Aristotle claims “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts”. (p120). How does he establish this, and what does it tell us about virtue, and the goal of human life.
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In this paper I will make discuss why Aristotle sees moral virtue as something which must be taught through emulation of role models, rather than learnt through detached methods. I will then extrapolate what Aristotle’s claim tells us about moral virtue, and what this means for the goal of a human life. Before I begin to determine what Aristotle’s claim tells us about virtue, and means for the goal of human life, I will reconstruct how Aristotle arrives at his conclusion.
In Book II, chapter I Aristotle begins by defining exactly what he believes virtue to be.
Aristotle sees virtue as, “being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit” (Aristotle 120). Essentially Aristotle is of the opinion that we are taught intellectual virtue, and we are habituated through repeated exposure to displays of moral virtue by moral role models.
Aristotle next contends that moral virtues are not imbedded in us naturally, noting, “…nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to it’s nature” (Aristotle 120). Aristotle claims that we are constituted by nature to receive moral virtues, but that their full development in us is due to habit. Essentially, we are not born with moral virtue, but it is natural for us to become moral through the emulation of the morality of others.
Aristotle moves on to propose the crux of his views on moral virtue, that we develop moral virtues by observing others, and then practicing them. In order to convince the reader of this, he introduces the analogy of the Arts in order to make his case for moral virtue, using the two examples of building and lyre-playing. For things that we have to learn by doing, he says, we learn by doing. Aristotle then delivers his argument that, “men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre ; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” (Aristotle 120).
Aristotle offers support for this view by introducing the example of legislation in the contemporary Greek city-states. Aristotle argues that legislators make their citizens good by habituation, which he feels should be the intention of every legislator. Those who do not carry out this habituation of their citizens fail in their goals. Essentially, Aristotle feels that under a good constitution, legislators pass laws that habituate the citizens to behave morally. According to Aristotle, this is what makes the difference between a good constitution and a bad one.
Aristotle further purports that like activities produce like dispositions. As a result, he feels that we must give our activities a certain quality, as it is the characteristics of the activity that determine the resulting dispositions. Aristotle expresses this sentiment by claiming that, “it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced” (Aristotle 121). It is essential that good habits be instilled in a person from early youth, he claims, so it is a matter of great importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest age. Aristotle goes as far as to say that, “it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference in the world” (Aristotle 121).
I will now move on to a discussion of what Aristotle’s declaration tells us about virtue, and what it suggests that the goal of human life be.
Aristotle tells us that virtues cannot be passions, because we are not praised or blamed for the way we feel, but instead are praised or blamed for our virtues – this is because our feelings arise more or less involuntarily in response to circumstances (Aristotle 123). Aristotle’s reason for denying that virtues are faculties is similar. Part of a person’s faculties consist of his or her ability to feel anger, however, we do not praise or blame people for having the ability to feel anger – instead we often praise people for tending to manifest their ability to feel anger when, and only when, the circumstances call for it (Aristotle 123). Aristotle concludes that virtues must therefore be states of character.
By understanding that moral virtues are states of character, Aristotle presents us with a picture of what virtues are. Aristotle tells us that moral virtues are states of character lying at the mean between extremes of excess and deficiency. The view that virtues lie at the mean between the two extremes is intended to help us identify which states of character are the virtuous ones. Both excess and deficiency in the practice of a virtue can result in its destruction while the practice of the mean between them can preserve it. The virtuous state of character will therefore be a tendency to feel and react to circumstances in an appropriate manner and to an appropriate degree (Aristotle 126). Aristotle however, does not tell us just what circumstances warrant what degree of passion with respect to virtues, or what degree of action is appropriate under which circumstances. Common sense suggests that there should be some leeway for judging the deviation from the mean towards excess or deficiency, and that our behaviour must be suited to the particular circumstances as best we see fit given our understanding of intellectual virtue.
Not all states of character can be construed as virtuous however. Aristotle notes that there are acts and characteristics that are truly evil and have no intermediate degrees. Aristotle expresses this by declaring that, “every action or feeling admits of a mean; because some have names that directly connote depravity, such as malice, shamelessness and envy, and among actions adultery, theft and murder” (Aristotle 125).
Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue contends that our ultimate purpose or goal in life should be to reach eudaimonia, the state of moral happiness. However, to reach this state of happiness requires the ability to function according to both our virtues and our sense of innate reason. By using principles of both the intellectual and moral virtue, which becomes habit upon practice and imitation, we must learn to make decisions that are right and just-not necessarily for our own personal benefit, but simply because we possess an understanding that something is the right course of action. Without having these two aspects of morality work together, obtainment of eudaimonia is impossible. In summary, it is our understanding of intellectual virtue (which we learn from others) that allows us to perceive what is right while our display of moral virtue aids us in carrying out what we know to be the correct and just course of action.
One of the most important ideas which Aristotle expresses in his Nicomachean Ethics is the need to strike a balance between extremes in behaviour, thought, and action. In his attempt to explain moral virtue and, eudaimonia – which is the central goal of human life – Aristotle describes the importance of finding a middle ground in one’s life or, achieving a balance. To achieve these aims and reach eudaimonia, Aristotle declares that we must do the right thing because it is right, not because there is a personal stake in terms of the future possibility of pleasure or pain (Aristotle 126-127). Essentially, what is morally right or wrong is something that we can understand through intellectual virtue, and we can apply this knowledge of moral behaviour through our practice and habituation of moral virtues.
In conclusion, Aristotle arrives at his claim that “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” by offering an analogy of the Arts. By utilizing the example of a lyre-player, Aristotle shows that one can only become proficient in their actions, including the expression of moral virtues, by observing others actions and then practicing. Moral virtues, for Aristotle, are to be distinguished from intellectual virtues. Moral virtue has to do with feeling, choosing, and acting well. Intellectual virtue is identified as a kind of wisdom acquired by teaching. Aristotle is vehement in his belief that moral virtues are not imbedded in us naturally and that we must acquire them by habituation – that this acquisition come during early childhood is of extreme importance in his mind. Aristotle tells us that moral virtue is displayed as the intermediate condition between excess and deficiency with respect to a person’s feelings and actions. According Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue, the goal of human life should therefore be to achieve eudaimonia, which can be acquired by an intellectual understanding of what is right and wrong, and the striking of a balance between extremes in behaviour, thought, and action.