Modern technocratic capitalist society prides itself in its scientific advances and material comfort, at least for those who live in the developed western world. However, the ethical problem seems to have slipped away somehow. Religion no longer knows how to inspire morality, philosophers get lost in specialized theoretical speculations, and politicians like to legislate the loftiest ethical visions that have no way of being applied practically. Why not turn to the ancients? They had both the theoretical and practical aspects well in hand, inspiring right moral conduct with insight, wit and culture.
Before reading Shantideva, I thought I knew what compassion was; what did I know? Nothing. This one is a dark horse candidate, not having been fully translated into English until the early 1970s, but since the explosion of Buddhism in the last 30 years, this timeless jewel of Mahayana ethics has skyrocketed to prominence.
This work was the second most printed work besides the Bible in the 17th century and has been hugely influential on enlightenment ethics. It was eclipsed in the 20th century, but is making a comeback. Its eloquent, erudite blend of deontology, virtue and utilitarian ethics set the standard for ethics in cosmopolitan societies.
Confucious devoted his life to studying and promoting ethics and is a consummate master in the art of the pithy ethical aphorism. It was eclipsed in the 20th century, but is making a comeback.
His reputation for living the ethical life that he tirelessly taught made him respected by all the philosophical schools of antiquity. A master in understanding how to regulate the mind to achieve serenity. It was eclipsed in the 20th century, but is making a comeback.
Encapsulating what is best in Hindu tradition, this work understands the importance of ethical education for all phases of life, from the earliest childhood to the very end of life and beyond.
Before reading The Imitation of Christ, I thought I knew what charity was; what did I know? Nothing. This work is the second most printed Christian work, next to the Bible. It was eclipsed in the 20th century, but is making a comeback.
Maimonides was one of the greatest philosophers of the medieval era who wrote prolifically. Fortunately for us, he summarized his ideas in one volume for the edification of countless readers since.
Ethical works are known for being stern and serious, so this work is probably the most enjoyable work to read on this list. With charming poetic stories, fables and anecdotes, this Sufi author created one of the most popular and edifying books of all time.
The inspired speech of Socrates on the importance of the ethical life in the final part of this classic dialogue set the agenda for most western ethical enquiry to follow.
This one is the comeback success story. The Theosophical Society helped revive this neglected classic of yoga philosophy and its influence since then has been remarkable; no self-respecting meditation teacher can do without it.
11- (c. 4 BC – AD 65) - Moral letters to Lucilius
Seneca was active in all facets of Roman life, literature and politics and this work is probably the most concerned with practical ethical problems pertaining to urban living. It was eclipsed in the 20th century, but is making a comeback.
This large 14-volume set is not all about ethics, but largely so. A proud and accomplished custodian of the finest heritage of Greek civilisation, he answers all the questions on how to behave with elegance in a wide variety of situations of city living. It was eclipsed in the 20th century, but is making a comeback.