The Virtues of Character According to Aristotle
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes virtues in two types, one of character and another of thought. Virtues of character include things like bravery, temperance, and generosity, while virtues of thought include wisdom and prudence. In this paper, I will focus on the virtues of character and give a careful account of Aristotle’s views based on the reading of the Nicomachean Ethics.
According to Aristotle, the possession and exercise of the virtues of character are necessary for happiness. In other words, one can achieve happiness by being and doing good. By happiness, Aristotle is talking about the highest end and the best good for humanity. Aristotle believes that all human activities are directed towards certain ends or results, which we consider good. For example, we practice medicine to achieve health and generalship to achieve victory. Among the ends, some are instrumental ends which people attain for the sake of further ends. The further ends are therefore considered ruling and superior relative to the instrumental ends. Aristotle states that there is one end that is pursued not for any further end but for its own sake. This end is superior to any other end and is complete and perfect in itself. It is considered as the best good for humanity. Aristotle indicates that this highest end and best good is agreed to be happiness.
After establishing happiness as the highest end for humanity, Aristotle explains that the virtues of character are necessary for happiness because happiness depends on the possession and the exercise of them. Aristotle demonstrates this relationship between virtues and happiness by using the function argument. Aristotle believes that everything has a function and virtues are what cause the thing to perform its function well. For example, the function of eyes is seeing. Then, the virtue of eyes enables us to see well. According to Aristotle, the special function of human beings consists in the activity of the part of the soul that expresses reason. In other words, human function is living a life of rational activities. Human virtues are therefore what allow human beings to exercise our soul well. They enable us to do well and live well. Therefore, happiness, which implies living well and doing well, is an activity in accord with virtues. In this way, virtues of character promote or consist part of human happiness. For example, temperance is a virtue of character that enables us to eat and drink at an appropriate amount. This promotes our health, which is instrumental to achieving happiness.
Also, Aristotle emphasizes that happiness is an activity and therefore consists in not only the possession but also the exercise of virtues. Aristotle argues that the mere possession of something implies a state, which sometimes may achieve no good. For example, people can never achieve happiness when being asleep or inactive. Therefore, happiness is achieved not by the mere possession of virtues but by both the possession and exercise of them, just as Olympic prizes are not for the strongest but for the strongest contestants. People attain happiness not only by having the virtues of character but also by practicing the activities proper to these virtues. For example, we should not only have the virtue of temperance but also constantly do activities such as eating and drinking appropriately and healthily. In addition, Aristotle admits that some external goods, like sufficient wealth and a good birth, are still necessary preconditions for attaining happiness because they offer resources for the exercise of virtues of character.
In addition to a means to achieve happiness, virtues of character, according to Aristotle, are involved in the part of human soul that has feelings. As it is mentioned before, Aristotle thinks there are two types of virtues, virtues of character and virtues of thought. They are different because they belong to different parts of the human soul. Aristotle divides human soul into rational and irrational parts. The part of the soul that has reason in itself is called rational and it is where the virtues of thought, such as prudence and wisdom, occupy. For the irrational parts, there is one part of the soul that is described as vegetative or plantlike. This part is the cause of growth and nutrition, involving with no reason at all. Another part in the soul, which seems irrational but still shares in reason, is known as feelings and appetites. Although feelings are not equivalent to reason, they listen to and obey reason. The virtues of character, such as bravery, temperance, and generosity, are involved in this part of soul that has feelings and obeys reason. People with virtues of character show correct feelings, act correctly and follow what reason prescribes. Since reason is obeyed by feelings, virtues of thought are considered ruling and controlling of the virtues of character. To be more specific, Aristotle thinks prudence, the virtue of thought that involves in actions, is closely related to and inseparable from virtues of character. Virtues of character listen to prudence, and they are about having the right feelings and actions in accord with prudence through good deliberation. Wisdom, the virtue of thought that involves in study or philosophical contemplation, is considered superior to virtues of character. Actually, according to Aristotle, wisdom is the best virtue and the activity of philosophical contemplation is happiness itself. Therefore, virtues of character are subordinate to virtues of thought and serve as the means to achieve happiness.
Then, Aristotle discusses how virtues of character are acquired. He believes that they are results of habits. People attain the virtues of character by practicing and becoming habituated to them. Aristotle thinks virtues of character cannot be innate for the following reasons. First, if something is by nature, habituation will never bring it from one condition to another condition. For example, a stone is by nature falling downwards due to gravity. If one throws it upwards for many times to habituate it, it would still fall downwards, without changing the original condition. In this way, if virtues of character are by nature, people will not become more virtuous by habituation, and apparently Aristotle does not think that is the case. Therefore, virtues of character are not attained by nature. Second, if something is innate, people first have the capacity for it before performing the activity. For example, senses are innate because we already have senses before exercising them. We do not acquire our senses by seeing or hearing. However, for virtues of character, we first practice them before we acquire them. In other words, we become just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions. For this reason, virtues of character cannot be innate. Given that they are not innate, Aristotle argues that virtues of character are gained by the repetition of virtuous activities, which is achieved through correct habituation. On the contrary, vices are gained by the repetition of vicious activities. Aristotle also points out that the legislators’ correct habituation of citizens to make them good offers evidence for this argument. Therefore, for Aristotle, it is very important that people always perform the right activities in order to obtain the virtues of character.
Next, Aristotle claims that virtues and vices of character are related to pleasures and pains. For example, if a person finds it enjoyable to stand firm against terrifying situation in battlefields, he demonstrates the virtue of bravery, but if he finds it painful, he demonstrates the vice of cowardice. Also, a person who finds pleasure in abstinence is temperate, and a person who finds pain is intemperate. Aristotle gives two reasons why virtues of character are related to pleasures and pains. First, as he concludes before, virtues are about feelings and actions. Feelings and actions always imply pleasures or pains. In this way, virtues are about pleasures and pains. Second, corrective treatments employ pleasures and pains to punish vices and restore virtues. For example, to punish a vicious action, legislators associate pain with this action through sentence or imprisonment and therefore correct this vice. These corrective treatments of manipulating pleasures and pains indicate that virtues and vices are related to pleasures and pains. Given that, Aristotle concludes that people with virtues of character seek pleasures and endure pains in a right way and to a right extent, and vices are the opposites.
Finally, Aristotle gives a definition of the virtues of character by identifying the genus and differentia. First, Aristotle lists three possible candidates for the genus of virtues of character. Aristotle claims that they must belong to one of the three conditions in the human soul: feelings, capacities and states. Aristotle offers explanations for these three conditions. Feelings are the indicator of pleasures and pains, for example, appetite, anger, fear, etc. Capacities are the capabilities of having those feelings. States are what people have when they are better or worse off due to the feelings of pleasures and pains. For example, when feeling is either too intense or too deficient, people are worse off, and when feeling is intermediate and appropriate, people are better off. Aristotle performs a process of elimination to find the genus of the virtues of character. Aristotle states that virtues and vices of character cannot be feelings, and he gives three reasons for that. First, people are never praised or blamed for having certain feelings. However, they are praised or blamed for having certain virtues or vices. Second, feelings are generated without decisions. For example, people do not decide to feel angry or afraid. However, it does require decisions to perform certain actions proper to the virtues of character. Finally, people are said to be moved by feelings but never moved by virtues or vices. Therefore, virtues are not feelings, though they are relevant to feelings. Aristotle also indicates that they are not capacities either. Similar to feelings, capacities are neither praised nor blamed, but virtues and vices are. Moreover, capacities are gained by nature, but virtues are acquired not by nature but by habituation, as Aristotle discusses before. Therefore, virtues are not capacities. Then, there is only one possibility left: virtues are states.
After identifying the genus of virtues of character as states, Aristotle tries to find the differentia, which describes the essence of virtues of character and distinguishes them from other species in the genus of states. In other word, Aristotle is going to answer what kind of states they are. Aristotle introduces the concept of intermediate or the mean between extremes. According to Aristotle, there are two types of intermediate: one is in the object and one is relative to us. Intermediate in the object is the thing exactly equidistant to two extremes. For example, six is objectively intermediate between two and ten because it exceeds two by four and is exceeded by ten by the same amount. However, Aristotle emphasizes that the intermediate concerned in sciences is not objective but relative to us; that is to say, what individuals consider as neither excessive nor deficient for their sake. For example, for the science of prescribing food, six pounds might be the intermediate amount for professional athletes. However, for amateurs, six pounds would be too much, and something less is the intermediate for his sake. Therefore, one acquires a mean state according to what is intermediate for him.
Aristotle indicates that, in craft, people consider a good product as intermediate because they think nothing can be added to or reduced from it. If added or reduced, they think it is ruined by being excessive or deficient. According to Aristotle, since craft aims at the intermediate, virtues of character, as something superior to craft, should also aim at the intermediate condition. As he concludes before, virtues of character are about feelings and actions, and feelings and actions admit being excessive, deficient and intermediate. People can have too much or too little of pain and pleasure in particular circumstances that makes them vicious, and intermediate level of pain and pleasure that makes them virtuous. In this way, the intermediate feelings of pleasure and pain are proper to virtues of character. Then, Aristotle gives another reason to show that virtue is a mean between extremes. He states that people can be wrong in many ways but correct in only one way, which explains why being wrong is easy and correct is difficult. Therefore, people obtain virtues of character only when they reach the mean, but they demonstrate vices in various ways by being excessive or deficient. Finally, Aristotle concludes that what differentiates virtues of character from other states is that they aim at the intermediate, and they are the mean between two extremes. For example, bravery is a virtue of character. It is a mean in feelings of fear and confidence. Excessive confidence and deficient fear can be called rash, while deficient confidence and excessive fear can be called cowardly. Generosity is the mean in donating and receiving money. The excess is wastefulness, and the deficiency is ungenerosity. After considering the genus and differentia, Aristotle defines virtues of character as the states of a mean between extremes. This mean is relative to us, about feelings and in accord with reason and prudence.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle views the possession and practice of virtues of character as what promote and consist happiness. Virtues of character are involved in the part of human soul that has feelings, and they are about having correct feelings in accord with reason. They are related to virtues of thought in that they listen to what prudence prescribes and are subordinate to wisdom. They are acquired not by nature but by repetition of virtuous actions through habituation, and they are related to pleasures and pains. Finally, based on genus and differentia, Aristotle offers the definition of virtues of character: they are mean states relative to us between two extremes of excess and deficiency.
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