History of Ethics, Volume 1

Graeco-Roman to Early Modern Ethics
By Vernon J. Bourke
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-0-9753662-3-3

History of Ethics is…

an important, perhaps even a definitive, book

“It is surely destined to be used as a panoramic guide to the development of Western moral philosophy, from approximately 500 BCE to the present. A clear and comprehensive treatment.”


a clear and objective account of the ethical theories of Western philosophy

Dr. Bourke is well known for his writings on ethics and the history of ethics. He has here written a clear and objective account of the ethical theories of Western philosophy.”

Theology Digest

a more-than-your-money’s worth outline of ethics

“that, while virtually indispensable for classrooms, also makes for interesting and informative private reading.”

Christian Century

the fruit of forty years spent studying and teaching philosophy

“Professor Bourke performs a valuable service for the amateur, as well as the professional student of philosophy. It is not to be gulped at one sitting, or a dozen. But the lively, human treatment is a great aid to digestion.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

a summary of the major themes of many seminal thinkers on the subject of right and wrong

“After learnedly surveying Graeco-Roman, patristic and medieval, early modern and modern views, Professor Bourke outlines—with eminent clarity and judicious apportionment of space— contemporary viewpoints, expertly classified as axiological, self-realizing and utilitarian, naturalistic, and existential and phenomenological.”

Library Journal


History of Ethics is a clear, objective account of the ethical theories of Western philosophy, covering all the important schools of thought from 500 BCE through the 20th century, and touching on a great variety of thinkers.

Volume 1 addresses ethical theory from its origins in Greece, 500 BCE, to the Neo-Platonism of Rome; Patristic and Medieval theories including the significant Christian and pagan writers of the period as well as those medieval Jewish and Muslim ethicians who had an influence on western thought; a survey of early modern ethical theories such as those of Bruno, Montaigne, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant.

About the Author

Vernon J. Bourke (1907-1998) was a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University for 45 years and the author of twenty books.


Part One

Graeco-Roman Theories

I: Early Greek Eudaimonism

II: Teleological Eudaimonism: Aristotle

III: Hellenistic Ethics: Stoic, Epicurean, and Neoplatonic

Part Two

Patristic and Medieval Theories

IV: Patristic and Early Medieval Ethics

V: Medieval Jewish and Moslem Ethics

VI: Right Reason Theories

Part Three

Early Modern Ethics: 1450–1750

VII: Humanist Ethics in the Renaissance

VIII: British Egoism and Its Reactions

IX: Rationalistic Ethics on the Continent



From the Introduction

The present history attempts to provide an account of the ethical theories of Western philosophers from the beginnings, five hundred years before Christ, to the present. All the writers on ethics that I know to have any importance are included, with the exception of strictly contemporary ethicians. There are simply too many of them for one volume, so key members of different contemporary schools have been selected. Such broad scope means that lengthy expositions of the individual views of these thinkers cannot be given. However, I have tried to emphasize the key contributions of each thinker, in the field of ethics only. In cases where the ethical theory depends rather directly on a writer’s epistemology, psychology, metaphysics, or other such position, this speculative background is sketched briefly.

This is not a “critical” history; that is to say, I have not attempted to offer my own evaluations of the theories covered. My intention has been to give an open and fair-minded presentation to each type of ethics. There are some that I like better than others but my preferences are not permitted consciously to intrude. In teaching courses on all periods of the history of philosophy for almost forty years, first at the University of Toronto and later at St. Louis University, I have come to feel that the best criticism is found in philosophy’s own story. Sometimes earlier thinkers are neglected, or unfairly appraised, in subsequent centuries, but good thoughts have a way of rising to the surface and eventually making themselves evident again.


From Chapter I: Early Greek Eudaimonism

The first Greek philosophers were not primarily interested in ethics but in speculation concerning the constitution of the physical universe. However, some of the predecessors of Socrates made fragmentary contributions to moral theory. Among the first were the Pythagoreans, who were organized into a religious brotherhood during the sixth century B.C.E. and continued as a school of practical philosophy into the first centuries of the Christian era. Their founder was Pythagoras of Samos (fl. 530 B.C.E.), who remains an obscure figure, despite biographical sketches by Iamblichus, Porphyry, and Diogenes Laertius. It is impossible to distinguish his personal views from the ethical thinking of his immediate followers, because our only sources of information are fragmentary quotations and summaries found in much later Greek writings.

Mathematics and music were central studies in Pythagorean schools. That numbers and harmonious proportions constitute all reality was the basic conviction of the Pythagoreans. They saw the human soul as the life spirit which endures after the death of its first body and may take up its abode subsequently in another human or animal body. This theory of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, is ethically significant since it provides for the rewarding of good action and the punishment of evil in these subsequent reincarnations. Possibly the most important Pythagorean contribution to ethics stemmed from their study of mathematical means. Mathematically, the “mean” was a function midway between two extremes, combining and harmonizing the best features of each. In practice, the Pythagoreans used the idea of the mean to locate good health as a medium condition between excess and defect in temperature, in the amount of liquid in the body, in the taking of exercise, and so on. It was but logical for the Pythagoreans to think of good moral behavior as a mean between extremes. When Aristotle later developed his sophisticated theory of moral virtue as a golden mean between extremes of vice, he gave full credit for the basic idea to the Pythagoreans.

The Pythagoreans also developed a theory of opposites in which the “limiting” and the “non-limiting” were the chief pair. They understood limit as a definite and measurable characteristic of anything, and the non-limited as that which defied attempts at definition and measurement. Their standard geometrical example of the latter was, of course, the diagonal of any rectangle: it is impossible to express its length simply in terms of the sides. The diagonal is then a surd, an irrational number. Falsehood and envy are thus identified by the Pythagoreans with the non-limited and irrational. This is the beginning of one very important approach to ethical problems, the view that good means what is rational and intelligible. Thus, in the fourth century B.C.E., a later Pythagorean, Archytas of Tarentum, first enunciated the principle of “right reasoning” as the key to good behavior: “Right Reckoning, when discovered, checks civil strife and increases concord . . .(it is) the standard and deterrent of wrongdoers.” It is quite possible that Aristotelian and medieval theories of right reason (recta ratio) as the norm of ethical judgment are directly indebted to Pythagorean intellectualism. The classic Greek respect for the life of reason (logos) is already evident in the early Pythagorean teachings.