Akin to those of Socrates and Plato, the ethics of Aristotle (384-322BC) was set against the backdrop of the Greek polis, or the city-state. For these philosophers who advocated character-based ethics, individuals are expected to pursue virtue (arête) and happiness (eudaimonia) as members of society. However, the succeeding Roman-Hellenist philosophers, specifically the Epicureans and the Stoics, were facing a world characterized by a large empire (rather than a city-state); and, noticeably, their emphasis – or their world view -- subsequently shifted to consider what ethics would mean to individuals in the context of the universe in its entirety (Thompson, 77).
Unsurprisingly, thus, the Epicureans and the Stoics, notwithstanding their proximity in time and space to Aristotle, diverged very manifestly from the latter’s system of ethical being. It is on this basis that we maintain that ethical systems are basically products of particular epochs of history. As in the case of Aristotelian, Epicurean, and Stoic ethics, it is obvious that the prevailing social mores were being further reflected on, developed, and even defended – if not rejected and for which alternative(s) was/were being afforded.
Too, Aristotle may be held as the representative of the ancient view (Irwin, 114). The concepts of rights or wrong and good or bad – it would follow then -- are determined by such couple of factors as the customary way of life and the generally accepted worldview of the time, and the acceptance or rejection, appropriation or dispute by people and the people’s leading thinkers. For just as human beings are set within particular historical limits, so is their understanding specifically about morality within specific times. In this paper, the choice to set the Epicureans and the Stoics vis-à-vis Aristotle is deliberate.
Had we opted for Augustine of Hippo or Thomas of Aquinas who were belonging not just to a very distinct historical period but likewise to completely different worldview (of Christianity), their differences in comparison to Aristotle would be enormously pronounced. Had we decided for John Stuart Mill with his utilitarian concept of pleasure, our task is likewise going to be predictable given the evident discrepancies expected from comparison between philosophy in its germinal stage and philosophy’s much later development.
At least, Aristotle, Epicurus (the conventionally acknowledged initiator of Epicureanism), and Zeon of Citium, Chrysippus and even Epictetus (for Stoicism) were having the Greco-Roman world as their historical settings. Of course, in this paper, we do not have the luxury of space to treat individually each of the aforementioned personalities. Rather, we shall simply be content in drawing general comparison among Aristotelian ethics, the Stoics’ ethical system, and the moral concepts of the Epicureans. In elaborating his thoughts on ethics, Aristotle begins by alluding to reason, or that distinguishing faculty between human beings and other creatures, which accordingly is giving direction and purpose to human action.
In the opening line of the Nicomachean Ethics, we can read: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. ” From this, Aristotle makes a crucial distinction between happiness and everything else that human being might desire. Our other objects of desire – for example, honor, understanding and pleasure – are good in themselves; and, as such, they are giving us happiness.
But, happiness per se is chosen for itself; and, for this, happiness makes life worthwhile. Self-sufficient in itself, happiness then is the goal of ethical life as it is the fundamental basis of what we are opting for in life (Thompson, 76).