I am currently writing a book: a history of moral thought, to be published by Atlantic in 2013. (I am pretty sure of the title, but until it is fixed, it will just remain ‘the book’). The aim of the book is to explore  the development of moral thought within its social and historical context and to address the question: Why is it that we live in an age in which we are increasingly drawn to view issues in moral terms and yet possess such an impoverished moral vocabulary? I thought it might be useful from time to time to post in Pandaemonium small sections from the book, and to open it up for discussion, debate and criticism. So here are bits of a book in progress.


A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.

Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of phlogiston. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge.

So begins Alasdair MacIntyre’s brilliant, bleak, frustrating and above all provocative 1981 book After Virtue. A work of unleavened academic philosophy, it became a most unlikely bestseller, and highly influential among historians, theologians, political theorists. On both sides of the Atlantic, philosophically inclined policy wonks, such as David Cameron’s ‘Red Tory’ guru Phillip Blond, and Lew Daly, adviser to Barack Obama, have drawn upon MacIntyre’s work.

MacIntyre’s ‘disquieting suggestion’ in After Virtue is that while no calamity of the sort he describes has befallen science, it is exactly what has happed to morality. True, no philosopher has been lynched, no seminar room torched, no riots have erupted in response to the disastrous consequences of Kantianism or utilitarianism. Nevertheless, MacIntyre insists, moral thought is in the same state as science was in his fictive account, a state of ‘grave disorder’, and one in which the very disorder blinds us to the moral chaos that surrounds us. Moral thought has been hollowed out; everyone uses moral terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘should’, but no truly understands them. We possess ‘the simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.’ Hence we argue endlessly about the justice of wars, the morality of abortion, the nature of freedom, but not only do we not reach agreement, we cannot even agree about what criteria a satisfactory resolution to these disagreements would need to meet.

What caused the moral catastrophe? The Enlightenment. The ‘thinkers of the Enlightenment’, MacIntyre observes, ‘set out to replace what they took to be discredited traditional and superstitious forms of morality by a kind of secular morality that would be entitled to secure the assent of any rational person’, attempting to ‘formulate moral principles to which no adequately reflective rational person could refuse allegiance’. Instead what the Enlightenment ‘bequeathed to its cultural heirs were a mutually antagonistic moral stances, each claiming to have achieved this kind of rational justification, but each also disputing this claim on the part of its rivals’.

The Enlightenment rejected, indeed destroyed, the Aristotelian notion of a virtuous life that had shaped Western thought for nearly two millennia. It rejected, in particular, the notion of the telos – the insistence, not just in Aristotle but in all Ancient thinkers and in the monotheistic religions, that human beings, like all objects in the cosmos, exist for a purpose, and that to be good was to act in a way that enabled them to fulfill that purpose. From Homer to Aristole to Aquinas, the virtues were seen as excellences of character that enabled people to move towards their goals, and were, indeed, an essential part of achieving that goal.

Post-Enlightenment philosophers rejected such teleology, imagining humans not as creatures with definite functions that they might fulfill or neglect, but as agents who possessed no true purpose apart from that created by their own will; creatures governed, not by an external telos but solely by the dictates of their inner reason or desires. This shift, MacIntyre argues, was corrosive of the very idea of morality. By appealing to a telos, Aristotle and Aquinas had been able to distinguish between the way we actually are and the way we should be. Post-Enlightenment philosophers could no longer coherently do so. As a result they could find no moral anchor, no point of reference against which to adjudicate rival moral claims. And without such a point of reference, moral arguments become interminable and pointless. The end point in this journey comes with emotivism, the insistence that moral claims are nothing more than the expression of subjective desires. Emotivism, for MacIntyre is not simply a description of the theories produced by Ayer, Stevenson and their followers, but of all post-Enlightenment moral theories. Even those moral philosophies, such as Kantianism, that appeal to a rational standard binding on all are deluding themselves because there is no possibility of such a standard given the Enlightenment view of the sovereignty of the individual moral agent.

Having rejected the ancient concept of individuals as embedded in, and constituted by, specific communities, post-Enlightenment liberalism instead views individuals, and their desires, hopes and aspirations, as having been formed outside of society, as arriving on the social stage as fully crafted. This, as Hegel, Rousseau, Marx and many others have observed is both an implausible and an impoverished view of human life. Yet, so deep is the impoverishment of modern moral thought that post-Enlightenment liberal philosophers, MacIntyre suggests, have made a positive virtue out of this degraded conception of moral life. They have come to see individual autonomy, and the detachment of the individual, as the consummation of humankind’s search for freedom. In fact, MacIntyre argues, such autonomy amounts to an emptiness, a moral vacuum. Because what MacIntyre calls the ‘democratized self’ has ‘no necessary social content and no necessary social identity’, so the self ‘can assume any role or take any point of view, because it is in and for itself nothing.’ In this process the crucial distinction between that which is ‘good’ and that which is ‘believed to be good’ becomes erased. Once that distinction disappears, there can be no rational foundation to moral claims any more than there could be a rational foundation to scientific knowledge if there were no distinction between that which is ‘true’ and that which is ‘believed to be true’. And with the erasure of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘believed to be good’ comes the carving out of a new distinction: that between facts and values. Facts having been wrenched away from values, nothing is left to temper the wildest flights of the moral imagination.

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Alasdair MacIntyre began his philosophical life in the 1950s as a Marxist. Like many of his generation, he broke with the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Two years alter, he wrote his celebrated ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’ in the New Left journal New Reasoner in which he excoriated the Stalinist identification of ‘what is morally right with what is actually going to be the outcome of historical development’. From such a Stalinist viewpoint, MacIntyre argued, all an individual can do is to ‘accept his part’ in a history determined by objective laws, and ‘play it out more or less willingly’. What he cannot do is ‘rewrite the play’. For the Stalinist ‘the “ought” of principle is swallowed up by the “is” of history’, something MacIntyre could not accept. But nor could he accept the liberal criticism of Marxism, rooted as it was in the idea that moral claims ‘stand beyond any rational justification’ and ‘cannot be justified by any appeal to facts, historical or otherwise’.  Liberal morality, he insisted, cannot but be arbitrary. The task MacIntyre set himself was to craft ‘an alternative to the barren opposition of moral individualism and amoral Stalinism’. While he rejected the Communist Party, Marxism continued to shape MacIntyre’s moral thought, though increasingly more as a means of analyzing history and society, and as a critique of capitalism, than as a guide to the good life.

By the 1980s, MacIntyre had been drawn to Aristotelian virtue ethics, an attachment out of which came After Virtue. He was, however, no more a conventional Aristotelian than he had been a faithful Marxist.  Not only did he reject Aristotle’s metaphysical biology – the idea of the four causes – as a means of rooting virtues, but he maintained that not just virtues but rules, too, were important in sustaining a moral life. This eventually led him to Roman Catholicism and to Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle for Christianity. He is today one of the leading Thomist philosophers.

Through all the twists and turns of MacIntyre’s intellectual journey, a number of themes have remained constant. Whether as a Marxist or as a Catholic, he has always expressed a deep loathing of liberal individualism, and an insistence on the social embeddedness of the individual. He has insisted, too, that morality can be understood only in its historical context. Moral judgments are, as he puts it, ‘nowhere to be found except as embodied in the historical lives of particular social groups and so possessing the distinctive characteristics of historical existence’. Morality ‘which is no particular society’s morality is to be found nowhere’. Yet, he has been equally fierce in his opposition to relativism and to nihilism, to the idea that that which is good is nothing more than that which is believed to be good.

How does MacIntyre marry his historical account of moral thought to the idea of objective moral standards? By suggesting that the social embeddedness of moral thought can itself provide the foundation for objective standards.  The most damaging consequence of the Enlightenment for MacIntyre is the decline of the idea of a ‘tradition’ within which an individual’s desires are disciplined by virtue. Moral behaviour, MacIntyre came to believe once he had turned to Aristotle, is like any other practical activity, whether playing chess or herding sheep, a matter of conforming well to the standards of a defined practice. A player cannot decide for himself what it is to play chess well. That is defined by the practice of chess-playing that has emerged over centuries, through which is established a standard of excellence internal to that practice.  To be a good chess player one must heed the internal standards that define the playing of chess. One must also be driven by the desire to achieve ‘internal’ goods rather than external ones – by the desire to play well, rather than simply by the prospect of fame or money.

And so it is with morality. To be morally good is to conform well to the standards of good moral practice, standards established by criteria internal to that practice of morality. By conforming well to those standards, people come to develop the appropriate virtues necessary for the good life. We acquire virtues not by conforming to abstract ethical rules or laws imposed from above, but by developing a good character by acting well according to the practical norms arising from a particular form of life.

Practices cohere into traditions. A tradition comprises what MacIntyre calls a ‘community of inquiry’, communities dedicated to a project of developing the specific forms of knowledge and skills necessary for a particular practical activity. MacIntyre never properly defines what historically constitutes a moral tradition but simply uses as his key examples Aristotelian, Augustinian and Thomist practice. Traditions link the individual to a wider community, both contemporary and historical. What is significant about a tradition is that its  history imposes a claim upon the present. ‘What I am’, MacIntyre insists, ‘is in key part what I inherit’. I always exist as ‘part of a history’ and ‘whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not’, even if I reject the burden, I remain always ‘one of the bearers of a tradition’.

Every individual finds the purpose of his life, MacIntyre argues, by understanding its narrative structure, by weaving a story of the journey on which he is embarked. Humans are ‘story telling animals’, and it is through telling stories that they discover themselves. ‘I can only answer the question “What am I to do?”’, he suggests, ‘if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”’. That story links the past, the present and the future, not just of that individual but also of the community of which he is a part, and in so doing gives a conception of his life as a unified whole. That is why ‘The unity of a human is the unity of a narrative quest’.

Through participation in a communal quest, MacIntyre argues, moral claims become more than merely subjective. The narrative quest consists not just in the goals that I set myself and the goods that I desire. It consist also in the goals and the goods of the community in which I am embedded.  It is that social embeddedness that allows me to rise above my own desires and to understand those desires in broader, more objective terms.

*  *  *  *

The fingerprints of Alasdair MacIntyre can be found throughout this book. The idea of morality as historically constituted, of the individual as socially embedded, of moral claims as neither absolute nor arbitrary, of modernity as transforming our relationship to morality, all ideas at the heart of this book, are all also MacIntyrean beliefs. Yet, while my argument is indebted to, and draws upon, MacIntyre’s work, it is also fundamentally different. At the heart of that difference lies distinctive ways of understanding moral agency, and of accounting for the impact of modernity.

Consider MacIntyre’s concept of ‘tradition’ and of its importance to morality.  In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structures of the community, structures that were a given. Societies changed, of course – the Greece in which Aristotle taught was very different from that in which in which Homer had written, Aquinas’ Christendom was very different from Augustine’s – but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change. Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the given structure of a society. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties.  The structure of the community, the role of the individual and the rules of morality were all bound together in the structure of the cosmos, in the authority of God, or in both.

The emergence of the modern world, from about the sixteenth century onwards, brought with it major changes that transformed the language of morality. The idea that morality should be invested in God became less plausible. Not only did religious belief erode over time, but even devout thinkers (Kant, for instance) were less likely to look to God to set moral boundaries. Traditional communities disintegrated. Social structures were no longer given but became debated politically and challenged physically. Liberals and socialists, conservatives and communists, monarchists and republicans: all contested the idea of what constituted a good society. The concept of individual autonomy became far more important. In the ancient world, and even in medieval Europe, an individual’s identity and interest was bound up almost entirely with the community in which he lived. By the seventeenth century, the individual was emerging as a new kind of social actor, and one detached from the specifics of a community.

These changes were all intimately linked.  The dissolution of traditional communities unleashed new political and moral conflicts. Those conflicts were an expression of the new sense of agency, of the new belief in the possibility of humanly-willed social change. From the Anabaptists to the Diggers, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the Chartist rebellion, from the English Civil War to the Haitian Revolution, people sought to remake their world through collective will and collective action. Many of these social movements were driven by faith. At the same time the growing belief that humans could, on their own account, both transform society and establish standards or right and wrong helped encourage disbelief in God. The political challenge to the old social order helped further disintegrate traditional communities.

The emergence of autonomy was not, in other words, merely an expression of individual desire or subjective attitude. It was also an expression of the collective desire for political and social change, and of the possibility, for the first time in history, of such change. The moral conflicts that so trouble MacIntyre are the consequence not simply of the breakdown of premodern traditions. Rather the breakdown of those traditions was itself the consequence of the emergence of social conflict. Equally, the lack of moral disagreement in the premodern world was not simply the result of moral thought and actions being enveloped within a tradition of practices. Those traditions were themselves a product of that lack of disagreement. When MacIntyre talks of premodern traditions he is talking of societies in which no alternative view of social or moral structures seemed reasonable or plausible. Why? Because there seemed no reasonable or plausible means of willing such change.  Modernity helped dissolve long-established communities and the seemingly timeless moral traditions. But it created for the first the possibility of collective change.

A tradition, MacIntyre argues in After Virtue, is an open-ended work of enquiry. ‘A living tradition’, he writes, ‘is an historically extended, socially embodied argument’ that is ‘partly constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose’ and whose vitality is sustained by ‘continuities of conflict’.  It is, he suggests, a very different concept to that of Edmund Burke who contrasts ‘tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict’. ‘When a tradition becomes Burkean’, MacIntyre insists, ‘it is always dying or dead’.

Premodern moral traditions may not have been Burkean, nor were they dying or dead, but neither were they as open ended as MacIntyre suggests. Not only were moral claims corseted by the social structures that gave them shape, but dissent, too, had to be constrained precisely because such dissent threaten to burst the corset and imperil the social order.  From the execution of Socrates to the burning of Christian heretics, from the drumming out of Pelagius to al-Ghazali’s insistence that certain Rationalist claims were not to be tolerated, dissent was always crushed, often most brutally.

MacIntyre himself suggests that ‘genuinely rational enquiry and more especially moral and theological enquiry’ requires ‘membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded’. He gives the example of Peter Abelard, the twelfth century monk best known today for his ill-fated love affair with Heloise. Abelard’s real renown was as the most brilliant philosopher and theologian of his age. His work was, however, highly controversial because it challenged orthodox opinion, particularly about the Trinity, which Abelard tried to derive through reason. Twice he was condemned for heresy, and twice he meekly accepted his condemnation. MacIntyre approves of both the condemnation and of Abelard’s submission to authority.  Abelard and his principal accuser, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, both agreed, MacIntyre suggests, ‘that the integrity of the life of enquiry requires such interventions by authority’. Abelard, like all heretics, had been driven by ‘pride of will’. Heresy, MacIntyre writes, ‘is always a sign of pride in choosing to elevate one’s own judgment above that of genuine authority’. What defines a tradition, and hence moral truth, is not just reason or dialogue or debate but ‘genuine authority’. The ‘open-endedness’ of MacIntyre’s traditions is clearly strictly circumscribed.

It was precisely the claim that truth could be defined by authority that philosophers began to challenge from the sixteenth century on, and that came to define the Enlightenment, a challenge without which, as Jonathan Israel observes, modern ideas of ‘universality, equality and democracy’ could not have emerged. In defending the authority of premodern traditions against the Enlightenment idea of autonomy, MacIntyre may be taking a stance against the subjectivity of moral claims that he so despises. But the question he never properly addresses is how those modern moral ideas with which he has great sympathy would ever have evolved at all had the authority of those premodern traditions not been challenged in the first place.


The desire to root morality in science derives from a laudable aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values – Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma – is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask the famous question: Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If on the other hand, the gods chooses the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.

The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. Take the argument that wellbeing can be defined through data gained through fMRI scans, physiological observation, pharmacological measures, etc. Such studies may be able tell us which brain states, neurotransmitters or hormones calibrate with particular real-world conditions. But whether those states, neurotransmitters or hormones are seen as indicators of wellbeing depends on whether we consider those real-life conditions as expressions of wellbeing. If wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, or by the presence of particular hormones or neurotransmitters, or because of certain evolutionary dispositions, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or the hormonal or neurotransmitter level, or the evolutionary disposition, correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently.

The  philosopher Alex Rosenberg accepts that there is a problem here, that scientific accounts of morality face ‘a coincidence problem just like the one troubling the theists’. But unlike theists, scientists have a solution: nihilism. By insisting that there is nothing that makes one moral claim true and another false, nihilism ‘avoids the challenge that Plato set for anyone who wants to reveal morality’s rightness’. Rather it ‘recognizes that Plato’s challenge can’t be met’.

Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is a handbook to ‘enjoying life without illusions’, as the subtitle puts it. To abandon our illusions, Rosenberg insists, requires us to embrace not simply a scientific view of the world but a ‘scientistic’ one too. ‘Scientism’ is the insistence that ‘the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything’. In fact, for Rosenberg, even the whole of science is not necessary to grasp reality. Just physics will do. We ‘have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality’. Reality, for Rosenberg, is ‘fermions and bosons and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them’.

In Rosenberg’s scientistic world, the self is an illusion, as is free will, and any notion of meaning and purpose. It is not simply the universe that possesses no meaning or purpose; it is an illusion to imagine that individual human beings do so either. No human being ever forms plans or has any purposes of his or her own.  None of our thoughts is really ‘about’ anything at all. Indeed we do not have thoughts at all. And ‘if your brain can’t think about anything, it can’t have thoughts about the future’. So ‘notions of purpose, plans or design’ are ‘illusory’. There is nothing to be learnt from history which is ‘full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing’. Literature, the arts, the humanities, even the social sciences, give us no genuine knowledge about the world, because all presuppose the existence of selves with meaningful thoughts who act and plan purposively. All are ‘endlessly entertaining elaborations of an illusion’. As for morality, there is no difference between right and wrong, good and bad. The only reason to be moral is that ‘it makes you feel better than being immoral’. One might imagine that there is a touch of tongue-and-cheek about all this, perhaps even a parody. But no, Rosenberg is being deadly earnest. And nowhere more so than in his discussion of morality.

‘Many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any’, Rosenberg insists, drawing upon JL Mackie’s moral nihilism.  These include ‘questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.’ When it comes to such issues, ‘all anyone can really find are the answers that they like’.  Moral disputes, Rosenberg argues, ‘can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores.  But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers.  There are none.’

If the ‘bad news’ is that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong, the good news is that it does not really matter. All people share ‘the same core moral norms, theists and nihilists included’. This ‘core’ includes principles like ‘Don’t cause gratuitous pain to a newborn baby’, ‘Protect your children’, ‘Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way’, ‘If you earn something, you have a right to it’, and so on.  A belief in the truth of this ‘core morality’ has been hardwired into us by natural selection. Core moral values have been selected for because they helped maximize fitness.

While shared core moral beliefs take the edge off nihilism, there are nevertheless, Rosenberg acknowledges, ‘lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for.’   Racism and xenophobia ‘are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes’.  Similarly, ‘ the almost universal patriarchal norms of female subordination’.  All are ‘the result of Darwinian processes’.  ‘In general’, too,  ‘there will be selection for individuals who are bigger and stronger and therefore impose their will on those who are weaker – especially when it comes to maximizing the representation of their genes in the next generation.’ But, thankfully ‘Darwinian processes… in the main selected for niceness’, favouring reciprocity and altruism.  So, nihilism need not be nasty, leading to a Hobbesian war of all against all. What we have, instead, is a ‘nice nihilism’.

For Mackie, cultural variations in moral norms provided evidence for the truth of nihilism. Rosenberg, on the other hand, finds that evidence in the lack of cultural variation in the most important values, in the existence of a core, shared morality. Leaving aside the question of whether nihilism itself is true, it is possible that both Mackie and Rosenberg are right about moral norms. It is not implausible that humans posses a small number of evolved, shared moral beliefs, surrounded by an ocean of culturally variable norms. Whether or not this is so remains, however, an open question. The debate about the degree to which moral norms are shared across cultures and the extent to which they vary remains unresolved. A century ago the argument for cultural variation held sway. More recently the idea of an evolved set of cultural and moral universals found favour. There are signs now of a swing back in the pendulum; recent research has plausibly, if controversially, claimed that even traits that had seemed unquestionably evolved and universal – such as facial expressions, for instance, or language – may be far more culturally varied than once thought. Given this debate, Rosenberg is not giving a scientific account of how natural selection may have shaped our moral norms, but is rather telling a story, a story of the kind he is so dismissive about in histories, biographies, the humanities and literature, and often far less persuasive because he seems so cavalier with both fact and observation.

Consider, for instance, the claim that among the core moral precepts, the ones that all humans share, and always have shared, is the belief that ‘Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way’. As everything from aristocracy to slavery reveals, most human societies throughout virtually the whole of human history have ignored that moral precept and built their institutions upon almost the opposite moral claim. Or take another supposed core moral belief, the edict that ‘If you earn something, you have a right to it’. Again, the historical data suggests something very different. For virtually all of human history (and indeed in virtually all societies today) the material goods to which people have a right has been defined more by their social position and role, and by power and privilege, than by what they have ‘earned’.

Equally problematic is Rosenberg’s argument about ‘enlightened’ values. Nature, he argues, ‘has strongly selected for’ traits such as racism, sexism, homophobia because they supposedly improve fitness. But not to worry. ‘Once we see that sexism is the result of natural selection’s search for solutions to the universal design problem of leaving the most viable and fertile offspring’, Rosenberg believes, ‘some of us are on the way to rejecting its norms. We can now explain away sexism as a natural prejudice that enlightened people can see right through.’

This raises argument a whole host of problems. For a start, what does it mean for an attitude or value to be ‘enlightened’? There are, for Rosenberg no right or wrong moral beliefs, nor any that are either true or false. This might suggest that an ‘enlightened’ value is a value that Rosenberg likes or, in his own words, makes him ‘feel better’. But clearly he objects to racism, sexism and homophobia for deeper reasons. I am not sure, for example, that he would describe someone who likes the ‘wrong’ flavour of ice cream as ‘unenlightened’.  This takes us back to the problem raised by emotivism: that simply viewing moral claims as personal preferences robs of them of force and renders them meaningless. I might think it odd if someone hated ice cream, or preferred Barry Manilow to the Black Keys. But I recognize that these are simply personal preferences. In using terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘good’ in moral discourse I am appealing to a standard that has greater authority, or at least that I want to have greater authority. For someone to think that it is right to discriminate against African Americans, or to deny women equal rights in the workplace, or to murder people, or to torture suspects, is to make a claim qualitatively different from insisting that Barry Manilow has a great voice. To talk of ‘enlightened’ values is a way of pretending that moral claims are simply personal preferences, while accepting that in reality they are more than that. For all Rosenberg’s claims that no moral beliefs are right or wrong, he clearly perceives that some are more right than others because they are ‘enlightened’, while others are more wrong, being unenlightened attitudes.

In any case, how is it possible to ‘see through’ unenlightened values once we accept them as products of natural selection? By this I do not mean that humans are prisoners of our evolved traits. Clearly we are not. What I am questioning rather is the way that Rosenberg seems highly selective about which parts of the core morality we are able to override. His whole project of ‘nice nihilism’ depends not just on nature having selected for traits that promote cooperation, but also on nature having convinced us that moral claims are objective and true. Just because the traits that comprise the core morality have been selected for does not, however, make them true or right, any more than any moral traits are true or right. Nature, however, has ‘seduced us into thinking it’s right’ to make ‘core morality work better’ since ‘Our believing in its truth increases our individual genetic fitness’.

Nature is not, it seems, the greatest of seducers. We can, Rosenberg insists, see through her charms when she tries to seduce us into being nasty racists or sexists. But if we can reject nasty traits why cannot we reject nice ones too? And if we can where does that leave the project of ‘nice nihilism’? Nihilism, Rosenberg assures us, does not mean ‘anything goes’ because we are protected by safety blanket of an evolved core morality. But if we can opt out of the core morality at will, then that shreds the safety blanket. Hence Rosenberg is forced to insist that we opt out of only the nasty traits. But why?

Perhaps recognizing such problems, Rosenberg introduces a second argument. Unenlightened attitudes from racism to honour killing, from female genital mutilation to the Hindu caste system, are the result, Rosenberg argues, not of nasty values but of the core morality colliding with ‘false factual beliefs’.  Once the factual beliefs are corrected, the core morality will no longer seem to support the unenlightened attitudes. ‘Most Nazis’, Rosenberg explains, ‘may have really shared a common moral code with us. Where most Nazis “went wrong” was in the idiotic beliefs about race and a lot of other things they combined with core morality, resulting in a catastrophe for their victims and for Germany’. Leave aside the historical crassness in this understanding of Nazism and of Nazi beliefs that once again makes one wish that Rosenberg had not thrown away all his history books in a fit of scientistic pique. The trouble is, the argument that racism is the result of ‘false factual beliefs’ directly contradicts the earlier claim that racism is ‘a natural prejudice’, the means by which nature attempts to ‘maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes’.

Contradiction aside, the thought now arises: Why should it be that only those moral claims of which Rosenberg disapproves that are factually incorrect? In any case, Rosenberg’s claim is that moral beliefs are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false. So the facts of the case should be immaterial. Whether a particular factual belief is warranted or not has, in Rosenberg’s eyes, no bearing on moral beliefs. It may be that you think a moral belief should fit the facts.  But that belief can, in Rosenberg’s world, be no more right or wrong than the insistence that moral beliefs can blithely ignore the facts.


GE Moore’s Principia Ethica, published in 1903, came to be both one of the most famous ethical work of the twentieth century and one of the most troublesome. It was a work whose arguments were extraordinarily flimsy and highly dubious and yet, as Mary Warnock observed in her study of twentieth century ethics, has come to be regarded ‘as the source from which the subsequent moral philosophy of the century has flowed, or at least as the most powerful influence upon this moral philosophy’. The publication of the Principia Ethica was, John Maynard Keynes wrote, ‘exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth’. The influence and excitement and exhilaration of Moore’s book lay less in the lucidity of its moral argument than in its ability to locate a fundamental shift in the character of moral thought. If the eighteenth century had seen the triumph of the human in moral thought, and the nineteenth had wrestled with the moral implications of the death of God, the twentieth had to grapple with the consequences of the growing disaffection with human agency.  One expression of this was, paradoxically perhaps, an increasingly subjective view of morality. In the Anglophone world that view found a grounding, in part at least, in the Principia Ethica.

George Edward Moore was born in 1873, trained in Cambridge where he eventually occupied the chair of mental philosophy and logic. He was, with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gottlob Frege, one of the founders of the analytic school in philosophy, which came to dominate the Anglo-American world. He was also, alongside Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey, an important member of the Bloomsbury Group, and while not as well known to the public as other leading intellectuals, nevertheless wielded considerable influence through his social networks.

Moore wrote the Principia Ethica, so he tells us, in order to ‘distinguish clearly two kinds of question, which moral philosophers have always professed to answer’ but which ‘they have almost always confused  both with one another and with other questions.’  The two questions are: ‘What kind of things ought to exist for their own sake?’, and ‘What kind of actions ought we to perform?’.

Moore’s answer to the first question is that things that ought to exist for their own sake are things that are intrinsically good.   It is, however, he insists, impossible to define what it is to be ‘good’. Goodness is the name of a property that is simple and beyond analysis. We intuitively recognize that which is good, but we cannot analyze it in terms of anything more fundamental. Nor can any evidence be adduced to show that something is intrinsically good. All we can do is acknowledge it when we encounter it:

If I am asked ‘what is good?’ my answer is that good is good and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked ‘How is good to be defined?’, my answer is that it cannot be defined, and that is all I have to say about it. But disappointing as these answers may appear, they are of the very last importance.

Moore compares the concept of goodness to that of ‘yellowness’. Yellow is, like good, simple and incapable of analysis, a property we understand by being directly acquainted with it, but which cannot be described or defined to anyone who has never seen that colour. ‘Yellow and good’, Moore wrote, ‘are notions of that simple kind, out of which definitions are composed and with which the power of further defining ceases.’ The fact that ‘yellow’ is indefinable does not prevent us from being able to say what things have the property of being yellow. Similarly with goodness: the fact that it is indefinable does not mean that we cannot say what things possess the property of goodness.

To show that goodness cannot be equated with any non-moral property, Moore developed what came to called the ‘Open question argument’. If the property X is good, then the question ‘Is it true that X is good?’ is meaningless. But the question ‘Is it true that X is good?’ is not meaningless. It is, in Moore’s words, an open question. Suppose X is pleasure, and that goodness can be defined as pleasure. The question ‘Is pleasure good?’ is not meaningless.  It is an open question whether pleasure whether pleasure is good. Therefore, Moore concludes X, whatever property it may be, cannot be equivalent to the good.

The trouble is Moore’s claim is less an argument than an assertion. Indeed, given that goodness is indefinable, it is difficult to know how one could construct an argument. Moore himself later acknowledged that ‘I did not give any tenable explanation of what I meant by saying that “good” was not a natural property’.

Moore’s answer to the second question that he raised – ‘What kind of actions ought we to perform?’ – was more straightforward, to the point, indeed, of being trite. ‘Duty’, Moore wrote, is defined as any action that ‘will cause more good to exist in the Universe than any possible alternative.’ ‘Right’ is ‘identical with “useful”’ and so ‘it follows that the end always will justify the means’ and that ‘no action which is not justified by its results can be right’. Moore, in other words, was a utilitarian, but one who thought that goodness could not be measured, or even defined, but was simply recognized, and intuited.

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If the Principia Ethica were to be remembered for one idea only, it would be that of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, which has become one of the defining ethical concepts of the twentieth century, though not necessarily in the sense that Moore had meant it. For many, Moore dealt a devastating blow to ‘naturalistic’ theories of ethics. Even those who have never been near the Principia routinely dismiss ethical arguments as being invalid because they exhibit the ‘naturalistic fallacy’.

The ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is, for Moore, any attempt to define the ‘good’, in other words, any attempt to define the indefinable. Moore calls the fallacy ‘naturalistic’ because he thinks it has been most committed those by those who have tried to define the good by equating it with some natural property.  He gives two examples. One is John Stuart Mill, who, like many utilitarians, equates the good with pleasure and with that which is desired.  Pleasure might be good, and the good might be associated with pleasure, but, Moore argues, pleasure cannot be a definition of good. Good and pleasure are distinct properties. Yellow is associated with electromagnetic wavelengths of between 570 and 590 nm.  But a particular wavelength is not a definition of ‘yellow’. So it is with pleasure and good.

Moore’s second example is that of the nineteenth century social evolutionist Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the phrase ‘The survival of the fittest’ to describe ‘the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’, a phrase that came for many to define the newly-discovered Darwinian process of evolution. Spencer, Moore suggests, claimed that more evolved species, and more evolved humans, are more ethical. He failed, in Moore’s eyes, to recognize the distinction between ‘higher’, ‘better’ and ‘more evolved’. And this led to the assumption that ‘good’ meant ‘more evolved’.

Many critics have pointed out that Moore misread both Mill and Spencer. Mill does not claim that good means pleasure, simply that pleasure provides the only criterion for goodness. Similarly, Spencer did not claim that ‘good’ meant the same as ‘more evolved’; rather he suggested that societies evolved in the same way as species did and that a more evolved society exhibited a better understanding of morality. Both Mill and Spencer were wrong in their understanding of the good, though not in the way that Moore assumed.

The problem is, however, deeper than a misreading of Mill and Spencer. The naturalistic fallacy, the philosopher Bernard Williams observes, is strictly neither a fallacy nor a critique of naturalism.  It is not a fallacy because, while those who try to define the good may, in Moore’s eyes, be mistaken, but they are not committing an error of reasoning, which is what is normally meant by a ‘fallacy’. It is not a critique of naturalism because, for Moore, the fallaciousness consists not in attempting to define the good in terms of a natural property, but in attempting to define the good at all, whether that be in terms of natural or non-natural properties. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy suffers, in other words, from the same incoherence as his concept of the good.

Previously, ‘naturalism’ had been contrasted with ‘supernaturalism’ and expressed the idea that ethics had to be understood purely in worldly, as opposed to divine, terms. In Moore’s view, however, Augustine and Aquinas were as guilty of committing the naturalistic fallacy as Spencer and Mill. The belief that the good can be defined as God’s word is as erroneous as the belief that good can be defined as happiness or evolutionary progress. Yet the idea of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ has come to be wielded by theologians as much as by their critics, largely because of a one-sided view of the ‘fallacy’. In the wake of Moore, the naturalistic fallacy came broadly to be a way of expressing David Hume’s warning of the difficulty in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’, values from facts.  Moore’s criticism of naturalism is, in fact, very different from that of Hume. Hume was a naturalist in the old-fashioned sense of rejecting all and any divine explanation. But he also rejected the idea that there were any such things as ‘moral facts’. Moore accepted the existence of moral facts but did not consider them to be of the sort that could be established either through empirical observation or conceptual analysis.  Instead they were ‘self-evident’, or ‘intuitions’, beliefs that one knows to be true but for whose truth there is no evidence or reason.

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In 1912 the Cambridge philosopher Henry Prichard published an essay in the journal Mind called ‘Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?’.  The mistake, in Prichard’s eyes, was the belief that argument could settle moral questions. All demands for proof, empirical or rational, that something is a good or some act is a duty was an error. Hence moral philosophy, at least as traditionally understood, is a subject with no subject matter.

Pritchard, like Moore, saw moral truths as self-evident intuitions, though Prichard himself seems not to have recognized the similarity between his argument and that of Moore’s. Even more than Moore, Prichard disdained to make an argument in defence of his case. Like moral truths themselves, Prichard clearly saw his case as self-evident and intuitive. The idea of moral truths as intuitions harked back to the English Platonists of the eighteenth century. Prichard’s essay helped give those ideas new traction, launching the Cambridge Intuitionist school, that included WD Ross, EF Carritt, WHB Joseph and CD Broad.

For each of the Intuitionists the good was self-evident. The trouble was that the goods that were self-evident were not the same to all of them. Moore had, for instance, argued that one’s duty was to produce as much good as possible. Not so, responded Ross in his book The Right and the Good.  The right is like the good: a concept that is unanalysable, but intuitively recognized. Certain kinds of actions are right and wrong in themselves, without consideration of whether their consequences increase the amount of good in the world. Such duties, for Ross, included duties of fidelity (keeping promises, telling the truth, paying debts), of reparation (compensating for harm done),  of gratitude  (repaying kindness), of non-maleficence (not injuring others), of beneficence (improving the condition of others), of self-improvement and of justice (distributing goods rightly).  These duties are ‘self-evident’ in the sense of being ‘evident without any need of proof, or of evidence beyond itself’.  For Moore, however, not only were such duties not self-evident but they may not have been duties at all. If telling the truth creates more harm than good, then it is a duty to lie.

Since no empirical fact or rational argument could settle this debate, as the different claims were deemed to be simply ‘self-evident’, so the very notion of moral truth began to disintegrate. Many philosophers now followed through the logic of this. If moral truths cannot be verified, they suggested, perhaps they are neither self-evident nor truths, but merely expressions of personal preference, of feelings and emotions, of individual likes and dislikes. ‘Questions as to “values”’, Bertrand Russell wrote, ‘lie wholly outside the domain of knowledge.’ For Russell, ‘when we assert this or that has “value”, we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact which would still be true if our personal feelings were different.’

So arose ‘emotivism’, first sketched by AJ Ayer in his groundbreaking 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic, a book through which he established himself as the leading English representative of logical positivism. Ayer argued, with other logical positivists, that there are two types of statements that convey meaning. Empirical statements express matters of fact whose truths can be established through observation and verification.  Analytical statements, such as mathematical truths, are necessarily true, though they cannot be verified empirically. Ethical propositions do not fall into either category. They are literally meaningless because they convey no meaning. ‘If I say to someone “you acted wrongly in stealing that money”’, Ayer wrote, ‘ I am not saying anything more than if I had simply said “you stole that money”. In adding that this action is wrong I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, “You stole that money” in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.’  The words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ express not information but feelings. They also aim ‘to arouse feelings, and so to stimulate action’. Like Hume, Ayer insisted that when we talk of right and wrong we are not directly referring to things in the world but to our own attitudes towards these things.

The American philosopher Charles L Stevenson developed the emotivist argument, especially in his 1944 book Ethics and Language. Stevenson distinguished between what he called ‘descriptive’ and ‘emotive’ meaning. Factual statements have descriptive meanings.  They make claims about the world, can be true or false and which, if true, these claims constitute knowledge. Ethical statements, in contrast, possess emotive meaning; they do not make statements or convey beliefs or knowledge, and cannot be true or false. The meaning of ethical statements consists in their capacity to express and arouse feeling.  Stevenson is developing here an almost Sophist view of ethics, a view of ethics as essentially a technique of manipulation, as a form rhetoric, even of propaganda.

GE Moore was no emotivist, nor thought that values were simply subjective. Yet the argument he set running in the Principia Ethica led inexorably to Stevenson’s emotivism. The problem with this whole approach is the belief that the claim that ‘murder is wrong’ or that ‘one should tell the truth’ has no more force than the observation that ‘I like ice cream’ or ‘I think the Black Keys are cool’. I might think it odd if someone hated ice cream, or preferred Barry Manilow. But I recognize that these are simply personal preferences. In using terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘good’ I am, however, appealing to a standard that has greater authority, or at least that I want to have greater authority. For someone to think that it is right to murder people at will is qualitatively different from that individual thinking that Barry Manilow has a great voice. To suggest that slavery is a good would be more than simply ‘odd’. The trouble with emotivism is that it finds it difficult – nay, impossible – to capture this distinction.


Aimé Césaire, the Martinique-born poet and statesman, once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Christopher Columbus had landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed Saint-Domingue, as it called its colony, into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet which was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.

Slaves had always resisted their enslavement. What transformed that resistance into something far more historic was another revolution 5000 miles away. The French Revolution of 1789 provided both the material and the moral grounds for the Haitian Revolution. It upset the delicate balance between the classes that had held colonial society together. And in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it provided the intellectual argument for revolutionary change in Haiti.

The different social classes in Saint-Domingue had different aims, different interests, different hopes, different fears, different desires.  Les grands blancs, the major plantation owners, were hostile to Revolutionary aims and remained attached to the ancien regime. The lower-class whites, les petits blancs, the artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and labourers, wanted to free themselves of aristocratic control and so were generally sympathetic to the Revolution.  But if they wished to rid themselves of the ‘aristocracy of birth’, they nevertheless had no desire to dispense with the ‘aristocracy of skin’ or with the institution of slavery. The ‘free men of colour’ – the so-called mulattoes of ‘mixed race’ – who formed an important social group in Haiti, saw an opportunity to challenge white supremacy and promote political equality, at least for themselves. They, too, remained silent on the question of slavery, especially as many were themselves slave owners. Only the slaves, who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, could push the logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man to its conclusion. They pictured the French Revolution in their own image. They saw in the storming of the Bastille the white slaves of France rising up against their masters and deposing them so as to be able to enjoy the fruits of their own labour. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. These were to the slaves of Saint-Domingue more than simply abstract slogans. They were intellectual bolt cutters for their chains.

Haitian slaves found across the Atlantic the ideas to loosen their chains. And in their backyard they found the leader to forge those ideas into chain-breakers. Toussaint L’Ouverture was a self-educated former slave, deeply read, highly politicized and possessed of a genius in military tactics and strategy. His greatest gift, perhaps, was his ability to see that while Europe was responsible for the enslavement of blacks, nevertheless within European culture lay also the political and moral ideas with which to shatter the bonds of enslavement.  The French bourgeoisie might have tried to deny the mass of humanity the ideals embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But L’Ouverture recognized in those ideals a weapon more powerful than any sword or musket or cannon.

The Saint-Domingue slaves rose in rebellion on 24 August 1791. In the space of twelve years they defeated, in turn, the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French force of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. Slaves who, just months earlier, had trembled in their hundreds before a single master, had been transformed into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day. In 1803, the only successful slave revolt in history gave Haiti its independence.

The Haitian Revolution, more than any other, expressed the new relationship between morality and politics. It was, like the French Revolution, defined and driven by a moral claim – the idea of a common humanity and the insistence that the ‘Rights of Man’ applied to all.  But that moral claim was, as in the French Revolution, necessarily expressed in political terms and instantiated through a social revolution. Most, though not all, Enlightenment philosophes were fiercely opposed to slavery. In 1770 the Abbé Raynal penned a remarkable polemic against unfree labour in his Histoire les Deux Indes, which went through 55 editions in five languages over the next 30 years. Arguing that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’, Raynal both prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery. ‘The negroes only want a chief’, he wrote, ‘sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’

Whatever the moral and philosophical arguments, the French bourgeoisie was resistant to the claims of the abolitionists.  The strength of the old order in France, and the weakness of the bourgeoisie, meant that it was dependant largely upon colonial trade. Colonial wealth had played a major part in the growth of bourgeois power in ports such as Bordeaux and Nantes. One in five members of the National Assembly owned colonial property and a much larger number was linked to the colonies through trade or administration. The narrow base of the French capitalist class meant that it was even more important that slavery be protected as private property. The National Assembly agreed that qualified blacks – that is, those with property – should have the vote. But the delegates refused to oppose, indeed barely considered the issue of, slavery. More radical delegates challenged this. ‘You urge without ceasing the Rights of Man’, Robespierre observed. ‘But you believe in them so little yourself that you have sanctified slavery constitutionally.’ When the Saint-Domingue slaves rose up in 1791, far from abolishing slavery, the Assembly reacted by rescinding the rights of free blacks and mulattos it had earlier granted.

What transformed the situation was the social power of the masses, in Saint-Domingue and in France. Léger Félicité Sonthonax, the Jacobin commissioner of Saint-Domingue, recognized that he could, and indeed needed to, make common cause with the rebels against both the moderate Republicans, on the one side, and encroaching Spanish and English forces, on the other.  In the context of defending the Revolution, slaves became transformed from human property to moral agents. In August 1793 Sonthonax announced a decree of general emancipation, freeing all slaves on the island, an extraordinary and revolutionary stance in a colony built on slave labour. Meanwhile, in metropolitan France, the Parisian masses – faced with royalist plots, intervention from abroad and a vacillating government – armed themselves, stormed the Tuileries, imprisoned the royal family, dissolved the legislature, elected a new parliament, the National Convention, and helped put the radical Jacobins in power. This was the start of the Terror, during which more than 40,000 people were executed as part of a mass crusade against the ‘enemies of the revolution’. The horrors of the Terror have tended to obscure the myriad political gains of the period, most notably the abolition of slavery. Until then, the campaign against slavery had been hamstrung by the almost sacred attachment to private poverty. In the new political climate, as the propertyless masses led the struggle for social change, private property was no longer considered sacrosanct, and the question of slavery became of central importance. On 3 February 1794 the local decree on Saint-Domingue was made universal. In the presence of delegates from the island, the Convention abolished slavery in the name of the Universal Rights of Man. ‘All men’, it declared, ‘without distinction of colour, domiciled in the colonies, are French citizens, and enjoy all the rights enjoyed under the Constitution.’

It was a historic moment, the first true political instantiation of the radical moral claim of equality. The Jacobin government eventually fell, and Napoleon came to power in a coup d’etat 1799. Under Napoleonic rule slavery was reinstituted in the colonies, and free blacks denied their rights. But in 1804 Haiti’s independence was confirmed.

There was, the historian Robin Blackburn observes, ‘a universalistic emancipatory element in the French Revolution, but those who issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man were by no means always aware of it, or willing to follow through its logic.’ For the emancipatory logic to be fulfilled, ‘there was needed the independent action of formerly excluded, oppressed and exploited social layers – radicalized sans culottes and slave rebels who understood that there could be no peace with slavery or slaveholders.’

Here is revealed the new relationship between morality and politics that emerges in the transition from premodern to the modern world. In the premodern world, morality and politics were inextricably linked because social structures were a given. In the modern world, morality and politics are inextricably linked because social structures are not fixed.  Morality helps define our vision of the good society. Moral claims emerge not out of a fixed set of social institutions but through social and class struggle. In the modern world, as Blackburn observes, it is only through the articulation of social power that moral claims find concrete expression.


‘Existence comes before essence’. So wrote Sartre in his celebrated 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. It is a phrase that gets to the heart (one might even say the essence) of his understanding of human nature and of human freedom. Humans do not possess a given nature, an unchanging essence, from which their capacities, personalities and values derive. Rather humans create themselves and their nature by acting upon the world.

This, for Sartre, was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from a Godless world. ‘When we think of God as the creator’, Sartre observed, ‘we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan’. God ‘makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife’. But what if there is no God? Then there can be no God-created human nature. More, there can be no human nature at all. The only coherent way in which we can speak of a distinctive human nature is as a preconceived creative plan for human beings, just like the only way we can speak of a paper-knife is as a consciously manufactured artefact. Only God, in other words, could have created human nature. If we do not believe in God, we cannot believe in human nature. For Sartre the death of God provided also the last rites for human nature.

The idea that without God, there can be no human nature might seem a strange view, especially for an atheist, in the post-Darwinian world.The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species had transformed the debate on human nature by suggesting a mechanism by which to create without a Creator, to design without a designer. ‘Origin of man now solved’, Darwin had written in his notebook in 1838. ‘He who understands baboon will do more for metaphysics than Locke.’

Yet, in the decades that followed the The Origin of Species, and despite the publication in 1872 of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and the Animals, in which Darwin attempted to demonstrate the common evolved roots of human emotions,  Darwinism came to be seen as a mechanism though which to understand not a common human essence but the plurality of essences that were said to constitute the human species. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, the idea of race, and of innate, evolved group differences, dominated discussions of human nature.  With the exception of one or two isolated figures, it was not till the 1970s, a century after the publication of The Expression of the Emotions, that serious consideration began to be given to the concept of an evolved common human nature. Sartre, in his discussion of existentialism and humanism, was engaging with the ghosts, not of Darwin, but of Aristotle and Descartes. He was challenging not so much the idea of a biologically defined human nature as of a determinist view of history.

The key distinction for Sartre was that between people and things, between subjects and objects, between what he called, borrowing from Hegel, pour-soi (being-for-itself) and en-soi (being-in-itself).  Things have a definable essence, exist to perform a function, follow natural laws, and are determined by prior causal conditions. Persons have no definable essence, but define and redefine themselves constantly, and are radically free.

For Aristotle, an object could only be understood in relation to its purpose or function. This was as true for a human being as it was for a rock, a tree, a statue or a book. Humans had a particular function for which they had been designed: the exercise of reason. For humans to flourish they had to act virtuously in accordance with reason. Sartre dismissed this whole vision of human function and human flourishing.  There was no God to define what should be the human function. Humans were unique in the cosmos in that they themselves had to play God. Humans, and only humans, could define for themselves their function, their role in life. ‘Man’ as Sartre put it ‘is nothing else but what he makes of himself’.

Sartre’s vision is, in one sense, quite Cartesian, an image of a world divided between people and things, between a mechanistic nature and self-conscious humans, who could not be understood in terms of mechanistic nature. This affinity was, perhaps, inevitable; Sartre had, like virtually all modern French philosophers, supped from the earliest days on the milk of the Discours.  In another sense, however, Sartre was proposing a profoundly anti-Cartesian view.  For Descartes, the ego was the one unquestionable truth in the universe, the starting point for all philosophy. The only thing of which I can be sure is that I exist. The ego existed before consciousness, and was responsible for consciousness. For Sartre, to the contrary, consciousness helped create the ego. This might seem, at first hand, a strange way of looking on the issue. Sartre is suggesting that I don’t create my thoughts; my thoughts create me. This, however, is the way that many contemporary philosophers and neuroscientists understand the notion of the self. The self is not a thing, or an object, that makes us conscious of the world. Rather, the disparate strands of our consciousness unifies into the self. For Sartre, as for a contemporary philosopher like Daniel Dennett (who is, of course, no existentialist), the ego is that which is created when the various different strands of consciousness become unified. As a result of the unity, ‘I’ come to be.

Unlike many contemporary philosophers, however, Sartre does not conclude from this that the ‘I’ is a fiction or that ‘free will’ is a meaningless concept.  Rather the opposite.  The fact that the ego is contingent upon consciousness suggests to Sartre that humans are radically free and that this radical freedom, not any pre-given essence, defines what it is to be human. Radical freedom arises out of the very nature of the human condition. ‘There is no difference’, as Sartre puts it, ‘between the being of man and his being free.’

For Sartre, the question ‘How shall I live?’ cannot be answered by appealing to a fixed human nature or essence, to a pre-exiting ego that helps define our thoughts, beliefs and values.  Neither God, nor human nature, neither science, nor theology, nor yet philosophy, can set out the answers to the fundamental questions of existence. Only I can determine how I should live; I alone am responsible for the decisions that I make.  ‘Man’, Sartre concluded ‘is condemned to be free’. Why condemned? Because ‘he did not create himself, yet nevertheless is at liberty, and from the moment he is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does.’

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Imagine, Kierkegaard wrote in his pseudonymously published The Concept of Anxiety, a man standing at the edge of a cliff. When he glances over the edge, he is overcome with dread, not just because he is filled with fear at the thought of falling, but also because he is seized by a terrifying impulse deliberately to leap. ‘He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy’, Kierkegaard gnomically observed. That dizziness ‘is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss.’ For if ‘he had not looked down’, he would not have felt that dread. What grips that man, Kierkegaard suggests, is dread of the possibilities open to him; what he experiences ‘is the dizziness of freedom’.

Sartre, too, sees what he calls ‘anguish’ as the condition of human freedom. Since nothing can determine our choice of life for us, neither can anything explain or justify what we are. There is no inherent meaning in the universe. Only we can create meaning. Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and fellow existentialist, called this sense of groundlessness the ‘absurdity’ of life. There is, Camus observes in The Myth of Sisyphus, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, he writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’ Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. The only way to find meaning, the only way to bridge the chasm between the cold, silent world and the human need for moral warmth, is to create our own meaning, our own values. Sartre similarly sees the world as absurd in the sense that there is no meaning to be found beyond the meaning that humans create. The price of making meaning is anguish.

The recognition that humans have to bear responsibility for our lives and the values we create is the source of anguish.  A wholly authentic or truly human life, Sartre suggests, is only possible for those who recognize the inescapability of freedom and its responsibility and are happy to live with anguish. But humankind, Sartre agrees with TS Eliot, mostly ‘cannot bear too much reality’. They fear, they dread, they feel enchained by, the responsibility of freedom.

Humans try to avoid the anguish that comes with looking over the cliff edge by hiding the truth from themselves, by pretending that there is no cliff, that something or someone has erased that edge. There are, Sartre suggests, many ways in which people do this. The most important, and the idea for which Sartre is probably most celebrated, is that of ‘bad faith’. People often try to evade the terrifying realities of the human condition by ordering their lives according to some preordained social role, in essence by turning themselves into objects, in an effort to deny the burden of subjectivity.

Sartre’s most famous illustration of bad faith is of a waiter who exaggerates his every movement, who embroiders all his conversations, so as to appear more ‘waiteresque’.  He is just too eager to please, too ostentatious in his deportment, too Uriah Heepish in the way he demeans his own status. Everything about him suggests that he thinks of himself as entirely circumscribed by his role as a waiter. And yet his exaggerated behaviour reveals not just that he is play-acting, but also that is aware that he is play-acting, aware that he is more than merely a waiter. But he self-consciously denies that something more, turning himself into an object in the world, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter.  This conscious self-deception Sartre calls ‘bad faith’.

The existential conception of the good life is, then, an authentic life, a life lived in good faith, a life defined by the pursuit of consciously self-chosen values and purposes for which the chooser takes full responsibility. This seems to suggest the good life is distinguished not by what is chosen, but by the manner in which it is chosen. The fact that a choice is made in good faith, openly, honestly and in full knowledge of the consequences, seems to matter more than that it is a good choice.

But can this be true? Can it really be the case that a heroin dealer and a  neurosurgeon can both be said to live the good life if both chose to be what they are freely, honestly and in good faith? Suppose the heroin dealer chose to act as he did, while the neurosurgeon took up his scalpel for the ‘wrong’ reasons. Should we really say that the heroin dealer is the better person? Or take Nazi Germany. Some people joined the Nazi party because they truly believed in exterminating Jews and in creating the 1000-year Reich. Others did so because they wanted an easy life, to gain promotion, or to gain access to goods and services that might otherwise be denied them. Were those who joined the Nazis because they truly believed in its evil aims really more moral than the time-servers?

Few existentialists would, of course, agree with such a proposition, least of all Sartre. His life of political activism was testament to the importance he placed upon the content of values expressed, not just the manner in which it was expressed. It was testament, too, to the importance he placed upon struggle. In his book The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus retells the ancient Greek tale as a metaphor for the making of meaning. Having scorned the gods, Sisyphus is condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld forever rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll all the way down again, forcing the eponymous hero to begin his labours once more, and to continue to do so for eternity. Meaning, Camus insisted, can come only through struggle, even if that struggle appears as meaningless as that of Sisyphus.

For Sartre, too, struggle was central to his vision of how to infuse the world with meaning. But there was more to struggle, for Sartre, than simply acting upon the world. Struggle was to act not simply for the sake of it but for a reason; Sartre increasingly came to see meaning as created not simply through activity without end, as with Sisyphus, but rather through social engagement and social transformation. The early Sartre saw freedom and agency as ends in themselves. The later Sartre saw the importance of freedom, and of the responsibility it placed upon humans, as inextricably linked to the project of social transformation. ‘Man’, as he put it, ‘defines himself by his project’. It was this idea that led Sartre to Marxism. Some former friends, such as Raymond Aaron, found Sartre’s dalliance with Marx inexplicable. Partly he was repulsed by the kind of social change demanded by communism and by the actually existing socialism of the Soviet Union. Partly also Aaron found it impossible to imagine how the idea of individual subjective freedom, that was at the heart of existential philosophy, could be reconciled with a materialist view of history.  For Sartre, it was precisely his desire to understand individual freedom against the background of historical change that drew him to Marxism. It was for him  a recognition that existentialism could not simply be a philosophy of the individual or the subjective, and that freedom was collective as well as individual.

As so often, Sartre best expressed these ideas through an illustration rather than an argument. There are, he observed, two kinds of crowds. One is like the queue that forms every morning at a bus stop on the Place Saint-Germain in Paris, the other like the revolutionary mob that had stormed the Bastille. The bus queue is an expression of seriality, of a ‘plurality of isolations’. The queue is a crowd in the sense that individuals who share the same objective – to get on the bus – come together in the same physical space. But every individual in that queue tends to see every other as a potential competitor for a limited resource – a seat on the bus. Each is an obstacle to the aims of the others.  The crowd that stormed the Bastille also comprised individuals in the same physical space. But every individual, rather than competing with every other to achieve the same objective, necessarily had to assist each other.  The bus queue is devoid of any wider meaning. Its unity, Sartre writes ‘is not symbolic’ because ‘it has nothing to symbolize; it is what unites everything’. The queue is united by nothing more every individual’s subjective desires. The storming of the Bastille is resonant with wider symbolism. The mob only formed because of wider aims, aims that were social and historical rather than individual and personal. It is a ‘fused group’, not a ‘seriality’.

Freedom, Sartre came to believe, derived not simply from individual choices but from the way that individuals cooperated to achieve their ends. The individuals in a bus queue passively accept the given conditions and hence limit their freedom and their capacity for choice. In storming the Bastille, the crowd was acting as a battering ram upon history, choosing consciously to transform their conditions, and hence transforming the possibilities of freedom. Sartre rejected the idea, held by many, perhaps most, Marxists, that history had a preordained end that it was possible to know, and to which the unfolding of history inevitably led. There was, for Sartre, no inevitability about history, no predetermined course or conclusion. History was the collective expression of human choice and action. How history developed depended upon the choices people made and the actions in which they engaged. In storming the Bastille, the crowd was attempting to shape the course of history, to bend it to its will. Hence its historical, and existential, importance.

‘Men make their own history’, Marx had written, ‘but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Sartre borrowed this idea and transformed it into a framework for moral thought. His starting point was the recognition that questions of morality could never be brushed aside. Political theories, political practices, that attempted to exclude moral claims found at their heart an emptiness. So central is choice to every sphere of life, political and personal, that it cannot be evaded. Every time we act upon the world, we make a choice, and in so doing we take a moral stance.

But, Sartre argued, if morality can never be evaded, nor can it ever be understood in its own terms. People act not upon a world that they have created but a world, and a history, institutions and traditions, that already exist. ‘The tradition of all dead generations’, Marx had observed, ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ This did not mean, for Sartre, that human acts are predetermined, that humans are prisoners of their history or their culture or their biology. It meant simply that choices are made not upon a blank slate but upon one on which others had busily written. We are not merely the products of our circumstances but can make choices within those given circumstances. Indeed, we have to.

Sartre called the background against which we made choices ‘facticity’. The aim of social transformation is to transform facticity, and hence the possibilities of the choices we are able to make. Social transformation, the conscious remaking of society, the collective attempt to shape history, was for Sartre the means of bridging individual subjective choice and the objective given environment.

* * * *

Sartre was drawn to Marx not simply by his political beliefs but also because of the need to address a blindness at the heart of existentialism. In insisting on the importance of choice, freedom and responsibility, existentialists had foregrounded a crucial aspect of human lives, without which morality would become meaningless. But in turning every moral choice into a ‘leap of faith’, in unstitching choice from the rest of the architecture of our lives, existentialists had also transformed an important insight about the significance of human agency into an implausible demand detached from the reality of the human condition. Sartre turned to Marx to find a means of bringing existentialism back to earth, of relating individual freedom to the collective structures of society. He scaffolded existentialist ideas of freedom with a materialist understanding of history and infused the concept of agency into Marxist theories of social transformation, challenging determinist notions of historical change. But all this only raised new questions, about both Sartre’s existentialism and about his Marxism.

The later Sartre seems almost to reverse the argument about human freedom proposed by the earlier Sartre. ‘It would be quite wrong to interpret me’, he wrote in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, ‘as meaning that man is free in all situations as the Stoics claimed. I mean the exact opposite: all men are slaves insofar as their lives unfold in the practico-inert field’. The ‘practico-inert field’ is a very Sartrean term to describe the kind of human group that acts more like the bus queue than like the crowd storming the Bastille. It is, in Sartre’s view, characteristic of capitalist society.  In describing humans as ‘slaves’, Sartre does not mean that they possess no capacity to act freely. It is nevertheless a claim difficult to reconcile with the idea of radical freedom, of humans as beings who can make and remake themselves almost at will. Nor is it easy to reconcile with the existential belief that ‘Man is condemned to be free’ because ‘from the moment he is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does’, that ‘There is no difference between the being of man and his being free.’ For the later Sartre there clearly is a difference between the being of man and his being free, since true freedom is only possible under certain social conditions, that is, under certain conditions of being.

Sartre was confronted, too, by many of the same questions as Marx had been, though with even greater force since the reality of revolutionary transformation had become so much clearer. From the Soviet Union to Cuba, the challenge to capitalism had not freed people from ‘slavery’ but had created societies less free, less moral, and less conducive to self-realization. The tyranny of the Soviet empire, and of the other communist states, did not of itself discredit either Marxism, or Sartre’s fusion of Marx and Kierkegaard. But it did pose difficult questions for a moral theory that freedom required the overthrow of capitalism. At the same time, not only did alternatives to capitalism appear less attractive, they also appeared less achievable. By the time Sartre died in 1980, there was already growing disenchantment with the very possibility of social transformation. Within a decade, the collapse of Berlin Wall signaled not just end of the Soviet Empire but the fading of the dream of an alternative to the market system.

For Sartre, as for Marx, social transformation was the link between the subjective and the objective, between individual moral choice and the objective needs of society. Through mass movements, individual desires became transformed into historical possibilities. As such movements disintegrated in the last decades of the twentieth century, as the very possibility of such transformation seemed to ebb away, so the question was posed: if freedom is defined through struggle and through conscious social transformation, what does freedom mean in those conditions in which such struggle and such transformation no longer appear plausible?


Nietzsche trained as a philologist, not as a philosopher, and his writing is quite unlike traditional philosophical work, whether the dry, rigorous plodding of an Aristotle or a Kant, or the flights of sometimes barely-intelligible fancy that mark the work of a philosopher like Hegel and, later, Heidegger. It is, rather, frothy, pithy and aphoristic, often fragmentary, usually poetic, always provocative. Nietzsche himself saw his work neither as philosophy nor as literature, but ‘declarations of war’. He was not a writer, nor even a prophet, but a ‘battlefield’ on which was being fought the struggle for Europe’s very soul. There was always a touch of the megalomaniac fantasist about Nietzsche.

Beneath the light and the froth and the absurd self-regard lay, however, an engagement with the most profoundly unsettling issues of the day: the ‘death of God’ and the moral chasm that now seemed to have opened up. Though Nietzsche is usually credited with coining the phrase, it was actually a Young Hegelian, Johann Caspar Schmidt, better known by his nom-de-plum Max Stirner, who first wrote of ‘the death of God’ in his 1844 work The Ego and His Own. Stirner also nurtured many of the key anti-moral themes in Nietzsche’s work, including an early notion of the ‘Superman’.  It was, however, Nietzsche who quite unlike any other gave voice to the spiritual disorientation of fin-de-siècle Europe with startling insight. Few spoke to the dilemmas of modern nihilism with as much force and clarity. One of his last books, The Twilight of the Idols, is subtitled ‘How to Philosophize with a Hammer’. Nothing could better express both Nietzsche’s method and his impact on subsequent moral thinking.

Nietzsche’s starting point was the recognition that the death of God had created a moral vacuum. He thought of his era as one of nihilism, in which traditional values had ceased to make sense, and philosophy was in a state of crisis, faced as it was by an inherently meaningless universe.  ‘The highest values devalue themselves’, he observed in the opening to The Will to Power. ‘The aim is lacking: “Why?” finds no answer.’  This was not, as Dostoevsky, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, thought, because without God everything was permitted. It was rather because religion, and Christianity in particular, had themselves destroyed morality. Christianity was, for Nietzsche, at the core of the modern sickness. Not only had its belief in the next world led to a moral devaluation of this one, and hence to a false spirituality, but it also had come to embody values destructive of moral life. ‘I call Christianity the one great curse’, he wrote in the conclusion to Antichrist, ‘the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty - I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.’

The death of God had opened up exhilarating new possibilities for humankind. But it had also created a great despond. Humans could not exist without attributing meaning to their lives. For two millennia that meaning had derived from an individual’s relationship to God. Now that this relationship had been ripped asunder, little wonder that Europe felt itself as if trembling at the edge of a moral chasm. Worse, while God might be dead, ‘his shadow will remain on the walls of caves for thousands of years.’ Modern moral thought, from Kantian notions of duty to utilitarian ideals of happiness, and contemporary political demands, from the liberal belief in democracy to socialist ideals of equality, were simply reworked forms of Christian eschatology. It was necessary not simply to kill God, but ‘to conquer his shadow as well’.

The roots of the moral malaise of the modern world lay, for Nietzsche, in the triumph of Christianity over the Greeks. In that victory the very idea of morality, and of good and bad, became overturned, or ‘transvalued’. To understand how this had come about, it was necessary to understand the history of moral thinking. Nietzsche, like all post-Romantic thinkers, was driven by idea that the past held the key to the present and to the future.

In The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche laid out his history of morality. It is a highly original work in which philosophy, psychology and philology interweave in Nietzsche’s quest to trace the origins of Western moral thought. In the modern world, Nietzsche observes, we think of ‘good’ as meaning an act that is altruistic or just, or in Nietzsche’s language ‘unegoistic’, and ‘bad’ as describing that which is cruel or unjust.  It is morally good to protect the weak, give alms to the poor, treat all people with dignity and respect. It is morally bad to be self-regarding, to be cruel to those with less power, deliberately to harm or injure. These, however, were not the original meanings of good and bad. For the early Greeks, the ones of whom Homer wrote, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ referred to different types of humanity. The nobility was ‘good’, as were the dispositions of character necessary to be noble and aristocratic, dispositions such as courage, strength and pride. ‘Bad’ referred to the ‘herd’, and to the characteristics of the masses, such as vulgarity, untruthfulness and cowardice. This was the world of Achilles and Agamemnon, of Hector and Odysseus.

The celebration of nobility Nietzsche calls the ‘master morality’. It began, he thinks, to erode within Greek culture itself. In his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche draws a contrast between two aspects of the Greek psyche: the wild irrational passions personified in Dionysus and the disciplined and harmonious beauty represented by Apollo. The triumph of Greek culture was to achieve a synthesis between the two, an argument that echoes Schiller’s belief that in Ancient Greece sensuous desire and the capacity for reason existed in harmonious unity. Dionysus is the explosive, ungoverned force of creation, Apollo the power that channels that force into creative wonders. The Greeks were both cruel and creative, brutal and innovative, physically savage and aesthetically sensitive. Abandon the brutality, Nietzsche suggests, and one foregoes the creativity. As the eponymous prophet puts it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘The highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but that is creative’.

One is reminded here of Orson Welles’ famous line in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. Welles plays Harry Lime, a drug racketeer in postwar Vienna who has made a fortune out of death and misery by stealing penicillin from hospitals, diluting it and selling the adulterated drug on the black market. He is tracked down by his old friend Holly Martins for a confrontation on the Riesenrad, Vienna’s giant ferris wheel. Martins is outraged at the immorality of Lime’s actions. ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed’, Lime responds with a smile, ‘but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

It is with Socrates, Nietzsche argues, that the rot set in. Socrates was driven neither by Dionysus nor Apollo, but by reason and dialectics. Socratic reason crushes Dionysian passion, enchains it, and so leads to the disintegration of Greek art and drama and, eventually, of Greek civilization itself. Reason, for Nietzsche, is superficial. What really drives human beings are passions and instincts. ‘Everything good is instinct’ he wrote in Twilight of the Idols. ‘Every error, of whatever type’, on the other hand, ‘is a result of the degeneration of instinct and vitiation of the will’.

Socratic reason began the process by which heroic values were tamed. It took the monotheistic religions, however, truly to replace the aristocratic morality of self-affirmation with the ‘slave morality’ of envy. In this process the meanings of good and bad become transformed. ’It was the Jews’, Nietzsche writes, ‘who, with awe-inspiring consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = beautiful = happy = beloved of God)’, establishing in its place ‘the principle that “the wretched alone are the good”’ while ‘the powerful and the noble, are, on the contrary, the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity, the unblessed, accursed and damned’.  With the Jews ‘begins the slave revolt in morality, a revolt which has a history of two thousand years behind it and which we no longer see because it has been victorious’.

If the slave revolt began with the Jews, it was left to the Christians to bring it to fruition, by exalting the virtues of the weak, the humble, the poor, the oppressed. With Christianity, the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ became transmuted into that between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, a distinction primarily not between different kinds of characters or different forms of flourishing, but between divinely sanctioned and divinely forbidden behaviours. Christianity, Nietzsche observes, ‘presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what is evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it.’

Christianity, in Nietzsche’s eyes, was driven not by a love of the poor and the dispossessed but by a rancorous hatred of nobility and strength. Nietzsche describes this as a process of ressentiment, a term he borrowed from the Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and by which he meant the projection on to an external scapegoat of the pain that accompanies one’s sense of personal inferiority. It is not simply a psychological process. It is also the means by why which the inferior being substitutes an inverted, and perverted, moral code for the values of the superior being.  The success of Christianity led to the degeneration of civilization and, indeed, of the human race.  Pity, for Nietzsche the archetypical Christian value, was a poison that had infected the healthy body of civilization with a horror of human suffering. Compassion for the weak was debilitating for the strong.  Contemporary humans had lost the will to be truly human. ‘The strongest and most evil spirits’, Nietzsche observed, ‘have so far done the most to advance humanity’.

Nietzsche’s is an audacious account of the history of morality that possesses a kernel of historical truth, but a truth degraded and distorted by Nietzsche’s particular prejudices and preoccupations, in particular his scorn for democracy, his contempt for the ‘herd’, his veneration of aristocratic morality and his visceral disgust of Christianity. The key turning points that Nietzsche identifies – the emergence of the classical Greek philosophical tradition, the triumph of monotheistic religion, the breakdown of the religious moral framework – are also important turning points in the story told in this book. In place of the complexities of Greek, Jewish and Christian history, however, Nietzsche, creates a stark black and white contrast between the original Greek aristocrat and the slave-loving Jew and Christian. It is a story in which historical truth becomes so interwoven with Nietzsche’s moral obsessions that Socrates, for instance, comes to be seen not as laying the groundwork for a new, more reflective form of moral thought, but as signalling the corruption of the very idea of morality.

Nietzsche’s genealogy reflects not simply his own preoccupations, but also those of the age in which he was writing, not solely his own prejudices, but also the pessimism of the late nineteenth century. Nietzsche’s relationship to his age was deeply ambivalent. He was acerbically hostile to many of the major tendencies of his time, whether progressive or reactionary: imperialism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, liberalism, socialism, Kantianism, utilitarianism. Yet he both nurtured and was nurtured by the ground soil in which many of these tendencies flourished. It was an age shaped not simply by a crisis of faith, but also by a ‘crisis of reason’ – the ebbing away of Enlightenment optimism, the disenchantment with ideas of progress, the disbelief in concepts of truth. And no one expressed that twin disenchantment more acutely than Nietzsche.

In one sense Nietzsche’s deicide completed the task begun by Spinoza and Hume, Feurbach and Marx. And yet Nietzche’s excoriation of Christianity was very different to the anti-clericalism of the Radical Enlightenment or the humanism of the Young Hegelians. For the Radical philosophes, opposition to God was rooted in their commitment to reason and emerged out of their desire for social progress. For Marx, too, challenging religion was only a sideshow to the task of transforming society and establishing it on a more rational basis. Nietzsche was as dismissive of the Enlightenment philosophes, and of socialist ideologues, as he was of God and of religion. He might have been the high priest at God’s funeral. He was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake.


Two men meet on the battlefield in a struggle to the death.  For one honour is more important than mere animal existence. He is willing to risk death. The other is not. Inevitably, on that battlefield, the warrior risking death is the victor. The vanquished, for whom survival is preferable to honour, is reduced to an animal existence, a slave, little more than a beast of burden to the victor, who is now the Master.

Yet, the Master is not quite the master and the Slave is not quite the slave. The Master wants to be freely recognized as Master. But the Slave only acknowledges him as such because he is enslaved. Recognition is not freely-given. The Master controls the Slave. But the Slave, in making himself the physical form of the Master’s will, in turn exercises control over the Master. It is his work that makes the Master’s life possible.  The Master is increasingly alienated from the world that the Slave creates for him, precisely because it is a world created by another. The Slave, on the other hand, begins to see himself reflected in the world he is creating and, unlike the Master, finds recognition through his labour. The Master, having become wholly dependent upon the world created by the Slave, finds himself enslaved by that world. The Slave is still a slave, with no freedom. The Master is the master with total freedom. And, yet, their relationship has both subtly and profoundly changed, as have the meanings of freedom and enslavement.

Hegel’s celebrated discussion in the Phenomenology of Spirit of the Master and Slave is one of his most important and influential, and yet also most ambiguous, passages, a wonderfully rich, allusive study of the development of human self-consciousness. (Hegel actually talks of ‘Lord’ and ‘Bondsman’ but the two actors have become almost universally, if erroneously, known as ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’.) Philosophers before Hegel had simply assumed the existence of the human subject. Hegel insisted that the human subject had to be created. An isolated individual could not be truly self-conscious, nor act as an agent. I become conscious of my self only as I become conscious of others and of my relationships with them. Humans are not individuals who become social but social beings whose individuality emerges through the bonds they create with each other. Psychological dispositions and desires are not fixed but are shaped by those bonds, as are the answers to questions such as ‘What are my goals?’ and ‘How should I live?’.  Freedom, in other words, can never be simply that of the individual, but must also be at the same time social.

Hegel’s allegory of the Master and the Slave is a story both of individual development and, more importantly, of humanity’s development. Beginning with the Greek tradition, Hegel traces through history, in a highly caricatured form, the journey by which humans come to be truly self-conscious or, to put it in more Hegelian terms, by which Spirit achieves self-realization. The rise of monotheistic religion, and Christianity in particular, is particularly momentous for Hegel. Religion provides the recognition that it is the spiritual, not the natural, world that is the true home of human beings. Humans may live, like animals, in the natural world but, unlike animals, Hegel argues, they are spiritual beings. Without that recognition humans remain trapped in the natural world, in an animal existence. Religious consciousness is, however, a consciousness torn between two radically distinct realms, the earthly realm of the corruptible and the changeable, and God’s realm of the unchangeable and the essential. A believer is forced to live with knowledge of the gap between his imperfect self, a false self, and an ideal self, a true self but one as yet unrealized. An individual’s consciousness becomes divided, and the believer becomes ‘alienated’ from it, creating what Hegel calls the ‘unhappy consciousness’.

In the ‘unhappy consciousness’ the contradictions of the Master-Slave relationship become recreated within the individual self, internalized as the conflict between God’s realm and the realm of nature. Yet, if religion expresses in the most extreme form the alienation between self and world, it also, in Hegel’s eyes, provides the means to overcome that alienation. What is required is not simply an inward transformation, as in a more pious heart, but also an outward transformation, in which the external world becomes made anew into a stage that satisfies the needs of humans as spiritual beings.

The key moment, for Hegel, was the Reformation. He adopted the Lutheran idea that the Reformation was the achievement of the Germanic people, arising from ‘the honest truth and simplicity of its heart’. Like Luther, Hegel saw the Catholic Church as corrupt, an institution that had come to see God not as a spiritual being but as a means to fetter believers to the material world, as in the selling of indulgences. The greatness of the Reformation was its insistence that the individual conscience is the ultimate judge of truth and goodness. In this, the Reformation had unfurled ‘the banner of Free Spirit’ and proclaimed as its essential principle that ‘Man is in his very nature destined to be free.’ History, in the wake of the Reformation, Hegel argued, was defined by the attempt to transform the world in accordance with this principle, and to ensure that all social institutions made to conform to reason, and hence fit for human freedom. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man were all moments in this transformation.  Yet while supportive of the Revolution, Hegel was also deeply ambivalent about it, and particularly about its descent into the Terror. The problem was that the Revolutionaries had attempted to put into practice purely abstract philosophical principles, without paying regard to the real, concrete disposition of the people.

How could the principles of freedom be reconciled with the concrete reality of human needs? Why, in the Prussian state, of course.  Over time Hegel had become increasingly conservative, and by the time he had achieved fulfillment as Prussia’s most celebrated sage, he had also discovered that the Spirit had found self-realization in Prussia, that ideal combination of freedom and stability.  There was in the Prussian state no contradiction, so no further historical change, no new synthesis, was possible. The Spirit had come to rest, and history had come to an end.

Hegel’s consecration of the Prussian state did not simply reflect the way that he had by now become a crusty reactionary. It also signified his attempt to resolve two key problems raised by the introduction of history into moral thought, and by the challenge that this raised to the idea of a fixed human nature. What is the relationship between individual freedom and the community out of which the individual emerges? And how can we think of values as historically flexible and yet sure enough to provide the foundations of moral life? If nature, and moral evaluations, are not fixed, how can we ever define what is right?  Through trying to answer these questions, Hegel drew upon arguments developed by the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Today Rousseau is viewed as, at best, naively eccentric, at worst dangerously deluded. The idea of ‘noble savage’, for which Rousseau is perhaps best known, is seen as a naïve and romantic celebration of primitivism. The concept of  ‘the general will’, by which Rousseau meant the authority to which individuals within a collective must accede, is often seen as paving the way to totalitarianism. In fact Rousseau was far subtler in his argument that modern day critics allow. Though indelibly associated with the concept of the noble savage, Rousseau neither used the phrase nor believed in the idea. And while the idea of the ‘general will’ does have totalitarian implications, it is also part of the late eighteenth century attempt to think anew the relationship between the individual and the collective.

Born in Geneva in 1772, the son of a watchmaker, Rousseau was brought up a Calvinist but converted to Catholicism in his teenage years. Moving to Paris he became friends with leading Encyclopaedists including Diderot, d’Alembert and Voltaire. Rousseau found himself increasingly alienated from their easy optimism, and increasingly drawn to a darker view, not of human nature, such as that possessed by most pre-Enlightenment thinkers, but of civilization, which the philosophes had seen as the tool for human betterment. In this he anticipated the Romantics.  Rousseau did not reject the idea of civilization as a good. But, as the two early essays through which Rousseau made his name reveal, he had become skeptical of the idea of civilization as an unalloyed good. His 1750 prize-winning Discourse on the Arts and Sciences and, four years later, the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men both prefigured many themes in subsequent Romantic philosophy.

The starting point of Rousseau’s philosophy, as it was for most 17th and 18th century theorists, was human nature as it had originally existed. Unlike philosophers like Hobbes, though, Rousseau neither saw humans in the natural state as given simply to self-aggrandisement nor viewed human nature as fixed and unchanging. The solitary human, Rousseau, observed cannot be selfish. Selfishness can only express itself in a social setting because it only has meaning in a world in which it is possible also to be altruistic. One is selfish only if one has the opportunity to be altruistic and refuses to take it.  Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau insisted that selfishness does not exist prior to society, but emerges only through society. ‘Society must be studied in the individual and the individual in society’, he wrote. ‘Those who desire to separate politics from morals will understand neither.’

Like earlier thinkers, Rousseau believed that social life emerges as humans come to recognize the value of cooperation. The creation of society also leads, however, to the institutionalization of private property in which Rousseau finds the source of inequality, oppression, enslavement. Imagine, Rousseau wrote, ‘The first man who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him’. What crimes, wars, murders, miseries and horrors would humanity have been spared if ‘someone who, uprooting the stakes or filling in the ditch, and shouted to his fellow men: Beware of listening to this man’.

Yet, the claim of Rousseau’s many detractors that he wanted restore the original state of Nature, that in Voltaire’s mocking words he wanted to return to walking on all fours, is, the intellectual historian OJ Lovejoy observes, ‘one of the most persistent historical errors’.  In the state of nature, Rousseau argued, humans are essentially animals desiring only ‘food, a female and sleep’ and fearing nothing other than ‘pain and hunger’. Nevertheless, they possess dispositions for empathy and cooperation, dispositions that eventually enable social life. It is through the creation of society, of education and of law, that humans truly become human. Here is another reason why selfishness and altruism are not, for Rousseau, the opposites that Hobbes imagined. The self-realization of human individuals happens only through others. The distinction that Rousseau introduces between ‘selfishness’ and ‘self-realization’ is significant. ‘Selfishness’ conveys the idea that individual interests are expressed through the individual alone, that they would and do exist independently of society, and that social interests comprise an aggregate of individual interests. ‘Self-realization’ is the recognition that individual interests can be expressed only through society, that one only comes to realize what one’s interests are in relation to others and that while individual interests may well conflict with those of society, they cannot exist independently of them. It is a distinction that, two centuries after Rousseau, is still all little understood and all too often ignored.

Like Hobbes, Rousseau accepted that moral norms had no place in the state of nature. Before private property had created inequality, there was no need for the concepts of justice and injustice. These ideas only develop with society. As society develops, so more complex virtues evolve through the education of simpler moral feelings. Unlike Hobbes, however, Rousseau also argued that with the emergence of society develops not just morality but immorality, too.  Just as selfish and altruism are both the products of society, so too are good and bad, the moral and the immoral.

The ills born of moral depravity, the ills deriving from private property, create the desire for political institutions that emerge through a social contract between members of a society, a contract created when ‘each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.’ The general will is called the ‘state’ when it is passive, the ‘sovereign people’ when it is active. It imposes order upon society, rectifies the disorder arising from social inequality, and is the collective moral body through which individuals find freedom and self-expression. Every individual is both a citizen, insofar as he shares in the sovereign authority, and a subject who owes obedience to the laws of the state.

For Rousseau, humans find self-fulfillment, not simply through the assertion of self-interest, but in the performance of social roles. At the same time, the collective ‘general will’ is not simply a restraint on freedom but a means or forging new ones, freedom not of the isolated individual, but of the individual as part of a collective. That is the positive, progressive reading of Rousseau’s argument. There is, however, a negative, reactionary side to it, too. The will demands ‘the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community.’  What the general will is not is an expression of the democratic spirit, of what Rousseau called the aggregate ‘will of all’. Rousseau was skeptical about the merits of democracy. ‘If there were a people of gods, they would govern themselves democratically’, he wrote. ‘But a government of such perfection is not suitable for human beings.’  The general will, Rousseau argued, ‘is always right and tends to be to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what the good is’. Here emerges the deeply undemocratic aspect of Rousseau’s thought, ideas that may be rightly condemned for their authoritarian, even totalitarian, spirit.  Yet, even here, the issue is not simply that of Rousseau.  The conflict between the defence of human freedom, and of self-realization, on the one hand, and the insistence that the interests of the individual must necessarily be alienated to that of the community, is a conflict that lies at the heart not just of Rousseau’s thought but also of the very conception of freedom in the modern world. Because the community is not a given, and there is no set relationship between the between individual and society, so that relationship appears continually conflictual. It was to Rousseau’s credit that, unlike previous thinkers who had simply assumed a reconciliation between the individual and the community, he attempted to think through how such a reconciliation might be achieved.

Hegel took from Rousseau’s understanding of the relationship between the individual and the collective both its progressive and its reactionary aspects. The story of the Master and Slave was a way metaphorically of revealing the importance of others for the realization of an individual’s freedom and identity.  Hegel recognized that only through social institutions could others become the means by which I realize myself. But in elevating the State to the high point of history, and in regarding its creation as moral end for which the Spirit uses individuals as its instrument, Hegel took the anti-democratic threads of Rousseau’s vision and wound them into a despotic knot. Even more than Rousseau, Hegel conflated ‘society’ and the ‘state’, and in so doing legitimized the coercive powers of the state as the paradoxical means through which the individual achieved freedom.

After his death, Hegel’s followers divided themselves into Old, or Right, and Young, or Left, Hegelians. The Right Hegelians followed their master in believing that the dialectic of history had come to an end and that reason and freedom had found their greatest concrete expression in the Prussian state.  The idea that the present is the inevitable culmination of the unfolding of history has since found many proponents, the most celebrated being Francis Fukuyama and his ‘End of History’ thesis which claimed that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had triumphantly brought history to its culmination in liberal capitalism.

For those on the right, self-realization came to be seen primarily in terms of ‘my station and its duties’, as the influential English nineteenth century Hegelian FH Bradley put it in the title of a book chapter; in other words in terms of one’s social role and the duties and obligations that flow from it. ‘To know what a man is’, Bradley wrote, ‘depends on what his place is, what his function is, and that all comes from his station in the organism.’ This might appear to hark back to the Ancient Greek ideal of human flourishing as developing out of the fulfillment of one’s role in the community. Every individual, in Athens and Sparta, was seen as possessing a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties. But in Ancient Greece, the community was a given. In Bradley’s world, society was a battlefield. Revolution was in the air, and the fear of revolution could be tasted like potatoes, as Sammy Mountjoy might have said.

Bradley’s starting point was not, as it was for Homer and Plato and Aristotle, the solidity of the community but its frailness, not the certainty of seeing moral rules as ineluctably flowing from social roles, but the fragility of the modern understanding of morality and of its relationship to society. Hence Bradley’s insistence that the relationships out of which an individual’s identity emerges are not so much the informal relationships of private life or of civil society, but the institutional relationships that bind together the state and lash people to it. ‘A man’s life with its moral duties’, he wrote, ‘is in the main filled up by his station in that system of wholes which the state is, and that this, partly by its laws and institutions and still more by its spirit, gives him the life that he does live and ought to live.’ For the Hegelians of the right, self-realization was the means not by which an individual achieves freedom but by which he knows his place in the social hierarchy and that hierarchy is maintained.  It was a view that drew upon the conservative tradition that had emerged in the wake of Irish philosopher Edmund Burke.  Society, for Burke, was akin to an organism, and as in an organism, all the parts needed to operate in harmony with each other. Burke rejected the abstract conception of ‘natural rights’. On the contrary, he argued, an individual possesses only those rights and privileges which prevail in a given community and which allow that community to progress in a harmonious fashion. Status and hierarch were essential to society. Burke feared that equality would destroy the natural and time-honoured agencies through which social stability was maintained. A nation, he wrote, ‘is not an idea of only local extent and individual momentary aggregation’:

It is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is the choice, not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is the deliberate election of the ages and of generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions and moral, civil and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.

History, for Burke, was not about effecting social transformation but a means of maintaining social stability, a mechanism for distilling the essence of a people. And in the place of reasoned choice, Burke offered tradition and instinct. ‘The bulk of mankind’, he argued, ‘have neither leisure nor knowledge sufficient to reason right; why should they be taught to reason at all? Will not honest instinct prompt and wholesome prejudices guide them, much better than half reasoning?’

For Burke, then, morality was not about conscience and choice but about obligation and obedience. He was no Hegelian. But the Right Hegelians were profoundly Burkean in their understanding of the state and an individual’s relationship to it, and of the meaning of morality. The state, Bradley wrote, ’is not put together, but it lives’. It is not a ‘machine’ but possesses a ‘soul’. It is ‘the objective mind which is subjective and self-conscious in its citizens – it feels and knows itself in the heart of each’. ‘In the activity of obedience’, Bradley ominously insisted, the state ‘bestows individual life and satisfaction and happiness’. It is striking how many modern conservative critics of Rousseau’s ‘totalitarianism’ are drawn nonetheless to Burkean notions of tradition, hierarchy and moral obedience.

Whereas the Right Hegelians took from Hegel the importance ‘my station and its duties’, the Left, or Young, Hegelians took from him the image of history as an avenging angel, of history as having, in the words of modern conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, ‘replaced eternity as the key to our salvation’. They drew upon Hegel’s idea that the purpose and promise of history was the negation of all that restricted freedom and reason, not to defend God and nation, but to mount radical critiques first of religion, then of the Prussian political system and, finally, of capitalism itself.


In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning… when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence.

So wrote David Hume almost as an afterthought in his Treatise on Human Nature. An afterthought it may have been, but there is arguably no single paragraph that has more resonated through modern ethics. Hume’s famous distinction between is and ought – between the world as it exists and the world as we would wish it to be – and his wrenching apart of the realm of facts and the realm of values has not only indelibly stamped itself upon modern ethical debates but has established one of the key distinctions between modern and ancient ethics. Many have come to read Hume as meaning that ought cannot be derived from is, that values do not derive from the facts of the world. That, as we shall see, was neither Hume’s likely intention nor the necessary consequence of his argument. Nevertheless from Hume comes one of the defining feature of modern ethics: the separation of facts and values.

David Hume was born in 1711 into minor Scottish nobility. At 12 he went to Edinburgh University to study literature and philosophy. He trained as a lawyer before trying his hand in commerce with a sugar company. Neither life suited him. So he took himself off to France where, for three years, he lived in La Fleche. There, in the library of the Jesuit college at which Descartes had been educated, Hume wrote his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature. He published the book on his return to England, but was deeply disappointed with the reception. ‘It fell dead from the presse’, he later wrote in his autobiography. So dissatisfied was Hume with both the reception and what he regarded as the defects of his own style of writing, that he rewrote parts of the Treatise in a more popular fashion, publishing them as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and even took out a newspaper advertisement beseeching readers to ignore the original, and read the later works. But whatever the immediate reaction, the Treatise came in subsequent centuries to be seen as perhaps Hume’s most important work, and one that helped define his approach to knowledge and to morality.

Like Spinoza’s Ethicsthe Treatise opens with a discussion of the character of reality and of mind, moves on to explore the psychology of the passions, and concludes with a consideration of morality derived from his understanding of reality, mind and the passions. But whereas for Spinoza reason, will and the structure of the cosmos were the keys to comprehending morality, for Hume it was the structure of the mind and the nature of the passions.

The Treatise was published in three volumes, the first two of which, ‘Of the Understanding’ and ‘Of the Passions’ came out in 1739 and the third, ‘Of Morals’, the following year. The aim of the work, in the words of the subtitle of the first volume was An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. Traditional moral philosophy, Hume wrote, had depended ‘more upon Invention than Experience’. From Socrates onwards every moral philosopher had ‘consulted His Fancy in erecting schemes of Virtue & of Happiness, without regarding human Nature’. In contrast to all this, Hume resolved to make human nature ‘my principal Study, & the Source from which I wou’d derive every Truth’. Since ‘the foundation of ethics’ is ‘a question of fact, not of abstract science’, so ‘we can only expect success by following the experimental method and deducing general maxims from a comparison of particular instances’.  Hume set out to do to the moral world what Newton had already done to the physical world – establish through reasoning from observation the fundamental laws by which that world operates. But if the foundation of ethics is ‘a question of facts’, why is Hume so seemingly concerned at philosophical attempts to derive ought from is, that is to derive ethics from facts?

In the first part of Treatise, Hume sets out to produce an account of the relationships between ideas that would mirror Newton’s account of gravitational attraction between bodies.  The most innovative and important section is the discussion of induction – the process of reasoning from the observed behaviour of entities to establish general principles that can predict the behaviour of those entities even when they are unobserved – and of causation. Humans, Hume argued, tend to look for regularity in the world and to believe in the persistence of such regularity through space and time. Over the past year the sun rose in the morning and set in evening. We assume that it will do so over the next year, too. And we assume that it will do so in Australia as well as in America, even if we have not been to either place. Humans, in other words, tend to believe that patterns in the behaviour of entities in the observed present will persist into the future, and throughout the unobserved present. But, Hume insisted, we cannot rationally justify that belief. It is not reason but natural instinct, the given way our minds work, that leads us to make such inferences.

Similarly with causation.  Just as humans have a tendency to search for regularities in the world, so they have a tendency to see the world in terms of cause and effect. However, as with inductive inference, our perception of causation is, Hume insists, a product of the way our minds work not of the external world. Hume does not deny the reality of cause and effect, but he questions what we can know of this reality. When we say ‘A causes B’ all we can mean is that B is regularly preceded by A. But to go from regularity of association to belief in causation is to take a leap of faith, to insist on something that we cannot know either empirically or through reason. Ideas of necessary causation are, as Hume puts it, ‘qualities of perceptions, not of objects, and are internally felt by the soul, and not perceiv’d externally in bodies.

What does this mean for Hume’s project of introducing ‘the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects’? If all human knowledge comes through observation, and yet the regularities that one observes are simply the products of the mind, and the inferences one draws from those regularities cannot logically be justified, then there can be no certain knowledge. Having begun by insisting that a true ‘science of man’ could be established only ‘by following the experimental method’ that had served the natural sciences so well, Hume, by the end of Book 1, seems to have cast into doubt the very possibility of scientific knowledge. The empiricist tradition, with its stress on the importance of sense perception as the primary source of human concepts and knowledge, had been long maturing within Western philosophy from the time of Aristotle onwards, often in opposition to the Platonist tradition that had tended to see sense impressions as inadequate and fallible and had held that there were significant ways in which concepts and knowledge are intuitively gained independently of sense experience.  In the wake of Descartes, battle was renewed between the empiricists and Platonists or, as they were now called, the rationalists.  Hume, following in the footsteps of such English-speaking philosophers as Francis Bacon, John Locke and Bishop Berkley, advanced empiricism to its logical and sceptical conclusions. If all that I know of the world I know through observation, then what can I know beyond the contents of my own mind? The ‘disastrous conclusion’ from Hume’s impeccable logic seemed to be, as Bertrand Russell put it, ‘that from experience and observation nothing is to be learnt.’ It took Immanuel Kant, the towering figure of the Enlightenment, to suggest, at the end of the eighteenth century, a possible way out of this dilemma.

Hume was, however, far more than simply the logical dead-end of empiricism. Having accepted the sceptical conclusions of empiricism, Hume set out to show that they need not indeed be ‘disastrous’.  For Hume, as the philosopher David Fate Norton observes, ‘the most important remaining task of philosophy, given these well-established and obvious conclusions, was to show how we are to get on with our lives.’ And nowhere was this more evident than in his discussion of morality.

* * * *

In the second book of the Treatise, Hume moves on to discuss the passions, or what these days we would call emotions, feelings and desires. The passions are the bridge between Hume’s scepticism and his moral ideas. Hume rescued the passions from the condescension of traditional moral philosophy, being the first major philosopher to place them at the centre of his claims about the human mind and about morality. Traditionally philosophers had been hostile to the role of passions in human life, believing them to be a burden upon reason. From Socrates to Spinoza, the passions had been seen as an irrational force to be feared and contained, for let loose they could undermine and enslave reason, the essential and defining characteristic of the human being. Even philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas, who were less hostile to the emotions and to the physical body, thought it necessary to restrain the passions and hold them subservient to reason.

Hume not only viewed the passions as a vital and integral part of human nature, but he also attributed to them many of the functions that previous philosophers had considered to be in the province of reason – the ability to make causal inferences being only the most striking example. The importance of the passions to morality is that, for Hume, reason is impotent to produce any action. Reason is concerned with matters of fact or with mathematical relations.  Neither facts nor maths can move us to act. The passions, aroused by the prospect of pleasure or pain, are the engines that drive human deeds. Without passions we would lack all motivation and impulse even to reason. ‘Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’, he insisted in one of his more notorious formulations, ‘and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’  Whereas for Spinoza, reason is a means of transforming our desires, for Hume desires are the means of motivating reason.

The whole purpose of moral judgements is to guide our behaviour. Since reason cannot move us to action, so moral judgements cannot be the product of reason but must be the consequence primarily of the passions.  Hume does not erase reason entirely from the picture. Reason provides information, especially about how to effect the means to our ends. But it cannot set those ends. Only the passions can. Morality, as Hume put it, ‘is more properly felt than judg’d of’. From Socrates to Spinoza, moral philosophers had viewed wrongdoing as the product of ignorance, a failure of reason. Not so for Hume; reason, he believed, had nothing at all to do with distinction between right and wrong, virtue and vice.

When Hume turns in Book III of the Treatise to explore the ‘moral sense’, he introduces a new term – ‘sentiment’.  It is through sentiment that we are able to make moral evaluations of other people and their characters and to distinguish between virtues and vices. A virtue is a character trait, the disinterested contemplation of which produces approval, a vice one that elicits disapproval. Approval gives us pleasure, disapproval creates pain. Moral sentiments are the means by which humans are able to engage in such disinterested contemplation; that is, the means by which they can distinguish between right and wrong, virtue and vice.

A moral sentiment is, as Hume explains it, a complex psychological disposition. It is like a passion in that it provides motive for action. It is also more than a passion, for it involves an important element of judgment. The sentiments of moral approval and disapproval are caused by some of the operations of ‘sympathy’, which is not a feeling but rather a psychological mechanism that enables one to participate in the emotional life, and pleasures and pains, of others; today we would probably talk of ‘empathy’. Sympathy allows us to share in the pleasures and pains that are the effects of those traits that we disinterestedly contemplate. When we feel pleasure, too, we approve of that trait, and view it as a virtue. When we feel pain, we disapprove and view the trait as a vice. We approve of generosity because we can identify with the pleasure that it nurtures. We abhor malice because we, too, can feel the pain that malicious action can cause.  Virtue, Hume writes, is ‘whatever mental action or quality’ of another that ‘gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation’.  Judgments about virtues and vices become resolved, therefore, into experiences of pleasures and pains.

Not every action or person that gives us pleasure is, of course, necessarily virtuous.  Cocaine might give an addict pleasure. A sadist might find pleasure in inflicting pain upon others. And most of us might find it pleasurable to stay in bed all day or painful to have to put in a full day’s shift. So how do we distinguish those pleasures that are virtuous and those that are merely hedonistic? By judging them pleasurable or painful from a disinterested viewpoint, argues Hume.  Through the mechanisms of sentiment and sympathy, we view pains and pleasures not simply from a subjective viewpoint, but also from the viewpoint of common humanity. A disinterested view of pain or pleasure could, however, apply equally to aesthetic as to moral and judgements. There is little in Hume’s argument that allows us to distinguish between morality and taste.  Subsequent philosophers came, indeed, to view morality as a kind of statement of taste.

At the same time the idea of a ‘disinterested’ view suggests possibility of objective criteria for evaluating pleasure and pain, and hence virtue and vice.  These may be criteria rooted in human nature or in the structure of the society. If that is the case, why then cannot reason evaluate vice and virtue?  Or, to put it another way, if there are objective criteria for evaluating good and bad, criteria rooted in the facts of the world, both natural and social, should we not accept that values, in some sense at least, do derive from facts?  The contemporary neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, who believes that morality is ‘a scheme for social behaviour that is shaped by interlocking brain processes’, argues in her book Braintrust, that while Hume ‘had no truck with simple, sloppy inferences’, he was a naturalist who acknowledged that the roots of morality lay ‘in how we are, what we care about, and what matters to us – in our nature.’ Hence, he would have accepted, and indeed did accept, that we can infer what we  ought to do by drawing upon the facts of the world as it is. Hume, in other words, has been read in highly contradictory ways.  For some he looked upon morality as a form of subjective taste.  For others he viewed it as a phenomenon rooted in objective facts.

‘No action, Hume argued, ‘may be virtuous or morally good, unless there be in human nature some motive to produce it distinct from the sense of its morality’.  Some virtues, he believed, are natural in the sense that they are embedded as dispositions embedded in human nature. These include benevolence, generosity, clemency, moderation, temperance and frugality. Every human being, Hume suggests, from primitive times to the present, have been motivated by these characteristics. Such dispositions produce good on each occasion of their practice and are on every occasion approved of.

Other virtues, however, are not natural but artificial, not traits embedded in human nature but behaviours and rules created and developed through human history.  Whereas natural virtues are always good – there are no instances Hume can imagine in which benevolence or generosity is not beneficial either to the individual or to society – and always win approval, artificial virtues are not necessarily always good or acclaimed. The most important of the artificial virtues is justice. In primitive society, Hume argues, people were motivated to act with benevolence and generosity but had no need for rules of justice, natural dispositions being sufficient to maintain order in small, kinship-based units. But as societies grew larger and more complex, and as certain goods came to be in short supply, so they began to recognize that their interests would be best served by a form of co-operation that led to the development of conventions and rules that now we call justice.  What began as a purely self-interested concern that the rules of justice be followed becomes over time, largely through the mechanism of sympathy, a moral concern for the welfare of others. Sympathy leads us to feel pleasure in response to any act that maintains the system of justice, and hence promotes the public good, and to feel pain in response to actions that break the rules of justice and endanger the welfare of others. The ‘distinction betwixt justice and injustice’, Hume writes, is built upon ‘two different foundations, viz that of self-interest, when men observe that ‘tis impossible to live in society without restraining themselves by certain rules, and that of morality, when this interest is once observed to be common to all mankind, and men receive a pleasure from the view of such actions as tend to the peace of society, and an uneasiness from such are as contrary to it.’  Through his artificial virtues, Hume marries Aristotle and Hobbes, virtue and self-interest.

For Hume, then, moral duties and obligations cannot be rationally deduced from purely factual premises. Hence the failure of much traditional moral philosophy that sought through reasoned argument to deduce ought from is.  He does not argue, however, that values cannot derive from the facts of the world, nor that there is an unbridgeable chasm between facts and values. Distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, were, for Hume, the products not of reason but of a moral sense. But moral sense was itself a natural disposition, an aspect of human nature. Indeed, Hume claims that ‘no action can be virtuous, or morally good, unless there be in human nature some motive to produce it, distinct from the sense of its morality’.

Patricia Churchland’s reading of Hume seems more appropriate, then, than that of philosophers who claim that for Hume values do not, and cannot, derive from the facts of the world. Her insistence that Hume accepted that ‘in a much broader sense of “infer” than derive you can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perception, emotions and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other’, and that morally, just as socially, humans could ‘figure out what to do based on the facts of the case, and our background understanding’ appears in keeping with the spirit of Hume’s argument. Whether this means that Churchland is also right in imagining that ‘morality originates in the neurobiology of attachment and bonding’, and in the ‘oxytocin-vasopressin network in mammals [that] can be modified to allow care to be extended beyond one’s litter of juveniles’, and that neuroscience is key to understanding our moral values and beliefs, or that, as fellow philosopher Sam Harris has put it, ‘science will… decide’ between competing moral claims ‘because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large’ is a different issue, and one to which I will return in the final chapter.


Spinoza’s stock is today not very high. In the pantheon of great seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers – Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, etc – Spinoza is usually seen as hovering in the back row. He is surprisingly little known, often regarded as a philosopher difficult to understand and possessed of little influence. Yet he is arguably the philosopher who more than most has shaped modern thinking about freedom and equality and the possibility of a secular morality. No one else, the historian Jonathan Israel suggests, ‘during the century 1650-1750 remotely rivalled Spinoza’s notoriety, as the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality and what was everywhere regarded… as divinely constituted political authority.’ Spinoza, Israel adds, ‘imparted order, cohesion and formal logic to what was in effect a fundamentally new view of man, God and the universe rooted in philosophy, nurtured by scientific thought and capable of producing a revolutionary ideology.’ Philosophically, Bertrand Russell wrote of Spinoza, ‘some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme’. As a ‘natural consequence’, Russell sardonically added, Spinoza ‘was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.’

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 into a prosperous merchant family that had migrated from Iberia at the end of the previous century. He grew up in a traditional Jewish family, attended a rabbinic school and learnt the Bible and the Talmud. By his teens, however, Spinoza had become sceptical of Jewish theology and on becoming an adult gave up much of Jewish practice. In 1656 he was excommunicated from the synagogue for his ‘evil opinions’, ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. Devout Jews were forbidden from talking to him.

Cut off from the community that had nurtured him, Spinoza moved from Amsterdam first to the village of Rijnsburg, near Leiden, and then to Voorburg, another small village near the Hague. He lived largely in isolation, training himself to make lenses and manufacture optical instruments. Spinoza, who never occupied an academic post, became the first major philosopher since antiquity to have earned his living working with his hands.

Spinoza’s first major work, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published anonymously in 1670, was an uneasy mix of biblical criticism and political theory, an apologia justifying his departure from Judaism. Its significance lay in the ethical claim that was to define Spinoza’s whole philosophy. ‘If a man reads the narratives of Holy Scriptures and has complete faith in them, and yet pays no heed to the lesson that Scripture thereby aims to convey, and leads no better life, he might just as well have read the Koran or a poetic drama’, he wrote. On the other hand, a man who lives a virtuous life may be ignorant of the Scriptures, but is nevertheless ‘absolutely blessed and has within him the spirit of Christ.’

By 1675 Spinoza had finished his masterpiece, Ethics Demonstrated According to the Geometrical Order. Warned by his friends not to publish it as he risked being prosecuted as an atheist, it was not published until after his death in 1667 of phthisis. Spinoza opens the Ethics with a discussion of metaphysics, moves on to explore human psychology, and concludes in the last two sections of the book with an ethics of human freedom derived from the metaphysics and the psychology. Spinoza models his argument on that of Euclid’s geometry. Each of the five parts of the book begins with a set of definitions and axioms and proceeds to offer formal proofs of numbered propositions. The geometrical method bears little scrutiny. But the philosophical arguments, stripped of the Euclidean pretensions, were to be immensely influential.

Spinoza was deeply influenced by Descartes’ ideas of the mechanical universe. In 1663 he published his Principia philosophiae cartesianae (‘Principles of Cartesian Philosophy’), a geometrical exposition of Descartes’ Discourse. Spinoza’s views of the cosmos and of human nature were, however, very different to those of Descartes, largely because, like Hobbes, he took Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy much further than Descartes himself was willing to. For Descartes there were two fundamental kinds of substance, mental and material. Spinoza insisted on but one reality and one set of rules governing the whole of that reality, of which humans were an intimate part. There existed only a single substance, which Spinoza called Deus sive Natura - ‘God or Nature’ – a substance that possessed the attributes both of thought and of space. God and Nature were two names for the same reality. The universe was a single web in which the whole determined every part. Mind and body do not, as in the Cartesian universe, belong to separate realms; they are inseparable from each other and from the rest of reality.

Having established the character of reality, mind and matter, Spinoza then moves in the third book of the Ethics to a discussion of human passions. Like Hobbes, he begins with an egoist’s view of human nature. The aim of human life is self-preservation. Human beings, like all other beings, are driven to stay alive and to repel anything that might injure or destroy them. The consciousness of this drive we call desire. When the drive for self-preservation operates freely we feel pleasure; when it is impeded we feel pain. Our judgements of good and evil, and our moral actions, are determined by our desires and aversions.

Passions can be passive or active. Passive emotions, like fear, jealousy and anger, are generated by external forces. They trap those who have no rational understanding of their emotions and their causes, tossing unenlightened individuals like rudderless ships upon the ocean of their desires. Emotions of which an individual has a rational understanding, Spinoza calls ‘active’. Like Socrates, Spinoza sees good and evil in terms of knowledge and ignorance. Knowledge is liberating because the more we know about ourselves and about the human condition, the more we are able to recognize that we love or hate or find joy or feel pain as the result not of free choice but of chance and history and accidental association and past conditioning. And once we realise that, we can stop blaming others for their actions for these are absolutely determined. We can also stop blaming ourselves, for our actions, too, are equally determined. Hate, envy and guilt vanish. There is in Spinoza’s argument a clear echo of the Stoics. To take a God’s eye view of human life, to see ourselves and others as part of a natural system of necessity is, for Spinoza, to set ourselves free. Self-knowledge liberates, replacing passive emotions with active ones. Knowledge, and in particular self-knowledge, is the foundation both of virtue and of happiness.

Moral liberation and human freedom depend, paradoxically, then, on accepting the necessity of all things, on acknowledging that things cannot be otherwise. But there is another paradox here. Spinoza insists that the world, and the actions of individuals, cannot be otherwise and that freedom comes from accepting the system of necessity. But in accepting that the world cannot be otherwise, we are demonstrating that it can. Spinoza believes that we have a choice: either we accept that the world cannot be otherwise and in so doing achieve freedom and demonstrate virtue, or we continue to rage against necessity, thereby becoming trapped in our impotence, and prey to destructive passions such as anger, hatred and jealousy. The choice we have is to accept that we have no choice. But in accepting that we have no choice, we demonstrate that we do.

This is a paradox at the heart, not just of Spinoza’s work, but of all ethical theories, from Stoicism to many contemporary naturalistic theories, that deny free will but accept the possibility of moral transformation. Such theories are faced with the other side of Descartes’ dilemma. In separating mind and matter, Descartes found himself unable to explain how mind influenced body, or indeed how one could rationally explain the mind and its products. Spinoza insisted on a naturalistic understanding of the human condition, including of mind, thoughts, desires and emotions, but could not explain how humans could choose to transform themselves. And yet in that paradox lies also the significance of Spinoza’s theory. Just as the two irreconcilable sides of Descartes’ argument – a mechanistic view of the universe and an almost mystical view of the human agent – have both come to inform the way we think of the world and our place in it, so too have the two irreconcilable sides of Spinoza’s theory, the naturalistic view of the human condition and the insistence on the importance of freedom and of self-transformation.

The importance of Spinoza lies not in his claim that things cannot be otherwise but in his belief that the human condition can be rationally understood and that out of this understanding emerges the tools with which we can transform ourselves. Spinoza agreed with Hobbes in his acceptance of a mechanical universe, in his dismissal of Cartesian dualism, in his naturalistic understanding of the human condition, in his scepticism of religion – but not in his vision of human nature. More than any other moral philosopher before him, more even than Aristotle and Plato, Spinoza saw human nature as malleable, and emotions and desires not as given but as transformable. And the most significant transformation, for Spinoza, was from being a slave to one’s passions to being an agent of one’s change. The development of human powers becomes the end of moral and political life. This vision of human transformation not only distinguished Spinoza from Hobbes but also made him the patron saint – if anyone so Godless could be described as a patron saint – of the radical wing of the intellectual storm that was to sweep through eighteenth century Europe: the Enlightenment.


‘Here I stand. I can do no other’. Martin Luther’s famous response to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, defending his right to challenge the authority of Pope on the basis of his personal convictions sounds to a modern reader as a ringing endorsement of personal conscience, individual freedom and free will. Whether Luther actually spoke those words remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that it was never his intention to defend freedom of will. Luther dismissed as blasphemy the very concept. ‘Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin’, as he put in his Heidelberg Disputation, a famous debate within the Augustinian Order. Indeed he barely believed in any kind of freedom. When Luther insisted that ‘I can do no other’, he was defending not his freedom of will but his lack of freedom to believe and to act. He could do no other because he was compelled to do as he had.

Luther was the Petrarch of the Reformation, its Pico and its Erasmus too, its founding father, its voice and its soul. The Reformation, that great schism in sixteenth century Western Christendom out of which Protestantism emerged, was as historically transformative as the Renaissance. It is usually seen as the great leap forward, not just in Christianity but also in modernity.  ‘Why can’t Islam have its own Reformation?’, is a common question asked by those who wish to suggest how backward is Islam compared to Christianity. The Reformation was, however, a deeply contradictory movement, or set of movements. It was as reactionary as it was revolutionary, as constraining as it was liberating. Luther’s view of human nature and of human freedom was as earth to the fire of Pico and Erasmus. And yet the Reformation he launched helped create a society in which Renaissance values could bear fruit.

Luther was born in1483 in Eisleben in the Holy Roman Empire, in what is today eastern Germany.  His father, a miner and smelter, had hoped better for his children and provided them with an education. Martin had been training for the law when, according to his own account, he was, on a summer’s day in 1505, caught in a horrific thunderstorm.  Afraid that he was going to die, he screamed out a vow, ‘Save me, St. Anna, and I shall become a monk’. St. Anna was the mother of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of miners. He survived the storm and kept his vow. Within two weeks Luther had entered the Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt.

Luther’s thunderstorm story is in keeping with the Christian tradition of theatrical conversions to a life of faith such as that of Paul and of Augustine. As with Paul and Augustine, the drama of a sudden religious transformation provided a means of making sense of a longstanding personal trauma, a personal trauma that came also to have historical resonance because the psychological agony of the individual came also to mirror a deep-rooted social distress. In the monastic life Luther discovered the stability and assurance that seemed lacking outside. Salvation, he came to believe, was not something that humans could strive for, but was simply a gift of God. The most important Christian truth was, for Luther, the doctrine of justification – God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God’s grace. Traditional Christian teaching held that the righteous acts of believers are performed in cooperation with God. Luther insisted that righteousness came not from within at all but entirely from God. ‘Faith alone’, he wrote, ‘makes someone just and fulfills the law’.

The story that almost everyone knows about Martin Luther is of his nailing of the famous Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. This was a public challenge to the Pope, and to the Church, from which there could be no going back, the moment at which the division of Western Christendom became inevitable, and the Reformation was launched. At the heart of the Theses was a stinging criticism of the practice of granting indulgences, remission of temporal punishment for sins granted after the sinner had performed good work which increasingly included a payment to the Church. It was through such payment that the Church financed many of its great building projects in the Renaissance. In 1516, the Pope dispatched to Germany a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, to sell indulgences to raise money to help rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Luther was outraged. He wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting at what he saw as the purchase of salvation. Enclosed with his letter was a document entitled Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, which we now know as The Ninety-Five Theses. ‘Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?’, he asked in one of the theses.

In 1520, Pope Leo X issued a rebuttal entitled Exsurge Domine that demanded that Luther retract 41 errors. Luther refused and in 1521 he was excommunicated. Luther publicly burnt the bull of excommunication in Wittenberg, cheered on by a large crowd of townsfolk to whom he had become a hero. In April of that year, Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire, in the Rhineland town of Worms, over which Emperor Charles V presided. Again Luther refused to recant. The Diet declared Luther an outlaw, banning his literature, requiring his arrest and making it a crime for anyone to give him food or shelter.  The verdict was unpopular with German princes, many of whom sympathized with Luther. Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, arranged for Luther to be given safety in Wartburg Catsle, where he began his great German translation of the Bible.

* * * *

‘I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’ So declared Luther at the Diet of Worms. This was a challenge not just to the Pope and to the Holy Roman Emperor, but also to Aristotle and Aquinas. Aquinas had seen reason as a spark illuminating the path to God.  Not so, insisted Luther. Reason may be used to question human activities and institutions, but not to light up the divine. Humans could learn about God, Luther maintained, only through revelation.

This idea of two realities, the reality of God, given by revelation and the reality of the empirical world, given by direct experience, had already been expounded by William Ockham, a British Franciscan friar born shortly after Aquinas’ death. For Ockham, all human knowledge came through our senses. Reason could be applied only to such sensory knowledge, that is to the understanding of concrete particulars.  Ockham was a nominalist. Nothing, he insisted, existed except as individual entities; universals were human creations that subsisted only as mental concepts and possessed no reality outside of human language and mind.  The human mind possessed no divine light, as Aquinas had taught, by which the intellect could move beyond the senses to make sense of universals. Anything beyond the senses, such as the existence of God, could be revealed only by faith. This was true not just of  God’s existence but of His laws too.  The moral rules by which God wished us to live could not be understood by reason. They, too, had to be taken on faith.

Luther linked Ockham’s argument about the two realities, and the need to accept moral codes on faith, to a view of human nature darker even than Augustine’s. Humans were degenerate to the last fibre of being. Neither desire nor reason could be trusted to lead humans to moral safety, for both had been corrupted in the Fall. Were they not, Luther thundered, then Jesus would have died without cause:

If we believe that Christ redeemed men by his blood, we are forced to confess that all of man in lost; otherwise we make Christ either wholly superfluous or else the redeemer of the least valuable part of man only; which is blasphemy and sacrilege.

The only true moral rules are divine injunctions, such as the Ten Commandments.  These had to be accepted on faith and unquestioningly followed. They could be justified on the basis neither of reason nor of desire.  Any attempt to do so would lead to moral disintegration. It was an argument similar to that of the Islamic Traditionalists in their struggle with the Rationalists. There could be no rational accounting of God’s word. Human reason was too weak to comprehend God’s plan. But Luther being a Christian added a Christian twist to the argument. Human reason cannot understand God’s commands because it has become enslaved by sin. We can only follow God’s law by acting against reason. Nor could following God’s moral rules ever satisfy our desires, for our desires, too, have been corrupted with the rest of human nature. There always exists, therefore, an antagonism between what humans want and what God commands humans to do. Strict adherence to God’s law is, nevertheless, insufficient to ensure salvation. Luther is clear that nothing humans do can ensure salvation. Salvation is not a state to be achieved; it is a state to be received through God’s grace. God’s law allows human communities to survive by limiting moral chaos and the consequences of sinfulness. It does not make humans moral. It simply constrains their capacity for immorality. All humans can do is close their eyes, shut out reason and desire, accept God’s word on faith and hope for the best in the next world.

Do the gods love the good because it is good, Socrates had wondered in Plato’s Euthyphro, or is it good because it loved by the gods? Unless the gods love something for no good reason, then they must love something as pious because it inherently possesses value. But if it inherently possesses value, then it does so independently of the gods.  Luther’s answer, like that of Muslim Tradionalists, was unambiguous. There was no rhyme or reason to God’s law. Humans had to accept God’s idea of the good simply because God tells us it is good not because they could justify it through reason or through any external measure. Morality was indeed arbitrary. That was the whole point of it.

* * * *

The Reformation was an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity, a reaction that found its voice in the terrifying, transcendent God of the Old Testament, the God that had thundered at Moses ‘Draw not nigh hither’. Aquinas believed that all humans participated in God’s nature and that all possessed a certain God-given autonomy of will. The reformers insisted on the absolute sovereignty of God over His creation and saw the human race as a ‘teeming horde of infamies’, as Calvin put it, whose innate sinfulness degraded any autonomy except for the autonomy to be wicked.

And yet, despite the Reformation’s mordantly reactionary soul, its rebellion against the Catholic Church was also the source of a radically libertarian revolution, the harbinger of a liberal modernity.  The paradox of the Reformation is that a movement that deprecated autonomy and will, insisted on the unlimited sovereignty of God and sought solace in unquestioning faith also helped create a world that came to celebrate individualism, foster agency, and take secularism to be the social norm.

Luther insisted on the ‘priesthood of all believers’.  Religious authority was torn away from any external institution and rested solely in the individual believer, each interpreting the Bible according to his own private conscience, each fostering his own personal relationship to God.  For all his dismissal of free will, Luther’s rebellion was an assertion of individual conscience against the monolithic authority of the institutional Church. The Reformation, as historian Richard Tarnas has observed, ‘marked the standing forth of the individual in two senses – alone outside the Church and alone directly before God.’

It was, of course, not just Luther who could hear the inner voice. The individual, and his conscience, was looming large throughout sixteenth and seventeenth century culture, fostered by the Renaissance celebration of the dignity of Man. The entanglement of the Reformation and the Renaissance limited the Augustinian bleakness of the Lutheran vision. Protestantism flourished in many forms, and many Protestants had a view of human nature less dark than Luther’s.  At the same time, the social changes engendered by the Reformation eased the way for the more optimistic Renaissance vision.

The biggest social change came out of a second paradox at the heart the Reformation. A movement that sought to restore faith to the centre of life helped ironically to engineer the modern secular world. For Luther, nothing that humans did on Earth was relevant to what happened to them in the next world. Neither good works, nor moral acts nor yet penitence provided the key to salvation. Faith and grace was all that mattered. So what sort of laws should guide human conduct in this world? Since there was no point in designing rules of conduct to get humans into the next world, so such rules could simply reflect the needs of this. Hence the Reformation created the possibility of a secular space defined by laws that defended political rather than divine order.

It was an argument that clearly appealed to monarchs and princes, as well as self-confident cities such as Nuremburg and Zurich, chafing at the constraints imposed by Papal power.  By the thirteenth century, the Church had achieved an unprecedented level of political authority in Western Europe. This power was institutionalised, and given theological justification, by Pope Innocent III in his decree Sicut universitatis conditor issued in 1198. ‘Just as the moon derives her light from the sun, and is inferior to the sun in terms of its size and quality’, the decree proclaimed, ‘so the power of the king derives from the authority of the pope.’  Few kings saw themselves as moons to the Pope’s sun, particularly so as the Church had long since ceased to be very sun-like. It was riddled with corruption, shot through with sleaze, and had become a machine for minting money and grasping power.

In 1492, Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family, managed to bribe his way to the Papacy, despite having several mistresses and at least seven known illegitimate children. It was only the most shocking instance of the immorality that defined the Church. Forty years earlier, Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy had managed to get his son appointed as the bishop of Geneva. He was eight years old. If the higher clergy was lacking any sense of moral virtue, the lower clergy was often illiterate, uncouth and ignorant.  Little wonder that huge resentments had built up against Papal power. The so-called ‘magisterial Protestantism’, the Protestant rebellion led by the elite, swept through much of northern and central Europe, from the Swiss cantons, and the German speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, to Bohemia, Poland and the Baltic states to the east and through the Netherlands to England and Scotland to the north.

As the new faith spread, it diversified and new forms of Protestantism emerged. On mainland Europe Lutheranism was joined by the Reformed Church, rooted partly in the ideas of the Zurich priest Huldrych Zwingli, and Calvinism, which grew out of John Calvin’s teaching in Geneva and soon became the dominant Protestant movement on the continent. There were smaller movements, too, such as the Huguenots in France and the followers of Jan Hus in Bohemia. In England, a highly distinctive form of Protestantism, Anglicanism, evolved that spoke to local political and social needs and that maintained many of the traditions and practices of the Catholic Church. England’s imperial expansion over the next few centuries would eventually make this highly local version of Protestantism one of the most influential.

Magisterial Protestantism wrenched power away from the Pope to carve out a space for secular rule. It did not, however, abandon the idea of God as the ultimate source of political authority. Rather, God was now called upon to authorise the rule not of his religious but of his secular representatives on earth. Monarchs claimed absolute sovereignty by virtue of the ‘divine right of kings’ to rule. It was righteous, Aquinas had suggested, to depose an unjust king. Not so, argued the new Protestant monarchs who insisted that they were not subject to the will of the people, or of any other Estate of the realm; only God could judge the king. Attempts to unseat the king or to restrict his powers ran contrary to the will of God and hence were sacrilegious. The doctrine of the divine right of kings had older roots in theology, but it was through the Reformation that it acquired new resonance. English kings, such as James I and most notoriously Charles I, invoked it to dismiss attempts by both nobles and commoners to gain more power. Catholic kings, too, such as Louis XIV of France, rested their authority upon the doctrine.

There was another paradox too.  Luther had insisted that actions in this world had no bearing on one’s reception in the next; hence the possibility of creating a secular space. In practice, however, the spread of Luther’s message led not to the greater separation of church and state but to their greater fusion. As kings and princes cleaved to the Reformation as a means of gaining power, so the institutions of faith and the institutions by which they enforced their rule became barely distinguishable. In England, for instance, Anglicanism became the ‘Established’ church, and the sovereign the ‘defender of the faith’, but only of the faith as defined by Anglicanism. A similar process could seen in many of the new Protestant states. A movement that began by asserting the right of every individual to interpret the Bible as they wished soon realized that this would lead to religious and social anarchy. Each of the various strand of the new faith established its own institutions to enforce its particular doctrines and rituals and to eliminate heresy, often on the pain of death. And a movement that had begun by challenging the corruption of the Catholic Church through its acquisition of secular power, and had insisted on the distinction between divine law and worldly law, soon fused church and state as a means of defending the power of both, the church sheltering in the bosom of princely power, the state gaining legitimacy through the warrant of God.

Magisterial Protestantism was not the only form of Reformation challenge to the existing order. There were more revolutionary versions of the Protestant rebellion, too. Inspired by ideas of individual conscience and secularism, many sought to challenge the power not just of Popes but of monarchs too. Perhaps the most important of these were the Anabaptists, so called because a literal reading of the Bible led them to insist that no divine warrant existed for the practice of infant baptism and that all adults had to be re-baptised.

The differences with magisterial Protestantism were far greater than such seemingly trivial doctrinal distinctions. The Anabaptists saw the social order as corrupt as Luther had seen human nature.  Most Christians viewed the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine as a watershed in the history of the church; it was the moment Christianity had come in from the margins and had became a social force. The Anabaptists also saw Constantine’s conversion as a watershed but for very different reasons. It was the instant that Christianity had compromised its integrity through an accommodation with imperial power. To cleanse themselves of that compromise, Christians would have to disengage themselves from the social order. Anabaptists refused to swear oaths to a secular authority, opposed the death penalty, decried wars, and condemned private property as unchristian.

The Anabaptists built up a strong following in German-speaking lands and in the Low Countries, even taking control of the town of Munster in 1534. Similar movements flourished in other countries. In England, for instance, there were the Levellers and the Diggers.  The Levellers were a political movement during the English Civil Wars that emphasized popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. They held to a notion of ‘natural rights’ that they believed were expressed in God’s law and considered liberty to be the innate property of every individual. Their demands were expressed in a series of manifestos called An Agreement of the People, published between 1647 and 1649, that were at the heart of the famous Putney Debates.

The Diggers were a group of agrarian communists led by Gerrard Winstanley who took his cue from the Book of Acts: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’ ‘In the beginning of time God made the earth’, Winstanley argued in his pamphlet The New Law of Righteousness. ‘Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another.’

The emergence of such movements was deeply unsettling to the Protestant elite. Luther was as conservative in his politics as he was in his faith. He supported the ruthless suppression of the revolutionary movements.  In 1524 the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular revolt in German speaking lands against oppressive taxes and land laws. Some 300,000 peasants took part, demanding the end to serfdom, the abolition of cattle tithes and death taxes, and the right to use ‘common fields, forests and waters’. The uprising was brutally put down by the ruling classes, some 100,000 peasants losing the lives in the slaughter.

The peasants had used the Bible to support their grievances, and in turn, to justify their rebellion. Poorer clergy, led by Thomas Muntzer, supported the peasants’ demands and encouraged their revolt.  But the leaders of the magisterial Reformation, Luther and Calvin in particular, took up arms against the peasants. In 1525 Luther published his essay Against the Murdering Thieving Hordes of Peasants, berating the rebels for the use of violence but defending the right of princes to use force to suppress the revolt because the peasants had ‘become faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish’. ‘Anyone who is killed fighting on the side of the rulers’, Luther insisted, ‘may be a true martyr in the eyes of God’.

In time, Protestant ideas of ‘justification by faith’, of individual conscience and the ‘priesthood of believers’, and of the separation of secular work and divine salvation, all helped feed the radical democratic spirit. But fusion of the reactionary soul and the revolutionary spirit that drove the Luther’s rebellion ensured that modern liberal democratic societies developed as much in spite of the Reformation as because of it.


Through me the way into the city of woe:
Through me the way into eternal pain:
Through me the way among the lost.
Justice moved my maker on high
Divine power made me,
Wisdom supreme, and primeval Love.
Before me nothing was but things eternal
And eternal I endure.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

So is inscribed the archway above the gates of Hell, in Dante’s Inferno. And through those gates walk Dante and his guide Virgil:

Now sighs, loud wailing, lamentation
Resounded through the starless air,
So that I too began to weep.
Unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents,
Words of suffering, cries of rage, voices
Loud and faint, the sound of slapping hands –
All these made a tumult, always whirling
In that black and timeless air,
As sand is swirled in a whirlwind.
And I, my head encircled by error, said:
‘Master, what is this I hear, and what people
Are these so overcome by pain?’

The Inferno is the first part, or canticle, of the Divine Comedy, Dante’s great triptych of journeys through the next world that takes the poet down to the depths of Hell, where he comes face to face with Lucifer, and then up through the mountains of Purgatory, before finally realizing ultimate happiness through union with God in Paradise.

The Divine Comedy was to Western Christendom as the Iliad was to Ancient Greece. Its imaginative recreation of both the physical and the moral universe, and of the interlacing of the two, infused medieval culture and allowed Europeans to understand both their place in the physical architecture of cosmos and their duties in the moral architecture of Christian society.

Born in Florence in 1265, Dante was more than simply a poet, albeit the greatest of his age. He had a thorough grounding in latest philosophical and scientific theories, was familiar with Arab translations of Aristotle and Ptolemy and possessed a deep appreciation of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. He was also deeply involved in the turbulent politics of his native city. In 1300 Dante became one of the six Priors of Florence, who helped govern the city, a highly coveted post, and the most prestigious within the Florentine Republic. Dante was a member of the Guelph party, supporters of the papacy, who had dominated Florentine politics since 1266 when their rivals the Ghibelines, the imperial party, had been expelled from the city.  But the Guelphs had split into two factions, the Whites, who looked to limit Papal interference in the city’s affairs, and the Blacks, who sought closer political identity with Papal power. Standing firm on behalf of the city’s ancient liberties, Dante was a White, and came into conflict with Pope Boniface.  In 1301, a coup d’etat, engineered with the Pope’s assistance, put the Blacks in power. All the leaders of the Whites who had not been killed were banished from Florence, among them Dante. He never again set foot in his beloved city of birth.

Dante’s poetry was cut through with both his philosophical learning and his political leanings, and no work more so than his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. The structure of the Comedy seamlessly blends the physical and the ethical, as two aspects of the divine order.  At the centre of Dante’s universe, both physical and moral, lies the immobile Earth. Around the Earth revolve nine concentric celestial spheres, five carrying the planets then known, two others the sun and the moon. The eighth sphere is that of the fixed stars, the ninth an invisible crystalline heaven, the Primum Mobile. The tenth, all-embracing sphere, the Empyrean, is the seat of God and, unlike the other nine, is at perfect rest. The architecture of Dante’s cosmos was drawn sphere for sphere from the work of Ptolemy, the Hellenistic Egyptian astronomer whose treatise Almagest on the structure of the universe was the most influential scientific work before modern times, dominating the Hellenistic, Islamic, Byzantine and medieval Chrsitian understanding of the cosmos. It had recently been rediscovered in Western Europe through a Muslim translation and both Dante and Aquinas moulded it into the Christian story.

If Dante finds in Ptolemy the structure of his cosmos, the geography of the Earth and of Hell he borrows from Greek mythology, Christian doctrine and medieval prejudice. In the Comedy, only half the earth, the northern hemisphere, is inhabited. The limits of the civilised world are the Ganges to the east and the Pillars of Hercules to the west. At the centre of civilization, not just metaphorically but physically, too, lies Jerusalem.  Beneath the ground, like a funnel narrowing down towards the centre of the Earth, lies Hell; in its deepest part, sits Satan, enchained.

When Satan fell from Heaven he bored deep into the Earth, pushing aside an enormous portion of the interior and driving it upward, creating the great mountain of Purgatory, the abode of souls headed for Paradise but still in need of purification. On the summit of the mountain, the point where the Earth comes closest to the lowest celestial sphere, lies the Earthly Paradise, where Adam and Eve lived before the Fall. Above lies true Paradise in the celestial spheres.

The physical structure of Dante’s universe reflects the moral structure of human activity. The geography of Hell mirrors that of the Heavens. It consists of nine concentric circles, each representing a gradual increase in wickedness. In each circle sinners are punished in a fashion fitting their crimes. Fortune-tellers, for instance, have their heads turned backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because in life they tried, through forbidden means, to look ahead to the future. It is, in Dante’s eyes, a form of contrapasso or poetic justice.

The first circle is Limbo, home to the unbaptized and to virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. This is home for Virgil himself, as it is for Aristotle, Socrates, Homer, Horace and Cicero. Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (or Averroes and Avicenna as Dante knew them) are here, too. It is a measure of the awe with which Christians viewed them that Muslim philosophers – though not Muhammad himself -  should be consigned to Limbo rather than to Hell.

In the second circle are those overcome by lust, in the third gluttons, in the fourth those with too great a love for material goods – the avaricious, the miserly and the greedy – and in the fifth those who were conquered by wrath. In these circles, the upper reaches of Hell, are sinners whose appetites have overwhelmed their reason. They have sinned through weakness of character rather than desiring to do evil. In the lower depths of Hell lies true wickedness.

The true horror of Hell is enclosed by the walls of the city of Dis and guarded by fallen angels and the Furies. Within these walls are those whose lives were marked by active sin: heretics, murderers, suicides, blasphemers, usurpers, sodomites, hypocrites, thieves and traitors. They have sinned not through an inability to control their passions but through an active desire to do malice. Among them are Muhammad and Ali in the eighth circle, condemned for sowing discord and creating schisms, and Judas Iscariot in the last circle of Hell, to be tortured for eternity with the greatest sinners of all – traitors. Judas, the soul that suffers ‘the worst punishment’, is in fact stuck between Satan’s teeth, ‘With his head inside and kicking his legs’, being chewed upon for eternity.  For medieval Christians, unlike in today’s world, Jews were far more wicked than Muslims.

Satan is at the very centre of Hell, a giant, terrifying beast with three faces, a parody of the divine Trinity, weeping tears from his six eyes – ‘down three chins / Dripped tears and dribble, mixed with blood’. He stands waist deep in ice, forever beating his six giant wings as if trying to escape. And ‘In each mouth he was chewing with his teeth / A sinner’. Suffering the torment with Judas, were Brutus and Cassius, punished for their assassination of Julius Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire that Dante viewed as an essential part of God’s plan for human happiness.

Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil then ascend through the gloom to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world. The Mountain is an island, the only land in the Southern Hemisphere. Souls arrive here escorted by an angel, singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto (‘when Israel left Egypt’, the opening line of Psalm 113).

Just as there are nine circles down to the depths of Hell, so there are seven terraces cut into the mountain of Purgatory, together with an ante-Purgatory at the foot and the Garden of Eden at the summit. In each terrace are found sinners who have committed one of the seven deadly sins – pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust. It might seem odd that those in Purgatory were characterized by sin as much as those confined to Hell. For Dante, however, sinfulness was not as black and white an issue as it might have seemed to previous generations of Christians. In Hell sin was defined in terms of the sinner’s actions, in Purgatory in terms of his or her motives. ‘Hell is concerned with the fruits, but Purgatory with the roots, of sin’, as Dorothy Sayers has put it.

Taking his cue from Aquinas, Dante argues that all sin arises from love perverted – love that is directed towards others’ harm, or love that is disordered, or love that is excessive, or love that is deficient. There are, Dante suggests, two kinds of love, natural and rational:

Natural love is always without error,
But the other kind may err, in the wrong object,
Or else through too much or too little vigour.

And when love is ‘twisted to evil, or seeks the good, / With more or with less concern than it ought to have’ then ‘The creature is working against the creator.’

At the summit of Mount Purgatory lies the Garden of Eden. As Dante has journeyed up the mountain, so he has attempted to recapture the state of innocence that existed within humanity before Adam and Eve’s Fall, and it is here in the Garden the he discovers that state of grace. Here also Dante meets Beatrice, the great love of his life, and his muse, to whom he had dedicated his autobiographic La Vita Nuova, his first great work of poetry, and who had died in 1290 almost 20 years before Dante began work on the Comedy. ‘Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me’, Dante had written in La Vita Nuova of their first meeting. And here in the Garden of Eden she indeed becomes ‘a deity stronger than’ Dante, the soul who guides the poet through Heaven, into which Virgil, as a pagan, cannot step.

Beatrice guides Dante through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven, to the Empyrean, the abode of God. Each sphere is home to a particular order of angels, and the closer the sphere to God, the purer the angel. While the circles of Hell and the terraces of Purgatory had been structured by sin, the spheres of Paradise are defined by virtue – the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. In the first three spheres, those of the Moon, Mercury and Venus, spheres that fall within the shadow of the Earth, are souls that have not sinned but have shown deficient forms of three of the cardinal virtues – courage, justice and temperance. Just as sinfulness is not black and white in Dante’s world, neither is virtuousness.

In the next four spheres are souls who are closer to God having won entry to the heavens by living according the one of the four cardinal virtues. In the eighth sphere we find souls who exemplify faith, hope and charity. From the ninth, and final, sphere of the physical universe, the Primum Mobile, a sphere moved directly by God, and home to angels, Dante ascends to a region beyond physical existence, the Empyrean. Beatrice is transformed to a figure more beautiful than ever before so that ‘only her maker could enjoy it perfectly’. Dante himself becomes enveloped in light that

         …left me wrapt in such a veil of glory
That nothing was visible to me.

The light helped ‘make the candle ready for the flame’, rendering Dante fit to see God, who now appears in the form of three inextricably but ineffably linked circles

Of three colours and equal dimensions

And the first seemed to be reflected by the second,
As a rainbow by a rainbow, and the third
Seemed flame breathed equally by both.

And with this poetic vision of the Trinity, neither the rational nor the poetic understanding of which was ‘a flight for my wings’, Dante ends his journey and the Comedy.

The Divine Comedy is perhaps the most important work of Christian imagination (arguably more so than Milton’s Paradise Lost), a brilliantly poetic allegorical telling of Christian doctrine, a way of rendering in the effable language of this world the ineffable and inexplicable myths of the Christian story from Satan to Eden to the angels to the Trinity. It is, however, far, far more than that. Dante was not merely a poet of the religious imagination, nor even simply the greatest Christian poet. He was also, as the German critic Erich Auerbach put it in the title of a famous study, a ‘poet of the secular world’. And  The Divine Comedy, despite its focus on the eternal and immutable features of the other world, is at heart a very human exploration of this world.

The Divine Comedy, Auerbach observed, was very different from previous explorations of heaven and hell. In these earlier visions, the dead were either immersed ‘in the semi-existence of the realm of shades, in which the individual personality is destroyed or enfeebled’ or else the good and the saved were separated from the wicked and damned ‘with a crude moralism which resolutely sets at naught all earthly relations of rank. In Dante’s other world, on the other hand, the souls retain their this-worldly forms and thoughts and desires and sins and virtues. ‘Their situation in the hereafter’, as Auerbach puts it,  ‘is merely a continuation, intensification, and definitive fixation of their situation on earth, and that what is most particular and personal in their character and fate is fully preserved.’ The human takes centre stage in The Divine Comedy, in way that had not happened previously in Christian thought.  In this, Dante looks forward to the poets and artists of the Renaissance and beyond, to Michelangelo’s David and Adam, to Botticelli’s Venus, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Falstaff.

At the heart of the Comedy is a tension between the concept of fate and the moral agency of the individual, a tension that had existed from the time of Homer onwards, but which in Dante has become like a violin string made taut almost to breaking point.  The Comedy is a beautifully crafted study of the inextricable bond between the physical and the moral worlds, between the structure of the cosmos as uncovered by Ptolemy and the moral landscape as mapped by both Christian and Ancient thinkers. It was through that relationship that a medieval Christian, immersed in both Augustine and Aristotle, steeped in both Ptolemy and Paul, understood the meaning of fate.

The Comedy, however, is also an exploration of the nature of the human individual and of his or her moral agency. Human action, Dante insists, is not predetermined but is freely chosen. In Purgatory, Dante enters into a discussion about sin, virtue and free will with a figure called Marco who observes that

You who are living attribute all causes
To the stars above, as if everything there is
Had of necessity to move with them
If it were so, that would mean the destruction of
Of your free will, and it would not be just,
For good to be rewarded, and sinners punished.

Without free will, in other words, there could be no moral judgment. And ‘if the present world is going off course’, as Dante believes, then, Marco insists, ‘The reason is in you and should be sought there.’ In fact, for Dante, the real issue was not the moral failure of ordinary people but the moral corruption of ruling institutions. As Marco puts it

You can easily see that bad government
Is the cause that has made the world wicked,
And not your nature, corrupted though it may be.

And most corrupt institution of all was the Church:

Rome, which was the maker of the good world,
Used to have two suns, by which could be seen
Both the road of the world and the road to God.

One has put out the other; and the sword is combined
With the pastoral crook; the two held together,
It must of necessity be that things go badly…

…the Church of Rome
By confounding two powers within itself,
Falls in the muck and dirties itself and its load.

The Church had debased itself and sullied the moral landscape by confusing its secular and religious roles, by fusing the vengeful sword and the pastoral crook. Dante’s was an astonishing attack on the Papacy, though explicable given the political turmoil in Florence and his exile from the city.  It was also a very different understanding of good and evil from the Augustinian view that had shaped Christian attitudes for a millennium. Augustine saw humans as indelibly depraved whose only salvation lay in God’s grace and obedience to God’s representatives on Earth, the Church of Rome. For Dante, the Church was irretrievably corrupt and salvation could only come only through individuals taking action to root out that corruption and cut down the power of the Church.  Dante unquestioningly accepted, of course, the doctrine of Original Sin. Yet he was able to arrange the pieces of the Christian story and of Greek philosophy in such a way that Adam’s sin became almost irrelevant to his understanding of moral corruption. Sin and virtue are no longer simple and monochrome, and corruption is not just, or even primarily, of the human soul as a result of Adam’s sin but also of human institutions because of the failure to wield in separate hands the sword and the crook (‘…bad government / Is the cause that has made the world wicked, /And not your nature, corrupted though it may be’).

Dante was a poet, not a moral philosopher, nor yet a theologian. Yet in his poetic imagination he found a language through which to glimpse – and through which others could glimpse – the new moral landscape that Aquinas had begun to sketch through his rethinking of the relationship between faith and reason, and that would soon transform ideas in Western Europe about both human nature and ethical conduct. Dante, perhaps even more than Aquinas, did not just occupy the high point of medieval scholarship but was bursting out to worlds anew.


The expansion of the Islamic empire from India to Iberia created new political tensions and theological dilemmas. It also created new kinds of administrative problems, the most pressing being the practical question of how to collect taxes, keep accounts and maintain records of state in an empire consisting of dozens of languages, forms of law and administrative styles.  In the early eighth century Caliphs decided that Arabic should be the common language of empire, and the one in which public records and accounts were to be kept.  So there began what came to be called the translation movement – a huge project sponsored by caliphs, local governors and rich philanthropists to translate local records into Arabic.  Soon the translation movement spread its wings. The new empire had within its borders a treasure house of philosophical, scientific and religious texts, mainly Greek and Persian. Translators began first with those works that helped meet the pragmatic needs of the new rulers – works on subjects such as medicine, natural history, astronomy and astrology. Over time, intellectual horizons broadened further still. Translators moved from works of practical learning to more speculative philosophy. The Arab world discovered Plato and Aristotle.

The acquisition by Arabs of the philosophical jewels of the Greek and Persian worlds helped transform the intellectual culture of the new empire. In the mid-eighth century the Caliph al-Mansur built the new city of Baghdad to be his imperial capital.  And here his great grandson, the Caliph Al-Ma’mun, created the ‘House of Wisdom’, a celebrated library and centre for scholarship that helped turn Baghdad into the world’s greatest intellectual centre of its time, the Athens of its age.

As Christian Europe endured the so called ‘Dark Ages’ between the extinguishing of the final sparks of Hellenism in the fifth century and the re-ignition of cultural life in the Renaissance almost a millennium later, an intellectual tradition flowered in the Islamic world as lustrous as that of Ancient Athens before or Renaissance Florence after. Centred first in Baghdad and then in Cordoba, in Muslim Iberia, Arab philosophy and science played a critical role not just preserving the gains of the Greeks but in genuinely expanding the boundaries of knowledge. It also laid the foundations for the European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Neither happened in the Muslim world. But without the Muslim world, neither may have happened.

By the second half of the tenth century, the translation movement had come to an end largely because all the great works had already been translated and studied.  By now a new movement had begun – that of original Arabic scholarship. Over the next three centuries there was in the Muslim world a remarkable flourishing of science and learning. Arab scholars revolutionized astronomy, invented algebra, helped develop the modern decimal number system (a rudimentary version of which they had discovered in India), established the basis of optics, and set the ground rules of cryptography.

The translation into Arabic of Aristotle, Plato and other Greek philosophers not only transformed Islamic intellectual culture and theological debate, it also created a fissure that was to run throughout Islamic intellectual history. On the one side of that fissure stood the Rationalists, dedicated to the ideal of falsafah, by which they meant not simply the discipline of philosophy, but also a way of living rationally in accordance with the laws of the cosmos. The faylasufs saw learning as an ethical duty, in much the same way as Enlightenment philosophes (who were deeply indebted to Muslim Rationalists) were to do 700 years later. They took from the Greeks not just their spirit of rational inquiry but also their faith in the boundless power of human intellect and its ability to derive the ultimate truths through reason alone. Most were deeply pious, and accepted the Qur’an as the word of God. But they challenged the idea that religious truths could be accessed only through divine revelation, insisting that reason alone would suffice. Most faylasufs insisted, too, that all theological arguments must adhere to the principles of rational thought. Even the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunna were, in Rationalist eyes, subordinate to human reason.

On the other side of the divide were the Traditionalists who viewed human reason as weak and corrupt as human beings themselves, and for whom Revelation and Scripture was the only sure path to truth.  Traditionalists were often forced to engage with rationalists on philosophical ground, and appropriated many arguments from the Ancient philosophers. Perhaps the greatest of all Traditionalist philosophers, Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Ghazzali, or Al-Ghazzali, (1058-1111), used the method of falsafah to attack its content, attempting to show rationally the incoherence of the Rationalist arguments. But more often than not Traditionalists dissociated themselves completely from falsafah on the grounds that it was either impious or foreign, or both. ‘We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples’, insisted Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (d c 870), acknowledged as the first Muslim philosopher. It was precisely such openness that the Traditionalists so feared and detested.

The earliest of the rationalist movements was the Mu’tazilite.  Founded by the theologian and jurist Wasil ibn Ata (c 700-748), it flourished mainly in Baghdad and Basra, but its influence was far-reaching. At its heart was a revolutionary defence both of human reason and of the rationality of God’s ways. Since God was entirely rational, so his laws could be substantiated intellectually without necessarily either leaning upon or repudiating the authority of Scripture.

The early insights of the Mu’tazilah were continually developed in the Rationalist tradition through a line of philosophers beginning with al-Kindi, continuing with Al-Farabi (c 872-951), often regarded as the founder of the falsafah school and known as the ‘Second Master’ (second, that is, after Aristotle), and culminating in the work of the two most important Muslim philosophers, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, known respectively in the West as Avicenna and Averroes. This tradition of Muslim Rationalism is today barely remembered in the West. Yet its importance and influence, not least on so-called ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, is difficult to overstate.

Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Farabi (c. 872-951), was a polymath who, aside from making advances in areas as diverse as cosmology, psychology, philosophy, logic, politics, and music, helped establish the Neoplatonist tradition in Islam, marrying the logical rigour and empiricism of Aristotle with the mysticism of Plato and Plotinus, and weaving both into Islamic theology.

If Al-Farabi was the founder of Islamic Neoplatonism, Abu Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sina (980-1037) was its greatest exponent. A Persian born near Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, into a family of Shia officials, Ibn Sina was, like Al-Farabi, a polymath. He is said to have mastered logic, mathematics, physics and medicine by his teens. He read Aristotle’s Metaphysics forty times without understanding it, he tells us in his autobiography, before finally stumbling across Al-Farabi’s commentary on the work, which at once illuminated it for him.  He was a practicing doctor by the age of 16 – and one in much demand in the courts of caliphs and sultans.  His monumental al-Qunun al-Tibb  (Canon of Medicine) interweaves his own observations with a summary of classical clinical learning; it was still used by doctors in Europe as a practical textbook in the seventeenth century.

Ibn Sina wrote more than 400 works, probably the most important and influential of which was Kitab al-Shifa, or Book of Healing. A philosophical encyclopaedia, it is divided into four parts that deal with logic, physics, mathematics and metaphysics. Ibn Sina summarizes here the rational argument about God and faith, making a case not just for the existence of God but also for  Islamic social and ethical practices. He does so, however, with barely a mention of the Qur’an. Rather he stands his argument unaided upon reason.

Abu l-Walid Muhammad bin Ahmad ibn Rushd, or Ibn Rushd, (1126-1196), was the greatest Muslim interpreter of Aristotle and the Muslim philosopher with the greatest influence upon the non-Muslim world. He was born in Cordoba, in al-Andalus, into a family of distinguished scholars and jurists. Working at a time when the Rationalists were already on the defensive in the Muslim world, Ibn Rushd came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam. It was through Ibn Rushd that West European philosophers rediscovered their Aristotle, and his commentaries shaped the thinking of a galaxy of thinkers from Maimonides to Thomas Aquinas. In The Divine Comedy Dante places him with the great pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo ‘the place that favor owes to fame’. And Raphael, as we have seen, depicts him with Aristotle, Plato and Socrates in his painting The School of Athens. Modern thinkers have described him as a ‘founding father of secular thought in Western Europe’, and even as ‘one of the spiritual fathers of Europe.’

The starting point for most of the Rationalists was God’s truth as revealed to Muhammad. But the stress they placed upon reason raised questions about the very nature of, and indeed need for, Revelation.  A coherent account of the universe, the Rationalists insisted, required a God, an Unmoved Mover that was the cause of all matter and motion but was itself uncaused, a being that by definition had to be outside of space and time for He was the cause of space and time. The Rationalist God was an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good being, wholly simple in the sense that He possessed no parts, no body, no physical existence. He was immutable, unchangeable, necessary, a God modelled both on Aristotle’s Prime Mover and on Plotinius’ concept of the One that transcends thought and being altogether. This God was not unlike the Allah imagined by most Muslims. But the implications the Rationalists drew from the nature of God were distinct and revolutionary.

As pure being, God was not like any created matter, nor like a human person. As an expression of perfect unity, He was not divided in any way.  He had no brain through which to think, no soul through which to express Himself, no limbs through which to act, no vocal cords through which to speak. Hence, for the Rationalists, God possessed no attributes, either in terms of physical form, such as a body or a face, or in terms of more abstract qualities of mind or character such as wisdom or will. Physical forms, such as bodies, and qualities such wisdom and justice, were, the Rationalists suggested, simply human ways of thinking. Humans possessed no language through which to describe God as a Being-in-Himself. In Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, the old Presocratic philosopher points out to Socrates that to imagine a transcendental realm is to imagine a realm of which humans can have no understanding. And ‘just as we know nothing of the divine by our knowledge’, Parmenides suggested, ‘so they in turn are, for the same reason, neither our masters nor, being gods, do they know human affairs.’

Few Rationalists would have gone as far as Parmenides. Reason led them to see the necessity for God. But reason also led them to insist that it was impossible rationally to define God, and to deny that God could intervene in the mundane aspects of human affairs. A simple being, outside of time and space, and without physical or metal attributes, could not act upon space and time.  God, Ibn Sina suggested, is far too exalted to partake in the humdrum reality of human life. He is the condition of being of the cosmos, and He apprehends everything that has emanated from him and that he has brought into being. But He knows the human world only in general and universal terms. God did not deal in particulars. Nor can humans cannot talk positively of God, only negatively. They can only define what God is not – He is not human, He is not material, He does not consist of parts – not describe what He is.

Both the idea of a simple God, and that of the via negativa - the insistence that it was not possible to speak positively of God – became highly influential, not just in Islam, but in Judaism and Christianity too. But Muslim Traditionalists were aghast. They accepted the simplicity, purity and unity of God. They could not, however, imagine Allah as possessing no attributes or as unable to intervene in every aspect of human life. The Qur’an describes a God that walks, talks, wills and judges, a God that possesses bodily parts (‘But the face of thy Lord shall abide resplendent with majesty and glory’) and sits upon a throne (Allah ‘mounted his throne and imposed laws on the sun and moon’). How could a being outside of time and space, completely unified and possessing no parts also have a face, a body, sit on a throne and be wise and judicious? The Traditionalists’ answer was to shrug their shoulders. ‘Bila kayfa’, they said – ‘Don’t ask how’.

For the Rationalists such an answer was incoherent and unacceptable. In making God so transcendent, pure and good that He could only be spoken of in the negative, however, and in insisting that God was reason itself, the Rationalists paradoxically both diminished the status of God and exalted that of humans. Human reason had to be powerful enough to divine God’s message and human will had to be strong enough to act upon it.

For the Rationalists, divine justice had to be as pure as God Himself. God could do no evil. The Traditionalists accepted that God alone defined good and evil. That which God had decided to be good or evil may sometimes seem arbitrary or unjust but it is not for humans to question. Bila kayfa. The Rationalists, on the other hand, insisted that God could not do that which was contrary to reason or act with disregard for the welfare of His creatures. No omnipotent deity could act in violation of the precepts of justice and righteousness by, say, torturing the innocent, or demanding the impossible, simply because He was God. Good and evil were not arbitrary demands but rational categories that could be established through unaided reason.

This debate returns us to the dilemma that Plato raised in Euthyphro.  Either goodness is divinely defined but arbitrary, or it is rational but exists independently of the gods. The Traditionalists were happy to accept the seeming arbitrariness of God’s commands so long as believers unquestioningly accepted those commands as divine law. The Rationalists could not accept the idea of God making irrational moral demands. But this, as Plato recognized, was to question the very belief that God defined goodness and badness.  Or, to put it another way the idea of a rational morality and that of a rational God came to pull Rationalists in two different directions.


There was nothing about Muhammad’s monotheism that would have surprised or scandalized Arabs. The Arabian peninsula was home to significant Jewish populations, whose presence could be traced back to the Babylonian exile. Indeed, so close was the relationship between Jews and pre-Islamic Arabs that Arabs considered themselves to be descendants of Abraham, or Ibrahim as they knew him, whom they thought had built the Ka’ba and to whom an idol had been dedicated in the sanctuary. A number of Arab tribes had also converted en masse to Christianity. And even before Muhammad, there had been a tradition of Arab prophets, called hanifs, who preached the virtues of a single God.

What made Muhammad different was the marriage of belief in a single, transcendent, omnipotent God, to whom one had to submit, to a social ethic that echoed traditional tribal ideas of virtuous behaviour but that also challenged the mores of the Meccan ruling elite, and that appealed to large sections of a society disenchanted with the transformation of their world. Muhammad’s social ethic gave his God moral content. His God gave his social ethic a sense of power.

As Muhammad’s following swelled, inevitably he came into conflict with Mecca’s ruling families. He was eventually driven out of the city in 622 and found a new power base in a small agricultural oasis 250 miles to the north of Mecca, called Yathrib. It was soon given a new name: Medinat an-Nahi, the City of the Prophet, or more simply Medina.  The secret journey of Muhammad’s followers from Mecca to Medina, the Hijra, marks for believers the beginning of Islam as a community, the abandonment of a wicked, pagan society and the creation of a new people living according to the moral guidance of Allah, the first day of the Muslim era. From his Medina power base, Muhammad was drawn into an armed struggle with the Quraysh, especially over the all-important trade routes.  He triumphed in a series of battles through which he established control not only over Mecca but also the surrounding areas.

It was in this period of conflict that Muhammad’s Revelations took their final form and out of which Islam acquired its initial shape and temper. In traditional Arab tribes, power was distributed within a collective leadership. The Shaikh ensured the moral integrity of the tribe. The Qa’id led it in times of war. The Kahin was the seer or priest who ensured observance of religious rituals. The Hakam acted as a magistrate, settling disputes. In Medina, Muhammad became all of these and more.  His authority as Prophet and Lawgiver was absolute, a man whose supremacy came from God and so could not be challenged.

As Muhammad’s authority as Lawgiver became unquestioned and unquestionable, so the character of the angel Gibreel’s Revelations changed.  There was now much greater concern with defining ritual observances and with social rules governing property, marriage, inheritance, the role of women and relations between the sexes, many in response to a crisis or to a debate among the faithful.

The Islam that developed in Medina was separated more clearly from Judaism and Christianity, a breach symbolically expressed in Muhammad’s new stricture that, when praying, his followers must face not Jerusalem, as previously, but Mecca. And increasingly it became a religion not simply of compassion and benevolence but also of struggle and expansion. Allah provided divine permission for war, violence and even slaughter.  When the Quarayzah, one of Medina’s Jewish tribes, sided with Mecca during the Battle of the Trench, a fortnight long siege of Medina in 627, Muslim forces imposed upon them the most savage of punishments.  Muhammad’s men laid siege to Medina’s Jewish quarter for twenty five days until the Quarayzah unconditionally surrendered. Every one of the surviving men was executed, every woman and child enslaved. The eighth century Muslim historian Ibn Ishaq described the slaughter of the men:

They surrendered… Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches.

Such savagery was not uncommon in seventh century warfare and, shocking though it was, the slaughter in the marketplace tells us more about the premodern moral universe than about the distinctive character of Muhammad’s ethics or that of Islam. But the fact that it does not tell us much that is distinctive about the ethics of Islam is itself revealing. Muhammad breathed in the moral air of seventh century Arabia. There was in Mecca deep unhappiness at the impact of the Ka’ban taxes and a sense of moral drift that Muhammad sought to address.  He did so not by creating a novel moral framework but by drawing upon pre-existing notions of right and wrong and of virtuous behaviour. This is as true of what we now see as Muhammad’s ‘good’ ethical injunctions – to be compassionate, benevolent, generous, merciful – as of what we recognize as the bad, such as his savagery towards those whom he regarded as enemies.

Islam transformed the moral landscape in the same way as Christianity did – through establishing not so much a set of new moral rules as a new reason for being moral.  Morality was anchored in Allah’s will. Prayer and alms-giving was required by God. So was the annihilation of enemies. The butchering of the Quarayzah was, in Muhammad’s eyes, a moral necessity, an act sanctified by God.

This is not to say that Islam did not have a major impact on moral life.  The acceptance of a monotheistic god transformed, as it had in the case of Christianity too, the moral idea of belongingness and the moral shape of the community. A traditional Arabian tribe had been a closed unit. Only those born into the tribe could become members of the tribe. In Medina, Muhammad’s followers defined themselves as the ‘ummah’, whose boundaries were set not by race, ethnicity or descent but by conviction. Anyone could join Muhammad’s community by avowing that ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s Messenger’. Here was crafted a new kind of tribe, a universal tribe, a community defined by tribal norms, rules and rituals, and yet one that appealed not to a restricted group but to the whole of pagan Arabia, and indeed, eventually, to the whole of the world. It was not universalism in a modern secularist sense – moral worth was defined by a willingness to submit to Allah – but nevertheless Islam continued the development of the idea of a universal community that had begun with the Stoics and had had subsequently been developed by Christians.

As with Christianity, Islam’s insistence on a single transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, absolutely good God helped consecrate the idea of a rule based-morality.  Goodness was to be found not in the cultivation of laudable habits, or in the ability to negotiate the mean between lack and excess, or in the aspiration to wisdom through self-examination, but in the ability to accept unconditionally God’s law and to follow faithfully the rules that He set down for entry to heaven. In tribal Arabia, morality had referred not to a set prescribed and proscribed behaviours but to the process of negotiating relationships both within and between tribes through which each tribe sought to defend its honour and protect its collective good. With the emergence of Islam, that process of negotiating social relationships became transformed into a set of rigid rules that defined social relations. The triumph of Islam did not resurrect a tribal ethic, nor create a more egalitarian society.  As with Christianity, Islam combined an ethics as malleable as clay with the iron rod of God’s Word.


He is known in the West as Confucius, thanks to the sixteenth century Jesuit missionaries who Latinized his name. He is revered in China as Kongzi or ‘Master Kong’. And he was born as Kong Qui around 551 BCE in Zou, in the state of Lu on the eastern seaboard. He lived at around the same time as the Buddha though neither, of course, knew of the other. This was in China the middle of Zhou dynasty, a time known as the Spring and Autumn period, after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu. Not only were there struggles between the fragmenting parts of the Zhou dynasty but also between fiefdoms inside and outside Zhou territory.  The conflicts that marked the second half of the Zhou  period were part of a complex transition to imperial rule and the unification of China.  By the time of Kong’s birth, Lu was in a state almost of anarchy.

Almost nothing is known of Kong’s background or early life. It is likely that he was born into an impoverished branch of minor nobility, and eked out a living as a petty official.  Frustrated, he became in his fifties a peripatetic teacher. He soon gathered large numbers of students around him, perhaps eventually as many as 3000.

Like most Chinese philosophers, Kong was concerned primarily with ethics rather than metaphysics. The central theme of his philosophy is the behaviour needed to create a harmonious society. At the heart of it are two human qualities: jen and li.

Jen, the highest Confucian principle, is perhaps best translated as humaneness, or loving kindness. It is related to the Greek concept of agape, the Christian notion of ‘love’ and Kant’s idea of ‘goodwill’.  An individual who possesses jen, possesses sympathy for others and empathy for their needs and desires. But he must possess much more than simply that. Jen embodies all the qualities necessary for one human being to express ideal behaviour towards another.  Asked if there was a single act that one should practice throughout one’s life, Kong responded, ‘Reciprocity perhaps? Do not inflict on others what you yourself would not wish done to you’. It is a version of the ‘Golden Rule’ that appears many times in Kong’s teachings.

For Kong, ideal behaviour could not be behaviour that was universal, as perhaps it was for a Stoic or a Christian. Rather, it expressed precisely how one individual ought to behave towards another given their respective social roles. And this takes us to the second of the two pivots of Confucian ethics, li, meaning propriety, the following of tradition, ritual, and conventional mores. ‘If one is courteous but does without ritual, then one dissipates one’s energy’, Kong suggested; ‘if one is cautious but does without ritual, then one becomes timid; if one is bold but does without ritual, then one becomes reckless; if one is forthright but does without ritual, then one becomes rude.’

Kong is expressing here two distinct ideas. The first is the belief that nothing should be done in excess, a notion reminiscent of Aristotle’s ideal of the mean, and of li as the means by which to ensure moderation. Second, Kong is suggesting also that accepting the social structure defined by li is crucial to be able properly to express jen. To be humane is not only to show empathy and love towards others; it is also to perform the duties and obligation required of one’s role or station in life. Kong called this ‘the rectification of names’, meaning that there should be a correspondence between a person’s title and his behaviour. ‘Let a ruler be a ruler’, he wrote, ‘a subject a subject, a father a father, a son a son’.  The whole of Confucian teaching is focused upon the cultivation of the moral character necessary to rule, to administer and to follow.

There were for Kong five relationships (wu-lun) critical for the maintenance of social harmony and order: those between father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, older friend and younger friend, and ruler and subject. Out of these relationships society was built. And in them were incubated the duties and obligations upon which harmony was founded.  Each of these relationships Kong understood in terms of the traditional Chinese contrast between yin and yang, concepts shared by different schools throughout the history of Chinese philosophy. Yin and yang refer to the complementary forces – dark and light, hot and cold, weak and strong, active and passive – through the interaction of which the universe operates at every level of existence.  In each of the wu-lun relationships, Kong sees one partner as yin, the other as yang, one as dominant, the other as submissive. A son must be submissive to his father, a woman to her husband, a subject to his ruler. Dominance and submissiveness are aspects not of an individual but of the social role. The same individual can be dominant as a father but submissive as a subject.  Submissiveness, in particular, was a requirement of li, and without being properly submissive an individual could not express his or her jen. ‘To subdue oneself and return to ritual’, Kong insisted, ‘is to practice humaneness.’ Living as he did in a period of great social turmoil, Kong worried that many in society, women and the poor in particular, were incapable of subduing themselves and behaving with propriety. ‘Women and small men [men of low birth] seem difficult to look after’, he observed. ‘If you keep them close, they become insubordinate; but if you keep them at a distance, they become resentful’.

The practices of li emerged in the early Zhou dynasty through the ritualization of ancestor worship, and in particular through the ritualization of sacrifice. Such worship, and such sacrifice, was rooted in the belief that deceased family members had a continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors would look after the family, and take an interest in the affairs of the world, and that they possessed the ability to influence the fortune of the living. Over time, the ruling class established a set of rules and practices by which the veneration of ancestors was formalized. Everyone had ancestors; but only the nobility had ancestors whom they could trace and name through a family tree. Li became therefore also a mandate for rule, as only the ruling class could perform the rituals.

The significance of Kong lay in his expansion of the meaning of li, in his application of the concept not simply to a small set of practices by which the king and the nobility found justification for their rule but to all activities in life. There were rules about how a son greeted his father, and a husband his wife; rules about how to bow when meeting a stranger; rules about what colour of clothes to wear on certain days; rules about how to eat certain foods; and so on. Li was a form of etiquette by which life was structured, relationships regulated and harmony established. But it was far more simply etiquette. Through li, all of life began to take on a religious, ritualized quality. Through li all of life became ‘sacred’ in a sense. And through liConfucian ethics took on the aura of a religion.

 * * * * *

The notion of humaneness, as it developed in Greek, Christian and, to a certain extent, Buddhist, thought, was closely related to the desire to break down social barriers, to the development of ideas of universalism and cosmopolitanism. For Kong, and for his successors, such cosmopolitanism was contrary to both nature and to the ground rules of propriety. As Hsun Tzu, a third century BCE philosopher and one of the most important early interpreters of Kong, put it, what makes ‘man truly man’ is that ‘he makes social distinctions’:

Birds and beasts have fathers and offspring, but not the affection between father and son. They are male and female, but do not have the proper separation between males and females. Hence in the Way of Humanity there must be distinctions. No distinctions are greater than those of society. No social distinctions are greater than the li.

It was through another Chinese philosophical tradition, the Mohist school, founded a century after Kong by the philosopher Mo Tzu, that universalist ideas emerged. Mo taught that jen should be shown to others without distinction or favouritism, and that the needs of distant strangers should rank as highly as those of family or clan. It was a remarkable argument made three centuries before similar ideas began to develop in the Greek and Christian traditions.

Where exactly Mo was born remains uncertain, as do the exact dates of his birth and death. It is now thought that he was born in the state of Lu, the same birthplace as Kong, and that he lived in the second half of the fifth century BCE, and possibly into the early part of the fourth century; in other words around the same time as Socrates, Plato and the later Sophists in Greece. This was in China the period of the Warring States, where the disintegration of the Zhou Dynasty had led to all-out war between a number of different states, in particular Jin, Chu, Qin and Qi. The turmoil ended in 221, more than a century after Mo’s death, with the victory of Qin, the unification of the various warring fragments and the founding of the first Chinese Imperial Dynasty (though the Qin dynasty itself lasted only fifteen years). ‘Mo’ is an unusual surname, Chinese for ‘ink’. Some scholars have speculated that it was an epithet given to him for having once been a slave or a convict, whose faces were often branded or tattooed with dark ink.  Others suggest that Mo took on the name as a way of identifying with the lowest class of people. Most historians now believe that Mo was a member of the lower artisan class who managed to climb his way to an official post. The philosopher and historian Fung Yu-Lan suggests that Mo was ahsieh, a hereditary warrior who had lost his position and title, and made a living by offering his services to those who would employ him. He is certainly thought to have founded a highly organized, quasi-religious and military community that came to the aid of small states under threat, a practical expression of the Mohists’ opposition to military aggression.

The social turmoil that had beset China over several centuries had led Kong to stress tradition and ritual as a means of assuring order and harmony. It led Mo to argue for the very opposite. Today we know of Mo’s philosophy primarily through a text called Mozi, which was probably written not by Mo Tzu himself, but by successive groups of disciples and their followers. The original consisted of 71 chapters, of which only 53 remain.

Mo distinguished between two principles: that of ‘discrimination’ and that of ‘inclusive care’. Someone who held to the principle of discrimination, as Kong did, discounted the moral interests of other tribes or other states, or hated or despised them because they were of other tribes or other states.  To adopt the principle of ‘inclusive care’ did not mean, as some have suggested of Mo, that one should love strangers as much as one loves one’s family, but rather that the moral interests of strangers, and of other tribes and states, must concern us as much as those of our family, that one should ‘regard others’ states as though regarding one’s state, regard others’ families as though regarding one’s family, and regard other persons as though regarding one’s person’. How, Mo asks, do these two approaches explain ‘the current calamities of the world’, in particular ‘attacks on small states by large ones, disturbances of small houses by large ones, oppression of the weak by the strong, misuse of the few by the many, deception of the simple by the cunning, and disdain towards the humble by the honored’? Such calamities have not arisen out of ‘caring for and benefiting others’. Rather, ‘they have arisen out of hate of others and injuring others’.  Those who hate others and injure others are those who embrace the principle not of ‘inclusive care’ but of discrimination. Is not, then, Mo asks rhetorically, ‘“mutual discrimination” the cause of the major calamities of the world?’ Therefore, he concludes, ‘the principle of “discrimination” is wrong’.  On the other hand, he asks, ‘when everyone regards the states of others as he regards his own, who will attack these other states?’  Adopting the principle of ‘inclusive care’ will ensure that ‘Others will be regarded as the self’ and so the need for wars would be greatly reduced, even disappear.

Mo’s philosophy was not a warm, fuzzy embrace of an ‘All you need is love’ attitude. He was much more hard-headed, pragmatic, even utilitarian. Why, he asked, should  I act to embrace others and to benefit them rather simply to benefit myself? Because, he answered, ‘He who loves others, must also be loved by others. He who benefits others, must also be benefitted by others. He who hates others, must also be hated by others. He who injures others must also be injured by others.’  There are echoes here of utilitarian ideas, and of evolutionary notions of ‘reciprocal altruism’, developed two millennia later.

Mo rejected what he regarded as Kong’s fetishisation of ritual which, he argued, was merely for show and detracted from the changes necessary to bring about a truly harmonious society. What people required was food, clothing, work and peace, not elaborate funerals or rules of etiquette. Mo was even hostile to the playing of music which, he thought, provided amusement for the ruling class but not bread or peace for ordinary folk.

Despite Mo’s pragmatism, there remains something implausible both in his ethical utopianism and in his vision of human nature and of human relationships. Modern universalism is primarily a social and political claim. It does not require that we love strangers as we would our parents or children; it requires rather the acceptance that whatever an individual’s background, and whatever we may personally feel about him or her, we accord them the same rights as we do anyone else, that in meting out justice we do not discriminate by virtue of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, etc, and that there are certain values, institutions and forms of governance under which all humans best flourish. Insofar as such universalism is plausible, it is because society is well enough developed to be able to steamroller traditional inequalities, differences and hierarchies, and to afford equal treatment of all, and to be able to think practically of common forms of governance across national and cultural boundaries.  Not so the premodern world. Inequality and hierarchy was essential to the functioning of such societies. The possibilities of social transformation, and of the creation of a society built on the equal treatment of all, would have appeared to most people as chimerical.  Universalists were inevitably seen as dreamers and utopians, and they were dreamers and utopians. And universalism necessarily had primarily to be not social but psychological in form, an argument less about how society should be constructed than about how we should regard others.  Given the constrained character of society, universalist ideas about regarding others as we regard ourselves could have seemed only fanciful. However pragmatic and utilitarian Mo Tzu’s philosophy might have been, this was true of his claims too.  But while Mo’s psychological vision may have appeared implausible, his ethical vision was crucially important, and in many ways far more developed and ‘modern’ than those of Stoics or Christians almost half a millennium later.

Mo criticized Kong not simply for his conservative adherence to tradition and his support for social discrimination but also for his rejection of God. Growing disbelief in the power and providential character of God and of the spirit world, he believed, had led to widespread immorality and social chaos, not just because it coarsened human behaviour and ethical thinking but also because it ‘displeased’ God and the spirits. God’s will, Mo insisted, was that all humans should love one another. He rewarded with good fortune those who obeyed His commands, punished with calamity those that defied His will. There is something of the Old Testament about Mo’s vision of a personal, judgmental, vengeful God who sets in stone the meaning of right and wrong, punishing the wicked and rewarding the faithful. And yet Mo’s faith was quite unlike that demanded by the Old Testament. Good and bad, for Mo, were not simply arbitrary notions defined by God. That which is good is good because it promotes peace, harmony, order and proper governance. Had he been faced with Socrates, Mo’s answer to the Euthyphro dilemma would have been clear. What is right is right not merely because Heaven intends it. Rather, Heaven intends it because it is right.

Kong was not a humanist in the modern sense, but he talked little of God or of the spirit world, and neither played a role in his moral philosophy. What he was, was a deeply conservative thinker who sought to rationalize the ways of the past. ‘I transmit but do not create’, he wrote. ‘Being fond of the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity’. For Kong, truth was to be found by excavating the past, reason a means of ensuring that social mores were not overturned. Mo possessed a mystical view of God, and of the spirit world. But he was forcefully radical, challenging traditional mores and trying to develop a rational argument for a radical universalism. The relationship between Kong and Mo expresses the complexity of the relationship between faith, reason and morality, particularly in the premodern world.

And yet, for all his radicalism and his universalism, there was also something quite authoritarian about Mo’s morality. We can see this most clearly in his fascinating parable about the origins of, and the necessity for, the state. Through the parable Mo set out a political argument superficially similar to that of Thomas Hobbes almost two millennia later. Both Mo and Hobbes saw humans, in the state of nature prior to the creation of society, as living in a condition of constant warfare. But where Hobbes saw conflict arise out the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest, Mo saw it as the consequence of discord over values. ‘People have different moralities’, wrote Mo. ‘Thus for one person, there was one morality; for two people, two moralities; for ten people, ten moralities — the more people, the more things they called “moral”. Thus people deemed their own morality right and on that basis deemed others’ morality wrong.’ As a result people were ‘unable to get along harmoniously’ and ‘all injured each other with water, fire, and poison’.

To overcome this disorder, ‘the most worthy, wise, and intelligent man in the world was selected, established as the Son of Heaven, and commissioned to unify the world’s morality’. There could be only one standard of morality in this state. The rule is that ‘What the superior thinks to be right, all shall think to be right. What the superior thinks to be wrong, all shall think to be wrong’, and ‘Always agree with the superior; never follow the inferior’.  This he calls ‘conforming upwards’.  Mo’s state is absolutist, and the authority of its ruler absolute. Like the implausibility of Mo’s conception of human nature, so the authoritarian character of his ideal state reveals the constraints upon ethical thinking in the premodern world, largely the result of constraints upon social possibilities. In a world in which neither the understanding of the self nor the potential for social transformation were well-developed, the concept of individual rights had no more meaning to Mo than it did to most ancient thinkers, and universalism could only be understood in terms of social order imposed by fiat.

There is an argument to be made for thinking of Mo Tzu, rather than Kong, as China’s first philosopher. He, not Kong, was the first Chinese thinker to engage, like Socrates in ancient Greece, in an explicit, reflective search for objective moral standards and to give reasoned arguments for his views. He, not Kong, formulated China’s first explicit ethical and political theories. And he advanced the world’s earliest form of consequentialism, remarkably sophisticated for its time.

Mo was, however, one of history’s losers. During the Era of the Warring Sates, Mohism was influential, vying with Confucianism for the ear both of rulers and the masses. With the unification of China in 221 BCE, and the creation of Imperial rule, Kong’s star rose, while Mohist ideas were seen not just as irrelevant but as dangerous too. The conservatism of Confucianism, its appeal to tradition and ritual, its usefulness in training for civil servants and government officials, all found favour with the imperial court. Mo’s radicalism and his distaste for li and for traditional concepts of order provoked fear. Under the Han Dynasty that followed, Confucianism was adopted as  the official imperial ideology, while Mo’s teachings were suppressed. Kong came to be venerated as China’s greatest sage, even as a god. In the 450s, the imperial government built the first Confucian temple, and within a century no city of respectable size was without its temple to Kong.  New temple rituals were established to celebrate everything from Kong’s birthday to the spring equinox to success in civil service exams. Mo Tzu and his school fell into neglect and obscurity, their texts largely unread.


Siddharta Gautama was born in what is now Nepal some time between the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century BCE, into a prosperous, aristocratic family, part of the powerful Shakya clan. For most of his early life, he had been shielded from the reality of the poverty and degradation that surrounded him. In his late twenties he was finally forced to confront sickness, suffering and death, coming face to face with an old man, a mortally sick man and a dead man. So shocked was he by these encounters that Gautama left his family and comfortable home life, taking to the road to become a wandering ascetic, debating the nature of suffering with yogis and mendicants. Six years of asceticism and self-denial brought about no change to his sense of dissatisfaction and his frustration at not finding meaning in life. He turned to meditation. For forty nine days and nights he sat under a fig tree, now known as the bodhi-tree, or ‘tree of awakening’, in Gaya, a small village in north east India. After 49 days of meditation he gained enlightenment, understanding both the cause of worldly suffering and the means of transcending it. ‘I have obtained nirvana’, he claimed.

That, at least, is the traditional story of the Buddha (‘the enlightened one’), as Gautama came to be known, and of his enlightenment. In fact we know almost nothing with certainty about a man who lived two centuries before Aristotle. The main sources of his life and teachings are a variety of different, and often conflicting, traditional biographies, the earliest of which, the epic poem Buddhacarita, dates from the 2nd century CE. Of the actual words of the Buddha nothing is left. Early in its history, Buddhism divided into innumerable sects, possibly more than 30, each with its own story of Gautama’s life, each with its own canon of scriptures.

Whatever the historical truth, there are certain teachings now accepted as genuine by virtually all Buddhists. By tradition, the Buddha gave his first talk at the Deer Park in Sarnath, in the vicinity of Varanasi, or Benares, on the banks of the Ganges, where he gathered his first five disciples. The so-called ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ is to Buddhists as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount  is to Christians. Like the Sermon on the Mount, the Buddha’s discourse is likely to have been patched together by later followers, shaped to reflect subsequent readings of his thought, and the changing needs of Buddhists, and then projected back to establish a canonical text.

At the heart of the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ are the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that the world is permeated with suffering, or duhkha, a concept that refers not just to pain and sorrow but also to dissatisfaction and unfulfilment. Duhkha is one of the Thee Marks of Existence (trilakshana), or features of earthly life. They stamp our lives so indelibly that those who ignore their reality will find nirvana always to be beyond their reach. The other Marks of Existence are anitya, or impermanence, and anatman, meaning ‘no self’ or ‘egolessness’. Anitya expresses the belief that everything in the phenomenal world is in a state of flux. This includes human beings themselves. Hence anatman, or lack of self. All human existence, for the Buddha, is a series of discontinuous moments. The image he presents is of a row of unlit candles. The first candle is lit, used to light the second, but is itself then extinguished; and so on it continues down the row. Human existence, too, consists of a series of moments lit up and snuffed out. Each moment of consciousness gives birth to the next and then ceases to be, so no person is constant from one moment to the next. For Buddhists, the belief that humans possess a self, that there is an essential ‘me’, is part of the illusion of permanence that must be discarded if an individual is to achieve enlightenment.

The second of the Buddha’s Noble Truths was that the cause of all suffering is human desire, the thirst for that which cannot satisfy, including the desire to be a self. Originally a place of bliss, the world had been reduced to a place of suffering by human capitulation to desire a sentiment that was, half a millennium later, to be echoed in Christian thought, though in Buddhism the cause of degradation is not sin, as in Christianity, but ignorance. Suffering can only be ended through renunciation of all desire, the third of the Noble Truths. Renunciation of desire is the path to nirvana, or liberation from rebirth, the Buddhist version of the Hindu idea of moksha. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth in a new form that is the inevitable burden of human life. Only through enlightenment – moksha or nirvana – can one break that endless cycle. What rebirth means when one does not possess a self, and when every individual’s life lacks continuity from one moment to the next, let alone from one birth to the next, is a conundrum that Buddhists have endlessly debated, and upon which arguments have endlessly foundered.

The fourth Noble Truth upon which Buddha insisted was that desire can only be renounced through following the ‘Eightfold Path’, eight principles of actions that lead to a balanced, moderate life. These include the acceptance of the Four Noble Truths; the resolve to live according to the Buddhist way; the wisdom to adopt the right kind of livelihood, rejecting for instance jobs that involve killing, such as being a butcher, hunter, or a soldier; and the determination to act ethically by avoiding killing, stealing, prohibited sexual activity, unjust speech, and intoxicating drinks.

There is, at one level, something Aristotelian about the Buddha’s conception of the good life (or there would be were it not anachronistic to describe as Aristotelian the ideas of a man who lived two centuries before Aristotle). Reason rather than revelation is the starting point for his thinking, and ethics rather than metaphysics its endpoint. The Buddha rejected Vedic metaphysics (even though his teachings drew upon certain Hindu metaphysical concepts), and even more Brahmanical ritual, especially the sacrificing of animals. What he demanded was a commitment to ethical behaviour. Buddhist ethics, too, wrenched itself away from Hinduism, neither rooted in the privileges and tyrannies of caste identity, nor seeking to justify the caste system, though it never properly challenged it either. It emerged, rather, out of a concern for the welfare of humanity as a whole. There is a reasonableness, even triteness, about Buddhist prescriptions that again is reminiscent of Aristotle. The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as the ‘Middle Way’ between the extremes of asceticism and hedonism, of poverty and luxury, an idea that finds an echo in Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’.

Yet Buddhism is also fundamentally different to an Aristotelian conception of the world and, despite its humanist approach, is in certain ways much closer to a theistic vision of the human condition. There has been a tendency, by some of its advocates, especially in the West, to overplay the rational and humanistic quality of Buddhism. At its core Buddhism is a doctrine of salvation. Unlike Aristotle, the Buddha did not view ethics as a means of building the good life on this Earth, but rather as a means of escaping the bad life of this Earth. His teachings embody a deeply pessimistic view of the world as a place of unremitting hurt and disappointment. Suffering without end in a futile round of rebirths after rebirths – that is the fate of most mortals. Escape comes through nirvana.

Buddhism never specifies what is meant by ‘nirvana’. It defines what nirvana delivers us from but not what it delivers us to. It is, as the philosopher of religion Edward Conze puts it, ‘a transcendental state which is quite beyond the ken of ordinary experience, and of which nothing can be said except that in it all ills have ceased, together with their causes and consequences.’ It is paradise without a deity or a theology, a paradise not discovered outside, but realized within.

The Buddha’s teachings were in large part a response to the social changes that were then convulsing India, in particular the new urbanization, the transformation of class structures and the emergence of the state. In Europe and the Middle East, similar developments helped give rise to the monotheistic faiths. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in times of great social dislocation, when the foundations of traditional ethics no longer appeared sure. God seemed essential to many as a source of moral concrete. Monotheism, particularly Islam, flourished in parts of Asia, primarily through invasion and conversion. The indigenous response to the kinds of social upheavals that helped create monotheism in the West came not in monotheism but in non-theistic forms of faith, of which Buddhism was the first. There has been a great debate over the centuries about the extent to which we should look upon Buddhism as a philosophy or as a religion. It is perhaps best understood as a philosophy that historically, and socially, played role of faith. It did so not just in the sense of offering a source of spirituality and solace, but in the sense also of defining, as the monotheistic faiths did too, the meaning of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and of acting as the mortar in the foundation of social order.


Augustine was born in 354 in the North African town of Thagaste, in what is now Tunisia. The city lay inside the Roman Empire and its citizens were deeply Latinized.  Augustine’s father Particius was a pagan, his mother Monnica a pious Christian with whom he had intense and often conflictual relationship that helped shape the way he thought about God. Pursuing a promising intellectual career, Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric, first in Carthage, and then in Rome, before taking up a post as an imperial orator in Milan. But increasingly he felt himself tormented by emotional doubt, a torment driven by a desire to make sense of good and evil, and leading to an ever-more desperate search for a safe spiritual harbour.

While still in North Africa, he was drawn towards Manichaeism, a dualistic philosophy first taught by the third century Persian prophet Mani. A much travelled man, Mani imbibed the essence of many faiths, from Zoroastrianism to Christianity, fusing elements of each into a complex cosmology rooted in the eternal struggle between good and evil. All matter was intrinsically evil, while Good was embodied in spirit, whether of the mind or the soul.  The human body, like all matter, was evil, and had been deliberately designed by the forces of darkness as the mechanism for imprisoning the soul.  The more committed Manicheans, called the ‘Elect’ were profoundly ascetic, despised sex because it produced more evil matter in the form of children, and attempted to evade the world of matter as far as they could, going as far as employing lay believers as ‘Hearers’ to serve them with food and other material needs. Augustine himself was for nine years a Hearer.

Eventually, though, Augustine found too crude the Manichaean definition of all matter as evil and was unhappy with the idea, implicit in the philosophy, that the forces of good could be defeated by the battalions of evil. What he ached for above all was an unassailable notion of the Good. This yearning led him to Platonism, or rather to Neoplatonism, a spiritualised, mystical form of Plato’s cosmology whose most influential proponent was the Egyptian-born, Greek-speaking philosopher Plotinus (204-270). Plotinus taught that there exists a supreme, transcendent ‘One’, that is above all material being, indeed beyond all categories of being and non-being, that contains no division or distinction, is self-caused and is absolutely good. The One did not create the cosmos through thought or action (for it is beyond either), but through a series of ‘emanations’ that originate in the One, but are not actively caused or willed by it. Plotinus uses the analogy of reflections in a mirror that create something new without diminishing or altering the object being reflected. The first emanation is Nous, or mind or reason, from which proceeds the Platonic Forms and the World Soul, which in turn gives rise to matter and to individual human souls.

Plotinus has married here several important threads in the work of both Plato and Aristotle. In The Republic Plato established, as we have seen, the idea of a transcendental reality, more authentic than the material realm that humans inhabit, governed not by a transcendental personal God but by the Forms, the most important of which was the Form of the Good, to which everything ultimately owed its existence, and which was itself beyond and superior to being. In Timaeus, one of Plato’s later and more obscure works, in which the down-to-earth dialectical investigation characteristic of most of his dialogues gives way to grandiose cosmic theorizing, a new conception appears: that of God as a craftsman or demiurge who has sculpted the universe, guided by the perfection of the Forms. Aristotle, critical both of the Platonic concept of the Forms and of the idea of a craftsman-designed cosmos, introduced instead in his Physics the notion of the Immovable Mover. Behind every change in the universe, Aristotle argued, must lie a chain of causes that brings about that change. Such a chain cannot stretch out for ever because ‘it is impossible to have an infinite series of movers’. The chain stops at the Unmoved Mover, the prime cause of all change in the cosmos, but which itself is not caused by anything, which has always existed and always will exist, and which is the ultimate Good since there can be no defect in that which necessarily exists.

Plotinus wove together the Forms, the craftsman and the Unmoved Mover to create an account of Creation and of existence out of which he crafted an ethics that, though distinctive, also drew upon important Greek themes. Evil, Plotinus believed, was associated with matter. Human beings, because of their bodily attachment, were open to being evil. A person was, for Plotinus, a soul employing a body as the instrument of its temporary embodied life. Human flourishing required the separation of soul from its bodily impediment, a separation that is managed though the virtues. The lower form of virtues, which Plotinus, borrowing from Plato, calls ‘civic’, are those practices that serve to control the appetites.  The higher ‘purificatory’ virtues are those that help separate the person from the embodied human being. Happiness for Plotinus is ‘a flight from this world’s ways and things.’  The ‘perfect life’ is one in which the disembodied soul lives a life of contemplation.

Augustine found in Plotinus a description of an eternal, unassailable, transcendental reality, the source of creation, of goodness and of happiness, an explanation of evil rooted in a contempt for the material world, and an other-worldly view of morality whose significance could be grasped only by letting go of attachments to sensual pleasures. These were all themes that would resonate down the centuries with Christian theologians, for whom Plato, grasped through the spiritual lens of Plotinus, provided an indispensible intellectual foundation. And yet Augustine also found a void in Plotinus, for his was transcendental reality to be grasped by reason, not faith. And it was faith, not reason, for which Augustine yearned, a faith that could fulfil his need for moral certainties and emotional security.

And so it was that Augustine came full circle and discovered those certainties and that security in his mother’s faith that he had once rejected as intellectually unappealing. His conversion was sudden and dramatic. He was in a garden in Milan, apparently suffering an emotional breakdown. ‘I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears’, he remembers in his Confessions. ‘O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever?’, he cried out. Then he heard the voice of a child from a neighbouring house ‘chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.”’ Taking this to be a ‘command from God’ Augustine picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistles lying nearby and, opening it at random, found himself confronted by a line from the Letter to the Romans:

Not in rioting or in drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.

‘Instantly at the end of this sentence’, Augustine recalls, ‘by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.’

Augustine’s experience of his own conversion to Christianity, his sense of being overwhelmed by an abundance of grace from God that washed away his old sinful, egotistical self, liberated him from his torment and despair, and made anew his soul and his faith, indelibly shaped his sense of Christianity and framed his theology. What he saw as the drama of his own life – that of a weak-souled, morally blind, emotionally wretched man being saved by the unconditional goodness of God – was, for Augustine, also the drama that was being played out on the cosmic stage. As with the man, so with mankind. Through Augustine this desolate vision of human nature came to shape Christianity itself.

God’s most important gift, Augustine insisted, was his love. The Holy Scripture, he wrote, ‘proclaims that God is love, and that love is of God, and works this in us that we abide in God and He in us.’ There was, however, a darker side to God’s love. For the immensity of God’s grace had to be set against the wretchedness of human being. Love of God required humans to deny their love of self and of flesh. But they had only become so besotted with self and flesh because they had rebelled against God. And in that rebellion the God of love seems, in Augustine’s eyes, to have become transmuted into a brutal, even sadistic, figure. ‘I broke all your lawful bounds’, he writes in hisConfessions, ‘and did not escape your lash.’ He sees God as ‘always present, angry and merciful at once, spewing the pangs of bitterness over all my lawless pleasures’.  ‘O Lord’, Augustine writes, ‘You teach us by inflicting pain, you smite us so that you may heal and you kill us so that we may not die away from you.’ This was not a Platonic God but the God of the Old Testament.

God, Augustine insisted, endowed humans with self-awareness, understanding and free will. But freedom and will had been fatally compromised by Adam’s sinfulness in the Garden of Eden. Sin was like fungus in the trunk of a tree, corrupting the body, weakening it, though not entirely depriving it of its powers. The only act of true free will was Adam’s decision to eat of forbidden fruit. Once Adam had taken that first bite, humanity was lost. ‘Human nature was certainly originally created blameless and without any fault’, Augustine wrote, ‘but the human nature by which each one of us is now born of Adam requires a physician, because it is not healthy.’  ‘All the good things’ in life come from God. ‘But the weakness which darkens and disables these good natural qualities’ derives solely from Adam’s disobedience.

Displaying the deep-seated terror of pleasures of the flesh that he had discovered in Manichaeism, and that had already become woven into the Christian tradition, Augustine believed that Original Sin was passed down the generations through the very act of sexual intercourse.  Sexual desire is the ‘daughter of sin’, he claimed, and ‘whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins.’ Jesus alone is without sin because ‘the Virgin conceived without this concupiscence’, an Augustinian word for what he saw as a whirlpool of desire, lust, envy, greed and coveting that was bound to the physical act of sex. Every human who ‘comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin’, their soul degraded, their moral faculties befuddled, and their will to do good corrupted, the result of ‘lust’s darkness’.

Original Sin made it impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because it degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower. Only through God’s grace could humans achieve salvation. ‘It is through the grace of God alone’, the modern theologian Alister McGrath explains, borrowing Augustine’s argument, ‘that that our illness is diagnosed (sin) and a cure made available (grace)’. So enslaved is every human to the service of sin that without God’s grace he lacks the will even to choose to accept salvation. There is perhaps no philosopher who has written more joyously of the love of God and of its liberating presence. And there is perhaps no theologian who has portrayed more bleakly his contempt for the human condition and the wretchedness he felt at being human.

Not all Christians were willing to accept this desolate, guilt-ridden view of human nature. A major theological debate erupted within Western Christendom in the fifth century when a Welsh monk, Pelagius, challenged Augustine’s vision. Pelagius argued that it was possible for humans to achieve salvation independently of God’s grace through the power of reason and the exercise of free will, though he accepted that God’s grace assisted every good work. The relationship between humanity and God was like the relationship between a mariner and the wind. A sailor can set off on his accord, but the wind helps him reach his destination.

Adam’s sin was to set a bad example for his progeny, but that progeny did not inherit an indelible moral stain. What, Pelagius wanted to know, was the point of God giving the Ten Commandments, or of Jesus teaching his Sermon on the Mount, if humans are so full of sin that they could not choose to follow the strictures? It is the responsibility of human beings to follow the Gospels, and to suggest that ‘the frailty of our own nature’ makes us incapable of doing so is ‘to indulge in pointless evasions’.

At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine was the question of whether humans are to be defined by depravity and sinfulness or by reason and the capacity for good. Are humans moral agents? Or are we so crippled by sin that it is impossible for us to have a clear idea of right and wrong?  Pelagius belonged to an ethical tradition that drew deeply both upon Greek ideas and upon Jewish concepts of morality and human nature. Augustine, too, wanted to draw upon the authority of Greek philosophers, Plato in particular, but he reworked Greek themes for a much darker, more pessimistic view of the human condition.

Augustine won the dispute. Pelagius was condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage, called by Augustine specifically to denounce his opponent, a condemnation ratified at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Pelagius, and those who supported him, were declared heretics and banished from Rome.

In the struggle between Augustine and Pelagius we can see two threads of Christian thought, two contradictory views of God, salvation and human nature that Christianity has never truly resolved. On the one hand an embrace of a loving God, on the other a sense of terror at God’s anger, wrath and vengeance; on the one hand an understanding of humans as moral agents possessed of free will and capable of good works, on the other a condemnation of humans as corrupted sinners, incapable without God’s grace of telling right from wrong or acting upon it; on the one hand a belief in the Law as God’s gift to humankind that called forth the moral responsibility without which believers could not enter the kingdom of God, on the other an insistence that not through adherence to the Law but only through faith in Jesus Christ could salvation be realized.

Even as Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, these fault lines were visible.  Jesus insisted on strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, indeed far stricter than anyone had previously demanded.  What was important to him, however, was less the letter of the Law than the inner spirit with which the believer looked upon both Law and God. Jesus seemed to demand of his followers an almost impossible degree of moral purity, a demand that hinted that only with God’s help could humans achieve such moral perfection. For later thinkers, such as Paul and Augustine, not just moral perfection but any form of moral attainment required the intervention of God’s grace.

Early Christianity found its spiritual energy in this tension between Law and grace, free will and sin. Augustine’s victory over Pelagius shifted the balance in that tension and transformed the very character of Christian ethical discussion. Recalibrating the balance between Law and grace, will and sin, created, however, a conundrum. Pelagius had wondered what was the purpose of the Ten Commandments, or of the Sermon on the Mount, if humans were incapable of exercising their moral will? That question could be asked another way. If humans are made moral solely by God’s grace, why talk of ethics at all? As the theologian Stephen Long wryly puts it in the very first sentence of his Very Short Introduction to Christian Ethics, ‘To bring the terms “Christian” and “ethics” together and treat them as referring to a common subject might strike persons of faith or those without it as odd, perhaps even a contradiction’.


The philosopher Zeno was once flogging a slave who had stolen some goods.  ‘But I was fated to steal’, the slave protested. ‘Yes, and to be beaten too’, Zeno responded. Zeno (334-262 BCE) was the founder of Stoicism. And for Stoics the acceptance of one’s fate was the road to tranquillity.

Stoicism, Bertrand Russell has observed, was less Greek than any other school of philosophy associated with the Greeks. The early Stoics came mainly from Asia Minor, the later ones were primarily Roman – Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Zeno himself was a Phoenician born in Citium in Cyprus. Xenophon’s memoir of Socrates fuelled his passion for philosophy. He studied under Crates who, as a Cynic, preached a philosophy rooted in contempt for wealth and propriety. ‘Cynic’ means ‘dog-like’ and the Cynics were so named after their founder, Diogenes, took to living like a dog, sleeping in a tub in the marketplace and begging for a living.

Zeno never took to the life of a dog but he nevertheless remained deeply influenced by the Cynics’ outlook, not least in their devotion to Socrates. Socrates’ indifference to bodily comforts, his plainness in matters of food and clothing, his refusal to flee Athens when charged with a capital punishment and his calmness in the face of death all shaped Stoic thinking. Zeno took also from the Cynics their insistence that nothing mattered aside from virtue.Not that others saw him as a particularly virtuous soul. Diogenes Laertius described Zeno not just as ‘sour and of a frowning countenance’ but as ‘very niggardly, too, clinging to meanness unworthy of a Greek.’

Zeno took to lecturing from Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch, in the agora in Athens. In that porch the Stoics found their name. Unlike Epicureanism, the tenets of which barely changed after the death of its founder, Stoicism was a school of thought that evolved and refined over five centuries. Of the early Stoics, Zeno’s pupil Cleathes and Chrysippus, a student of Cleathes’, had equal influence on shaping its philosophy. It was Chrysippus who more than any other transformed Stoicism into a coherent body of thought. Over time the hub of Stoicism moved from Athens to Rome. Much of what we now know of Stocism comes from the work of later, Roman Stoics, especially Epictetus and Seneca.

At the heart of Stoicism is the belief that serenity comes from learning to live with the inevitable. ‘Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish’, Epictetus counselled, ‘but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.’

Driven by a deep-set materialism drawn from the Presocratics, the Stoics saw the universe as determined down to the last atom and governed by a set of inviolable laws that no amount of wishing or hoping could alter.  These laws constituted fate, for they admitted of no exception.  They also constituted Providence for they were laid down by a beneficient God for the profit of Man.  The Stoics saw no contradiction between their commitment to materialism and their belief in a providential Creator. Unlike Epicureans, who denied any purpose or goal in the universe, the Stoics held that God imbued the universe with meaning. God is not separate from the universe; God is the universe.  He is, in the words of Chrysippus, its ‘soul’, which is materially expressed in the pneuma, or cosmic breath, that is dispersed throughout all the individual bodies and organisms, maintaining each in its proper state and its proper relation to its environment.

From the Stoic point of view, that which will be will be, and no amount of rage or anger or desire or yearning will suffer to change it. The rational response to fate is to accept it and, in Epictetus’ words to ‘wish the things which happen to be as they are’. To be virtuous is to live by ‘in accordance with nature’. In one sense every life is in harmony with nature since the laws of nature caused that life to be as it is. But a human life is only truly so when an individual accepts his fate and acts upon to it.  You may be suffering from a debilitating illness, but it would be irrational to whine about it, as it would make no difference to your health. You may be falsely imprisoned, but no amount of anger and resentment will break down the door, so you might as well accept it with equanimity.

Humans, Epictetus wrote, have no control over their bodies, property or reputation. What does lie within our power are our opinions, desires and fears. So, he counseled, ‘if you attempt to avoid disease or death or poverty, you will be unhappy’ for control over these are not in our power. What truly troubles humans are not ‘the things which happen’ to them but their ‘opinions about the things’. Death, for example, ‘is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates’. The problem lies in people’s ‘opinion about death, that it is terrible’. Don’t worry, be happy and you will live a happy virtuous life.  Rage against fate, and try to change things, and you life will be neither happy nor virtuous.  Virtue, for the Stoics, was the sole good. Since we have little control over health or wealth and possessions, so these are of little account. All that matters is accepting fate and living in harmony with nature.

It is a view of the good life that both drew upon and challenged Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia. For Aristotle, happiness consisted of acting virtuously in accordance with reason.  Eudaimonia could not be reduced to health and wealth or honour. But, Aristotle believed, without health and wealth and honour it became that much more difficult to acquire happiness. Virtue was a means to an end, not an end in itself.  And happiness was not compatible with suffering or misfortune. Material, physical and social well-being was a necessary condition of eudaimonia. Stoics disagreed. You could be facing penury, your body ravaged by disease, your name reviled in your community. And yet you could still be ecstatically happy. Happiness is all in the mind.

There was a social element to this disagreement, too. Aristotle denied that the poor could be as virtuous as those better endowed with wealth. A working life ‘is not noble, and it militates against virtue.’ It was necessary to have ‘leisure to develop their virtue’. Those who worked for a living lacked such leisure and therefore could not be virtuous, at least to the same degree. The Stoics opened up virtue to everyone. They accepted that the poor could be virtuous – but only if they resigned themselves to their poverty and sought not to combat it. ‘Think not so much of what thou hast not as of what thou hast’, as Marcus Aurelius counselled.

As a philosophy of personal endurance rather than of social transformation, Stoicism was appealing to ruling elites. ‘Nearly all the successors of Alexander – we may say all the principal kings in existence in the generation following Zeno – professed themselves Stoics’, suggested the nineteenth century classicist Gilbert Murray. It became more or less official the official philosophy of the upper classes in the Roman Empire especially after Emperor Marcus Aurelius championed it. And beyond Rome, the Stoic acceptance of the world as it is found an echo in Christianity, and through Christianity in many Western philosophical traditions.

* * * *

The Stoic belief in fate led to the insistence that one should be resigned to the inevitability of things. Their belief in Providence suggested that one should be resigned with a happy heart. Fate is not a chain around our necks by which a malevolent master pulls us hither and thither. It is, rather, a well paved road to a virtuous world along which humans are guided by beneficent Creator. But if the universe is guided by a Providential God who has the best interest of humans at heart, how come there is in the world so much pain and suffering? Would a providential God have allowed Socrates to be executed? Or for Greece to have come under Macedonian rule? Or for Thebes to have been destroyed and its population enslaved?

We only imagine that evil exists, or that the good suffer, the Stoics responded, because we do not have insight into God’s greater plan. Not that Stoics did not attempt to find a rational explanation for suffering. Even the most minor inconvenience, Chrysippus suggested, had been carefully designed by God for our benefit. God had created bed bugs to ‘awaken us out of our sleep’ and mice to encourage humans to be tidy.

Chrysippus argued, too, that it would have been impossible for good to exist without evil, for humans would not know the meaning of justice without perceiving injustice, or courage without cowardice, or wisdom without foolishness. Seneca similarly suggested that ‘God afflicts the best men with ill health or sorrow or some other misfortune… for the same reason that in an army the bravest men are assigned to the hazardous tasks’  – the gods ‘require most effort from those of whom they have the surest hopes’.  So those who seem to suffer unjustly should say to themselves ‘God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose to discover how much human nature can endure.’

Such justification of suffering and evil came to be known as ‘theodicy’ and was highly influential in shaping Christian moral thought. There may appear something deeply callous in such validation of torment and misery, a callousness that was, as we shall later, to rub off onto Christian theologians too. For Stoics, however, accepting the inevitable was not about rationalizing wretchedness and injustice, but of asserting human control over a world that appeared out of control.

Despite the insistence that one should be resigned to one’s fate, and despite Marcus Aurelius’ counsel to ‘retire into yourself’, the Stoics, unlike the Epicureans, set great store by public service and public duty. They believed in setting an example, in not just behaving virtuously but encouraging others to do so, in acting as, in modern terminology, role models.

The Stoic acceptance of fate fused with the sense of public duty and a fearless view of death to create a startlingly sanguine, seemingly celebratory, view of suicide. There was, to Stoics, an almost redemptive quality to taking one’s life. The difference between life and death, they claimed, was insignificant when compared to the difference between virtue and vice. Faced with a situation in which it is impossible to live up one’s ideals, noble suicide is better than dishonourable acquiescence to injustice.

The Roman statesman Cato, famed for his moral integrity, distaste for corruption and immunity to bribes, and an implacable opponent of Caesar’s, committed suicide after Caesar seized power, rather than submit to his unjust rule. According to Plutarch, Cato had supper with friends, after which he engaged robustly in a philosophical discussion, finishing with a debate over ‘what were called the “paradoxes” of the Stoics, namely, that the good man alone is free, and that the bad are all slaves.’ He retired to his room to read Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates argues that a true philosopher regards all of life as a preparation for death. He called for a sword so that he could be ‘master of the course which I decide to take’. He then disembowelled himself. When his ‘physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound’, Cato pushed him away, ‘tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died.’

Cato’s distressing death raises a perplexing question. How could Cato be ‘master of the course which I decide to take’ if fate rules all? And if fate does rule all what is the point in setting an example to others, or in yourself suffering to remain honourable? And since, for the Stoics, the mind is a collection of atoms whose course has already been rigidly determined, how can our thoughts and feelings (including the decision we take whether or not to be virtuous) be our own, rather predestined? Caesar was fated to act disreputably, Cato to take his life to defend his honour. In what way, then, could one be said to better than the other, or either responsible for his actions?

These questions return us to the debate about free will and fate that runs back to Homer and beyond and forward to our own age.  The Stoic answer was that our actions might be fated, but we still have to assent to our fate.  How any individual acts, Chrysippus suggested, is the result not simply of external forces but of their internal character too. Suppose you push a cylinder down a hill. It rolls partly because you pushed it, but partly also because it is cylindrical in shape. A cube would not have rolled so easily or so far. The nature of an object determines at least partly the actions it is fated to take. So it is with humans. Cato behaved honourably and Caesar disreputably because of their respective natures.

The argument is an important step in the attempt to understand the relationship between fate and free will. The trouble is, there is a hole at the heart of it because it conflates the ideas of responsibility and of agency. Cato and Caesar were responsible for their actions because each responded to circumstances according to their different natures. But those natures were themselves imposed upon them by fate. Through the workings of fate, both were born with particular dispositions, were exposed to particular experiences and developed particular personalities. Chrysippus might have explained why even those who lack freedom of will should be held responsible for their actions. But he did not explain what free will meant in a determined world.

Despite this conundrum, Chrysippus’ distinction between the two kinds of causes was important for it helped establish better the idea of fate not simply something external to agents, a force that operates upon them, but rather as a force that operates through agents. When, almost two thousand years later Marx was to write that ‘Men make their own history, but… they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’, he was expressing that distinction first drawn by Chrysippus. In Marx’s time, however, the idea of humans ‘making history’ seemed far more credible than it did in the time of Chrysippus, and so the idea of human agency seemed also more meaningful. For Chrysippus, free will was about accepting with good heart what fate has thrown at you. For Marx it was about challenging such fate.  It is, as we shall see, in that historical transformation in human possibilities that free will acquired new meaning.

Perhaps, however, the most important Stoic legacy to the history of moral thought was in the concept of universal brotherhood. In his famous Elements of Ethics, part of which was discovered as a papyrus fragment in 1901 at Hermopolis, now in modern Egypt, the second century Stoic philosopher Hierocles imagines very individual as standing at the centre of a series of concentric circles. The first circle is the mind, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, the local community, the community of neighbouring towns, the country, and finally the entire human race. To be virtuous, Hierocles suggested, is to draw these circles together, constantly to transfer people from the outer circles to the inner circles, to treat strangers as cousins and cousins as brothers and sisters, making all human beings part of our concern. The Stoics called this process of drawing the circles together oikeiosis, a word that is almost untranslatable but means something like the process by which everything is made into your home.

There were limits, of course, to the Stoics’ benevolence. Epictetus might have been a freed slave, but Stoics had little to say about slavery. All humans sprang from the same mould. ‘The man whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock’, Seneca wrote,  ‘is smiled upon by the same skies and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies.’ But slavery was a condition of the body and therefore untouchable by human hands. Stoics certainly thought that slaves should be treated decently. But they did not believe it possible to challenge the actual institution. The slavery that mattered to Stoics was the slavery of the soul. Physical slaves, they believed, could transcend their brute bondage, indeed could only transcend their brute bondage, by exercising their freedom of spirit.

Nevertheless, in an age in which rights and duties were defined solely in relation to the polis or the state, in which barbarians were regarded as fit for enslavement, and in which Aristotle defended slavery on the grounds that some people were naturally created to be enslaved, there is something hugely impressive about the Stoics’ pursuit of oikeiosis. ‘Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian’, Epitectus wrote, ‘but that you are a citizen of the world. For why do you say that you are an Athenian, and why do you not say that you belong to the small nook only into which your poor body was cast at birth?’ From God, Epictetus continued, ‘have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth’. So why should not every human being ‘call himself a citizen of the world?’

It is a cosmopolitan vision that would be startling today, let alone two thousand years ago.


In The Republic, Plato links a political argument about the best form of society to an ethical argument about what constitutes the good and how to discover it and binds the two together with a psychological claim about how best to achieve happiness. Goodness and happiness, for Plato, are both the offspring of harmony, of the soul and of the city.

The psychological, the political and the metaphysical arguments have all proved deeply influential, from Christian theology’s appropriation of the transcendental Forms to Sigmund Freud’s tripartite distinction between the ego, id and superego. There is, however, something deeply dissatisfying about Plato’s theory. For a start, it is not so much an ethical as a psychological refutation of Thrasymachus. Plato dismisses naked self-interest not as ethically unsound but as mentally unhealthy.  To be unjust is to suffer from an unbalanced mind.

In large part Plato’s failure to make a properly ethical case against the pure pursuit of self-interest rests on his inability to recognize the force of Thrasymachus’ moral argument. While it is tempting to treat Thrasymachus ‘as someone who is quite obviously wrong’, the philosopher Richard Norman observes, we should in fact ‘take very seriously the possibility that he may be right’; not least because ‘The question, “Why should I pursue my own interests?” seems redundant’ while ‘the question “Why should I heed other people’s interests?” does seem to require an answer.’ That is, however, a question that makes much more sense to a modern mind than to an Ancient one.

The idea of self-interest is, perhaps surprisingly, not self-evident. At different times, in different societies, ‘self-interest’ has meant different things. Compare, for instance, Thrasymachus and Achilles.  Achilles was driven by self-interest. He did not wish to lose his war prize Briseis.  He was more interested in preserving his honour than in defending the interests of the Greeks. Or that, at least, is how a modern viewer would read it. For Achilles, though, his withdrawal of his men from battle in outrage at Agamemnon’s action was not a case of selfishness, nor even of self-interest, but a matter of following the code laid down by his community. That code was often not in the interest of the individual (the highest honour, after all, was death in battle, a fate that was to befall Achilles himself). But, in prizing individual honour above wider needs, nor was it often in the interests of the community either. This was one reason such honour codes slowly evolved into other forms of moral injunctions.

Thrasymachus possessed a very different concept of self-interest. Self-interest, to him, was unrelated to the interests of the community; individuals in his view should not take into account any needs other than their own. Philosophers, both ancient and modern, have shown how such an egoistical view makes little sense. Humans are not solitary creatures but exist only within the confines of a community. It is only through a community of others that an individual can assert his own interests.

Nevertheless, in time, Tharasymachus’ claim that justice is a scam, that it is merely an expression of power, and that the most rational behaviour is to disregard justice where possible and pursue one’s self-interest was to prove almost as influential as were Plato’s own arguments. Hobbes’ notion of bellum omnium contra omnes – ‘a war of all against all’;  Nietzsche’s celebration of ‘the will to power’; Marx’s cynicism about bourgeois morality as an expression of class interests: all echo Thrasymachus.  Hobbes, Nietzsche and Marx are three disparate thinkers. What connects them is that they are philosophers of the modern era, attempting to make a sense of the meaning of political power, individual agency and social needs at a time when traditional moral concepts were in disarray. And to be able to draw on the idea of ‘self-interest’ at the heart of Thrasymachus’ argument, they also had to draw upon a notion of the ‘self’ that neither Homer nor Plato possessed.

From the sixteenth century onwards, a host of social and intellectual developments helped define what we now call modernity – the spread of market forces, the growth of class struggle, the discovery of the ‘inner self’, and the creation of the private sphere. These developments enabled a new sensibility in art and literature that we can see, for instance, in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, in Vermeer’s depiction of the private and the intimate and in the self-consciousness of Shakespearian characters such as Hamlet and Falstaff. They found an echo in theology, in the writings of Luther and Calvin and other thinkers of the Protestant Reformation. And they expressed themselves in politics through Machiavelli’s work.

It was not that many of these thinkers would have agreed with Thrasymachus. It is more that the social and intellectual changes that marked the coming of modernity made an argument rooted in individual self-interest that much more plausible. Even those who disagreed with such ethical claims had nevertheless to take them far more seriously.

In Plato’s world, notions of the inner self were barely articulated, an individual’s identity and interest was bound up entirely with the community in which he lived, the very notion of the individual was far more constrained than it is today, and ethics was a means of regulating the social roles and relationships within a community. The importance of the community was expressed in the special place that the polis possessed in ancient Greek life. ‘Polis’ is today usually translated as ‘city state’, but to Plato and Socrates, to Euripides and Sophocles, it conveyed something far deeper and almost spiritual. Not only did the polis embrace a community’s social, cultural and political life, it was also the concrete expression of that community’s place within the Greek tradition. It was through the polis that the individual citizen discovered his identity and through which he became part of a history and heritage. Even today there is a fraught debate about how to balance individual rights and social needs. Two millennia ago the idea of naked egoism as expressed by Thrasymachus may, indeed, have seemed a form of mental illness.

Even given all this, however, there remains something not merely dissatisfying about Plato’s notions of justice and goodness but also deeply distasteful about them. Plato’s Republic is a world in which everybody knows their own place, everybody minds their own business. Justice, as Plato puts it, ‘is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own.’ It may be a vision that owed much to the traditional Greek vision of the universe as a place where everything had its place and function. It was also, however, an argument for the rationalization of injustice.

A slave or a manual worker is ‘despised’, Plato argued, because within him, ‘the best part [of the soul] is naturally weak’ and ‘can’t rule the beasts within’.  So, ‘to ensure that someone like that is ruled by something similar to what rules the best person, we say that he ought to be the slave of that best person who has a divine ruler within himself.’ He said this not out of a desire ‘to harm the slave’, as Thrasymachus believes, ‘but because it is better for everyone to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without.’ And since by definition a slave or a manual worker cannot find reason within himself, it is best for the harmony of his soul, and for the city in which he lives, for such reason to be ‘imposed from without’. For Thrasymachus justice is meaningless because strong should rule the weak. For Plato justice requires that the strong should rule the weak (or, at least, that the strong-minded should rule the weak-minded).

Slavery, to a modern ethical consciousness, is unconscionable, because justice requires not simply harmony but also equal treatment. All humans are morally equally, and no one can rule any other without their consent.  Slavery cannot bring about harmony because the very act of enslavement is, in modern eyes, to create disharmony.

It would, of course, be anachronistic to berate Plato for not being a modern liberal. Nevertheless, even from the perspective of Plato’s own time, his ethical arguments are questionable.  Plato’s real target was not the amoralism of Thrasymachus but Athenian democracy. His was an ethical argument in defence of the right of the few to rule over the many.

Democritus, despised though he was by Plato, possessed a similar view of moderation and harmony.  He was, however, a great defender of democracy, arguing that ‘Poverty in a democracy is as preferable to what is called prosperity under autocracy as freedom is to slavery.’ Harmony and moderation were to him means of protecting the democratic polity.  Plato reworked those very same values to make an ethical case against democracy.

We can read the difference between Plato and Democritus in one of two ways.  It might suggest that ethics and politics are unrelated, and that a similar view of what constitutes the good might lead to distinct views of the kinds of society that should embody the good. Or it might suggest that Thrasymachus is indeed right: that ethics are a means of justifying ‘the advantage of the established rule’; or rather, in Plato’s case, the advantage of those whom he thought shouldrule.

The questions of whether moral rules are objective or subjective, and of whether the idea of a good society is necessarily an expression of a struggle for power, have led to fraught debates throughout the history of moral thought and remain unresolved to this day.  The irony, though, is that while Plato despised Thrasymachus’ amoralism, the bleakness of his vision both of human nature and of human history led him to suggest that in reality Thrasymachus would win out. Deep down, all humans are, in Plato’s view, ‘beastly and savage’, possessed of ‘unnecessary pleasures and desires’ that are ‘lawless’. These lawless desires are oftentimes ‘held in check by the laws and by the better desires in alliance with reason’.  But it is ultimately a hopeless task, for neither laws nor reason can outwit for long the beast within.

Plato, like most of his contemporaries, believed in inevitable regress. ‘Everything that comes into being’, he wrote, ‘must decay.’ That is true of nature, it is true of societies, and it is true of souls.  His scale of societies from aristocracy to tyranny is not a scale of progress but of degradation. Each society inevitably disintegrates into a worse society, inexorably moving from one in which reason is king to one in which the basest of desires hold sway. In the end, for Plato, we can never escape the cave, and Thrasymachus is the true prophet, if not a philosopher king.


‘Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes, making their bodies the prey to dogs and the birds’ feasting; and this was the working of Zeus’ will. Sing from the time of the first quarrel which divided Atreus’ son, the lord of men, and godlike Achilleus.’

So opens the most celebrated work of Greek poetry, the earliest expression of European literature, and, to some, its greatest too. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, the ten-year struggle by Achaean Greeks to avenge the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta, by Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam.  (The Achaeans were the first Greek-speeking inhabitants of what we now call Greece.) The Iliad forms one half of a poetic diptych with The Odyssey, in which Homer recounts the tale of Odysseus’ struggle to return home after the fall of Troy, a struggle that was to last as long as the war itself.

Written most probably in the eighth century BCE, the Iliad and the Odyssey are distilled from a long and rich tradition of oral poetry, the work of generations of illiterate singers in an illiterate age who composed and passed on their epics of men and gods, love and death, adventures and conquests without the aid of writing.  Over centuries these tales melded together into a set of myths that gave the audience that listened to the itinerant poets a sense of time and place. The Homeric poems were both the culmination of this tradition and its transformation, works that drew upon the oral lore but whose depth of vision, breadth of imagination, and sheer ambition gave voice to a new kind of literature and to a new kind of myth.

Whether Homer was an actual poet, or simply the name given to a group of poets from whose collective labours the Iliad and the Odyssey emerged, remains unclear. For the ancient Greeks, Homer was both a real figure and a mythical one. The Iliadand the Odyssey were the foundation stones of their culture. Aeschylus, one of the greatest of all dramatists, said of his writing that it was but ‘slices from Homer’s banquet’.  A celebrated allegorical marble relief, the ‘Apotheosis of Homer’, carved by Archelaos of Priene in the late second century (and now to be found in the British Museum), depicts the poet, flanked by figures from the Iliad and the Odyssey, being crowned by Chronos (Time) and Oikumene (Civilization) and acclaimed by the nine Muses, Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, and Apollo, the god of music and poetry. Zeus, ‘Father of the Gods’, presides over the proceedings, and provides the divine mirror to Homer, ‘Father of Humankind’. Homer’s poems gave Greeks a sense of their history, provided a myth about their origins, nourished generations of poets and sculptors and artists and established a framework for their moral lives. It is a good place from which to embark on our journey of exploration through the history of moral thought.

The Iliad is a poem about the Trojan war.  And yet it is not a poem about the Trojan war. Both the beginnings of the conflict and the sacking of Troy lie offpage. The whole story of the Iliad is contained within a span of fifty-two days in the tenth and final year of the war. The main action, running through 22 of the poems 24 books, occupies just four days.

The quarrel of which Homer speaks in the opening line of the Iliad is not the quarrel between the Greeks and the Trojans, but that between Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, and Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis and the most famous of the Greek warriors.  In Greek, the first word of the poem is μῆνις – ‘wrath’; the wrath not of Melenaus, but of Achilles. Homer begins his tale by telling of how Chryses, priest to the god Apollo, asks Agamemnon to allow him to ransom his daughter Chryseis whom the Achaian king had captured as a war trophy and claimed as a slave. When Agamemnon rudely rejects him, Chryses prays to Apollo for help. Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks. To pacify the god, a general assembly of Greek warriors demands that Agamemnon return his slave girl to Chryses. Agamemnon agrees, but demands that, in exchange, he be given Achilles’ concubine, Briseis, another prize captured in war. Achilles, humiliated and dishonoured, withdraws himself and his warriors from the conflict.

Agamemnon’s ‘wicked arrogance’ and the ‘ruinous wrath’ of Achilles provide the raw material for Homer. His theme is not the war but the tragedy of the human condition, the unintended consequences of human sentiment and the nature of fate in governing human life. All the major dramatic moments of the poem spring fatefully and inevitably from the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. With Achilles out of the battle, Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam, and brother of Paris, successfully breaches the Greek camp, with backing from the gods. Achilles’ friend Patrocolus, who had also withdrawn from the war, now re-enters the fray, dressed in Achilles’ armour. He manages to repel the Trojans but is killed in battle by Hector, who thinks that he has slain Achilles. In revenge, Achilles defeats Hector in single combat, then defiles his corpse for days, until King Priam, aided by Hermes, persuades him to give up the body. The Iliad ends with Hector’s funeral.  The death of Achilles and the fall of Troy lie outside the narrative of the poem.  But we know that both will happen, for they are as inevitable as were the deaths of Patrocolus and Hector, two more moments in the unbroken sequence that had sprung from Achilles’ anger.

‘And so the plan of Zeus was fulfilled’, Homer writes at the very beginning of the Iliad of the consequences of Achilles’ wrath.  Achilles’ ‘accursed anger’ had set forth a train of events that had ‘brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes’. But both that anger and that train of events were also part of a divine plan.  Throughout the Iliad, divine and human causation are inextricably linked. Achilles and Agamemnon are responsible for their actions. They – and not just they – have to pay the price for their pride, arrogance and folly. And yet their actions are shaped by the gods, and their fates decided by Zeus’ scales.

The drama on the battlefield, and in the Greek camp and inside the walls of Troy, is shadowed by the drama on Mount Olympus. We see the gods holding council, quarrelling with each other, pouting and sulking, laughing and partying and making love, and descending from their Olympian heights to change the course of human affairs, protecting their favourites, and punishing the mortals to whom they have taken a dislike. When Achilles is dishonoured by Agamemnon, his distraught mother, the goddess Thetis, appeals to Zeus, who promises her major Trojan success so as to ‘bring honour to Achilles and death to many by the Achaian ships’. As Paris is about to be defeated by Menelaus in a duel he has foolishly called, Aphrodite ‘snatched him away with the ease of a god, wrapped him in thick mist, and set him down in his sweetly-scented bedroom’. When Zeus’s wife Hera, who has championed the Achaians, protests about her husband’s support for the Trojans, he accepts that she can have her way and see Troy sacked but also issues a warning: ‘Whenever I in my turn are eager to destroy a city peopled by men who are dear to you, do not try to thwart my anger, but let me have my way’.

Homer’s gods are not wise and judicious like the later gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are, rather, capricious, vain, vicious, deceitful and immoral. In the same era as Homer lived another Greek poet, Hesiod, whose Theogony recounts the family history of the gods. It is a story of incest, cannibalism and patricide. In the beginning was Chaos, a yawning nothingness. Out of the nothingness emerged Gaia (the Earth) who, after giving birth to Ouranos (the Sky) mated with him,  from which union sprung the twelve Titans, the three one-eyed Cyclopes and the three Hecatonchires or ‘hundred-handers’. Ouranos, fearful of his offspring, tries to force them back into Gaia’s womb. Cronus, a Titan, castrates his father with a sickle given to him by Gaia for that very job, and becomes the ruler of the gods with his sister-wife Rhea as his consort. Cronus, as fearful of his offspring as Ouranus was of his, eats all his children. One, Zeus, with the help of his mother Rhea, and grandparents Ouranus and Gaia, escapes before he is swallowed. The others Rhea tricks Cronus into vomiting up. Zeus, with the help of his siblings, then overthrows his father, hurling Ouranos and the other Titans into Tartarus, the Abyss, before ascending Mount Olympus to rule the cosmos.

It is not a story that makes one want to turn to the gods for moral wisdom (and still less for relationship counselling). But however savage and immoral the gods may be, they are also all-powerful. It is in part a reflection of the world as the Ancients saw it: messy, chaotic, largely unpredictable, barely controllable, and yet inescapable.  Not only have human choices to be made against the background of divinely ordered fate, but the gods often force humans to act against their wishes. Perhaps no figure more expresses the conundrum of human choice than Helen, whose abduction launched the Trojan war.  Trojans hold Helen responsible for the war and for the suffering that it has brought. Helen herself accepts responsibility for the tragedy. And yet she, and Homer, recognize that she has been manipulated by divine forces, and in particular by Aphrodite, who had engineered Helen’s initial seduction by Paris.

In a poignant passage at the end of Book 3, Aphrodite forces Helen into Paris’ bed against her will, to comfort the Trojan prince, whom the goddess has just saved from being killed in a duel with Menelaus. ‘Strange goddess’, Helen retorts, ‘why so eager to work this seduction on me?’:

Go sit by him yourself – abandon the paths of the gods, never again turn your feet back to Olympos; no, stay with him, for ever whimpering around him and watching over him, until he makes you his wife – or else his slave. But I will not go to him – that would bring shame on me – to serve that man’s bed. All the women of Troy will blame me afterwards and I have misery enough in my heart.

And yet, however much she detests the goddess’ imperatives, Helen knows that she is powerless to resist them. She follows Aphrodite to Paris’ bedroom.

And this, for Homer, is the tragedy of being human: to desire freedom, and be tortured by his sense of autonomy, and yet be imprisoned by forces beyond his control. Fate, to Homer, is a social reality, and neither will nor cunning can evade it. Indeed, a man who does what he ought to moves steadily towards his fate and his death. Both Achilles and Hector go into battle knowing they are fated to die, but knowing, too, that without surrendering to their fate they would also surrender their honour. It is, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has put it, always ‘defeat and not victory that lies at the end’.

With tragedy, however, comes dignity. Gods act according to whim; only humans are truly accountable for their actions.  Human life is framed by the gods and yet humans cannot rely upon them. They must depend upon their own wit and resources. It is human reason that imposes order upon an unpredictable world, and discovers dignity and honour within it.

The fraught relationship between Man and God lies at the heart not just of Homer’s work, nor even just of Greek philosophy, but also at the heart of all moral thought. In part, the history of moral thought is the history of attempts to address the problem of reconciling fate and free will. It is a dilemma with which not just believers but atheists, too, have been forced to wrestle.  When ‘we feel ourselves to be in control of an action’, the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore suggested in his 1988 book The Mind Machine, ‘that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.’  According to Blakemore, ‘To choose a spouse, a job, a religious creed – or even to choose to rob a bank – is the peak of a causal chain that runs back to the origin of life and down to the nature of atoms and molecules.’

For Blakemore, unlike for Homer, fate lies not in the hands of gods but in the nature of atoms and molecules. But the same questions are raised about human actions.  If all action is predestined, what could free will mean? Or ethics? From the beginnings of the philosophical tradition to the latest thoughts on neuroscience, the questions of fate and free will have been inextricably bound together in an ethical knot. Part of the story of the quest for a moral compass is the story of the attempts to untie that knot, to understand it, to live with it.


  1. Hakan Lindgren

    I think you put your finger on something important here:

    “Why is it that we live in an age in which we are increasingly drawn to view issues in moral terms and yet possess such an impoverished moral vocabulary?”

    This is a weakness that we’re not talking about. It will be interesting to follow this book project and see what you make out of it. What we need is perhaps a modern, secular vocabulary for these things – if that’s possible. The older moral vocabulary was based, I think, on a) honour and b) religion. Do you think youth in the streets are reintroducing concepts of honour and respect because they sense this void?

    Perhaps I read the Iliad too literally: in the relationship between humans and gods I see only an image of how people adapt to their powerful, all too human lords, who can destroy their lives on a whim. To stay out of harm, you need to keep an eye on the mood swings of your lords, and you also need to watch the shifting relationships among the powerful: who are allies or enemies today?

  2. Not just brotherhood, but other useful things flow from the apparently arid soil of Stoicism (at least if I remember Hegel’s argument properly). The Stoic, even as he renders all that happens as fated, in a peculiar sense rises above it, and cuts himself off from being snared in the present. This is a kind of slave consciousness, such as you find in Bhuddism, that makes shucks off the mundane trials of life, potentially to contemplate a distant plane. And in this separation, however statically conceived, the possibility of freeing oneself from the day-to-day opens itself. Hegel’s argument (or at least my bad memory of it) is that this mortification of the flesh is the first stage in the transcendence of the given state of things, and therefore a necessary step in the origins of subjectivity (bound up with Christianity, for him).

    The cynics had their good side, too. Diogenes in particular is well worth a read. Plato said to him, why don’t you learn to praise Dionysus as I do, and then you would not have to wash lettuce for a living. Diogenes replied, why don’t you learn to wash lettuce for a living, then you would not have to praise Dionysus.

  3. Allan Hayes

    This may be stating the obvious, but Plato’s growing up through the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian war must have influenced his politics.

  4. John Coss

    Just a small point that will probably get picked up anyway – in para 5 of chapter 11 you give Spinoza’a year of death as 1667 rather than the correct 1677.

  5. Kenan — I’m enjoying these chapters, and look forward to the book. To bad they can’t be placed with the oldest post first on this page, then I can send it to my Kindle in the proper order. But then I don’t suppose it does any harm reading it back to front. What are the publications plans?

    • Yes, I had thought about posting the extracts in the right order. But that would make less sense if read on the screen, so I decided to post them back-to-front, as it were.

  6. I am in the top posted chapter- there’s a paragraph that is dismissive of Burke’s concept of tradition – ‘[MacIntyre's tradition is] a very different concept to that of Edmund Burke who contrasts ‘tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict’. ‘When a tradition becomes Burkean’, MacIntyre insists, ‘it is always dying or dead’. Could you elaborate, please? I’m quite literally not sure whether I agree.or not. This seems exactly half the story as written. Do you address Burke in detail elsewhere- is that why this is such a passing treatment? Also, Burke’s attitudes about hierarchy seem a little more nuanced than you represent later in the chapter. I think his actions during the war for American independence, the French Revolution, and especially against British doings in India reflect the kind of living relationship with tradition that MacIntyre likes.

    Separate subject- did you avoid modern Moral Foundation Theory in general in the work? Wondering if it ever made sense to go there.

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