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Aretē, meaning "excellence" or "virtue," is central to ancient Greek ethics, from the early poets through Plato and Aristotle to the Stoics. It is a quality necessary for success, and the aretai for moral success are moral virtues. Agathon, meaning "good," implies virtue when used to describe human beings, as does kalon (meaning "noble" or "beautiful"), the adjective most closely associated with aretē and nearly synonymous with agathon. Kakon implies the lack of virtue. In Hesiod and Solon the moral use of these terms is well established, and it is clearly prefigured in Homer. Virtue, to such poets, no less than to Plato, is long lasting and independent of wealth and power. The principal virtues under discussion before Socrates were shame (aidos ), reverence (hosion ), and justice (dike ). Protagoras evidently considered shame and justice to be essential to a stable society.

Socrates and Plato taught that virtue is to the soul as health is to the body. In addition to reverence and justice, they treated wisdom, courage, and sound-mindedness (or temperance; in Greek, sôphrosunê ) as virtues. Plato represents Socrates in the early dialogues as unsuccessfully seeking definitions for the virtues, while hypothesizing that they are in some way identical with each other. Socrates is often thought to have held an intellectualist account of arête.

In the Republic Plato works out a theory of virtue from his account of health in the soul: Justice is the quality that allows the parts of the soul to work together in harmony, and the other virtues depend on that harmony. In a related context Plato somewhat mysteriously compares the form of the good to the sun; what the sun does to illuminate and nourish the world humans can merely see with their senses, and what the good does for the world humans can investigate with their intellect.

Aristotle's ethics begins from the hypothesis that all things aim at the good (agathon). The good for human beings, he says, is flourishing or happiness (eudaimonia ), and the qualities that enable people to reach these goals he calls virtues (aretai). His account of virtues has been fundamental to all subsequent discussion of the subject in the European tradition. Moral and intellectual virtues are both necessary for human flourishing, and for each other. Moral virtues temper the soul to enjoy what is good, rather than what is bad, and consist in a disposition to experience emotions that lie on a mean between excess and defect. Courage, for example, belongs to a soul that is neither too rash nor too timid. In Stoic theory, nothing is entirely good but virtue, and this consists mainly in the ability to resist powerful emotion.

Some early Greek authors distinguish aristocrats as agathoi from common people as kakoi. The scholar A. W. H. Adkins identified the virtues that marked this class difference as competitive (as opposed to moral) virtues; he argued that in the time of Socrates and Plato, Greek thought about virtue underwent a major shift, and the philosophers brought the first usage of these terms that is moral in human sense. Hugh Lloyd-Jones and Bernard Williams contested Adkins's arguments, and the emerging consensus among scholars favors a more unified account of these terms.

See also Aristotle; Eudaimonia; Plato; Socrates.


Adkins, A. W. H. Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Annas, Julia. The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Cooper, John. Reason and Human Good in Aristotle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Irwin, Terence. Plato's Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. Sather Classical Lectures. Vol. 41: The Justice of Zeus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.

Williams, Bernard. Sather Classical Lectures. Vol. 57: Shame and Necessity. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Paul Woodruff (2005)