Where Men Can Become Better Gentlemen

Origins: Greek Ethics

The ancient Greeks were keenly focused on personal cultivation including the principles of conduct governing an individual: ethics. The birth and development of these ethics are owed to a trio of classical Greek scholars: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Socrates (469 BC to 399 BC)

Considered to be one of the fathers, if not the father, of Western philosophy. Unfortunately little, if any, of his works exist - except in the writings of his students who followed him, most notably Plato (see below)

Tragically he was executed for being a heretic - as Aristotle later said "Thinking is sometimes injurious to health"!

Socrates - A Virtuous Life

There are many things accredited to Socrates but for this short study it is relevant to highlight his elenchus or Socratic Method: the use of questions to gain specific answers and in so doing encourage “funneled” insight into the subject under discussion. This certainly led to the development of Logic and a by product was an unquenhable thirst for knowledge through questions: What is knowledge? What is beauty? What is virtue? What is justice?

Socrates thought a good man ought to seek the good life and so become a good and virtuous citizen. He believed the only possible way to achieve “The Good Life” was through personal examination. "Know yourself", even today, is an oft repeated phrase by Socrates, although in this context we also like "The unexamined life is not worth living".

We recommend: “The Hemlock Cup” by Bettany Hughes - this can only be described as the closest thing to an autobiography one can ever expect to find about Socrates.

Plat0 (428/427 BC to 348/347 BC)

A student of Socrates and founder of The Academy - the first ever institution of higher learning. He was a writer and teacher of philosophy, logic, rhetoric and mathematics (just to name the major subjects!).

While there is some debate as to the authenticity for some of his attributed works, it is clear he was a prolific writer. He was a loyal supporter of his teacher and mentor Socrates and quotes him throughout his writings. It is from this we gain an insight into Socrates and his thoughts and teachings.

Plato Pio-Clemetino Inv305

Plato Speaks

Certainly Plato had many things to say regarding virtues (or ethics) and this can be seen throughout his written works. Examples include quotes like these:

“All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue.”

“Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.”

“The most virtuous are those who content themselves with being virtuous without seeking to appear so.”

Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC)

A student of Plato, Aristotle was also a writer and teacher of philosophy, logic and rhetoric plus: physics, metaphysics, biology, poetry, theatre, music, politics, government and ethics. It may surprise people to know he taught Alexander the Great.

Like Socrates he was responsible for thoughts and observations in many fields of endeavor, many of which have influenced mankind since – even withstanding the test of time and are still relevant for today. Fortunately, unlike Socrates, many of Aristotle’s writing has survived – sadly though, it is believed only about one-third!

Along with Socartes and Plato, Aristotle is an important founder of Western philosophy. He was the first to create a system of morality (or ethics) and this philosophy continues to attract academic study today.

Aristotle - A Good Life

Aristotle thought man must have a function or purpose and that it must be an activity of the soul. He identified the best activity of the soul as eudaimonia ("human flourishing"): a happiness which permeates throughout the good life. To achieve “The Good Life” one must live a balanced life and avoid excess. This balance would be different from person to person and situation to situation - existing as a balance between two vices - one an excess and the other a deficiency.

His writings include various works on ethics, but the most studied and noted is his Nichomachean Ethics, which outlines what is referred to today as virtue ethics. For instance, an example of his writing regarding these virtue ethics: "The moral virtues, then, are produced in us neither by nature nor against nature. Nature indeed prepares in us the ground for their reception, but their complete formation is the product of habit".

Find out more about Aristotle and his work "Nichomachean Ethics".

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