specificity (her context and character) and on the other, make sense of the non-rational components of human actions and decisions. Gisela Strikert and Christoph Horn turn to the place of general rules in Aristotelian ethics and the relationship between ethics ad politics. Strikert discusses the concept of universal justice and reads Aristotle's Politics as a necessary supplement of the Ethics, while Horn focuses essentially on "equity," a virtue that Aristotle deemed on some occasions superior to justice itself. Finally, Jan Szaif turns to the vexata quaestio of the meaning and interpretation of Aristotelian eudaimonia, a hardly translatable term that speaks for the peculiarity of ancient moral philosophy, within which the virtuous life could not be conceived of as separated from the biological life and the world of nonmoral goods. The two last papers are devoted to two related issues, namely happiness and responsibility. David Konstan discusses Epicurus' concept of hedone or the goal of life and argues that both pleasure and pain are irrational affects--this makes them effective thermometers of things and behaviors. But social culture creates exogenous believes and fears (false passions and prejudices) that become instead an obstacle rather than a guide to happiness. Through Epicurian ethics, Susanne Bobzien proposes another crucial aspect of ancient moral philosophy, namely the issue of the responsibility of the agent on the basis of a deterministic and materialistic world view that is foreign to allocation of praise and blame, as in Christian and modern philosophy. "The function of ethics is rather to give everyone a chance to morally improve," that is to understand the character of pleasures, or what makes them conducive to that end instead of distracting from it (p. 229). According to Brad Inwood, the same attitude can be detected in a presocratic thinker such as Empedocles, although he did so by invoking the religious argument of the transmigration of the soul as a punishment for a kind of primordial sin of which the individual was not personally responsible. Inwood's reading of Empedocles' circulation of 'souls' presents us with two interesting messages, on the one hand that of the unity of personhood and actually the continuity of our personal identity through the various stages of our life experience, and on the other that of the unity of our experience with the life of all creatures so as to make us responsible for the whole life of the planet as much as for our life and that of our species.--Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University.
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Author:Urbinati, Nadia
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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