Ethical maxim texts can seem dry and simplistic, but they were closely connected to formal philosophical teaching in antiquity, as the present text clearly demonstrates. It is an excerpt from a lecture by the Platonic philosopher Ammonius, in which he introduced beginning students to the broad outlines of the field before proceeding to their first course on logic. It is thus formally part of his commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge (the standard intro textbook of logic from late antiquity through the Middle Age).
Ammonius taught at Alexandria in the 5th and 6th century CE, when pagans had become a minority, but philosophy continued to be dominated by pagan teachers like Ammonius himself. Likewise, all of his students, whatever their religious persuasion, were familiar with classical pagan authors and authorities like Homer, Pythagoras or the Athenian orators. Ammonius calls on this shared knowledge when he weaves references to the orator Isocrates and the moral poem ascribed to the Pythagoreans, the Golden Verses, into his line of reasoning.
The case he makes is that, while there are several subfields of practical philosophy, each of them—whether concerned with the self, the family or the state—has elements of lawgiving and jurisdiction, or in other words, of setting up normative rules as well as of applying them.
The practical part of philosophy is subdivided into ethics, oeconomics, and politics. Someone who does something good either does it towards it themselves by setting their own behaviors (ēthē) and life in order and is called ethical; or towards their household (oikos) and is called oeconomical; or they order the whole state (polis) and are called political. […] In this way, the three species of practical philosophy are differentiated from each other.
Now, each one of these is divided into a legislative and a judicial element. The political philosopher, of course, either lays down laws, which those in the state must live in accordance with, or they judge who they consider worthy of honors, and punish those who transgress any of the established laws. One must understand that lawgiving and punishing are also considered within oeconomics, because we also lay down laws in the household and judge those of our slaves or sons who transgress.
But these are considered not only within oeconomics, but also in ethics, because the ethical philosopher lays down laws for themselves, whenever they say, “Accustom yourself to controlling these, / firstly your belly and sleep, as well as sex / and anger” (Pythagoras, Golden Verses 9–10), and likewise when Isocrates says, “Fear the gods, honor your parents, respect your friends, obey the laws”, because these are both ethical sayings and laws.
And the ethical philosopher judges themselves when they say: “Do not admit sleep upon your weak eyes, / before going through each of the day’s deeds three times. / Where did I overstep? What did I accomplish? What obligation did I not fulfil? / Beginning from the first, go through them all, and then, / Rebuke yourself for the shameful things and take joy in the good” (Pythagoras, Golden Verses 40–44).
3 A Note on Oeconomics
Oeconomics has little to do with Economics in the modern sense; it is the rules of householding. And as the mention of slaves indicates, ancient oeconomics considered only the perspective of the (slaveholding) patriarch of the household, not of other persons. It is perhaps a good sign, then, that this area between ethics and politics has little presence in modern philosophy.