THE DECALOGUE: Greek Moral Philosophy Modernized--jk

Selflessness, The Good, and Happiness--jk
Happiness & Scientific Psychology--jk
The Art of Loving: A Behaviorist Approach--jk
A Lesson on Love from Cats--jk
THE DECALOGUE: Greek Moral Philosophy Modernized--jk
THE GOOD LIFE--Greek Philosophers Teachings
No Free Lunches: The Role of the Stock Market--jk
Plato's Dream Fulfilled by Science--jk
The lessons from the previous essay, How Congress Works--jk
On Dying Atheist: A Doctor's Words

The Decalogue contains the essence of the Greek philosophers understanding of the moral life, which they called the good-life.  Once understood, it is very compelling. 




1.       Study in depth academic-philosophic ethics so that one may know the actual foundation of moral conduct both personal and for government, and in so doing one becomes good not by accident of peer conditioning, but by deliberation.


2.       Study philosophy especially the art of critical thinking so that one may be equipped to study ethics and science and to follow the dictates of reason.


3.       Study science so that one may know what there is, ones place in the universe, and develop the habits of critical thought.


4.       Always have logical analysis guide ones actions.


5.       “Meditate upon pleasure, for without it we do all to get it back”--Epicurus.  In other words consider what it takes to promote ataraxia (the Greek and English term used to indicate an enduring, inner happiness). 


6.       Always seek the greatest good for thyself, for associates, and for society: the utilitarian principle.  Good is measured by the greatest long-term balance of pleasure/happiness over pain/discomfort.


7.       Be felicitous to others, and fill ones mind with gentle, loving thoughts.  Anger and hate are poisons that diminish the attainment of ataraxia.


8.       Delight in the doing of good and observing good things being done, and avoid the converse causing pain for ones gratification; and do not delight in either the causing of pain or the observation of it. 


9.       Seek not to exploit (obtain for ones use more than a reasonable return).  Be aware that the mind can justify, when personal interests are involved, all sorts of unfair things.  Do not support government policies that promote exploitation of one class/group by another. 


10.     In daily intercourse with non—Utilitarians, reciprocity is the standard; however, in general do a bit more than ones fair share, but not so much as to encourage exploitation.  With spouse, close friends, and Utilitarians there should be no need to apply reciprocity, but rather view their happiness as important as yours—the utilitarian standard.


There are several ways in which man has sought to express right conduct.  Lists have been prepared by ancient Hebrews, Babylonians, and Egyptians.  Others have written of an attitude, a prospective; for example, the stoics, epicureans, and wisdom literature of the Hellenized Hebrews (of which The Sermon the Mount in Matthew, book 5, is an example thereof).  Still others have sought through meta-rule (Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Confucius’ Reciprocity, and Isocrates’ Golden Rule) seek to express the essence of right conduct.  Still others maintain that we are to rely upon moral instincts given by God which reveals right actions or the list of guiding rules and principles (W. D. Ross).  The Decalogue above, as you will see, is derived from utilitarianism with an infusion of the moral philosophy of the Greek philosophers: this expansion of utilitarianism gives guidance.  It is the expression of a dream:  man risen above anger, casuistry, and exploitation to a state of beneficence and love; and in so doing he creates a society without alienation, violence, idling, greed, conniving, punishment, moral turpitude.  With such citizens their government would promote the public weal.

In understanding how these rules function to change man and society, one will understands the purpose of each.  Rules #1-4 are designed to strengthen and improve reason so that it properly guides ones animal nature.  Those skilled in science, reason, and ethics--such as graduate students and university instructors—on a whole conduct themselves, even though they are in daily contact with the pollution of the masses, with integrity, peacefully, and without excesses (such as of weight, drugs, gambling, etc.).  Studies that promote logic and ethics are their own reward. 

Rule #5, a maxim of Epicurus, contains both advice and a proof.  To meditate upon pleas­ure for the Greeks required detached contemplation of the trained mind upon the conditions to produce the good-life.  Steered in the right direction, the Greek philosophers felt that certain conclusion concerning ataraxia[i] would follow.  Epicurus’ maxim points out the pleasure is the fundamental good, that other things are good because of the associated pleasure. 

As for Epicurus’ proof for pleasure as the fundamental good, Epicurus states that without it “We will do all to get it back.”  In other words, pleasure is the most basic thing we value:  the others things that are good, they are good because of associated pleasures.  As proof, for example, health is valued because one who is healthy is happier.  One would not want medical treatment to restore health, if one was in prison being tortured and such rest­oration of health would entail more hours of torture and years of confinement to a dungeon.  Wealth, health, and life are valued because of their associated pleasures.  What value would be money if the last of ones days were to be spent with that money on a deserted island with no chance of being removed there from?  And would not one gladly give up those associations, parents, children, wife, friends, and nation, if such separation there from were made a con­dition for the termination of a long prison term?  From such examples it becomes obvious that the associated pleasure is what gives things value.  Epicurus’ terse words “we will do all to get pleasure back,” filled with the above examples prove that happiness/pleasure is the first good.

          Study of Epicurus and other Greek philosophers whose works on the good life have come down to us, and also their progeny the Utilitarians, for this will give add clarity to what is meant by pleasure.   For example music and science are not good in themselves but because of the good arising from the associated consequences.  Further guidance is obtained by the limitations imposed by utilitarianism.  Thus music is good because of it is a pleasant diversion.  However, like all diversion, it must be measured against alternative activities.  The participation in sports such as tennis is both more pleasurable and at the same time promotes health, which also is measured by it pleasurable consequences.  Thus tennis has long-term pleasurable consequence.  So too does the study of music have long-term consequences, for it heightens appreciation of certain types of music.  But if one was forced because of limit on time to choose between 4 ours per week of tennis versus 4 hours of guitar playing, it is the sport that comes first.    The Greek philosophers’ concept of good life would raise the same issue.  Plato stated that we should pursue both physical recreation and the fine arts (poetry and music).  To do this entails budgeting of time so that other lower pleasures would consume less time.  From those types of analysis, the standards for ataraxia and utilitarianism gain clarity.

The dominance of pleasure in our world is natural: over 32 pleasure and pain centers in the brain have been in recent years identified.  Epicurus was the first to observe the control exerted by pleasure and pain over behavior, and B.F. Skinner, the leading proponent of behaviorism, through the operational constructs of operant and respondent conditioning has demonstrated that negative and positive stimuli are the building blocks of behavior.  Skinner demonstrated that human behavior was essentially the same as the laboratory animals he tested, though we were much more complex.  One of the complexities is the use of linguistic based analysis (describe in depth in his book Verbal Behavior).  However, the study of behaviorism will lead to insights, and these insights will permit the manipulation of variable conducive to the increasing the portion of the good life.  In a general way the Greeks were aware of the effects of pleasure upon behavior.

Epicurus recommends the retiring lifestyle filled with studies; a life away from the peer conditioning of the common herd.  He also, like all the important Greek philosophers, recommended the inculcation of the love of honor.  He points out that the unjust man cannot be secure, for he will be known.  What sort of friends will the brutish and unjust have?  They called the love of right conduct eudemonia.  Man can through schooling use reason to prudently direct his neurophysiological inheritance by behaving rational, justly, seeking the purer pleasures, and by avoiding the conditioning of the common herd.  Epicurus noted that the pleasures from studies are both long lasting and pure, and they also freed the mind from fear of the gods and demons.  He thus recommends companions who would encourage such studies and to avoid behavior that would reduce such studies.  He founded, as did the other Greek philosophers, a school for in depth study.  There are many pieces to promotion of the good life.   

Ethics as developed by the Greeks was not an abstraction beyond the pale of human conditions or a set of homilies such as those barring lying, theft, etc.  It was about the vision of living the good life and about the ideal society in which to seek that end.  That approach was continued by the Utilitarians who like Epicurus defined good in terms of pleasure/happiness

They developed a vision of a cooperative society whose laws and government promoted the maximization of happiness.  This of course would require fundamental political changes (see my Eight Steps Forward).  It is a dream which ought to travel far.  

[i]   The concept of ataraxia is a major part of the Greek philosophers’ understanding of pleasure.  Ataraxia refers to the inner tranquility that comes with freedom from fears, the ability to enjoy physical pleasures without producing disturbance of being, and the enjoyment of contemplation.  Epicurus held that the pleasure obtained from, for example, fancy cuisine and sex as good, however, their disturbance of inner tranquility made them impure.  Thus he said that we most learn to limit these disturbances.  One of his maxims:  “To him who little is not enough, nothing will be enough.”  Rational guidance was at the core of limiting the disturbance, and this guidance was obtained both through studies and the love of virtue, which they called eudemonia.  The good life for the Greek philosophers was one full of activities that promoted inner tranquility.  For with inner tranquility the person will experience a greater balance of pleasure over pain during his lifetime.  Ataraxia is essential to the good life. 



There is a reason why the Greek philosophers taught their leading citizens how to think of the world—a tradition followed by the Romans.  The philosophers didn’t promise pie-in-the sky, but rather a happier and better citizen, and they delivered.  It was for this reason that Philip of Macedonia chose Aristotle to be the teacher of young Alexander.  And when his father died in Alexander’s 19th year, he continued to study under Aristotle, even while he conquered the world.  Nero, who became mentally ill, had Seneca the Stoic philosopher for his teacher.  And Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a notable Stoic philosopher, whose Meditations is published by Britannica in its Great Books of the Western world. 


Plato said that to know what good is, is too become good, for we all seek the good.  Some people, however, Plato states are very misinformed about what good is. 

Why do we also seek the good?  It is because we all seek happiness.  Though the Greek philosophers differed on some details, there was like-mindedness on the essential issue.  We seek to be moral because the moral person, as envisioned in their analysis, was happier.  Thus happiness is why a person pursues the moral path.  And happiness was why the affluent citizens went to as young men, and later sent their children, to study the schools established by the philosophers.