Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Modern Scholar: Ethics: A History of Moral Thought

By: Peter Kreeft

Lectures by Kreeft



Professor Kreeft, in The Modern Scholar’ lectures, offers stories of interesting philosophers and what they think they know about moral thought.  “Ethics: A History of Moral Thought” is a whirlwind tour of how philosophers define ethics.  It begins in antiquity and continues through tomorrow.

What one hears in these lectures may be accepted and practiced in life tomorrow or never; if never, one is seemingly confirming belief in free choice, but not much more.  As a warning to the curious, the tour is circular.  The tour ends as it begins.

Socrates (469-470 BC-339 BC-estimated age 71)

Socrates (469-470 BC-339 BC-estimated age 71)

Wisdom is characterized by Socrates as—“I Know Something That I Know Nothing”.  Kreeft recounts Socrates’ story of being told by Apollo’s Oracle that he is the wisest man on earth.

Socrates does not believe what he is told by Apollo’s Oracle.  He proceeds to prove the Oracle’s error by asking questions of wise men in his day.  In the process of questioning, Socrates finds no one can convincingly answer the questions he asks. 

Socrates concludes the Oracle is right.  He is the wisest man in the world because he knows that he knows nothing.  Others say they know, explain what they know; believe they know, but show (from Socrates’ questions) they know nothing.

Kreeft moves on from the ancients to Aquinas (1225-1274), Machiavelli (1469-1527), Hobbes (1588-1679), Locke (1632-1704), Rousseau (1712-1778), and Sartre (1905-1980) to reveal the truth of Socrates’ aphorism.  Each of these philosophers open new doors of explanation to human ethics but each door leads to empty rooms.


Aquinas acknowledges happiness as a goal in life. To Aquinas, happiness is defined by union with God, the Father of divine virtue.

The cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.  Aquinas believes, to the degree humankind follows the cardinal virtues, he/she finds happiness. The logical extension of this philosophy is that there is no chance of happiness without union with God, a God defined by its believers–a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, who?



Kreeft explains that Machiavelli removes the idea of virtue and ethics from the concept of happiness and suggests the exercise of power is the source of happiness.

Machiavelli views mankind as innately evil with happiness as reward from the pragmatic use of power; power gathered by any means necessary.  Machiavelli argues that being feared is more important than being loved.  “Might makes right” in Machiavelli’s observation of the world; virtue is superfluous in the face of force.  The logical extension of this philosophy is tyranny of the many by the few.

THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1679)

THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1679)

Kreeft notes that Hobbes believes, like Machiavelli, mankind is innately evil.  However, Hobbes suggests societies form into communities to mitigate human’ evil through the creation of laws exercised by a great Leviathan, a powerful monster.

The logical extension of Hobbes belief is big government that proscribes laws to mitigate mankind’s inherent evil.

John Locke (English philosopher 1632-1704)

In contrast to Hobbes, Kreeft explains John Locke’s argues that mankind is basically good and freedom-to-compete in a marketplace for goods and property will result in a balanced community of interests.

The logical consequence of Locke’s philosophy is smaller government but only theoretical happiness because competition generates win/lose consequences that amplify community’ inequity.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Next, Krefft’s analysis of Rousseau opens a door to the French Revolution with the idea of “The Social Contract”.  Rousseau believes in the innate goodness of man and argues for the rights of assembly and representative government to establish standards for the common good.  The consequence of that belief is mobocracy in the “Great Terror” of the French Revolution.

In more modern times, the rise of Sartre’s philosophy brings ethics into the 20th century.  Krefft describes Sartre’s philosophy as relativist.  Sartre is an atheist.  He argues that the world is indifferent to all life forms.  People are free but their freedom comes with responsibility.  Without God, all things are permissible but the individual bares the consequence of his/her action.  Sartre believes everything is defined by relationship to an “other”.

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)

Sartre suggests human beings live in a state of oppression.  What he means is people choose to emulate others rather than be themselves.  They are oppressed by working to stay up with the Joneses rather than fulfilling there own desires.

David Riesman (1909-2002), a sociologist, wrote a book titled “The Lonely Crowd” that exemplifies Sartre’s concept of oppression.  Sartre suggests we can break that bond by recognizing the oppression and choosing independent self-actualization or authenticity.

This is an existentialist philosophy that demands knowledge and understanding of oneself. 

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Oddly, existentialism began with a religious philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Sartre is known as an atheist. Every person is his/her own god.  Ethics are situation-ally determined with individual’ acceptance of responsibility; every person is an island.

A logical extension of this ethical belief is that societies breed iniquity and distort truth and leave every person on their own path to happiness.

From Krefft’s lectures, one begins to believe human beings are good and bad by nature.  Aside from “Knowing One’s Self” and “Knowing that I Know Nothing”, there is no philosophy that adequately defines virtue or ethics that would predict any kind of Utopian future. 

If happiness is the goal of life, its attainment by an individual or a society remains a mystery.

Nearing the end of Krefft’s lectures, he addresses attempts of science to define morality and ethics.  Krefft acknowledges observation’ analysis dates back to Machiavelli and his views of history but the scientific movement gains momentum with David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and John Stewart Mill (1806-1873).  It seems none of these “users of the scientific method” shed much light on the subject.


Finally, Krefft lightly covers eastern philosophy’s approach to morality and ethics.  One fundamental difference between western and eastern beliefs is eastern belief in reincarnation versus western belief in a one way ride.  A second fundamental difference is the belief in eastern’ culture that human beings are both good and bad while western’ culture believes humans try to be good but are seduced into being bad. 

Krefft suggests an eastern religion may pass a dying person on the sidewalk because he/she fears interference with reincarnation.  In contrast, a westerner might pass a dying person to not be involved, or with a belief that a dying person’s problem is not my problem.


Krefft also notes that eastern philosophy is by nature a “let be” view of life with a concerted effort to leave worldly concerns to their own destiny. 

Western philosophy is more proactively involved in defining and practicing, or failing to practice, morality and ethics.


By the end of Professor Krefft’s lectures, a listener returns to Socrates suggestion; i.e. “Know thyself” because “The un-examined life is not worth living”. 

What you believe is what you believe, but Krefft seems to suggest we should always seek to understand why.

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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