A Short History of Ethics

A couple of years ago I stuck “History of Ethics” into Amazon and it came back with a two-volume tome by Vernon J. Bourke. I bought it and read it, to the end, on the principle that, once you’ve started, you have to stick it out. It was excruciating; a laundry list of pretty much what anyone who ever opened their mouth about ethics had ever said, couched in unintelligible technical terms, with no penetration, depth, or real understanding. I learned close to nothing, and it took forever. Hence I approached this single volume by Alasdair MacIntyre (written in the 1960s, before he became one of the big stars of Moral Philosophy) with some nervousness; but what a relief.

MacIntyre’s fundamental point is that concepts must be taken and understood in the historical context in which they arose, if their full meaning is to be grasped; hence this is not just a historical but a historicizing account of its field. He starts with a brilliantly insightful exploration of how the word “good” – so central in ethics – originally (in the Homeric world) meant ‘good at doing what you do in terms of your allotted role in society’, but gradually came adrift from its moorings as society changed and loosened up, creating a terminological confusion that was what the Presocratics, the Sophists, and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle themselves were, in their various ways, trying to sort out. MacIntyre is a Glaswegian, and, refreshingly, doesn’t pull his punches: he sticks it big time to Plato, refusing to accept as valid his opposition of reason and appetite, condemning his “characteristic and utterly deplorable puritanism”, and bemoaning “his willingness to impose his own certitudes upon others, with a use of profoundly unsatisfactory arguments to support his convictions” (good on him; I was always suspicious of a philosopher who could invent abstractions and promote them as somehow more real than the material world from which they were derived). He has more sympathy with down-to-earth Aristotle, champion of the balanced, practical, rational man, who posits happiness as the supreme human goal; but still lays into him as a “supercilious prig” whose ideal of the “great-souled man” is a stuck-up, self-important, condescending elitist for whom every friendship must have an ulterior motive. He concludes his tour of the ancient and medieval world with Christianity, arguing that, dependent as it was on borrowing from other traditions, it’s hard to see what it distinctively contributed to ethical thought (interestingly, MacIntyre himself became a Roman Catholic in the 1980s).

Initiating the modern world, Luther stripped away society: the only thing that matters is the individual, alone before God (a viewpoint that, it becomes clear as the book goes on, MacIntyre, committed as he is to placing people in the context of their historical and social origins, sees as egregiously corrosive, while at the same time underscoring his second main point, that the ethical is also political). He is typically pugnacious about Thomas Hobbes, elaborating a criticism of his concept of the social contract before asking: “If so, does not the whole Hobbesian case founder? It does.” Unexpectedly, he frames (and lauds) the Diggers and Levellers as true revolutionaries in the field of ethics. He makes the obscurities of Immanuel Kant plain as day (anyone who can do that has a lot going for them), adding (perhaps unfairly to Kant) a warning that the categorical imperative, being constructed as an ethical form which can be applied – “do your duty”, for example – to any pre-existing content, may have horrific implications – think Adolf Eichmann.  He sees the history of ethics as in one sense ending with Hegel, who was the last to break new ground by introducing a historical dimension to philosophy: achieving freedom is a question of overcoming the obstacles you face in your particular time and place, and circumstances alter virtues.

In the twentieth century, thinking about ethics becomes increasingly tied up in words and inadequate attempts to find universal definitions for them. The resulting disputes have brought out the point that, historically, ethical thinking has generally been the project of the spokesmen of one group or class posing their values (or trying to) as universal, whether or not they were able to impose them on their society as a whole. This realization “does not entail that the traditional moral vocabulary cannot be used. It does entail that we cannot expect to find in our society a single set of moral concepts, a shared interpretation of the vocabulary…. Each of us therefore has to choose both with whom we wish to be morally bound and by what ends, rules and virtues we wish to be guided. These two choices are inextricably linked.” Unless you are among those who think, anachronistically, that people ought to be told what’s best for them, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion to this superbly stimulating book.


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The First Philosophers

This anthology, edited by the Greek scholar Robin Waterfield, consists of a series of extracts, with commentary, from the work of a number of Greek thinkers who lived in the couple of centuries before the first megastar of western philosophy, Socrates – hence the name by which they are known to us: Presocratics. Well, “a series of extracts” is pushing it, since not many of them wrote anything down, so the way we know what they thought is largely through secondhand (and no doubt distorted) accounts, whether by disciples, critics (including Plato, Socrates’ chief scribe and the second megastar of western philosophy, who pitted some of them in dialogue against his hero), or historians writing many centuries later.  What survives is a series of fragments, like the cracked mosaics of some ancient palace floor.

That’s enough, though, to throw light on their strange and distant world. And yet in some ways not so distant: for these men (all men) were the first to think like we do. Anyone who has read their precursors, the great Greek epic poets Homer and Hesiod, knows that the gods pulled all the strings: whatever a phenomenon might appear to be, it ultimately had a supernatural cause.  We don’t know what it was that triggered the shift away from mythological thinking to the search for explanations in nature; but somehow, with the Presocratics, it happened, and it’s been with us ever since.

Some of the wackier beliefs of Pythagoras’ followers sound like those of a new age cult (the moon “is inhabited, just like our earth, but by creatures and plants which are taller and more beautiful; for creatures there are fifteen times as strong as those here, and never excrete anything, and their day is fifteen times longer than ours”), but they also laid the basis for much of modern mathematics, including mathematical relationships in music. And while some Presocratic scientific speculations sound quaintly cute to modern ears (“the sun is larger than the Peloponnese”, exclaims Anaxagoras), others were spot on (“the moon does not have its own light, but gains it from the sun” – Anaxagoras again), while still others are almost eerie in their prescience (Anaxagoras hypothesized a “big bang” origin for the universe – though set in motion by Mind – while Democritus posited atoms in motion and the combination of elements, and even asserted that the Gods – like us – were the products of atomic combination). There’s a mystical streak too – most of these thinkers believed that everything is one, and that nothing can come into being from non-being – but without that precluding a fair dose of common sense: Heraclitus held that “what awaits men after death cannot be anticipated or imagined”.

The Sophists, by contrast – or at least their flashier representatives – come across as superficial, boorish trivializers, interested only in egotistical point-scoring and well deserving of the opprobrium in which history has held them; though again, since we lack original sources, it’s hard to know how much of this impression is based on malevolent caricature.

For the most part, though, these distant philosophers seem just like us, fumbling with all their native curiosity and ingenuity towards the most coherent explanations of the universe they can find; but they were there first, and we owe them.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

This is pretty much the oldest book in the world, which makes the idea of a review seem somewhat superfluous; still. Somebody gave it to me; I sighed at the prospect of wading through it. But it is short – less than 60 pages – so I read it, on an aeroplane, 45 centuries removed in time and technology. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, “was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew all the countries of the world”, it begins; and so it carries on, rough-hewn blocks of prose locked together like the massive carved stones of ancient temple walls.

“When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body” and massive courage; larger than life, he builds on an epic scale, but runs out of control too, terrorizing the burghers of Uruk and raping their daughters. So the gods make him a companion, a wild man named Enkidu, who is seduced out of the hills by a temple prostitute set in his path by Gilgamesh. The heart of the story is the tale of the blood brother bond between the two: they journey to the Cedar Forest and dispatch in epic fight the ogre who guards it; they build a raft and sail back down the Euphrates with his head; they slay the mighty Bull of Heaven sent against Gilgamesh by the goddess Ishtar in revenge for his rejection of her advances. But then Enkidu, invincible in battle, takes ill, and after twelve days dies in his bed.

The remainder of the book recounts Gilgamesh’s inconsolable grief at the death of his friend, and his ravaging struggle against his own inevitable mortality. No more spoilers from me; but for all its age – in fact, in part because of its age – this is a book that has to be read. Nowhere, in all the millennia from Sumer to Silicon Valley, can there have been a starker or more abrupt statement of man’s chest-beating pride and the final, all-humbling recognition that there is one enemy he cannot defeat:

The king has laid himself down and will not rise again,
The Lord of Kullah will not rise again;
He overcame evil, he will not come again;
Though he was strong of arm he will not rise again.

He had wisdom and a comely face, he will not come again;
He is gone into the mountain, he will not come again;
On the bed of fate he lies, he will not rise again;
From the couch of many colours he will not come again.

But for all the book’s macho doings and glorification of the achievements of men, the final word should rest with a woman: Siduri, a wine-maker Gilgamesh runs into during his desperate wanderings after Enkidu’s death. “When the gods created man”, she says, “they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” So much has changed in forty-five centuries, but not that; and has anyone since put it better?

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inventing God

Kyria said: Daddy, where did the world come from?

To let her make up her own mind, I told her the two main western accounts: created in a week (say Christians and Muslims) and evolution.

Hmm, she said, I’m not sure about the one where God made it.

Why not? I asked.

Thing is, she said, if God made the world like that, then who made God? Well, you could say that somebody, or something, made God – but then who made that somebody or something?

Seven years old. No doubting Santa Claus, mind…


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Byzantium: The Decline and Fall

The last in the series is an ever-more dizzying whirligig of passing characters and incidents, few of them with enough purchase for this to be more than a shallow parade. Maybe that is the nature of the subject matter, given the sources – but who were these people?

Among the positives, what does stand out is that the Roman Empire, for some time before the end came, was at last truncated to a few scraps of land around Constantine’s city and in the south of Greece, and to almost complete powerlessness; that the population of the great city was reduced to a few tens of thousands, with much of the land within its walls given over to agriculture; and that in its final decades its emperors were obliged to go on tours of Europe begging for military and financial support (rarely forthcoming), one even going as far as England, where he spent a month with Henry IV at Eltham in what is now the Borough of Greenwich.

But when the end came, it came heroically; and the knowledge disseminated by the refugees, having been kept in-house for a thousand years since the end of the classical age, now kick-started the modern world. Byzantium seems so far away, yet it is the chief conduit through which we know about what went before as well as having been an astonishing civilization in its own right (if also barbarous in its ruthlessness). This version of it, while often seeming superficial, at least sets the record straight on how important it was, while much of the time spinning a good yarn.

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Byzantium: The Apogee

Second volume: more of the same, equally entertaining and well-written, with the same caveats. Most monstrous character: Basil the Macedonian, who maneuvered himself from stable boy to imperial confidant to Michael III, murdered the emperor’s uncle (who had effectively been running the state), persuaded Michael to proclaim him co-emperor, then disabled the locks on his co-emperor’s sleeping quarters and had him murdered in his sleep. Most hideous atrocity: Basil II, after capturing in battle a Bulgarian army of 15,000, divided them into hundreds, and for each hundred had both eyes gouged out of 99 men but only one eye out of the hundredth, so that he could still lead his blind century back to the Bulgarian king. You could barely make this stuff up. Funniest insult (a high Byzantine official on the inhabitants of Rome): “vile slaves, fishermen, confectioners, poulterers, bastards, plebeians and underlings.” And so it goes on. All of the might and splendor described here took place in the interval, in English history, between Egbert of Wessex and the Norman conquest. That’s quite a perspective.

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Byzantium: The Early Centuries

John Julius Norwich, author of this history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the founding of Constantinople in 330 until the coronation in 800 in Rome by the Pope of Charlemagne as rival Emperor of the West, is a jolly entertaining English upper class sort of storyteller. He has all the credentials: son of Duff and Diana Cooper, he went to Eton, then joined the diplomatic corps before retiring at 35 to write history books; he is the father of Artemis Cooper, herself married to the historian Anthony Beevor and currently biographer of the dashing English upper class travel writer and proto-Bond Patrick Leigh Fermor. And it must be said, his stories are pithy and colourful, designed to extract the last ounce of entertainment value from that previous aristocracy, the Roman-cum-Byzantine. He plucks a juicy summary from the sources, eliminates any tedious ingredients, enlivens it with crisp judgments, peppers it with anecdotal footnotes, and moves on. No sins of commission to complain about; though as he admits, he finds people more interesting than trends. The common people carry on, popping up occasionally to rise in support of or against this or that emperor, regent, patriarch, powerbroker. Yah boo hiss hooray they go, and the pantomime continues, within the hippodrome and without, but mostly beyond the heavily guarded end of the passage that connects to the imperial quarters.

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