Aristotle’s Theories of Virtue and Ethics

Sometimes, the moral intellectualism of Aristotle has been exaggerated pretending that he despises or ignores the natural inclination of man towards pleasure and happiness. But it has been done unfairly. For Aristotle, as for most Greek philosophers, happiness is the main objective of existence. What happens is that Aristotle does not consider it legitimate to reach it by any means. We do well to try to be happy, but not if we try to be happy at any cost or at whatever cost. The happiness that is achieved through deception or the production of suffering from others is unworthy. Only the happiness that is achieved by the straight path or by the path of virtue is worthy of being enjoyed. And only wisdom and knowledge allow us to discover which are the legitimate ways to happiness and which are not.

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What Aristotle strives to show that there is a close relationship between, virtue and happiness. The knowledge of good leads to the practice of virtue, and the exercise of it makes us happy. “Happiness is the best, and the most beautiful and the most delightful. This is virtue, which makes us able to practice the beautiful actions”[1]. Happiness belongs to the venerable and perfect things because it is a principle, because of it we do everything else. Human virtue is not that of the body, but that of the soul, so happiness will be an activity of the soul[2]. Virtue is divided in two “virtues of thought” and “virtues of character.

Virtues of thought grow mostly from teaching and that is why it needs experience and time. Aristotle has said that “Thought by itself moves nothing; what moves us is goal-directed thought concerned with action.”[3] In my understanding, the thought by it self is the basis of a good action but it is nothing without the actual doing of it. Virtues of character are essential to achieve that good action, which at the same time character are the actions connected to the thought of the action that a human being does.

Once these two virtues are together the human will get the felling o happiness. For example, when you help someone in desperate need and their nothings nothing in exchange but a smile or a thank you. That inner feeling is the happiness that Aristotle is trying to explain. However, by using reasonable thinking and character can also perform a bad action, both good and bad behavior need them to be performed, the difference is in how people use them.

On the other hand, there are virtues of Character where basically the education is always moral because making the individual a full human being is the same as making him good. However, virtues of character are not feelings nor capacities, instead is a state that decides, consisting in the mean relative to us, which define the reference to reason, things such as generosity and temperance are a clear example of it, because they come from habit.

In Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explain virtues of character by saying:

“None of the virtues of character arises in us naturally. For if something is by nature in one condition, habituation cannot bring it into another condition. A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times to habituate it; nor could habituation make fire move downwards, or bring anything that is by nature in one condition into another condition. And so, the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit.”[4]

He states that what is given or has a direct nature action can never be a virtue of character because it will always be the same. Personally, I totally relate with Aristotle with this because, I can see it very clear in athletes. Most of them have become what they are nowadays because of all the practice (habit) they have done throughout their lives, which makes them persons, and probably citizens.

Aristotle distinguishes and differentiates in The Politics and the Constitution of Athens the concepts of person and citizen, although to understand the difference that must be referred to other concepts such as State and Society. The State is formed through the union of families oriented to the common good. And after the union of many families, thus forming the people, and the union of many peoples, the State is formed, which is a result of the social dimension of man that instinctively leads to forming a society with others.

 “the good man is he who has one single excellence which is perfect excellence. Hence it is evident that the good citizen need not of necessity possess the excellence which makes a good man”[5]. When we hear the word excellence, we sometimes feel as if it were a distant cosmic entity. As if it were untouchable and too complex to be achieved. But, returning to those who make land, every day, we perform various activities. One followed by the other. Some bigger, longer. Other minors, faster. And as much as we were (or not), repetition always reaches us. And that is the key point: for Aristotle, it is in the world that dwells excellence.

Our biggest mistake is finding that excellence is something to be achieved. Like a mountain we need to climb to the top. It is not! Excellence is the most constant of processes, it has no end. Excellence is working with the utmost attention on what you are working on. Do “the best possible” that routine activity.

One quote example that Aristotle mentioned in the book politics “Like the sailor, the citizen is a member of a community. Now, sailors have different functions, for one of them is a rower, another a pilot, and a third a look-out man, a fourth is described by some similar term; and while the precise definition of each individual’s excellence applies exclusively to him, there is, at the same time, a common definition applicable to them all.”[6]According with this, there are many options for people to be citizens by being part of their government, although, not everyone is a citizen, since the non-citizen person (slaves, foreigners …) can have an address or rights, but only the citizen can have the functions of judge and magistrate, or what is the same, rights and freedoms policies. But there is also a division between citizens. Citizens who have not yet reached the required age “Incomplete citizens” and the elderly who have been removed from the civic registration “retired citizens”.

In this way, if man, as first nature is a rational being, as second nature is a political being or animal. The voice is possessed by all animals, but the word is possessed only by man, who also possesses the sense of good and evil, and allows him to give statements of the ethical and moral order, the convenient and the harmful, together with the ability to think.

He is the one who participates in judicial and administrative functions. The task of the citizens is the security of the community, and the community is the regime, so that the virtue of the citizen is necessarily linked to the regime, that is, if there are several forms of regimes there can be no single perfect virtue of the good citizen. On the other hand, the man of good is according to a single perfect virtue. Political equality is given between citizens, and with political leadership it is sent to those of the same class and to the free, it is where the ruler must learn by being first governed.

The good citizen must know and be able to obey and command, that would be his virtue, knowing that both the virtue of thought and character require each other in other to form a good citizen. Once that person is a full citizen then he can work in the political field to guarantee the city and the people in it their survival. 

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition. Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary, by TERENCE IRWIN. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/Cambridge

Aristotle, Aristotle: The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Edited and translated by Stephen Everson. Publisher, Cambridge University Press

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition.  (pg1099a 24)

[2] Ibid., Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition (pg1102a 15)

[3] Ibid., Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition (pg1138b 37)

[4] Ibid.,Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition (pg1103a 19)

[5] Aristotle., Aristotle: The Politics and the Constitution of Athens (1276b 33)

[6] Aristotle., Aristotle: The Politics and the Constitution of Athens (1276b 20)

Justice as a Virtue in Philosophy

When talking about justice as a virtue, it is referred to as the way individuals behave, their traits, it can be connected or even reference to social justice. John Rawls the philosopher had another way of looking at it as “the first virtue of social institutions”, therefore they are more than interpretation of individual and social applications between the social justice and justice as a virtue. Every philosopher will have their own unique interpretation of what they think it is really about,  a good example mentioned is that Plato in the Republic would treat justice as an “overarching virtue of individuals (and of societies), meaning that almost every issue he (or we) would regard as ethical comes in under the notion of justice (dikaosoune ). But in modern usages justice covers only part of individual morality”. Another example was used to show how we think as a society, it was said that we won’t think as someone to be unjust if they have neglected their children or lied, other qualities would be mentioned about the individual first before being unjust comes to mind. In the case of individual justice, it is connected to the moral issues, having to do with goods or property.

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Karl Marx believed that capitalism has negative effects on the way society operates, he also believed that through its own logia it would collapse, like before how socio-economic systems had collapsed on themselves throughout time. Marx had problems with the mode of production, his most crucial point was the “alienation” and “exploitation” of the workers, he states that workers are forced to sell their labor power for a period in their life, getting in return way less than what they are supposed to received, this is due to the fact of the workers living labor, the production and the expenses of the product it gives the capitalist a surplus while the laborer is paid well below standard.

This is a what one can call “exploitation” as the capitalist receives all the profit while the worker gets the bare minimum, he explains why it is a bad thing, he stated that it can’t happen through any system, only through a Capitalism exploitation is class exploitation, then being reinforced by already existing rules. Alienation then comes from the fact of how the workers are viewed and treated, they can be seen with the same value as the machine they are using, just as the capitalist are profiting from the use of the machines, only paying for the maintenance, it is the same for the worker. He also gave another example of alienation of how the workers are living in an automation in the world of the automation, its just the workers in a warehouse of commodities, a servant of the machine.

Justice is seen as only in the interest of the strong, every government has made their own laws, democratically, aristocratical, tyrannical, with each of these government making each law in their own interest, and by doing this is how they give out justice to the public, and as a someone breaks the law then they are punished by doing that, even if the laws are unjust and makes no sense, so therefore justice is only of interest of those who are stronger and have the power to command, as for “might is Right”, it is considered to be about strength or physicality, which is not apart of what we do today.

In the world of an extreme pacifists it makes perfect sense, but in our world, today’s world does it really makes sense? Or I should say is it even possible? I personally do not believe this concept as sometimes its do or die, or the matter of protecting those who are hopeless. The just war theory states that it must be of last resort, be of self-defense or against invasion, not to acquire wealth or power, there must be rules to the war, it must be fought to promote good or avoid evil, just think about all of these things, and ask yourself this question, is it really possible? Most of the answers would probably be no.

What philosophers thought was a conventional way of war in reality it is not, especially not in today’s world, we have evolved in terms of the way the world works, how governments operate, everyone have their own agenda, greed is on the rise, the race is on to who can boost about having the biggest army, the biggest missile, we live in an egotistical world, it is almost a must to do the things that are being done in order to achieve anything. With that being said there is also still some good that comes from the approach that is being taken right now, innocents are being save, being are finding a new and better way of living, not much can be done to go back to the belief of these said philosophers.

The theory has changed over time and is significant to the criteria of what determines what warfare is, this theory came from the Greek and Roman period and also has its part in Christian traditions, some say that teachings from Aristotle’s and Cicero’s was a reflection of their belief, but it really came about from St. Augustine’s. In regard to 9/11 it depends on how you look at it, but it can be said that the theory does apply in some way.

It states that warfare comes down to “ as a last resort” and is at the bottom of the list as a reason why a country would go war, with that being said the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan came after 9/11, it was a way of retaliation to what had happen and as a way to combat what the United States deemed as the time was terrorist. The confusion in those said countries was at an all-time high also, with many innocent people either injured or killed, as the leader was corrupt and had a totalitarian approach. The invasion was for many reasons, one was to try and curb the behavior and the many terroristic acts that was believed to be taking place, another was the fact that the U.S. thought that they also had some form of nuclear weapons at their disposal and wanted them to give up what they had.

Thinking about it, was it a last resort? Were people in agreement for this to happen, did it benefit the U.S. in any way to do this? There will always be pros and cons for doing what they did. War has always been in every story, especially biblical, and I don’t think there was ever a time in which humans didn’t have no part in war, maybe it’s a part of us, our nature and how we handle things, whether it’s a good idea or not, it depends on the views of the person and what they believe in order to figure out what it really was. It all comes down to moral and ethics and how we would react to seeing innocents hurt.

Social contract theory states that people who live together in a society in an agreement to establish moral and political rules of behavior. People believe that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it. social contracts can be explicit, which are laws or implicit, which is raising your hand in class to speak. The U.S. Constitution is an example of explicit social contract. It has multiple laws which gives the people a blue print of what they can or can’t do.

Hobbs and Rousseau both used the term “savage” man as a state of nature in a attempt to analyze the way humans think and react to different things. They had a different approach, they tried to separate the individual from the influences that they would usually face, such as culture, religion, government etc to see how life would be without these forces which would dictate our behavior.

What they then came up with was completely opposite to each other, a man in a state of nature is essentially peaceful, sovereignty keeps the society corrupt, which then influences war and man alike, governments try to protect people and are supposed to have their best interest whilst sovereign only does what is beneficial to them, the people are not subject to laws.

It is said that humans are more complexed than what either of them thought, “he two most basic purposes of life are to live and to reproduce, it should do everything it can to avoid dying through a law of resources”.  The instinct of animals causes them to fight and compete against each other, how does that relate to how we are as people? We also have instincts, the ability to be irrational, in reality humans should be able to overcomes these things, but that is not what always happens, instinct and reason do not always agree. Society and Government can moderate bad behavior or encourage it, it depends on the type of organization and the qualities that are ingrained. Humans are a mix of good and bad, instinct and reason, avarice and empathy, the amount of these attributes depends on each person and can vary from moment to moment, and how the society is from where they are from, each person is a reflection from where there came from.


Yurtoğlu, Nadir. “Http://” History Studies International Journal of History, vol. 10, no. 7, 2018, pp. 241–264., doi:10.9737/hist.2018.658.

Slote, Michael. “Justice as a Virtue.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 8 Mar. 2002,


Do Virtue Ethics offer an Account of being Right?

This essay shall discuss whether or not virtue ethics offers a convincing account of what it is to be morally right. It shall focus on Hursthouse’s version of virtue ethics, which shall be outlined first, and the positives of this argument: that it allows for different actions in different situations, and does not justify mass atrocities as a result. Four criticisms shall then be put against virtue ethics: that it is not action guiding; it does not explain cultural difference; it offers no guidance for virtue conflict; and that it relies on either a circularity or, at best, the argument being superfluous. With only one of these criticisms being answerable, it shall then be ultimately concluded that virtue ethics does not offer a convincing account of what it is to be right.

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Hursthouse’s argument of virtue ethics is an updated version of Aristotle’s original work. She claims that an action is right “iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances” (Hursthouse, 1996: 646). Virtue ethics, then, makes an essential reference to the virtuous person, which Hursthouse claims is a person who “acts virtuously … one who has and exercises the virtues” (Hursthouse, 1996: 647). It is a trivial truth that a virtuous person does what is right, according to all moral theories. However, virtue ethics differs from other arguments in that it claims that an action is right in virtue of it being what the virtuous person would do.
The concept of what is a virtue, then, must be established. In this, Hursthouse makes her claim to Aristotle, arguing that a virtue is “a character trait a human being needs for eudaimonia, to flourish or live well” (Hursthouse, 1996: 647). This links to Aristotle’s work The Nicomachean Ethics, in which he claims eudaimonia is living a flourishing, happy life, which he views as the ultimate end and goal of a person’s life (Aristotle, 340bc). A virtue is any trait which will make an addition to this flourishing life, arguably termed the “positive traits”, such as kindness or charity.
Here, virtue ethics demonstrates a shift from the deontic concepts of deontology and consequentialism; not claiming that an action “ought” or “ought not” to be done. Instead, there is a justification of actions in terms of areteic concepts; claiming that an action is “kind” or “callous”, for example.
It can now be summarised what makes an action right according to virtue ethics. An action will be right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances. The virtuous agent would characteristically do the action in the circumstances iff the trait which leads to the action is a virtue. Finally, the trait which leads to the action will be a virtue iff it would increase the eudaimonia of the agent.
There are positive things to be said of Hursthouse’s argument for virtue ethics. Firstly, by stating an action is right “iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances”, there is an allowance for variation in action dependent on the situation, which is more in line with our pragmatic moral practice. This escapes the rigidity and often counter-intuitive rules of deontology. Secondly, whilst it allows for variation in moral practice, it doesn’t allow for the atrocities which consequentialism justifies as a consequence of its situational variation. This is because virtue ethics’ argument depends on what the virtuous person would do and, arguably, it would be said that the virtuous agent would not act in the way consequentialism argues for, by allowing mass murder or torture under certain extreme circumstances, for example.
However, there are decisive criticisms against virtue ethics. The first criticism is that it does little to tell us exactly how to act; it is not action guiding. Virtue ethics states that we should act as the virtuous person would. This gives no other instruction than “act virtuously”, which perhaps can be further developed into “act kindly” or “do not act callously”. However, there is no further instruction than this, and nothing to say whether an action will be kind or just; a person is left to rely on their pre-understanding and belief.
Hursthouse’s response to this criticism seems to be that this is all the instruction that we need. She argues:
“We can now see that [virtue ethics] comes up with a large number [of rules] … each virtue generate[s] a prescription – act honestly, charitably, justly.” (Hursthouse, 1996: 648).
When acting, we need only ask ourselves “is this act just?” or “is this act kind?”, and the response to the question, being either “yes” or “no”, will dictate whether or not an act should be done or not.
This response to the objection does little to answer the original concern, and leads to the second criticism. Hursthouse claims that in order to determine whether an act is just, or kind, or deceitful, a person should seek out those who they consider to be their moral and virtuous superior, and ask their advice (Hursthouse, 1996: 647-648). Not only does this rely on a preconception in measurement of virtue (in that we must have an understanding of what is just in order that we may decide which acquaintance is most just), it does little to recognise what is a second criticism for virtue ethics: the variation in morality between cultures.
There is a variation in virtues for different cultures in three senses. Firstly, cultures may vary on which virtue is to take precedence in cases of virtue conflict (though this is a separate criticism in itself). In the second sense, cultures vary in their conception of whether a trait is, indeed, a virtue. Thirdly, cultures vary on what they believe the action would be which the virtue leads to. MacIntyre writes:
“They [various thinkers and cultures] offer us different and incompatible lists of the virtues; they give a different rank order of importance to different virtues; and they have different and incompatible theories of the virtues.” (MacIntyre, 2007: 181).
He gives the example of Homer, who claimed that physical strength was a virtue. This, MacIntyre claims, would never be accepted as a virtue in modern society and, consequently, the difference in Homer’s idea of a virtue or an excellence is vastly different to that of ours (MacIntyre, 1981: 27). Though this demonstrates that one trait may be accepted as a virtue by one culture and not by another, it is also highlights the third sense of cultural difference: that different cultures can accept the same trait as a virtue, but what constitutes an act being virtuous may be varied. For example, all societies believe justice to be a virtue, yet one might consider capital punishment to be just and therefore virtuous, whilst the other may hold capital punishment to be unjust and therefore not virtuous.
To the defence of virtue ethics, Hursthouse claims that the problem is one which is equally shared by deontology, arguing:
“Each theory has to stick out its neck and say, in some cases ‘this person/these people/other cultures are in error’, and find some grounds for saying this.” (Hursthouse, 1991: 229)
Yet this causes concern for virtue theory. Hursthouse is here claiming that some cultures are wrong in believing that certain traits truly lead to an increase in eudaimonia, and are therefore wrong about them being virtues. This presents a circularity in reasoning for virtue ethics.
Before the circularity criticism is discussed, a defence can be made of one aspect of conflict: when two virtues are in conflict, not across cultures, but with one another in a situation. The third criticism is that situations are easily imagined in which two virtues can be in conflict in this manner. For instance, a police officer may apprehend a robber. On hearing the robber’s story, it turns out that he stole food in order to provide for his starving children. The police officer must then decide whether to act on the virtue of justice, and arrest the robber who, despite the circumstances, has committed a crime, or to act on the virtue of sympathy and charity, and allow the robber to take the food and feed the starving children. Hursthouse claims that “in such cases, virtue ethics has nothing helpful to say” (Hursthouse, 1991: 229).
However, a response can be contested. The degree of conflict can be very broad, dependent on the circumstances. In some situations, the correct answer is obvious; in the above case, it would be hard to justify not allowing a man a stolen loaf of bread to feed his starving children. In other situations, the degree of conflict can be much narrower, making the decision much more difficult. In keeping with the argument of virtue ethics, the correct decision is going to be the one which adds to eudaimonia. If both traits will lead to an increase in eudaimonia, the correct choice will be the one which adds most to eudaimonia. As the difference in the amount of increase narrows, the choice becomes harder, but the moral recompense in choosing wrongly will be less. Ultimately, if both virtues will increase eudaimonia equally, then they are equally the correct choice.
However, the most decisive criticism is that the argument which virtue ethics puts forward for what is morally right rests on a circularity. This is brought forward when it was demonstrated that virtue ethics necessitates the existence of some other criterion being the case in order that it can be said some cultures are right and others wrong in their approach to the implementation of virtues and what it is that they hold to be a virtue.
If virtue ethics is to explain why some cultures are wrong in their implementation of the virtues, then their argument must work as follows: a culture is wrong because what they are advocating as right would not be done by the virtuous person. It would not be done by the virtuous person because the trait which leads to the action is not a virtue. The trait which leads to the action is not a virtue because it would not add to the person’s eudaimonia. The reason, then, that a culture is wrong, is because they are mistaken in assuming that the trait which would lead to the action is a virtue, because it will not add to the persons’ eudaimonia.
It must therefore be considered what it takes for a trait to lead to an increase in eudaimonia. To this end, it must be claimed that a trait can only add to eudaimonia, and therefore be a virtue, because of something about the trait: if it is morally right. Herein is the circularity. Virtue ethics states that an action is right iff it is what the virtuous person would characteristically do in the situation. However, it has already been shown that there must be something about a trait which is morally right in order that it can add to eudaimonia and therefore be a virtue, so that the virtuous person may act on it. To avoid the circularity, for a trait to be morally right, there must be a criterion of rightness other than it is what the virtuous person would characteristically do in the situation. If such a criterion exists, virtue ethics’ argument becomes superfluous to explain what is right.
In conclusion, the argument for virtue ethics’ account of what it is for an action to be right has been set forward. Firstly, the positives to this argument were shown: that it avoids the rigidity of deontology and the atrocities of consequentialism. It was then criticised with four arguments: it is not action guiding; the difference in cultures’ morality; concerns when two or more virtues come into conflict; and the necessity for another criterion of rightness which, if accepted, renders virtue ethics unnecessary or, if rejected, leads to a circularity in virtue ethics. Therefore, it is concluded that virtue ethics does not offer a convincing account of what it is for an action to be right.
Reference List
Aristotle. (340bc). The Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by Ross, D. Edited by Brown, L. (2009). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hursthouse, R. (1991). Virtue Theory and Abortion. In Philosophy and Public Affairs. Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 223-246.
Hursthouse, R. (1996). “Normative Virtue Ethics”. In Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Shafer-Landau, R. (2013). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 645-652.
MacIntyre, A. (1981). The Nature of the Virtues. In The Hastings Centre Report. Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 27-34.
MacIntyre, A. (2007). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 3rd edition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

The Pursuit of Virtue over Strength in History of the Peloponnesian War

In History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides claims that his account of the Peloponnesian war, “is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public but was done to last for ever” (Brown, Nardin, & Rengger, 2014, p.35). This statement is correct, as different interpretations of his work are being discussed thousands of years later. The current Trump Administration, for instance, seems to prefer the realist interpretation of Thucydides, where international relations are defined through raw strength and power. However, this interpretation lacks an understanding of the fundamental message of Thucydides’ work. This paper argues that, Thucydides’ reveals that when a state’s interests are pursued outside of the confines of virtue and morality, it can result in the destruction of a state. As a result, it is within a state’s self-interest to pursue virtue over strength. First, this paper will examine how the power of a state must be attained and maintained through virtue, as it provides a state with the moral authority to build an empire. Then, this paper will discuss how the pursuit of strength results in destruction, which are contrary to the interests of the state.

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To begin, it is important to understand the different perceptions of self-interest between the Trump administration and Thucydides. The Trump team’s interpretation of Thucydides is based on the assumption that it is within a state’s self-interest to act in accordance with their strength. When a state is powerful enough, it is within their self-interest to continue to use that strength to maintain their power. As such, weaker states must adapt to the decisions made by stronger states. This is embodied in the Athenian argument in the Melian dialogue that “the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in the fact the strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” (Brown et al., 2014, p.55). Given that Melos was a smaller and weaker state, the Athenians argued that they had the power to conquer the island and thus, the Melians should surrender. Despite this, when one considers the entirety of History, Thucydides presents a different definition of self-interest, where it is within a state’s self-interest to act virtuously.
The power of a state is gained and maintained through virtuous actions, as it gives a state the moral authority required for leadership.
The Athenians gained the authority to lead the Greek world, by meeting a high moral standard through their virtuous actions. Throughout his funeral oration, Pericles presents Athens as an “education to Greece”, as it is the model free and tolerant society (Brown et al., 2014, p. 38-39). This is evident in their system of democracy where “power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people” (Brown et al., 2014, p.37). Additionally, Pericles emphasizes how “everyone is equal before the law” and “no one […] is kept in political obscurity because of poverty” (Brown et al., 2014, p.38). Furthermore, Pericles maintains that Athens “make[s] friends by doing good to others”, which makes “[their] friendship all the more reliable, since [they] want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debt by showing continued good will to them” (Brown et al., 2014, p.39). Altogether, Athens is respected in the Greek World because they “are free and tolerant in [their] private lives; but in public affairs they keep to the law” (Brown et al., 2014, 38). As a result of these actions, Athens had gained moral authority in the eyes of smaller city-states, and consequently, the Athenians were able to build their empire through the creation of the Delian League. This helped the Athenian empire grow in its strength as allies “were to pay a […] sum of money” and the “Athenian navy grew strong at their expense” (Thucydides, 1972, I.93).  In order to gain the power to build an empire, a state needs to act virtuously to build up their moral authority, so that smaller states are inclined to support them.
In contrast, when a state abuses their power by not acting virtuously, it reduces the power of the state as it undermines credibility and moral authority.
As the Athenians begin to abuse their power, they slowly lose their moral authority. This was the warning issued to the Athenians during the Melian Dialogue. In response to the Athenian threat to invade the island of Melos, the Melians implore the Athenians to treat other states with moderation and with fairness. The Melians insist that, virtue is “a principle that is to the general good of all men […] in the case of all who fall into danger there should be a thing as fair play and just dealing […] this is a principle which affects you as much as anybody” (Brown et al.,2014, p.55). This moment served as a turning point for the Athenians in the war, as it was a reminder of how the Athenians previously benefitted from acting virtuously. If the Athenians were to abandon these principles, it could hurt the foundation of their empire. As such it was within their interests to continue this behaviour, rather than abusing their power in the pursuit of strength.
In order to maintain power, it is within a state’s self-interest to pursue virtuous actions, as these actions solidify the moral authority required in leadership. However, when a state defines their self-interest as pursuing their strength at the expense of other states, they lose the ability to maintain their political legitimacy. As such, while the Athenian conquest of Melos is a demonstration of their strength, it also undermines the key principles that allowed them to build their empire. Consequently, this is seen as the beginning of the end for Athens as, over the course of the war, they slowly loose the moral authority to maintain their power. Although states, may have the strength to grow their power through the subjection of others, that does not mean that this is the rational approach. Rather, it is within a state’s interest to act virtuously in the pursuit and maintenance of power.
Furthermore, the pursuit of self-interest through strength comes at the expense of an orderly society. When states perceive their interests to be aligned with the pursuit of strength, they are more likely to go to war, which comes with catastrophic results.
When states perceive their interests to be aligned with their strength, they are more likely to go to war to diffuse any threat to their strength. In this context, war is perceived as a rational action that can maintain national interests. For instance, as Athenian strength became dominant, it was perceived as a threat to the Spartans, who pursued war in response. As Thucydides outlines in the beginning, “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this instilled in Sparta” (Brown et al.,2014, p.36). Following the events of the Persian War, the Athenians were gaining both diplomatic and militaristic strength, which was perceived as a threat to Spartan interests. The Athenians extended their influence in the Greek World through the formation of the Delian League, where member-states would provide a tribute to Athens in exchange for its protection. The tributes paid by the Delian League to Athens helped with the growth of the Athenian Navy, bolstering its military strength.
In response to this growth of Athenian strength, Spartans felt as if their position in the Greek World were being threatened, and pursued war. As highlighted by the Corinthians during the Debate at Sparta, the Athenians were perceived as the innovative leaders of the Greek World. While “[Sparta was] hanging back, [the Athenians] never hesitate; while [Spartans] stay at home, they are always abroad” (I.76). Moreover, the Athenian “is always an innovator, quick to form a resolution and quick at carrying it out” (I.75).  The growth of Athenian strength threatened Sparta’s place in the Greek World as it became clear that the Athenian Empire was the dominant city-state in the Peloponnese. In order to prevent Athenian strength from eclipsing the strength of Sparta, it was believed to be in the Spartans best interest to go to war, despite the warnings of King Archidamus. As a result, from perceiving self-interest to be defined by pursuing strength, Sparta and her allies were willing to go to war, to preserve Spartan interests.
Although it was perceived to be within the state’s interest to pursue war, Thucydides’ reveals how this interpretation of self-interest came at the expense of good and orderly society, as it results in a disregard for the conventions that govern society.
For instance, the events of the Corcyra Civil War reveal the worst of human nature, as war disregarded the rules that governed society. The Corcyreans massacred their own citizens, as they were accused “of conspiring to overthrow the democracy” and “men were often killed on grounds of personal hatred of by […] their debtors” (III.241). Furthermore, “there were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars” (III.241).
Moreover, the Athenian defeat at Sicily resulted in a complete disregard for the traditional customs that are observed during times of war. For instance, traditionally it was an “annual custom [to] give a public funeral for those who had […] died in the war” (Brown et al., 2014, p.36). In contrast, due to the detrimental effects of the battle on Athenian morale, they “were so oppressed by the present weight of their misfortune that they never even thought of asking for permission to take up their dead or the wreckage” (VII.526). So “the dead were unburied, and when any man recognized one of his friends lying among them, he was filled with grief and fear” (VII.528).
Both the Civil War at Corcyra and the Athenian Expedition reveal that war, although pursued with the intention of gaining strength, is not necessarily an honourable pursuit. It results in a disregard for the basic conventions that govern society and immense human misery.
Though the Spartans pursued their interests by challenging the strength of the Athenian Empire, the war had resulted in a complete breakdown of the customs and traditions that defined good and orderly societies. As a result, the Spartans and the rest of the Greek world, would have been better off if the Spartans had perceived their interests to be in accordance with virtue as opposed to strength.
Overall, Thucydides’ work reveals that it is not within a state’s interest to pursue strength. Rather, states are better off pursuing their interests within the confines of virtue and morality. This is because power is gained through virtuous actions, as outlined in Pericles Funeral Oration. The Athenians were able to build their empire due to the moral authority that was produced through their virtuous actions. However, when that power is abused, states risk losing their moral authority and thus, their power. Furthermore, when states perceive their interests to be defined through strength, they are more likely to go to war, resulting in the destruction of society. Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War reveals the disadvantages of raw strength, and the benefits of virtuous actions. As a result, states in the modern era should act accordingly.

Brown, C., Nardin, T., & Rengger, N. (2014). International Relations in Political Thought: texts from the ancient Greeks to the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Thucydides., Warner R. (Ed. and Trans.). (1972.) History of the Peloponnesian War. London: Penguin Books.