The Morality of Happiness By Julia Annas

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    A rare combination of excellent scholarship and great philosophy. If you have even a passing interesting in ancient ethical philosophy this should be your starting point. The Morality of Happiness To be honest, I couldn't finish this book (although I did get more than halfway through). It is extremely dense and quite long - my head spins at the thought of how many hours must have gone into it. It's also very historically oriented, which will turn off many readers. The writing and scholarship are meticulous, though, and anyone who wants to do philosophical work directly in virtue ethics should certainly read it. My interests are kind of tangential to virtue ethics, however. As such, I think I will try the Hursthouse and Foot virtue ethics books instead. The Morality of Happiness This is the single best introduction to Greek and Roman ethical thought. The Morality of Happiness Annas' attempt to show the connection between Morality and happiness is a successful and timely effort. She does a good job of arguing for an Aristotelian position in a modern Kantian world of ethics. This book is best to be read as a commentary along side Aristotle. The Morality of Happiness Annas aims to historically and thematically describe the form and structure of ancient ethical theory . . . from reflection on modern as well as on ancient ethics thereby affording the best chance of finding out the intellectual structure of ancient ethics without imposing on the subject our own conceptions of what the appropriate structure is (p. 3). By ancient she means the Hellenistic world in Toynbee's sense, from Aristotle to the end of pagan intellectual hegemony in the Mediterranean world. By modern she means what she identifies as the primary theoretical currents, consequentialism and deontology, of the last century in the West. Curiously, she does not attend to the natural law tradition running from Aristotle through Aquinas to contemporary Catholic moral philosophy.
    Annas achieves a convincing demonstration that ancient ethical theories share a common tripartite structure. Starting from reflection on one's life as a whole, the thinker discovers virtue as the means to the final end of happiness. Theories diverge in terms of the emphases placed on these three elements. Arguably challenging her claim are the Cyrenaics, professing virtue as the maximization of personal pleasures. The rest profess more or less concern for others as essential to one's own happiness. In contrast, modern ethical theories arise from a variety of sources and, so, lack common assumptions. Additionally, moderns demand theory be hierarchically complete, capable of articulate application from basic principles to particular hard cases. While making bigger demands, we can be less hopeful of accomplishing consensus.
    Annas' work is flawed, both stylistically and conceptually. Stylistic infelicities make it unpleasant to read. Conceptual inadequacies make it inadequate to it subject, the ancients in particular and ethics in general.
    The Morality of Happiness needs an editor. Unnecessary repetitions (f.i., pp. 188 & 238 on Epicurean pleasure theory) suggest it to be a patchwork of originally independent monographs pasted together into a book. It is too prolix. The English language is subjected to Procrustean tortures for the sake of philosophical clarity. The general reader need not, will not make the effort to follow the argument. This may be fortunate because the work is conceptually and stylistically symptomatic of the infirmities that have relegated philosophy from the agora to the academy, from involvement in the affairs of real people to scholastic ghettos.
    It is disappointing that one versed in their texts and culture can treat ancient ethics as a mere intellectual discipline, distinct from, say, politics or religion. When philosophy became the purview of specialists, the compilers and learned commentators of Alexandria, it, and paganism, were already moribund. The ethics of the Stoics, Skeptics and Epicureans were a living force, their philosophies having a vital, even soteriological impact on their societies. For instance, witness the popular funery inscriptions to Epicurus who freed suffering humanity from the dread prospect of immortality. Witness Plato in Syracuse. Notions that philosophy is an academic specialty and ethics a course in a professional curriculum are strictly modern.
    Nowhere is the irrelevance of contemporary ethics more evinced than in its general avoidance of the problematic of agency.  To Annas, except in her pedestrian concern with the issues of persons in relation to one another and to their societies, it does not appear problematic at all. But to the ancients, as to all ordinary men and women, it abides centrally.
    We customarily utilize the convenient fiction of the individual when speaking. It is ideologically convenient to idealize bourgeois individualism in a supposed era of free agents competing in free markets for the greatest good of all. But the notion that what Paul termed these mortal tents (2 Cor. 5) constitute what counts as moral agency has long been recognized as inadequate. In fact, upon consideration, the ego dissolves into both greater wholes and lesser fragments.
    Ancient corporatism is well known and remains familiar to more contemporary anthropologists. For fair Helen did the Greeks come to the walls of Troy. The cause of the Persian wars, for Herodotus, was the criminal act of individuals imputed as the responsibility of a nation, then and through following centuries. The Mysteries demonstrated how mortals participated in the cosmic round of death and regeneration, allowing celebrants to partake in the greater, eternal whole. Plato has Socrates exploding the fiction of the ego by proving how every individual thing, including the soul, subsists in reference to common forms, without which there would be no possibility of meaning, expression or existence.
    Similarly, the ancients recognized individuality as analyzable. How else to account for the formation of personality in youth, its dissolution in age? Atomists proposed that psyche might be dissected as was physis. The gnostics distinguished hylic, from psychic and pneumatic elements of personality, accounting thereby for the impish perversity of human action as distinguished from intention. The daemonic was everywhere, visible in behavior as now one, now another confluence of interests took possession of the human agent. Origen, a sophisticated apologist, claimed Christians believed in one god so that their souls might be one, never for an instant questioning the plurality of gods maintained by pagans and his own scriptures. Throughout the ancient world, the problematic of agency, the One and the Many running through Parmenides and Plato, remained in the foreground.
    The problematic of agency remains. Annas, like most modern ethicists, hardly recognizes it, but it is at the core of modern religions and contributes to their abiding popular appeal. Outside the ethical backwaters, it is even current in the academies whether in sociobiology, psychoanalysis or Marxism. By failing to recognize the importance of this issue Annas may be true to the ethical theory of her time, but, so doing, she is unable to give an adequate representation of what the ancients were about and why their concerns might still be of interest. The Morality of Happiness

    Ancient ethical theories, based on the notions of virtue and happiness, have struck many as an attractive alternative to modern theories. But we cannot find out whether this is true until we understand ancient ethics--and to do this we need to examine the basic structure of ancient ethical theory, not just the details of one or two theories. In this book, Annas brings together the results of a wide-ranging study of ancient ethical philosophy and presents it in a way that is easily accessible to anyone with an interest in ancient or modern ethics. She examines the fundamental notions of happiness and virtue, the role of nature in ethical justification and the relation between concern for self and concern for others. Her careful examination of the ancient debates and arguments shows that many widespread assumptions about ancient ethics are quite mistaken. Ancient ethical theories are not egoistic, and do not depend for their acceptance on metaphysical theories of a
    teleological kind. Most centrally, they are recognizably theories of morality, and the ancient disputes about the place of virtue in happiness can be seen as akin to modern disputes about the demands of morality.
    The Morality of Happiness