ARISTOTLE: Ethics [Book II; Book III, Ch. 5-12; Book VI, Ch. 8-13]
- Virtues are of two kinds – moral and intellectual. Intellectual virtues owe their birth and growth to instruction. Moral virtues arise from habitual practice.
- None of the moral virtues arise naturally because nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. A stone cannot be habituated to move upwards; a fire cannot be trained to move downwards. We are adapted to receive moral virtues and vices, and are perfected in either by habitual practice.
- We receive virtues by exercising them until they become habitual and ingrained within us. The musician becomes a musician by playing instruments for many hours; the just man becomes just by performing many just deeds; the temperate by doing temperate acts; the brave by doing brave acts.
- But one must perform these actions well. If a musician habitually plays an instrument badly, then he will be a bad musician.
- Matters concerning conduct and moral questions are not capable of being universally and precisely answered. The agents themselves must consider what is appropriate in each case.
- Nevertheless, there are some guiding principles for one to consider. First, defect and excess destroy things. Defective and excessive exercise destroys strength; defective and excessive amounts of food destroy health; defective and excessive courage destroys courage – a man either becomes a coward or rash; defective and excessive temperance destroys temperance – a man either becomes self-indulgent or insensible. Proportionate activities – or activities of the mean – produce, increase, and preserve things.
- By habitually practicing activities, we become more capable of performing those activities. Men who habitually practice temperance find acting according to temperance easier than men not accustomed to acting temperately.
- The state of a man’s character can be determined by the pleasure or pain that a man receives upon performing an act. A man who delights in abstaining from bodily pleasures is temperate; the man who is pained by such abstinence is intemperate.
- Moral excellence is concerned with pleasure an pain; men seek what is pleasurable and avoid what is painful. Thus, some men do bad things on account of pleasure and avoid doing good things on account of pain.
- We grew up with this principle of pleasure and pain; that’s why it is so difficult to liberate ourselves from the rule. We weigh our actions, some of us more and some of us less, by the rule of pleasure and pain. To feel delight and pain rightly or wrongly has a major effect on our actions.
- A question might be asked concerning what Aristotle means by saying that we become just by doing just acts, since one might suppose that a man who does just acts is already just. Aristotle answers this question by replying that there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled while doing the just act in order for someone to truly possess justice; for an unjust man can perform just acts. The conditions are: 1) the man must have knowledge that the act is just; 2) the man must freely choose the act for its own sake; 3) the act must proceed from a firm and immutable character formed by habit.
- Most people do not perform the acts of justice, temperance, and other virtues, but take refuge in theory and believe that they will become good in this way. They are like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.
- There are three kinds of things in the soul: Passions, Faculties, and Character.
- Passions are the appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure and pain.
- Faculties are the things by virtue of which we feel the Passions. The eyes that see a beautiful object are the Faculties which enable us to feel desire for that object.
- Character is the thing by virtue of which we stand well or badly in relation to the Passions. We stand badly if we feel anger too violently or too weakly, and stand well if we feel anger moderately.
- We feel the Passions without choice, but the virtues (Characters) are modes of choice or involve choice. The Passions are said to move us, but we are said to be disposed a certain way with respect to virtues.
- The excellence of a thing brings the thing into a good condition and makes the work of that thing be done well. Thus, the virtue of a man makes a man good and makes him do his work well.
- The intermediate between excess and defect is not the same for all. A gymnast requires more food than a person who is not a gymnast. The master of any art avoids excess and defect; he seeks the intermediate relative to him and his art.
- It is possible to fail in many ways; it is possible to succeed in only one way – the intermediate.
- Not every action or passion has a mean; for there are some that have names that imply badness: spite, shamelessness, envy, murder, theft, and adultery. It is impossible ever to be right with respect to these; one will always be wrong. It would be absurd to expect that there should be a mean in unjust, cowardly and voluptuous actions; for there would be an excess of excess and a defect of defect. Neither is there an excess and deficiency of courage and temperance because the intermediate is in a sense an extreme.
- Courage is the mean with regards to fear and confidence. He who exceeds in confidence is rash; he who exceeds in fear is a coward.
- Temperance is the mean with regards to enjoyment of pleasures. An excess of pleasure is self-indulgence; the deficiency of pleasure does not have a general name, so we will use the term ‘insensible’.
- Liberality is the mean of taking and giving money.
- Proper pride is the mean between empty vanity and undue humility.
- There is a proper mean between the ambitious and unambitious, but there is no name for it. Thus, sometimes we call the virtuous man ambitious and other times unambitious with regards to ambition.
- There is a mean with regards to anger.
- These three dispositions (two vice and one virtue) are in opposition to one another. The brave man is called rash by the coward, and is called a coward by the rash man.
- With respect to the mean, sometimes the deficiency is more opposed (cowardice is more opposed to courage than rashness is to courage) and sometimes the excess is more opposed (insensibility is less opposed to temperance than self-indulgence is to temperance).
- We naturally tend towards things more contrary to the intermediate. Thus, we naturally tend towards self-indulgence, not insensibility; towards cowardice, not rashness. Thus, we attain temperance by opposing self-indulgence; and attain courage by opposing cowardice.
- It is no easy task to be good because it is no easy task to find the middle. Those who know how to find the middle of a circle can do so with less difficulty than those who do not. Thus, goodness is rare and laudable.
- He who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is more contrary to it; one of the extremes is more contrary to virtue as we have previously illustrated. By shunning pleasure, we will best be able to hit the mean.
- It is impossible to determine with exact certitude the intermediate between two extremes, but we ought to incline towards opposing our natural tendencies towards bodily pleasures; for they are often most contrary to the intermediate.
“Character arises out of habitual activities.”
“Defect and excess destroys things. Proportionate activities produce, increase, and preserve things.”
“Moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of pain that we abstain from noble ones.”
“Most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.”
“The things to which we ourselves more naturally tend seem more contrary to the intermediate. For instance, we ourselves tend more naturally to pleasures, and hence are more easily carried away towards self-indulgence than towards propriety.”
In Book 2 of his Ethics, Aristotle asserts that virtue is a characteristic of excellence that men develop and preserve by habitual practice. Men must perform just deeds habitually to become just; for both an unjust and just man can perform just deeds, but only the just man will perform just deeds knowing that the action is just and willingly for the sake of justice itself. The action of a just man proceeds from a firm and immutable character developed by habit.
Virtues promote and preserve excellence; they are often the mean between two extremes. For example, an excess or deficiency of food and drink will destroy excellent health. Men are naturally inclined to the extreme that is most pleasurable. For example, men naturally incline towards self-indulgence rather than insensibility. Thus, in order to move towards the mean between the excess and deficiency of experiencing pleasure, men ought to oppose self-indulgence. It is better for man to err on the side of insensibility than self-indulgence.
Book 3, Ch. 5-12
- It is within our power to be virtuous or vicious. Aristotle acknowledges the fact that some people suppose that no one can control how they behave, but he supposes that all can make choices and have free will. He argues that the things which we blame or praise are within a person’s control. For example, we blame a man who has become blind through excess indulgence of drink, but pity the man who is blind from birth.
- We do not encourage people to do things that are not within their power; we do not encourage people not to be hot, or in pain, or hungry because we will experience these feelings nevertheless.
- Aristotle argues that when a man has developed an unjust character, he is irredeemable.
- Some argue that all men desire the apparent good. Different men will hold different opinions about what is the true good. Thus, some men will be led astray, and become vicious through no fault of their own. Aristotle (thinks that he) refutes this argument by saying that men voluntarily choose their actions, regardless of whether they are deceived about the good, and thus their ultimate states of character are voluntarily chosen because habitual actions form one’s character.
- A man is properly called brave who is fearless in the face of a noble death, and death in war is the noblest. The brave man chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so. But to dies to escape poverty, or love, or pain, or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome, and such a man endures death not because it is noble but to fly from evil.
- Men who fight in war because they fear punishment for not doing so are not brave. Men who fight in war because they seek honor – a noble thing – are brave. One ought to be brave because it is noble, not because they are under compulsion.
- The bravest man is not always the man who fights best. Professional soldiers face danger when they know they are stronger than the enemy, and flee when they sense they are weaker. Citizen-soldiers would rather die at their post than flee and incur dishonor. Professional soldiers fear death more than disgrace; the contrary is true of citizen-soldiers.
- Brave men act for honor’s sake, and passion aids them. Wild beasts attack under the influence of pain or passion (fear, hunger, etc.); they are not brave because they rush on danger without foreseeing any of the perils and are driven by pain and passion. Men suffer pain when they are angry, and are pleased when they exact revenge; but those who fight for these reasons are not brave, but pugnacious.
- Sudden actions are in accordance with one’s state of character. It is easier to distinguish a brave man when an army is suddenly surprised by an enemy; the brave man will remain fearless and undisturbed. Foreseen battles can be chosen by calculation and prepared for.
- People who are ignorant of danger appear brave, but they are not because they do not act bravely for the sake of honor, but because they are ignorant. When ignorant men, who are not brave, attain the truth, then they flee the danger.
- It is for facing what is painful that men are called brave. It is harder to face what is painful than abstain from pleasure.
- Temperance is a mean with regards to pleasures. There are two sorts of pleasures: bodily pleasures and pleasures of the soul (love of honor, learning, etc.). Temperance is a mean with regards to bodily pleasures.
- Self-indulgence attaches to us not as men but as animals. To delight in such pleasures is brutish.
- The appetite for food is natural, but to eat and drink whatever offers itself till one is surfeited is to exceed the natural amount, since natural appetite is the replenishment of one’s deficiency. It is people of entirely slavish character that become like this.
- The self-indulgent man is pained more than he ought to be at not getting pleasant things, and the temperate man is not pained at the absence of what is pleasant and at his abstinence from it.
- The self-indulgent man craves for all pleasant things, and is led by his appetite to choose these at the cost of everything else. The temperate man desires moderately and as he should those things that promote and preserve health.
- In an irrational being, the desire for pleasure is insatiable even if it tries every source of gratification, and the exercise of appetite increases its innate force, and if appetites are strong and violent, they even expel the power of calculation. The appetite should live according to rational principle. The desires for pleasure should be moderate and few.
“Confidence is the mark of a hopeful disposition.”
“The brave man chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so. But to die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome, and such a man endures death not because it is noble but to fly from evil.”
“It is for facing what is painful that men are called brave. It is harder to face pain than abstain from pleasure.”
“The appetite for food is natural, but to eat and drink whatever offers itself till one is surfeited is to exceed the natural amount, since natural appetite is the replenishment of one’s deficiency. It is people of entirely slavish character that become like this.”
“In an irrational being, the desire for pleasure is insatiable even if it tries every source of gratification, and the exercise of the appetite increases its innate force; and if appetites are strong and violent, they even expel the power of calculation.”
In these chapters of Book 3, Aristotle asserts that men have the power to choose to be virtuous or vicious. The only support he gives for this argument is that men blame others who are vicious and praise others who are virtuous. This is not a very sophisticated argument for free-will. In fact, I don’t think Aristotle presents a very compelling refutation of the argument that all men desire the good, but are often deceived about the true nature of the good through no fault of their own.
Aristotle discusses courage and temperance in these chapters. There are several inspirational quotes found in the discussion of these two virtues. With regards to bravery, Aristotle writes that the brave man is one who faces danger for the sake of honor itself. That is a very noble idea, and a state of character that is admirable and worthy of emulation. With regards to temperance, Aristotle writes that the self-indulgent man is one who is brutish and slavish. He also provides some insight into the difficulty obese people experience when trying to decrease the amount of calories they consume. Because they have exercised their appetites too much, the innate force of the desire for food has become more powerful than its natural state. Thus, when obese people try to eat a normal quantity of calories, they experience more pain from hunger than the temperate man. This causes them to seek more food to alleviate their distress.
I think that music and art are both bodily pleasures and pleasures of the soul. But the same can be said about almost every pleasure enjoyed by the senses. For example, one can delight in the smell of food, delight in the taste of food, delight in the feel of a sofa, etc. All these pleasures seem to be both a delight for the body and soul. The pleasures associated only with the body are very few. In my opinion they are all derived from the sense of touch: over-indulging in food because it makes us feel good, over-indulging in sex because it makes us feel good, over-indulging in sloth because it feels good, etc. Thus, I conclude that there are three kinds of pleasures: pleasures of the soul only, pleasures of the body only, and pleasures of both the soul and body.
Book 6, Ch.8-13
- Practical wisdom is wisdom concerned with the individual and individual actions. The practical wisdom of political wisdom is legislative wisdom.
- A man who knows and concerns himself with his own interests has practical knowledge.
- Practical wisdom is concerned with particulars, and thus is obtained by experience. Thus, a young man may be a mathematician because mathematics is an abstract concept, but he cannot possess practical wisdom because he has little experience.
- Deliberation is inquiry into a particular kind of thing.
- There is no such thing as correctness of knowledge because there is no such thing as error of knowledge. Correctness of opinion is truth.
- Excellence in deliberation will be correctness with regards to the end of which practical wisdom is the true apprehension.
- Understanding is concerned with things which are subjects of questioning and deliberation. Practical wisdom issues commands, since its end is what ought to be done or not done. Understanding only judges.
- Excellent judgment is the right discrimination of the equitable.
- Philosophic wisdom is not concerned with coming into being; thus, it is not concerned with things that will make a man happy. Practical wisdom is concerned with things just, noble, and good for man.
- Health produces health. Likewise, philosophic wisdom produces happiness because possessing philosophic wisdom, which is a part of virtue and actualizes itself, will make a man happy. [This seems like circular reasoning to me. Possessing philosophic wisdom makes one happy because one is happy when they possess philosophic wisdom, which is virtue.]
In these chapters of Book 6, Aristotle discusses intellectual virtue. Most of these chapters do not make much sense at all. I often found that Aristotle seemed to be using circular reasoning. He essentially states that possessing philosophic wisdom makes one happy because one is happy when they possess philosophic wisdom, which is virtue. Perhaps my interpretation is misguided by the translation. Nevertheless, Aristotle does make an insightful distinction between practical wisdom and philosophic wisdom. Practical wisdom is concerned with things just, noble and good for men, while Philosophic wisdom is not concerned with the world of becoming. Yet Aristotle argues that philosophic wisdom is superior to practical wisdom because philosophic wisdom is a virtue, and the possession of it causes a man to be happy.