Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Ethics in Antiquity: The Quest for the Good Life

Abstract

What is a good life? How do we become happy? These are questions of perennial concern to human beings, questions that we today encounter in all sorts of public and private discourse. One of the distinguishing marks of ancient ethics from Socrates to Augustine is precisely that it places the concept of the good life, which philosophers and others agree is a life of happiness at the centre of ethical thought. Our project is motivated by the conviction that the study of the ancient heritage in this field can offer a welcome opportunity to reconsider the complex issue of what a good life should consist in. To achieve a better understanding of how ancient ethics is organized around the concept of the good life, or happiness, a systematic as well as an historical approach is called for. Since happiness was an issue that engaged people far beyond the schools of the philosophers, our project takes into account not only philosophical texts, but also pre-philosophical and ”popular” concepts of the good life. In view of the general interest and accessibility of the topic, the project aims not only at inquiring into ancient ethics broadly understood, but also to provoke and engage in discussion with people from various areas of life. Among the more strictly philosophical problems that will be scrutinized is the very concept of happiness, and the relationship between happiness and success, society, morality and the virtues. More broadly cultural topics are the idea of the choice of life, the role of models and paradigms, and the contribution of intellectual culture or paideia to happiness.

End Report

This project undertakes to study the notion of happiness (eudaimonia, beata vita) and kindred notions in ancient thought. What is a good life? How do we become happy? These are questions of perennial concern to human beings, questions that we today encounter in all sorts of public and private discourse. One of the distinguishing marks of ancient ethics from Socrates to Augustine is precisely that it places the concept of the good life at the centre of ethical thought. The project is motivated by the conviction that a systematic study of the ancient heritage in this field can offer a welcome opportunity to reconsider the complex issue of what a good life should consist of. To achieve a better understanding of how ancient ethics is organized around the concept of the good life, or happiness, a systematic as well as an historical approach is called for.

Since happiness was an issue that engaged people far beyond the schools of the philosophers, the project takes into account not only philosophical texts, but also pre-philosophical and “popular” concepts of the good life. It is, however, in ancient philosophy we find the most direct and systematic engagement with questions concerning the good life. As a result, the project has a philosophical slant.

In recent years, “happiness” or “the quality of life” has become an object of study in many different fields — psychology, economics, sociology, and in systematic philosophy. In view of the general interest and accessibility of the topic, the project aims not only at inquiring into ancient ethics broadly understood, but also to provoke and engage in discussion with people from various areas of life. There is a certain tendency, however, to deal with antiquity as if that period of approximately 1000 years constituted a unitary, homogenous entity. But the ancient legacy is in fact quite varied, and many radically different views found their expression then that have helped shape Western conceptions since. The project aims to bring out this great diversity.

Among the more strictly philosophical problems that were addressed is the very concept of happiness, including its relationship to time and life-periods, and the relationship between happiness and success, society, morality and the virtues. More broadly cultural topics are the topic of the choice of life, the role of models and paradigms, and the contribution of intellectual culture or paideia to happiness.

It is for two reasons difficult to assess precisely the importance of the outcome of this project at the present time: First, many of the writings that will result from it have not yet been published. Secondly, as is typical for a project in the humanities, there is no simple set of hypotheses that await confirmation or refutation. The fruits of the project will rather have to be judged by the extent to which it has furthered a general understanding of various, different aspects of the complicated, multifaceted theme. What lasting results there may be will not become clear for some years when the publications from the project have been scrutinized by the scholarly community and some of them, with good reason and luck, have proven to inspire fresh thought and research on the issues.

On a more positive note, the following seems clear: the project has produced a great number of international journal articles, book chapters and other scholarly articles some of which are already published, others awaiting publication and yet others still awaiting final form. Moreover, much of what is already published, or about to be, is largely appearing in the finest publication arenas. It is to be expected that what is still to be completed will appear there as well. Thus, it is guaranteed that many products of the project will read by the international scholarly community at large.

If one is to speak in a general way of results in terms of content, it should be said that the project shows the shortcomings of common generalizations about antiquity and brings out the versatility of ancient thought about happiness and the good life. One particular result that is worth mentioning is that important ancient thinkers such as Plato and Cicero assigned a more important role to the laws for the happy life than has hitherto been generally recognised.

Another is that there appear to have been totally different conceptions in Antiquity as regards the relation of happiness and time: some thought happiness is essentially extended in time others thought not. Yet another result borne out in different ways by several of the individual projects is the gradual internalization of happiness: In the pre-philosophical authors the criteria for the good life seem to entirely external; in the classical Athenian philosophers such as Aristotle partly so; and when we come to Hellenistic and late ancient thought happiness has become entirely internal to the person. This may not be an entirely new insight but it is clear that after the project there will be a deeper and more nuanced understanding of this fact.

Fellows

  • Annas, Julia Elisabeth
    Professor University of Arizona 2009/2010
  • Benetatos, Spyros
    Lecturer University of Patras 2009/2010
  • Dimas, Panos
    Professor The Norwegian Institute of Athens 2009/2010
  • Fossheim, Hallvard Johannes
    Dr. University of Oslo (UiO) 2009/2010
  • Grönroos, Gösta Karl Johan
    Research Fellow Stockholm University 2009/2010
  • Ierodiakonou, Katerina
    Associate Professor National and Kapodistrian University of Athens 2009/2010
  • Lear, Jonathan
    Professor University of Chicago 2009/2010
  • Lear, Gabriel Richardson
    Professor University of Chicago 2009/2010
  • Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner
    Professor Dresden University of Technology 2009/2010
  • Rabbås, Øyvind
    Professor University of Oslo (UiO) 2009/2010
  • Remes, Pauliina
    Dr. Uppsala University 2009/2010
  • Schniewind, Alexandrine
    Professor University of Lausanne 2009/2010
  • Tuominen, Miira Katariina
    Lecturer University of Helsinki 2009/2010

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Group leader

  • Øivind Andersen

    Title Professor Institution University of Oslo (UiO) Year at CAS 2009/2010
  • Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson

    Title Professor Institution University of Oslo (UiO) Year at CAS 2009/2010
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